4  Man - the Measure of all Things


"There is no better instance of how a burst of civilization depends on confidence than the Florentine state of mind in the early fifteenth century.  For thirty years the fortunes of the republic, which in a material sense had declined, were directed by a group of the most intelligent individuals who have ever been elected to power by a democratic government." p89


           The Gothic cathedral are hymns to the divine light, while the Renaissance cloisters celebrate the light of human intelligence.

pazzi chapel
The Pazzi Chapel, built by the great Florentine Brunellesco in about 1430, is in a style that has been called the architecture of humanism.


The college granted a sabbatical leave to me for the fall semester of 1989. I offered a "Travel for Credit" course for students with class meetings in the spring and a trip to Greece for two weeks after the conclusion of the spring semester. Subsequently Victoria and I lead a group of students around mainland Greece, Crete, and Turkey; then towards the end of May we bade them all good bye at Athens and began a trek around Europe that ended at the Madrid airport in late December. We had stored our furniture and given up our apartment in Kansas City so we were encumbered only with two backpacks and the the clothes on our backs. It was a great time. Our only firm commitment was a course of study on Renaissance art and architecture at the British Institute in Florence for three weeks in July. By 1989 Florence was overrun with tourist in the summer. I remember standing near the Duomo and being asked for directions to Michelangelo's David; I point in the direction  of the Accademia  and said, "Follow the hoard." and the guy soon melted into the mass.  A few years later we escorted another group to Florence with the students enrolled in classes at the British Institute and that did it for Florence in the summer. The last time we were in Italy travelling from Milan to Rome the train stopped in Florence and I asked Victoria if she wanted to stay over for a few days and she just rolled her eyes. Florence discovered the individual in the 15th century and the hoards discovered Florence in the 20th century.

"The discovery of the individual was made in early fifteenth-century Florence. Nothing can alter that fact. But in the last quarter of the century the Renaissance owed almost as much to the small courts of northern Italy - Ferrara, Mantua and, above all Urbino, a small remote town on the eastern perimeter of the Apennines. It could be argued that life in the court of Urbino was  one of the high-water marks of western civilization" p 89


ducal palace urbino
         Court yard of the Ducal Palace, Urbino


On the train to Pesaro somebody said "Neve!" and we looked out the  window and sure enough snow was falling. On the bus from Pesaro to Urbino snow continued to fall, but only lightly. The bus ride to Urbino through the Apennines was interesting, but Urbino sits atop a hill and the bus stops at the bottom of the hill and we had to walk on up to the Hotel Raffaello. The proprietor was very tall and elegant man with a black mop of hair who look as though he could be a professor at the University. I think we were his only guests.



Urbino is indeed a  college town, but the students were on winter break and we had arrived too late in the day to see the Ducal Palace and the Museum. I was particularly anxious to see the the Ideal Town painted or attributed to Piero della Francesca that was an excellent  example of the Renaissance use of perspective.  Renaissance perspective was mostly concerned  with the representation of towns, because paved streets and receding arcades employed a system where man's place in the scheme of things demonstrated his supposed control over his destiny. The  palace and museum would open at 9AM the next morning, but there was a catch: the only bus out of Urbino departed at 10AM, it was New Year's Day.

The next morning we paid the hotel bill and as the steep street down to the bus stop was just behind the hotel, deposited our bags in the lobby. At 9AM we joined two or three other folks waiting for the place to open. It turned out to be a guided tour and we were guided ever so slowly through the unheated palace, one unheated room after another. Our feet quickly began to freeze on the cold stone floors. By the time we reached the Ideal City my feet were frozen and it was time to head for the bus stop. I felt like one of those tourist in the Louver who look at the  Mona Lisa, say "There it is!" and head for the exit. Away we went, ran to the empty hotel lobby, gathered our bags and began sliding down the snow covered street that could have worked as a ski jump. About half way down a figure dashed from an alley and positioned itself in front of us; it was the hotel proprietor holding out his hand, "chiave" he said. In our haste I had forgotten to leave the room key, it was still in my pocket. As we went sliding by I handed off the key and he said, "bon voyage".

As we settled in the warm bus I thought to myself, life in the court of Urbino may have been wonderful, but only in the summer.

ideal city

The perfect town: no trash, no traffic, no people (?)

Meanwhile, back in Florence.

Courtyard of  the Ospedale degli Innocenti (Hospital of the Innocents), 15th century, designed by Filippo Brunelleschi

The Innocenti was responsible for the care of abandoned children. Here babies were received and cared for.  Boys were taught skills and  girls were sent to mistresses who taught them occupations expected for women. The hospital provided dowries for the girls, and they had the option of getting married or to become nuns.

I had to have pictures of the courtyard, but it was at the time a privately owned structure. Victoria distracted the guard while I ducked inside to take pictures. A similar situation occurred at the Vila of  Mysteries in Pompeii. Visitors could only peep through the doorway at the pictures painted on the walls. I was trying to figure out what to do when a man and his small son arrived on the scene. It was just after Christmas and the young boy had received a camera as a present. The guard yielded to the boys request and  removed the barrier to the room and I got the pictures I needed.*

The Ghent Altarpiece

(above is the link to the amazing Getty site)


This is the image on p. 117, the entire image is at "pilgrims" below.

On page  117 of the book Civilisation there  is a full page detail image identified as: Jan can Eyck, Adoration of the Lamb (detail) that is misidentified. The detail is taken from the The Ghent Altarpiece, but not from the Adoration of the Lamb, but from a side panel of pilgrims.  In trying to find where the image on p. 117 came from I came across the most wonderful work of the Getty Museum on the Altarpiece. To access it just click on the title above. 

The altarpiece is one of Northern European art's greatest masterpieces. Over the centuries the panels have come close to destruction: during outbreaks of iconoclasm, then damage by fire, and panels were sold and others looted. Panels taken away by the German forces were returned to St. Bavo's Cathedral after WWI. In 1934 two panels, The Just Judges and Saint John the Baptist, were stolen. The panel of Saint John the Baptist was returned by the thief soon after, but the  The Just Judges panel is still missing.

 In 1945, the altarpiece was returned from Germany after spending WWII  in a salt mine, which damaged the paint and varnish. The Belgian art restorer Jef Van der Veken made a copy of the stolen panel The Just Judges, as part of a restoration effort.

              St Maria del Carmine

The first and second times we went to Cappella dei Brancacci in the Church of St Maria del Carmine in Florence most of the works  were nel restauro and covered with tarps. On the third trip the restoration was finally complete. I will deal with only one fresco, The Tribute Money by Masaccio (The entire cycle can be seen at Wikipedia). Masaccio was one of the first to use linear perspective, employing for the first time vanishing point. He also moved to a more naturalistic style  that employed both  perspective and chiaroscuro to achieve much greater realism.

tribute money

The painting is based on the biblical story where the tax collector confronts Christ and the disciples and demands tribute. The story is told in three parts that maintain the narrative logic through compositional devises. The central scene is that of the tax collector demanding the tribute. The head of Christ is the vanishing point of the painting, drawing the eyes of the viewer there. Both Christ and Peter then point to the left side part of the painting, where the next scene takes place in the middle background: Peter taking the money out of the mouth of the fish. The final scene where Peter pays the tax collector is at the right, set apart by the framework of an architectural structure. Only two of the disciples can be identified with any degree of certainty: Peter with his grey hair, beard, and blue and yellow attire, and John; the young beardless man standing close to Christ. John's head is reflected in the very similar face of another disciple on the right. The disciple to the right of the group is assumed to be Judas and may be a  self-portrait of Masaccio.

 Masolino was originally given the commission to paint the chapel but was called away and his assistant Masaccio was given the  job. Masaccio was later called to Rome before he could finish the chapel, and died in Rome at the age of 26. Portions of the chapel were completed later by Filippino Lippi.  (The lecturer from the British Institute was lecturing our group of students in front of the Tribute Money and when he got to the part where Masaccio died in Rome at such an early age began to weep  profusely.)

                                Cappella dei Brancacci,  St Maria del Carmine


academia Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice

"But in history all points of supposed perfection have a hint of menace; and Giorgione himself discovers it in that mysterious picture know as the Tempesta. What on earth is going on? What is the meaning of this half-naked woman suckling a baby, this flash of  lightening, this broken column? Nobody knows; nobody has ever known. It was described in Giorgione's own time as 'a soldier and a gypsy'. Well whatever it means, it certainly doesn't show any confidence in the light of human reason."


Giorgione, 1508, Gallerie dell'Accademia,

Every time we went to the Accademia there were so many folks around the painting Victoria could never see it. Being 6'2" I have managed to get a good look.  My impressions of the painting are Here.

There is another Giorgione in the Accademia that does not attract so many tourist as the Tempesta.

col tempo


"Giorgione, the passionate lover of physical beauty, painted a picture of an old woman and called it col tempo - 'with time'. One can see that she must have once been a beauty. It is one of the first masterpieces of the new pessimism - new, because without the comfort of religion - that was to be given final expression by Hamlet. The truth is, I suppose, that the civilization of the early Italian Renaissance was not broadly enough based. The few had gone too far away from the many, not only in knowledge and intelligence - this they always do - but in basic assumptions. When the first two generations of humanist were dead their movement had no real weight behind it, and there was a reaction away from the human scale  of values. Fortunately, they left in sculpture, painting, architecture, a message to every generation that values reason, clarity, and harmonious proportion, and believes in the individual." p116.

* Before the WWW and the Internet there was something called "multimedia". Everybody owned some kind of computer and book publishers were anxious not to get left behind; behind what nobody was sure. Harcourt-Brace contracted with me to produce seven programs on architecture to be placed in CD ROM format. The CD's would only play on Apple computers with a program called Super Card.  Towards the end of the project the Internet came along and made everything we had done obsolete. I still have the programs, somewhere, on CDs but there are no longer any computers around that can play the things. The good news: the publisher paid me in full as per the contract.

5 The Hero as Artist                                              Contents