If, as many believe, Florence was the birthplace of the Renaissance, it follows that a number of the city’s cultural values were in play in the era. The nature of the Renaissance itself is so expansive, the art and learning must have relied on the greatest commitment of the people to it, so multiple values are involved. One of these is Florence’s legendary insistence on liberty and republicanism, even as the city was so often in the control of an elite aristocracy (Hankins 173).
Another value is certainly seen in the city’s devotion to art, as the great Florentine families like the Medici spent enormous sums in sponsoring painting, sculpture, and architecture. One value in particular, however, may have the most impact or influence, and this is the Florentine need to celebrate the Catholic faith. Vast art created here is rooted in the Bible and the sheer force of this value is inescapable. As the following supports, the bronze reliefs of Ghiberti, the paintings of Fra Angelico, and Brunelleschi’s architectural masterpiece of the Cathedral dome are strong evidence of the Florentine cultural value of promoting the Catholic faith.
It is felt by many that the Renaissance began, not only in Florence, but with a single work of art’s creation. In 1401, the city’s leading citizens held a contest to award a contract: the design of the doors to the Baptistery in the Piazza del Duomo. Ghiberti won the competition by submitting a single bronze relief depicting the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham, and this is generally recognized as the first bronze relief of a nude human form (Thompson 239). Equally importantly, the relief set the stage for what Ghiberti would contribute. Working for decades on the first set of doors alone, Ghiberti crafted bronze into reliefs presenting pivotal scenes from the New Testament. When the work was unveiled in 1424, all of Florence attended to admire this unique and painstakingly crafted art (Young 54). The second set of doors, famously described by Michelangelo as the “gates of paradise,” would also take decades to complete. Ghiberti’s entire life, then, was dedicated to creating the sets of doors and to glorifying the Church in every single panel. That art created to adorn a religious structure should reflect faith is not surprising. Nonetheless, this groundbreaking work of the Renaissance, commissioned by the city leaders, still powerfully reinforces the city’s cultural value of celebrating the faith itself.
It is also believed that Ghiberti and Fra Angelico had mutual influences on one another, as both artists focused virtually all their efforts on celebrating God and the Church (Radke 31). As Florence was so rooted in Catholicism, Fra Angelico himself represents the impact of the value in his life as both Dominican friar and artist. It is assumed that his creative work began through the friar’s usual task of illustrating religious books. His fame, however, derived from a number of paintings recognized as both devout and perfectly executed. An important early work, for example, Christ in Glory Surrounded by Saints and Angels, reveals over 250 specific figures. At the same time, Fra Angelico was noted for creating extremely serene art, as in his many works celebrating the Madonna and Child (Catholic.org). As Ghiberti taught other rising Renaissance artists, so too did Fra Angelico inspire others. That the city so embraced his art, more to the point, emphasizes how this religious painting completely upheld the cultural value of adoration of God and the Catholic faith.
Lastly, few architectural designs have been as studied and admired as Filippo Brunelleschi’s massive dome for the Cathedral of Florence. As with the Baptistery doors, this commission was also based on a competition between artists, and Brunelleschi had in fact come in second to Ghiberti in that earlier contest (Jones 31). When the city’s leaders then accepted the responsibility of “capping” the Cathedral, it was a matter of the utmost seriousness. Great and emerging artists and architects applied, but Brunelleschi was granted the commission, and largely because the Florentines were fascinated by his claim that he could create two domes, one nested inside the other, with no scaffolding. He insisted that he had studied the Roman Pantheon very carefully and comprehended how no visible support was necessary to establish a great dome; Brunelleschi actually climbed to the Pantheon roof, removed outer stones, and discovered how dovetailing the blocks created the support (Young 52). Supposedly temperamental, Brunelleschi was extremely protective of his work and he fought the city’s council repeatedly. Nonetheless, the critical point is that he created a stunning architectural achievement, and one commissioned to directly honor the Catholic Church and the spirit of the Christian. The commission itself is worded leaving no doubt as to the import of this cultural value, as the city leaders insisted on a design: “So as to be worthy of a heart expanded to much greatness” (Young 7). Florence’s Cathedral was already ancient, and the primary objective of those choosing the designer was to amplify the original glory of the structure dedicated to God. The clear implication of the commission is that faith “expands a heart to much greatness.” In architecture as well as painting and bronze relief, then, the Florentine value of extolling Christianity is fundamental.
A great city will inevitably have a number of important cultural values and Florence, by virtue of its role in the birth of the Renaissance, is certainly no exception. Florentines were fiercely republican, as well as committed to achieving the highest status in banking and craftsmanship. Beyond these values, however, remains the one perhaps most basic to the city and its culture, and the value most impactful on the vast range of art created in the era. Ultimately, the bronze reliefs of Ghiberti’s Baptistery doors, Fra Angelico’s religious paintings, and Brunelleschi’s architectural masterpiece of the Cathedral dome combine to reinforce the Florentine cultural value of celebrating God and the Catholic faith.
- Catholic.org. Fra Angelico. 2016. Web. 28 April 2016. http://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=478>
- Hankins, James. Renaissance Civic Humanism: Reappraisals and Reflections. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Print.
- Jones, J.A.P. Europe:1500-1600. Surrey, UK: Thomas Nelson Publishing, 1997. Print.
- Radke, Gary M. The Gates of Paradise: Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Renaissance Masterpiece. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007. Print.
- Thompson, Bard. Humanists and Reformers: A History of the Renaissance and Reformation. Grand Rapids:
- Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1996. Print.
- Young, George Frederick. The Medici. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, 2005. Print.