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Tuesday, 23 November, 1999, 11:06 GMT
Renaissance chic: Cool of the rebirth
Botticelli's Mars and Venus, at the National Gallery

If you think the quattrocento is an under-powered Fiat or that Leonardo, Raphael and Donatello are Ninja Turtles, there is currently plenty of help to you get up to speed on Renaissance culture.

The explosion of artistic and scientific endeavour which marked the 15th century is the subject of two new BBC TV series and a major exhibition at the National Gallery in London.

Able to elicit yawns in all but the most devoted art lover, curators and programme-makers are bidding to breath life back into the art which saw European culture "reborn" amid great hopes for the future.

Though badly aged, Leonardo's Last Supper remains a masterpiece
On the cusp of the new millennium, the Europes of the Renaissance and today have more in common than one might think.

The era which saw the creation of the Mona Lisa and the Sistine Chapel also witnessed scientific innovation and political reorganisation to rival those seen in the 1990s.

Indeed, it is strangely fitting that this week's "Progressive Governance for the 21st century" conference - attracting world leaders from Bill Clinton down - should be held in Florence, Italy, the cradle of the Renaissance.

The Renaissance was seen literally as the "rebirth" of the influence Roman Italy had once enjoyed and quest for knowledge it had embodied.

Cartoon hero: Leonardo was a master of all trades
The thinkers and artists of emerging city states such as Florence and Venice - made prosperous by trade - looked to their ancient ancestors for inspiration to challenge the tired ideas of the "middle ages".

According to Cameron Balbirnie, producer of BBC Two's Renaissance Secret: "People always had a sense of present and past, but the past was pretty mushy before the Renaissance.

"Then suddenly you get the beginning of real history - trying to put an order to the past... from this you get people identifying themselves as future history - placing themselves centre stage. Artists could glimpse immortality."

Into the distance

Embracing a new understanding of anatomy, mathematics and geometry, the likes of Leonardo da Vinci, Titian and Michelangelo created artworks more lifelike than any before imagined.

Winning smile: The Mona Lisa has secured Da Vinci's reputation
Contemporary viewers were as amazed by these experiments with perspective and foreshortening - mimicking the way the human eye sees the world. They were perhaps as amazed as the first cinema-goers would be, four centuries later.

Using the new slower-drying oil paints - as opposed to pigments mixed with egg - Renaissance artists could produce pictures whose detail and beauty transformed them from being mere illustrations of religious tales.

By copying nature directly to produce art stunning in its own right, artists saw the status of their work and profession elevated.

Michelangelo's David: Art more lifelike than previously imagined
No longer seen as mere craftsmen, Renaissance artists were feted by the rich and powerful - their works bought as symbols of intellectual and economic status.

The art of prestige

Nicholas Penny, curator of the National Gallery's Renaissance Florence exhibition, says: "There was enormous prestige attached to art admired for its own sake.

"If you were a very rich person you were expected to make a great display - to not only own art, but the best art."

It is telling that when Michelangelo fled Rome in a fit of artistic pique, defying his patron the Pope, the artist was coaxed rather than dragged back to the city.

Seeking to paint the world as they saw it - where people rarely stand in pleasing, ordered groups - Renaissance artists created compositional dilemmas for themselves.

Titian used brilliant colour in his realistic depictions of biblical stories
They tackled these with the spirit of experiment and curiosity which marked the era.

Leonardo da Vinci thought no task beyond him. An expert sculptor, painter, musician, engineer and scientist, he was the archetypal Renaissance man.

Such a breadth of artistic mastery is something we are only seeing again in recent years, as boundaries between the arts have slowly eroded.

What makes the Renaissance so remarkable is that artists of such drive and skill lived at the same, in relative proximity to one another.

"Ultimately people like Leonardo were geniuses," says Cameron Balbirnie.

"You can talk about cultural influence, and learning and everything else, but sometimes there is genius so great that it's inexplicable."

Renaissance Florence runs at the National Gallery until 16 January, 2000.

Renaissance Secrets begins on 30 November at 1930GMT on BBC Two.

Renaissance, with Andrew Graham-Dixon, continues on Sundays on BBC Two at 1900GMT.
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See also:
09 Sep 99 |  Europe
Da Vinci inspiration on show
27 May 99 |  Entertainment
The Last Supper shown
19 Oct 99 |  Sci/Tech
Renaissance machines are reborn

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