The Influence of Ancient Rome on the Italian Renaissance

From the Lecture Series: The Italian Renaissance

By Kenneth Bartlett, Ph.D.,University of Toronto

During the Italian Renaissance, the history of ancient Rome proudly remained in the forefront of popular culture. Its presence was increasingly regarded as an intellectual heritage to be mined for contemporary use.

Image of Roman Forum in Rome, Italy during sunrise. for the article on Italian Renaissance
Roman Forum

The Italian Renaissance: Learning from Ancient Buildings

The glory of the ancient past was a model to be emulated and a golden age to be recovered so that its wisdom could be applied to the circumstances of Italy in the second half of the 14th century.

Learn more about how the fruits of Greek and Roman engineering play a vital role in the modern world

The discovery of particular texts had enormous implications. For example, with the discovery of the works of Vitruvius, there was an explosion of interest in ancient building. Vitruvius wrote an extremely important volume, De architectura libri decem (Ten books on architecture). Vitruvius, an architect at the time of Augustus—in fact, one of Augustus’s official architects—talked about ancient buildings in a very significant way—not only in a practical way, but also in an abstract way, about the role that buildings play in our lives.

Photo of De architectura
De architectura, by Marcus Vitruvius Pollio

Those who discovered the texts after 1415 realized they could apply these principles to the building of their own buildings—not just copying ancient buildings, following the model that archaeology had revealed to them or following what Vitruvius said you should do—but taking the inspiration and the essence and applying them to buildings that suited their reality. Just the way ancient text could be applied to the conditions of contemporary Italians in the 15th century, so ancient buildings could be reduced to an essence—a set of principles and ideas—that could be applied to the needs of 15th-century Italians, which were quite different from the needs of 1st-century Romans.

This is a transcript from the video series The Italian Renaissance. Watch it now, on The Great Courses.

The implications of Vitruvius became huge. In part, we can see them in the most simplistic ways. The Vitruvian orders, the three orders of architecture—Doric, Corinthian, and Ionic—began to appear. And they began to appear as they appear on, for example, the facade of the Colosseum. But other things began to develop.

In particular, we can see in the career of Leon Battista Alberti, who was born in 1404 and died in 1472, how these ideas could be distilled into a set of principles that could apply to the conditions of the Italian world.

Learn more: Stone Masonry Perfected—the Greek Temple

A Great Universal Man 

Alberti was an architect; he was, in fact, a great uomo universale, a great universal man. He was an athlete. He was a writer in Latin. He was a writer in the vernacular. He was a sculptor. He was a theorist in painting. In fact, his book on the theory of painting takes the idea of linear perspective and turns it into a formula that others could apply. He was the most remarkable human being. And he also wrote a book on architecture that is, in many ways, a crib from Vitruvius.

The book can be considered highly derivative. But Alberti’s purpose was quite different: to take an ancient text and apply it to the needs of his own time. Thus, Alberti wrote De re aedificatoria, or On Building. Not only did he write a theoretical treatise on architecture, but he then went out and built buildings. In particular, in Florence, he designed the facade of the Palazzo Rucellai from 1452 to 1470, in which, again, the Vitruvian orders appear and in which the ideas of ancient building are made useful to a Florentine palace for a wealthy merchant.

Upper Story of the Santa Maria Novella
Upper Story of the Santa Maria Novella

He designed the Church of Sant’Andrea in Mantua from 1470 through 1476—taking, really, the model almost of a Roman triumphal arch and applying it to the facade of a Christian church. It was he who designed the facade of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, that church by the railway station, which is the first thing that so many tourists see as they walk toward the center of the city.

And he actually tried to build a pagan temple for one of the more curious figures of the Italian Renaissance, Sigismondo Malatesta; this building is known as the Tempio Malatestiano in Rimini, a building he started in 1450 but never completed.

Learn more: From Santa Maria Novella to San Lorenzo

Designing for the Modern Roman

Alberti, then, was not just an antiquarian, not just interested in ancient buildings because they were beautiful or because he was curious; he was interested in ancient buildings for what they could tell him about the buildings he was designing and considering for his own time—what was useful and what was not, what was decorative and what was not, what was appropriate and what was not. This idea of decorum infuses every idea of Renaissance thought. And in the application of architecture and the vocabulary of classical architecture to Renaissance design, decorum became important because it had to be useful and appropriate.

Discovering the Art of Antiquity 

Princess Laurana Louvre
Princess Laurana Louvre

Discoveries of ancient sculpture and bronzes changed the world as well. We see, after a hiatus of 1,000 years, portrait busts and marble being produced in Florence. Mino da Fiesole, for example, who lived between 1429 and 1484, resurrected with great skill and sensitivity the head-and-shoulders busts of individuals—modeled, of course, on those Roman busts we see so often in museums. Lorenzo Laurana, who died in 1502, did the same for female portrait busts. Those wonderfully serene and elegant images of women from his own time began to appear as reflections of ideal beauty. They aren’t copies of ancient statues at all. They are, in fact, the infusion of ancient spirit into contemporary marble.

Learn more: Florence: Politics in Art and Architecture

The equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius is one of the most important of all statues because it’s the only full-sized equestrian bronze to survive from antiquity. All the others were melted down soon after the collapse of Rome to make weapons, doors, or bells. But this survived. It survived because it was universally believed to be the first Christian emperor, Emperor Constantine, and one doesn’t melt down Christian emperors. It was put in front of St. John Lateran until Michelangelo moved it to the Capitoline Hill. And it sat there for a very long time, as a kind of object that reminded you of Christianity and the victory of the cross—that is, Constantine’s adoption of Christianity for the empire, rather than of imperial splendor.

Powerful Statues for Powerful Men

But what did our Renaissance sculptors do with it? Did they use it as an example of the victory of Christianity over paganism, of Constantine’s defeat of his pagan half-brother, Maxentius, at the Milvian Bridge in A.D. 312? No. They used it as an inspiration for other equestrian bronzes of secular individuals who, like Roman emperors, had the ability to control and command. The most famous were Donatello’s Gattamelata, that condottiere of the Honeyed Cat, which is what Gattamelata means in Italian. It’s placed in the piazza of Sant’Antonio in Padua and was cast between 1445 and 1450.

Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius
Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius

Learn more about: Donatello and Luca della Robbia

This extraordinary piece of bronze casting—which is not only a wonderful sculpture but also a remarkable moment in engineering—indicates that Donatello wanted to do what that ancient sculptor had done with Marcus Aurelius, but couldn’t. In the figure of Marcus Aurelius, one leg of the horse has risen, so there are only three legs on the plinth.

The entire enormous weight of that bronze statue is being supported on just three horse’s hooves. Donatello couldn’t do it. He had to have the fourth leg raised but resting on a cannonball to distribute the weight equally on all four legs. But it took just a generation or two until Andrea Verrocchio managed to reproduce the feet of the ancients. His image of another condottiere captain, Colleoni, is on the Piazza San Giovanni e Paolo in Venice. He was able to distribute that weight on three legs.

What we see in these two bronze sculptures is not just the desire to reproduce the past and to acquire it, but the desire to infuse the present with the spirit of the past. These sculptures had taken the model of Marcus Aurelius and used it in a way that gave dignity, power, and authority to these two mercenary captains—associating them with Roman emperors and using the art of the bronze caster to create something that would last as long as Marcus Aurelius.

Donatello broke new ground similarly with another statue that became iconic in more ways than one. Between 1430 and 1435, he cast his David. David was the first freestanding male nude sculpture since antiquity, a genre not practiced at all during the Christian Middle Ages because of the ambiguous attitude toward the nude human body. Donatello not only produced this wonderful object—this splendidly elegant, beautiful piece of bronze—and not only reproduced the form of the Old Testament hero, but he also produced the spirit of ancient sculpture.

Learn more about four important sculptors and their contrasting contributions to Renaissance art

Creating Ideal Beauty

That statue, which you can see in the Bargello in Florence, demonstrates such perfection and a sense of perfect fluidity, naturalness, and ideal male beauty. Donatello captured the ancient spirit as well as its form. In that elegant figure of David, Donatello, once and for all, broke through the wall that separated the appreciation of the perfect nude body from the Christian fear of the flesh.

Image of David by Donatello
David by Donatello

Donatello started a movement; he was soon after followed by another David. Verrocchio created a David in 1473–1475—this one partly clothed, but nevertheless, still in the spirit of ancient sculpture. And finally, we’ve got the David of Michelangelo—that 17-foot-tall, ideal figure that is so perfect it actually goes beyond the rules of correct anatomy.

The Symbol of the Florentine Republic

With the figures of David, we have not just classical statues being made in the Renaissance and not just a new form of sculpture in the round of the nude male figure, but we have an icon. Because David had become the symbol of the Florentine republic, it had become the model of the beset hero, chosen by God or by history, or by nature, to do great things.

Florentines saw themselves as David. They saw themselves as a chosen people. The figure of David, then, is not just one of beauty—it’s almost one of propaganda. It’s a reflection of a community spirit in marble or bronze.

Common Questions About the Italian Renaissance

Q: What exactly is the Italian Renaissance?

The Italian Renaissance was a period during the 14th to 17th centuries where culture reached great heights of craftsmanship and meaning. It was the expansion of civilization from the dark, violent middle ages into modern society with advancements in all arts and sciences.

Q: What ended The Italian Renaissance?

The Italian Renaissance was brought to an end by French invasion and the proceeding Italian Wars.

Q: Who primarily began the Italian Renaissance?

The Italian Renaissance is largely thought to have begun by the efforts and patronage of the Medici Family and other rich backers in Florence, Italy.

Q: What made Italy the right spot for the Italian Renaissance?

France and England were engaged in the Hundred Years’ War. But Italy had the glory of ancient Rome and Greece and all the culture that it had spawned as well as a wealthy merchant class, very rich cities, and of course, the education that came with the Moors.

This article was updated on 9/14/2015

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De architecture, By Mark Pellegrini (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons
Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=649765
Donatello, David, By Patrick A. Rodgers – originally posted to Flickr as Florence – David by Donatello, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4854705