When we discussed the new style of painting
that arose in Flanders about
avoided suggesting why this revolution took
place at that particular time and in that
particular area. This does not mean, however,
that no explanation is possible. Unless we
believe in sheer fate or chance, we find it
difficult to place the entire burden of
responsibility on the Master of Flemalle and the
brothers Van Eyck. There must, we feel, be some
link between their accomplishment and the
social, political, and cultural setting in which
they worked, but it is not yet well understood.
We have more insight into the special
circumstances that help to explain why the Early
Renaissance was born in Florence at the
beginning of the fifteenth century, rather than
elsewhere or at some other time.
In the years around
Florence faced an
acute threat to its independence from the
powerful duke of Milan, who was trying to bring
all of Italy under his rule. He had already
subjugated the Lombard plain and most of the
Central Italian city-states. Florence remained
the only serious obstacle to his ambition.
city put up a vigorous and successful
defense on the military, diplomatic, and
intellectual fronts. Of these three, the
intellectual was by no means the least
important. The duke had eloquent support as a
new Caesar, bringing peace and order to the
country. Florence, in turn, rallied public
opinion by proclaiming itself as the champion of
freedom against unchecked tyranny.
This propaganda war was waged on both sides
by humanists, the heirs of Petrarch and
Boccaccio, but the Florentines gave by far the
better account of themselves. Their writings,
such as Praise of the City of Florence
by Leonardo Bruni
give renewed focus to the
Petrarchan ideal of a rebirth of the Classics.
The humanist, speaking as the citizen of a free
republic, asks why, among all the states of
Italy, Florence alone had been able to defy the
superior power of Milan. He finds
answer in her institutions, her cultural
achievements, her geographical situation, the
spirit of her people, and her descent from the
city-states of ancient Etruria. Florence, he
concludes, assumes the same role of political
and intellectual leadership as that of Athens at
the time of the Persian Wars.
The patriotic pride, the call to greatness,
implicit in this image of Florence as the "new
Athens" must have aroused a deep response
throughout the city, for just when the forces of
Milan threatened to engulf them, the Florentines
embarked on an ambitious campaign to finish the
great artistic enterprises begun a century
before at the time of Giotto. Following the
for the bronze doors of
program continued the sculptural
decoration of Florence Cathedral and other
churches, while deliberations were resumed on
how to build the dome of the Cathedral, the
largest and most difficult project of all. The
campaign lasted more than
it gradually petered out after the completion of
the dome in 1436.
Although difficult to express in
financial terms, its
total cost was comparable to the cost of
rebuilding the Acropolis in Athens.
investment was itself not a guarantee of
artistic quality, but, stirred by such civic
enthusiasm, it provided a splendid opportunity
for the emergence of creative talent and the
coining of a new style worthy of the "new
From the start, the
visual arts were considered essential to
the resurgence of the Florentine spirit.
antiquity and the Middle Ages, they had
been classed with the crafts, or "mechanical
arts." It cannot be by chance that the first
explicit statement claiming a place for them
among the liberal arts occurs around
the writings of the Florentine chronicler
Filippo Villani. A century later, this claim was
to win general acceptance throughout most of the
Western world. What does it imply? The liberal
arts were defined by a tradition going back to
Plato and comprised the intellectual disciplines
necessary for a "gentleman's" education:
mathematics (including musical theory),
dialectics, grammar, rhetoric, and philosophy.
fine arts were excluded because they were
"handiwork" lacking a theoretical basis. Thus
when artists gained admission to this select
group, the nature of their work had to be
redefined. They were acknowledged as people of
ideas, rather than
manipulators of materials, and
of art came to be viewed more and more as
records of their creative minds. This
meant that works of art need not—
indeed, should not—be
judged by fixed standards of craftsmanship. Soon
everything that bore the imprint of a great
master was eagerly collected, regardless of its
incompleteness: drawings, sketches, fragments,
The outlook of artists, too, underwent
important changes as well. Now in the company of
scholars and poets, they themselves often became
learned and literary. They might write poems,
autobiographies, or theoretical treatises. As
another consequence of their new social status,
artists tended to develop into one of two
contrasting personality types: the person of the
world, self-controlled, polished, at ease in
aristocratic society: or the solitary genius,
secretive, idiosyncratic, subject to fits of
melancholy, and likely to be in conflict with
patrons. It is remarkable how soon this modern
view of art and artists became a living reality
in the Florence of the Early Renaissance.
However, such an attitude did not take immediate
hold everywhere, nor did it apply equally to all
artists. England, for example, was slow to grant
them special status, and women in general were
denied the professional training and
opportunities available to men.
The first half of the fifteenth century
became the heroic age of the Early Renaissance.
Florentine art, dominated by the original
creators of the new style, retained the
undisputed leadership of the movement. To trace
its beginnings, we must discuss sculpture first,
for the sculptors had earlier and more plentiful
opportunities than the architects and painters
to meet the challenge of the "new Athens."
The artistic campaign had opened with the
competition for the Baptistery doors, and for
some time it consisted mainly of sculptural
projects. Ghiberti's trial relief, we recall,
does not differ significantly from the
nor do the completed Baptistery
doors, even though their execution took another
years. Only in the trial panel
can Ghiberti's admiration for ancient art, as
demonstrated by the torso of Isaac, be linked
with the classicism of the Florentine humanists
occur in other Florentine sculpture at that
time. But such quotations of ancient sculpture,
isolated and small in scale, merely recapture
what Nicola Pisano had done a century before.
NANNI DI BANCO.
A decade after the trial relief, we find that
this limited medieval classicism has been
surpassed by a somewhat younger artist, Nanni
di Banco (c.
1384-1421). The four
saints, called the Quattro Coronati,
which he made about
for one of the niches on the
exterior of the church of Or San Michele, demand
to be compared not with the work of Nicola
Pisano but with the Reims Visitation.
The figures in both
groups are approximately lifesize, yet Nanni's
give the impression of being a good deal larger
than those at Reims. Their quality of mass and
monumentality was quite beyond the range of
medieval sculpture, even though Nanni depended
less directly on ancient models than had the
sculptor of the Visitation or
Pisano. Only the heads of
the second and third of the Coronati
directly recall examples of Roman sculpture,
specifically those memorable portrait heads of
the third century A.D. Nanni was
obviously impressed by their realism and their
agonized expressions. His ability to retain the
essence of both these qualities indicates a new
attitude toward ancient art, which unites
classical form and content, instead of
separating them as medieval classicists had
Nanni di Banco, (born 1384/90?,
Florence [Italy]—died 1421,
Florence), Florentine sculptor whose
works exemplify the stylistic
transition from the Gothic to the
Renaissance that occurred in Italy
in the early 15th century.
Nanni was trained
by his father, Antonio di Banco, a
sculptor who worked with Niccolò
d’Arezzo on the Cathedral of
Florence. It is not surprising,
therefore, that Nanni’s first
important work, a life-size marble
statue of the prophet Isaiah, was
commissioned for the cathedral.
Installed on the cathedral’s western
facade, this figure is more Gothic
in feeling than his later, more
classical works for the guilds of
the Or San Michele in Florence. Of
the latter, the “Quattro Coronati”
(“Four Crowned Saints”; c. 1411–13)
is considered his masterpiece.
Influenced by antique art, the four
saints are dressed in firmly modeled
Roman togas and have heads that
strongly resemble the ancient
portrait busts of Roman senators
that Nanni had studied. The group of
figures is bound together by the
spatial relation of each to the
other and by a kind of mute
conversation in which they all seem
to be engaged.
A relief of the
Assumption of the Virgin Mary that
was placed above the Mandorla Gate (Porta
della Mandorla) was begun about
1414. This was his last major work
and was probably finished
posthumously by Luca della Robbia,
who is generally thought to have
been Nanni’s student.
NANNI DI BANCO.
Four Saints (Quattro Coronati).
Marble, about lifesize.
Or San Michele, Florence
Saints (Quattro Coronati), head of second
figure from left (fig.
Portrait of a Roman.
Early 3rd century
Marble, lifesize. Antikensammlung, Staatliche
NANNI DI BANCO. Quattro Santi Coronati.
1408-13. Marble, height: c. 185 cm.
NANNI DI BANCO. Sculptors at work. c. 1416.
Marble. Orsanmichele, Florence
NANNI DI BANCO. Porta della Mandorla.
1414-21. Marble. Duomo, Florence
NANNI DI BANCO. Assumption of the Virgin.
1414-21. Marble. Duomo, Florence
NANNI DI BANCO. Esaias. 1408. Marble, height:
Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Florence
NANNI DI BANCO. St. Luke. 1408-15.
Marble, height: 208 cm. Museo dell'Opera del