Previous page Page 4 of 7 Next page
Index |  History |  Highlights |  WhatWhenWhere
Italian Renaissance
Northern Renaissance
Mid-15th century
     Florence, city of learning
     Fra Angelico and San Marco
     Jean Fouquet
     Piero della Francesca

High Renaissance
German pioneers
The influence of Erasmus

Bookmark and Share
City of learning: 15th century

Florentine leadership in the arts is well established by the time of Cosimo's rise to power in 1434. His patronage brings much work to the city's painters, sculptors and architects. But he also greatly encourages another strand of the Renaissance in which Florence plays a major role - the scholarship of humanism.

This city, in which Petrarch first inspires Boccaccio with a love of the classics in 1350, already has a clear distinction in this field. Cosimo, who develops a passion for scholarly studies, has a firm foundation to build upon.


Cosimo founds three libraries in Florence, the greatest of them being the collection of books and manuscripts now known as the Laurentian library (because it is housed next to the church of San Lorenzo). It is during these same years that Cosimo's friend, the humanist pope Nicholas V, establishes the Vatican library.

The interest of both men extends beyond the Roman theme of the early Renaissance. They are fascinated also by the ideals of ancient Greece, and in particular by the philosophy of Plato.


Reliable manuscripts of Plato first become available in the west during Cosimo's lifetime. They are brought from Constantinople by Greek Orthodox churchmen and by Byzantine scholars, whose city is now under increasing threat from the Turks. In 1439 Florence has first-hand experience of these eastern scholars. At Cosimo's invitation, a council of the church moves from Ferrara to Florence to continue a debate between Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox clerics on their long-standing doctrinal differences.

The rival churches eventually fail to agree. But the interest of Cosimo and of Florence in Greek culture is increased by the encounter.


Towards the end of his life Cosimo conceives a personal ambition to read all the works of Plato. He commissions their translation into Latin by a Florentine scholar, Marsilio Ficino. In 1462 he establishes an informal Platonic Academy in Florence, with Ficino at its head.

Ficino's Latin translation of the complete works of Plato is published in Florence in 1484, too late for Cosimo himself. But with the texts now widely available, Plato gradually recovers the leading role in philosophy which has been held since the time of Aquinas by Aristotle.


Fra Angelico and San Marco: 1443-1447

The Dominican order has among its ranks a superbly talented painter. As a friar he is referred to as 'brother' (frater in Latin, fratello in Italian), and the name by which he becomes known is Fra Angelico - the angelic brother.

From 1443 Dominicans in Florence employ him to provide contemplative images for the walls of their convent of San Marco. Over the next four years he and his assistants create an extended masterpiece of Italian Renaissance art - though they would not have thought of it in those terms.


There are large frescoes in the cloisters and in the public areas of the convent (mainly by Fra Angelico), and forty-four smaller scenes from the Gospel story in the cells of the friars (many of them painted by his assistants). But the master's style - clear colours, strong design, a sense of depth and light learnt from the example of Masaccio - is one which the pupils can adopt with a fair measure of success.

The result is a building whose interior, as intended, is marvellously conducive to a sense of wonder and contemplation - certainly for the friars for whom the images were painted, and almost as much among today's tourists.


Jean Fouquet: 1445-1460

Jean Fouquet, born in Tours in about 1420, spends four years in Italy in the 1440s. When he returns to Tours, he begins a decade of very fruitful activity blending Italian and northern influences.

One of Fouquet's most striking works, from about 1450, is the portrait of his patron, Étienne Chevalier, seen praying with St Stephen and painted as one half of a diptych for a church in Melun. The realism with which the two men are depicted derives from the example of the Netherlands masters of the time, such as van Eyck and van der Weyden, but Fouquet adds a classical calm of his own.


In about 1452 Étienne Chevalier commissions from Fouquet the work on which his reputation is mainly based. It is a Book of Hours, for which Fouquet provides detailed miniature illustrations of scenes from the Bible and the lives of the saints. Fouquet probably completes the work by 1456. The original number of the scenes is not known but forty-seven exquisite images survive, nearly all of them in the museum at Chantilly.

In these small but beautifully controlled compositions Fouquet again brings together two traditions from outside France.


The colourful elegance of Fouquet's scenes develops the tradition of the miniatures of northern Burgundy and of the Limburg brothers, masters of the International Gothic style. But in other elements - his use of the motifs of classical architecture, his interest in persective, the rounded solidity of his figures and of their spatial relationships - Fouquet reveals the influence of what he has his seen in Renaissance Italy, such as the work recently completed by Fra Angelico in Florence.

A link with Italy remains a central characteristic in the next great period of French painting, the 17th century.


Piero della Francesca: 1445-1460

A religious fraternity in Sansepolcro, near Arezzo, requires a new altarpiece. In January 1445 the members commission it from a young man in his late twenties, who has been away in Florence for the past few years learning his craft but who is now back in his small provincial home town.

The painter is Piero della Francesca. He spends much of his working life in Sansepolcro and in Arezzo, far from the main artistic centres, which to some extent explains why his name is largely forgotten for several centuries after his death. Another reason may be the profound calm of his work, unfashionable in periods when art has tended more to the dramatic gesture. He is now recognized as one of the great masters of the Italian Renaissance.


While in Florence, the young Piero has clearly seen Masaccio's frescoes. His first altarpiece at Sansepolcro is old-fashioned in concept, with a gilded background, but the figures already achieve the rounded solidity pioneered in the frescoes of the Brancacci chapel.

From this beginning, within a few years, Piero evolves his own characteristic and inimitable style. It is visible in the famous Baptism of Christ, probably painted as an altarpiece in Sansepolcro in the early 1450s. The figures stand with monumental stillness, bathed in a cool light of seemingly eternal clarity. This is Renaissance humanism in its broadest sense, allowing full weight to the dignity of man.


The stillness, the sense of a scene perfectly positioned in space, the use of patches of almost pure colour to suggest a harmony of pattern and order - all these are characteristics of Piero's timeless art. They can be seen at their best in the fresco cycle on the Legend of the True Cross, which he paints in the church of St Francis in Arezzo in the years around 1460.

Underpinning the calm certainty of Piero's created world is a fascination with theories of form and perspective, very characteristic of the Italian Renaissance. Piero is the author of two learned treatises on the mathematics of pictorial illusion.


Botticelli: 1478-1482

If Piero's work offers the mystery of stillness, Botticelli introduces mystery of another kind - mysterious content, expressed in a restlessly sinuous line. From about 1470 Botticelli is established as one of the leading painters of Florence, frequently working for the Medici.

His characteristic style is seen in two of the best loved and most widely recognized paintings of the Renaissance. The Birth of Venus (c.1482) is a traditional subject (in classical mythology the goddess is born from the foam of the sea and floats ashore in a scallop shell). But Botticelli's tall nude and her attendant winds are a strikingly original way of depicting the scene.


In Primavera (Spring, c.1478) the scene itself is profoundly mysterious. In a grove of oranges the three Graces dance, while Flora scatters flowers upon the ground. She wears an exquisitely embroidered floral dress and is attended by a woman with a plant growing vigorously from her mouth. This woman, in her turn, is seized by a man in flight.

These figures depict a scene in Ovid. Zephyr (the west wind) grasps his bride Chloris (the goddess of flowers), whereupon blooms sprout from her lips and she is transformed into the fully developed Flora, strewing spring flowers upon the ground.


These two paintings, imbued with classical allusion, are believed to contain themes of special significance to the Neo-Platonists of Florence's Platonic Academy. It is even possible that their content is devised by the academy's director, Marsilio Ficino. Primavera also conceals within its imagery several hints of the names Medici and Lorenzo.

Both works are commissioned for his private villa by Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici, a cousin of Lorenzo the Magnificent. They suggest very well the rarefied nature of Renaissance Florence in the late 15th century - an atmosphere about to be brutally interrupted by the more strident certainties of Savonarola.


Previous page Page 4 of 7 Next page