The Individual in Art

“Man of Sorrows” (c. 1260), egg tempera on wood
[>>National Gallery, London]

In the Middle Ages... [m]an was conscious of himself only as a member of a race, people, party, family, or corporation — only through some general category. In Italy this veil first melted into air; an objective treatment and consideration of the state and of all the things of this world became possible. The subjective side at the same time asserted itself with corresponding emphasis; man became a spiritual individual, recognized himself as such.

— Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860; English transl., 1904), p. 129.

Sandro Botticelli, detail from “Venus and the Three Graces” (c. 1483-85), fresco
[>>Louvre, Paris]

There was a radical change in the way individuals were represented in the visual arts at Florence. Freestanding, larger-than-life-size statues of human beings were sculpted for the first time since antiquity. The use of linear perspective resulted in representations of human beings that conformed with measurements of the space around them. And there also developed at Florence a tradition of domestic portraiture, both painted and sculpted, that treated not only saints and statesmen but also merchants and their families. These were and remain impressive historical changes, and there is nothing surprising in the fact that one hundred years after Burckhardt such scholars as Hans Baron and Erwin Panofsky were still attempting general syntheses that saw these developments as aspects of a new attitude toward the individual that developed in Renaissance Florence. In the words of Panofsky (as quoted by Ernst Gombrich), “Something must have happened.”

— William J. Connell, Society and Individual in Renaissance Florence (Univ. California Press, 2002), p. 3.