Summary. Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation Part 5 – The Hero as Artist: Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci
In the second half of Episode 4 art historian Kenneth Clark 1969’s Civilisation, Clark spends quite some time discussing the small, Northern courts of Italy. Although it is a fact, he says, that Florence invented the individual, in the last quarter of the fifteenth century, those small courts were very important. Indeed, according to Clark, the Renaissance “owed quite as much” to them, as to Florence. As his example, Clark uses the “small and rather remote” state of Urbino.
Describing court life in Urbino as “one of the highlights of Western Civilisation”, Clark poetically contrasts the soft pink brick of Urbino with the “harsh stone” of the protective city castles of Florence. In Urbino, Clark says, safety was provided by Federico da Montefeltro “the greatest general of his time and a humane and intelligent man.”
Not only was Montefeltro a humane man, the state he ruled was small enough, according to Clark, for a ruler to know any one of his subjects. This sense of the human scale permeates the rest of the episode. Clark disregards the larger political context almost completely. Except for Montefeltro’s generalship – he was a “condottiero”, meaning a military contractor – only one mention is made of the series of wars ravaging the Italian peninsula. This is when Clark mentions Montefeltro needing to keep his armour at hand.
In Episode 5, for cultural, as well as political reasons, the story moves from Florence to Rome. Urbino could be said to feature in this move in three ways. Firstly, because it would, not long after the end of the Montefeltro dynasty, be incorporated into the Papal State. Clark glosses over the role of this temporal role of the Pope, but its influence is hard to ignore. If only because it would help snuff out the small principalities whose cultural importance Clark praises in Episode 4. Secondly, because one of the heroes of Episode 5, Raphael, was born in Urbino. Thirdly, and most importantly, because of Clark’s praise for the ‘human size’ and perfect proportions of the Ducal Palace in Urbino. Episode 5 is dedicated, essentially, to a move away from this idea of humanity.
Clark describes Medieval Rome, maybe too harshly, as a time when the Romans lived in their city, essentially as people without a past. Pressed down by the weight of the giants of Antiquity, which they no longer understood, they treated the city as if it was a natural phenomenon. This is, according to Clark, what changed with the Renaissance, when Antiquity no longer oppressed, but was taken as a challenge. Concentrating on art, as always, Clark describes three “heroes” of the Renaissance: Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci. They each are larger than life artists, making art that surpassed both the scale and artistic intensity of the Ancient World.
Clark posits, that there was a change around 1500, from a world of free, active men, to a world of giants. As he describes the beauty of the works, their heroic energy, he is critical of one thing. That the move away from the human scale, into the heroic, causes a “deadening of moral responsibility” the reaction to which, when it came in the form of Modern Art, was horrendous.