There can be no question that one may approach the art of any period as a purely aesthetic experience without regard for the human element involved. In other words, one may contemplate an art object without inquiring as to its content, or the forces that brought it forth, or the circumstances that moulded it into its final form. But it is equally true that the more we relate any artistic manifestation to the many facets of human existence, the more the art becomes alive, suffused with vitality, and comprehensible to the beholder. Such an insight into the background does not detract from the aesthetic enjoyment, but, on the contrary, enhances it to a marked degree. In an effort to present this point of view to the public, three symposia were held at The Metropolitan Museum of Art during the winter of 1951-1952. On each of these occasions, five speakers devoted themselves to the cultural background of a given period, sketching it from different points of view -- historical, economic, religious, social, and literary. Only when this task had been accomplished was the art, as the outgrowth of these factors, considered by the sixth member of the panel.
Because the first symposium, The Age of Diocletian, covered a fairly definite span of time and was confined to the Roman Empire, little difficulty was experienced in focusing the papers on the subject at hand. In the case of the Renaissance, the problem was much more complex, for the panel had to deal with an epoch in history rather than the reign of one emperor, with the developments in a number of countries rather than those in one empire. But there was a further complication. It appeared quite impossible to