Humanism and the Age of the Renaissance in Art History

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Giovanni Pico della Mirandola wrote Oration on the Dignity of Man, which explains how humans are not base animalistic creatures.

God is above—the animals below; humans are, when taking into consideration the great chain of being, in the center. Mirandola argues men ought to “struggle toward the heavenly” (2205). Therefore, this description reveals the basic core of humanism during the Renaissance.

This was not the Medieval period, when menial serfs were subjugated to power-hungry masters and imperious lords. The medieval Christian world dominated all areas of life: the social, political, and economical. The Renaissance became a rebirth or a reconciliation of the secular and the sacred, the pagan and the religious. This merging was important in finding truth or meaning through a variety of sources. Humanism, which can be defined in a variety of ways, is a code of civil conduct, a theory of education, or a scholarly discipline, yet underlying humanism is human interests and values.


First, for humanists, there was “an emphasis . . . on expanding knowledge, especially of classical antiquity” (Gardner 541). During this time, the invention of movable type enabled easier distribution of books and greater communication, while artists used a different medium to accomplish humanist ideals. For example, Brunelleschi built the Dome of the Florence Cathedral and brought back elements of balance, proportion, and symmetry—a modern response to the Pantheon in Rome. But he did solve “this critical structural problem through what were essentially Gothic building principles” (562), thus engaging with past cultures while developing a new Renaissance style.

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Similarly, Botticelli’s tempera on canvas, Birth of Venus, does “not directly imitate classical antiquity but used the myths . . . in a way still tinged with medieval romance” (560). The theme is a retelling of the Greek myth, based on a poem by Poliziano, who was a humanist. Venus is nude, which was “rare during the Middle Ages” but “under the protection of the powerful Medici, the depiction went unchallenged” (560). Therefore, Renaissance artists could influence people by expanding their knowledge of Greek and Roman mythology.

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Second, “a commitment to civic responsibility and moral duty” (Gardner 541) is a tenet of humanism. During the 15th century, Italy consisted of fragmented city-states. Princely courts became centers of power and culture.

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Art could be used as propaganda, which would enable those in power to reinforce their control. For example, the Old Testament King David was seen as a civic symbol for the people of Florence, which led the Florence Cathedral building committee to ask Michelangelo to create the iconic David.

This sculpture is represented in the classical nude. Michelangelo shows David before fighting Goliath. As a result, his sculpture has strong psychological intensity and “towering, pent-up emotion rather than calm, ideal beauty” (591). Florentines call David “the Giant,” perhaps because of its colossal size as well as its significance in their culture. A political leader, when referring to David, said that “just as David had protected his people and governed them justly, so whoever ruled Florence should vigorously defend the city and govern it with justice” (590). Therefore, Renaissance art could symbolize the ideal of civic responsibility.


Finally, “the exploration of the individual potential and a desire to excel” (541) was essential to humanist thought. Romans sought for the idealization of the human body in sculpture, through techniques (such as contrapposto, or natural weight shift), as shown in Polykleitos’s Doryphoros. Michelangelo believed “the body was beautiful not only in its natural form but also in its spiritual and philosophical significance” because “The body was the manifestation of the soul” (594).

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For example, one of the central panels in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, Creation of Adam shows “a bold humanistic interpretation of the momentous event” (594). God, transcending from the heavens, stretches out to touch the outstretched finger of Adam. The dramatic spark of life and communication parallels that of gods and heroes belonging to classical myths. Both bodies “are complementary—the concave body of Adam fitting the convex body and billowing ‘cloak’ of God” (594). Thus, these curves and diagonals portrayed suggest the potential interconnectivity of the mortal and the divine—a humanist ideal.

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Similarly, Mirandola describes how he imagined God speaking with Adam: “Thou . . . art the molder and maker of thyself . . . Thou canst again grow upward from thy soul’s reason into the higher natures which are divine” (2204). Unlike the Medieval thought that humans were victims of fate, Renaissance thought suggested the possibility of individual improvement.

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