For the fourth episode of this 1969 thirteen part series, art historian Kenneth Clark (1903 – 1983) moves from the Gothic to the Renaissance. Part 3 introduced the world of trade in the form of the Italian city of Florence, and it is in Florence that Part 4 starts, looking out over the Pazzi Chapel by the architect Filippo Brunelleschi. In this chapel, Clark says, the beginnings of the Renaissance are visible. Though often considered small, Clark claims that this is actually because of a new perspective, so to speak, in culture in which “everything is adjusted to the scale of reasonable human necessity.” This whole change in outlook he catches in one phrase, coined by Protagoras:”Man, the measure of all things.

Though he does not elaborate, taking as his guide architecture and the visual arts, as usual, Clark has some high praise for the Florentine institutions of the first thirty years of the 15th century. He goes so far as to claim Florentine politics

were directed by a group of the most intelligent individuals who have ever been elected to power by a democratic government.

Clark says the Renaissance was largely based on the study of Antique literature, beginning with Petrarch in the 14th century, but that the following generations of these Humanist scholars represent a “new regenerative force, a new example”, and that the focal point of their studies was in Florence. There, a second generation Humanist like Leonardo Bruni could compare the Republic of Florence with the Ancient Roman Republic, and even with Democratic Athens under Pericles. “Like the Athenians, the Florentines loved beauty.” They tried to reconcile Neoplatonic ideas with Christianity, while at the same time infusing these ideas with the “memories of the Middle Ages.

In Florence this “heroic age of scholarship” led by men who were themselves scholars as well as politicians, lead to the founding of the library of San Marco, which Clark dubs “the Humanist equivalent of the Cavendish Laboratory.” Here, he says, Humanists studied manuscripts

discovered in monastic libraries where they’d lain since they were copied in the Dark Ages

which “could alter the course of history with an explosion, not of matter, but of mind.” For the Florentines, these manuscripts were invaluable, not just as antiquities. They were relevant in their age, because:

As I have said before, all the great ages of civilisation have seen themselves as part of history, both as heirs and as transmitters.

Florentines definitely put themselves in a Classical tradition, which they then sought to surpass. One way in which they thought they were able to do so, was in the use of perspective. Clark says the Florentines, wrongly, thought that Classical Antiquity had not known perspective, and they revelled in its application. Especially in so-called ‘ideal cities’. Not only does perspective work best in those examples, but it is an indication that Humanism was part of an urban culture, which was very public. It fed, what Vasari called “the spirit of criticism” which, Clark says, meant that

no gap of incomprehension between the intelligent patron and the artist existed. Our contemporary attitude of pretending to understand works of art in order not to appear philistines would have seemed absurd to the Florentines.