The Roman Forum: Part 2, Ruins in modern imagination (The Renaissance and after)

What did Brunelleschi, Donatello, and Masaccio take from ancient ruins of Rome?

Ruins in Modern Imagination: The Roman Forum (part 2), an ARCHES video. Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:05] In the early 15th century, two important Florentine artists — Donatello, the sculptor, and Brunelleschi, the engineer and architect — came to Rome, and they came to study and to understand antiquity.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:20] This was a new appreciation for the ruins, for the culture of ancient Greece and Rome, not just in visual culture but in literature and history. There was a revival, at least among some, of ancient Greek and Roman culture.

[0:35] And so Brunelleschi and Donatello are looking, and measuring, and studying, and drawing; the idea was for them to incorporate what they had learned into their own sculpture and architecture, respectively.

Dr. Zucker: [0:48] For example, we see that direct impact of classical sculpture on Donatello’s art. If we look at his sculpture “David,” we see a figure in bronze, standing in a beautiful pose that we know as contrapposto. This is where the weight is shifted onto one leg, and the entire body is responding to that.

[1:07] This is a kind of observation that had been developed first by the ancient Greeks and then borrowed by the ancient Romans.

Dr. Harris: [1:13] Similarly, Brunelleschi is utilizing the forms of ancient Rome in his own architecture, in the churches; for example, Santo Spirito in Florence.

[1:23] Then, they’re talking to Masaccio. Masaccio and his fresco of “The Holy Trinity” in Santa Maria Novella is incorporating the forms of ancient Greek and Roman architecture. They’re using their study of ancient ruins to renew the arts of painting, of sculpture, and architecture.

Dr. Zucker: [1:40] This interest in the fragments of antiquity is part of a larger movement that we know as humanism. That is one of the defining features of the Renaissance. When we look at the paintings of Masaccio, or the sculptures of Donatello, or the architecture of Brunelleschi, they’re studying fragments, but their interest is not in the fragment itself.

[2:00] And so it’s interesting to look ahead a generation at the painting of somebody like Mantegna, who’s interested in the fragment.

Dr. Harris: [2:07] Mantegna clearly shows us his love for the ancient Roman ruin itself. Mantegna is creating paintings of Christian saints, of the Madonna and Child, for a Christian audience. But of course Christianity grew up in ancient Rome, so Mantegna uses those ruins to suggest how Christianity is superior to ancient pagan religions.

Dr. Zucker: [2:34] And a wonderful example of that is the small painting, “Saint Sebastian,” where we see the martyred Christian saint filled with arrows, but he remains miraculously alive, looking up to God, tied to the fragments of an ancient Roman arch; suggesting that Christian spiritual faith is stronger even than the great Roman empire, that Christianity outlasted Rome. The fragment takes on symbolic value.

Dr. Harris: [3:01] This Renaissance interest in the culture of ancient Greece and Rome reaches the highest levels of the church. Various popes are funding excavations around the city of Rome to discover the ruins of classical civilization. In a way, the city becomes a place where treasure can be found nearly everywhere, so that if someone is building a villa, they’re discovering fragments of ancient Roman sculptures.

[3:27] They’re discovering portions of buildings. We begin to get this interest in reconstructing. How can we take the fragments that we’ve discovered buried deep within the ground and put them back together? Were they putting them back together the way they were supposed to be put back together?

[3:45] What pieces were missing, and what should be done about the pieces that were missing? Should artists create a foot or an arm to help to reconstruct an ancient Greek or Roman sculpture? Michelangelo was present for the excavation, the uncovering, of the great sculpture of “Laocoön.”

[4:03] We know that fragments like the “Belvedere Torso,” these things now in the Vatican Museums, were enormously influential on Michelangelo, on Raphael, on Leonardo. In fact, Leonardo advised artists to include ruins in their paintings.

Dr. Zucker: [4:18] He does that in his great unfinished painting, “The Adoration of the Magi.” If you look at the upper left, you see a wonderful set of stairs that rise up to a broken arch and to a ruined column.

Dr. Harris: [4:31] So many of the ancient sculptures that we study today have names that are derived from the gorgeous villas of wealthy families of Rome.

Dr. Zucker: [4:41] In the 17th and 18th century, a new phenomenon arises, something we call the “Grand Tour,” where young men, as part of their education — men from wealthy families — would travel throughout Europe to important ancient sites. Rome was an absolutely required stop.

Dr. Harris: [4:59] In fact, there are, just like today, souvenirs that could be purchased by those on the Grand Tour and taken back to their houses in France or England or wherever, to show that they had done the Grand Tour and were learned and well-traveled. We begin to have this increasing interest in isolation of the ruin itself.

[5:23] Now, we should say that interest in ruins is not unique to this period of Renaissance and after, it’s something that we see in many cultures throughout history. But it gains particular traction and popularity in the 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries.

[5:41] [music]

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Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "The Roman Forum: Part 2, Ruins in modern imagination (The Renaissance and after)," in Smarthistory, July 14, 2020, accessed June 12, 2024,