“The Italians,” says Jakob Burckhardt in his The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, “are the first among modern peoples by whom the outward world was seen and felt as something beautiful.”
Italian Renaissance writing is full of the word “beauty”. No other civilization was ever so taken up with the concept or the feeling. Beauty was not merely one of the attributes of a painting or a sunset, it was a meaning—the meaning. A definition? No one ever gave one. They all thought they knew what was meant. Michelangelo and others made it the object of their work. It was a blessing from heaven and they all tried to get hold of it in their art; in fact, to make a picture or a statue that would fascinate, that would bless, just as nature did.
This glow that nature gradually came to have, and the delight it caused, created new generations of artists. Beginning with Cimabue and Giotto (a friend of Dante’s), each tried to reproduce the charm, tried to find the secret to the charm that emanated from nature. Giorgio Vasari, in his history of painting, which can be considered a kind of history of artistic beauty, traces the progress those painters made. He watches the revolutionary advances—the improvement in drawing the folds of a robe; the better and better rendering of perspective; the more and more natural expressions and gestures of the people depicted. All through his book he calls paintings “very beautiful”; but he admits that the work of the first two or three generations of painters was imperfect; that complete perfection came only with Leonardo, Rafael, and Michelangelo. What did he mean by “a perfect work of art”?
On the one hand he meant the faithful reproduction of nature as you see it, without the interference of prejudice or convention of any kind. He believed that all the secrets were in the objects of nature and could be learned by close and dedicated observation and study. You compared the picture of a leaf to the “real” leaf in your hand. Was it right? Was its shape correct? Its color? You compared a robe in a picture to the robe you were wearing and judged the credibility of the folds by yours: by the “real” ones.
But on the other hand, Vasari believed in the Ideal. It wasn’t enough for the artist to simply copy nature: he had to improve it. If the real robe, the one he was copying, had a confusion of folds, it was up him to eliminate some of them and paint only those that explained their direction or function in his drawing. If the leaf he had plucked from the tree had a blight hole, he should not include that hole in his copy. If his human model had a beautiful body but a sour face, he should substitute the face with a beautiful one from some other model. Art was selection, simplification, correction, explanation. Beauty was perfection and perfection was a product not of nature but of the human mind, which reflected the Creator’s own perfection.