There is no way of explaining the Italian fondness for formand color other than by considering the necessities of the people and the artistic character of the Italian mind. Art in all its phases was not only an adornment but a necessity of Christian civilization. The Church taught people by sculpture, mosaic, miniature, and fresco. It was an object-teaching, a grasping of ideas by forms seen in the mind, not a presenting of abstract ideas as in literature. Printing was not known. There were few manuscripts, and the majority of people could not read.
Ideas came to them for centuries through form and color, until at last the Italian mind took on a plastic and pictorial character. It saw things in symbolic figures, and when the Renaissance came and art took the lead as one of its strongest expressions, painting was but the color - thought and form - language of the people.
And these people, by reason of their peculiar education, were an exacting people, knowing what was good and demanding Italian was, in a way, an art it from the artists. Every
critic, because every church in Italy was an art school. The artists may have led the people, but the people spurred on the artists, and so the Italian mind went on developing and unfolding until at last it produced the great art of the Renaissance.
THE AWAKENING: The Italian civilization of the fourteenth century was made up of many impulses and inclinations, none of them very strongly defined. There was a feeling about in the dark, a groping toward the light, but the leaders stumbled often on the road. There was good reason for it. The knowledge of the ancient world lay buried under the ruins of Rome. The Italians had to learn it all over again, almost without a precedent, almost without a preceptor. With the fifteenth century the horizon began to brighten. The Early Renaissance was begun. It was not revolt, a reaction, or a starting out on a new path. It was development of the Gothic period ; and the three inclinations of the Gothic period — religion, the desire for classic knowledge, and the study of nature—were carried into the art of the time with greater realization.
The inference must not be made that because nature and the antique came to be studied in Early Renaissance times that therefore religion was neglected. It was not. It still held strong, and though with the Renaissance there came about a strange mingling of crime and corruption, aestheticism and immorality, yet the Church was never abandoned for an hour. When enlightenment came, people began to doubt the spiritual power of the Papacy. They did not cringe to it so servilely as before. Religion was not violently embraced as in the Middle Ages, but there was no revolt. The Church held the power and was still the patron of art. The painter's subjects extended over nature, the antique, the fable, allegory, history, portraiture ; but the religious subject was not neglected. Fully three-quarters of all the fifteenth-century painting was done for the Church, at her command, and for her purposes.
But art was not so wholly pietistic as in the Gothic age. The study of nature and the antique materialized painting somewhat. The outside world drew the painter's eyes, and the beauty of the religious subject and its sentiment were somewhat slurred for the beauty of natural appearances. There was some loss of religious power, but religion had much to lose. In the fifteenth century it was still dominant.
KNOWLEDGE OF THE ANTIQUE AND NATURE: The revival
of antique learning came about in real earnest during this period. The scholars set themselves the task of restoring the polite learning of ancient Greece, studying coins and marbles, collecting manuscripts, founding libraries and schools of philosophy. The wealthy nobles, Palla Strozzi,
the Albizzi, the Medici, and the Dukes of Urbino, encouraged it. In 1440 the Greek was taught in five cities. Immediately afterward, with Constantinople falling into the hands of the Turks, came an influx of Greek scholars into Italy. Then followed the invention of printing and the age of discovery on land and sea. Not the antique alone but the natural were being pried into by the spirit of inquiry. Botany, geology, astronomy, chemistry, medicine, anatomy, law, literature—nothing seemed to escape the keen eye of the time. Knowledge was being accumulated from every source, and the arts were all reflecting it.