I recently spent a week in Florence, Italy. It had been a dream destination of mine for the longest time as I’ve always believed it to be the most art-rich city in Europe. The one and only thing I was interested in seeing was Michelangelo’s marble sculpture of David, but I ended up leaving Florence with so much more than I’d ever expected.
My trip to Florence introduced me to an interest in history. How could it not? It was the birthplace of the Renaissance, which later on spread throughout Italy before it spread to the rest of Europe and the world.
What is so important about the Renaissance?
Another word for Renaissance is rebirth, which perfectly sums up the change of mindset of that era. During the fifteenth and sixteenth century, there was an explosion of art, engineering, science, and philosophy in Italy. This was the time of Leonardo Da Vinci, Galileo Galilei, and Michelangelo, you guys!
I could go on about facts and all the factors that led up to the Renaissance, but I’ll only share what fascinates me the most about this period.
The cathedral of Florence had been built without a dome. Of course they intended for it to have a dome, but for some reason, they couldn’t figure out how to build a dome that would hold together without falling apart over time. Cathedrals were the ultimate representation of a city’s status and community at the time, so can you imagine what big of a problem this was to the authorities of Florence?
Without getting into too much detail, it was the Medicis who were in authority at the time, although not legitimately. How? By power through banking; through money. It was the start of their rise to power, as the future success of the dome would set its course.
See, to impose even more authority over Florence, Giovanni de Medici, with the help of the pope he had supported to get into his position with money, would challenge the top artisans of Florence to solve the ever big dilemma of their dome-less cathedral.
Long story short: Filippo Brunelleschi was one of the contestants, and his solution to their dome-less cathedral was out of their world. He was inspired by the architecture style of the Classics (ancient Greece and Rome), and he studied their buildings with fervor for an understanding of how they managed to build such sustainable monuments such as the Pantheon in Rome.
The Pantheon was built with concrete, but the formula for concrete had been lost during the Middle Ages, so Brunelleschi had to think completely out of the box although he had somewhat understood the engineering of the Classics.
As we know today, Filippo Brunelleschi did complete the dome of Florence by building two domes—an outer dome and an inner dome. But the whole point of it is that everyone thought it impossible. Giovanni de Medici knew they were risking everything, and even Brunelleschi had his doubts in his own ability.
The success of the dome of Florence’s cathedral set the course of the Renaissance: People flooded in to witness the new spectacle of Italy, the economy of Florence rose, and the Medici’s authority got even more powerful and influential. Giovanni de Medici didn’t live to see the completion of the dome, but his son, Cosimo, would take what his father had started to greater lengths.
The Medicis and Art
But how exactly does Medicis’ rise in power intertwine with Florence being the birthplace of the Renaissance?
Well, the Medicis used art to brand themselves. They used the production of extraordinary art in their name to create a prestigious brand for their family name. Art was a means to an end—to power. They used their wealth and “transformed it into prestige and power by commissioning craftsmen.”* Patronage (paying artists for producing art) was their political strategy.
This is how all these amazing masterpieces were created at the time of the Renaissance. And it all boils down to power and control—by the Medicis, through money.
Back in those days, power was a hard-earned honor fought for among the Roman Church and wealthy families. It is crazy and scary to realize what lengths the Church would go just to keep their control over the people. The Church would sell indulgences (tickets to Heaven) for money, and art was a means to impose fear on the mass.
Art was very much intertwined with religion as they were only allowed to be themed around Biblical stories. Artists producing anything outside of the Biblical context would usually face extreme consequences (death penalty was a favorite), so artists were quite limited in their expression of creativity, although not talent.
It’s important to realize that art was used by the Church to somewhat control the mass. How media is used today, targeting the subconscious to yield to control—that was the same role that art played back in the day. And the Medicis were well aware of this. And their strategy to counterfeit the Church was through art, by educating their artists (recognizing their influence over them) on Humanism through the ancient philosophies of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.
During the Middle Ages, see, every artifact and writing from ancient Greece and Rome were hidden by the Church from their people to maintain their control over them. But these treasures would be found little by little, and those very few who knew of the ancient Greek philosophers regarded their knowledge as top-secret.
Lorenzo the Great, Il Magnifico, a Medici, met up regularly with such a group. He let them influence his artists, Michelangelo being one of them, and I believe this was one of the main channels through which Humanism took birth during the Renaissance: through art.
At a young age, Michelangelo had been taken into the Medici palace under the care of Lorenzo the Great. He had a school of sculpture held in his very own Palace garden, and it was there that Michelangelo’s craft in marble grew.
Michelangelo was treated very much like family by the Medicis and would dine with them and join the occasional parties hosted in their palace, where important and political people would gather. Politics and schemes against the Church were discussed, and Michelangelo was exposed to all of that.
Successors of Lorenzo eventually took hold of the Medici name (who eventually became the Medici popes), and things became quite messy among the Medicis, the people of Florence, and the Church. The Medici popes lived quite immoral lifestyles, see, and even Michelangelo’s respect for the Medicis grew bitter.
In 1501, Michelangelo’s sculpture of David was commissioned for the Cathedral’s exterior, to be placed in a niche high up from the ground. That’s why David’s head and hands are so big, since they had to be visible from below. Once Michelangelo completed David three years later in 1504, the authorities wanted him placed in front of the town hall instead so that the public could marvel at the masterpiece.
But David was meant for the Cathedral. He was meant to be regarded in the context of the Bible, as the David who killed Goliath. As the sculpture of David was placed in front of the town hall, however, David became an important symbol of Florence: David became a symbol of, not only Michelangelo’s but also, Florence’s resistance towards the Medici popes. The Medici had brought honor to, but eventually shame to Florence.
David symbolized and encompassed all that Florence was living at the time. That’s the significance of Michelangelo’s David.
What strikes me the most about all this is realizing the role that Art played in the movement of the Renaissance. Because Art was originally used to impose fear over the people for the advantage of the Church, it was also used later on against the Church.
And having all of Florence witness the success of the Cathedral’s dome—something regarded impossible at the time—that was mind-blowing to them. That gave the people the message that there was so much potential for advancement and innovation, something that the Church had feared (which is clear by their trying to hide the ancient Greek philosophies).
Art is truly so much more than meets the eye. ♥︎