I’ve always had the sneaking suspicion that the Italian Renaissance is, aside from a few names, pretty boring compared to what was achieved in the Northern Renaissance; so I was pretty happy to find one of the great diarists and art critics from a hundred years ago saying this:
Florence, April 7-9, 1896
Have just enjoyed myself for three days long, without Baedeker, without Burkhardt, only with the senses. The longer one stays in Florence the more three artists dominate: Giotto, Donatello, Brunelleschi. Compared to their works everything else pales. Spent almost every morning in Santa Croce before the Giottos. It was only fitting that the rebirth of figure painting began toward the end of the twelfth century with the depiction of movement, of the gesture, so that the first truly great artist, the greatest of all the masters of movement, was Giotto.
In Santo Spirito a Madonna by Filippino Lippi in which one sees with uncommon clarity where the attraction of the Early Renaissance rests, on the ability to to persuade one of the existence of an almost sickly loveliness based all the while upon the most strict realism. In the end it was the misfortune of Italian painting that it stuck to religious and classical themes when it inwardly aspired already to that which later Rubens, on the one hand, and the minor Dutch painters, on the other, did: the depiction of the material, of flesh for flesh’s sake, the tablecloth as tablecloth. This is the reason for the monstrous falsity and confusion of all religious painting after Raphael.
– Journey to the Abyss: The Diaries of Count Harry Kessler, 1880-1918, tr. Laird M. Easton, 156