The art historian gave an illuminating talk on the intersection of historical culture and art.
Renowned Renaissance art historian Dr. Thomas Martin spoke in Tyrell Hall on Monday, Feb. 4, in an event cosponsored by the School of Art, Design and Art History and the Honors Program. Martin spoke about understanding the Renaissance through the eyes of notable minds like Niccolò Machiavelli and Leonardo da Vinci. He lectured both about characteristics of Italy during the Renaissance and about the role of these prominent individuals in this influential time.
Thomas Martin received his B.A., M.A., and PhD from Columbia University in New York. He taught for 13 years at the University of Tulsa, where he won the Outstanding Teacher Award for his work teaching art history and Honors Program courses. Martin’s writing has been published in several prestigious scholarly journals including Revue de Louvre, and he has received fellowships from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies in Florence, Italy.
Starting his lecture with a background of the period, Martin placed the Italian Renaissance between 1350 and 1550. This period is characterized by its economic, philosophical and artistic innovations, which people living at the time recognized stood apart from the Middle Ages. Renaissance thinkers saw themselves living in a third period of history: the era in which Greco-Roman ideas resurfaced after having been lost during the Middle Ages. The term Renaissance means “rebirth” in French, referring to the rebirth of these Classical ideals.
The Renaissance was marked by several shifts in thinking, primarily through the Humanists. Humanists were usually laymen, not members of the clergy, who were trained in Latin and able to read Classical texts, like those by Ovid or Cicero, in their original language. Beyond this, Humanists read Classical texts for their own sake rather than with the goal of applying antiquity to Christianity as had been done in the past.
Machiavelli was a Florentine living in the early 16th century who exemplified Humanism. He worked for the Florentine Republic in the period between Medici rule and was briefly imprisoned when the Medici power was restored in 1512. However, he was released shortly after and moved away from Florence to a farm outside of the city. He began writing his political treatise “The Prince” during this time.
While living with his family on the farm, Machiavelli wrote an important letter to Florentine diplomat Francesco Vettori that details Machiavelli’s Humanism. Here, Machiavelli detailed his daily life with particularly significant reference to his reading. He read contemporary the Italian literature of Dante and Petrarch alongside Classical writers like Roman and Latin poets Ovid and Tibullus. Machiavelli said that by reading the ancients, he felt he could “converse with them and to question them about the motives for their actions, and they, out of their human kindness, answer me.”
Although da Vinci was not technically a Humanist, as he did not receive a Humanist education, his work also embodies the ideals of Renaissance thinking. Da Vinci taught himself Latin at 42 but was never completely comfortable with it. Despite this, he made a sketch inspired by the Roman engineer Vitruvius. The writing of Vitruvius was lost during the Middle Ages but reprinted in Latin during the Renaissance.
Vitruvius wrote “De Architectura,” a book detailing ideal proportions of architecture and of man. Using the measurements Vitruvius conceived, da Vinci made his famous “Vitruvian Man” sketch. Further, da Vinci used other principles of Classical art in his designs to highlight the active and energetic aspects of life and nature. This is especially seen in details like the ambiguous background of “Mona Lisa,” which include flowing streams to highlight constant dynamic changes in the natural world.
Martin’s perspective on the Renaissance was made more personal through his emphasis on these two notable figures. While their political and artistic works stand alone as influential parts of history, Martin put them in the perspective of the time in which they were made. Ultimately, this event was a great example of the intent of liberal arts educations: to synthesize ideas from different disciples, be it political science, visual arts or engineering. In doing this, Martin led listeners to a new way of understanding history.