The dialectic relationship that the Renaissance had with Antiquity, from which the new era derived its prototypes and principles, is defined in this article as the major characteristic of the Renaissance. A critical approach towards Antiquity clearly distinguishes the Renaissance from the various revivals of the Dark Ages. The study of ancient architecture belongs to the trend of Humanism (studia humanitatis), while the first collections of antiquities and inscriptions appear in the early fifteenth century. It is in the same period that Ciriaco d’ Ancona creates the prototype of the romantic, travelling archaeology. A similar atmosphere also prevails in the Hypnero-machia Poliphili by the Dominican Francesco Colonna (1499). The archaeologic zeal of the North Italian artists focuses on the historic representation of the ancient world (cf. Mantegna). The reconstruction project patronized by the Popes is initiated by Nicholas E’ and culminates under Leo I’. This ambitious scheme is part of a cosmocratoric programme, which aims to elevate Rome as the natural heir to the capital of Roman Imperium.
The ancient aesthetics of imitation (Platonic or Aristotelian) in all its varieties stands behind the artistic quests of the Renaissance. “Urban realism” makes the classicizing tendencies of the early Quattrocento seem obscure. Realism is subordinated to the idealism of the classic era. The Neoplatonic aesthetics paved the road for this change although there is no reasonal connection between them. Classicizing idealism reflects the new balance of power in the Italian peninsula and, through its impersonal grandeur, serves the ideology of the Papal Imperium.