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Italian Renaissance Learning Resources

In collaboration with the National Gallery of Art

Recovering the Golden Age

An impromptu pilgrimage

An impromptu pilgrimage

Within the Renaissance artist’s workshop, the most humble relics of antiquity were deemed worthy of study and emulation. Seemingly no fragment was too small, no workmanship too mediocre to pique interest. More substantial discoveries kindled excitement that spread like wildfire from one artist to another. The following anecdote concerns the architect Filippo Brunelleschi (1377–1446) and his passionate response to reports of a promising new find. The story also sheds light on the informal social networks that helped disseminate knowledge of ancient art among artists, architects, and their friends.

One morning, some months after his return [to Florence], Filippo was on the piazza of S. Maria del Fiore with Donato [the sculptor Donatello] and other artists discussing antique sculptures, and Donato was relating how…he had entered the Pieve [or, parish church, in Cortona], and seen a remarkable ancient marble sarcophagus, with a bas-relief, a rare thing then, for the multitude of things discovered in our day had not then been dug out. Donato went on to say how excellently the master had done his work, describing the perfection and beauty with which he had completed it, and so inflamed Filippo with an ardent desire to see it, that, just as he was, in his mantle, hood, and sabots [wooden clogs], he left them without saying a word of where he was going, and proceeded to Cortona, led by his love and affection for art. He saw the sarcophagus, admired it, and made a drawing of it, with which he returned to Florence without Donato or anyone else being aware that he had left the city, for they thought he must be engaged upon designing or contriving something. On his return he showed his carefully executed drawing, and Donato greatly marvelled at this proof of Filippo’s love for his art.


Giorgio Vasari, The Lives of the Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, 8 vols., trans. A. B. Hinds (London: J.M. Dent, 1900), 2: 117–8.