Renaissance (1300s-1600s)

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In the early 1400's a new movement in art and literature began in Italy. This movement was known as the Renaissance. It spread all over Europe, and its influence has been felt to this day. The spirit of the Renaissance affected not just the arts but all phases of life. As a result, the name of this artistic movement has been given to the whole period of history of the 15th and 16th centuries.

The Spirit of the Renaissance

The word "renaissance" means "rebirth" or "revival." In the 14th century many Italian scholars believed that the arts had been declining in quality for 1,000 years. They admired the art and writing of the Classical Age (400 B.C.-A.D. 400), the time of the Greek and Roman empires. To revive the glory and grandeur of the ancient past, these scholars eagerly studied classical literature, architecture, and sculpture.

But the Renaissance was much more than a rebirth of classical art. It was a rejection of the Middle Ages, which were just ending. During medieval times, the arts were concerned mainly with religion, with the life of the spirit, with the hereafter. Little importance was given to life on earth except as a preparation for the next world. But as the 15th century began, Italians were turning their attention to the world about them. People started to think more about secular, or nonreligious, matters. They began placing faith in their own qualities and their own importance. This new spirit was called humanism. Discipline, unquestioning faith, obedience to authority--these medieval virtues were no longer blindly accepted. People asked questions and wanted to find their own answers.

Artists were among the first affected by the new spirit of humanism. In their work they began to focus on human life on earth.

The Early Renaissance in Florence

The spirit of humanism was expressed by the painter Giotto di Bondone (1267?-1337) a century before the Renaissance actually began. Giotto's religious pictures were painted with great sympathy for the human qualities of his subjects. Holy figures are shown in countryside settings, dressed in worn and commonplace clothing. Giotto's lovely paintings seem to have been created especially for the common people of his time. Never before in Christian art had viewers been reminded that the saints of their religion were peasants like them.

Soon after Giotto died, a terrible plague, followed by small but destructive wars, swept through Italy. Progress--including the progress of art--was slowed. At least 50 years passed before Giotto's ideas became popular. But then it became clear that Giotto had been the forerunner of Renaissance painting.

The First Generation
Early in the 15th century, Florence, where Giotto had worked, became the first great center of the Renaissance. There a group of young artists experimented with new techniques. The architect and sculptor Filippo Brunelleschi (1377?-1446) was a leader of the group.

Attempting to break with the Gothic traditions of building, Brunelleschi looked to classical architecture for inspiration. After studying Roman buildings, he developed a new approach to architecture. In 1421 he designed the first Renaissance building, the Ospedale degli Innocenti (Foundling Hospital) in Florence. The facade (front) of the building has a colonnade--a series of wide arches separated by slender Corinthian columns like those used in classical architecture. Between the arches are colored terra-cotta (hard-baked clay) medallions of babes in swaddling clothes made in the workshop of Luca della Robbia (1400?-82). Harmonious proportions distinguish Brunelleschi's architecture.

Brunelleschi devised a mathematical method for creating the illusion of depth on a flat surface. This method, called perspective, is based on the principle that objects appear smaller as they go farther into the background. It became a valuable tool to painters.

Brunelleschi was less successful as a sculptor than as an architect. In 1401 he competed with Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455) for the commission to design a pair of bronze doors for the Baptistery of Florence Cathedral. The doors were to be carved in relief sculpture, in which the figures remain attached to a background. The subject chosen for the competition was the Sacrifice of Abraham. Ghiberti's design won.

Later, about 1435, Ghiberti designed reliefs for a second pair of doors for the cathedral. Impressed with the great beauty of the doors, Florentines called them the Gates of Paradise. A comparison of the two pairs of doors shows how the new ideas of the Renaissance influenced Ghiberti. In the earlier doors his designs are closer to the flat, patterned compositions of the Gothic style. The reliefs on the Gates of Paradise look much more realistic and are done in perspective. The human figures look more like classical sculptures.

Tommaso Guildi, nicknamed Masaccio (1401-28), was another member of the early Florentine group. He was one of the first painters to use perspective as a device to make his painting look more real. Masaccio went much further than Giotto in giving his subjects dignity and emotion. His compositions were always very simple, usually built up in geometric arrangements.

The most famous sculptor in the group was Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi, known as Donatello (1386?-1466). He studied human anatomy and classical sculpture. He was not content to follow formulas handed down from the Middle Ages. He and other Renaissance artists went directly to nature itself. Donatello's sculptures have a realism and freshness that came from his studies of live models.

The Second Generation
The revolution begun by Brunelleschi, Masaccio, and Donatello was continued in the second half of the 15th century. The Florentine architect Leon Battista Alberti (1404-72) followed Brunelleschi's example of imitating the forms used in classical architecture. But Alberti's buildings are much heavier and actually closer in form to ancient Roman buildings than Brunelleschi's. St. Andrea, a church in Mantua begun in 1470, shows how Alberti took over the motif of the Roman triumphal arch and made it the main theme of the facade. A triumphal arch has three sections, with a large central opening. St. Andrea's facade is divided into three similar parts, with an enormous central archway forming a dramatic entrance to the church.

Many 15th-century Italian painters continued some of the Gothic traditions of painting while also using such new discoveries as perspective. Fra Angelico (1400?-1455), a Dominican monk, was one of these painters. His work is a blend of the old and the new. His figures are rather flat, as in medieval painting. It was entirely natural for a monk, schooled in the medieval traditions of the Church, to continue using older methods. One of the important things to understand about the Renaissance is that its new ideas did not immediately replace all the other traditions but took hold gradually.

Paolo Uccello (1397-1475) was one of a group of artists who were fascinated by perspective. His paintings of battle scenes contain crowds of figures arranged according to the rules of perspective. However, Uccello, like Fra Angelico, emphasized flat patterns and tiny details much as medieval artists had done.

Sandro Botticelli (1444?-1510), a masterful painter of graceful, rhythmic line, was another of those who combined the old and the new. For subject matter, Botticelli often turned to the myths of the ancient Greeks.

Piero della Francesca (1420?-92), from the town of Borgo San Sepolcro, in central Italy, went to Florence. There he became interested in perspective. When he returned to Umbria, he applied the knowledge that he had gained in perspective, lighting effects, and anatomy to his painting. Most of his pictures are constructed with the same precision as a work of architecture. Each form was simply drawn, with no unnecessary details. Piero used light and shadow to model his figures and to help give the illusion of depth.

The High Renaissance in Rome

In the 16th century the center for Renaissance artists shifted from Florence to Rome. Almost every great name in 16th-century art went to Rome either to work on some project for the popes or the nobility or just to see what was going on. It was a time of splendor, and it was called the High Renaissance.

The climax of church architecture in the High Renaissance was St. Peter's Basilica. It was built to replace an early Christian church on the same site. Donato Bramante (1444-1514) and Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) were the main architects, although their original plans were altered by others. The basic plan of 1506, by Bramante, called for a central-type building. Bramante's plan was not carried out, and the church was lengthened. Michelangelo designed the huge dome.

Leonardo da Vinci
The climax of late 15th-century painting came in the work of Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519). Leonardo studied painting in Florence, but he spent much of his life working in Milan. The last few years of his life were spent in France in the service of King Francis I.

Leonardo is the perfect example of the "Renaissance man" because he was interested in and well informed about a great many subjects: literature, science, mathematics, art--almost everything about man and nature. Like many artists of the time, he was a sculptor and an architect as well as a painter. His paintings, particularly The Last Supper, the Mona Lisa, and The Madonna of the Rocks, have made him famous. The unique way he handled light and shadow is his most unusual characteristic. Leonardo's remarkable ability to grasp and express the mysteries of man and nature made him one of the greatest of all painters.

The talented painter Raffaello Sanzio, known as Raphael (1483-1520), from Urbino, was called to Rome by Pope Julius II. Many influences went into the formation of his beautiful style of painting. From his early training in Urbino he developed a feeling for spaciousness and open landscape. When he was 21 years old, he went to Florence, where he absorbed the achievements of the Florentines. From them, especially from Leonardo, he learned how to group figures in space. Michelangelo's influence can be seen in the twisting postures of his human figures.

Everything Raphael painted--especially his madonnas--has an air of serenity and dignity. His famous madonna painting, La Belle Jardinière ("The Beautiful Gardener"), painted in 1507, has an unusually pleasing composition. Raphael envisioned man as the ruler of his environment, not as its servant, a High Renaissance idea beautifully expressed in this painting.

One of the greatest 16th-century artists was Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564). In sculpture, architecture, and painting he was so outstanding that he was called divine. He was born in Caprese, and as a young man moved to Florence, where he studied the works of Giotto, Masaccio, Donatello, and the Greeks and Romans. He became fascinated with the problems of representing the human body, and he devoted himself completely to mastering them.

In 1505 Michelangelo was called by Pope Julius II to Rome, where he was commissioned to work on a number of projects. The most important were the Pope's tomb, the decoration of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, and the new basilica of St. Peter's.

The Sistine ceiling, which took 4 years to paint under difficult conditions, is composed of hundreds of figures from the Old Testament. In all his representations of the human figure, whether in sculpture or in painting, Michelangelo strove for monumentality.

With the art of Michelangelo the High Renaissance came to its climax. His work, in fact, betrayed signs of a changing attitude in the art of the day. The twisted, tormented figures and the flattened space of his painting of The Last Judgement, for example, already displayed a new direction in European art.

Venice and Northern Italy

Venice was the most important northern Italian city of the Renaissance. The Venetians lived a gay and luxurious life. Enjoying the benefits of an active trade with the east, they imported silks, jewels, slaves, and exotic foods. Close connections with Eastern art and a naturally colorful location inspired the Venetian painters to use bright color. They were influenced by the new "scientific" developments in Florentine art. But their use of anatomy and perspective was combined with their love of color and pageantry.

One of the most important north Italian painters was Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506). Born in Padua, a city not far from Venice, Mantegna introduced many Florentine characteristics into north Italian painting. He particularly admired the realism of Donatello's sculptures, and like Donatello, he studied ancient Roman art. He used perspective to create the effect of a stage on which his figures perform. Mantegna's scientific approach to painting is like Piero della Francesca's. His solid, sculptural figures are similar to Masaccio's.

The greatest of the 15th-century Venetian painters was Giovanni Bellini (1430?-1516). Mantegna's friendship with Bellini had a direct influence on Venetian painting. Bellini's rich, mellow color and warm lighting bring out the human qualities of his serene madonnas and saints. He was one of the first Italians to use oil paint on canvas.

The High Renaissance in Venice

Two of Giovanni Bellini's pupils became the most outstanding Venetian painters of the High Renaissance. They were Giorgione (1478?-1510) and Titian (1488?-1576), whose full name was Tiziano Vecelli. Giorgione's colorful and poetic pictures attracted a large following of artists known as Giorgionesque painters.

Titian began as a Giorgionesque painter but developed far beyond this style. He achieved such mastery in the handling of bright, warm color that he was considered to be the equal of Michelangelo. Titian's huge canvases are full of sweeping movement and rich color. In his late works figures and objects melt into a glow of light and color--a treatment of painting that seems very modern.

Andrea Palladio (1518-80) was the major north Italian architect of the period. The Villa Rotonda, begun in 1550 near Vicenza, a city near Venice, shows how closely Palladio followed Roman architecture, without becoming dry or too scholarly. Built as a country home, it has a symmetrical plan, with porches on all four sides that allow a full view of the countryside. Colonnades, resembling Greek temple fronts, surround a square building topped by a dome. The superb proportions of this and all Palladio's buildings make them very attractive.

The Northern Renaissance

Oil painting had become popular in Venice by the end of the 15th century. The Venetians learned a great deal from Flemish artists. The Flemish painter Jan van Eyck (1370?-1440?) is often given the credit for developing an important oil technique.

The Flemish and German styles of the early 15th century were completely different from the early Renaissance style of the Florentines. Instead of simple geometric arrangements of three-dimensional figures, as in Masaccio's paintings, the northern Europeans aimed at creating realistic pictures by rendering countless details--intricate floor patterns, drapery designs, and miniature landscapes. This intricate style of the north did not develop from a humanistic classical art (ancient Roman and Greek) but from the Gothic tradition of mysticism and tormented realism.

Flemish Painting
Van Eyck's Madonna of the Canon van der Paele, painted in 1436, is an excellent example of Flemish realism. All the details of the room--the patterned carpet, the armor of Saint George, the architecture--make this picture seem very real. There is no sign of the Italian sense of beauty here: the figures are not idealized. In the faces of the people can be seen the wrinkles and imperfections of real life.

One of the best-known Flemish artists of the second half of the 15th century was Hugo van der Goes (1440?-82). When the Florentine painters saw Hugo's work, they were impressed by its lifelike quality. This Flemish influence can be seen in later Florentine paintings. There were many such interchanges between Italy and Flanders in the course of the century. Gradually the hard outlines of the Flemish style became softer because of Italian influences, and by the middle of the 16th century the ideas of the Renaissance had been absorbed into Flemish art.

German Painting
The German artist Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) went to Italy, where he was impressed by the countryside and by the art he saw. While in Venice, he came to know and admire Giovanni Bellini. Bellini, in turn, admired Dürer's work. Dürer had been trained in the Gothic tradition of German art. He had learned to imitate nature accurately and painstakingly. He was a master in the use of sensitive line in drawings, woodcuts, engravings, and paintings.

As a result of his contact with Italian art, Dürer came to share many of the ideals of the Renaissance. He devoted himself to studies of anatomy, to the rules of proportion, perspective, composition, and to the effects of light and color. He passed on to German art all that he learned from the Italians.

France: the School of Fontainebleau
Francis I, who reigned from 1515 to 1547, brought the Renaissance to France when he imported such artists as Leonardo da Vinci and Benvenuto Cellini (1500-71), a famous bronze-worker and goldsmith, to decorate his château (castle) at Fontainebleau. Other Italians who came were Giovanni Battista Rosso (1494-1540), Francesco Primaticcio (1504-70), and Niccolò dell'Abbate (1512?-71). They began a school of painting known as the School of Fontainebleau. The style of the school was an outgrowth of the Italian style of about 1520-50 known as mannerism. The term "mannerism" was intended as a criticism because the art was thought to have put too much stress on technique, or the "manner" in which it had been created.

French artists of the Fontainebleau School adopted the elegant and refined mannerism of Cellini and Primaticcio. Jean Goujon (1510?-68?), a French sculptor, did several fountain reliefs about 1548 that are clearly mannerist. They are long figures of graceful nymphs with their draperies clinging and swirling.

The End of the Renaissance

During the second quarter of the 16th century, mannerism began to take hold in European art. This was the first truly international European style. Renaissance art had been typically Italian in style, but mannerism developed throughout Europe and combined many traditions. The art of northern painters such as Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525?-69) and Dürer can be considered part of this school. So can the work of Michelangelo and Tintoretto and many other 16th-century Italian artists. The work of the French painters of Fontainebleau and that of El Greco in Spain is also part of the mannerist style.

Mannerism was both a reaction against and an outgrowth of the High Renaissance. It was typified by abnormally lengthened or distorted figures and the replacement of perspective with a flatter and less organized type of space.

By the end of the 16th century the High Renaissance in Italy had given way to late mannerism and the early baroque. But the discoveries and ideals of the Renaissance remained as a permanent heritage to all artists who came afterward. Perhaps the most important contribution of the Renaissance was its vision of man as beautiful, noble, and independent.

Sarah Bradford Landau
Department of Fine Arts New York University

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