“The noble achievements of our far-off ancestors, the men of ancient Rome, are forgotten, and have become impossible to modern men. Where was the painter’s art till Giotto tardily restored it? A caricature of the art human delineation! Sculpture and architecture for long years sunk to the merest travesty of art and are only today in the process of rescue from obscurity; only now are they being brought to a new pitch of perfection by men of genius and erudition. Of letters and liberal art at large, it is best to be silent altogether. For these, the real guides to distinction in all the arts, the solid foundation of all civilization, have been lost to mankind for 800 years and more. It is but in our own day that men dare boast that they see the dawn of better things.” Matteo Palmieri, La Vita Civile, 1429

Firenze (Florence) is regarded as the birthplace of the Renaissance. The Renaissance reconciles the Ancient World of Egypt, Greece, and Rome with Medieval Christianity. The Renaissance is characterized by a profound Humanism that is focused on understanding of the world through human perspective and experience rather than abstract spirituality. In Firenze, the Renaissance is decidedly associated with the rise of the Medici family. The Medici were a family of bankers that funded and fostered the greatest artistic expressions of the Renaissance.

Central to Renaissance Humanism was the belief in the importance of human perception and human achievements. Humanists believed that individuals had the capacity for the pursuit of worldly knowledge and acts of greatness in this world. Humanists emphasized the importance of education, not only in religious matters but also in the arts, sciences, and humanities.

The term Renaissance means “rebirth” in French, because the main method artists, writers, and intellectuals discovered the manifestations of humanism was through the rediscovery of texts from Ancient Greece and Rome. It is important to note that the cultures of Ancient Greece and Rome were deeply influenced by Ancient Egypt, although contemporary scholars fail to recognize this. In addition, Renaissance mathematics were transformed by the influence of Hindu-Arabic mathematics. Fibonacci of Pisa transformed European economies, architecture, art, science, and everything else through his introduction of Hindu-Arabic numbers to Europe.

“The term “renaissance” is often used to designate a rebirth of interest in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds (often referred to as “classical antiquity”) that arose in Europe in the later Middle Ages. While engagement with the Greco-Roman past was not new, it took on a new urgency in Italy beginning in the fourteenth century and was eventually felt throughout the European continent. This interest prompted new intellectual investigations that had a profound influence on European culture, affecting all realms of life including the visual arts. Many of the artistic traditions originating or maturing in this context informed the direction of European art for the next several centuries. Linear perspective, volumetric figures rendered with anatomical precision, emotionally charged expression, and visual naturalism are formal elements popularized in the Renaissance. This was especially true of art in Italy where ancient Roman art demonstrating many of these traits was abundant (such as Roman relief sculpture and architecture).” Dr. Heather Graham

Essential to understanding the artistic expressions and innovations of the artists of the Renaissance is understanding the role private patrons played in commissioning their work. In Firenze, no family transformed the art world in the manner the Medici did. “The Medici didn’t start out as the most powerful family in Italy. Other families were just as rich, and just as ambitious. But no one knew more about getting ahead – and staying ahead – than the Medici. They clawed their way to the top, sometimes through bribery, corruption and violence. Those who stood in their way could end up humiliated – or dead. And the Medici exploited a network of “friends of friends” – hangers on who would do anything to stay close to the family. For the Medici, this network of amici degli amici – the magic words in Renaissance Italy – was the key to fame, fortune and survival. The power of the Medici stretched all the way to Rome, where even the papacy was something to be bought and sold. They were the Godfathers of the Renaissance.”

“The history of society’s elite using art to solidify their power isn’t short, but it’s possible that members of the Medici family are among the most innovative figures in that lineage. In 15th- and 16th-century Italy, during the height of the Renaissance, the Medici established themselves as the greatest art patrons of their day… Members of the Medici family forged close relationships with artists like Michelangelo and Jacopo da Pontormo, and used their deep connections to commission major works that would signify their vast influence.”

“These are so beautiful that they should be the Gates of Paradise” Michelangelo on seeing Ghiberti’s second set of doors.

The era known as the Renaissance begins in Firenze in 1401, with the competition for the Baptistery Doors between Ghiberti and Brunelleschi. Ghiberti wins the competition and proceeds to introduce illusions of depth associated with the painting of linear perspective into sculpture. Ghiberti’s two sets of Baptistery doors radically redefine how space is represented in sculpture. Ghiberti’s competition doors are on the north side of the Battsitero. The second set of commissioned doors by Ghiberti are facing the Cathedral. These ten panels completely revolutionize sculpture and the ability to create an illusion of depth.

There is only the tomb of one person in the oldest and most revered building in Firenze…and he is certainly most unworthy of the honor. Antipope John XXIII was a pirate before pursuing a life in the church. Spiritually John XXIII was a quite lacking, but he decidedly changed the course of history by awarding the Papal banking contract to the Medici. The Medici therefore needed to rehabilitate his image after his charges of simony, heresy, and affairs with 200 women.

Brunelleschi for his part, bitter at his defeat, leaves Firenze for Roma to study the architecture and sculpture of Ancient Roma. In particular, Brunelleschi is fascinated with the Pantheon and its wide dome. The Pantheon was built in 120CE during the rule of Hadrian. No dome of the height or width of the Pantheon had been constructed for 1300 years…until Brunelleschi built the dome of the Cathedral of Firenze.


Dr. Heather Graham, “A primer for Italian renaissance art,” in Smarthistory, December 3, 2021.

Dr. John M. Hunt, “Humanism in renaissance Italy,” in Smarthistory, August 1, 2021, accessed May 28, 2023,

John William Bailly 14 April 2018

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