Renaissance art  

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The Birth of Venus (detail), a 1486 painting by Sandro Botticelli
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The Birth of Venus (detail), a 1486 painting by Sandro Botticelli
Renaissance, Three Graces, mythological painting, print culture, early Renaissance painting, Northern Renaissance

Renaissance art is the painting, sculpture and decorative arts of that period of European history known as the Renaissance, emerging as a distinct style in Italy in about 1400, in parallel with developments which occurred in philosophy, literature, music and science. Renaissance art, perceived as a "rebirth" of ancient traditions, took as its foundation the art of Classical antiquity, but transformed that tradition by the absorption of recent developments in the art of Northern Europe and by application of contemporary scientific knowledge. Renaissance art, with Renaissance Humanist philosophy, spread throughout Europe, affecting both artists and their patrons with the development of new techniques and new artistic sensibilities. Renaissance art marks the transition of Europe from the Medieval period to the Early modern age.

In many parts of Europe, Early Renaissance art was created in parallel with Late Medieval art. By 1500 the Renaissance style prevailed. As Late Renaissance art (Mannerism) developed, it took on different and distinctive characteristics in every region.

One of the distinguishing features of Renaissance art was its development of highly realistic linear perspective. Giotto di Bondone (1267–1337) is credited with first treating a painting as a window into space, but it was not until the demonstrations of architect Filippo Brunelleschi (1377–1446) and the subsequent writings of Leon Battista Alberti (1404–1472) that perspective was formalized as an artistic technique. The development of perspective was part of a wider trend towards realism in the arts. To that end, painters also developed other techniques, studying light, shadow, and, famously in the case of Leonardo da Vinci, human anatomy. Underlying these changes in artistic method, was a renewed desire to depict the beauty of nature, and to unravel the axioms of aesthetics, with the works of Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael representing artistic pinnacles that were to be much imitated by other artists. Other notable artists include Sandro Botticelli, working for the Medici in Florence, Donatello another Florentine and Titian in Venice, among others.

Concurrently, in the Netherlands, a particularly vibrant artistic culture developed, the work of Hugo van der Goes and Jan van Eyck having particular influence on the development of painting in Italy, both technically with the introduction of oil paint and canvas, and stylistically in terms of naturalism in representation. (For more, see Renaissance in the Netherlands). Later, the work of Pieter Brueghel the Elder would inspire artists to depict themes of everyday life.

In architecture, Filippo Brunelleschi was foremost in studying the remains of ancient classical buildings, and with rediscovered knowledge from the 1st-century writer Vitruvius and the flourishing discipline of mathematics, formulated the Renaissance style which emulated and improved on classical forms. Brunelleschi's major feat of engineering was the building of the dome of Florence Cathedral. The first building to demonstrate this is claimed to be the church of St. Andrew built by Alberti in Mantua. The outstanding architectural work of the High Renaissance was the rebuilding of St. Peter's Basilica, combining the skills of Bramante, Michelangelo, Raphael, Sangallo and Maderno.

The Roman orders types of columns are used: Tuscan, Doric, Ionic, Corinthian and Composite. These can either be structural, supporting an arcade or architrave, or purely decorative, set against a wall in the form of pilasters. During the Renaissance, architects aimed to use columns, pilasters, and entablatures as an integrated system. One of the first buildings to use pilasters as an integrated system was in the Old Sacristy (1421–1440) by Filippo Brunelleschi.

Arches, semi-circular or (in the Mannerist style) segmental, are often used in arcades, supported on piers or columns with capitals. There may be a section of entablature between the capital and the springing of the arch. Alberti was one of the first to use the arch on a monumental. Renaissance vaults do not have ribs. They are semi-circular or segmental and on a square plan, unlike the Gothic vault which is frequently rectangular.


Contents

Influences

The influences upon the development of Renaissance art in the early 15th century are those that also affected Philosophy, Literature, Architecture, Theology, Science, Government and other aspects of society. The following list presents a summary, dealt with more fully in the main articles that are cited above.

  • Classical texts, lost to European scholars for centuries, became available. These included Philosophy, Poetry, Drama, Science, a thesis on the Arts and Early Christian Theology.
  • Simultaneously, Europe gained access to advanced mathematics which had its provenance in the works of Islamic scholars.
  • The advent of movable type printing in the 15th century meant that ideas could be disseminated easily, and an increasing number of books were written for a broad public.
  • The establishment of the Medici Bank and the subsequent trade it generated brought unprecedented wealth to a single Italian city, Florence.
  • Cosimo de' Medici set a new standard for patronage of the arts, not associated with the church or monarchy.
  • Humanist philosophy meant that man's relationship with humanity, the universe and with God was no longer the exclusive province of the Church.
  • A revived interest in the Classics brought about the first archaeological study of Roman remains by the architect Brunelleschi and sculptor Donatello. The revival of a style of architecture based on classical precedents inspired a corresponding classicism in painting, which manifested itself as early as the 1420s in the paintings of Masaccio and Uccello.
  • The improvement of oil paint and developments in oil-painting technique by Netherlandish artists such as Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden and Hugo van der Goes led to its adoption in Italy from about 1475 and had ultimately lasting effects on painting practices, worldwide.
  • The serendipitous presence within the region of Florence in the early 15th century of certain individuals of artistic genius, most notably Masaccio, Brunelleschi, Ghiberti, Piero della Francesca, Donatello and Michelozzo formed an ethos out of which sprang the great masters of the High Renaissance, as well as supporting and encouraging many lesser artists to achieve work of extraordinary quality.
  • A similar heritage of artistic achievement occurred in Venice through the talented Bellini family, their influential inlaw Mantegna, Giorgione, Titian and Tintoretto.
  • The publication of two treatises by Leone Battista Alberti, De Pitura (On Painting), 1435, and De re aedificatoria (Ten Books on Architecture), 1452.

Old Master prints

In the European Middle Ages goldsmiths used engraving to decorate and inscribe metalwork. It is thought that they began to print impressions of their designs to record them. From this grew the engraving of copper printing plates to produce artistic images on paper, known as old master prints in Germany in the 1430s. Italy soon followed. Many early engravers came from a goldsmithing background. The first and greatest period of the engraving was from about 1470 to 1530, with such masters as Martin Schongauer, Albrecht Dürer, and Lucas van Leiden.

History

Proto Renaissance art, 1280-1400

In Italy in the late 13th and early 14th centuries, the sculpture of Nicola Pisano and his son Giovanni Pisano, working at Pisa, Siena and Pistoia shows markedly classicising tendencies, probably influenced by the familiarity of these artists with ancient Roman sarcophagi. Their masterpieces are the pulpits of the Baptistery and Cathedral of Pisa. Contemporary with Giovanni Pisano, the Florentine painter Giotto developed a manner of figurative painting that was unprecedentedly naturalistic, three dimensional, life-like and classicising, when compared with that of his contemporaries and teacher Cimabue. Giotto, whose greatest work is the cycle of the Life of Christ at the Arena Chapel in Padua, was seen by the 16th century biographer Giorgio Vasari as "rescuing and restoring art" from the "crude, traditional, Byzantine style" prevalent in Italy in the 1200s.

Early Renaissance in Italy, 1400-1479

Although both the Pisanos and Giotto had students and followers, the first truly Renaissance artists were not to emerge in Florence until 1401 with the competition to sculpt a set of bronze doors of the Baptistery of Florence Cathedral which drew entries from seven young sculptors including Brunelleschi, Donatello and the winner, Lorenzo Ghiberti. Brunelleschi, most famous as the architect of the dome of Florence Cathedral and the Church of San Lorenzo, created a number of sculptural works, including a lifesized Crucifix in Santa Maria Novella, renowned for its naturalism. His studies of perspective are thought to have influenced the painter Masaccio. Donatello became renowned as the greatest sculptor of the Early Renaissance, his masterpieces being his Humanist and unusually erotic statue of David, one of the icons of the Florentine republic, and his great monument to Gattamelata, the first large equestrian bronze to be created since Roman times.

The contemporary of Donatello, Masaccio, was the painterly descendant of Giotto, furthering the trend towards solidity of form and naturalism of face and gesture that he had begun a century earlier. Masaccio completed several panel paintings but is best known for the fresco cycle that he began in the Brancacci Chapel with the older artist Masolino and which had profound influence on later painters, including Michelangelo. Masaccio's developments were carried forward in the paintings of Fra Angelico, particularly in his frescos at the Convent of San Marco in Florence.

The treatment of the elements of perspective and light in painting was of particular concern to 15th century Florentine painters. Uccello was so obsessed with trying to achieve an appearance of perspective that, according to Vasari, it disturbed his sleep. His solutions can be seen in his masterpiece, the Battle of San Romano. Piero della Francesca made systematic and scientific studies of both light and linear perspective, the results of which can be seen in his fresco cycle of The History of the True Cross in San Francesco, Arezzo.

In Naples, the painter Antonello da Messina began using oil paints for portraits and religious paintings at a date that preceded other Italian painters, possibly about 1450. He carried this technique north and influenced the painters of Venice. One of the most significant painters of Northern Italy was Andrea Mantegna, who was decorated the interior of a room, the Camera degli Sposi for his patron Ludovico Gonzaga, setting portraits of the family and court into an illusionistic architectural space.

The end of the Early Renaissance in Italian art is marked, like its beginning, by a particular commission that drew artists together, this time in cooperation rather than competition. Pope Sixtus IV had rebuilt the Papal Chapel, named the Sistine Chapel in his honour, and commissioned a group of artists, Botticelli, Perugino, Ghirlandaio and Cosimo Rosselli to decorate its wall with fresco cycles depicting the Life of Christ and the Life of Moses. In the sixteen large paintings, the artists, although each working in his individual style, agreed on principals of format, and utilised the techniques of lighting, linear and atmospheric perspective, anatomy, foreshortening and characterisation that had been carried to a high point in the large Florentine studios of Ghiberti, Verrocchio, Ghirlandaio and Perugino.

High Renaissance art in Italy, 1475-1525

The "universal genius" Leonardo da Vinci was to further perfect the aspects of pictorial art (lighting, linear and atmospheric perspective, anatomy, foreshortening and characterisation) that had preoccupied artists of the Early Renaissance, in a lifetime of studying and meticulously recording his observations of the natural world. His adoption of oil paint as his primary media meant that he could depict light and its effects on the landscape and objects more naturally and with greater dramatic effect than had ever been done before, as demonstrated in the Mona Lisa. His dissection of cadavers carried forward the understanding of skeletal and muscular anatomy, as seen in the unfinished St Jerome. His depiction of human emotion in The Last Supper set the benchmark for religious painting.

The art of Leonardo's younger contemporary Michelangelo took a very different direction. Michelangelo, in neither his painting nor his sculpture demonstrates any interest in the observation of any natural object except the human body. He perfected his technique in depicting it, while in his early twenties, by the creation of the enormous marble statue of David and the group the Pieta, in St Peter's Basilica, Rome. He then set about an exploration of the expressive possibilities of the human anatomy. His commission by Pope Julius II to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling resulted in the supreme masterpiece of figurative composition, which was to have profound effect on every subsequent generation of European artists.

Standing alongside Leonardo and Michelangelo as the third great painter of the High Renaissance was the younger Raphael, who in a short life span painted a great number of lifelike and engaging portraits, including those of Pope Julius II and his successor Pope Leo X, and numerous portrayals of the Madonna and Christ Child, including the Sistine Madonna.

In Northern Italy the High Renaissance represented by the religious paintings of Giovanni Bellini which include several large altarpieces of a type known as "Sacred Conversation" which show a group of saints around the enthroned Madonna. His contemporary Giorgione left a small number of enigmatic works, including The Tempest, the subject of which has remained a matter of speculation. The earliest works of Titian date from the era of the High Renaissance, including a massive altarpiece The Assumption of the Virgin which combines human action and drama with spectacular colour and atmosphere.

Early Netherlandish art, 1400-1525

The painters of the Low Countries at this period included Jan van Eyck, his brother Hubert van Eyck, Robert Campin, Hans Memling, Rogier van der Weyden and Hugo van der Goes. Their painting developed independently of Early Italian Renaissance painting, and without the influence of a deliberate and conscious striving to revive antiquity. The style of painting grew directly out of the Medieval arts of tempera painting, stained glass and book illumination. The media used was oil paint, which had long been utilised for painting leather ceremonial shields and accoutrements, because it was flexible and relatively durable. The earliest Netherlandish oil paintings are meticulous and detailed like tempera paintings. The material lent itself to the depiction of tonal variations and texture, so facilitating the observation of nature in great detail.

The Netherlandish painters did not approach the creation of a picture through a framework of linear perspective and correct proportion. They maintained a Medieval view of hierarchical proportion and religious symbolism, while delighting in a realistic treatment of material elements, both natural and man-made. Jan van Eyck, with his brother Hubert painted The Altarpiece of the Mystical Lamb. It is probable that Antonello da Messina became familiar with Van Eyck's work, while in Naples or Sicily. In 1475, Hugo van der Goes' Portinari Altarpiece arrived in Florence where it was to have a profound influence on many painters, most immediately Ghirlandaio who painted an altarpiece imitating its elements.

Hieronymus Bosch was a painter who employed the type of fanciful forms that were often utilised to decorate borders and letters in illuminated manuscripts, combining plant and animal forms with architectonic ones. When taken from the context of the illumination and peopled with humans, these forms give Bosch's paintings a surreal quality which have no parallel in the work of any other Renaissance painter. His masterpiece is the triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights.

Early French Renaissance art, 1385-1520

The artists of France, (including duchies such as Burgundy) were often associated with courts, providing illuminated manuscripts and portraits for the nobility as well as devotional paintings and altarpieces. Among the most famous were the Limbourg brothers, Flemish illuminators and creators of the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry. Jean Fouquet, painter of the royal court, visited Italy in 1437 and reflects the influence of Florentine painters such as Paolo Uccello. Although best known for his portraits such as that of Charles VII of France Fouquet also created illuminations, and is thought to be the inventor of the portrait miniature. There were a number of artists at this date who painted famed altarpieces, that are stylistically quite distinct from both the Italian and the Flemish. These include two enigmatic figures, Enguerrand Quarton to whom is ascribed the Pieta of Villeneuve-lès-Avignon, and Jean Hey, otherwise known as "the Master of Moulins" after his most famous work, the Moulins Altarpiece. In these works realism and close observation of the human figure, emotions and lighting are combined with a Medieval formality, which includes gilt backgrounds.

Themes and symbolism

Renaissance artists painted a wide variety of themes. Religious altarpieces, fresco cycles, and small works for private devotion were very popular. For inspiration, painters in both Italy and northern Europe frequently turned to Jacobus de Voragine's Golden Legend (1260), a highly influential source book for the lives of saints that had already had a strong influence on Medieval artists. The rebirth of classical antiquity and Renaissance humanism also resulted in many Mythological and history paintings. Ovidian stories, for example, were very popular. Decorative ornament, often used in painted architectural elements, was especially influenced by classical Roman motifs.

Techniques

  • The use of perspective: The first major treatment of the painting as a window into space appeared in the work of Giotto di Bondone, at the beginning of the 14th century. True linear perspective was formalized later, by Filippo Brunelleschi and Leon Battista Alberti. In addition to giving a more realistic presentation of art, it moved Renaissance painters into composing more paintings.
  • foreshortening - The term foreshortening refers to the artistic effect of shortening lines in a drawing so as to create an illusion of depth.
  • sfumato - The term sfumato was coined by Italian Renaissance artist, Leonardo da Vinci, and refers to a fine art painting technique of blurring or softening of sharp outlines by subtle and gradual blending of one tone into another through the use of thin glazes to give the illusion of depth or three-dimensionality. This stems from the Italian word sfumare meaning to evaporate or to fade out. The Latin origin is fumare, to smoke. The opposite of sfumato is chiaroscuro.
  • chiaroscuro - The term chiaroscuro refers to the fine art painting modeling effect of using a strong contrast between light and dark to give the illusion of depth or three-dimensionality. This comes from the Italian words meaning light (chiaro) and dark (scuro), a technique which came into wide use in the Baroque Period.; Sfumato is the opposite of chiaroscuro.
  • Balance and Proportion: proper sizes.

Italian artists

Artists of the Low Countries

Main articles: Early Netherlandish painting for 15th century artists, Dutch and Flemish Renaissance painting for 16th century artists

German artists

French artists

Spanish Artists

Works

Major collections

General Collections:
Netherlandish:
Italian:

See also




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