The bubonic plague, or the Black Death, was the worst recorded pandemic in history. Over one-third of the population of Europe died. Total loss of population changed economical and social trends in Europe. Some historians divide the European history of the Middle Ages in two stages: before the plague and after it. These changes in society had an impact on art, particularly on painting. Though plague left gloomy mark in history, it caused the start of Renaissanse in European Culture.
Economical and social impact of the Black Death
Many theories explain the consequences of the Black Death in different ways. Nevertheless, it is obvious that the mortality rate among poor people was higher then among nobles. Probably the possibility to wait in isolation till the epidemic was over, as it was described in Giovanni Boccaccio’s “Decameron”, saved lives of many aristocratic families. When the disease rescinded, social structure changed significantly. It was the time of wealth redistribution, because those who survived have appropriated or inherited the assets of dead. Analyzing the consequences of plague in Siena, Italy, Ryan S. Davis writes:
“These nouveaux riches infiltrated society, and chipped away at the IX’s rule until they gained seats in public office. The artisans and literates who survived ignored the IX’s orders of wage limitations and demanded enormous sums to perform skilled labor and notary work.” (Davis, 2005) Thus, a modest recovery at the end if 14 and the beginning of 15 centuries caused the boom in the decorative arts, along with the construction of palaces for the urban elites, and renewed long-distance trade.
Europe was overpopulated before the epidemic. Some researches believe that the “Little Ice Age” (the climate change that began at 12th century) caused the shortage of crops and the period of famine. Death of a third of Europe’s population produced the labor shortage. Wages became higher, competition decreased, and the position of lower classes became more favorable. Reduced population became wealthier and better fed. Therefore they had more surplus money to spend on luxury goods like art. The redistribution of wealth raised new dynasties and ruler families, such as Medici in Florence. Thus, the Black Death became the crucial cause of the Renaissance.
Generally, the Black Death became the barrier between Gothic and Renaissance. The Black Death brought the desperation, which shook the idea of loving God. However the inability of the Church to protect population from the disease declined the influence of Church. The prominent minds of the time began to dwell more on their lives on Earth, rather than afterlife, and turned to Antique ideals and philosophy of humanism, which became the main idea of Renaissance. Two regions of Western Europe were particularly active that time: Italy and Flanders.
Italy was not the entity at that time; it consisted from the small city-states. One of them was Florence. At the end of 14th century the banking family of the Medici became the ducal housefamily in Florence. Lorenzo di Medici and his son Cosimo were the outstanding rulers: they bring stability and prosperity into Florence, finished the war with the neighbor city Milan and stimulated and patronized arts. That is why Florence often considered being the birthplace of the Renaissance. The patronage of rulers was the important factor, because artist of that time received the commissions for advance. The list of artist under Medici patronage includes Masaccio, sculptor Brunelleschi, painters Donatello and Fra Angelico, as well as Leonardo Da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli and Michelangelo Buonarotti.
Ideas of humanism and its influence on art
I’d like to highlight main gifts that the arts of Renaissance obtained from Antique humanism.
“Humanism, which found a welcoming home in Florence, gave some major gifts to the arts. First, nudes were once again acceptable subject matter. Secondly, portraits no longer had to be of saints or other Biblical figures. Portraits, beginning in the Early Renaissance, could be painted of actual people. Finally, the landscape, too, crept into fashion – again, due to the fact that humanist thought was more broad than strictly religious thought. Between the new intellectual crowd and the ideas they introduced to the artistic community, it was a great time to be an artist in Florence.” (Isaak, 2005) I will examine some famous works of art of early Renaissance searching the specific features of this epoch.
Sandro Botticelli “La nascita di Venere” (The birth of Venus)
Botticelli started as an apprentice of Fra Filippo Lippi in Florence. Almost all of his life he worked for the noble families of Florence, especially for Medici. In 1481 Botticelli was one of several artists chosen to go to Rome to decorate the walls of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. Later, in 1486, he finished his work on “The birth of Venus”, which was painted for the villa of Lorenzo de Medici.
This beautiful painting is the real masterpiece and one of the best images on history. As it was typical for Renaissance, Botticelli turned to Greece myth about the goddess of beauty, Aphrodite, or Venus, which was born from sea foam. The Venus is nude, though Graces are covering her nudity; that is typical feature of epoch, too. And at last, this is the portrait of real woman, Simonetta Cattaneo de Vespucci. This woman was known as the greatest beauty of her age, and Botticelli loved her till the end of his days. She died from tuberculosis in the age of 22. Botticelli finished “The birth of Venus” nine years later and asked to burry him near her feet. Returning to the market of the art, it is important that Simonetta was the mistress of Giuliano di Medici, so the painting was paid by Medici family. The image of la bella Simonetta is the central figure of other Botticelli painting, “Primavera”. On the same painting images of other noble women could be found: Caterina Sforza, Countess of Forlì, is one of them.
Leonardo da Vinci “Altima Cena (The last supper)”
Young Leonardo started as an apprentice in Florence, just like Botticelli, his teacher and master was Verrocchio. Leonardo wanted to find the rich patron, but other painters were more successful and forwarded him. In 1480 Leonardo received two very important commissions at last, later one more commission, but his political career prevented him to finish two of three. He was luckier when he moved to Milan with diplomatic mission. Here, on the wall of the dining hall at Santa Maria delle Grazie, he painted “The Last Supper” for his new patron Duke Ludovico Sforza and his duchess Beatrice d’Este.
Leonardo painted it with tempera on dry wall that is why few years after it was finished, “the Last supper” began to ruin. Nevertheless, it is one of the most copied masterpieces in the world.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder “The Triumph of Death”
The Renaissance in “Low countries” started later then in Italy, and though it was inspired with Italian art, it has had its own features. Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Netherlandish painter, started as an apprentice, and later became one of the most fertile Dutch artists. The Bruegels were the dynasty of painters. So, for Italian artists the rich patron was the key to success, and artists from Northern Europe had to have the famous family name.
Bruegel’s painting “The triumph of Death” depicts panoramic landscape of death. The painting was inspired with the works of Bruegel’s predecessor, Hieronymus Bosch. It is the fanciful union of Italian school, ideas of Renaissance and infernal visions, which were inspired with the pictures of plague in Europe.
The impact of the Black Death to European culture could hardly be overestimated. From the one hand, it created the necessary economic prerequisites for the flowering of art. From the other hand, it caused the decrease of Church influence and growth of interest to Antique philosophy. Generally, the Black Death was the starting point of European Renaissance.
Woodward, Richard B. “Death Takes No Holiday”. Wall Street Journal, February 14, 2009.
Davis, Ryan. “The Lasting Consequences of Plague in Siena”. University of Motana, September 2005.
Esaak, Shirley. “Early Italian Renaissance Art – How Florence Got a Competitive Edge”. 2005 About.com Cuide.
Herlihy, David. “The Black Death and Transormation of the West”. Harvard University Press, Cambridge. 1998.