Experiencing Italy's Renaissance

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Among the many things I love about Italy is how the Renaissance can be spliced into your travels. Imagine: In Florence you can sleep in a converted 16th-century monastery that’s just a block from Michelangelo’s David, around the corner from Brunelleschi’s famous cathedral dome, and down the street from the tombs of the great Medici art patrons — and that’s just for starters.

Before the Renaissance, Europeans spent about 1,000 years in a cultural slumber. Most art was made to serve the Church, and man played only a bit part — typically as a sinner. But around 1400, everything began changing.

The new “Renaissance Man” shaped his own destiny and was no longer a mere plaything of the supernatural. Belief in the importance of the individual skyrocketed, and life became much more than a preparation for the hereafter. This new “humanism” wasn’t a repudiation of God; it was an understanding that the best way to glorify God was not to bow down in church all day long but to recognize the talents God gave you and use them.

And that’s what the Renaissance Florentines were doing. Think of the extraordinary “class of 1500” living during that exciting time: Michelangelo was inspired by Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo was hanging around with political bad boy Niccolo Machiavelli. Machiavelli had the ear of power broker Lorenzo Medici the Magnificent. Lorenzo’s son, Pope Leo X, gave big painting commissions to Raphael, who exchanged masterpieces with artist Albrecht Durer in Germany. Durer was personally converted to Protestantism by Martin Luther — who was excommunicated by Leo X — who had gone to school with Michelangelo.

Never before had artists been asked to do so much or given so much money and freedom. In the Middle Ages, unheralded craftsmen cranked out by-the-numbers religious art. During the Renaissance, artists no longer worked anonymously. The most successful ones — like Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael — achieved celebrity status, dictating their terms and creating as the spirit moved them.

Artists of the Renaissance deserved the respect they got. To create realistic paintings and statues, they merged art and science. They studied anatomy like doctors, nature like biologists, and the laws of perspective like mathematicians.

Enhanced by experiments with perspective, paintings became more true to life — and packed a bigger psychological punch. When you look at Leonardo’s Last Supper, you don’t think, “Isn’t it amazing how the lines of perspective pull me right to the figure of Christ?” But subconsciously those lines powerfully direct your eye — and heart — to the center of the fresco, right to Jesus.

Leonardo — a sculptor, engineer, inventor, and scientist — typified the well-rounded Renaissance Man (and he wasn’t a bad painter either). Indifferent to what his patrons thought, Leonardo often left projects undone. Of the few surviving paintings by his hand, two are unfinished — abandoned when something more interesting came along.

But Leonardo was far from a flake. From the notebooks he left behind, we see him as a keen observer and a fearless thinker: He dissected corpses, diagrammed the flight of birds, and formulated hypotheses about the movement of water.

Michelangelo was no less inventive than Leonardo, and he was equally famous. He split his time between Florence (his hometown) and Rome, where the money was. Over his long life, he ended up working for nine popes.

Michelangelo insisted he was a sculptor, not a painter. And though he preferred working in Florence, when Pope Julius II said, “Come to Rome and do a painting,” he couldn’t refuse. He spent years at the Vatican, frescoing the Sistine Chapel.

That chapel ceiling is the story of creation — and the essence of Renaissance humanism. When Michelangelo shows God giving Adam the spark of life, man is truly made in God’s image, as glorious as his creator.

Raphael, the third of the big three, combined the quiet elegance of Leonardo with the raw power of Michelangelo. A bit of an upstart, Raphael rubbed elbows with his elder mentors in Florence for a time, but soon moved on to Rome.

There, the pope hired him to paint the walls of his library in the Vatican. In his huge fresco, called the School of Athens, Raphael celebrated the great pre-Christian thinkers — a shocking break from Church tradition. And to make the embrace of these once taboo figures even stronger, Raphael depicted the great thinkers of ancient Greece as portraits of the leading Renaissance artists and geniuses of his generation. Not only did the Renaissance appreciate the greats of the ancient world, they considered themselves in the same league. Renaissance humanism ruled.

Although the Italian Renaissance sputtered out by 1600, by then people from around the world were already coming to see its masterpieces. Especially in Italy today, visitors continue to set their sights on the great works of the cultural explosion that was the Renaissance.

(Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at [email protected] and follow his blog on Facebook.)

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