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Renaissance, the politics of aesthetics Prolegomena for decolonizing the idea of Renaissance


Raffaele Federici[1]


“Renaissance” in French means “rebirth” and it is from the French that the English got this word. During the 19th century, the English term “Renaissance” was first used to describe certain historical periods, the 15th-16th centuries in Italy, and the 16th-17th centuries in England.


The French word, however, originates from the Italian word for rebirth, which is “Rinascita”. The first time the Italian word Rinascita appears in a text about art is in Giorgio Vasari’s “Preface for his Lives of the Artists”, a huge work written in 1550 and revised in 1568. In the Preface, Vasari says, among other things, that art after ancient times fell into a period of decline, in which the figures that were represented by artists and the scenes were “rozze e brutte” (roughly defined and ugly).


Rinascita for Vasari is a rebirth of the greatness of ancient art, the techniques of ancient art, and the subject of ancient art. For Vasari, great ancient art was that created by the Greeks in the 5th century B.C. and the Romans between the 1st and the 3rd century A.C. For Vasari, rebirth means that in the 15th and 16th centuries, Italian artists were once again interested in anatomy and beauty, just as ancient artists once were; that, once again, painters and sculptors care about verisimilitude as ancient artists did, and want to show the natural body, as in antiquity, nude.


Italian painters, believes Vasari, want to show natural light falling on objects and people, want to copy nature in all its forms, but are also interested in idealizing life, as artists did in ancient times. By calling it a rebirth of the arts, Vasari clearly implies that the art of the ancient world, from 800 B.C. to 300 C.E., is more interesting than medieval art, from 300 to 1400 C.E. Ancient Western art should be a model for artists painting in the period when Vasari was writing. Long after Vasari employs the word “Rinascita” to describe the art produced in Italy in the 15th and 16th centuries, the term “Renaissance” is applied to European art from the 15th and 16th centuries in modern art histories.


As scholars examined the art of the Renaissance, they further refined their descriptive terminology. Because most of Italian art of the Trecento, or 14th century, is considered Gothic, the Renaissance for most scholars only begins in the 15th century, or Quattrocento (1400s), with the invention of one-point perspective and a return to interest in classical architecture and classical anatomy. The same interests of the Quattrocento continue on into the Cinquecento, the 16th century, the 1500s . 


The Ri-nascita, Re-Birth also means:


(a) A renewed interest in pagan subjects for painting and sculpture; in the Middle Ages Europe, Christian stories are the ones being rendered in art, mainly in painting and sculpture, in the Renaissance, the tales of the Greek and Roman gods are again told in art, along with Christian ones. The Conference of the Greek and Roman churches in 1439 in Florence marked the union of two branches of the Catholic Church, but it also entailed a meeting of Greek and Italian intellects. The curious Florentines were interested in learning Greek and reading Greek and Latin texts in their original language; many of those texts were not Christian but preceded Christianity. Florentines were introduced in this period, partly due to the exchange of 1439, to writers such as Plato, Sophocles, Euripides, Heraclitus, Aristotle, Herodotus, Lucretius, Pliny, interesting minds that never knew about Christ. Consequently, Florentines wanted to know what these writers thought and what they wrote about. The subjects of these authors are frequently pagan; educated patrons in Italy at the time commissioned artists to create art, paintings or sculptures, based on classical subjects.


(b) A renewed interest in Greek and Roman architectural forms: Vitruvius, the 1st century B.C. architect who wrote a treatise on architecture, is read again by Italian architects like Brunelleschi or Alberti.


(c) A renewed interest in accurate anatomy, in sculpture and painting, and in space, color and light, in painting; the classics’ desire to imitate nature is revived in the 1400s and carries over into the 1500s. The Renaissance artists emphasize actual muscles and proportionate bodies, and Renaissance painters wish to show the effects of gravity on those muscles and bones underneath the drapery. Because they study accurate anatomy and classical sculpture, they produce realistic-looking human beings.


(d) A renewed interest in portraiture (realistic portrayals) of actual human beings in paint and stone. Classical artists, especially Roman sculptors, were very concerned with creating accurate portraits of their ancestors, since the custom was to carry images of dead members of the family in funerary processions; the features of those ancestors needed to be realistic so that the people could be recognized.


(e) With the increased appreciation for ancient art came the desire to compete with and surpass ancient artists. Several Italian artists mentioned by Vasari create artworks purposely to compete with well-known ancient artists. For example, Botticelli’s Calumny of Apelles (c.1494) competes with a famous painting by Apelles described by Lucian (not extant – original 4th century B.C.)


In this complex framework, the birth of a new perspective is key to understanding how aesthetics is closely linked to the origins of contemporaneity. The period between the late Renaissance and the early Enlightenment in Europe – what might be called the “long” seventeenth century, between about 1575 and 1725 has a particular claim to the attention of those interested in the intellectual developments that made possible both the systematic investigation of culture, society and belief, and of modern science and technology.


In this timeframe, additional facts should be included. Renaissance is also a result of the complex system of relations with the Ottoman Empire and with the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, in 1453, and the fall of the East Roman Empire was also believed to have caused the European Renaissance.


But this is only one of the possible narratives. I am more impressed with the intellectual contribution of 13th and 14th centuries Muslim Spain to the revival of learning than with that of the 15th century Byzantines elites. Moreover, I realize that this flamboyant heritage from the experience of El Andalus. The golden age that was El Andalus has become a byword for cultural and intellectual flourishing in an environment of religious and ethnic tolerance.


This heritage and memory is missing as a result of a radicalization process both in the Western World and in the Middle East. I would suggest here what can be called a decolonized strategy to promote coexistence and human, social and cultural development in those areas that need to be instructive and generative.


Contemporaneity here is not a historical time”, an epoch, but a structure of temporality. In this case: a neutral simultaneity, a contingent coexistence. In its broader meaning and without indicating any epoch, “contemporary” is all that coexists, all that belongs to a particular time. No need to base this coexistence on a sharing of features and identities, on some form of substantial community. The things, the people, the events coexist. There is no need for any further argument.


As I said, the simultaneity is neutral and the coexistence contingent. But, at the same time, precisely because it authorizes the gathering of different existences under a unique term (the “epoch”, the “time”, “the contemporary”), contemporaneity seems to call for surpassing of contingency. Thus, it is necessary that, at some point, simultaneity gives an account of itself and establishes itself as a genuine community; that identity, a reason, a content, explains the fact of the coexistence and proves that it is a matter of a truly common present.


Therefore, contemporaneity should be understood as a neutral simultaneity marking itself with insufficiency and aspiring to the unity of a substantial community. I believe that dance, as a scenic event, is directly shaped by such a structure. It can be given expression only on the stage and is nothing else but a structure of contemporaneity and, therefore, of temporality. Going back to “contemporary”, a certain change happened in the choreographic field over the past 10 years. This change can only be understood in reference to the contemporaneity of the scène, which would be, as the reflective work of the performance, an awakening and radical establishing of the stakes.


In this context, Renaissance means a transformation of the world, and the commitment to not leave anyone behind and to guarantee rights to all individuals, which is also at the basis of the Resolution 70/1 of the General Assembly of the United Nations, and of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which contains the Declaration and the 17 sustainable development goals with 169 targets of sustainable development, adopted on September 25, 2015.

[1] Raffaele Federici, Dipartimento di Ingegneria Civile e Ambientale, Università degli Studi di Perugia, Italy.