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Renaissance Art

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Leonardo da Vinci hard at work on his most famous painting, from the 2003 BBC One programme Leonardo: The Secret Life of the Mona Lisa.

The Renaissance1 is the name given to the period during the 15th and 16th Centuries when European culture underwent a radical change, turning away from the Middle Ages and towards a rebirth of the world of the ancient Greeks and Romans and of antique ideals, such as individualism, education and the arts. This movement originated in Italy, where autonomous city-states were powerful and the bourgeoisie was more important than the clergy. Renaissance scholars developed more interest in the world around them, and this led to the birth of modern natural sciences and humanism. It was the time of such famous men as Christopher Columbus, Galileo Galilei, Nicolaus Copernicus, Martin Luther, William Shakespeare and Johannes Gutenberg.

Renaissance Style

The artistic style of the Renaissance period replaced the Gothic style which had been invented in France in the 12th Century. Gothic architecture featured strong vertical lines and pointed arches, exemplified by buildings such as the cathedral at Reims, while Gothic painting and sculpture showed thin, idealised figures, with very little individuality. The name stile gotico (Gothic style) was coined in the Renaissance as a deprecative term because this style was counter to the Renaissance idea of harmony. 'Gotico' meant ugly, in bad taste and barbaric2. Gothic architecture remained prevalent in northern Europe until the 16th Century because it took time for the new Renaissance ideas to spread north from Italy. The first influences of the Italian Renaissance can be found in paintings, however, from the 15th Century onwards.

With the advent of the Renaissance the fine arts were relieved of the symbols and conventions of the Middle Ages. It was thought that the only progress in arts could be the rebirth of the Classical Period. For the first time artists were not merely craftsmen; historians took note, not only of the names of patrons, but also of the names of the artists. The centres of interest were the human being and the world he lived in. Two of the most important achievements of the Renaissance arts were the careful observation of nature and human anatomy and the use of linear perspective. Before the Renaissance, there was no method to show 3-dimensional subjects on a flat surface in a realistic way.

The whole Renaissance art movement was influenced by a Dutch invention: oil painting. Before the invention of oil paint, egg tempera - a mix of pigment, water and dilute egg yolk - was generally used, with the egg yolk being used to bind the pigments. The disadvantage of this paint was that it was not possible to create floating colour, so the colours sat next to each other without a connection. The use of oil to bind pigments made it possible to use techniques like Leonardo's aerial perspective3.

Early Renaissance

Among the earliest Renaissance artists were Giovanni Pisano and Giotto di Bondone, who during the 14th Century became pioneers of an artistic epoch which was to come into its own a century later. Giovanni Pisano and his father revived the classical Roman sculptural style, which they combined with Gothic elements. The painter Giotto, although lacking in knowledge of anatomy and perspective, excelled at showing human emotions and brought up new ideas of naturalism.

The 15th Century (the Italian Quattrocento) is known as the 'Early Renaissance' and had its centre in the city of Florence. With new technical skills, architects created harmonic and functional buildings, oriented towards the Romanesque style (see an example), which had been prevalent before the rise of the Gothic style. They also included Greek decorations. At first, architects designed only sacred buildings, but by the middle of the 15th Century the importance of civic architecture had increased. The new palazzi (palaces belonging to rich and powerful families) such as the Palazzo Medici were cubes, with arcades around the inner courtyard, the facades of which had rounded romanesque arches over the windows and were arranged with rigid regularity. The whole architecture was built on mathematical proportions, which gave it lucidity and finality.

Churches of the Early Renaissance were halls with side chapels. A new concept in ground plans was the Latin cross. The first architect since antiquity who used the classical orders Doric, Ionic and Corinthian4 in a consistent and appropriate way was Filippo Brunelleschi, whose greatest work was the Florence Cathedral. He was the first Renaissance architect to design round buildings.

Painters and sculptors turned their attention towards nature and nudes; reliefs5 attained more depth and realism by the use of perspective. The first artist whose sculptures showed the individuality of the sculptor was Donatello; he was also the first in the Renaissance to create a nude statue (even statues of Adam and Eve were covered with strategically-placed fig leaves during the Middle Ages). Sculptures were no longer only included in architecture, but were artistic works in their own right. Two of the most important artists of this time were Tommaso di Ser Giovanni di Simone Guidi Cassai, known as Masaccio, and Sandro Botticelli (meaning 'little barrel'). Masaccio combined Giotto's style with new methods of technique and perspective, which is best shown in his The Holy Trinity with the Virgin, St. John and Two Donars. The most important pictures by Botticelli are Primavera and The Birth of Venus, which show mythological scenes and are full of complex symbols.

A very important person for arts theory was the architect Leon Battista Alberti. His writings on painting, sculpture and architecture were the theoretical basis of art in the Renaissance. For him art was part of the humanities and no longer a craft. The work of the artist was the 'idea', while the artist's conception was executed by craftsmen. For Alberti, beauty is dependent on harmonic proportions of mathematics. His books De re aedificatoria ('About Architecture') were the first works on art theory in modern history.

High Renaissance

The High Renaissance (about 1500-1520), which had its centre in Rome, is closely connected with three Italian artists: Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo Buonarroti and Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio). They strove for the harmony and beauty which was captured in the art of ancient Greeks and Romans. Many pictures from this time contain hidden geometric compositions; triangles are a common example, found in Raphael's Madonna in the Meadow and Jesus in Leonardo's Last Supper. Landscapes, although still just background decoration, stopped looking like theatre sets with several levels of stylised rocks, a few trees and hills.

Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci was a universal genius. His studies of nature and technology were as important for the people of his time as the art for which he is remembered today. The few paintings he created have remained incredibly popular, with at least two of them being among the most famous works in the world: Mona Lisa (also known as La Gioconda) and the Last Supper. Also easily recognised is his study of human proportions in the drawing of the Vitruvian Man6.

Leonardo's Last Supper was painted on one wall of the refectory (dining hall) in the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan, Italy. It is the first picture of this subject which shows Judas on the same side of the table as all other disciples; the separation is achieved by giving every figure its own personality. The main point of the perspective composition is Christ's head, so you immediately recognise him as the most important person. Another remarkable fact about the perspective in this fresco is that the table is drawn in a way which makes it look like it would reach out into the room, as if it could stand next to the others in the dining room.

Many artists drew versions of the Vitruvian Man, a concept of proportions invented by the Roman architect Vitruvius. He thought that the body of a man fits perfectly into the geometric figures of circle and square, with the navel being in the centre. Leonardo was the first artist who corrected the Vitruvian concept according to his own anatomical studies.

Leonardo was also the inventor of artistic effects such as aerial perspective (see above, and as demonstrated in the background of Mona Lisa), sfumato (blurring or softening of sharp outlines) and chiaroscuro (light-shade effects). He also wrote about art theory.


Michelangelo was one of the most passionate artists of the Renaissance period. The paintings in the Sistine Chapel, the unfinished tomb of Pope Julius II and the dome of St. Peter's Basilica (all in Rome) are his most important works, but the most famous may be his statue of David, in Florence.

Although Michelangelo disliked painting and preferred sculpting, the fresco in the Sistine Chapel is the greatest in the world. With only a few helpers, he decorated 1000 square metres of ceiling with about 300 figures. The fresco shows an overwhelming amount of complexity and dynamism.

The work on the unfinished tomb of Pope Julius II lasted for 40 years and should include 32 statues, but only few of them were actually made. The greatest existing statue of the tomb is a giant Moses.


Raphael's style was a synthesis of all artistic achievements of his time. He created perfect harmony, was a master of perspective and composition and he even surpassed Leonardo and Michelangelo in his use of colours. The acme of his creative powers was the fresco cycle in the Vatican Apartments, Rome; the most famous part being the School of Athens in the library of the Pope. The artist and his pupils spent 10 years painting the apartments.

Other High Renaissance Artists

The most important shape in High Renaissance architecture was the circle, which symbolised divine order. Together with squares, crosses and polygons, the circle was used in ground plans, and also reflected in another characteristic feature for Renaissance churches: the huge dome on the roof. Some buildings were themselves round, such as ones designed by Donato Bramante, the greatest architect of the High Renaissance. The most perfect chapel of this shape was his Tempietto, which was seen as the ideal building of a new architecture based on the antiquity. For the clergy however, round churches were impractical for Mass. Bramante also extended Santa Maria delle Grazie, where Leonardo painted the Last Supper.

In the Renaissance, country life regained the importance it had in times of the Roman emperors, while in the Middle Ages life in cities was much more preferred. Palladio (Andrea di Pietro della Gondola) was another important architect who specialised in domestic architecture; his villas show the classical ideals of symmetry, axiality and clarity.

The time of the High Renaissance in Italy was a time of religious dissension and Peasants' Revolt in Germany, so the Early Renaissance did not begin there until 1520. However, two very important artistic printing technologies were invented there: woodcut and copperplate engraving. Albrecht Dürer, Hans Holbein, Matthias Grünewald and Lucas Cranach were important German Renaissance artists who created very different sorts of art. Matthias Grünewald was the most important German painter of the Renaissance. His paintings show dramatic scenes of mostly religious matters and contain many mythological symbols. His masterpiece is the Isenheim Altarpiece. Albrecht Dürer's paintings could never reach the level of the Dutch and Italians, but his drawings, woodcuts and watercolour paintings show his talent and accuracy. One of his most famous pictures is A Young Hare.

Late Renaissance

The Late Renaissance period (the mid to late 16th Century) encompassed the style known as Mannerism, meaning simply 'style', where decoration and artifice took precedence over realistic depiction. Artists' use of colours and shapes had improved and architects gave up harmony and proportion for decorative effects and taller buildings. After Florence and Rome, Venice now became the most important city of arts. The most important artists of this time were Titian, Giorgione and Tintoretto, who were forerunners of the Baroque Period.

Titian (Tiziano Vecellio) specialised in portrait painting. His use of colours and composition was superb as was his ability to depict different materials, such as metal or glass. Giorgione's (Giorgio Barbarelli) paintings have mainly warm colours and show a mysterious and spiritual concept of nature. The most significant aspects of Tintoretto's 7 works are diagonal compositions, theatrical lighting and expressive style.

The first picture of winter was painted by a Fleming in the Renaissance, it was Hunters in the Snow by Pieter Brueghel the Elder. This painter placed particular emphasis on the everyday life of ordinary people and also transferred themes from the Bible to his own time. Sometimes, however, his religious subjects were actually comments on political affairs.

Oil painting was improved by the Dutch painter Jan van Eyck; with this technique he was able to paint microscopic details which can be seen, for instance, in his picture Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife.

The End of the Renaissance

By the beginning of the 17th Century the new Baroque style was beginning to take over in Italy. The clean simple lines and proportions of the Renaissance were replaced by more complex forms, giving a strong sense of dynamism and power, with highly ornate and often overpowering decoration. This style conveyed the power of the Catholic Church in the Counter-Reformation, and during the 17th Century spread throughout Europe.

1From the French word meaning 'rebirth'.2Goths had nothing to do with this period.3The technique of painting objects to imitate the effects of the atmosphere on the colours and distinctness of distant objects. Distant object are less distinct and more bluish in colour than close objects.4Doric, Ionic and Corinthian are the three orders of ancient Greek columns which describe different architectural systems with different proportions and detailing.5An example of a relief is the picture on a coin: it is not absolutely flat, but is not a real sculpture either.6Familiar to British TV viewers of the 1960s, 70s and 80s as the logo for documentary series World In Action7 Tintoretto: the little dyer. His real name was Jacopo Robusti.

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