Renaissance Tales – III: Savonarola and Botticelli

They call him the Prophet of Doom, a man whose fanatical discourse seemed completely out of place in XV-century Florence, a city completely transformed and re-invented through the minds and spirits of Renaissance men like Dante, Boccaccio, Brunelleschi, Botticelli and others. Florence became the undisputed centre of humanist learning, the essence of which was challenged by one man: Savonarola.

The man who started humanism at a young age and was on his way to studying medicine eventually underwent a radical change, becoming a preacher. Sadly, he succumbed to his imperfections and fears, and launched a ruthless attack against all the values of Renaissance, condemning the revival of pagan traditions and ideals, and threatening the people of Florence with a divine punishment for their loose morality.

As he criticized the Medici and all the power structures in the community in the name of religion and social justice, his sermons became more appealing to the masses, and his audience base became broader. His ‘visions’ became more scary and his status grew steadily as he managed to stop the King of France from ruining Florence, having met him as part of a delegation dispatched by a terrified Florence.

Then started the processions that he sent to collect what he deemed ‘objects of vanity’: jewelry, mirrors, wigs…but also poetry books, paintings depicting mythological subjects…they were all collected. In February 1497, the sky of Florence turned black with the ashes of all these objects, burned in a huge bonfire known in history as ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’. The scene seemed to defy all logic, dealing a strong blow to the progress that Renaissance Florence stood for. Even more scary was the influence that he exercised even on the most refined of minds: how about Botticelli sending some of his paintings to the Bonfire?!

Then came the fall as Savonarola committed the classical mistake: attacking the Vatican and the Pope. The Pope responded aggressively, preventing him from preaching and threatening the entire city. Savonarola had insinuated at his ability to work miracles, but when put to the test he seemed confused and attempted an escape. A failed one.

Imagine this: in 1498, people gathered to witness yet another bonfire at the Piazza della Signoria. This time, it was Savonarola and two companions burning, accused of heresy (among other things). The river Arno carried away the ashes, but not the memory: a commemorative plaque marks the site of the execution, and a high tower (that of Palazzo Vecchio) cast its shadow, sealing the victory of the Renaissance refinement.

Renaissance Tales – II: Ghiberti, Brunelleschi & Masaccio

Renaissance Art had to start somewhere; it had to find inspiration in someone. This somewhere happened to be Tuscany, and the ‘someone’ was a group of extraordinary artists that revolutionized art after Duccio, Cimabue and Giotto had paved the way.

It’s 1401 AD in Florence. Something was about to happen, and the world of art the way we know it would never have been the same without it happening: an incident would spark the genius of two of history’s greatest artists, while a third artist would be born. Together, these three artists would be the holy trinity of Early Renaissance Art: Brunelleschi, Ghiberti and Masaccio.

Masaccio was born in 1401, and it took him only 27 years (that is, till he died) to leave a lasting legacy that would inspire generations of artists to follow, breaking away with the ‘maniera greca’ and painting bodies of mass and volume, all subject to strict application of perspective. His ‘Trinity’ is the perfect examlpe.

If perspective is the game, then Brunelleschi is most definitely the name. Having rejected a shared commission with Ghiberti to sculpt the bronze doors of Florence’s Baptistery, he decided to dedicate himself to architecture. The result: while Ghiberti spent 48 years sculpting two pairs of immortal doors, one of which was described by Michelangelo as the ‘Gates of Paradise’, Brunelleschi used his skill to lift 4 million bricks over 50 meters above the ground level –without buttresses or ledges- to build the mammoth dome of Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence’s Cathedral.

Not far from the scene, Brunelleschi’s friend, called Donatello, was ‘sculpting his way’ into glory through his bronze ‘David’, the first freestanding nude figure since antiquity. David stands triumphant, having slain Goliath. It comes as no surprise that Florence identidied itself with the Biblical hero, who used his wits to beat the physical strength of Goliath, just like the city itself had taken a quantum leap ahead of its more powerful enemies and rivals by focusing on a field in which it was sure to trumph: art, culture and humanist learning.

Renaissance was born, having its first overwhelming ‘monuments’ and masterpieces already dominating the streets, piazzas and churches. The cityscape of Florence has changed once and for all.

Florence Cathedral Dome - BrunelleschiTrinity - MasaccioGates of Paradise - Ghiberti

Renaissance’s Goldsmiths: From Ghiberti to Da Vinci

What do Renaissance masters like Da Vinci, Brunelleschi, Ghiberti, Donatello and Gozzoli have in common? What ‘unpleasant start’ did they all have? The answer comes from Brunelleschi’s Dome by Ross King:

“Goldsmiths were the princes among the artisans of the Middle Ages, with a large scope to explore their numerous and varied talents. They could decorate a manuscript with gold leaf, set precious stones, cast metals, work with enamel, engrave silver, and fashion anything from a gold button to a shrine, reliquary, or tomb. It is no coincidence that the sculptors Andrea Orcagna, Luca della Robbia and Donatello, as well as the painters Paolo Uccello, Andrea del Verrocchio, Leonardo da Vinci, and Benozzo Gozzoli had all originally trained in the workshops of goldsmiths.

Despite its prestige, goldsmithing was not the most welcome of professions. The large furnaces that were needed to melt gold, copper and bronze had to burn for days on end, even in the heat of summer, polluting the air with smoke and bringing the danger of explosions and fire. Noxious substances such as sulfur and lead were used to engrave silver, and the clay molds in which metals were cast require supplies of both cow dung and charred ox horn. Worse still, the workshops of most goldsmiths were found in Florence’s most notorious slum, Santa Croce, a marshy and flood-prone area on the north bank of the Arno. This was the workers’ district, home to dyers, wool combers, and prostitutes, all of whom lived and worked in a clutter of ramshackle wooden houses.”

Bornze Panel by Ghiberti

Tuscan Treasures – VI: Florence

Nothing can prepare you for Florence. No matter how much you read, no matter how hard you work on planning your visit, Florence will stun you and sweep away your defenses. Its art will dazzle you, its architecture will charm you, and you stand absolutely no chance.

This should come as no surprise in a city where the Stendhal Syndrome is at home, but the Stendhal Syndrome gave way to another, more intense –and annoying- feeling: a feeling of sadness. Yes, sadness at the thought that such an aesthetic miracle was once possible…but only once.

At Piazza del Duomo I had the first attack of aesthetic anxiety, with my eyes restlessly moving between Brunelleschi’s unearthly Dome, Giotto’s elegant Campanile and a replica of Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise, three absolute masterpieces of art history only a few meters apart from one another. A stone’s throw from here is the Piazza della Signoria, where the Palazzo Vecchio’s tower stands as a noble reminder of how it all started. How did it all start?

It’s a long story, but the magnificence of Florence is easy to understand: it’s a city that accumulated wealth from wool, trade and banking, crushed or neutralized its enemies, and turned its attention to something where it was sure to triumph: art and culture. The world’s most famous patrons (the Medici) sponsored history’s greatest artists (from Masaccio to Raphael), and the city became the epitome of the humanist dream. Easy to understand, but you should have guessed: history is never that simple except in children books! In reality, there were complications. How about the Plague for a start? How about a Bonfire of the Vanities? And, to top it, a wave of political assassinations with wars included?

Back to the city, what do you want me to tell you about Florence that has not been told already? Shall I tell you that it’s the Medici’s immortal gift to humanity? That it is the birthplace of Renaissance Humanism and the school of the likes of Donatello, Luca della Robbia, Filippo Lippi, Fra Bartolomeo, Botticelli, Gozzoli, Dante, Machiavelli and others?

I can tell you about the graceful palaces like Palazzi Pitti, Medici, Strozzi, or I can tell you about churches that are home to priceless treasures like Santa Maria Novella and Santa Croce, or take you on a ‘cenacolo’ itinerary to admire The Last Supper(s) by Del Castagno, Andrea del Sarto and Ghirlandaio. I can accompany you across the Ponte Vecchio alongside the Vasari Corridor, or guide you up and down the Uffizi, the Bargello and the Galleria dell’Academia…I can take you everywhere, anywhere, but I cannot explain to you the grace of Florence in one or ten on a thousand messages, because immortal beauty cannot be explained in any mortal language. Still, I will post a series of articles that capture very interesting ‘moments’ in the city’s life. First, there will be a detour to talk about Venice! Stay tuned and enjoy the photos.