Renaissance is a French term meaning ‘rebirth’ and is used to describe a period of extensive cultural achievements that spanned the 15th to 17th centuries in Europe. A renewed interest in Greco-Roman antiquity inspired Italian Renaissance scholars to seek enlightenment by studying the golden ages of Ancient Greece and Rome.
Often the Renaissance is divided up into the Italian Renaissance (which is the one many mean when using the term Renaissance) and the Northern Renaissance. The Northern Renaissance is often a catchall for every country outside of Italy. These designations are helpful and simplify a complex time. Different regions and countries experienced their own renaissances, each with distinctive elements. These regional renaissances vary in terms of the dates they occur. While we speak in generalities, it is good to remember that the concept of the Renaissance is varied and complex.
Italian Renaissance Beginnings
The Renaissance began on the Italian Peninsula. Italy was unique in Europe. The entire peninsula was divided up into independent city-states, each with its own form of government. Alliances, rivalries, and competition created a unique balance of power that was always in danger of tipping into war. The Italians, an independent, proud people lived in the shadow of the lost glory that was ancient Rome. The Italians of the Medieval world were equally proud of their heritage, and suspicious of their pagan roots. This suspicion was particularly strong in Rome, which many believe is the reason Rome was neither the birthplace, nor an early convert, to the Renaissance movement.
Instead Florence would be the birth place of the Italian Renaissance.
As the name implies, the concept of ‘rebirth’ is central to the Renaissance. The driving force was not to create something new, but to rebirth and return to the golden ages of antiquity. Surrounded by reminders of a lost empire, it seems natural that the Renaissance would find its birth in Italy.
Venerating antiquity and celebrating themselves, Renaissance writers re-framed history into three eras. Ancient Greece and Rome were the golden era. The Renaissance was a rebirth of that wondrous age, and in between these two enlightened periods were the Middle or Dark Ages.
This view implies that Antiquity and the Renaissance were times of light, knowledge, and discovery while, during the Middle Ages, men lived in darkness. In truth, the Middle Ages were not “dark” and many theologians, philosophers, artists, writers and poets thrived during those years. Our inherited prejudice against the intellectual developments of the Middle Ages originates with Renaissance humanists. These humanists were enamored with their new philosophies and failed to recognize the debt they owed to those underappreciated Medieval scholars.
So, what did make the Italian Renaissance unique and different from the preceding centuries? There were many contributing factors that led to the flowering of the arts and culture and to its eventual spread across Europe.
The Rise of Humanism
Perhaps the primary contributing factor was the rise of the philosophy of humanism. Humanism during the Renaissance revived the idea that man is the measure of all things. Rather than trusting solely in God’s revelation, humanism gave primary importance to human reason. Humanism stressed man’s agency, that is, that man can influence the course of his life, even the course of history. These ideas were heady thoughts to the scholars of the time.
During the Italian Renaissance, humanism blended with Christianity and many high-ranking church officials identified themselves as humanist. In later centuries the church would identify humanism as the enemy of the Church. During the Renaissance, however, Christianity and humanism flourished side by side in the cities of Italy. The Italians melded together a new vision of the relationship between God and man.
The Plague and Italian Wars
As the Renaissance was just beginning catastrophe struck Europe in the form of the Black Death or Plague. In four years, much of Europe had lost more than half of its population. The tragedy of these years became a part of the collective consciousness of those who survived. For generations the occasional outbreaks kept the fear alive and added a somber note to the glorious age.
The second half of the Italian Renaissance was marked by the Italian Wars. These along with many smaller skirmishes, famines, and civic upheavals meant these were dangerous times. In essence, this was both an exciting period of advancements, and a frightening time of violence and disease. Humanism and its accompanying idea of human agency was appealing and gave men hope that they had some control in the often-frightening world they lived in.
Exploration, Archaeology, and The Printing Press
Beyond the borders of Italy other exciting influences were filtering in and fanning the flames of the rebirth. The discoveries of men like Marco Polo and Christopher Columbus opened new vistas for exploration. New knowledge poured into Italy. This influx of knowledge added to the perception that this was indeed a golden age.
Of course, inherent in the term ‘rebirth’ is the idea that this had happened before. The Italians were not just looking into their golden future, but they were taking their cues from their illustrious past. Archaeological digs throughout the Mediterranean world uncovered great works of art which inspired many. Additionally, recently recovered ancient manuscripts were brought to the great libraries in Italy to be translated and studied. Everywhere one looked it seemed the classical world was re-asserting itself.
As knowledge seemed to expand at an unprecedented rate a technological advance changed everything. Gutenberg’s printing press and the introduction of paper mills into Europe accelerated the spread of ideas and changed the continent. You can compare the changes the printing press brought to Europe to the invention of the internet in our day. The printing press transformed Europe in ways that cannot be overstated.
Challenges to the authority of the Catholic Church grew until there was full blown rebellion in the North. The call for reforms within the Church was fueled by the printing presses that disseminated the message of reform across the continent. The struggles of the Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation led to wars, court intrigues, and abuse of power. Art was used as both a propaganda tool in the hands of the powerful and a form of protest by the marginalized. Rulers and clergy commissioned art that supported their power and emphasized God’s blessing on the faithful.
The Reformation threatened the Catholic Church on many levels and the art produced during these turbulent years reflects that struggle. Italian Renaissance artists were often caught in the middle, having to answer to various Inquisitions when their artwork wasn’t clearly presenting Catholic theology.
The Transformation of Byzantine and Gothic Art
Prior to the Renaissance, Christian art portrayed impersonal, idealized images meant to teach and inspire the viewer. Art was carefully regulated to ensure God and His teachings were represented with solemnity and truthfulness. Art emphasized the holiness of God and the sinfulness of man. Purportedly, this emphasis was to lead the viewer to a deeper devotion and dependence upon God the Father.
In fact, art was codified in the 6th century. After a period of Iconoclasm (destroying images due to the fear they would promote idolatry) Pope Gregory endorsed the return of images to the church. Gregory promoted the idea of painted murals to instruct the faithful who couldn’t read. To avoid the problem of artworks becoming idols Pope Gregory implemented a series of codes that artists were to abide by. These codes resulted in art that remained amazingly homogenized for over a thousand years. Evoking the heavenly realm, Byzantine art focused the viewers’ attention of the spiritual realm. The mosaics at the Saint Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna are classic examples of Byzantine art. In this long tradition, art is interested in depicting what cannot be seen. Heaven and the spiritual realm are the focus.
With the philosophical shifts of Humanism during the Renaissance, man took a more central place in the Biblical story and religious art. Rather than focusing on the deity of Christ and the mysteries of God, Renaissance art shifted the focus to Christ’s humanity and God’s hand in the physical world.
Religious Art Moves From Heaven To Earth
We can see this shift clearly when we look at the background of paintings. Earlier religious art was disconnected from this world. The backgrounds were flat, ethereal spaces, covered in gold. This placed the stories firmly in the spiritual realm, a realm the viewer couldn’t occupy. This distanced the viewer from the story, it wasn’t occurring in their world but in a heaven they hoped to someday have access to.
On the other hand, Renaissance painters placed their figures in real, earthly surroundings. Landscapes in the background were now recognizable places; rooms resembled real homes. The biblical stories had been taken from heaven and placed on the earth, in the realm of man. Figures in the paintings looked natural and realistic. Viewers could imagine themselves as participants in the sacred stories.
We can see this contrast clearly in these two works. Madonna and Child paintings during the Byzantine era emphasized the holiness and deity of the Christ Child. Madonna and Child paintings during the Renaissance emphasized the humanity of Christ and that God had come to earth to save his people.
Italian Renaissance Art sees a Surge in Secular Art and The Human Body
The subject of art also began to shift. Religious works were still important, as the church was still the source of most commissions for art. However, there was a growing demand for secular art. Mythological paintings became quite popular, along with historical works and portraits. Rich individuals might still pay to have an altarpiece painted for a church, but they also wanted the best painters they could hire to decorate their elaborate palaces with less serious works or works that reflected their particular interests.
Perhaps nowhere were these changes more evident than in the portrayal of the human body. Just as backgrounds changed from heavenly realms to the earth, the human body underwent a similar transformation. Philosophically this makes sense. As the ideas of the Humanist spread artists sought to incorporate that ‘man is the measure of all things’ into their work. Humans are corporeal beings; they take up space and have mass.
In earlier paintings human figures wore flowing garments with little consideration for the bodies beneath. Inspired by the statues of antiquity, artists began to drape fabrics so that they didn’t just show an understanding of the body beneath, but emphasized that body. Italian Renaissance artists, particularly sculptors, studied human anatomy. How does musculature change in various positions? How can the entire body express emotion? These were the questions artists were asking. Part of this emphasis on the body was an extension of the move toward realism, part of this was a statement about man, and the central role he plays in the cosmos.
In particular, nudes came into their own during the Renaissance. Humans haven’t changed much over the centuries, and part of the proliferation of nudes was certainly to have sensuous men and women decorating walls where they could be admired. But on another level, many artists, like Michelangelo, felt the nude the most direct way to portray human ideals like courage, wisdom and strength. Michelangelo believed the human body could convey the inner man and great spiritual truths. The conflict over nudity in art was just as intense during the Renaissance as during any other period.
The Decline of Hieratic Scale and Simultaneous Narration
We have already discussed that during the Byzantine era, artists were not concerned with painting realistically. Beyond gold backgrounds and insubstantial bodies this lack of naturalism extended to the size of figures. In this painting by Duccio it is obvious that the purpose of the artist was not to present a literal or factual retelling of the nativity story. Instead, Duccio is concerned with communicating deep spiritual truths, and he uses the conventions artists had used for millennia to do that.
One tool that artists used during these years was hieratic scale. This means a figure’s size is determined by their importance. In this painting we see that Mary, in the center of the painting, is massive, in fact, she wouldn’t fit in the stable if she were to stand. We also observe that Joseph is quite small in comparison. The size of Mary isn’t meant to imply she was an unusually tall woman, but that she was an extremely important one, and Joseph’s small stature informs us that he plays a supporting role in this narrative.
Hieratic scale was first used in ancient Egypt and the ancient Near East and was adopted by medieval artists. The use of scale would have been easily understood by the medieval viewers of this work.
Additionally, we note the baby Jesus appears twice in the painting. Simultaneous narration was another device used by artists to allow them to fully tell their story within one work of art. They didn’t feel the need to limit their storytelling to just one moment in the nativity story, but artists would include multiple parts of the narration. We can see the baby Jesus lying in his manger, and getting his first bath. You can read more about this fascinating work here.
Over the course of the Italian Renaissance the use of hieratic scale began to decline, particularly in the South, as did the use of simultaneous narration. The reason for this decline was the new Italian obsession with perspective which radically altered how artists worked and how they visually narrated a story.
Linear Perspective or One Point Perspective Defines Renaissance Art
Perhaps the most noticed change to art during the Italian Renaissance was the development of linear perspective.
One point linear perspective is an exercise in geometry and parallel lines. It is based on the observation that lines tend to converge in the distance. Imagine looking down a railroad track or a road lined with trees. The further away you gaze the closer together the track appears to be. Your mind knows that the tracks remain parallel, but your eye doesn’t see it that way. The converging lines translate in your mind to a perception of depth.
Artists gradually learned how to draw out grids that would allow them to paint more realistic rooms, streets, and figures. We know that when we view a scene, people who are off in the distance appear smaller than those close to us, but how do we decide how big to paint those distant figures. Artists solved many of the problems of perspective by establishing a vanishing point and then drawing out from that point parallel lines that gave their compositions a structure that would provide depth and consistency.
Generally, the vanishing point is placed on the horizon line, then one point is chosen, and lines are drawn out from there. At first the vanishing point was in the center of the painting, but as artists became more comfortable, they experimented with moving the vanishing point along the horizon line. Artists used the lines that radiated out from the vanishing point to line up floor tiles, roof lines, and windows. These lines were also the guides for the correct sizing of figures.
Early Renaissance painters struggled to come up with ways to incorporate perspective into their paintings. Many of the earliest attempts can appear clunky and awkward to us. However, each work represents a step forward in mastering perspective.
Eventually mathematical formulas developed to help artists with perspective. Some artists, like Brunelleschi and Albrecht Dürer, published books with their discoveries to be used by fellow artists. Other artists guarded each new advancement and only shared with the artists in their workshops. Over time artists perfected the use of linear perspective to such an extent that it became automatic and difficult to imagine that at one time it was a revolutionary idea.
Renaissance artists also began to use aerial (sometimes called atmospheric) perspective. This sounds quite impressive, but the term simply means that as a landscape fades into the distance artists painted with bluer and fainter shades of color. This use of color gives an impression of distance and depth. The next time you are out where you can view a receding horizon, particularly with hills or mountains, look carefully and you will see that the further the horizon recedes the bluer and hazier objects appear. This is aerial perspective.
Aerial Perspective is important because linear perspective was only useful in a painting with lines. If a painting were outdoors in a natural landscape where trees and rocks are not lined up artists still needed tools to show distance and depth. This is where aerial perspective came in. The foreground of a painting would be sharp and clear, the mid ground would get a bit less colorful and lines would blur slightly. The background would be hazy and all color would have changed to various shades of blue.
Unique perspective challenges were presented when objects were lying down, or in other odd positions. For instance, an artist painting a battle scene where soldiers have fallen to the ground must now take into account the part of the body closest to the viewer needs to be larger than the part of the body further away. Basically, foreshortening is presenting an object with depth. It’s tricky.
In this painting Mantegna has foreshortened the body of Christ. His feet are large while his head is small. We can see that his legs have been shortened. This dramatic presentation places the viewer at the feet of the dead Christ. This view is a bit jarring and unexpected. Due to the body’s unexpected presentation the viewer feels different emotions. Mantegna demonstrates his mastery of the new skill of foreshortening in this work.
In this print by Albrecht Durer we can see how some artists attempted to learn to foreshorten by using grids. They would attempt to draw, square by square, exactly what they saw. This is really quite difficult. Learning the optical tricks that the mind and eye play made it possible for artist to create amazingly lifelike creations. These were world removed from the Byzantine and Gothic art that had preceded them.
The Challenge of Balance
As artists became adept at using perspective, they encountered another difficulty, how to achieve balance. During the Medieval period artists were able to achieve perfect balance, unity, and coherence because they were not concerned with a realistic presentation. For instance, if they were going to paint the 12 disciples, they would line them all up in a straight line, looking forward, perfectly spaced and uniform in size.
The new challenge faced by Renaissance artist was, that’s not how 12 people interact. It’s not natural or real. When I am viewing a group, and using one point perspective, it is hard to achieve a balanced composition. Any wedding photographer can relate to the problem as they seek to achieve balanced, striking compositions in real life with multiple people. Of course, a wedding photographer is used to viewing the world through the lens of a camera, automatically framing in the best shot. Renaissance artists were in totally new territory. Those artists, like Raphael, who mastered the art of creating perfectly composed scenes were elevated and declared geniuses.
Idealized Beauty Marks Italian Renaissance Art
The Renaissance artists in Italy favored idealized beauty as opposed to realism. That sounds contradictory as we’ve talked about the return to realism during this period, so let me explain. The women in religious paintings might have been modeled after real women, and they look like women, however they are a bit too perfect. When we view one of Botticelli’s Madonnas we recognize she is a beautiful woman, but she also doesn’t look like any woman we would actually meet on the street. The small imperfections inherent in real people are not there. In our culture we see this in beauty magazines where the models have been photo-shopped to look perfect.
When we compare Italian Renaissance works with those from the North or from later centuries, we can clearly see this obsession with idealized beauty in Italy. Artists were expected to create beauty first, realism and historical accuracy second. When ugliness did enter a painting, it was often as a metaphor for sin, corruption or evil, and to contrast with the beauty of the figures who portrayed virtue and truth.
Nearly all of the paintings of the Italian Renaissance were painted as frescoes. There were wooden panel altarpieces, but canvases painted with oils were slow to make their way south from the Flemish artists. Instead the Italians preferred frescoes.
Fresco means “fresh” and the term is used because artist painted directly onto wet plaster. This technique, while presenting many challenges, created an extremely durable work. The painting literally became a part of the wall. This durability is responsible for so many incredible masterpieces surviving the centuries so that we can still view them today.
Distinctives of the Italian Renaissance Art First Seen In Sculpture
While I’ve focused on painting, sculptors were the first to embrace the new natural aesthetic, combining classicism, humanism, and Christian iconography in their works. When we consider this, it makes sense. Creating a 3D figure in clay is far easier than figuring how to paint a 3D figure on a flat surface. Artists began to study the sculptures that had survived from the ancient world and to use those forms as models for their own works.
The characteristics we’ve discussed in Italian painting also distinguished their sculptures. Models from antiquity inspired most works and mythological iconography was often borrowed to add meaning. Nudity was embraced in sculpture, and sculptors in particular studied human anatomy. Perspective was taken into account. Sculptors took into account where a specific piece was to be displayed when they worked and foreshortened their figures to fool the eye. Donatello, Michelangelo, and Ghiberti were just a few of the sculpting masters that emerged during this era.
Many scholars date the beginning of the Renaissance to a sculpture by Nicola Pisano on the Baptistery Pulpit in Pisa. For the first time since antiquity a sculptor used a mythological figure, Hercules, to embody a Christian idea. You can read more about this seminal work here. Or watch this video explaining the significance.
The Italian Renaissance Changed All Of Art
Sculptures and painting are only two of the mediums Renaissance artists embraced and changed. The Renaissance was also marked by incredible architecture, tapestries, prints, and illuminated manuscripts. The sweeping changes the Renaissance brought to Europe would be made visual by the gifted men and women who created during this period.
While we don’t have the time and space to explore all of these mediums here, if you sign up on my email list you’ll be updated on new blog posts, videos, and curriculum packets. The Italian Renaissance Curriculum will be released over the next months and you won’t want to miss out. I hope this post has given you some of the guiding principles of the Italian Renaissance and increased your understanding and enjoyment when you view works from this period.
E.H. Gombrich, The Story of Art. (New York, Phaidon Press, 2016)
Professor Sharon Latchaw Hirsh, How to Look at and Understand Great Art, Lecture series, Great Courses
Professor William Koss, History of European Art Lecture series, Great Courses
Hugh Honour and John Fleming, The Visual Arts: A History
Sister Wendy Beckett, The Story of Painting (London, Dorsey Kindersley, 2000)
Will Durant, The Renaissance: A History of Civilization in Italy from 1304-1576 A.D.
Marilyn Stokstad, Art History. (New Jersey, Pearson Education, 2005)
National Gallery of Art website www.nga.gov
Metropolitan Museum of Art website www.metmuseum.org
The Getty Center www.getty.edu
And thanks to the Met and Wiki commons quality images for public domain art is now much more easily accessible.