The Early Renaissance in Italy
If two intelligent students of Italian Art and Literature diligently set themselves to trace, the one the latest date at which the direct, though lingering, light of Roman greatness waned to its feeblest glimmer in the land over which it had once shed its dazzling rays, and the other the earliest effort made to excite a veneration for what most historians declare to have almost utterly died out in the lapse of ages, classical beauty, there is little doubt that they would not only meet, but cross one another, in the progress of their researches.
The truth is, that the material monuments of the ancient Romans, scattered thickly over the soil of Italy, were so substantial and majestic, that it was impossible to live under their shadow and to forget them. Fragments of exquisite beauty, in stone, bronze, and marble, were to be had for the trouble of turning up the soil that scarcely covered them; and thus they were, from time to time, pressed into service for tombs, and as accessories in buildings, in the construction of which the principles of Art to which those fragments owed their beauty had been entirely lost sight of. Hence, the Gothic style was at once slow to take root in Italy, and destined to bloom brilliantly, but for a short season.
Almost concurrently with the introduction of the pointed arch into Northern Italy by an Englishman, in the construction of St. Andrea, at Vercelli, early in the thirteenth century, and with the German works of Magister Jacobus, at Assisi, a protest was commenced in favour of the ancients and their arts by that great reviver of antique sculpture, Nicola Pisano. The close of the thirteenth century was further marked by a complete revolution in the world of letters. Dante, in his time, was scarcely less known as a Christian poet than as an emulator of the great Mantuan, and a profound student in classical learning. In the fourteenth century, Petrarch and Boccaccio, intimate friends, spent long and laborious lives, not in writing Italian poetry or prose, as is often fancied, but in labouring incessantly in the preservation and restoration to the world of the long-lost texts of the Roman and Grecian authors.
Cino da Pistoia and other learned commentators and jurists brought into fashion the study of the great "Corpus" of ancient law, and maintained academies in which it was adopted as a text. Boccaccio it was who first gave to Italy a lucid account of Heathen Mythology, and who first instituted a chair for the study of the Grecian language at Florence, bringing over Leontius Pilatus, a learned Greek, from Constantinople, to be the first professor. These efforts at a revival of classical learning were seconded by a numerous band of notables, among whom the names of John of Ravenna (Petrarch's pupil), Lionardo Aretino, Poggio Bracciolini, Xneas Sylvius (ultimately Pope Pius II., 1458-1464), and Cosmo, the father of the Medici, are most popularly and familiarly known.
It was at a moment when the labours of such men as these had accumulated in public and private libraries all that could be recovered of classical learning, that about the middle of the fifteenth century the art of printing was introduced into Italy. Under the auspices of the Benedictines of Subiaco, the Germans Sweynheim and Pannartz set up their press in the celebrated Monastery of Santa Scholastica, from which issued, in the year 1465, their edition of Lactantius. Removing to Rome in 1467, the first-fruits of their labour was "Cicero de Oratore." Thus, while in Germany and France biblical and ecclesiastical literature, and in England popular, first gave employment to the printer; in Italy, classical, for a time, almost exclusively engaged his attention.
Nicholas Jenson, the Frenchman, who was sent by Louis XI. to the ateliere of Fust and Scheffer, to learn "le nouvel art par lequel on faisait des livres", carried his acquired knowledge from Mayence to Venice, where he invented the Italic character, subsequently adopted by the learned Aldus Manutius. This remarkable man, who was a no less learned editor than he was a zealous printer, from about the year 1490 gave to the world in rapid succession editions of the Greek and Latin Classics. Among his earliest works is one ever memorable in the history of Art, the "Hypnerotomachia", or dream of Poliphilus, written by the learned ecclesiastic Fra Colonna. It is profusely illustrated with engravings on wood, the design of which has been frequently ascribed to no less great an artist than Andrea Mantegna. Through those illustrations, which display a profound study of ancient ornament, types of form diametrically opposed to those of the middle ages were disseminated over the Continent of Europe.
The publication of Vitruvius at Rome, about 1486, at Florence in 1496, and at Venice, with illustrations, in 1511, as well as of Alberti's great work", De Re Edificatoria", at Florence, in 1485, set the seal upon the classical tendency of the age in matters of Art, and afforded the means of speedily transmitting to other countries the details of ancient design, so warmly taken up throughout Italy. The successors of the first Aldus at Venice, the Gioliti in the same city, and the Giunti at Florence, rapidly multiplied the standard classics; and thus the art of printing speedily caused a movement of revival to become cosmopolitan, which, had that noble art remained undiscovered, would very probably have been limited, to a great extent, to the soil of Italy.
Long, however, as we have already asserted, before the aspirations of the first labourers in the mine of antiquity had been thus brought to fruition, indications had been given in the world of Art of an almost inherent antagonism on the part of the Italians to Gothic forms. In the ornaments which surround the ceilings of the Church of Assisi, ascribed to Cimabue, the father of painting, the acanthus had been drawn with considerable accuracy; while Nicola Pisano and other masters of the trecento, or thirteenth century, had derived many important elements of design from a study of antique remains. It was scarcely, however, until the beginning of the fifteenth century that the movement can be said to have borne really valuable fruit.
In its earliest stage the Renaissance of Art in Italy was unquestionably a revival of principles, and it was scarcely until the middle of the fifteenth century that it came to be in anywise a literal revival. Conscious as we may be, that in some productions of this earlier stage, when Nature was recurred to for suggestion, and the actual details of classic forms were comparatively unknown and unimitated, there may exist occasional deficiencies, supplied at a later period, and under a more regular system of education; we are yet free to confess a preference for the freshness and naivete with which the pioneers worked, over the more complete but more easily obtained graces of an almost direct reproduction of the antique.