The Legacy of Antiquity at the Dawn of the Renaissance

“Of all the art forms, sculpture was the first to give a comprehensive and coherent voice to the new formal Renaissance idiom, the roots of which went back to the classical world. But it was the coherence of the Renaissance visual language that made the difference… These were major works of art, yet when they were cited, it was as fragments, without a comprehensive and coherent vision.”

610Renaissance Florence was the center of a pulsating creativity, which would redefine the spectrum of Western aesthetics over the course of two centuries. At the dawn of the Quattrocento, Florentine artists found inspiration in the sculptures of their Greco-Roman predecessors. The Springtime of the Renaissance: Sculpture and the Arts in Florence, 1400-1460, now on show at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, highlights how ancient sculptures–in stone or bronze–provided the catalyst for far-reaching and revolutionary innovations in art and design. Through the presentation of 140 sculptures and paintings from major international collections, the exhibition carefully traces the classical inspiration behind the Renaissance.

In this exclusive interview, James Blake Wiener of the Ancient History Encyclopedia speaks to Dr. James Bradburne, Director General of the Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi, about this remarkable exhibition, and of how artists like Ghiberti, Filippo Lippi, and Donatello recycled and augmented ancient forms and styles.

JW: Director General James Bradburne, welcome to the Ancient History Encyclopedia and thank you for taking the time to speak with us about an exciting, new exhibition, which explores the reception and reinterpretation artistic styles at the dawn of the Florentine Renaissance.

102I was curious to know what prompted the idea to present an exhibition grounded in a thorough investigation and exploration of Renaissance Florence’s debt to Antiquity through the medium of sculpture? Did the catalyst occur as a result of one of the Palazzo Strozzi’s previous shows?

JB: More than merely a casual, and seemingly obvious choice, this show is an expression of the Fondazione’s cultural strategy. The Palazzo Strozzi alternates exhibitions that celebrate the city’s rich heritage with those that bring works to the city lacking in its own collections. This exhibition is a remarkable opportunity to bring back to Florence the material legacy of the early Renaissance, and to tell the story of the rebirth of Western culture in its birthplace.

JW: The Springtime of the Renaissance opens with a presentation of grand works, from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries CE, by Nicola Pisano (c. 1220-c. 1284 CE), Arnolfo di Cambio (c. 1240-c. 1310 CE), and Giotto (c. 1266-1337 CE). These artists can be credited, in part, with the “rediscovery” and revival of classical styles in Tuscany. However, it should be acknowledged that they also assimilated and borrowed from the Gothic style (in particular, the artistic currents emanating from medieval France).

How should we characterize this mélange and utilization of two powerful sets of aesthetics? Was the harmonization based on a principle of artistic equilibrium or that of sheer interpretation?

JB: The exhibition begins by reviewing the influences which, in its rediscovery of the classical world, the Renaissance was to use to revive and reshape that style, which had been largely dead until then. Visitors see how this rediscovery was to develop along two lines: one with Nicola Pisano and the other with his son, Giovanni Pisano (c.1250-c. 1315). The installation is intended to make that concept clear, with the Talento Crater in the center, that the classical world played a pivotal role.

On one side, we find the tradition linked to Nicola Pisano, who took his inspiration from the monumental aspect of classical art, reviving its solemn and concise artistic vocabulary and its noble nature. Nicola was to inspire the kind of 14th century classicism that we see in particular in the work of Arnolfo di Cambio; a sense of the monumental that Arnolfo was then to hand down to his greatest pupil, Tino di Camaino (c. 1280-c. 1337), and behind Tino, in the background, we perceive Giotto and Andrea Pisano (1290-1348 CE).201

On the other side of the room, we see the parallel development that took its cue from Giovanni Pisano’s teachings, a development which followed in the footsteps of the contemporary Gothic style; in other words, embracing the lessons of classical art while thoroughly modernizing it and translating it into the cosmopolitan Gothic idiom. None of the Renaissance artists completely disowned Gothic art, they just gradually assimilated and transformed it, ultimately extracting its essence and transposing it into a new idiom which, while reviving the classical style, never slavishly imitated it.

JW: This exhibition functions as a “retrospective of sculpture,” delineating the ways in which sculpture was the first of the arts to exemplify the principles of the Florentine Renaissance. Over time, sculpture also played a decisive role in the formulation and subsequent development of other figurative arts.

Monumental public sculpture–through the masterpieces of Donatello (c. 1386-1466 CE), Ghiberti (1378 or 1381-1455 CE), Portigiani (1408-1470 CE), and Michelozzo (1396-1472 CE)–project Florence as the heir to classical civilization, proclaiming its virtue and power. I was curious to know how Florentine sculpture was in a “direct debate” with its classical predecessors?

JB: Of all the art forms, sculpture was the first to give a comprehensive and coherent voice to the new formal Renaissance idiom, the roots of which went back to the classical world. But it was the coherence of the Renaissance visual language that made the difference, rather than merely quoting from the classical world, which was a phenomenon shared by all of the various “renaissances” in the Western world–from the Carolingian and Ottonian right down to Nicola and Giovanni Pisano–all of which were very familiar with classical works or fragments. These were major works of art, 310yet when they were cited, it was as fragments, without a comprehensive and coherent vision.

That was exactly what early Renaissance art did, and it did so first and foremost in the field of sculpture as, apart from architecture, the most conspicuous remains of classical art were, of course, statues. So those were the “visual examples” which, through a Humanist education, fostered a determination to learn to speak the “classical language” again; not through obsequious imitation, but through a concept that embraced other values, with religious values heading the list. Florence was completely transformed through large monumental public sculpture, which also bore a political message addressed to the city as a whole, and was fast approaching its full maturity.

JW: Sculpture–especially that of the statuary variety–had a tremendous impact on the paintings of the leading artists of the early Renaissance, including such notables as Masaccio (1401-1428 CE), Andrea del Castagno (c. 1421-1457 CE), Filippo Lippi (c. 1406-1469 CE), and Piero della Francesca (c. 1415-1492 CE).

I was wondering if you could discuss how the other themes or genres of classical antiquity were assimilated and transformed through sculpture in this new “Renaissance idiom,” which facilitated Florentine creativity, and fashioned its spiritual and intellectual mood.

JB: The exhibition explores some of the other themes that show how Renaissance art was inspired by the classical world. The Spirits, or Spiritelli, are one of the most fascinating themes revived in the early 15th century thanks to Donatello.RMN168575NU  These were the putti, or small winged cherubs, that appeared on Roman sarcophagi and in almost every decorative repertoire to have come down to us from classical antiquity. They became almost a trademark of the classical art that filtered down through Donatello into the sphere of sculpture.

Another aspect that illustrates the rediscovery of classical themes is the equestrian statue. Once again, the man we have to thank for this is Donatello with his Monument to Gattamelata, but it was made in Padua, commissioned by the Venetian Republic, because Florence, which was proudly republican, had no time for celebrations of individual glory. Then there are the new genres of portraits in relief with profiles of emperors or of illustrious men and women of the ancient world–a genre that was to prove immensely popular throughout the Renaissance–and the portrait bust, called “alla fiorentina.” These genres enjoyed a rapid rise to popularity, celebrating as they did with the features and temperaments of the leading players in Florentine society and politics.

707JW: Before concluding our interview, I had to inquire which objects in this exhibition excite you the most, James?

In previewing the gorgeous exhibition catalogue, I was naturally drawn to the works of Donatello, but I must say that many of the paintings, like the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple (c. 1423) by Gentile da Fabriano (c. 1370-1427), present an emotive synthesis of realism and Christian imagery.

JB: The small panel by Gentile da Fabriano was part of the predella of the Adoration of the Magi (now in the Uffizi Gallery) commissioned by Palla Strozzi (1372-1462 CE), a renown Florentine banker and scholar, for his chapel in the church of Santa Trinita.

The theme of the panel is the contrast between wealth and poverty: on one side an elegant young girl strolls outside a luxurious home; on the other, two beggars ask for alms before a loggia reminiscent of the Ospedale degli Innocenti, the city’s institution for abandoned children. The beauty and architectural harmony of Florence appear to unite the two social classes.320

Early 15th century art was meant for the city and its citizens, and the commission for designing the Innocenti was given to Brunelleschi (1377-1446 CE), the most fashionable architect of the day. But later in the century, however, after giving rise to a large number of public sculptures and of monumental fresco cycles, the republican spirit grew progressively weaker, and was replaced by art that sought to celebrate magnificence, thereby becoming the prerogative of the city’s oligarchy.

JW: James, I thank you so much for sharing your perspectives with the Ancient History Encyclopedia. I extend my congratulations to you and the Palazzo Strozzi’s curators on having organized such a captivating exhibition in a stunning venue. The Ancient History Encyclopedia looks forward to learning more about the Palazzo Strozzi’s future exhibitions, and we hope to speak with you again in the near future.

JB: I would certainly be pleased to welcome you to the Palazzo Strozzi anytime! Two upcoming shows that may be of interest are Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino: The diverging paths of Mannerism in Spring 2014, and a major show of monumental Hellenistic bronzes in collaboration with the Getty in Los Angeles and the National Gallery in Washington D.C. planned for Spring 2015.  Both will be “don’t miss” exhibitions.

JW: It seems that fate has it that we shall reunite! I look forward to speaking with you again soon.

The Springtime of the Renaissance: Sculpture and the Arts in Florence, 1400-1460 is at Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, Italy until August 18, 2013 and will then move to the Louvre in Paris, France from September 23, 2013 until January 6, 2014. Be sure to see the Ancient History Encyclopedia’s review of the impressive exhibition catalogue.


PalazzoStrozziSituated between Piazza Strozzi and Via Tornabuoni in the heart of Florence, the Palazzo Strozzi is one of the finest examples of Renaissance domestic architecture. It was commissioned by the Florentine merchant, Filippo Strozzi (1428-1491 CE), and the foundations were laid in 1489 according to a design by Benedetto da Maiano (1442-1497 CE). A year later, the project was given to Simone del Pollaiolo (1457-1508 CE), known as “Cronaca,” who worked on it until 1504 CE, but the Palazzo was only finished in 1538. The Palazzo remained the property of the Strozzi family until 1937, and it has been managed by the city of Florence since 1999. Following the Second World War, the Palazzo became Florence’s largest temporary exhibition space. Several of the notable major exhibitions held at Palazzo Strozzi have been The Peggy Guggenheim Collection (1949), 17th century Florence (1986), Gustav Klimt (1992), La Natura Morta Italiana (2003), Botticelli & Filippino Lippi (Italy’s most visited exhibition in 2004), Leon Battista Alberti (2006), and Cézanne in Florence (Italy’s most visited exhibition in 2007).

Image Key & Credits:

  1. Andrea del Castagno (Andrea di Bartolo) (c.1421-1457), Queen Tomyris, 1448-9, detached fresco, 245 x 155 cm. Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi, inv. San Marco e Cenacoli 168.
  2. School of Nicola Pisano, Virtue (Faith?), 1260-70 (?) marble, 95 x 22.5 x 16.5 cm. Paris, Musée du Louvre, Département des Sculptures, inv. RF 1493, donated by a group of friends of the Louvre, 1909.
  3. Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446), The Sacrifice of Isaac, 1401 gilt bronze, 41.5 x 39.5 x 9 cm. Florence, Museo Nazionale del Bargello, inv. 209, Bronzi.
  4. Michelozzo (Michelozzo di Bartolomeo Michelozzi) (1396-1472), An Adoring Angel, 1427-38. One of a pair, marble, 97.2 x 100.3 x 36 cm. London, Victoria and Albert Museum; inv. 934-1904.
  5. Gentile da Fabriano (c. 1370-1427), Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, 1423 tempera and gold on wood, 26.7 x 62.5 cm. Paris, Musée du Louvre, Département des Peintures, inv. 295.
  6. Florentine goldsmith, Christ Casting Out a Demon, c. 1450-60 plaque: silver; frame: silver gilt; translucent enamels on a repoussé relief, 15 x 18.7 x 0.45 cm. Paris, Musée du Louvre, Département des Objets d’art, inv. OA 5962.
  7. Donatello (Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi) (c. 1386-1466), St. Louis of Toulouse, 1422-5  gilt bronze; enamels and rock crystals (tiara), 285 x 101 x 78 cm Florence, Museo dell’Opera di Santa Croce, Patrimonio del Fondo Edifici di Culto — Ministero dell’Interno, inv. M 101.
  8. Publicity photo of the beautiful Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, Italy (completed in 1538).

JamesBradburneDr. James M. Bradburne is a British-Canadian architect, designer, and museum specialist who has designed World’s Fair pavilions, science centers, and international art exhibitions. Educated in Canada and England, he has developed numerous exhibitions, research projects, and symposia for UNESCO, UNICEF, national governments, private foundations, and museums worldwide over the past twenty years. He currently sits on numerous international advisory committees and museum boards, and has curated and designed exhibitions across Europe. James lectures internationally about new approaches to informal learning and has also published extensively. Currently, James is the Director General of the Palazzo Strozzi. To learn more about James’ work, education, and interests, please view his CV.

James Blake Wiener is a Director and the Public Relations Manager of the Ancient History Encyclopedia, providing a continuous listing of must-read articles, exciting museum exhibitions, and interviews with experts in the field. Trained as a historian and researcher, and previously a professor of history, James is also a freelance writer who is keenly interested in cross-cultural exchange. Committed to fostering increased awareness of the ancient world, James welcomes you to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, and hopes that you find his news releases and interviews to be “illuminating.”

All images featured in this interview have been attributed to their respective owners. Images lent to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, by Dr. James Bradburne and the Palazzo Strozzi, have been done so as a courtesy for the purposes of this interview and are copyrighted. We would like to extend a special thank you to Ms. Sue Bond and Ms. Jenni Lloyd of Sue Bond Public Relations. Without their prompt and kind assistance, this interview would not have been possible. Additional thanks is given to Ms. Nadine Eastwood and Ms. Mell Fraser. The views presented here are not necessarily those of the Ancient History Encyclopedia. All rights reserved. © AHE 2013. Please contact us for rights to republication.

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James Blake Wiener is the Communications Director at Ancient History Encyclopedia. Trained as a historian and researcher, and previously a professor, James is chiefly interested in cross-cultural exchange, world history, and international relations. Aside from his work at AHE, James is an avid Arabist, devotee of romance languages (French, Portuguese, and Spanish), reggaetoñero, and fan of ice hockey.