Renaissance Art - A Matter of Perspective Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Renaissance Art - A Matter of Perspective

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The History of Art and Architecture
Arts of Greek Antiquity | Arts of Roman Antiquity | Early Christian and Byzantine Art
Arts of the Middle Ages | Renaissance Art
Ancient Greek Architecture | Ancient Roman Architecture | Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture
Architecture of the Middle Ages

Renaissance oil painting Raphael

Updated in August 2020

After the death of Emperor Frederick II in 1250 there was a vacuum of power in Italy during which large cities could rise to be autonomous city-states. The most important cities in this new order were Genoa, Venice and Florence. The most important power was not a king or the clergy any more but a strong and confident bourgeoisie.

Renaissance1 is the name given to the period of the 15th and 16th Centuries when European culture underwent a radical change. Interest in the afterlife declined and instead people turned towards the world around them. This led to a raising importance of sciences and the study of nature. Artists believed that the only possible progress in art could come from a rebirth of antique qualities, especially a return to naturalistic pictures and sculptures. The exact depiction of nature was the highest goal. They made detailed depictions of animals, human anatomy and other aspects of nature. Florence was the pioneer and centre of this rebirth.

Antique ideals, such as individualism, education and the arts were important again. This led to the birth of modern natural sciences and humanism2. It was the time of such famous men as Christopher ColumbusGalileo GalileiNicolaus Copernicus, Martin Luther, William Shakespeare and Johannes Gutenberg. Libraries and universities rose to new importance and academies (schools of art) were founded. People also rediscovered antique writers like the Roman architect Vitruvius. At the same time Europe was ravaged by the plague.

The architect Leon Battista Alberti was very important; his writings on painting, sculpture and architecture were the theoretical foundation 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 was dependent on harmonic proportions of mathematics. His book Della pittura ('About Painting', 1436) was one of the first works on art theory in modern history.

Extensive works were written about different aspects of painting as well as biographies of different artists. 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. Artists in the Renaissance were important personalities who were even admired by those in power.


Different guilds and rich individuals each tried to donate the most beautiful, expensive and largest statues to decorate cities and churches and to demonstrate their own wealth and importance. The style was oriented on antique Roman statues, symbolising that the new burgeousie was a sucessor of the Roman Republic. Not only marble but also expensive bronze statues were erected – among them the first life-sized bronze statues since antiquity. Some statues are of monumental proportions, like Michelangelo's famous David, which is over 5 metres high. They used antique style elements like the counterpoise3, but also took the viewer into consideration. Therefore, statues are often distorted so they look correct for a viewer standing below them and looking up. Sculptures looked more and more life-like, expressing movements and emotions. Sometimes whole scenes were depicted with a group of life-sized figures. The setting of a statue is also always important, so moving it to a museum is always a loss.

Next to Biblical scenes another important assignment for artists was the decoration of tombs. Often life-sized statues of the deceased decorated the memorials – a tradition that had already started in the late Gothic period but was refined in the Renaissance style.

Reliefs4 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.

A new revival also came for the ancient Roman invention of equistrian sculptures of important military personages and triumphal arches commemorating significant events. Portrait busts of members of the reigning families also became popular again.

In northern Europe altar pieces made of linden wood were one of the most important expressions of sculptural art but, with the Reformation and its abolition of pictures, this came to a sudden end.


With the advent of the Renaissance the fine arts were relieved of the symbols and conventions of the Middle Ages. At first antique designs were simply copied and re-arranged, while later this happened more systematically and in a more informed way. Just like portrait busts, painted portraits also came back into fashion. They realistically depict men, while idealising women as chaste and pure.

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. Realistically conjuring the impression of depth on a flat surface was one of the major goals of the Renaissance. During the Middle Ages there was no method to do this and in the beginning of the movement painters simply experimented and used their experience to create more or less accurate pictures. Later, perspectives and accurate sizes of people and objects in the distance were drawn with geometrical constructions. This way it was not only possible to create realistic pictures on canvas, but also monumental murals which look like an extension of the room they are in.

The whole of Renaissance art was influenced by a Dutch invention: oil painting. Before the invention of oil paint, egg tempera - a mix of pigment, water and egg yolk - was generally used, with the egg yolk being the component 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 connection5. The use of oil to bind pigments made it possible to use techniques like Leonardo da Vinci's aerial perspective. This technique imitates 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. Light and textures could also be painted much more realistically with oil than was ever possible before.


Two of the most important artists of the Early Renaissance were Masaccio (Tommaso di Ser Giovanni di Simone Guidi Cassai), and Sandro Botticelli (meaning 'little barrel'). Masaccio was a master of perspective while Botticelli's works were full of complex symbols.

The High Renaissance (about 1500-1520), which had its centre in Rome and Venice, is closely connected with three Italian artists: Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo Buonarroti and Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio). Many pictures from this time contain hidden geometric compositions; triangles are a common example. Landscapes, although still just background decoration, stopped looking like theatre sets with several levels of stylised rocks, a few trees and hills and made a more realistic impression. Also, pictures at monumental scales with complex and dynamic compositions were created. Leonardo invented the custom of making conceptual sketches and drawings of details before creating a work of art. During this time people started to value artists in a new way and even something like fandom evolved. Biographies of artists were also written – most notably by Giorgio Vasari, who wrote over 300 of them.

Northern Europe

The time of the High Renaissance in Italy was a time of religious dissension and the Peasants' Revolt north of the Alps, so the Renaissance period started later and took different shapes from that in Italy. The centres of the movement here were Germany and the Netherlands.

North of the Alps the technique of perspective drawing was not as refined as in Italy, but still pictures with very detailed, dramatic and lively backgrounds were created. Jan van Eyck was one of the first and one of the best naturalistic painters in the north.

The two most unusual artists of this time were probably Hieronymus Bosch and Albrecht Dürer. Both did not adopt antique settings for pictures but used Italian techniques. Bosch created disturbing scenes filled with large numbers of different figures. Dürer on the other hand was impressed by Leonardo da Vinci and created detailed drawings as well as paintings and theoretical texts. Albrecht Dürer's oil paintings could never reach the level of the Dutch and Italians, but his drawings, prints and watercolour paintings show his talent and accuracy.

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.


Renaissance print Dürer

In northern Europe there were large developments in printing during the Renaissance age. Printing was not a new invention but at around 1400 printing books with woodblocks on paper became widely used. A whole page with pictures and text is carved from a wooden plate. The areas of the plate which have not been carved away are then covered with ink and used for printing – like a stamp. Many of these illustrated books were produced north of the Alps in the 15th Century. With the invention of the printing press, books and pictures could be distributed to a wider audience.

Copperplate engraving was a new technique invented in Germany. Contrary to woodcut the fine lines carved into the copper are filled with ink (black or coloured) and therefore the print then shows the lines of the carving. This allows much finer lines and very detailed pictures. Another German invention was etching, which works similar to engraving but replaces the manual work of carving with a chemical reaction. It is less precise but also easier and faster. Because of the use of only one colour, printed pictures had to rely on the depiction of light and shadow. The subjects of the pictures were often more unconventional than those of paintings. Sometimes they were humorous or even provocative.

Prints were soon highly sought after by collectors and could reach high prices. Some were distributed in large quantities; others were reserved for small numbers of collectors. In addition to making artworks available to a large number of people, printing also allowed the production of books that relied heavily on visual information.


The Late Renaissance period (the mid to late 16th Century) encompassed the style known as Mannerism, meaning simply 'style'. At this time all of Europe was under the influence of Italian art. There was the wish to create a definite style. Decoration and artifice took precedence over realistic depiction. Artists' use of colours and shapes had improved and large complex ensembles of murals and sculptures were created. The most important artists of this time were Titian (Tiziano Vecellio), Giorgione (Giorgio Barbarelli) and Tintoretto6, who were forerunners of the Baroque Period.

Titian 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 paintings have mainly warm colours and show a mysterious and spiritual concept of nature. The most significant aspects of Tintoretto's 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 contemporary political affairs.

The Dutch painter Jan van Eyck made great improvements on the technique of oil painting. By using oil paint instead of tempera he achieved stong colours and was able to paint tiny 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.

Images courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

1From the French word meaning 'rebirth'. 2Humanists held the opinion that everyone could better themselves (and others) through the study of the humanistic sciences. These were at that time: history, philosophy, grammar (writing), rhetoric and poetry.3Figures standing with most of their weight on one leg, which influences the pose of the whole body.4An example of a relief is the picture on a coin: it is not absolutely flat, but is not a real sculpture either. 5With tempera you can only paint very thin layers of colour, which appear translucent. You have to paint multiple layers above each other to achieve the colour you want. The paint has to be applied in short strokes. You can obviously not just 'colour in' a large area. Also the colour of the fresh paint is often significantly different from the colour of the dry paint. The paints become unuseable rather fast after mixing, and crack easily on flexible surfaces like canvas6Tintoretto: the little dyer. His real name was Jacopo Robusti.

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