Revival of Classical Themes in Art

Botticelli led the Renaissance revival of classical themes in art and especially painting, which incorporated secular and historical subjects in addition to traditional religious themes.

Summary of Event

Two traditions basic to the Western mind, the classical and the Christian, have become so interwoven that to some extent they have always vied for expression in the fine arts. While classical writings embodying the general Hellenic values of antiquity remained an integral part of the medieval heritage, they were kept in a role more formal than inspirational. Christian humanism preferred to find a fresh outlet for itself in a new literature, architecture, painting, and sculpture. Humanism;Christian
Botticelli, Sandro
Leonardo da Vinci
Ficino, Marsilio
Pico della Mirandola, Giovanni
Botticelli, Sandro
Leonardo da Vinci
Ficino, Marsilio
Pico della Mirandola, Giovanni
Savonarola, Girolamo

Classical themes in art were depicted with the aid of new techniques, including brighter colors and attention to physical form, space, and, as shown in this illustration, perspective by means of instruments of precision.

(Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.)

Italian Humanists Humanism;Italy of the Renaissance period, searching for a secular consciousness in the models of antiquity, branded works of medieval Christian humanism barbaric and Gothic. Consequently, they cultivated a new interest in trying to understand Greek and Roman culture by studying antiquity’s belles lettres for their aesthetic merit rather than for their instructional value in technique and form. Art at their hands showed awareness of humanity’s creative powers and breathed a spirit of individualism and secularism that medieval corporatism and spiritualism had all but buried.

A love for the magnificent, stimulated by the affluence of the new rich, provided a spirit of luxury, splendor, and power. A thirst for immortality in the arts inspired creative individuals to initiate daring innovations in form and content. The classical inspiration was all about them. Classicism Neoplatonism came to be a sophisticated medium by which values were arbitrated. The old gods of antiquity were reinstated in their places on Mount Olympus as generous euhemeristic figures (deified mortals) responsible for Western civilization; even Protestant reformer Huldrych Zwingli believed that the faithful would see Hercules and Theseus in heaven. It became fashionable for Franks, Scandinavians, Normans, Italians, and Spaniards to associate their history with the noble Trojan cycle. The order of the Golden Fleece was founded in 1430. Popularity of the astrological zodiac helped to keep alive the mythology of the heavens. Even ancient hieroglyphs elicited a lively interest.

In the arts, Christian and pagan themes were irreverently blended. Bas-reliefs dared to display Adam and Hercules in alternate scenes. Pagan heroes, such as Jason, complemented biblical heroes, such as Gideon. Alongside traditional Christian portrayals of the Crucifixion, the Madonna, and the Nativity, painters set classical scenes featuring Jupiter (even as a monk), Apollo, Mercury, Venus, Juno, Diana, Mars, Narcissus, Saturn, Perseus, Bacchus, Vulcan, Cybele, Pan, and Eros, together with centaurs and other appropriate and familiar pagan figures. Allegorical paintings pictured the combat of Ratio and Libido, fitting symbols of the conflict of the Christian and the pagan ways of life.

All these classical themes of the neopagan Renaissance were depicted brilliantly with the aid of new techniques: brighter colors and attention to physical form, space, and perspective. The movement was facilitated by the rise of the affluent and generous patron, particularly conspicuous in the Medici family of Florence, the Athens of the Renaissance.

Typically representative of the painters who helped to revive the classical pagan themes was Alessandro di Mariano dei Filipepi, better known as Sandro Botticelli (little barrel), an artist who was important enough to receive recognition from Leonardo da Vinci in his Trattato della pittura (1651; A Treatise on Painting, 1721). A pupil of Fra Filippo Lippi, Botticelli lived in a circle of erudite antiquarians who treasured equally the cadences of Vergilian lines and the artistry of Ciceronian periods. Like his contemporaries, he worked to resuscitate ancient masterpieces by seeking inspiration from a Philostatus or a Lucian. In communication with the Neoplatonists Marsilio Ficino, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, and Politian (Angelo Ambrogini), Botticelli created an art form that aptly expressed the philosophy and sentiment of the Platonic Academy by appealing to religious desires that transcended sect.

While it is true that later in his career, under the influence of Girolamo Savonarola, Botticelli reverted to religious themes, iconographers see in his secular works a tantalizing intertwining of Christian themes with the mythology of antiquity. His works suggested to many the conflict between the pagan ideal, with its vision of earthly beauty, and the Christian ideal of a heavenly, beatific vision. His three Venuses, Venus and Mars
Venus and Mars (Botticelli) , the Birth of Venus
Birth of Venus (Botticelli) , and the Primavera
Primavera (Botticelli) (or Allegory of Spring), along with his Pallas
Pallas (Botticelli) , conceal equally well allusions to private events in the lives of the Medici and invitations to dwell in ethereal fields of abstraction. His noble, sublime, delicate nudes symbolized to him the “naked truth.” A critic of medieval inspirational art questioning the proper artistic role of ethics and religion, he was a bold challenger of methodology and content. In the name of beauty, he felt free to tamper with space and perspective and to mistrust form as a sheer representation of nature. He challenged history as the sole dramatic figuration of human action, seeing antiquity as an ideal rather than a historical period.


Through Botticelli, the Hellenic influences of the Renaissance penetrated the depths of Western art, leaving a lasting legacy. Along with Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli must be remembered for playing a significant role in the crystallization of the kind of art that is traditional in the West.

Further Reading

  • Barkan, Leonard. Unearthing the Past: Archaeology and Aesthetics in the Making of Renaissance Culture. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1999. Discusses the Renaissance discovery and excavation of buried works of classical art, and the influence of these pagan sculptures on Botticelli and other artists. Includes illustrations, bibliographic references, and index.
  • Baxandall, Michael. Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy: A Primer in the Social History of Pictorial Style. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. Baxandall details the manner in which a style grew from the desire to consciously resurrect classical references.
  • Burckhardt, Jacob C. The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. Translated by S. B. Middlemore. Introduction by Peter Gay. Reprint. New York: Modern Library, 2002. Burckhardt’s work continues to serve as the standard source that traces the change in cultural outlook from the medieval period into the Renaissance.
  • Ettlinger, Leopold David, and Helen S. Ettlinger. Botticelli. London: Thames & Hudson, 1976. This biography provides a still-useful discussion of Botticelli’s role in Renaissance painting and the revival of classicism.
  • Gadol, Joan. “The Unity of the Renaissance: Humanism, Natural Science, and Art.” In From the Renaissance to the Counter-Reformation: Essays in Honor of Garrett Mattingly, edited by Charles Carter. New York: Random House, 1965. Gadol’s article provides insight into the meaning of Idealism, which permeated the Florentine Academy and the works of artists of the Renaissance.
  • Hartt, Frederick. History of Italian Renaissance Art: Painting, Sculpture, Architecture. 5th ed. New York: H. N. Abrams, 2003. Revised by David G. Wilkins, this work constitutes a comprehensive and widely used survey of the period. Explores the theory and practice of the revival of classical themes.
  • Kanter, Laurence B., Hilliard T. Goldfarb, and James Hankins. Botticelli’s Witness: Changing Style in a Changing Florence. Boston: Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, 1997. An exhibition catalog that contains forty illustrations as well as three essays detailing the relationship of Botticelli’s work to Florentine culture. It also surveys the history of Botticelli criticism.
  • Warburg, Aby. The Renewal of Pagan Antiquity: Contributions to the Cultural History of the European Renaissance. Translated by David Britt. Introduction by Kurt W. Forster. Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities, 1999. Collection of essays, originally written between 1893 and 1918, examining the resurgence of classical themes and pagan imagery in Renaissance art. Includes illustrations, maps, bibliographic references, and index.
  • Zöllner, Frank. Botticelli: Images of Love and Spring. Translated by Fiona Elliott. New York: Prestel, 1998. Interpretation of several famous Botticelli paintings, focusing on the artist’s intent that they be hung in bridal chambers, as well as the influence of both classical and Renaissance iconography on the works. Includes illustrations and bibliographic references.

1462: Founding of the Platonic Academy

1469-1492: Rule of Lorenzo de’ Medici

1486-1487: Pico della Mirandola Writes Oration on the Dignity of Man

c. 1500: Netherlandish School of Painting