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An Introduction to Italian Renaissance Art

 

RAPHAEL (1483-1520) 'The School of Athens', 1509-11 (fresco)

RAPHAEL (1483-1520)
'The School of Athens', 1509-11
(fresco)

The Italian Renaissance was a 'rebirth' of Classical values in art, literature and philosophy. It was a period of artistic development in Western Art that stretched from the revival of naturalism in the art of Giotto at the end of the 13th century to the expressive forms of Mannerism in the art of Michelangelo at the start of the 16th century. Its influence spread across Europe and gave rise to the cultural and scientific ideas that shaped artistic thought for the next five hundred years.

The term 'Renaissance', which means 'rebirth' in French, was coined in 1855 by Jules Michelet in his nineteen-volume masterpiece 'Histoire de France'. [1]

 

The Key Elements of Italian Renaissance Art

 

AGESANDER, POLYDORUS, and ATHENODORUS (1st Century B.C.) Laocoön and his Sons, circa 42-20 B.C. (marble)

AGESANDER, POLYDORUS, and ATHENODORUS (1st Century B.C.)
Laocoön and his Sons, circa 42-20 B.C.
(marble)

During the 14th century many Italians believed that the barbarous cultures of the Dark and Early Middle Ages had discarded the high artistic standards set by the ancient Romans and Greeks. Therefore, in order to restore these lost ideals, it was necessary for art to retrace its steps to find a new path to progress. This quest led to a revival of certain artistic principles from the classical era which were merged with contemporary ideas to form the key elements of art during the Italian Renaissance. Among the most important of these were:

Naturalism: A search for the perfection of form that was inspired by the naturalism of Classical sculpture.

Humanism: The influence of the philosophy of Classical humanism which is revealed in the gradual shift from religious to secular subject matter in art.

Perspective Drawing: The development of perspective drawing as the standard means of organizing the spatial depth of a picture.

New Media and Techniques: The development of new media and techniques which were essential to achieve a greater naturalism in art.

The development of Italian Renaissance art can be broken down into four distinct stages - the Proto Renaissance, the Early Renaissance, the High Renaissance and the Venetian Renaissance.

The Proto Renaissance

 

Simone Martini (c. 1280/85-1344) The Annunciation, 1333

Simone Martini (c. 1280/85-1344)
The Annunciation, 1333
(egg tempera and gold on panel)

The Proto Renaissance is the name given to that uncertain period of transition in Italian art as the creative influence of the Byzantine tradition began to decline. Artists saw the need for a more relevant art form that reflected the aspirations of an ambitious Italy, desperate to emerge from the stagnation of its medieval past.

During the Proto Renaissance, there was a gradual development of naturalism in Italian art which was inspired by the values of Classical humanism and the anatomical beauty of Classical sculpture. You can see the start of this process when you compare two paintings by Duccio and Giotto.

DUCCIO DI BUONINSEGNA (c.1255-1315) 'Maestà' (the Virgin in Her Majesty, surrounded by Angels and Saints), 1308-11

DUCCIO DI BUONINSEGNA (c.1255-1315)
'Maestà' (the Virgin in Her Majesty, surrounded by Angels and Saints), 1308-11
(egg tempera and gold on panel)

In Duccio's 'Maestà', the huge altarpiece that he painted for Siena Cathedral, the artist still has one foot stuck in the flat frontal conventions of Byzantine composition. The other tries to free itself through the greater naturalism of the figures, as they turn to focus on the Christ child or, in a few distracted cases, on one another.

 

GIOTTO (c.1267-1337) 'The Betrayal of Christ', 1303-06 (Fresco 72"x72") Scenes from the Life of Christ in the Arena Chapel, Padua.

GIOTTO (c.1267-1337)
'The Betrayal of Christ', 1303-06
(Fresco 72"x72")

In Giotto's 'Betrayal of Christ', a scene from his fresco cycle of the Life of Christ in the Arena Chapel in Padua, the naturalism of his figures and their layered composition is turned up a notch to let the dramatic narrative unfold in a more naturalistic space. The figures have a greater three-dimensional form, more expressive body language and eye contact, with a particular focus on the revealing look between Jesus and Judas, just at the moment of his betrayal.

 

The main artists associated with the Proto Renaissance are:

  • Giotto di Bondonne (c.1267-1337) - Florence
  • Duccio di Buoninsegna (c.1255/60-1319) - Sienna
  • Simone Martini (1284-1344) - Sienna
  • Ambrogio Lorenzetti (c.1290-1352) - Sienna
  • Pietro Lorenzetti (c.1280-1348) - Sienna

The Early Renaissance

 

'The Tribute Money', c.1424-27 (fresco)
MASACCIO (1401-28) 'The Tribute Money', c.1424-27 (fresco)
Click the icon to view perspective study.
Flip

MASACCIO (1401-28)
'The Tribute Money', c.1424-27
(fresco)

The Early Renaissance is mainly associated with the city of Florence as the birthplace of the movement and as its main centre of artistic innovation. Early Renaissance art introduces a greater degree of naturalism by placing an emphasis on the observational drawing of the human figure. It also establishes a more precise spatial organization of the figures, buildings and landscapes through the invention of perspective drawing.

 

PAOLO UCCELLO (1397-1475) LEFT PANEL: 'Battle of San Romano', c.1438-40 (egg tempera on poplar panel)

PAOLO UCCELLO (1397-1475)
LEFT PANEL: 'Battle of San Romano', c.1438-40
(egg tempera on poplar panel)

Humanistic subject matter, based on the study of Classical mythology, along with portraiture and landscape evolved as acceptable subjects for art during The Early Renaissance. This marks a shift from the exclusive position held by religious art.

Some artists, for example Masaccio, Fra Angelico and Piero della Francesca, followed in the footsteps of Giotto by increasing the degree of naturalism in painting within the traditional themes of Christian art. Others, such as Paolo Uccello and Sandro Botticelli, advanced the same aesthetic ideals by using secular subjects to reflect the historical and classical interests of their wealthy patrons.

 

The main artists associated with the Early Renaissance are:

  • Masaccio (1401-28) -Florence
  • Donatello (1386-1466) - Florence
  • Fra Angelico (1387-1455) - Florence
  • Paulo Uccello (1397-1475) -Florence
  • Fra Filippo Lippi (c.1406-69) - Florence
  • Piero della Francesca (1416-92) - Umbria
  • Andrea Mantegna (1430-1506) - Padua, Mantua
  • Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) - Florence, Rome
  • Pietro Perugino (1450-1523) - Umbria

The High Renaissance

 

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) 'Mona Lisa', c.1503-06 (oil on panel)

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)
'Mona Lisa', c.1503-06
(oil on panel)

The High Renaissance relocated to Rome which became the cultural capital of the movement under the generous patronage of successive popes. Giorgio Vasari writes about this period (which he calls the 'third manner') as the highest peak of artistic achievement in which Renaissance art reached an unsurpassed level of grandeur. Some individual artists and their patrons also gained recognition for their local regions in Central Italy through the creation of significant artworks.

 

'The Transfiguration', 1480
RAPHAEL SANZIO (1483-1520) 'The Transfiguration', 1480
Click on the flip icon to view the composition structure.
Flip

RAPHAEL SANZIO (1483-1520)
'The Transfiguration', 1516-20
(egg tempera on a poplar panel)

The path to realism in art reached its peak in the sixteenth century with Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael who achieved the classical ideals that artists had pursued since the Proto-Renaissance. The general character of this art was classical and intellectual in its concept, focusing on ideas relating to the structure, form, proportion and the arrangement of figures within a formally balanced composition.

 

MICHELANGELO BUONARROTI (1475-1564) 'The Last Judgement', 1536-41 (fresco)

MICHELANGELO BUONARROTI (1475-1564)
'The Last Judgement', 1535-41
(fresco)

Although these three great masters have come to personify the art of the High Renaissance, each offers a unique character in their art that reflects their individual personality:

  • The intense observation, invention and psychological insights of Leonardo.
  • The graceful proportions, harmony and atmosphere in the paintings of Raphael.
  • The heroic power and form of the human figure in Michelangelo.

 

The main artists associated with the High Renaissance are:

  • Leonardo da Vinci (1452 -1519) - Florence, Milan, France
  • Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) - Florence, Rome
  • Raffaello Sanzio (1483-1520) - Umbria, Rome
  • Fra Bartolommeo (1472-1517) - Florence
  • Dosso Dossi (c.1474/79-1542) - Ferrara
  • Andrea del Sarto (1486-1530) – Florence
  • Antonio Allegri Correggio (1489-1534) – Parma

The Venetian Renaissance

 

Giorgione (1477-1510) 'The Castelfranco Madonna', c. 1503-04 (oil on panel)

Giorgione (1477-1510)
'The Castelfranco Madonna', c. 1503-05
(oil on panel)

The Venetian Renaissance gave rise to a different character of art with a stronger emphasis on color, pattern and atmosphere.

During the 15th century, Venice was the most prosperous city in Italy due to its favorable location on the Adriatic Sea for trade with the vast Byzantine empire to the East. It was a cosmopolitan port that traded in timber, exotic spices, luxuriant lace and silks, Islamic porcelain and metalwork, and colorful minerals and dyes. The city was built on a group of small islands separated by canals whose shimmering reflections illuminate the area with a special quality of light. This peculiar blend of economic, cultural and topographical conditions combined to inspire paintings with a more vibrant use of color.

While artists from Florence and Rome were more concerned about using the rational elements of line, shape and form to construct an ordered vision that reflected their classical mindset, Venetian artists more naturally engaged with the sensually charged elements of color and light to create an atmospheric reflection of their world.

 

GIOVANNI BELLINI (1430-1516) 'Saint Francis in Ecstasy', c.1480 (oil on panel)

GIOVANNI BELLINI (1430-1516)
'Saint Francis in Ecstasy', c.1475-80
(oil on panel)

The artist responsible for transforming painting in Venice was Giovanni Bellini. He experimented with the new technique of oil painting to create radiant images whose atmosphere was modelled with luminous color and delicate tone. His stunning landscape backgrounds rank among the greatest in the history of art.

 

TITIAN (1489-1576) 'Bacchus and Ariadne', 1520–23 (oil on canvas)

TITIAN (1489-1576)
'Bacchus and Ariadne', 1520–23
(oil on canvas)

Giorgione (Giorgio Barbarelli) and Titian (Tiziano Vecelli), both students of Bellini, took up their master's mantle developing the atmospheric and expressive qualities of oil paint. When Bellini died, Titian went on to become the supreme master of the Venetian Renaissance, excelling in every genre with a style of spontaneous brushwork in his later paintings that unshackled painting technique for future generations of artists.

 

TINTORETTO (1518-94) 'Ariadne, Venus and Bacchus', 1576 (oil on canvas)

TINTORETTO (1518-94)
'Ariadne, Venus and Bacchus', c.1576
(oil on canvas)

The last master of the Venetian Renaissance was Tintoretto (Jacopo Robusti). His weightless figures, angular perspectives, dramatic lighting and vigorous brushwork create a uniquely personal vision of his subjects which, although criticized in his own time for their unorthodox technique, are appreciated today for their individuality and freedom of expression.

 

The main artists associated with the Venetian Renaissance are:

  • Giovanni Bellini (1430-1516) - Venice
  • Giorgione (1476-1510) - Venice
  • Titian (1487-1576) - Venice, Rome
  • Tintoretto (1518-94) - Venice

Painting Techniques of the Italian Renaissance

 

Fresco Painting

 

Fra Angelico (1387-1455) - 'The Annunciation', 1442-43 (Fresco)

Fra Angelico (1387-1455)
'The Annunciation', 1442-43
(Fresco)

Fresco Painting was the most popular technique for large scale murals throughout the Renaissance. Fresco was a highly skilled technique that involved painting onto freshly applied plaster so that the color pigments bonded with the wall surface as it dried to produce a highly durable image.

 

Tempera Painting

 

SANDRO BOTTICELLI (1445-1510) 'Idealized Portrait of a Lady', 1480 (egg tempera on a poplar panel)

SANDRO BOTTICELLI (1445-1510)
'Idealized Portrait of a Lady', c.1475
(egg tempera on a poplar panel)

Tempera Painting had a greater luminosity and depth of tone than fresco. It was generally used for smaller scale works on wooden panels although there are outstanding large scale examples of the technique by Sandro Botticelli. Tempera involves mixing color pigments with egg yolks to form a water-soluble emulsion paint which is permanent when dry.

 

Oil Painting

 

GIOVANNI BELLINI (1430-1516) 'Portrait of Doge Leonardo Loredan', 1501(oil on poplar panel)

GIOVANNI BELLINI (1430-1516)
'Portrait of Doge Leonardo Loredan', 1501
(oil on poplar panel)

Oil Painting replaced both tempera and fresco due to its versatility as a medium. It produced the most intense color, the greatest tonal range and a slow drying time that allowed the artist to render the finest naturalistic detail possible. Oil paint is created by mixing color pigments with drying oils [2] such as linseed, poppy or walnut oils.

Italian Renaissance Notes

 

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) 'The Last Supper', 1495-98 (tempera on gesso)

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)
'The Last Supper', 1495-98
(tempera on gesso)

  • The Italian Renaissance was the 'rebirth' of Classical values in art that influenced artistic thought for the next five hundred years.
  • The Key Elements that formed the art of the Italian Renaissance were naturalism, Classical humanism, perspective drawing and the development of oil painting.
  • The Main Painting Techniques of Italian Renaissance art were fresco for large scale murals and tempera for smaller panel paintings, which was later superceded by the greater versatility of oil paints.
  • The Four Main Stages of the Italian Renaissance were the Proto Renaissance, the Early Renaissance, the High Renaissance and the Venetian Renaissance.
  • The Proto Renaissance is the name given to the period of transition in Italian art as Byzantine art began to decline and a more naturalistic style evolved.
  • The Early Renaissance introduced perspective drawing and a greater naturalism to the drawing of the human figure.
  • The High Renaissance achieved the classical ideals that artists had pursued since the Proto-Renaissance.
  • The Venetian Renaissance produced a more colorful atmospheric style of painting that reflected the vibrant cultural character of the region.

Page Banner Image

 

'Vitruvian Man' (c.1490) by Leonardo da Vinci

'Vitruvian Man' (c.1490) by Leonardo da Vinci

 

 

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