Humanism was a revolution in culture that began in Florence Italy in the 14th century. This paper will examine humanism from its birth following the rediscovery and popularization of classical Greek culture; it will explore the importance and expression of humanistic thinking and feelings; and it will reveal the way in which the humanists reconciled their beliefs with those of a world still dominated by religious dogma. Leonardo da Vinci’s The Virgin of the Rocks and Petrarch’s sonnets will be analyzed in terms of both their content and form.
The middle ages extended approximately from the 5th century until the fifteenth century. During this period of time, the Catholic Church dominated all facets of European life including philosophy, art, literature, architecture and education. Philosophical argument was used to convert the nonbeliever but philosophy that contradicted religious doctrine was heretical. Art was used to glorify God and therefore paintings generally depicted religious scenes with the holiest subjects being larger and more centrally placed compared with less holy subjects. While some secular literature was created during the Middle Ages, the majority of books written were religious texts. The Gothic architecture of the Middle Ages produced churches with stained-glass windows, tapestries and attached statues all designed to invoke a sense of religious mysticism. The universities of the Middle Ages were also controlled by the church which resulted in very limited and indirect access to (pagan) ancient Greek and Roman philosophy.
The goal of this control by the Catholic Church of all facets of human existence during the Middle Ages was designed to ensure that people understood that their only role in this life was to get to heaven in the next. Human existence on earth was a necessary burden to be endured before been granted access to heaven and had no intrinsic value. Mankind, being inherently sinful and stupid was not able to obtain or understand ultimate truths without the benefit of divinely inspired texts (the Bible) and instruction by the clergy. The pursuit of happiness, beauty, wealth and fame was immoral. Individuals and societies were motivated more by a fear of damnation than by the material benefit or consequence.
This view of the world was not shared by the ancient Greeks or by the ancient Romans who had assimilated Greek culture. Beginning in Italy during the 1300s, there was a movement to rediscover the classical culture of these two great civilizations. This movement led to the Renaissance (revival) period of European history. Petrarch is credited with beginning the Renaissance through his quest to find ancient Greek and Roman manuscripts. Classical Greek and Roman culture contained within ancient documents was almost lost during the Middle Ages. Most of these documents were found in the libraries of monasteries. These pagan writings were not considered important enough to preserve or copy and many simply rotted away. Parchment was expensive and some classic works were scraped away and more acceptable writing replaced them.
Petrarch had become the most famous poet of his time. He was a poet laureate and was able to travel throughout Europe searching for lost manuscripts. His fame contributed to the popularity of collecting ancient manuscripts. In the 15th century, Florence Italy became a wealthy city-state due to its success in the textile trade and in banking. The wealthy families in Florence (especially the Medici family) became patrons of the arts and became interested in classical studies. Collecting ancient classical writings became fashionable. These works were translated and their message which stressed that “man was the measure of all things” (Protagoras c. 490 – c. 420 BCE) was assimilated. The Greeks attempt to explain human experience through naturalistic rather than supernatural forces presumed that man had the capacity to understand the world. The Greek study of beauty or aesthetics and hedonism, the pursuit of pleasure gave the wealthy Florentines the moral justification for their quest to obtain art, music, literature, sculpture and architecture.
The grip of the Catholic Church lessened toward the end of the Middle Ages due to corruption within the clergy and a schism within the church that produced two popes which excommunicated each other’s followers. The wealth of the northern Italians also gave them some measure of independence from the Catholic Church.
No literary form is more characteristic of the Renaissance than Francesco Petrarch’s sonnet. A sonnet is a certain kind of poem where a new kind of humanism can be expressed. There is no narrative or sense of duration in a sonnet; it is a single complex concept or experience. Unlike other forms of poetry popular at the time, the sonnet was a small lyric poem that focused on emotions or thoughts in a small instant of time. There is no actual story, just a flow of diverse and contradictory emotions and thoughts. Petrarch’s sonnet sequence on his love, Laura, became the model for sonnet writing for the next three hundred years
A theme of love is very apparent in these sonnets. In Petrarch’s case, the sonnets focused on Laura and its emotional, intellectual and spiritual consequences. Petrarch’s poems convey this love as a spiritual distraction and suffering – an unusual perspective at a time when love was so idolized. He glorified love yet it was this unrequited feeling that’s never obtained that is expressed in most of his sonnets.
Petrarch revolutionized the sonnet sequence by taking the narrative out; all that was left was a sequence of sonnets on the same subject. Fourteen lines total, the sonnet had a firm rhyme scheme that’s divided into two separate halves: The first half, eight lines with the rhyme scheme abbaabba, is called the octet; the second half, six lines with the rhyme scheme cdccdc, is called the sestet.
In the octet, the poet is supposed to introduce the reader to the main event in which the poem is focused on as well as to the characters. This creates the overall image of the poem. Often the octet will pose a problem or paradox which the sestet will resolve. The sestet is, in some ways, the analysis of the poem. It is often a reflection, a result, or an application tying up loose ends and confronting any conflicts presented in the octet. The sonnet proves that it is necessary to have 14 lines in each poem to focus on the different aspects and levels of love.
The second contribution of art that will be analyzed is Leonardo da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks. Leonardo was hired to paint a scene for the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception, in the church of San Francesco Grande in 1480. What Leonardo produced ended up being one of the most intricate and intriguing religious scenes to date. At the time, the painting that Leonardo constructed was so radical and unconventional that it is rumored that he was ordered to create a new version. Incidentally, there are two different versions of the Virgin of the Rocks in two separate art galleries to this day. I will be primarily analyzing the first version.
The painting depicts a scene from when the Virgin fled to Egypt to escape Herod’s massacre and the meeting of the infant Jesus and St. John the Baptist. The only four characters in the painting are the Virgin Mary, the angel Uriel, and the two infants Jesus and John. The painting portrays the Virgin Mary with her right hand around the shoulders of the infant St. John the Baptist and her left hand over the head of the Christchild. On the right, further towards the foreground, the Christchild makes a sign of blessing towards St. John, while Uriel, who is traditionally associated with St. John, points towards St. John with her right hand. There is a pool of water in the foreground of the painting indicating the upcoming Baptism.
Mary is the main character in the painting. Contrary to the explicit instructions the commissioners gave to Leonardo, his own version of the Immaculate Conception included the Virgin Mary in simple, humble clothing instead of the regal apparel that they requested. This is how Leonardo envisioned Mary and where the aspect of realism in his art stands out. Her gestures of ushering John towards Jesus seemingly bringing everyone closer together represents a sense of new beginnings and prophecy.
The painting’s setting introduces us to Leonardo’s infatuation with the natural world we live in displaying elaborate rock formations that synchronize with the surrounding plant life. The painting’s location is dark and some what sinister with all four figures surrounded by caves. He was unique in terms of incorporating real life observations of geological structures and a variety of plants that he painted directly from nature instead of copying them out of books. He was fascinated with botany and spent much of his time drawing and studying plants. The Virgin of the Rocks demonstrates Leonardo’s attention to detail at its best. It is apparent that some of the flowers and plants he chose to add in are symbolic. For example, the plants that are beside Mary’s face are called columbine or ‘dove plants’; these symbolize the Holy Spirit.
In the Virgin of the Rocks, Leonardo took a very well known and miraculous event in biblical history and presented us with a humanistic version that’s closer to reality.
Perhaps the most notable aspect about the Virgin of the Rocks is the Virgin’s placement on rocks. A steep abyss separates the viewer from the holy scene, as if it were taking place in a remote location. The rocky caves in the background, opening up onto a hazy landscape, add a sense of otherworldliness. This painting demonstrates Leonardo’s use of misty, rocky backgrounds at its best.
The Virgin herself is the most established woman we have seen him paint at this point in his career. Breaking away from the rounder, stylized faces that appear in his earlier work, Leonardo gives Mary a longer and more natural looking head. The archangel Utelie sits to her left, an infant John the Baptist kneels at her right, and the Christ Child rests at her feet. They all form a triangle, each person somehow connected to the next. The triangle can be interpreted in more than one-way, but once noticed, appears to be in stark contrast to the rich, organic background.
Leonardo’s subtle use of color and sfumato (a painting technique which overlays translucent layers of color to create perceptions of depth, volume and form) in the Virgin of the Rocks are radiant examples of his highly developed understanding of distance and depth. Distant objects appear smaller, less distinct, paler, and bluer. For example, a more intense blue is used where the rocks peaks penetrate the upper atmosphere. The strategic use of light in this painting has also given this picture structure and form. Before Leonardo, artists had only used light crudely in their work.
Studying the work of these Renaissance artists has really helped me gain a deep appreciation for how far we’ve come as a society. I realize how important the humanist movement was for us in terms of expressing ourselves and individuality.
embrace of human individuality and happiness
The humanists had faith
in man’s power to plan his life in the world, to com-
mand his destiny and direct it towards freedom, justice,
return to favor of the pagan classics stimulated the philosophy of secularism, the appreciation of worldly pleasures, and above all intensified the assertion of personal independence and individual expression.
They were primarily interested in a happy, adequate, and efficient life here on earth.
it was materialistic in that it sought explanations for events in the natural world, it valued free inquiry in that it wanted to open up new possibilities for speculation, and it valued humanity in that it placed human beings at the center of moral and social concerns.
“humanism” was coined in 1808 by a German educator, F. J. Niethammer
Only about 30% of ancient Latin texts and 10% of ancient Greek texts were able to be recovered.
The return to favor of the pagan classics stimulated the philosophy of secularism, the appreciation of worldly pleasures, and above all intensified the assertion of personal independence and individual expression.