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Friday, February 23, 2007

A New Take on the Renaissance

Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University's Italian campus. In her article reported in Zenit at http://www.zenit.org/english (Reference: Code: ZE07022228; Date: 2007-02-22), she reports in a change in attitude and response by her students to Renaissance architecture in Florence. The change is a happy one to note. A more mature response is now coming to the fore. Her article reads in full as follows (I`m copying it as it does not seem to have an individual web reference)

"A New Take on the Renaissance

Every semester, during our Florence field trip, my students give oral presentations on various monuments in the city. After six years of hearing everything from "Donatello's 'David' is a homosexual icon" to "Michelangelo was anti-Catholic," I have learned to brace myself for whatever their "research" has unearthed.

But last weekend my students took me completely by surprise as they gave presentations connecting the reason of Renaissance architecture to the faith of Florentine society.

All the architecture presentations were on the works of Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446), best known for his construction of the enormous dome of the cathedral of Florence, Santa Maria del Fiore. Although this project earned him everlasting fame, it didn't offer Brunelleschi the possibility to reveal all he had learned about proportion, measurement and space while studying the ancient ruins of Rome.

Brunelleschi designed and built several churches in Florence. While these buildings do not boast such a dramatic dome, their carefully organized, proportionate and bright spaces presented a completely new style, especially when compared with the dark, vertical Gothic-style churches such as Santa Croce.

The first remarkable presentation took place right outside Santa Croce at the Pazzi Chapel built in the 1440s. The students filed out of the dimly lit church built with octagonal piers, pointed arches and wooden beams across the ceiling, and stood before a neatly defined structure with a columned porch.

The student explained how surprising this building must have looked to the Florentines, so neat and measured amid the earlier forms of architecture. Pointing out the circle of the dome and the square of the building, he told the students that in architecture, the dome traditionally symbolized heaven, while the square represented earth, and that Brunelleschi, through his design and decoration, was trying to reconcile the two elements.

Watching a student explain the function of a church building and the connection between heaven and earth at the altar where Jesus, God and man, becomes truly present, was one of the brightest moments of my teaching career.

But there was more to come. The next students presented the churches of San Lorenzo and Santo Spirito, also by Brunelleschi. These students asked their peers to note the space around the churches and how these solid, proportionate buildings gave a sense of order among the winding and confusing streets that surrounded them.

They also brilliantly presented Brunelleschi's modular system of building. This technique, learned from the ancient Romans, takes a fixed measurement, such as the diameter of a column, and uses that length as the basis of the whole building. The aisle would be 10 column widths, for example, the nave 30, the height triple that number and so forth.

This system of perfect proportion lends harmony to a structure, and as the students pointed out, the emphasis on the concordant interaction of the space in the church, is meant to mirror the harmony of heaven and God's divine plan.

During the Renaissance, architects left behind the splashy gold mosaics and stained-glass windows which once dazzled the medieval world into sensing a transcendent space, and replaced it with mathematical organization, using the sciences to focus people on the perfection of God.

For many years, I have heard students repeat the tired mantra that the Renaissance era, fascinated by the empirical study of nature, used science to liberate itself from religion, and that this emancipation is reflected in the art and architecture of the time.

But as these young people pointed out, the Renaissance used mathematics, geometry and architecture to enhance their understanding of God, seeing in the harmony of numbers God's essence as logos, or reason.

This remarkable era of faith and reason, understood and explained by young people from another country 500 years later, is an example the amazing universality of the Christian artistic tradition."