Why, if you’re a humanist, Renaissance art is important to contemplate

Stefano Zuffi, in his new book How to Read Italian Renaissance Painting  (Abrams 2010), explains:

Wheras artists in the Middle Ages were not consciously ‘medieval’, artists in Italy between 1400 and 1600 very deliberately worked to bring about renewal. . . . At the heart of the Renaissance was the humanist culture that had first found expression in the works of Dante and Giotto in the 14th century. From that moment onwards more and more emphasis would be placed on humankind, and less on the divine—a major departure from the medieval worldview that placed God at the heart of everything. Humanism also encouraged study of the literature and art of Ancient Greece and Rome, much of which had been lost (or frowned upon) in the Middle Ages. This trend, soon bolstered by intellectuals and philosophers keen to escape the strictures of medieval thought, produced a vein of artistic brilliance and innovation that lasted right through to Caravaggio. . . . In this sense, the Renaissance sees the birth of the modern artist, an independent thinker  as well as a craftsman.

Thinking is nice.

Below is “St. Jerome in His Study”, by Antonello da Messina. The painting was completed circa 1460-1475. Whatever else was going on in the late 15th century, Antonello da Messina, in painting St. Jerome as a thinker at his desk, uncannily anticipated the future of humanity—anticipated you:

Source: Wikipedia Commons

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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3 Responses to Why, if you’re a humanist, Renaissance art is important to contemplate

  1. Heuristics says:

    But is this accurate?

    Didnt the art prior to the creation of imitationism place death at the center of most things, not God?

    Europe had just gone through the black plague after all and lost about 60% of the population.

  2. santitafarella says:


    Man is death: a mortal in the realm of flux, temporarily taming the lion (see him in the painting above), but ultimately in a losing battle with its jaws. That’s the glory and the tragedy of us. The Renaissance (in my view) asks “What does it feel like to be human in a world where God is not quite clearly there? What does one do? What does one suffer? What does one long for? What myths can still speak to us?”

    I don’t think that Renaissance humanists were crude unironic vitalists. They had not forgotten death. They were vitalists, but ironic ones (unlike, say, the unironic vitalist Howard Roark in Rand’s novel).


  3. notitiae says:

    Wonder!! Thank for the post and you nice blog. I hope to link a good news by Vaite in the rernaissance and expecially on Federico
    II Medieval period and renaissance Borgia Lucrezia. It’s in Italian words, palio, pictures, dresses and video about his history in
    Italy . Goog vision Jacopo Here is the link:


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