Étiquette : Da Vinci
By Karel Vereycken, Paris, France.
No visitor of Florence can miss the gilded bronze reliefs decorating the Porta del Paradiso (Gates of Paradise), the main gate of the Baptistery of Florence right in front of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore surmounted by Filippo Brunelleschi’s splendid cupola.
In this article, Karel Vereycken sheds new light on the contribution of Arab science and Ghiberti’s crucial role in giving birth to the Renaissance.
The Baptistery, erected on what most Florentines thought to be a Roman temple dedicated to the Roman God of Mars, is one of the oldest buildings in the city, constructed between 1059 and 1128 in the Florentine Romanesque style. The Italian poet Dante Alighieri and many other notable Renaissance figures, including members of the Medici family, were baptized in this baptistery.
During the Renaissance, in Florence, corporations and guilds competed for the leading role with artistic creations each one even more prestigious than the other.
While the Arte dei Lana (corporation of wool producers) financed the Works (Opera) of the Duomo and the construction of its cupola, the Arte dei Mercantoni di Calimala (the guild of the merchants dealing in foreign cloth, and exporting cloth), took care of the Baptistery and financed the embellishment of its doors.
The Gates of Paradise
The octagonal building has four entrances (East, West, North and South) of which only three (South, North and East) have sets of artistically important bronze doors with relief sculptures. Three dates are key : 1329, 1401 and 1424.
- In 1329, the Calimala, as recommended by Giotto, ordered Andrea Pisano (1290-1348) to decorate a first set of doors (initialy installed as the East door, i.e. seen when one leaves the Cathedral, but today South). These consist of 28 quatrefoil (clover-shaped) panels, with the 20 top panels depicting scenes from the life of St. John the Baptist (the patron of the edifice). The 8 lower panels depict the eight virtues of hope, faith, charity, humility, fortitude, temperance, justice, and prudence, praised by Plato in his Republic and represented during the XVIth century by the Flemish humanist painter and reader of Petrarch, Peter Brueghel the Elder. Construction took 8 years, from 1330 till 1338.
- In 1401, after having narrowly won the selection contest against Brunelleschi, the 23 year old and inexperienced young goldsmith Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455), is commissioned by the Calima to decorate the doors today in the Northern gate. Ghiberti casted the bronze high reliefs using a method known as « lost-wax casting« , a technique that he had to reinvent entirely since lost since the fall of the Roman Empire. One of the reasons Ghiberti won the contest, was the mere fact that his technique was so advanced that it required 20 % less (7 kg per panel) of metal then that of his competitors, bronze being an onerous material, far more costly than marble. His technique, applied to the entire decoration of the Northern gate, as compated to his competitor, would have saved some estimated 100 kg of bronze. And since in 1401, with the plague regularly hitting Florence, economic conditions were poor, even the wealthy Calima looked at the total costs of the program.
The bronze doors comprise 28 panels, with 20 panels depicting the life of Christ from the New Testament. The 8 lower panels show the four evangelists and the Church Fathers Saint Ambrose, Saint Jerome, Saint Gregory, and Saint Augustine. It took 24 years of construction.
- In 1424, Ghiberti, then at age 46, was given—unusually, with no competition—the task of also creating the East gate. Only in 1452 did Ghiberti, at that time seventy years old, installed the last bronze panels, since construction lasted this time 27 years ! According to Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574), Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) later judged them « so beautiful they would grace the entrance to Paradise ».
Over two generations, a bevy of well paid assistants and pupils were trained by Ghiberti, including exceptional artists, such as Luca della Robbia, Donatello, Michelozzo, Benozzo Gozzoli, Bernardo Cennini, Paolo Uccello, Andrea del Verrocchio and Ghiberti’s sons, Vittore and Tommaso. And over time, the seventeen-foot-tall, three-ton bronze doors became an icon of Renaissance, one of the most famous works of art in the world.
In 1880, the French sculptor Auguste Rodin was inspired by it for his own Gates of Hell on which he worked for 38 year
Of utmost interest for our discussion here, the dramatic shift of conception and design of the bronze relief sculptures that occurred between the Northern and the Eastern Gates, because it reflects how bot the artist as well as his patrons used the occasion to share to a broad public their newest ideas, inventions and exciting discoveries.
The themes of the northern gate of 1401 were inspired by scenes from the New Testament, excluding de facto the panel made by Ghiberti, « The Sacrifice of Isaac », which had won him the selection competition the same year. To complete the ensemble, it was therefore only logical that the eastern door of 1424 would take up the themes of the Old Testament.
Originally, it was the scholar and former chancellor of Florence Leonardo Bruni (1369-1444) who planned an iconography quite similar to the two previous doors. Hence, after heated discussions, his proposal was rejected for something radically new. Instead of realizing 28 panels, it was decided, for aesthetic reasons, to reduce the number of panels to only 10 much larger square reliefs, between borders containing statuettes in niches and medallions with busts.
Hence, each of the 10 chapters of the Old Testament, so to speak, contains several events, so that the net number of scenes has risen from 20 to 37, and on top, all appear in perspective :
- Adam and Eve,
- Cain and Abel,
- Jacob and Esaü,
- David, and
- Solomon and Sheba.
The general theme is that of salvation based on Latin and Greek patristic tradition. After the first three panels, focusing on the theme of sin, Ghiberti began to highlight more clearly the role of God’s saving and the foreshadowing of Christ’s coming. Later panels are easier to understand. One example is the Isaac panel, where the figures are merged with the surrounding landscape so that the eye is led toward the main scene represented in the top right.
Many of the sources for these scenes were written in ancient Greek, and since knowledge of Greek at that time was not so common, it appears that Ghiberti’s “theological advisor” was Ambrogio Traversari (1386-1439), with whom he had many exchanges. Traversari was a close friend of Nicolas of Cusa (1401-1464), a protector of Piero della Francesca (1412-1492) and a key organizer of the Ecumenical Council of Florence of 1438-1439, which attempted to put an end to the schism separating the Church of the East from that of the West.
The bronze reliefs, known for their vivid illusion of deep space in relief, are one of the revolutionary events that epitomize the Renaissance. In the foreground are figures in high relief, which gradually become less protruding exploiting the full illusionistic potential of the stiacciato technique later brought to its high point by Donatello. Using this form of “inbetweenness”, they integrate in one single image, what appears both as a painting, a low relief as well as a high relief. Or maybe one has to look at it the other way: these are flat images traveling gradually from a surface into the full three dimensions of life, just as Ghiberti, in one of the first self-portraits of art history, reaches his head like out of a bronze medal to look down on the viewers. The artist desired much more than perspective, he wanted breathing space !
This new approach will influence Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1517). As art historian Daniel Arasse points out :
While many thoughts about perspective existed much earlier, it was in 1435 that the humanist architect Leon Baptista Alberti (1406-1472), in his treaty Della Pictura, outlined a mathematical theory of the representation of three-dimensional harmonious and unified space on a flat surface. Noteworthy, the fact that Alberti’s treaty doesn’t contain or discusses any visual scheme or diagram.
Seven years earlier, the painter Massacchio (1401-1428) had used, at least in part, such a construction in his fresco painting The Trinity. And even before, Brunelleschi had conducted several experiments on this question, most likely based on the ideas presented by another friend of Cusa, the Italian astronomer Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli (1397-1482), in the latter’s now lost treaty Della Perspective.
However, Leonardo, who read and studied Ghiberti’s writings on, would use the latter’s arguments to indicate the limits and even demonstrate the dysfunctionality of Alberti’s “perfect” perspective construction especially when one goes beyond a 30 degres angle.
In the Codex Madrid, II, 15 v. da Vinci realizes that « as such, the perspective offered by a rectilinear wall is false unless it is corrected (…) ».
Perspectiva artificialis versus perspectiva naturalis
Alberti’s “perspectiva articifialis” is nothing but an abstraction, necessary and useful to represent a rational organization of space. Without this abstraction, it is fairly impossible to define with mathematical precision the relationships between the appearance of objects and the receding of their various proportions on a flat screen: width, height and depth.
From the moment that a given image on a flat screen was thought about as the intersection of a plane cutting a cone or pyramid, a method emerged for what was mistakenly considered as an “objective” representation of “real” three dimensional space, while it is nothing but an “anamorphosis”, i.e. a tromp-l’oeil or visual illusion.
What has to be underscored, is that this construction does away with the physical reality of human existence since based on the abstraction pretending,
- that man is a single eyed cyclopes;
- that vision emanates from one single point, the apex of the visual pyramid;
- that they eye is immobile;
- that the image is projected on a flat screen rather than on a curved retina.
Slanders and gossip
The crucial role of Ghiberti, an artist which “Ghiberti expert” Richard Krautheimer mistakenly presents as a follower of Alberti’s perspectiva artificialis, has been either ignored or downplayed.
Ghiberti’s unique book, the three volumes of the Commentarii, which also include his autobiography and established him as the first modern historian of the fine arts, are not even translated into English or French and were only published in Italian in 1998.
Today, for his attention to minute detail and figures with wavy and elegant lines, as well as the variety of plants and animals depicted, Ghiberti is generally presented as “Gothic-minded”, and therefore “not really” a Renaissance artist!
Giorgio Vasari, often acting as the paid PR man of the Medici clan, slanders Ghiberti saying he, like lacking any value, wrote « a work in the vernacular in which he treated many different topics but arranged them in such a fashion that little can be gained from reading it. »
Admittedly, tension among humanists, were not uncommon. Self-educated craftsmen, such as Ghiberti and Brunelleschi on the one side, and heirs of wealthy wool merchants, such as Niccoli on the other side, came from entirely different worlds. For example, according to a story told by Guarino Veronese, in 1413, Niccolo greeted Filippo haughtily, « O philosopher without books, » to which Filippo replied with his legendary irony, « O books without philosopher ».
Sure, the Commentarii, are not written according to the rhetorical rules of those days. Written at the end of his life, they even might have been simply dictated by an aging Ghiberti to a poorly trained clerk making dozens of spelling errors.
But they do reveal a highly educated author and a thinker having profound knowledge of many classical Greek and Arab thinkers. Ghiberti was not just some brilliant handcraft artisan but a typical “Renaissance man”. In dialogue with Bruni, Traversari and the “manuscript hunter” Niccolo Niccoli, Ghiberti, who couldn’t read Greek but definitely knew Latin, was clearly familiar with the rediscovery of Greek and Arab science, a task undertaken by Boccaccio’s and Salutati’s “San Spirito Circle” whose guests (including Bruni, Traversari, Cusa, Niccoli, Cosimo di Medici, etc.) later would convene every week at the Santa Maria degli Angeli convent.
First, Ghiberti makes a bold and daring statement, for a Christian man in a Christian world, about how the art of antiquity came to be lost:
Ghiberti understood the importance of multidisciplinarity for artists. According to him, “sculpture and painting are sciences of several disciplines nourished by different teachings”.
The 10 disciplines that he considered important to train artists were grammar, philosophy, history, followed by perspective, geometry, drawing, astronomy, arithmetic, medicine and anatomy.
Now, any serious scholar, having worked through Leonardo’s « Notebooks », who then reads Ghiberti’s I Commentarii, immediately realizes that most of Da Vinci’s writings were basically comments, questions and contributions about things said or issues raised by Ghiberti, especially respecting the nature of light and optics in general. Leonardo’s creative mindset was a direct outgrowth of Ghiberti’s challenging world outlook.
The Composition of the eye
In Commentario 3, 6, which deals with optics, vision and perspective, Ghiberti, opposing those for whom vision can only by explained by a purely mathematical abstraction, writes that “In order that no doubt remains in the things that follow, it is necessary to consider the composition of the eye, because without this one cannot know anything about the way of seeing.” He then says, that those writing about perspective don’t take into account “the eye’s composition”, because too many authors contradict each other.
Ghiberti regrets that despite the fact that many “natural philosophers” such as Thales, Democritus, Anaxagoras, Xenophane and the others determined to take care of human health such as “Hippocrates, Galen and Avicenna” have written about things of nature, so many things remain unclear.
Indeed, he says, “speaking about this matter is obscure and not understood, if one does not have recourse to the laws of nature, because more fully and more copiously they demonstrate this matter.”
Avicenna, Alhazen and Constantine
Therefore, says Ghiberti:
This is quite a statement ! Here we have a, or rather “the”, leading, founding figure or the Italian and European Renaissance and its great contribution of perspective, saying that to get any idea about how vision functions, one has to study three Arab scientists: Ibn Sina, Ibn al Haytham an Qusta ibn Luqa ! Cultural eurocentrism might be one reason why Ghiberti’s writings were kept in the dark.
Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen) made important contributions to ophthalmology and improved upon earlier conceptions of the processes involved in vision and visual perception in his Treatise on Optics (1021), which is known in Europe as the Opticae Thesaurus. Following his work on the camera oscura (darkroom) he was also the first to imagine that the retina (a curved surface), and not the pupil (a point) could be involved in the process of image formation.
Avicenna, in the Canon of Medicine (ca. 1025), describes sight and uses the word retina (from the Latin word rete meaning network) to designate the organ of vision.
Later, in his Colliget (medical encyclopedia), Averroes (1126-1198) was the first to attribute to the retina the properties of a photoreceptor.
If Avicenna’s writings on anatomy and medical science were translated and circulating in Europe since the XIIIth century, Al Hazen’s treatise on optics, which Ghiberti quotes extensively, had been recently translated in Italian under the title De li Aspecti.
It is now recognized that Andrea del Verrocchio, whose best known pupil was Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1517) was himself one of Ghiberti’s pupils. Unlike Ghiberti, who mastered Latin, neither Verrocchio nor Leonardo mastered a foreign language.
What is known is that while studying Ghiberti’s Commentarii, Leonardo had access in Italian to a series of original quotations from the roman architect Vitruvius and from Arab scientists such as Avicenna, Alhazen, Averroes and those European scientists having studied Arab optics, notably the Oxford Fransciscans Roger Bacon (1214-1294), John Pecham (1230-1292) and the Polish monk working in Padua, Erazmus Ciolek Witelo (1230-1275), known by his Latin name Vitellion.
As stressed by Pr. Dominque Raynaud, Vitellion introduces the principle of binocular vision by geometric considerations.
He gives a figure where we see the two eyes (a, b) receiving the images of points located at equal distance from the hd axis.
He explains that the images received by the eyes are different, since, taken from the same side, the angle grf is larger than the angle gtf. It is thus necessary that these images are joined in only one (Figure). Where does this junction occur? Witelo says: « The two forms, which penetrate in two homologous points of the surface of the two eyes, arrive at the same point of the concavity of the common nerve, and are superimposed in this point
point to become one ».
The fusion of the images is thus a product of the internal nervous activity.
The great astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) will use Alhazen’s and Witelo’s discoveries to develop his own contribution to optics and perspective. “Although up to now the [visual] image has been [understood as] a construct of reason,” Kepler observes in the fifth chapter of his Ad Vitellionem Paralipomena (1604), “henceforth the representations of objects should be considered as paintings that are actually projected on paper or some other screen.” Kepler was the first to observe that our retina captures an image in an inverted form before our brain turns it right side up.
Out of this, Ghiberti, Uccello and also the Flemish painter Jan Van Eyck, in contact with the Italians, will construct, as an alternative to one cyclopic single eye perspective, revolutionary forms of “binocular” perspective while Leonardo and Louis XIth court painter Jean Fouquet will attempt to develop curvilinear and spherical space representations.
In China, eventually influenced by Arab optical science breakthrough’s, forms of non-linear perspective, that integrate the mobility of the eye, will also make their appearance during the Song Dynasty in China.
Ghiberti will ad another dimension to perspective: light. One major contribution of Alhazen was his affirmation, in his Book of Optics, that opaque objects struck with light become luminous bodies themselves and can radiate secondary light, a theory that Leonardo will exploit in his paintings, including in his portraits.
Already Ghiberti, in the way he treats the subject of Isaac, Jacob and Esau (Figure), gives us an astonishing demonstration of how one can exploit that physical principle theorized by Alhazen. The light reflected by the bronze panel, will strongly differ according to the angle of incidence of the arriving rays of light. Arriving either from the left of from the right side, in both cases, the Ghiberti’s bronze relief has been modeled in such a way that it magnificently strengthens the overall depth effect !
While the experts, especially the neo-Kantians such as Erwin Panofsky or Hans Belting, say that these painters were “primitives” because applying the “wrong” perspective model, they can’t grasp the fact that they were in reality exploring a far “higher domain” than the mere pure mathematical abstraction promoted by the Newton-Galileo cult that became the modern priesthood currently ruling over “science”.
If much more about all of this can and should be said, today, the best way to pay off the European debt to “Arab” scientific contributions, is to reward not just the Arab world but all future generations with a better future by opening them the “Gates of Paradise”.
Watch all of Ghiberti’s works on the WEB GALLERY OF ART
- Arasse, Daniel, Léonard de Vinci, Hazan, 2011;
- Avery, Charles, La Sculpture florentine de la Renaissance, Livre de poche, 1996, Paris.
- Belting, Hans, Florence & Baghdad, Renaissance art and Arab science, Harvard University Press, 2011.
- Borso, Franco et Stefano, Uccello, Hazan, Paris, 2004 ;
- Butterfield, Andrew, Verrocchio, Sculptor and painter of Renaissance Florence, National Gallery, Princeton University Press, 2020 ;
- Butterfield, Andrew, Art and Innovation in Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise, High Museum of Art, Yale University Press, 2007;
- Kepler, Johannes, Paralipomènes à Vitellion, 1604, Vrin, 1980, Paris;
- Krautheimer, Richard and Trude, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1990.
- Martens, Maximiliaan, La révolution optique de Jan van Eyck, dans Van Eyck, Une révolution optique, Hannibal – MSK Gent, 2020.
- Pope-Hennessy, John, Donatello, Abbeville Press, 1993 ;
- Radke, Gary M., Lorenzo Ghiberti: Master Collaborator
- Rashed, Roshi, Geometric Optics, in History of Arab Sciences, edited by Roshdi Rashed, Vol. 2, Mathematics and physics, Seuil, Paris, 1997.
- Raynaud, Dominique, L’hypothèse d’Oxford, essai sur les origines de la perspective, PUF, 1998, Paris.
- Raynaud, Dominique, Ibn al-Haytham on binocular vision: a precursor of physiological optics, Arabic Sciences and Philosophy, Cambridge University Press (CUP), 2003, 13, pp. 79-99.
- Raynaud, Dominique, Perspective curviligne et vision binoculaire. Sciences et techniques en perspective, Université de Nantes, Equipe de recherche: Sciences, Techniques, et Sociétés, 1998, 2 (1), pp.3-23.;
- Vereycken, Karel, interview with People’s Daily: Leonardo Da Vinci’s « Mona Lisa » resonates with time and space with traditional Chinese painting, 2019.
- Vereycken, Karel, Uccello, Donatello, Verrocchio and the art of military command, 2022.
- Vereycken, Karel, The Invention of Perspective, Fidelio, 1998.
- Vereycken, Karel, Van Eyck, un peintre flamand dans l’optique arabe, 1998.
- Vereycken, Karel, Mutazilism and Arab astronomy, two bright stars in our firmament, 2021.
- Walker, Paul Robert, The Feud That Sparked the Renaissance, How Brunelleschi and Ghiberti changed the World, HarperCollins, 2002.
Uccello, Donatello, Verrocchio and the art of military command. An inquiry into the key events and artistic achievements that created the Renaissance. By Karel Vereycken, Paris.
If there is still a lot to say, write and learn about the great geniuses of the European Renaissance, it is also time to take an interest in those whom the historian Georgio Vasari condescendingly called « transitional figures ».
How can one measure the contributions of Pieter Bruegel the Elder without knowing Pieter Coecke van Aelst? How can we value Rembrandt’s work without knowing Pieter Lastman? How did Raphaelo Sanzio innovate in relation to his master Perugino?
In 2019, an exceptional exhibition on Andrea Del Verrocchio (1435-1488), at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., highlighted his great achievements, truly inspiring outbursts of great beauty that his pupil Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) would theorize and put to his greatest advantage.
The sfumato of Leonardo ? Verrochio is the pioneer, especially in the blurred features of portraits of women made with mixed techniques (pencil, chalk and gouache).
The joy of discovery
Leafing through the catalog of this exhibition, my joy got immense when I discovered (and to my knowledgne nobody else seems to have made this observation before me) that the enigmatic angel the viewer’s eye meets in Leonardo’s painting titled The Virgin on the Rocks (1483-1486) (Louvre, Paris), besides the movement of the body, is grosso modo a visual “quote” of the image of a terra cotta high relief (Louvre, Paris) attributed to Verrochio and “one of his assistants”, possibly even Leonardo himself, since the latter was training with the master as early as age seventeen ! The finesse of its execution and drapery also reminds us of the only known statue of Da Vinci, The Virgin with the laughing Child.
Many others made their beginnings in Verrocchio’s workshop, notably Lorenzo de Credi, Sandro Botticelli, Piero Perugino (Raphael’s teacher) and Domenico Ghirlandaio (Michelangelo’s teacher).
Coming out of the tradition of the great building sites launched in Florence by the great patron of the Renaissance, Cosimo de Medici for the realization of the doors of the Baptistery and the completion of the dome of Florence by Philippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446), Verrocchio conceived his studio as a true “polytechnic” school.
In Florence, for the artists, the orders flowed in. In order to be able to respond to all requests, Verrocchio, initially trained as a goldsmith, trained his students as craftsman-engineer-artists: drawing, calculation, interior decoration, sculpture, geology, anatomy, metal and woodworking, perspective, architecture, poetry, music and painting. A level of freedom and a demand for creativity that has unfortunately long since disappeared.
The Ghiberti legacy
In painting, Verrocchio is said to have begun with the painter Fra Filippo Lippi (1406-1469). As for the bronze casting trade, he would have been, like Donatello, Masolino, Michelozzo, Uccello and Pollaiuolo, one of the apprentices recruited by Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455) whose workshop, starting from 1401, over forty years, will be in charge of casting the bronze bas-reliefs of two of the huge doors of the Baptistery of Florence.
Others suggest that Verrocchio was most likely trained by Michelozzo, the former companion of Ghiberti who said up shop with Donatello. As a teenager, Donatello had accompanied Brunelleschi on their joint expeditions to Rome to investigate the legacy of Greek and Roman art, and not only the architectural legacy.
In reality, Verrocchio only perpetuated and developed the model of Ghiberti’s « polytechnic » studio, where he learned the art. An excellent craftsman, Ghiberti was also goldsmith, art collector, musician and humanist scolar and historian.
His genius is to have understood the importance of multidisciplinarity for artists. According to him « sculpture and painting are sciences of several disciplines nourished by different teachings ».
The ten disciplines that he considered important to train artists are grammar, philosophy, history, followed by perspective, geometry, drawing, astronomy, arithmetic, medicine and anatomy.
You can discover, says Ghiberti, only when you managed to isolate the object of your research from interfering factors, and you can discover by detaching oneself from a dogmatic system;
Anticipating the type of biomimicry that will characterize Leonardo thereafter, Ghiberti affirms that he sought:
Ghiberti, who was familiar with some of the leading members of the circle of humanists led by Salutati and Traversari, based his own reflexions on optics on the authority of ancient texts, especially Arabic. He wrote:
Deliberately ignored (but copied) by Vasari, Ghiberti’s Commentaries are a real manuel for artists, written by an artist. Most interestingly, it is by reading Ghiberti’s Commentaries that Leonardo da Vinci became familiar with important Arab contributions to science, in particular the outstanding work of Ibn al Haytam (Alhazen) whose treatise on optics had just been translated from Latin into Italian under the title De li Aspecti, and is quoted at length by Ghiberti in his Commentario Terzio. Author A. Mark Smith suggests that, through Ghiberti, Alhazen’s Book of Optics
Ghiberti’s comments are not extensive. However, for the pupils of his pupil Verrocchio, such as Leonardo, who didn’t command any foreign language, Ghiberti’s book did make available in italian a series of original quotes from the roman architect Vitruvius, arab scientists such as Alhazen), Avicenna, Averroes and those european scientists having studied arab optics, notably the Oxford fransciscans Roger Bacon, John Pecham and the Polish monk working in Padua, Witelo.
Finally, in 1412, Ghiberti, while busy coordinating all the works on the Gates of the Baptistry, was also the first Renaissance sculptor to cast a life-size statue in bronze, his Saint John the Baptist, to decorate Orsanmichele, the house of the Corporations in Florence.
Lost wax casting
However, in order to cast bronzes of such a size, the artists, considering the price of metal, would use the technique known as “lost wax casting”.
This technique consists of first making a model in refractory clay (A), covered with a thickness of wax corresponding to the thickness of the bronze thought necessary.
The model is then covered with a thick layer of wet plaster (B) which, as it solidifies, forms an outer mold. Finally, the very hot molten bronze, pored into the mold it penetrates by rods (J) provided for this purpose, will replace the wax.
Finally, once the metal has solidified, the coating is broken. The details of the bronze (K) are then adjusted and polished (L) according to the artist’s choice.
This technique would become crucial for the manufacture of bells and cannons. While it was commonly used in Ifé in Africa in the 12th century for statuary, in Europe it was only during the Renaissance, with the orders received by Ghiberti and Donatello, that it was entirely reinvented.
In 1466, after the death of Donatello, it was Verrocchio’s turn to become the Medici’s sculptor in title for whom he produced a whole series of works, notably, after Donatello, his own David in bronze (Bargello National Museum, Florence).
If with this promotion his social ascendancy is certain, Verrocchio found himself facing the greatest challenge that any artist of the Renaissance could have imagined: how to equal or even surpass Donatello, an artist whose genius has never been praised enough?
This being said, let us now approach the subject of the art of military command by comparing four equestrian monuments:
- Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius on the Capitoline square in Rome (175 AD) ;
- Paolo Uccello’s fresco of John Hawkwood in the church of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence (1436);
- Erasmo da Narni, known as “Gattamelata” (1446-1450), casted by Donatello in Padua.
- Bartolomeo Colleoni by Andrea del Verrocchio in Venice (1480-1488).
Equestrian statues appeared in Greece in the middle of the 6th century B.C. to honor the victorious riders in a race. From the Hellenistic period onward, they were reserved for the highest state figures, sovereigns, victorious generals and magistrates. In Rome, on the forum, they constituted a supreme honor, subject to the approval of the Senate. Apart from being bronze equestrian statues, each one is placed in a place where their troops fought.
While each statue is a reminder of the importance of military and political command, the way in which this responsibility is exercised is quite different.
Marcus Aurelius in Rome
Marcus Aurelius was born in Rome in 121 A.D., into a noble family of Spanish origin. He was the nephew of the emperor Hadrian. After the death of Marcus Aurelius’ father, Hadrian entrusted him to his successor Antonin. The latter adopts and gives him an excellent education. He was initiated early in philosophy by his master Diognetus.
Interested in the stoics, he adopted for a while their lifestyle, sleeping on the ground, wearing a rough tunic, before he was dissuaded by his mother.
He went to Athens in 175 A.D. and became a promotor of philosophy. He helps financially the philosophers and the rhetoricians by granting them a fixed salary. Concerned with pluralism, he supported the Platonic Academy, the Lyceum of Aristotle, the Garden of Epicurus and the Stoic Portico.
On the other hand, during his reign, persecutions against Christians were numerous. He saw them as troublemakers – since they refused to recognize the Roman gods, and as fanatics.
Erected in 175 A.D., the statue was entirely gilded. Its location in antiquity is unknown, but in the Middle Ages it stood in front of the Basilica of St. John Lateran, founded by Constantine, and the Lateran Palace, then the papal residence.
In 1538, Pope Paul III had the monument of Marcus Aurelius transferred to the Capitol, the seat of the city’s government. Michelangelo restored the statue and redesigned the square around it, one of the fanciest in Rome. It is undoubtedly the most famous equestrian statue, and above all the only one dating back to ancient Rome that has survived, the others having been melted down into coins or weapons…
If the statue survived, it is thanks to a misunderstanding: it was thought that it represented Constantine, the first Roman emperor to have converted to Christianity at the beginning of the 4th century, and it was out of the question to destroy the image of a Christian ruler.
Neither the date nor the circumstances of the commission are known.
But the presence of a defeated enemy under the right foreleg of the horse (attested by medieval testimonies and since lost), the emperor’s gesture and the shape of the saddle cloth, unusual in the Roman world, make us to belief that the statue commemorated Marcus Aurelius’ victories, perhaps on the occasion of his triumph in Rome in 176, or even after his death. Indeed, his reign (161-180) was marked by incessant wars to counter the incursions of Germanic or Eastern peoples on the borders of an Empire that was now threatened and on the defensive.
The horse, while not that large, but looking powerful, has been sculpted with great care and represented with realism. Its nostrils are strongly dilated, its lips pulled by the bit reveal its teeth and tongue.
One leg raised, he has just been stopped by his rider, who holds the reins with his left hand. Like him, the horse turns his head slightly to the right, a sign that the statue was made to be seen from that side. Part of his harness is preserved, but the reins have disappeared.
The size of the athletic rider nevertheless dominates that of a powerful horse that he rides without stirrups (accessories unknown to the Romans). He is dressed in a short tunic belted at the waist and a ceremonial cloak stapled on the right shoulder. It is a civil and not a military garment, adapted to a peaceful context. He is wearing leather shoes held together by intertwined straps.
The statue is striking for its size (424 cm high) and for the majesty it exudes. Without armor or weapons, eyes wide open and without emotion, the emperor raises his right arm. His authority derives above all from the function he embodies: he is the Emperor who protects his Empire and his people by punishing their enemies without mercy.
The fresco by Paolo Uccello
In 1436, at the request of Cosimo de’ Medici, the young Paolo Uccello was commissioned to paint a fresco depicting John Hawkwood (1323-1394), the son of an English tanner who had become a warlord during the Hundred Years’ War in France and whose name would be Italicized into Giovanno Acuto.
Serving the highest bidder, especially rival Italian cities, Hawkwood’s company of mercenaries was no slouch.
In Florence, although it may seem paradoxical, it was the humanist chancellor Coluccio Salutati (1331-1406) who put Hawkwood at the head of a regular army in the service of the Signoria.
This approach is not unlike that of Louis XI in France, who, in order to control the skinners and other cutthroats who were ravaging the nation, did not hesitate to discipline them by incorporating them into a standing army, the new royal army.
The humanists of the Renaissance, notably Leonardo Bruni (1370-1440) in his De Militia (1420), became aware of the curse of using mercenaries in conflicts and of the fact that only standing army, i.e. a permanent army formed of professionals and even better by citizens and maintained by a state or a city could guarantee a lasting peace.
Although Hawkwood faithfully protected the city for 18 years, his ugly “professionalism” as a mercenary was not unanimously accepted, to the point of inspiring the proverb “Inglese italianato è un diavolo Incarnato” (« An Italianized Englishman is a devil incarnate »).
Petrarch denounced him, Boccaccio tried in vain to mount a diplomatic offensive against him, St. Catherine of Sienna begged him to leave Italy, Chaucer met him and, no doubt, used him as a model for The Knight’s Tale (The Canterbury Tales).
All this will not prevent Cosimo, a member of the humanist conspiracy and a great patron of the arts, returning from exile, from wanting to honor him. But in the absence of the bronze equestrian statue (which had been promised to him…), Florence, will only offer him a fresco in the nave of Santa Maria del Fiore, that is to say under right under the cupola of the Duomo.
From the very beginning, Paolo Uccello’s fresco seems to have stirred quite a controversy. A preparatory drawing in the collections of Florence’s Uffizi Museum indicates the commander, more armed, taller, and, with his horse in a more military position. Uccello had originally depicted Hawkwood as « more threatening », with his baton raised and horse « at the ready ».
A recent ultraviolet study confirms the fact that the painter had originally depicted the condottiere armed from head to toe. In the final version, he wears a sleeveless jacket, the giornea, and a coat; only his legs and feet are protected by a piece of armor. The final version presents a less imposing rider, less warlike, more human and more individualized
In the dispute, it was not Uccello who was considered faulty, but his sponsors. Moreover, the painter was quickly given the task of redoing the fresco in a way deemed “more appropriate”.
Unfortunately, there is no record of the debates that must have raged among the officials of the church fabric (Opera Del Domo). What is certain is the fact that in the final version, visible today, the condottiere has been transformed from a warlord running a gang of mercenaries, into the image of philosopher-king whose only weapon is his commanding staff. At the bottom of the fresco, we can read in Latin: “Giovanno Acuto, British knight, who was in his time held as a very prudent general and very expert in military affairs.”
The position of the horse and the perspective of the sarcophagus have been changed from a simple profile to a di sotto in su view.
If this perspective is somewhat surrealistic and the pose of the horse, raising both legs on the same side, simply impossible, it remains a fact that Uccello’s fresco will set “the standards” of the ideal and impassive image of virtue and command that must embody the hero of the Renaissance: his goal is no longer to “win” a war (the objective of the mercenary), but to preserve the peace by preventing it (the objective of a philosopher-king or simply a wise head of state).
As such, one might say that Uccello’s fresco announces the “paradigm shift” marking the end of the age of perpetual feudal wars, to that of the Renaissance, that is to say to that of a necessary concord between sovereign nation-states whose security is indivisible, the security of one being the guarantee of the security of the other, a paradigm even more rigorously defined in 1648 at the Peace of Westphalia, when it made the agapic notion of the “advantage of the other” the basis of its success.
One historian suggests that the recommissioning of Uccello’s fresco was part of the « refurbishing » of the cathedral associated with its rededication as Santa Maria del Fiore by the humanist Pope Eugene IV in March 1436, determined to convince the Eastern and Western Churches to peacefully overcome their divisions and réunite as was attempted at the Council of Florence of 1437-1438 and for which the Duomo was central.
Interesting is the fact that Uccello’s fresco appeared at around the same time that Yolande d’Aragon and Jacques Coeur, who had his Italian connections, persuaded the French king Charles VII to put an end to the Hundred Years’ War by setting up a permanent, standing army.
In 1445, an ordinance was passed to discipline and rationalize the army in the form of cavalry units grouped into Compagnies d’Ordonnances, the first permanent army at the disposal, not of warlords or aristocrats, but of the King of France.
Donatello’s “Gattamelata” (1447-1453)
It was only some years later, in Padua, between 1447 and 1453, that Donatello would work on the statue of Erasmo da Narni (1370-1443), a Renaissance condottiere, i.e. the leader of a professional army in the service of the Republic of Venice, which at the time ruled the city of Padua. An important detail is that Erasmo was nicknamed “il Gattamelata”.
In French, « faire la chattemite » means to affect a false air of sweetness to deceive or seduce… Others explain that his nickname of “honeyed cat” comes from the fact that his mother was called Melania Gattelli or that he wore a crest (a helmet) in the shape of a honey-colored cat in battle…
The man was of humble origin, the son of a baker, born in Umbria around 1370. He learned to handle weapons from Ceccolo Broglio, lord of Assisi, and then, when he was in his thirties, from the captains of Braccio da Montone, who was known for recruiting the best fighters.
In 1427, Erasmo, who had the confidence of Cosimo de’ Medici, signed a seven-year contract with the humanist Pope Martin V, who wished to strengthen an army corps loyal to his cause with the aim of bringing to heel the lords of Emilia, Romagna and Umbria who were rebellious against papal authority.
He bought a huge suit of armor to reinforce his high stature. He was not an impetuous fighter, but a master of siege warfare, which forced him to take slow, thoughtful and progressive action. He spied on his prey for a long time before trapping it.
In 1432, he captured the fortress of Villafranca near Imola by cunning alone and without fighting. The following year he did the same to capture the fortified town of Castelfranco, thus sparing his soldiers and his treasure.
Those who were unable to grasp his tactics, accused him of being a coward for “running away” from the front-line, not realizing, that on a given moment, this was part of the tactics of his winning strategy.
He was a prudent captain, with a very well-mannered troop, and he was careful to maintain good relations with the magistrates of the towns that employed him. He obtained the rank of captain-general of the army of the Republic of Venice during the fourth war against the Duke of Milan in 1438 and died in Padua in 1443. Following his death, the Venetian Republic gave him full honors and Giacoma della Leonessa, his widow, commissioned a sculpture in honor of her late husband for 1650 ducats.
The statue, which represents the life-size condottiere, in antique-style armor and bareheaded, holding his commanding staff in his raised right hand, on his horse, was made by the lost-wax method. As early as 1447, Donatello made the models for the casting of the horse and the condottiere. The work progresses at full speed and the work is completed in 1453 and placed on its pedestal in the cemetery that adjoins the Basilica of Padua.
Brilliant for his cunning and guile, Gattamelata was a thoughtful and effective fighter in action, the type of leader recommended by Machiavelli in The Prince, and which appears in the sixteenth century by François Rabelais in his account of the “Picrocholine wars”.
Not the brute power of weapons, but the cunning and the intelligence will be the major qualities that Donatello will make appear powerfully in his work.
Contrary to Marcus Aurelius, it is not his social status that gives the commander his authority, but his intelligence and his creativity in the government of the city and the art of war. Donatello had an eye for detail. Looking at the horse, we see that it is a massive animal but far from static. It has a slow and determined gait, without any hesitation.
But that’s not all. A rigorous analysis shows that the proportions of the horse are of a “higher order” than those of the condottiere. Did Donatello make a mistake and make Erasmo too small and the horse too large? No, the sculptor made this choice to emphasize the value of Gattamelata who, thanks to his skills, is able to tame even wild and gigantic animals. In addition, the horse’s eyes show him as wild and untameable. Looking at him, one could say that it is impossible to ride him, but Gattamelata manages it with ease and without effort.
Because if you look at the reins in the hands of the protagonist, you will notice that he holds them in complete tranquility. This is another detail that highlights Erasmus’ powerful cunning and ingenuity.
Next, did you notice that one of the horse’s legs rests on a sphere? If this sphere (which could also be a cannonball, since Erasmus was a warrior) serves to give stability to Donatello’s composition as a whole, it also indicates how this animal of gigantic strength (symbolizing here warlike violence), once tamed and well used, allows the globe (the earthly kingdom) to be kept in balance.
Having told you about the horse, it is time to know more about the condottiere.
He has a proud and determined expression. The baton of command, which he holds in his hand, delicately touches the horse’s mane. The baton is not just a symbolic object; he may have received it in 1438 from the Republic of Venice.
Unlike Uccello’s fresco, Gattamelata is not dressed as a contemporary prince of commander, but as a figure beyond time embodying both the past, the present and the future. To capture this, Donatello, who takes care of every detail, has taken an ancient model and modernized it with incredible results. The details of the protagonist’s armor include purely classical motifs such as the head of Medusa, taken from Marcus Aurelius, in Greek mythology one of the three gorgons whose eyes had the power to petrify any mortal who crossed her gaze.
Although the helmet of Gattamelata would have allowed to identify him at eyesight, Donatello has discarded this option. With a helmet on his head, he would have been the symbol of a bloodthirsty warrior, rather than a cunning man. Even better, the absence of a helmet allows the artist to show us a fearless commander whose fixed gaze shows his determination. With the figure slightly bowed and legs extended, the sword in its scabbard placed at an angle, Donatello gives the illusion of an “imbalance” that reinforces in the viewer’s mind the idea that the horse is advancing with full strength.
Art historian John Pope-Hennessy is emphatic:
As a result, Gattamelata is not a remake of the “classical Greek or Roman sculpture” of a hero with a sculpted physique, but a kind of new man who succeeds through reason. The fact that the statue has such a high pedestal also has its reason. Placed at such a height, the Gattamelata does not “share” our own space. It is in another dimension, eternal and out of time.
Some thirty years later, between 1480 and 1488, Andrea del Verrocchio, after a contest, was selected to make a large bronze equestrian statue of another Italian condottiere named Bartolomeo Colleoni (1400-1475).
A ruthless mercenary, working for a patron one day and his rival the next day, he served from 1454 the Republic of Venice with the title of general-in-chief (capitano generale). He died in 1475 leaving a will in which he bequeathed part of his fortune to Venice in exchange for the commitment to erect a bronze statue to his honor in St. Mark’s Square.
The Venetian Senate agreed to erect an equestrian monument to his memory, while charging the costs to the widow of the deceased…
In addition, the Senate refused to erect it in St. Mark’s Square, which was, along with St. Mark’s Basilica, at the heart of the city’s life. The Senate therefore decided to interpret the conditions set by Colleoni in his last will and testament without contradicting them, choosing to erect his statue in 1479, not in St. Mark’s Square, but in an area further from the city center in front of the Scuola San Marco, on the campo dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo.
Although Verrocchio had started working on the project since 1482, it remained unfinished at his death in 1488. And it is, not as Verrocchio wished, his heir Lorenzo di Credi who will cast the statue, but the Venetian Alessandro Leopardi (who lost the contest to Verrocchio), who will not hesitate to sign it!
If the horse is in conformity with the typology of the magnificent horses composing the quadriga overseeing the Basilica of Saint Mark of Venice (Greek statuary of the IVth century BC brought back by the crusaders from Constantinople to Venice in 1204) and of the horse of Marcus Aurelius, its musculature is more nervously underlined and traced. Objectively, this statue is ideally more proportionate. There is also more fine detail, a result of new pre-sculpture techniques, making the work captivating and realistic to look at.
The sculpture overflows its pedestal. According to André Suarès quoted in The Majesty of Centaurs:
His baton of command is even metamorphosed into a bludgeon! But since it is not Verrocchio who finished this work, let us not blame the latter for the warlike fury that emanates from this statue.
Venice, a vicious slave-trading financial and maritime Empire fronting as a “Republic”, clearly took its revenge here on the beautiful conception developed during the Renaissance of a philosopher-king defending the nation-state.
On the aesthetic level, this mercenary smells like an animal. As a good observer, Leonardo warned us: when an artist represents a man entirely imprisoned by a single emotion (joy, rage, sadness, etc.), he ends up painting something that takes us away from the truly human soul. This is what we see in this equestrian statue.
If, on the contrary, the artist shows several emotions running through the figure represented, the human aspect will be emphasized. This is the case, as we have seen, with Donatello’s Gattamelata, uniting cunning, determination and prudence to overcome fear the face of threat.
Leonardo’s own, gigantic project to erect a gigantic bronze horse, on which he worked for years and developed new bronze casting techniques, unfortunately was never build, seen the hectic circumstances.
Finally, beyond all the interpretations, let us admire the admirable know-how of these artists. In terms of craft and skill, it generally took an entire life to become able to realize such great works, not even mentioning the patience and boundless passion required.
Up to us to bring it back to life !
- Verrocchio, Sculptor and Painter of Renaissance Florence, Andrew Butterfield, National Gallery, Princeton University Press, 2020;
- Donatello, John Pope-Hennessy, Abbeville Press, 1993;
- Uccello, Franco and Stefano Borsi, Hazan, 2004;
- Les Commentaires de Lorenzo Ghiberti dans la culture florentine du Quattrocento, Pascal Dubourg-Glatigny, Histoire de l’Art, N° 23, 1993, Varia, pp. 15-26;
- Monumento Equestre al Gattamelata di Donatello: la Statua del Guerriero Astuto, blog de Dario Mastromattei, mars 2020;
- La sculpture florentine de la Renaissance, Charles Avery, Livre de poche, 1996 ;
- La sculpture de la Renaissance au XXe siècle, Taschen, 1999;
- Ateliers de la Renaissance, Zodiaque-Desclée de Brouwer, 1998;
- Rabelais et l’art de la guerre, Christine Bierre, 2007.
- The Greek language project, Plato and the Renaissance, Karel Vereycken, jan. 2021.
By Karel Vereycken
Some friends asked me to elaborate on the following:
It is sometimes said that the introduction of Plato in the context of the Councils of Ferrara and Florence (1439) “triggered the explosion of the Italian Renaissance”.
And of the great humanist, the German Cardinal-philosopher Cusanus, it is said that he “brought to Florence Bessarion and Plethon, who were both Greek scholars of Plato and brought the entire works of Plato which had been lost in Europe for centuries”.
At the same time, goes the narrative, “the Medicis financed a crash program to translate the works of Plato. This excitement made the Italian Renaissance what it became”.
While Plato’s ideas and the renewal of greek studies did play a major role in triggering the European Renaissance, the preceding affirmations, as we shall document here, require some refinement.
Was the Italian Renaissance “triggered” by the Council of Florence?
Not really. It was rather –40 years earlier–, the “Greek language revival project” project of Coluccio Salutati (1332-1406), who would become the chancellor of Florence and invite the Greek scholar Manuel Chrysoloras (1355-1415) to his city, that “triggered” a revival of Greek and Hebrew studies, which in return lead to the unification of the churches at the Council of Florence (1439).
The idea had regained interest from Petrarch and Boccaccio, which Salutati admired. Along with Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), it is undoubtedly the Italian poet Petrarch (1304-1374) who best embodies the ideals guiding the humanists of the Renaissance.
All his life, it is said, Petrarch tried to
rediscover the very rich teaching of classical authors in all disciplines and, starting from this sum of knowledge, most often scattered and forgotten, to revive and pursue the research that these authors had begun.
After following his parents to Avignon, Petrarch studied in Carpentras where he learned grammar, then in Montpellier, rhetoric, and finally in Bologna, where he spent seven years at the school of jurisconsults.
However, instead of studying law, which in those days paved the way to a brilliant career, Petrarch secretly read all the classics hitherto known, including Cicero and Virgil, despite the fact that his father occasionally burned his books.
Petrarch and Barlaam of Samara
Under the pontificate of Benedict XII, Petrarch tried to learn Greek language with the help of a learned monk of the Order of St. Basil, Barlaam of Seminara (1290-1348), known as Barlaam the Calabrian, who came to Avignon in 1339 as ambassador of Andronic III Paleologus in an unsuccesful attempt to put an end to the schism between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches.
A philosopher, theologian and mathematician, Barlaam, while having limited knowledge of Greek and Latin, was one of the first to wish that the study of the Greek language and philosophy be reborn in Europe.
In his Treatise On my own ignorance and that of many others (1367), Petrarch declared himself proud of his Greek manuscripts – and of his library in general – and expressed his deep admiration for Barlaam :
I have at home sixteen works of Plato. I don’t know if my friends have ever heard the titles […]. And this is only a small part of Plato’s work, for I have seen, with my own eyes, a large number of them, especially in the Calabrian Barlaam, a modern model of Greek wisdom who began to teach me Greek while I was still ignorant of Latin, and who might have done so successfully if death had not taken him away from me and hindered my honest plans, as usual.
In 1350, two years after Barlaam’s death, Petrarch met the son of a banker, Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375). The latter, like Petrarch, fell in love with the greek culture and language. In his youth, in Naples, he too had met Barlaam and learned a few words of Greek, meticulously copying alphabets and verses, adding the Latin translation and pronunciation indications.
Boccaccio and Leontius Pilatus
To increase his mastery of Greek, Boccaccio then called from Thessaloniki a disciple of Barlaam, Leontius Pilatus (died in 1366), an austere, ugly and very bad-tempered character. But this Calabrian lectured him on Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and translated sixteen of Plato’s dialogues. How could one get angry with him?
Boccaccio offered him shelter and food for three years in his home and had a chair of Greek created for him in Florence, the firs time ever!
Unfortunately, Pilatus did not really master this language. Although posing as a native Greek, the man had poor knowledge of ancient Greek and his translations never got beyond the level of word-for-word. As for the lessons he gave Petrarch, they were so brutal that he disgusted him forever.
This did not prevent Pilatus, at the insistence of Boccaccio, from translating Homer‘s Iliad and Odyssey into Latin from a Greek manuscript sent to Petrarch by Nicolaos Sigeros, the Byzantine ambassador to Avignon.
Hence, history being what it is, it was thanks to this highly imperfect translation that Europe rediscovered one of the great founding works of its culture!
And on this fragile ground will rise a flame that will revolutionize the world.
Was it not I, » writes Boccaccio in his Genealogy of the Gods, « who had the glory and honor of employing the first Greek verses among the Tuscans? Was it not I who, through my prayers, led Pilatus to settle in Florence and who housed him there? I brought at my own expense copies of Homer and other Greek authors when none existed in Tuscany. I was the first of the Italians to whom Homer, in particular, was explained, and then I had him explained in public.
The hunt for manuscripts
What is important is that during these encounters Petrarch created a cultural network covering the whole of Europe, a network reaching into the East.
He then asked his relations and friends, who shared his humanist ideal, to help him find in their country or province, the Latin texts of the ancients that the libraries of abbeys, individuals or cities might possess. In the course of his own travels he found several major texts that had fallen into oblivion.
It is in Liege (Belgium) that he discovered the Pro Archia and in Verona, Ad Atticum, Ad Quintum and Ad Brutum, all by Cicero. During a stay in Paris, he got his hands on the elegiac poems of Propertius, then, in 1350, on a work by Quintilian. In a constant concern to restore the most authentic text, he subjected these manuscripts to meticulous philological work and made corrections by comparing them with other manuscripts. This is how he reconstructed the first and fourth decades of the Roman History of Titus Livius from fragments and restored some of Virgil’s texts.
These manuscripts, which he kept in his own library, later came out in the form of copies and thus became accessible to the greatest number of people. While acknowledging that the pagans lacked the « true faith, » Petrarch believed that when one speaks of virtue, the old and new worlds are not at war.
The « Circolo di Santo Spirito »
From the 1360s onwards, Boccaccio gathered a first group of humanists known as the « Circolo di Santo Spirito » (Circle of the Holy Spirit), whose name was borrowed from the 13th century Florentine Augustinian convent.
An embryonic form of a university, its Studium Generale (1284) was then at the heart of a vast intellectual center including schools, hospices and refectories for the needy.
Before his death in 1375, Boccaccio, who had recovered part of Petrarch’s library, bequeathed to the convent his entire collection of precious ancient books and manuscripts.
Then, in the 1380s and early 1390s, a second circle of humanists met daily in the cell of the Augustinian monk Luigi Marsili (1342-1394). The latter, who had studied philosophy and theology at the universities of Paris and Padua, where he came already into contact with Petrarch in 1970, rapidly became friends with Boccaccio. Hence, by attending the Cercle Santo Spirito from 1375 onwards, Coluccio Salutati in turn fell in love with Greek studies.
By inviting the Greek scholar Manuel Chrysoloras (1355-1415) to Florence to teach Ancient Greek, it was Salutati who gave the decisive impulse leading to the end of the schism between East and West and thus to the unification of the Churches, consecrated at the Council of Florence in 1439.
A century before Salutati, the English philosopher and scientist Roger Bacon (1214-1294), a Franciscan monk residing in Oxford, author of one of the first Greek grammars, already called for such a « linguistic revolution ».
As wrote Dean P. Lockwood in Roger Bacon’s Vision of the Study of Greek (1919):
Obviously, Greek was the master-key to the great storehouse of ancient knowledge, Hebrew and Arabic to lesser chambers. Furthermore, we must no forget that in Bacon’s day the superiority of the ancients was an indisputable fact. The modern world has outstripped the Greek and the Romans in countless ways ; the medieval thinkers were still climbing toward the Hellenic standard.
Three things were clear to Roger Bacon : the need of Greek, the contemporary ignorance of Greek, and the feasability of acquiring Greek. The same may be said of Hebrew, but Bacon rightly put Greek first. Bacon’s program was simple :
1. Seek out the native Byzantine Greeks resident in Europe, preferably grammarians. The latter were very few, of course, but might be found in the Greek monasteries of Southern Italy.
2. From these and from any other available source let Greek books be sought. If this program were to be carried out, Bacon confidently prophetized taht results would not be long in forthcoming.
Manuel Chrysoloras, arrived in winter 1397, an event remembered by one of his most famous pupils, the humanist scholar Leonardo Bruni (1369-1444) and later chancellor of Florence at the time of the Council of Florence, as a great new opportunity: there were many teachers of law, but no one had studied Greek in northern Italy for 700 years.
Thanks to Chrysoloras, Bruni and Pier Paolo Vergerio the Elder were able to read Aristotle and especially Plato in the original greek version.
Until then, in Europe, Christians knew the names of Pythagoras, Socrates and Plato by their reading of the church fathers Origen, St. Jerome and St. Augustine.
The latter, in his City of God, did not hesitate to affirm that the « Platonists », that is Plato and those who assimilated his teaching (Plato et qui eum bene intellexerunt), were superior to all other pagan philosophers.
As we have demonstrated elsewhere, in particular in our study on Raphael and the School of Athens, it is to a large extent Plato’s optimistic and Promethean philosophical approach, for whom knowledge comes above all from the capacity for hypothesis and not from the mere testimony of the senses as Aristotle claims, that clearly provided the sap that allowed the Renaissance tree to offer humanity so many wonderful fruits.
Traversari’s humanist circle
The most famous pupil of Chrysoloras was Ambrogio Traversari (1386-1439), who became general of the Camaldolese order. Today honored as a saint by his order, Traversari was one of the first to conceptualize the type of “Christian Humanism” that would be promoted by Nicolaus of Cusa (Cusanus) and later Erasmus of Rotterdam (who framed the concept of “Saint-Socrates”) and the latter’s admirer Rabelais, uniting Plato with the Holy Scriptures, and the fathers of the Church.
According to Vespasiano de Bisticci, the court historian of the Court of Urbino, Traversari had weekly working sessions on Plato and Greek philosophy at the Santa Maria degli Angeli convent with the crème de la crème of European humanism:
According to Vespasiano de Bisticci, the court historian of Urbino, Traversari led weekly work sessions on Plato and Greek philosophy at the Florentine Convent of Santa Maria degli Angeli with the cream of European humanism in the fields of literature, theology, science, politics, town and country planning, education and the fine arts. Among those :
- The German cardinal-philosopher Nicolas of Cusa (Cusanus);
- Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli, the great physician and cartographer, also friend and protector of Piero della Francesca and Leonardo da Vinci.
- The erudite manuscript collector Niccolò Niccoli, adviser to Cosimo the Elder, heir to the Medici’s industrial and financial empire. Considered at the time to be the richest man in the West, Cosimo was one of the patrons of the sculptor Donatello ;
- Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini, the future humanist pope Pius II;
- Leonardo Bruni, the apostolic secretary of Pope Innocent VII and his three successors. He succeeded Coluccio Salutati at the chancellery of Florence (1410-1411 and 1427-1444).
- The Italian statesman Carlo Marsuppini, passionate about Greek Antiquity, and successor of Bruni as Chancellor of the Republic of Florence after the latter’s death in 1444.
- The philosopher, antiquarian and writer Poggio Bracciolini. After having advised no less than nine popes (!), he was appointed Chancellor of the Republic of Florence following the death of Marsuppini in 1453;
- The politician and ambassador Gianozzi Manetti. In love with ancient Greek and Hebrew, his circle includes l’humaniste Francesco Filelfo, le traducteur Palla Strozzi and Lorenzo Valla ;
Chrysoloras in Florence
Chrysoloras remained only a few years in Florence, from 1397 to 1400, teaching Greek, starting with the rudiments. He moved on to teach in Bologna and later in Venice and Rome. Though he taught widely, a handful of his chosen students remained a close-knit group, among the first humanists of the Renaissance. As said before, among his pupils were numbered some of the foremost figures of the revival of Greek studies in Renaissance Italy. Aside from Bruni and Ambrogio Traversari, they included Guarino da Verona and Palla Strozzi.
Chrysoloras went to Rome on the invitation of Bruni, who was then secretary to Pope Gregory XII. In 1408, he was sent to Paris on an important mission from the emperor Manuel II Palaeologus (1350-1425). In 1413, he went to Germany on an embassy to the emperor Sigismund, the object of which was to decide on the site for the church council that assembled at Constance in 1415. Chrysoloras was on his way there, having been chosen to represent the Greek Church, when he died that year.
Chrysoloras translated the works of Homer and Plato’s Republic from Greek into Latin. His Erotemata (Questions-answers) which was the first basic Greek grammar in use in Western Europe, circulated initially as a manuscript before being published in 1484.
Widely reprinted, it enjoyed considerable success not only among his pupils in Florence, but also among later leading humanists, being immediately studied by Thomas Linacre at Oxford and by Erasmus when he resided at Cambridge. It’s text became the basic manual used by pupils of the Three Language College set up by Erasmus in Leuven in 1515.
Traversari meets Chrysoloras during his two stays in Florence in the summer of 1413 and in January-February 1414, and the old Byzantine scholar is impressed by the bilingual culture of the young monk; he sends him a long philosophical letter in Greek on the theme of friendship. Ambrogio himself expresses in his letters the highest consideration for Chrysoloras, and emotion for the benevolence he showed him.
It should also be noted that the rich humanist scholar Niccolò Niccoli, a great collector of books, opened his library to Traversari and put him in constant contact with the scholarly circles of Florence (notably Leonardo Bruni, and also Cosimo de Medici, of whom he was advisor), but also of Rome and Venice.
In 1423, Pope Martin V sent two letters, one to the prior of the Convent of Santa Maria degli Angeli, Father Matteo, and the other to Traversari himself, expressing his support for the great development of patristic studies in this establishment, and especially for the work of translation of the Greek Fathers carried out by Traversari.
The Pope had in mind the negotiations he was conducting at the time with the Greek Church: at the beginning of 1423, his legate Antonio de Massa returned from Constantinople and brought back with him several Greek manuscripts which were to be entrusted to Traversari for translation: notably the Adversus Græcos by Manuel Calécas, and for the classics the Lives and Doctrines of the Illustrious Philosophers by Diogenes Laërtius, a text which circulated for a long time only in Traversari’s Latin translation.
It was following these undertakings that Traversari expressed his great interest in seeing the schism between the Latin and Greek Churches resolved. At the end of 1423, Niccolò Niccoli provides Traversari with an old volume containing the entire corpus of the ancient ecclesiastical canons, and the learned monk expresses in his correspondence with the humanist his enthusiasm for being able to immerse himself in the life of the then united ancient Christian Church, and in the process he translates into Greek a long letter from Pope Gregory the Great to the prelates of the East.
Arrival of Plato’s mind
Were Bessarion and Plethon the first to bring the entire works of Plato to Europe?
Not really. While John Bessarion did indeed bring his own collection of the “complete works of Plato” in 1437 to Florence, they had already been brought to Italy earlier, most notably in 1423 by the Sicilian Giovanni Aurispa (1376-1459), who was the teacher of Lorenzo Valla (another collaborator with whom Cusanus exposed the fraud of the “Donation of Constantine” and a major source of inspiration of Erasmus).
In 1421 Aurispa was sent by Pope Martin V to act as the translator for the Marquis Gianfrancesco Gonzaga on a diplomatic mission to the Byzantine emperor, Manuel II Palaiologos.
After their arrival, he gained the favor of the emperor’s son and successor, John VIII Paleologus (1392-1448), who took him on as his own secretary. Two years later, he accompanied his Byzantine employer on a mission to the courts of Europe.
On 15 December 1423, 16 years prior to the Council of Florence of 1439, Aurispa arrived in Venice with the largest and finest collection of Greek texts to reach the west prior to those brought by Bessarion. In reply to a letter from Traversari, he says that he brought back 238 manuscripts.
These contained all of Plato’s works, most of them hitherto unknown in the West.
Plato’s works so far were only known very partially. In Sicily, Henry Aristippus of Calabria (1105-1162) had translated in Latin Plato’s Phaedo and Meno dialogues as early as 1160.
Platonists (such as Petrarch, Traversari, Cusanus or Erasmus), have nothing to do and even violently opposed “Neo-platonist” (such as Plotinus, Proclus, Iamblicus, Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola) whose influence would create what could and should be called a “counter-Renaissance”. Already Leibniz strongly warned against the “neo-Platonists” demanding Plato be studied in his original writings rather than through his commentators, however brilliant they might be: “non ex Plotino aut Marsilio Ficino, qui mira semper et mystica affectantes diceren tanti uiri doctrinam corrupere.” [Plato should be studied, but “Not from Plotinus nor Marsilio Ficino, who, by always striving to speak wonderfully and mystically, corrupt the doctrine of so great a man. »]
George Gemisthos « Plethon »
Now, let us enter Plethon, who thought Plato and Aristotle could each one play their own role. George Gemistos « Plethon » (1355-1452), was a follower of the radical “neo-Platonist” Michael Psellos (1018-1080). Around 1410 Gemistos created a “neo-Platonic” academy in Mistra (near the site of ancient Sparta) and added “Plethon” to his name to make it resemble to Plato. He was also an admirer of Pythagoras, Plato, and the “Chaldean Oracles”, which he ascribed to Zoroaster.
Gemistos came for the first time to Florence when he was fifteen years old and became an authority in Mistra. So at the time of the Council the Emperor, John VIII Paleologus, knew they were going to face some of the finest minds in the Roman Church on their own soil; he therefore wanted the best minds available in support of the Byzantine cause to accompany him. Consequently, the Emperor appointed George Gemistos as part of the delegation. Despite the fact that he was a secular philosopher — a rare creature at this time in the West — Gemistos was renowned both for his wisdom and his moral rectitude. Among the clerical lights in the delegation were John Bessarion, Metropolitan of Nicaea, and Mark Eugenikos, Metropolitan of Ephesus. Both had been students of Gemistos in their youth. Another non-clerical member of the delegation was George Scholarios: both a future adversary of Gemistos and a future Patriarch of Constantinople as Gennadios II. Initially, Gemistos was opposed to the unity of the western and eastern churches.
Not assisting at every theological debate during the Council of Florence in 439, he went in town to give lectures to intellectuals and nobles on the essence of Plato and Neo-platonic philosophy. Plethon also brought with him the text of the “Chaldean Oracles” attributed to Zoroaster.
While most of Plethon’s writing were burned, since he was suspected of heresy, a large number of Plethon’s autograph manuscripts ended up in the hands of his former student Cardinal Bessarion. On Bessarion’s death, he willed his personal library to the library of San Marco in Venice (where over 4000 Greeks resided). Among these books and manuscripts was Plethon’s Summary of the Doctrines of Zoroaster and Plato. This Summary was a summary of the Book of Laws, which Plethon wrote inspired by Plato’s laws. The Summary is a mixture of polytheistic beliefs with neo-Platonist elements.
While John Bessarion (1403-1472), a real humanist, took part in the Council in Ferrara (1437) and Florence (1439), and as the representative of the Greek, signed the decree of the Florentine Union, he held nevertheless to the principle: “I honor and respect Aristotle, I love Plato” (colo et veneror Aristotelem, amo Platonem). For him Platonic thought would have the right of citizenship equal to Aristotelian thought in the Latin world only when it appeared in an irenic interpretation to Aristotelianism and as not in contradiction with Christianity, since only such an interpretation of Platonism could succeed at that time.
Cosimo di Medici and Ficino
Did the Medicis finance a crash program to translate the works of Plato?
In 1397, Giovannni « di Bicci » de’ Medici (1360-1429) founded the Medici Bank. Giovanni owned two wool factories in Florence and was a member of two guilds: the Arte della Lana and the Arte del Cambio.
In 1402, he was one of the judges on the jury that selected Lorenzo Ghiberti’s design for the bronzes for the doors of the Baptistery of Florence.
In 1418, Giovanni di Bicci, wishing to endow his family with their own church, entrusted Filippo Brunelleschi, future architect of the famous dome of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fioro, the Duomo, with the task of radically transforming the basilica church of San Lorenzo and ordered Donatello to execute the sculptures.
Politically, the Medici family did not come to power until 1434, three years before the Council of Florence and at a time when the Renaissance was already in full swing.
Admittedly, Giovanni’s son and inheritor of his financial empire, Cosimo di Medici (1389-1464), known as the richest man of his epoch, became so inspired by Plethon that he acquired acomplete library of Greek manuscripts. He bought a copy of the Platonic Corpus (24 dialogues) from Plethon, and a copy of the Corpus Hermeticum of Hermes Trismegistus, acquired in Macedonia by an italian monk, Lionardo of Pistoia. Cosimo also decided to initiate a project to translate from the Greek into Latin, the totality of Plato’s works.
However, as said before, Leonardo Bruni (1369-1444), who after having been papal secretary became chancellor of the Florentine republic from 1427 till 1444, had already translated close to all of Plato’s works from Greek into Latin.
It should be underlined that the translator chosen by Cosimo was Marsilio Ficino (1433-99), the son of his personal physician and only five years old at the time of the Council of Florence in 1439. Cosimo had some severe doubts concerning Ficino’s capacities as translator. When the latter offers in 1456 his first translation, The Platonic Institutions, Cosimo asks him kindly not to publish this work and to learn first the Greek language… which Ficino learns then from Byzantine scholar John Argyropoulos (1415-1487), an Aristotelian pupil of Bessarion who rejected the Council of Florence’s epistomological revolution.
But seeing his age advancing and dispite his unfortunate descent into corruption, Cosimo finally gave him the post. He allocates him an annual stipend, the required manuscripts and a villa at Careggi, close to Florence, where Ficino would set up his “Platonic Academy” with a handful of followers, among which Angelo Poliziano (1454-94), Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) and Cristoforo Landino (1424-1498).
Ficino’s “Academy”, taking up the ancient neo-platonic tradition of Plotinus and Porphyry (as Ficino states himself) would organize each year a ceremonial banquet “neglected since one thousand two hundred years” on November 7, thought to be simultaneously the birthday of Plato and the day of his death.
After the dinner, the attendants would read Plato’s Symposium and then each of them would comment one of the speeches. The comments are demonstrations, without any real dialogue and void of the essence of real platonic thinking: irony. On top of that it is remarkable that most gatherings of Ficino’s academy were attended by the ambassador of Venice in Florence, notably the powerful oligarch Bernardo Bembo (1433-1519), father of “poet” cardinal Pietro Bembo, later special advisor to the evil Genovese “Warrior Pope” Julius II.
It was this alliance of the increasingly more degenerated Medici family, the Venetians Empire’s maritime slave trade and the neo-Platonists that gained dominant influence over the Curia of the Roman Catholic Church. The Medici’s clearly disliked Da Vinci (who never got an order from the Vatican and subsequently left Italy), and through their propaganda man Vasari made the world to belief that the Renaissance was their baby.
But before translating Plato, and at the specific demand of Cosimo, Ficino translated first (in 1462) the Orphic Hymns, the Sayings of Zoroaster, and the Corpus Hermeticum of Hermes Trismegistus the Egyptian (between 100 and 300 after BC).
It will be only in 1469 that Ficino will finish his translations of Plato after a nervousbreakdown in 1468, described by his contemporaries as a crisis of “profound melancholy”.
In 1470, and with a title plagiarized from Proclus, Ficino writes his “Platonic Theology or on the immortality of the Soul.” While completely taken in by esoteric neo-Platonism, he becomes a priest in 1473 and writes “The Christian Religion” without changing his neo-platonic pagan outlook, since he launches then an entire new series of translations of the neo-Platonists of Alexandria: he translates the fifty four books of Plotinus “Enneads”, Porphyry and Proclus.
Ficino, in his “Five Questions Concerning the Mind” explicitly attacks the Promethean conception of man:
Nothing indeed can be imagined more unreasonable than that man, who through reason is the most perfect of all animals, nay, of all things underheaven, most perfect, I say, with regard to that formal perfection that is bestowed upon us from the beginning, that man, also through reason, should be the least perfect of all with regard to that final perfection for the sake of which the first perfection is given. This seems to be that of the most unfortunate Prometheus. Instructed by the divine wisdom of Pallas, he gained possession of the heavenly fire, that is, reason. Because of this very possession, on the highest peak of the mountain, that is, at the very height of contemplation, he is rightly judged most miserable of all, for he is made wretched by the continual gnawing of the most ravenous of vultures, that is, by the torment of inquiry…” (…) “What do the philosophers say to these things? Certainly the Magi, followers of Zoroaster and Hostanes, assert something similar. They say that, because of a certain old disease of the human mind, everything that is very unhealthy and difficult befalls us…
The Florentine Neo-Platonic Academy, backed by the libido-driven Lorenzo de Medici (1449-1492) “The Magnificent”, will serve as a “Delphic” operation: defend Plato to better destroy him; praise him in such terms that he becomes discredited. And especially destroying Plato’s influence by opposing religion to science, at a point where Cusanus and his followers are succeeding to do exactly the opposite. Isn’t it bizarre that Cusa’s name doesn’t appear a single time in the works of Ficino or Pico della Mirandola, so overfed with all encompassing knowledge?
Lorenzo did protect artists such as Sandro Botticelli, whose Birth of Venus examplifies Lorenzo’s neo-platonic symbolism.
Infected with this evil neo-Platonism, Thomaso Inghirami (1470-1516), the chief librarian of pope Julius II, will accomplish nothing but this when dictating to the painter Raphaël the content of the Stanza in the Vatican some decades later.
Neo-platonic “melancholy”, which Albrecht Dürer went after in his famous engraving, will become the matrix for the romantics, the destructive virus affecting the symbolists and the so-called modern school. As for the revolution that Greek studies will bring about in the sciences, I refer you to our article on this website: 1512-2012: From Cosmography to Cosmonauts, Gerard Mercator and Gemma Frisius.
To conclude, here is a short list of translators, and I certainly forgot some of them, and their mastery of foreign languages. Even if some of them can’t be called « humanists », let’s thank them for everything they allowed us to discover. I’m profoundly convinved, that without them, man would certainly not have set foot on the Moon!
- Marcus Tullius Cicero 106-43 BC: Italian, Latin and Greek;
- Philo of Alexandria 20 BC – 40 AD: hebrew, Greek;
- Origen of Alexandria 184 – 253, Greek and Latin;
- Jerome of Stridon 342-420: Italian, Latin and Greek;
- Boethius 477-524: Italian, Latin and Greek;
- Bede the Venerable 672-735: English, Latin, Greek and Hebrew;
- Charlemagne 742-814, spoke Latin and understood Greek, Hebrew and Slavonic;
- John Scotus Eriugena 800-876: Irish, Greek, Arab and Hebrew;
- Ḥunayn ibn Isḥaq 809-873: Arabic, Syriac, Persian and Greek;
- Thābit ibn Qurra 826-901: Syriac, Arabic and Greek;
- Al-Fârâbi 872-950 : Farsi, Sogdian and Greek;
- Al–Biruni, 973-1048, Chorasmian, Farsi, Frabic, Syriac, Sanskrit, Hindi, Hebrew and Greek ;
- Adelard of Bath 1080-1152 : English, Latin and Arabic;
- Héloïse 1092-1141 : French, Latin, Greek and Hebrew;
- Hugh of Saint Victor 1096-1141: French, Latin, Greek;
- Constantine the African XIth Cent.: Arabic, Latin, Greek and Italian;
- John Sarrazin XIIth Cent.: Latin and Greek;
- Henricus Aristippus 1105-1162: Italian, Latin and Greek;
- Gerard of Cremona 1114-1187: Italian, Latin and Arabic;
- Robert Grosseteste 1168-1253: English, Latin and Greek;
- Michael Scot 1175-1232 : Scottish, Latin, Greek, Arab and Hebrew;
- Moses of Bergamo (XIIth Century): Italian, Latin and Greek;
- Burgundio of Pisa (XIIth Century): Italian, Latin and Greek;
- James of Venice (second half IIth Century, dies after 1147): Italian, Latin and Greek ;
- Roger Bacon 1214-1294: English, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Arabic and Chaldean ;
- William of Moerbeke 1215-1286: Dutch, Latin and Greek;
- Raymond Lull 1232-1315: Catalan, Latin and Arabic;
- Arnaldus de Villa Nova 1240-1311 : Catalan, Latin, Greek and Arabic;
- Dante Alighieri 1265-1321: Italian and Latin;
- Francesco Petrarch 1304-1375: Italian and Latin;
- Giovanni Boccaccio 1313-1375: Italian and Latin;
- Coluccio Salutati 1331-1406: Italian and Latin;
- Geert Groote 1340-1384: Dutch, Latin, Greek and Hebrew;
- Florens Radewijns 1350-1400: Dutch and Latin;
- Manuel Chrysoloras 1355-1415: Greek, Latin and Italian;
- Georgius Gemistus « Pletho » 1360-1452: Greek;
- Jacopo d’Angelo 1360-1410, Italian, Latin and Greek;
- Pier Paolo Vergerio (the Elder) 1370-1445: Italian, Latin and Greek;
- Leonardo Bruni 1370-1441: Italian, Latin, Greek, Hebrew and Arabic;
- Guarino Guarini 1370-1460: Italian, Latin and Greek;
- Palla di Onofrio Strozzi 1372-1462: Italian, Latin and Greek;
- Giovanni Aurispa 1376-1459: Italian, Latin and Greek;
- Vittorino da Feltre 1378-1446: Italian, Latin and Greek;
- Poggio Bracciolini 1380-1459: Italian, Latin and Greek;
- Ambrogio Traversari 1386-1439: Italian, Latin and Greek;
- Gianozzo Manetti 1396-1459: Italian, Latin, Greek and Hebrew;
- Georges of Trebizond 1396-1472: Greek, Latin and Italian;
- Tommaso Perentucelli (Pope Nicolas V) 1397-1494: Italian and Latin;
- Francesco Filelfo 1398-1481: Italian, Latin and Greek;
- Carlo Marsuppini 1399-1453: Italian, Latin and Greek;
- Theodorus Gaza 1400-1478, Greek and Latin;
- John Bessarion 1403-1472: Greek, Latin and Italian;
- Lorenzo Valla 1407-1457: Italian, Latin and Greek;
- Nicolas of Cusa 1401-1464: German and Latin;
- John Wessel Gansfoort 1419-1489: Dutch, Latin, Greek and Hebrew;
- Georg von Peuerbach 1423-1461: German, Latin and Greek;
- Demetrios Chalkokondyles 1423-1511 : Greek and Latin;
- Marcilio Ficino 1433-1499: Italian, Latin and Greek;
- Constantine Lascaris 1434-1501 : Greek, Latin and Italian;
- Regiomontanus 1436-1476: German, Latin and Greek;
- Alexander Hegius 1440-1498: Dutch, Latin and Greek;
- Rudolf Agricola 1444-1485: Dutch, Latin, Greek and Hebrew;
- Janus Lascaris 1445-1535: Greek and Latin;
- William Grocyn 1446-1519,: English, Latin and Greek;
- Poliziano 1454-1494: Italian, Latin and Greek;
- Johannes Reuchlin 1455-1522: German, Latin, Greek and Hebrew;
- Thomas Linacre 1460-1524: English, Latin and Greek;
- Erasmus of Rotterdam 1467-1536: Dutch, Latin and Greek;
- William Latimer 1467-1545 : English, Latin and Greek;
- Guillaume Budé 1467-1540: French, Latin and Greek;
- Marcus Musurus 1470-1517 : Italian, Latin and Greek;
- Willibald Pirckheimer 1470-1530 : German, Latin and Greek;
- Pietro Bembo 1470-1547 : Italian, Latin and Greek;
- Thomas More 1478-1535 : English, Latin and Greek;
- Girolamo Aleandro, 1480-1542 : Italian, Latin and Greek;
- Germain de Brie 1490-1538: French, Latin and Greek;
- Juan Luis Vivès 1492-1540 : Spanish, Latin, Greek and Hebrew;
By Karel Vereycken
Leonardo da Vinci’s « Viruvian Man ». Since we’re commemorating this year (2020) Leonardo Da Vinci, who died 500 years ago, many silly things are presented by fake scholars trying to make a real living.
Since I was introduced into the canon of proportions of the human body during my training as a professional painter and engraver, I want offer you some hints on how to look at what is called Da Vinci’s « Vitruvian man », a drawing currently on exhibit at the Da Vinci show at the Louvre in Paris.
Hence, as Leonardo underlines himself in his notebooks, adopting Cusanus wordings, it is only with the « eyes of the mind » that art becomes visible, because the « eyes of the flesh » are intrensically blind to it.
Canons of proportions
Europe, and Classical Greece, as everybody should know, emerged largely by absorbing several major discoveries accomplished much earlier by other civilizations. Much of it came from Asia, but African and especially Egypt, were key.
The very practice of mummification, a process which takes at least 60 days of work, made Egypt the key area of anatomical research.
As demonstrated by early Egyptian sculpture, the exact size of the entire adult human body is 7,5 times the size of the head. The size of a newborn is only four heads, that of a seven year old, six heads and that of a 17 years old adolescent, 7 heads.
If one subdivides the overall 7.5 proportion, for an adult, from the top of the head till the lowest part of the torso, one measures four heads, one till the nipples, one till the belly button and a fourth one till the lowest part of the pubis. Going up from the sole till the middle of the pelvis, one measures 3.5 heads: 2 heads till the knee and 1.5 till the middle of the pelvis. That brings the total till 7.5 heads for the entire length of the adult human body and it is proportional in the sense that people with smaller heads also have small bodies.
Polikleitos versus Lysippus
In the Vth Century BC, the Greek sculptor Polikleitos’ spear bearer (The “Doryphoros”) of Naples National Archeological Museum applied this most beautiful canon of proportions, known as the “Polikleitos canon”.
During the Renaissance, the nostalgics of the Roman Empire preferred another Greek canon, that of Greek sculptor Lysippus (4th Century BC), formalized by the Roman author, architect and civil engineer, Vitrivius (1st century BC).
Vitruvius only transcribed the prevalent taste of his epoch. Roman sculptors, in order to give an athletic and heroic look to the Emperors which they were portraying, adopting the canon of Lysippus, could reduce the head of their models to only an eight of the total length of the body. The trick was that by reducing the relative size of the head, the body looked more preeminent and powerful, something most emperors, who were often physical failures, appreciated and secured their popularity. Even extreme cases of 12 to 15 heads of body length appeared. In short, Public relations ruled at the detriment of science and truth.
Today’s comic strip drawers chose proportions according to purpose:
–For real life, 7.5 or “normal canon”
–For a movie star, 8 heads, with the “idealistic canon”;
–For a fashion magazine: 8.5 heads;
–For a comic book hero: 9 heads for the “heroic canon”
Text accompanying Leonardo DaVinci’s Vitruvian Man:
Vitruvius, the architect, says in his work on architecture that the measurements of the human body are distributed by Nature as follows that is that 4 fingers make 1 palm, and 4 palms make 1 foot, 6 palms make 1 cubit; 4 cubits make a man’s height. And 4 cubits make one pace and 24 palms make a man; and these measures he used in his buildings. If you open your legs so much as to decrease your height 1/14 and spread and raise your arms till your middle fingers touch the level of the top of your head you must know that the centre of the outspread limbs will be in the navel and the space between the legs will be an equilateral triangle.
The length of a man’s outspread arms is equal to his height.
From the roots of the hair to the bottom of the chin is the tenth of a man’s height; from the bottom of the chin to the top of his head is one eighth of his height; from the top of the breast to the top of his head will be one sixth of a man. From the top of the breast to the roots of the hair will be the seventh part of the whole man. From the nipples to the top of the head will be the fourth part of a man. The greatest width of the shoulders contains in itself the fourth part of the man. From the elbow to the tip of the hand will be the fifth part of a man; and from the elbow to the angle of the armpit will be the eighth part of the man. The whole hand will be the tenth part of the man; the beginning of the genitals marks the middle of the man. The foot is the seventh part of the man. From the sole of the foot to below the knee will be the fourth part of the man. From below the knee to the beginning of the genitals will be the fourth part of the man. The distance from the bottom of the chin to the nose and from the roots of the hair to the eyebrows is, in each case the same, and like the ear, a third of the face.
Of course, Da Vinci’s exploration of the Vitruvian man doesn’t mean he approves or disapproves the stated fakery in proportions.
Soul or muscle?
It should be known that in Italy, the pure Roman taste has become trendy again following the discovery in 1506 of the statue of the Laocoon on the site of Nero’s villa in Rome. From that moment, artist will feel obliged to increase the volume of the muscular masses in order to appear as working « in Antique style ».
Although Leonardo never openly criticized this trend, it is hard not to think of Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, when the artist, seeking to raise the spirit to unequalled philosophical heights, advised painters: « do not give all the muscles of the figures an exaggerated volume » and « if you act differently, it is more a sort of representation of a sack of nuts that you will have achieved than to that of a human figure » (Codex Madrid II, 128r).
No doubt inspired by his friend, the architect Giacomo Andrea, in « The Vitruvian Man », Leonardo is above all interested by other harmonies: if a person extends his arms in a direction parallel to the ground, one obtains the same length as one’s entire height. This equality is inscribed by Leonardo in a square (symbol of the earthly realm). But if one stretches his arms and legs in a star shape, they are inscribed in a circle whose center is the navel. The location of the navel divides the body according to the golden ratio (in this example 5 heads out of a total of 8 heads, 5+3 being part of the Fibonnacci series: 1+2 = 3; 3+2 = 5; 5+3 = 8; 8+5 = 13; 13+8 = 21, etc.).
Leonardo clearly understood what the golden section really means: not a “magical” number in itself, but the reflexion of the dynamic of least action, the very principle uniting man (the square) with the creator and the universe (the circle).
So if you take a look, beware of what you see and especially what you don’t !