The Triumph of Life over Death

Leonardo Bruni’s tomb by Bernardo Rossellino ca 1440s (left) and Carlo Marsuppini’s tomb by Desiderio da Settignano ca 1450s (right).

Exploring the influence of Classical Antiquity on the Italian Renaissance in art pieces that commemorate the lives of prominent individuals such as the Emperors Constantine and Titus from the Roman Empire, and the humanist scholars Leonardo Bruni and Carlo Marsuppuni from the Florentine Renaissance.


The Triumph of Life over Death

By Kailia Utley

The emphasis, during the Renaissance, on paying respects to the dead through tomb monuments mirrors the activities of the ancient Greeks and Romans. In the ancient world, the Greeks and Romans vigorously feared death. They sought every avenue possible to help an individual pass from their life on earth to the next one, but, most of all, the ancients needed to be remembered. To them, life was worthless if it did not remain in the minds of those still alive. Tomb monuments represented an example of a proper burial, but mainly, they highlighted the importance of that individual’s life; they forced the community to remember the achievements of the dead. The Renaissance tomb monuments reestablish the ancient ideals of respect and memory. Two very renowned monuments are found inside the Church of Santa Croce in Florence. They are Leonardo Bruni’s (1370–1444) tomb by Bernardo Rossellino (1409–1464), created in the 1440s, and Carlo Marsuppini’s (1398–1453) tomb by Desiderio da Settignano (1428–1464), created in the 1450s. The grandeur of these structures declares the wealth of Bruni and Marsuppini. In addition, these tombs model the appearance of the triumphal arches of Roman emperors like Constantine (306–337 AD) and Titus (79–81 AD). This connection raises the status of these Renaissance figures to that of historical rulers. The parallels between the structures may also echo the emphasis on the preciousness of life as opposed to the sorrow of death. These monuments call to mind success, wealth, and influence. Artists in the Renaissance borrowed this idea to formulate the basis of their monuments, but they expanded upon it. Rossellino and da Settignano focused more on the physical state of their subject’s body. However, this closer look at death further asserts the retention of memory, as the Renaissance tomb monuments epitomize life’s consistent victory over death.

The Roman Emperors Constantine and Titus were both accomplished rulers. Constantine became respected for his military victories in a series of civil wars against Maxentius in 312 AD. However, more notably, he made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.1 The triumphal arch erected in his honor in 315 AD connected Constantine with the “great emperors of the past and their virtues, both civilian and military, suggesting the return to a golden age.”2Interestingly, the arch itself has no Christian imagery. The message of the arch regards Constantine as the liberator of Rome from the tyrant Maxentius. The focus on religion seems to have only been made possible due to this defeat; it is the product of his triumph.

The emperor Titus was famously known for his military leadership of the Roman army.   The Emperor Vespasian (69–79 AD) gave his son Titus control over the large-scale campaign of the Jewish War. The Jewish revolt spanned from 66–73 AD, and it resulted in the capture and destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. As a means of reestablishing Roman dominance, soldiers stole objects, including a menorah, from the Jewish Temple of Jerusalem and paraded through the streets of Rome with them.3 This triumph revitalized Romans with a spirit of nationalism. Vespasian and Titus assumed great loyalty and respect from their citizens. The arch of Titus, erected in 81 AD, commemorated his historic victory in the Jewish War. Furthermore, the arch potentially depicts the deification of Titus through the representation of an eagle, as he played a pivotal role in restoring the power of Rome.

Leonardo Bruni and Carlo Marsuppini were great scholars of the early Italian Renaissance, specifically in regard to humanism. A humanist was an “expert in the studia humanitatis (the studies of humanity), which involved grammar, rhetoric, poetry, history and moral philosophy, all based on the Greek and Latin classics.”4 However, the Renaissance humanist movement borrowed these basic ideals directly from the classical world. There are records of the Roman orator Cicero (106–43 BC) and the Greek grammarian Aulus Gellius (125–180 AD) using the term studia humanitatis. The careers of Bruni and Marsuppini focused on fusing Roman and Greek culture with contemporary society. Furthermore, their humanist ideals sparked the transition from the Middle Age to the Renaissance perspective. Monfasani writes that “humanism influenced virtually every aspect of high culture in the West during the Renaissance.”5 It seeped into every corner of life. The religious aspect of humanism intrigued Bruni and Marsuppini most significantly, as they intertwined theological beliefs into their humanistic principles. Due to their work in humanism, Rossellino and da Settignano modeled the tomb monuments of Bruni and Marsuppini after ancient Roman arches, shown below in Figures 1 and 2, respectively.

In fact, Bruni was the leading humanist scholar of Florence in the fifteenth century. He was a prolific reader and translator of Latin and Greek. As an author, Bruni wrote the treatise Laudatio florentinae urbis (Praise of the City of Florence) in 1400 and the nine-volume Historiae florentini populi (The Histories of the People of Florence), which he began in 1415, but did not publish until 1439.6 Bruni wrote about the history of Florence, drawing parallels between the Florentine government and the Roman Republic.7 In addition, he was employed as the Apostolic Secretary from the years 1405–1414 under Pope Innocent VII (1404–1406) and his successors, while serving as the Chancellor of Florence for two terms (1427–1444).8 Leonardo Bruni held influential positions in the religious, political, and social spheres of Florence.

Similarly, Carlo Marsuppini was a progressive thinker of the Renaissance. He was a humanist, and an intimate friend of Cosimo de’ Medici.9 Marsuppini studied classical Latin and Greek. His written works included translations, such as the praised rendering of Book 1 of the Iliad from Greek to Latin in 1431.10 Politically, Marsuppini succeeded Bruni as the Chancellor of Florence in 1444. This Italian scholar seemed to work hand in hand with Bruni in establishing the fundamentals of the Italian Renaissance—the rediscovery of ancient philosophies, politics, literature, and art in coherence with individualism and rationalism. Both men lived from the late fourteenth century to mid-fifteenth century, yet the height of the Renaissance did not occur until the late fifteenth century. Their distinguished work in the philosophy of humanism set the stage for the Renaissance.

The emphasis on learning from the past to build the future is apparent in these burial structures. Similar to a puzzle, these tombs seem to fit perfectly in the space left open beneath the Arches of Constantine and Titus. The shape of the arch has a practical and aesthetic purpose as Romans used arches for their capabilities of strength and support. The curve of the arch allowed the structure to distribute the weight horizontally instead of straight down, which made it possible for the Romans to build such impressive buildings. An increasing load strengthened the arches by compressing the material as well.11 The metaphorical use of the arch embodies stability and longevity, as well as triumph, victory, and the connection between the worlds above and below. These structures often survive throughout history, defying all odds of nature. Beyond that, the weight of the world becomes lessened as the arch rises into a vault before descending back to the earth. Each part of the arch shares in the hardship of withstanding gravity. The inclusion of this structural element alludes to the universal need for support. The placement of Bruni’s and Marusppini’s bodies below the arch ties them to their humanity as beings on earth, but also as humanist scholars of ancient peoples. However, the arch also seems to lift them toward the heavens. Now that they are dead, they can rest while their work continues to live on. The arch secures their presence within their communities without them needing to be there physically.

The columns on the arches and the tomb monuments play a role in elongating the structures. Generally, the purpose of a column is to support the roof beams of a building, which allows them to represent strength and agelessness. However, the Corinthian column style employed here elevates the status of the structures, establishing a sense of grandeur, luxury, and sophistication.12 Columns force the onlooker to scan the entire structure from the bottom to the top, feeling the enormity of the monument intensify with every inch. This adds to the divinity and immortality of the individuals commemorated by these structures. The column points toward the heavens, lofting Constantine, Titus, Bruni, and Marsuppini onto a pedestal. From these structures, they can see the legacy they are leaving behind on the earth beneath them while rising to the world above.

A prevalent motif in each tomb monument and the Arches of Constantine and Titus are angels. However, Laurie Schneider Adams explains that these figures are, in fact, “two-winged Victories” on the Roman triumphal arches.13 In the ancient world, the flying Victories symbolized the military triumphs of the emperors. They rest at the top edges of the central arch, seemingly aiding in the support of the barrel vault. In addition, the reliefs on the Roman arches call to mind the goddess Victoria, who helped them achieve their accomplishments. In terms of the Renaissance tombs, the Victories signify the Christian angel. For the tomb of Bruni, these figures symbolize the impact he had on society, but they are not paying respect to the Roman goddess. Interestingly, Marsuppini’s monument does not explicitly have the reliefs of these figures, as da Settignano placed two winged youths as free-standing statues at the base of this tomb. Logically, these statues play the role of the angels seen in Bruni’s monument. However, these youths have shields that bolster the ideas of both triumph and protection.

Da Settignano constructed Marsuppini’s monument to complement Bruni’s in Santa Croce. Rosellino’s angel reliefs look very similar to the Roman Victories. However, da Settignano highlights these figures as angels by bringing them out of a relief and displaying them as statuary to further establish the distinction of the Christian values present in Renaissance structures. The angels allow the audience to see Marsuppini’s connection to faith. The positions of the angelsat each base directly oppose the Victories on the triumphal arches. On Bruni’s monument, Rossellino depicted the Victories holding up the inscription, while on Marsuppini’s monument, da Settignano placed the youths on the base. This seems to juxtapose the Roman emphasis on the power of the goddess Victoria. The Victories on the arches tower over the earth beneath them, compelling the audience to send a prayer or offer a sacrifice to the goddess watching over them. Contrastingly, the angels on the Renaissance tomb monuments lift Bruni and Marsuppini closer to heaven. These figures are visual representations of the passing from life to death. Furthermore, similar to the columns, they draw on the idea of immortality. Bruni and Marsuppini were devout Christians. Their connection to Christianity added to the agency and authority of their work. The angels draw on the individual relationship necessary to receive the gifts of this faith. It seems that with the help of the angels, Bruni and Marsuppini received everlasting life in heaven, which in turn, permanently solidified their contributions to society.

The Arch of Constantine and the tombs of Bruni and Marsuppini incorporate circular elements into their structures. These designs hold within them religious reliefs. The Arch of Constantine has four circular reliefs that run across the middle line of each side of the monument, thus eight total circular reliefs are present on each face.  Each side depicts several hunts and sacrifices. Four reliefs focus on hunts involving a bear, a boar, and a lion. The other four reliefs include the sacrifices to the gods Silvanus, Apollo, Diana, and Hercules.14 These images display the Roman emphasis on the necessary connectivity between everyday actions and divine intervention. Renaissance artists updated this idea by creating a circular frieze or tondo of the Virgin and Christ, sitting at the top of these tomb monuments. The artists had differing approaches to this depiction, however. Rossellino chose to have the Virgin and Christ “gaze forlornly” from the tondo. Christ leans on the edge of the ledge, resting his head on his right hand, which is a gesture derived from classical scenes of mourning.15 It seems that the Virgin and Christ are mourning the loss of Bruni. The praying figures flanking the tondo also present somber expressions. In contrast, the Virgin and Christ of Marsuppini’s monument are smiling.16 The praying figures on either side of this tondo look more content. Rossellino wanted to emphasize the sorrow of losing a great thinker, while da Settignano wished to display the necessity of death. The presence of the Virgin and Christ illustrates the faithfulness of Bruni and Marsuppini, as these religious figures are clearly watching over them. These monuments have captured two different stages of grief: Rossellino presents sorrow, while da Settignano displays acceptance. With both elements of grief written in the expression of the Virgin and Christ, the audience may begin the process of healing. Many would have mourned Bruni and Marsuppini at first, but slowly, sadness would have been replaced by contentment, bringing to light the accomplishments of these figures. Furthermore, the circle itself symbolizes continuity. With no edges, no beginning, and no end, the circle represents completeness and tenacity. The presence of tondi on these monuments illustrates the idea of life persisting through death.

The Arch of Titus inspires the eagle motif that appears on the Bruni and Marsuppini monuments. On the Arch of Titus, the wings of a gigantic eagle elevate the newly deified emperor to the heavens. This eagle symbolizes the classical idea of immortality with Titus being taken from the earthly realm and placed into the divine one. The Roman practice of releasing eagles at an emperor’s funeral signified the divine ascension of his soul.17 Therefore, the emperor could continue to impact and protect Roman society. Rossellino and da Settignano directly translated this idea into their tomb monuments. On Bruni’s tomb, two eagles support the bier upon which the marble body of Bruni lays. On Marsuppini’s tomb, the eagle wings appear just beneath the sarcophagus, stabilizing it. While the Christian values of Bruni and Marsuppini reject human immortality, the eagle represents the everlasting nature of their impact on Renaissance society. Even after their deaths, their work in and development of humanism endures for centuries. The eagles visually represent the accomplishments of Bruni’s and Marsuppini’s lives surpassing their deaths.

The Arches of Constantine and Titus provided models for the tomb monuments of Bruni and Marsuppini. However, the Renaissance artists expanded on these ideas of the ancient Romans even further by including more elements that intertwine the Christian and Classical traditions. This combination of the two more distinctly emphasizes life’s triumph over death. The tomb monuments come to an apex, causing a triangular shape to form above the arches. A sculpture of a lion within another tondo is positioned on top of Bruni’s tomb, along with two angels that seem to be holding up this statue. In antiquity, the lion is believed to never sleep. As a result, this animal appears as a guardian figure.18 The angels holding the lion suggest the role of Christianity in reviving classical ideas from the Renaissance. In addition, the angels and the lion work together to create a shape that leads to the heavens. Both aspects seem to establish a lasting connection to the next life. Furthermore, Marsuppini’s tomb has a Roman lampstand at the top from which long garlands curve around the arch and rest on the shoulders of young adolescents.19 In the Christian tradition, the garland symbolizes public honor and victory. The addition of the Roman lampstand is intriguing as lamps, being the main source of light, directed all activity in the ancient world.20 However, Christian scripture periodically mentions a Golden Lamp Stand that lights the Tabernacle, which points directly to the Light of Christ.21 Da Settignano perfectly links the Christian world to the classical world by utilizing the Roman styled lampstand to complete his tomb for Marsuppini. Even further, this detail brings the structure to a pinnacle, making a triangular shape that motions to the world above, where life is everlasting. The integration of Classical and Christian design elements perfectly embodies the life of Bruni and Marsuppini as they dedicated themselves to both spheres of thought.

While the tombs of Bruni and Marsuppini astonish all who view them, the implementation of classic sarcophagi and the marble effigies that rest upon them captivate the audience. The dichotomy of life and death radiates from these elements. The sarcophagi from antiquity served as a home to a dead body superficially. Beyond that, they represented “culture, honor, and a pictorial portrait of the deceased” as their storyline covered the exterior of the sarcophagus.22Placing a cast of the body on the sarcophagi emphasizes this point further. The body itself is an example of the death of physicality, which directly juxtaposes the persistence of the individual’s values that lie beneath him. The Roman fear of death kept them from inserting images or sculptures of the commemorated individual. The emperors often commissioned their own triumphal arches to be erected before they died, which enabled them to choose which images of themselves would survive. By the Renaissance, the Christian faith lessened the fear of death by replacing it with the hope of life in heaven. The inclusion of the effigies reminds the audience that Bruni and Marsuppini had left the earthly world, but their bodies lie still and their minds never cease. As they move into the next life, their ideas and contributions remain. Their impact on society forever continues, regardless of their bodily presence. Yet again, Rossellino and da Settignano master the integration of Classical and Christian values to reveal the power of life over death.

Life in the ancient world was often fleeting. Nonetheless, the Romans wanted the memory of their deeds to persist. They dedicated their lives to achieving honor. With honor came lasting memories. Emperors used their resources to ensure their names made the history books. They built monuments, including triumphal arches, reflecting the great victories of their lives. Centuries later, the ideas of the ancient world made a resurgence by individuals such as Bruni and Marsuppini, who were passionate scholars of classical studies. Memory became intertwined with various religious concepts to formulate perspectives on death. In these depictions of Bruni and Marsuppini, life is everlasting. Death does not cease an individual’s impact on society, but rather ensures its survival. These monuments explain that life always supersedes death.


Kailia Utley is a junior at Vanderbilt University, majoring in Medicine, Health, and Society as well as Classical and Mediterranean Studies with a minor in Special Education. She is also a member of the Vanderbilt Women’s Swim Team.


The color coordination of the following figures depicts the similar structural elements displayed across each of the four monuments:


Figure 1: Leonardo Bruni’s tomb by Bernardo Rossellino (ca 1440s)


Figure 2: Carlo Marsuppini’s tomb by Desiderio da Settignano (ca 1450s)


Figure 3: Arch of Constantine (ca 315)


Figure 4: Arch of Titus (ca 81)


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  2. C. Frilingos, “More Than Meets the Eye: Incongruity and Observation in Josephus’s Account of the Triumph of Vespasian and Titus.” History of Religions 57, no. 1 (2017).
  3. J. Matthews and Donald MacGillivray. “Constantine I, Encyclopedia Britannica (2023).
  4. John Monfasani,“Humanism, Renaissance,” Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (1998).
  5. ibid.
  6. M. Davies, Bruni, Leonardo, Grove Art Online (2003).
  7. L. Adams, The Key monuments of the Italian Renaissance, (Westview Press, 2000), 57.
  8. J. Hankins trans. History of the Florentine People: Books 1-4. Vol. 1. Harvard University Press, (2001).
  9. R. Black,  “Marsuppini, Carlo,” In the Oxford Companion to Italian Literature: Oxford University Press (2002).
  10. G. Campbell, “Marsuppini, Carlo,” In the Oxford Dictionary of the Renaissance: Oxford University Press (2003).
  11. B. P. Lindsey, Stone Arch Bridges, Architecture Standing the Test of Time (2019).
  12. V. Vulic, Exploring Roman Columns—Their History, Types and Famous Examples (2023).
  13. Adams, L. The Key monuments of the Italian Renaissance. (Westview Press, 2000), 57.
  14. C. Brian Rose, C. Reconsidering the frieze on the Arch of Constantine. Journal of Roman Archaeology, 2021), 203.
  15. Adams, The Key monuments of the Italian Renaissance, 57.
  16. L. Adams,  Italian Renaissance Art. (Westview Press, 2001), 207.
  17. Adams,  The Key monuments of the Italian Renaissance, 55.
  18. ibid, 57.
  19. Adams, Italian Renaissance Art, 207.
  20. A. Nicholas, Roman Lamps, University of Richmond (2011).
  21. Charles Feinberg, Golden Lamp Stand Pt. 1. (Biola University, 1977), 1.
  22. A. Taft, Art in Antiquity, Brown University (2008).


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