In a corresponding spirit the architect now set himself to the task of producing a luxurious and specious style of palatial architecture, drawing his inspiration from the monuments of imperial Rome, and the sculptor and the painter sought to portray physical beauty as the primary and sufficient end of their art. Their conceptions of this beauty were in part drawn from the remains of the art of classic antiquity that were then accessible. But the ancient works of art known at that time were not those of the best periods of ancient artistic culture. They were, for the most part, works of the decadent Greek schools as represented in Roman copies. Many of these have, indeed, a great deal of sensuous charm, and display much technical refinement; but they are wanting in the nobler qualities that characterize the finest arts of Greece. From the Roman copies of fauns, Apollos, and Venuses that had been preserved in Italy, it was impossible that high inspiration and true guidance should be drawn.
1 Cf. Introduction to Villari's Niccolo Machiavelli and his Times, London, 1878.
The Fine Arts of the Renaissance are in part a reflection of this decadent art of classic antiquity, and in part an expression of something quite different which was peculiar to the Italian genius at this time. To the man of the Renaissance the classic inspiration was necessarily different from what it had been to the man of antiquity. To the ancient Greek and Roman the pagan ideals had been real, and their inspiration was genuine; but to the Italian of the fifteenth century these ideals could not have the same meaning, or supply a true incentive. After the intervening centuries of Christian thought and experience it was impossible for men to approach the ancient themes in the spirit of the ancients. Thus the Neo-pagan Art of the Renaissance is not wholly spontaneous and sincere. It contains elements that are foreign to the pagan spirit, and not compatible with it. The art of the Renaissance is, in fact, an embodiment of heterogeneous ideas and conflicting aims.
Much has been said of the importance of the Renaissance movement in developing the individual man, and it is true that one of the most marked characteristics of the artistic productions of this time, as contrasted with those of the Middle Ages, is a distinctly individual, or personal, stamp. This is especially marked in architecture. Whereas before, and during, the Middle Ages in particular, architecture had been a communal art, the joint product of companies of men working together on traditional lines, with common aims and aspirations, it was now become very largely an expression of the personal tastes of individuals working independently of each other. The architects of the Renaissance were scholars and artists, newly acquainted with the Roman antique, animated with desire to appropriate what they apprehended of its principles, and at the same time ambitious to achieve personal fame. A building of the Renaissance is thus always the product of the fancy of a particular designer, as a building of the Middle Ages is not. But architecture of the highest excellence can hardly be produced by an individual working independently. The noblest architecture of the past has always been an evolution of a people, the joint product of many minds, and the natural expression of many conditions. The importance of the opportunity for the development of the individual opened by the Renaissance has been exaggerated, and the conditions conducive to such development which had existed before have been too much overlooked. We are apt to forget that the mediaeval communal life stimulated the faculties of the individual in many noble ways, and we do not always enough consider that individuality may be exercised in harmful as well as in salutary directions. The individuality that had been developed by the institutions and the intellectual life of the Middle Ages was vastly different from that which was produced by the influences of the Renaissance, and it was in many ways more excellent. The individuality of the Middle Ages was obedient to the demands of corporate and cooperative life, while that of the Renaissance was independent and capricious. Conditions favourable to individual development had arisen early in the Middle Ages in connection with organized monastic life. The cultivation of literature, philosophy, and the Fine Arts in the monasteries had given considerable range to the exercise of individual powers,1 though in limited directions, and the rise of the great communal organizations tended still further to stimulate an admirable individual development. But the individual of the Middle Ages felt himself a part of an organized body from which he derived moral support, and with which he felt that he must cooperate. It was the strong communal spirit, giving unity of purpose to the varied faculties of individuals, that made possible the production of the noble arts of the Middle Ages; and it is as the expression of this unity of purpose coordinating the fine artistic energies of the time, that these arts are preeminently notable. In so far as the development of the individual in the period of the Renaissance differed from that of the Middle Ages, it did so mainly in favouring individual caprice at the expense of harmonious collective effort. The capricious and irresponsible individuality of the time, together with the confused complexity of ideas and aims, gave rise to most of that which is open to criticism in the Fine Arts of the Renaissance.
1 Cf. Montalembert, Les Moines d'Occident, vol. 2, p. 488 et seq.
Nearly all of the architects of this epoch were sculptors and painters. Few of them had ever had a thorough training in architectural design and construction, such as had been general with the members of the great mediaeval building corporations; and hardly any of them were endowed with a natural aptitude for logical construction. The artistic genius of the Italian people has, in fact, always been essentially a genius for painting, and the painter's habits of mind are constantly manifested in the Italian architecture of all epochs. This is especially noticeable in their use of the Orders, which is rarely based on any structural need, but is governed only by the fancy of the designer in seeking to produce a pleasant surface composition. Columns and pilasters, answering to nothing in the real structural scheme of a building, are disposed with no thought save for agreeable lines and rhythmical spacings. Thus they soon came to be used in many novel ways. They were set in pairs, stretched through several stories, embraced by pediments, and varied in countless fanciful ways. In this way the architecture of the Renaissance even more than that of imperial Rome, became a mere surface architecture differing fundamentally from all of the great architectural systems of ancient times, and of the Middle Ages. This is a consideration of capital importance of which too little account has been taken. The unqualified and shortsighted laudation of this architecture by the sophisticated writers of the sixteenth century has been too readily accepted, and a more discriminating judgment cannot fail to alter materially the esteem in which it has been held.