Art from Baroque Period through the Postmodern Era
Renaissance art history began as civic history; it was an expression of civic pride. The first such history was Filippo Villani's De origine civitatis Florentiae et eiusdem famosis civibus, written about 1381-82. Florentine artists revived an art that was almost dead, Villani asserts, just as Dante had restored poetry after its decline in the Middle Ages. The revival was begun by Cimabue and completed by Giotto, who equalled the ancient painters in fame and even surpassed them in skill and talent. After Giotto came his followers, Stefano, Taddeo Gaddi, and Maso, uomini illustri all, who, together with notable jurists, poets, musicians, theologians, physicians, orators, and others, made Florence the preeminent city of Italy.
Cino Rinuccini, following Villani, published an honor-roll of Florence's famous men, among them, artists. And Cristoforo Landino wrote in the same vein in a better known work that appeared in 1481; the Preface to his Commentary to the Divine Comedy contains a recapitulation of the painting of the classical world that is followed by a brief history of modern art, which is to say Florentine art, beginning with Cimabue and Giotto and enumerating the contributions of the masters of the quattrocento: Masaccio, Lippi, Castagno, Uccello, Fra Angelico, Brunelleschi, Donatello, Desiderio, Ghiberti, and the two Rossellini.
Though in no sense a history, Alberti's De pictura of 1435-36, like these works, contains a list--a much abbreviated one--of great Florentine artists: Brunelleschi, Donatello, Luca della Robbia, Ghiberti, and Masaccio. And, more important, the list is part of an encomium similar in type to those mentioned: Brunelleschi, like Villani's Giotto, has equalled the ancients in fame and surpassed them in talent. For the promotion of talent, Brunelleschi's, Donatello's, and the others', Florence ("this most beautiful of cities") is without equal in modern Italy.
These texts are among the handful that treat art in the early Florentine Renaissance and are, therefore, precious testimony from the early years of Renaissance art history. While rare for being texts on art, they are of a type, however, that was common in Renaissance literature. They belong to a genre or category in which are found some of the most characteristic texts of Renaissance humanism. Other of the books in this category are by such writers as Bruni, Salutati, and Manetti, books with which all students of the Renaissance are familiar. They treat broad moral and philosophical issues, but, as in the accounts of visual art, only insofar as they concern the city of Florence. And scholars reasonably have asked why there was such a preoccupation with Florence at this time. One of those who did so was Hans Baron and his answer has been at the center of discussions of this question since the 1950s.
Baron linked the focus on Florence during the years around 1400 to a struggle over Florentine independence...