Nowadays, many historians chafe at the idea of the Renaissance. Call it "early Modern," they say. Or even "continuation Medieval." I say, Bah, humbug!
These same historians assert that the revolution in painting and sculpture that brought us, among thousands of others, Giotto, Leonardo, Michelangelo and Botticelli, was merely a development of the manuscript painting and religious sculpture of the high middle ages.
Anyone who believes this theory is well advised to rush off to the Getty's new Florence at the Dawn of the Renaissance show for a historical reality check. The exhibit of nearly 100 masterpieces from early 1300's Florence shows the art of this time and place simply blasting away from the recent Middle-Ages past into a world of innovation and manifest creative beauty at a pace that still baffles the imagination. How did art come so far in this little city of just 50,000 people in so short a time?
The show at the Getty includes seven pieces by Giotto, a record compendium. But the one piece in the entire vivid show that, to me, manifests the pure emergent dazzle of this new art is a painting of Jesus from an illuminated book of the late 1330s. It's by Florentine pioneer Pacino de Bonaguida, a lesser-known Tuscan master--one whose works, only one of which is signed, quite properly dominate this show. The picture is done in the tempera, ink, and gold leaf typical of Medieval manuscript illuminations. But it's a mighty portrait of the supernatural, with sunrays shooting out of Christ's head, an inverted background of day and night skies, and a dozen gold horizons behind the seated divine figure. It blasts its way out of a cozy illuminated manuscript and portends a new world of art.
Exhibition curator Christina Sciacca notes that the new artistic techniques spilled over at the source, as the great masters, such as Giotto, taught, employed and collaborated with scores of aspiring young students, many of whom became famous in their own right. Others in the show--the Master of the Codex of St. George and the Master of the Dominican Effigies--are known only by their working styles. The great art historian Jakob Burckhardt said that the keystone of the Renaissance was the dawn of individualism. But in the early 1300s, many painters didn't even sign the work that we marvel at in this exhibition. Among these are some wonderful illuminated music books containing the "plain songs" or lauds sung by members of the local social clubs that reportedly descended from the crowds of medieval flagellants who roamed the countryside a century earlier. This transition itself seems as symbolic of the passage from medieval to Renaissance as anything could be.
Why did the Renaissance start in Florence, of all the rich, independent nation-cities in 1300's Italy? Why not Milan, or Siena? Or mighty Venice? Curator Sciacca says it has to do with the astonishingly fast-growing wealth of the Florentine Republic that inclined its rich men to invest in the new, secularly-created art that was still largely based on religious themes. Others note that this art was impelled by earlier local cultural pioneers, including the great Dante, whose poetry set forth the Italian that became the Renaissance's own language and is illustrated in spectacular codices shown at the Getty. And Cimabue, the first painter of the Renaissance, who discovered Giotto as a shepherd boy, who was drawing a picture on a rock with a piece of charcoal.
Another simple reason the Renaissance started in Florence is that Florence, while not a modern democracy in any sense, was a mercantile, rather than an aristocratic, city. A city with a rule of law in which the humble could rise, and where, at least in this era, privilege did not dictate nor tyrants terrorize. This attitude is best demonstrated by the subject of one of the first items in the show -- a brilliant diptych showing "The Expulsion of the Poor from Siena and the Poor Being Generously Received in Florence."
Maybe the Renaissance began in Florence just because it was the city with the biggest heart.