The great change in ideas and ideals which, after the remarkable intellectual and artistic life of the Middle Ages, was manifested in the so-called Renaissance, is not always correctly conceived or fairly stated; and the character and merits of the Fine Arts of the Renaissance, as compared with those of mediaeval times, have not, I think, been often set forth in an entirely true light. Of the merits of the best Italian art of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries there can be no question, but the belief that this art is altogether superior to that of the Middle Ages will not bear examination in the light of impartial comparison.
The Fine Arts are always an expression of the historical antecedents, the intellectual, moral, and material conditions, and the religious beliefs of the peoples and epochs to which they belong. They derive their whole character from these antecedents and conditions, and cannot be rightly understood or appreciated without reference to them. Thus a brief consideration of these conditions in the Middle Ages on the one hand, and in the period of the Renaissance on the other, may help us to understand the nature of the above-mentioned change, and to gain a more discriminating appreciation of the real character of the artistic productions of the latter epoch.
During the Middle Ages ideas and imagination were governed by a religious faith which, though in many ways mistaken and misguided, was for the most part firm and unquestioning. Mediaeval Christianity was a living power with the masses, and an inspiration to men of genius. The mediaeval Christian mythology was well fitted to stimulate artistic invention, and the ideals which it maintained were full of beauty. It is true, indeed, that human conduct was not wholly governed by this faith; but the precepts of the Christian religion, as defined and interpreted by the Roman church, were generally held as of supreme authority, and to them most people acknowledged that they ought to conform. This Christianity gave the chief motive power for the best activities of the time, and the social relations of men were, in theory at least, based upon its teachings. The history of the Middle Ages abounds in evidence that popular habits of life were in many ways exemplary. Villani tells us that the citizens of Florence lived in sobriety and frugality, that they had loyal hearts, were faithful to one another, and that they required the same fidelity in the administration of public affairs.1 Florence in the fourteenth century was alive with industry, and the open country around the city was prosperous with agriculture. Of such conditions her Fine Arts were an outgrowth and expression.
But the mediaeval faith began at length to weaken. The church, as an ecclesiastical establishment, had grown corrupt and oppressive, so that men of spirit were moved to reject its dogmas and to resist its intellectual tyranny. Independent thought began to widen the range of ideas, and the reading of ancient authors gave a fresh incentive to philosophical speculation, and awakened a spirit of scientific investigation, as well as a taste for ancient poetry and mythology. The desire for intellectual freedom, and the thirst for new knowledge, which were thus stimulated in the fifteenth century constitute the good side of the Renaissance movement, the side which has hitherto been most emphasized by writers, and to which the modern world is indebted for a strong stimulus in the direction of some of its most fruitful activities.
But there were other conditions that must not be ignored if we would rightly understand the spirit of the Renaissance, by which the ideals and aims of this brilliant epoch were materially qualified and weakened. Influences were at the same time at work that were not in harmony with what was best. The humanist learning bred a Neo-pagan spirit which favoured and strengthened a growing indifference to moral principles and religious beliefs. The strong feeling of opposition to the church was in part due to this. In fact, the Renaissance was by no means an entirely noble movement in the interest of spiritual and intellectual emancipation, or an unqualified advance in ideas and attainments beyond those of the Middle Ages. With all of its abuses the church still stood for moral order and spiritual aspirations. The revolt against it was in part a revolt against both religion and morals. The animating spirit of the movement contained much that was unchristian and destructive of high ideals.
1 Cronica di Giovanni Villani, bk. 6, chap. 69.
It is true that noble, and even pious, feelings survived in the minds of many men, especially during the early Renaissance time. Generous acts were still common among the merchant princes of Florence. In the early part of the fifteenth century the lives of Florentine patricians continued to be simple, and many of them recognized the responsibilities which their wealth imposed.1 But toward the close of that century a different spirit prevailed. Luxury and extravagance took the place of plainer living, the pursuit of pleasure without regard to justice or morality engrossed the minds of men, and vice and crime flourished in high places until the prophetic denunciations of Savonarola were called down upon the wickedness and vanity of the upper classes.
Into the service of this luxurious and immoral life the Fine Arts were now called, and of the motives which animate such life they become largely an expression. The mediaeval endeavour to embody the beauty of Christian ideals in works of art gave place to the desire to make the Fine Arts minister to sensuous pleasure and to mundane pride. In the height of its splendour the vicious life of Florence, the chief centre of literary and artistic productions, was appalling. Men now not only sought to escape from all forms of ecclesiastical and ascetic restraint; they went further, and freely proclaimed the sufficiency of intellectual, aesthetic, and sensuous enjoyments to satisfy the whole of man's nature. They mistook the illusive pleasures of self-indulgence for the true joys of life. In abandoning himself to mundane pursuits and gratifications, the man of the Renaissance fancied that he got the utmost good out of this life, and took little thought of any other.