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Italian Renaissance Learning Resources

In collaboration with the National Gallery of Art

Recovering the Golden Age

The Impact of Classical Antiquities on Renaissance Art

The word “renaissance” (rebirth) refers not only to the sudden and widespread flourishing of literature and the arts in fifteenth-century Italy but also to the revival of antique culture as a vital force at that time. Long the subject of antiquarian curiosity, ancient artifacts now became sources of potent creativity, firing artists with inspiration and a desire to emulate the achievements of the past. In the remains of ancient Rome, Renaissance artists found stimulating images and ideas that spurred fresh invention. Few Greek or Roman paintings had yet come to light, but an array of more durable three-dimensional objects—such as coins, medals, statuary, and gems—furnished a vast lexicon of classical forms and motifs for direct quotation or imaginative adaptation. These artifacts also assisted artists in piecing together plausible reconstructions of ancient Rome. Drawing on their own fertile imaginations to fill gaps in the fragmentary record of antiquity, artists developed inventive interpolations of ancient artifacts and literary texts, which in turn spawned entirely new modes of painting and sculpture. Ultimately, the achievements of Renaissance artists rivaled, rather than reproduced, the accomplishments of the ancient past, adding a brilliant modern chapter to the history of the classical tradition.