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Art and architecture in Florence: 1411-1430

Three Florentine friends, an architect, a sculptor and a painter, are recognized in their own time as being the founders of a new direction in art - subsequently known as the Renaissance. In the preface to an influential book on painting, published in 1436, Alberti says that the work of these three has convinced him that the ancient arts can be revived.

They differ considerably in age. The architect, Brunelleschi, is the oldest. The sculptor, Donatello, is about ten years younger. The painter, Masaccio, is about fifteen years younger again, though he is by a wide margin the first to die.

Brunelleschi is the pioneer who first consciously applies a Renaissance curiosity to the arts. Where the humanists visit Rome and other ancient cities to copy inscriptions, he notes the dimensions and sketches the details of the ruins and surviving buildings of classical antiquity. These include the columns and arches of Rome, but also the domes of Byzantine Ravenna and even of the baptistery in Florence - a Romanesque building of the 11th or 12th century which Brunelleschi and his contemporaries believe to be a temple of Mars adapted for Christian worship.

His aim is to abandon entirely the medieval heritage, even if lack of historical knowledge makes the break less absolute than he intends.

Brunelleschi is a painter and sculptor, as well as architect, and his interest in classical buildings leads him into pioneering work of another kind. He is the first to evolve a scientific theory of perspective, which he is said to have used to startling effect in murals in the Baptistery and the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence (none have survived).

This newly discovered skill is adopted by Masaccio and becomes of absorbing interests to Renaissance artists after Alberti has described the techique in detail in his book of 1436, crediting Brunelleschi as its originator.

Brunelleschi's first biographer (Antonio Manetti, writing in the 1480s) states that Donatello accompanies the older man on trips to Rome to study the style of the ancients. Whether true or not - and scholars tend to doubt the story - it is undeniable that between 1411 and 1417 Donatello carves two free-standing figures in a more purely classical style (and with much greater artistry) than anything attempted by predecessors such as Nicola Pisano.

These figures, profoundly significant in the story of sculpture, are commissioned by two of Florence's guilds. The linen drapers and the armourers need statues of their patron saints.

Donatello: 1411-1450

In 1406 the authorities in Florence order the guilds to commission statues for the niches already allotted to each of them in the outer wall of Orsanmichele, a building erected in the mid-14th century as a combination of trading place and shrine (in honour of a miracle-working image of the Virgin Mary which is housed here). Any guild which has not provided a statue within ten years will lose all claim to its desirable and prestigious niche.

In 1411 the linen drapers commission the young Donatello, in his mid-twenties, to provide a marble statue of St Mark. In about 1415 he delivers to them the first free-standing Renaissance sculpture.

The larger-than-lifesize St Mark stands in a completely relaxed pose, with his weight on one foot. Folds of loose drapery vividly suggest a projecting knee and jutting hip. The figure has the solid and uncompromising quality of Roman portrait sculpture, even though the beard and long robes seem to echo the saints on the façades of Gothic cathedrals.

Donatello's next work for Orsanmichele, probably completed in 1417, has much more openly a classical quality. St George, a clean-shaven young man scantily clad in Roman armour, confronts the viewer with a direct look closer to the heroic quality of Greek sculpture than to the brutal realism of Rome.

The same openness, amounting now to a positively provocative sense of physical confidence, is characteristic of Donatello's most famous statue - the astonishing bronze David, a boy in a saucy hat with the head of Goliath at his feet.

Done in about 1430, to stand in a courtyard of the Medici palace, this is the first life-size nude sculpture since classical times. It reintroduces one of the great themes of Greek sculpture in a burst of glorious confidence, and with a new mood of wit and playfulness.

Donatello revives yet another ancient tradition, in a work of lasting influence, when he is commissioned in 1443 to provide an equestrian portrait for Padua of the Venetian condottiere Erasmo da Narni, known as Gattamelata. The work is completed in about 1450 and is set up in Padua in 1453.

The massive composition (horse and rider together stand more than 11 feet high) harks back to the mounted statue of Marcus Aurelius in Rome. This is the predecessor of every dignitary riding in bronze through the streets of modern cities, but few have the stern severity of this uncompromising soldier of fortune.

Brunelleschi and the Renaissance style: 1419-1430

The creative blend of Brunelleschi's classical studies and his own imagination is first seen in a hospital for foundling children, of which construction begins in 1419. Although the ingredients of the façade of the Ospedale degli Innocenti are the familiar ones of Roman architecture (an arcade of columns, supporting rounded arches, beneath a row of rectangular windows surmounted by pediments), there is an entirely new feeling in the balance between them, the proportions, the sense of slender elegance.

This new Renaissance style, Brunelleschi's contribution to the story of architecture, can be seen in its purest form in another building in Florence - commissioned by a member of the Pazzi family of bankers.

Work begins on the Pazzi chapel in 1430. The columns and central arch on the façade of this tiny building are reminiscent of Brunelleschi's earlier foundling hospital. But here the mood of calm and perfect balance extends also to the interior.

Every surface, from floor to dome, is planned in an interacting display of curves, circles, arches, rectangles and small roundels. Texture and colour, as well as shape, create the pattern - contrasting the pale plaster of the walls, the darker grey of stone pillars and arches, and the bright ceramic reliefs (the blue and white ones by Luca della Robbia) in the roundels. This is not only a gem of the Renaissance. It is the beginning of interior design.

Masaccio and the Brancacci Chapel: 1423-1428

In about 1423 a Florentine silk merchant, Felice Brancacci, commissions frescoes for a chapel in Santa Maria del Carmine. His choice of artist is Masolino, who brings into the project a younger colleague, Masaccio. Most of Masolino's frescoes in the chapel have been destroyed or painted over. But those done by Masaccio, before his very early death in 1428, are among the great turning points of the Renaissance.

Masaccio clearly admires the work of Giotto. He adopts the solid manner in which the earlier master depicts character (this can be seen superbly in the figure of St Peter paying the tribute money), and he adds to it two further qualities.

One of these qualities is a new freedom in the expression of emotion. The bodies of the naked Adam and Eve, driven from Paradise, are almost distorted in the intensity of their shame, as seen in the agonized upturned face of Eve.

The other significant new element is an increased ability to create figures with a real sense of air around them. The apostles, hearing Jesus tell them that tribute money should be paid to Caesar, make a freely arranged group in an entirely believable open space flanked by receding buildings on one side and a landscape on the other.

Classical perspective: 15th century

The sense of depth achieved by Masaccio is partly thanks to the new Renaissance interest in the science of perspective, which goes hand in hand with the rediscovery of the appeal of classical architecture. Masaccio makes use of both themes in his illustionistic Trinity in the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, where the cruficied Christ and other figures appear within a dramatically receding Roman arcade.

The perspective in this painting derives from personal knowledge of Brunelleschi and his work. But after Alberti's treatise of 1436 (De Pictura), the new science becomes widely practised. Indeed perspective becomes something of an obsession with Italian painters of the 15th century.

A genius such as Piero della Francesca uses perspective with exquisite skill and restraint. But Paolo Uccello, famous for his use of the technique, verges on the obsessive in his painstaking arrangement of crossed lances and foreshortened corpses in The Battle of San Romano.

The twin Renaissance interest in perspective and classical architecture can be seen above all in the work of Andrea Mantegna. His Christian scenes take place in totally convincing vistas of Roman buildings, often ruined. And the Dead Christ of about 1485, with the pierced soles of his feet thrust into the face of the onlooker, is the most famous example of foreshortening in the history of art.

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