English Version | And, once again, we are reborn

02 Sep 2021
By Margarida Oliveira

We can all identify ourselves with the wish to reborn, to start over, but as we go through the process of reinvention, who inspires us? One can never go wrong with the classics, and during the Renaissance, the classics were what inspired western society. Classic is eternal.

We can all identify ourselves with the wish to reborn, to start over, but as we go through the process of reinvention, who inspires us? One can never go wrong with the classics, and during the Renaissance, the classics were what inspired western society. Classic is eternal.

The concept of new beginning often arises in a time of crisis. Whether it may be a collective or individual crisis, to start over from the ashes of a past that has exhausted its potential to evolve is a feeling that is present in our history as well as our day-to-day lives. After all, every day we fall asleep, we disconnect and recharge, and every day we wake up – and we reborn. We restart our consciousness as if we hadn’t turned it off, ready for a new cycle. We are also reborn as a group, on the New Year or when celebrating a birthday, because the concept of time itself implies the opportunity to start over, whether it may be in a day, year or century. It isn’t, however, possible to think of the concept of rebirth without thinking about the Renaissance, the movement that dominated Europe after the Middle Ages, a movement that started in Italy and that revived the classic aesthetic and values of ancient Rome and Greece. As we now live in a time of distress and uncertainty, we once again think of the concept of rebirth as we turn to art, philosophy and spirituality. We relate to our ancestors, by being reborn from a time of fear and isolation.

To determine the beginning or the end of an artistic movement is a task doomed to failure from the start. Never will the history of art be linearly traced, and for that we can only point towards the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries as those which embraced the Renaissance, and accept the impossibility to determine a concrete duration of the movement. At this stage, it will also be essential to recognise the relevance of the Renaissance in a specific historical period, as opposed to artistic movements that classified themselves as groups temporarily united by an ideal in the work production. The Renaissance was more than a movement, it was a way of thinking that marked a specific time in History. The term Rinascinta was used for the first time in 1550 by the artist and art historian Giorgio Vasari, to describe a painting by Giotto (Italian architect and artist). Until the Renaissance, the concept of “artist” and “art” did not exist – the artist was the artisan, a person that was specialised in a certain trait. To think about art became an intellectual activity during the Renaissance, as we now use the word “art” as a broad term that agglomerates an extremely diverse group of creative production. Without art or artists, the art documentation previous to this historical period was reduced, and as Vasari writes The Lives of the Artists he drastically alters the dynamic of art history. Vasari initiates the documentation of the artworks and the artists’ lives as he also initiates the appreciation of the artist. The “myth of the artist” is created, and we are given access to the life stories of all creative geniuses. We read Vasari with the awareness that his writing is closer to fiction than documentation should be, but we accept the myths that were built and we allow ourselves to think of the Renaissance’s culture and to be enchanted by the beauty of the classics.

The Renaissance was a movement of rupture from the Middle Ages, currently referred to as the Dark Ages. It was a new time, a time of revival of ancient Rome and Greece values and aesthetic, now seen through a Christian lens. Some of the most recognised pieced of western art History are from this period, from Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (1503) to Michael Angelo’s David (1501-1504), or Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus (1483). We think about the Renaissance and we think about beauty, about the comfort that symmetry and order bring to our eyes. The lightness accomplished by the perfect technic of a painting allows us to achieve an almost spiritual elevation that resembles an invasion, as if the soul was calmed down by the master piece. The subjects chosen to be portrayed by the artists take on a feeling of rising – let us be reminded of Botticelli’s Spring (1477-1482) and a desire to be incorporated by the painting. Mythological figures that represent the rebirth of nature as they float around one another connected never confronting each other. The see-through cloths, the flowers, the fruits, the characters and their soft movements, the whole environment gives this piece an hypnotising elegance that does not allow us to look away. We can almost smell it, a fresh smell like a summer perfume, we see Botticelli’s work today as so many others before us, and we build through works of art symbols we identify with. In silence we share universal and eternal pieces as we look at Spring or Mona Lisa. The spirituality in the Renaissance was transmitted, kept and reviewed through hundreds of master-pieces. There is, in fact, spirituality in beauty, whether it may be incorporated or not into ancient or current patterns. When we think of beauty we think of spirituality, and vice-versa. With this we do not necessarily refer to art, or at least a classical definition of art, but to the construction of our existence in the contemporary world that could have never been imagined by our ancestors.

With the growing patronage in art and architecture, in where it is impossible not to refer to the Medici family, there was a strong movement towards evolution and creativity. We are talking about a time after the epidemic of the Bubonic Plague, which was followed by a kind of collective depression, shared among a people recovering physically and spiritually. Lorenzo de Midici, The Magnificent, was an example of the Renaissance man: a banker that loved art and literature and surrounded himself with artists, philosophers and writers, such as Donatello, Botticelli and Michael Angelo. As a dedicated sponsor of culture development and elevation, Lorenzo de Medici supported architecture, painting, sculpture and literature. The Renaissance intended to rehumanize mankind through culture, and with that Humanism is born, focused on perfecting the human existence. The English historian Peter Burke presents the Charles de Bouelles’ diagram containing the levels of human existence according to the Humanist school of thought: “To exist (as a stone would), to live (as a plant would), to feel (as a horse would) and to think” as only a human being could. There will always be many levels of existence, according to different criteria, maybe more subtle, less clear, but as we accompany Humanists, these will be the ones we will be considering. Exclusivity of though reserved to the human experience puts education in the podium of relevance, the winner of all subjects. The commonly used term “Renaissance Man” describes a man that studies different subjects, that does not given in to the pressure of specialisation, having been firstly used, as the term suggest, to define the Man of the Renaissance. The possibility of having a contemplative life and of studying was naturally reserved to a privileged elite, as elites were searching for the return of what was considered the golden of culture, philosophy and of the existence itself, following what were extremely dark times in History. Humanism defended the studia humanitatis, that had as its five main subjects Grammar, Rhetoric, Poetry, Ethics and History. The Book of the Courtier, by Baldassare Castiglione, became mandatory, as well as Plato’s Symposium and Cícero’s De Officcis. And if you wish to read as a Renaissance man would, these are absolutely essential, but if you wish to read a Renaissance man, you must read Petrarca or Erasmo. As we share feelings, wishes or insecurities with a character of the past we can recognise in Humanity common traits that do or don’t follow the evolution of the being. This connection that we have established through art with our ancestors is the same they had with their own ancestors that also produced works of art, in whatever format it may have been.

To study, to think, to talk, to be dedicated to self-improvement, all of this was the goal, having there been an attempt to conciliate classical thinking with religion. Michael Angelo, in his poetry, writes about himself “I am a sinner of current sins”, taking upon himself a Christian guilt that he carried out throughout his life and work. By spreading beauty through his work, the artist was hoping for redemption, because beauty would be considered divine and, with the creation of something beautiful, the artist would be promoting Christianity. Leonardo Da Vinci embodied every characteristic commonly attributed to the Renaissance Man. From visual arts, science and music, the artist was curious about every aspect of knowledge. From Mona Lisa to The Last Supper (1495-1498), Leonardo was a creative in the purest of forms, a man with incomparable talent and self-demand. Many of his works were unfinished due to a perfectionism that kept him from finishing the projects he set out to do. Let us think of the Vitruvian Man (1490), the basis for Leonardo’s series The Proportions of the Human Figure. This must be one of the most well-known works of the artist, and it is based on a classical piece by the architect and Roman Empire engineer, Vitruvius, that studied the human body as a measure for every construction to be build from. It may seem like an obvious concept now but every obvious idea had to be had for the first time in order to be obvious today. Nowadays in Europe we can visit any city and see ourselves in the dimensions of doors, houses and sidewalks. During the Renaissance, Leonardo Da Vinci brings back The Vitruvian Man, asserting the part of Mankind played in the Renaissance school of thought. To think the architecture of a certain time or space whilst trying to understand the ideology behind construction could be a way to understand the History of a certain culture. Middle Ages architecture was characterised by verticality, as churches presented elements that simulated the (hypothetical) rise to heaven. But Renaissance’s architecture was thought for men and human proportions, asserting itself as horizontal, underlining it’s stability through a classical aesthetic. 

We can now divide the Renaissance into three moments: the Early, the High and the Late Renaissance, followed by a movement that generates disagreement amongst historians as to whether or not it should just be considered as a transition period, as its formal characteristics may not be sufficiently specific to make it an art movement – we are talking about Mannerism. Since its beginning until the fully developed stage of Renaissance, there was an evolution of the maniera of the artists. Mannerism is a movement that transitions the Renaissance to the Baroque, assuming formal characteristics that value individuality, as the maniera refers to a specific way in which an artist works, like a style. The copy and imitation that marked the Renaissance were processes of assimilation of the Classics as a way to evolve beyond them. Once recognised, the artists started to value their own style, their individuality and initiated the process of exploitation of this “style”. The need for a new beginning that would end with the Dark Ages and return to the “origins” of western civilisation reaches current times as a period in the past that we barely think about. But should we consider the way we now connect to the Renaissance, or even Greek and Roman civilisations, and the cultural evolution that our ancestors went through and that we ourselves will go through as well, we can see how culture represents us. In literature, painting or cinema, we share the essence of our own time. To know each other culturally is to know a population from a certain time. Especially a population that is being reborn. 

Originally translated from the New Beginnings issue, published September 2021.Full credits and stories on the print issue.

Margarida Oliveira By Margarida Oliveira

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