Did The Renaissance Witness The Rise Of

The Concept Of The Individual? Essay, Research Paper


Burckhardt?s Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy?s second section is

devoted to the ?development of the individual? and claims to have found a great

change in human perception during the Renaissance: ?In the Middle Ages

both sides of the human consciousness?lay dreaming or half-awake beneath a

common veil.? The veil was woven of

faith, illusion and childish prepossession, through which the world and history

were seen clad in strange hues.? Man was

conscious of himself only as a member of a race, people, party, family or

corporation ? only through some general category.? In Italy this veil first melted into air; an objective treatment

and consideration of the State and all the things of this world became

possible.? The subjective side at the

same time asserted itself with corresponding emphasis?Burckhardt saw individualism as the period?s

greatest problem and as its greatest asset.?

Claiming that this ?fundamental vice? found its feet in the Italian

nation ? a people Burckhardt saw as ?emerged form the half-conscious life of

the race and become themselves individuals? and ?firstborn amongst the sons of

Europe? in virtue of their moral autonomy, cultivation of privacy and the individuality

of culture.? The Italians?first cast off the authority of a State which, as a

fact, is in most cases tyrannical and illegitmate, and what he thinks and does

is now, rightly or wrongly, called treason.?

The sight of victorious egotism in others drives him to defend his own

rights by his own arm?? In face of all

objective facts, of laws and restraints of any kind, he retains the feeling of

his own sovereignty, and in each case forms his decision independently,

according as honour or interest, passion or calculation, revenge or

renunciation, gain the upper hand in his mind.?Burckhardt

thought this massive change was the result of increased personal wealth for

much of society, the development of culture, a change in the role of the Church

but first and foremost, the Italian city-states.? The mass insecurities of the past caused by party strife was

replaced by personal insecurity (another form of individualism) as men were

forced to cultivate their personal worth and outlook.? In this mould, Burckhardt saw the rise of the ?universal man?: a

concept that meant not only universal knowledge of art, science and politics,

but also the ability to express oneself as an individual.? The personal development of individual

talent was a distinction in its absolute assertion of personality on the

world.? Burckhardt saw the new idea of

pride in oneself leading to new patriotism in one?s townsmen.? Local artists, leaders and authors all received

commemoration through statues, monuments and biographical writings.? However, as pride spurred these things on,

jealousy spurred on the short story, invective and cynical wit as well as

parody.? The universal men that

Burckhardt notes as being notably lauded by contemporaries include Leon

Battista Alberti, (an athlete, scribe, musician, painter, architect and

philosopher) and Leonardo da Vinci (a musician, lover of nature, scientist,

engineer, painter, inventor). Burckhardt?s

argument that the ?different tendencies and manifestations of private life?

thriving in the fullest vigour and variety? were developed in this period and

that the private man was ?indifferent to politics, and busied partly with

serious disputes, partly with the interests of a dilettante? emerged in this

period.? He saw Italy as beginning to

?swarm with individuality? at the close of the thirteenth century and a

?thousand figures meet us each in his own special shape and dress? once the

?ban on human personality? was dissolved.?

Dante was ?the most national herald of his time? because of the ?wealth

of individuality that he set forth.??

The breakdown of barriers of race, nationality and family occurred as

people stopped classifying themselves according to those criteria. Dante, the

first son of Florence said ?my country is the whole world? and Ghiberti said that

the learned man ?is nowhere a stranger?. Burckhardt

proves his thesis by claiming that the number of ?universal men? rose in the

fifteenth century, and although he was unsure whether they consciously

developed their ?spiritual and material existence,? several managed to attain

as perfect a being as was possible, given the innate failings of humanity. Burckhardt has

been throroughly analysed and attacked since his publication, mostly because

Burckhardt relied on brilliant prose, argument construction and sweeping

generalisations more than demonstration by examples.? His arguments won him praise that soon turned to bitter

criticism. ?The idea that man had been unaware of himself

is ridiculous.? Even medieval man used

the First Person Singular, and theologians working from Genesis knew that God

had differentiated individuals one from another.? Burckhardt?s individuals were different from their predecessors

in that they possessed striking, unique personalities and an urge to better

themselves.? The first part of

Burckhardt?s individual, the unique personality, has been dropped as the

exaggerations of a historian radically revising conceptions of the past and

trying to do too much. The idea of

man as a morally autonomous, emotive being possessive of will-power saw new

developments in Quattrocento Italy, but the substantial foundations for these

minor changes had been laid during the medieval period.? What was new was the idea of personality

depicting the actions, and possibly showing itself through the works and ideas,

of the man.? Burckhardt?s use of da

Vinci and Alberti is perhaps a little na?ve, as they were praised, not for

being the personifications of the Renaissance man, as Burckhardt thought, but

for being the exceptions.? Burckhardt?s

theory lacks concrete examples and facts to support it, and it has all but been

abandoned in its original form.? The

Renaissance did evolve a cult of the individual for western society.? The modern quirk of valuing the art because

of the artist, not because of its artistic value, is a Renaissance value.? ?Michelangelo and Pontormo made cults to their

artistic vision and ability in the 1500s in making their art an expression of

themselves.? Bufalmacco was notably

mocked by Franco Sachetti for his artistic gait and lifestyle, whilst Manetti

claims that Brunelleschi?s muse was his way of life.? Although Raphael, Masaccio and Giotto were straight-laced and

conventional, such artists as Donatello, who destroyed pieces art when he

failed to get a good enough price for it.?

This cult of such personae is seen as a sixteenth century innovation,

but another facet of artistic indiviualism, the reemergence of the artistic

temperament, was recorded by Vasari as occurring in the early fifteenth century

and in a novelle by Sacchetti, an author writing in the late fourteenth

century.? I use the word reemergence as

Pliny talks of Kallimachos ?the Niggler? who spent ages fussing over the

minutae of his work, Apollodorus ?the Madman? who smashed work of his that he

felt to be insufficient and Protegenes who ate only lupins steeped in water

whilst engaged in a project. Despite such aged roots, the idea as it comes to

us is a Renaissance phenomenon that was probably reintroduced by the humanists,

as the coincidence of the dates of the reintroduction and the dates of the

humanist hegemony would suggest.? Many

patrons saw innovative lifestyles as a means to innovative creations and

tolerated, accepted or supported the artist?s quirks, and this connection of

personality with the art produced is indeed a new innovation for the era.? As da Vinci said ?every painter paints

himself?. The Bohemians may have been attempting merely to raise themselves

above the norms of ?good society? and to show themselves to be of a different

social class than their less ?gifted? peers, but even if this is the case, it

is still an attempt at showing off a difference of personality that would have

been important for an artist.? By 1561,

Cardanus saw painters as ?fickle, of unsettled mind, melancholic, and

changeable in their manners.?? To use

Pliny?s words, artists were seen as ?queer fish.? Vasari?s ?Lives of the Artists? is a catalogue of

bohemian artists, most of whom are given trite reasons for their

brilliance.? Although, he did give

?nature? and ?grace? credit for Desiderio da Settignano and Domenico Puligo,

and surmised that ?long implanted seeds? were the reason for Agostino and

Agnolo of Siena?s creativity, he usually gave less vague reasons.? Gaddo Gaddi, Vellano of Padua and Pisanello

earned their talent and inspiration by copying their predecessors.? Giuliano da Maiano was supported in his

choice of vocation by his father, so giving him an edge.? Exile enabled Starnina, Antonio Veneziano and

Perugino to improve their portfolios, whilst Baccio da Montelupo won his talent

through application.? Alberti?s pensive

use of artistic theory and Dosso?s study of art were both extolled.? At the same time, Vasari notes how Andrea

del Sarto, Fra Batolomeo and Rosso were discouraged by Michelangelo?s

inimitable presence in their city of Rome, whilst copying masters hindered

Uccello and Verrochio. Later, Vasari

explained the prevalent belief that an artist?s ability sprung directly from

his motivation and situation, so introducing the idea of individuality.? Simone, Lippo Memmi, Lorenzo di Bicci and

Don Bartolomeo were all praised for the way that their good characters shone

through their art whilst the art of Dosso and Battista Dossi suffered for lack

of an interesting personality.?

Giottino, Franciabigio and Donatello took the artistic temperament to a

new height whilst Raffaello da Montelupo?s diffidence and passivity failed his

art.? The devotion required, in Vasari?s

eyes, to art meant abstinence in order to allow the artist?s outpourings to be

unchecked by other considerations, whilst the creations needed to be coaxed

from the artists by exhortation and encouragement ? a motivational

technique.? The importance of the

individual?s vision is clear when one learns of Michelangelo?s secrecy about

his work, and his incredible depression, mood swings and three day work

binges.? Wittkower

challenges the emergence of artistic individuality in this period by noting

that the architect who built Pisa cathedral, Rainaldus, not only recorded his

on name but also recorded that he thought his work was ?remarkable and

excellent?. Lanfrancus of Modena calls himself clarus, doctus and aptus.? The guild system which emerged during the

XIIIth century made artists de facto craftsmen with controlled training and workdays.? Coulton believes that the guilds diminished

individualism, whilst Doren denies such a link. The importance

of motivation and situation was as important to Vasari for artists as for

scholars and poets.? Contemporaries and

classical sources saw poets as a theologian and seer, as he used the eyes of

his mind to penetrate deeper truths.?

Creativity was an asset belonging to the poet: a change in direction

from the poet inspired by God?s grace to the poet inspired generally.? This creativity was studied in biography

after biography of poets.? The creative

minds were seen as sources of wisdom for patrons, readers or admirers to

follow.? The Renaissance was the era

when the powerful students of the learned bringers of wisdom became famous for

their adherence to the philosophies of their adherent sources.? This was set down as early as in Plutarch?s Lives.

?The philosophy was interspersed

with illustrations of illustrious followers of the philosophy: the idea of

virtue was no longer just as simple as following biblical ethics for a

fifteenth century Italian.? The

importance of following the life suggested by the fashionable philosophies was

vital for keeping up appearances and was characterised for the most part by the

pursuit of virtue for its own sake.? The era leant

to man a great non-Christian (although not un-Christian) set of behavioural

norms sharply different to the norms known to Christian Europe.? The Renaissance was important not in

creating individualism, so much as in recognising the importance of a concept

of virtue by which everyone could be held accountable and the recognition of

the importance of character in creativity which the humanists and artists

discovered.? The term ?Individualism? is

Victorian and in itself assigns too great an importance to the Renaissance ?

another concept itself not described by a contemporary term. Although I am

contrary to much of the revision of Burckhardt in that I would not claim that

socio-economic pressures caused the awakening what little concept of

individuality was born or developed in this era, I would support an awakening

to the role of the individual in artistic talent, and moreover, I would support

the idea of an awakening of the concept of humanity as a group of independent



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