The Renaissance was a cultural movement that started in Italy at the beginning of the 1400s and lasted approximately 200 years. The Renaissance period was considered a transition period from the medieval age into Early Modern Europe. The Italian Renaissance was characterized by a shift in several cultural areas, from literature to politics to religion. During the Renaissance, Italian art underwent major artistic changes from the medieval period. The Italian Renaissance became one of the most productive and innovative time periods in the industry of art in painting, sculpture and architecture. Raphael, Michelangelo and Da Vinci were the key figures that were responsible for bringing about the significant changes in themes, styles and perspective of Italian art from the medieval period. Although the cultural changes in areas such as religion, literature, and sciences were considered significant contributions to the Renaissance period, the most innovative and notable changes were made in the Italian art, which had taken a back seat in the middle ages because of the political unrest that was going on in Europe. Given the overwhelming changes and revival of the arts, Italian art had the most significant impact in the Renaissance that ultimately resulted in the re-birth of Europe.
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The late Middle Ages period which has been defined as the time period between the 1300s and early 1400s was a difficult and trying time for Europe. During this time period, Europe went through a great famine caused by severe weather conditions as well as the bubonic plague (Black Death) in the late 1340s. (C pg 534). Both of these tragedies took a huge toll in human life. In addition to these two tragedies, Europe was also dealing with social unrest, warfare and the challenges facing the Catholic Church. The arts were not deemed significantly important during these challenging times and not much advances were made in this field. However, as the end of the 14th century approached, a movement was beginning to emerge in the arts and sciences in Italy.
The most obvious changes during the Renaissance period were seen in painting and sculptures. Prior to the Renaissance, most of the Italian art revolved around religious subjects and themes. However, during the Renaissance, artists started to experiment with creating non-religious subjects such as creating portraits of living persons instead of just saints. Artists became more comfortable with developing their own individual styles and challenged themselves to be innovative and try new techniques. Painters began to place more focus on the humanistic aspects of life and implemented various new techniques, including humanism and perspective, sfumato, chiaroscuro, fresco and foreshortening in order to achieve their objective of realism. Realism became a popular characteristic of Italian Renaissance. Anatomy also became of particular interest to many of the Italian Renaissance artists. The artists were also interested in depicting the human form that mirrored real life. For the first time, Renaissance artists were producing art in Italy that reflected the real world. Painters used form, color, proportion, light, shade composition and anatomy to depict human nature and reality into their artistic work creating images of real people with expressions and emotions.
The Italian Renaissance was highlighted by three separate periods, each of which contained distinct aspects that contributed to the cultural “re-birth” of Europe. The three periods of the Renaissance were the Early Renaissance (beginning of the 1400 to late 1400s), High Renaissance (Late 1400s to early 1500s) and Late Renaissance (early 1500s to 1600). The period of the Renaissance was led by a number of artists who were intelligent, innovative and ready to delve into a new art form.
The first period, known as the Early Renaissance, took place during the early 15th century. Early Renaissance art was heavily influenced by Donatello, an Italian artist and sculptor and Masaccio, an Italian painter who scholars often refer to as “the leading innovator in early fifteenth century painting”. (C pg 601)
Donatello’s artistic style and works represent the significant facets of Early Renaissance time period. Donatello’s bronze statue of David, considered to be his most famous work of art, depicts a common theme of the era. David is representative of a hero, which became a staple of early renaissance art. Heroes, which were a popular aspect of the humanist movement, were commonly portrayed in works of art during this the Early Renaissance. Donatello’s earlier work also depicted the idea of youthfulness which was also another popular aspect of the humanist movement. Donatello utilized the technique of bronzing, and was notorious for his bronze pieces of art, such as his life size statue of David. David also displayed a new Renaissance style that is “evident in both the classical nudity and the use of the classical contrapposto (twist of the hips), as well as the boldness of interpretation”.
Many of Donatello’s sculptures are considered breakthroughs. For example, the statue of David was the first nude statute of the Renaissance (C pg 612). Another statue of Donatello, Gattamelata (the equestrian statute of Erasmo de Narni), is considered to be one of the best proportioned sculptures ever created. (C pg 618). Donatello, who was considered to be a very keen observer of human life and behavior, was able to portray different types of figures in his work and make it them look very realistic. One of Donatello’s remarkable achievements was his ability to move forward the naturalistic illusion and classical idealism in sculpture. (C pg 593). Donatello also created science of perspective through the use of bas-relief or low relief in his work where the image is projected with a shallow overall depth which allows for exploitation of perspective and obtain a dramatic effect. The earliest example of the use of relief is the base of the statute of Saint George, which is decorated with a relief of Saint George and the Dragon. In the bronze relief panel of Feast of Herod, Donatello uses central perspective space for the first time which allows for intensifying the actions and characterizations of the subjects and makes them look real. (B pg 36-37).Donatello’s incorporation of Greek classical principles was evident in the marble statute of Saint Mark. In this sculpture, Donatello took a fundamental step toward displaying motion in the human figure by recognizing the principle of weight shift and stresses the movement of the arms, legs, shoulders and hips. (C pg 599)
Masaccio, one of Donatello’s counterparts, was considered the best painter of the Early Renaissance. He showed a great skill at recreating life-like figures and movements. Scholars often identify Masaccio as the leading innovator in early 15th century painting. Most art historians acknowledge that no other painter in history has contributed so much to the development of a new style in such a short a time as Masaccio. Masaccio was also a master of fresco technique. The frescoes Masaccio painted in Florence provide excellent examples of his innovations. One of his greatest contributions to art of fresco painting was the use of light and dark instead of lines to represent figures in his paintings which was depicted in the . (A pg 157 )He was also one of the first to use something called linear perspective in his painting using the vanishing point technique. In the painting Tribute Money, Masaccio uses chiaroscuro, an art form that uses strong contrast between light and dark to give the illusion of “deep structural relief”. (C pg 603) During his career, Masaccio transformed the direction of Italian painting, by moving it away from the idealizations of Gothic art, and, for the first time, presenting it as part of a more profound, natural, and humanist world 605)
The next period of the Renaissance that influenced the cultural “re-birth” is known as the High Renaissance. The High Renaissance lasted from the late 15th century to about 1520. The most influential artists of this time of the High Renaissance period were Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael.
Leonardo Da Vinci, arguably the most renowned artist in all of art history, made great, if not the greatest, contributions to the re-birth. Da Vinci often used religious themes in his paintings, which was reflective of the time and the impact religion had during this time period. During the High Renaissance time period, the Church was going through major changes as a result of the Protestant Reformation that was underway. The Protestant Reformation, which established the Protestant church in reaction to the corruption of the Catholic Church, also helped bring about the counter-reformation which established the Inquisition. The Inquisition established rules of visual imagery in the arts and tried to enforce these rules. This common theme of religion was represented throughout a majority of Leonardo’s paintings including two of his most famous ones, The Last Supper and Saint Jerome. The Last Supper depicted the image of Jesus and his 12 apostles seated at the altar, with Jesus in the center, breaking bread. This scene is representative of when Jesus informs the apostles he has been betrayed by one of them. In this painting, Da Vinci portrayed a common theme of Italian Renaissance art, humanism. Humanism placed more emphasis on Man and less stress on God. In The Last Supper painting, Da Vinci placed more of an emphasis on Jesus Christ by placing him in the center of the painting, focusing the attention on him. Humanism attempted to attach faces or visual beings to religion, which is why there was such a rise in paintings of religious figures such as evangelists and saints.
In Saint Jerome, once again the theme of religion can be seen along with the humanistic view of the time period. “Saint Jerome is as close as Da Vinci came in a painting to his numerous anatomical drawings. These were a logical development of the Classical revival and the humanist view of men’s centrality, beauty of form and superior intellect.” In the painting, Saint Jerome is shown holding a rock with which he appears prepared to strike the lion with, showing man’s dominance over animals. Saint Jerome is also very detailed which furthers the emphasis placed on man. The detail and realistic view that Da Vinci places in his art is another popular characteristic of Italian Renaissance art known as realism. Italian Renaissance artists, not just Da Vinci, all strived to attain greater realism in their works of art. Unlike the art of the 13th and early 14th centuries, the art of the Italian Renaissance appeared far more realistic. Art strayed away from the flat, stiff images of the previous ages, to more life-like figures that displayed real emotions. In order to produce this greater realism in art, artists such as Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael all used a technique known as sfumato, which literally means “lost in smoke.” Sfumato was an artistic technique that uses light and shade to place emphasis and some areas and defer it from other areas of lesser importance. Humanistic artists used this technique to aid in the emphasis of man in their paintings. Da Vinci combined the sfumato technique with his skill with chiaroscuro and perspective to create the mysterious smile in his most famous portrait, Mona Lisa.
Michelangelo is another Italian Renaissance artist whose artistic themes and style contributed to the Renaissance being known as a period of “re-birth.” Michelangelo, like Da Vinci and many other artists of this time period, took a humanistic approach to his art work. Michelangelo was interested in “definite form, and the human body alone seemed worthy of representation.” Michelangelo aimed primarily for concentration and precise details, similar to Da Vinci, and attempted to capture emotion with every stroke of the brush. For example, in Michelangelo’s sculpture of David, David is depicted not with an emotionless expression on his face. Instead, David is shown with a very detailed anger, as he prepares to face Goliath, in their infamous showdown. Michelangelo is also notable for his use of the contrapposto pose, which was also reflected in the sculptures of Donatello in the Early Renaissance. One of Michelangelo’s famous works in which he uses the contrapposto pose, which once again is the twisting of the hips, is his Bacchus. Bacchus is sculpted nude with a glass of wine in hand, which is representative of the fact that Bacchus is the Greek god of wine and intoxication. (Need Notation from your book)
Michelangelo was not only a brilliant sculpture but also a great painter whose work was a major contributor to the Renaissance. The paints on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel are one of the most famous artwork that was created during the Renaissance. Although Michelangelo has studied painting, sculpture was where his interest was. At the request of Julius II, he agreed to paint the Sistine Chapel even though painting was not his profession. His inexperience along with the magnitude of the project were going to be a challenge, but a challenge that he quickly overcame because of his innate talents and desire to produce exceptional work. The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was an enormous fresco depicting various passages from the Book of Genesis including the Creation of Adam in the ceiling and the Last Judgment at the alter. Similar to his sculptures, his paintings also focus on the human figure and its natural beauty. (C pg 648-651)
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Raphael, the youngest of the three great contributors to High Renaissance at, was an Italian painter and architect. Raphael’s work took the artistic innovations that had been developed by Da Vinci and Michelangelo and created his own style in depicting the ideals of the Renaissance.(C pg 654) The School of Athens, one of Raphael’s most famous paintings, displays the classical spirit of the High Renaissance. This painting along with three others completed along the walls of the Stanza della Segnatura room, which was the library in the papal apartment at the Vatican, show great philosophers and scientists of the ancient word coming together to discuss their theories and ideas.. Aristotle and Plato, the two great philosophers of ancient Greece, are portrayed as the key figures in these paintings. (C pg 653) In line with the realism theme of this time period, the figures in Raphael’s paintings are known for their display of realistic emotions. Another characteristic of Raphael’s work was the perfection and grace that he portrayed in his paintings and drawings.
A theme throughout Raphael’s work is the Christian devotion and pagan beauty. This theme is brought out in his series of Madonna paintings where Christian devotion and pagan beauty are brought together. In one of Raphael’s best frescoes, Galatea, which Raphael based on ancient Roman poet Orvid’s Metamorphoses, the pagan joy and excitement is displayed praising human beauty and passionate love. (C pg 656)
Raphael also excelled at portraiture. The subjects of his portraits were primarily scholars and courtiers surrounding the Pope. His portraits tended to exhibit the increasing attention that High Renaissance artists paid to the subject’s personality and psyche. In addition, Raphael also revived the gods and heroes of classical times and the world they lived in, not to honor them but to transform them into art. (C pg 656)
The Late Renaissance period experienced a slow down in the arts. A number of factors including political instability, the preachings of Martin Luther leading many to question the authority of the Church, and especially the Church’s response to the Luther’s Protestant Reformation put a freeze on any type of Renaissance innovation. In order to protect itself against further criticism, the Church started to censor literary or artistic ambitions.
The Late Renaissance movement which became known as Mannerism, represents the winding down of the Renaissance period and a departure from the ideals of the High Renaissance. The mannerist paintings, sculptures and architecture decided to challenge rules of the Renaissance and change them to a certain extent. The rules of perspective, nudity, and lighting that were developed during the High Renaissance were pushed to the side. Instead the artists of Mannerism opted to create art that showed elegance and beauty but not really realistic. (C pg 673-675)
The three pioneers of Mannerism were Pontormo, Fiorentino and Bronzino. During this period, artists shifted from the realistic forms of the art completed in the High Renaissance to a more artificial form with distortions and exaggerations. In contrast to the natural, calm, and proportional art of the High Renaissance, Mannerism art was full of bizarre colors and images where figures are shown with abnormally elongated limbs and strange poses. (C pg 673-674). For example, in one of his paintings, Lamentation, Pontormo distorts the figures’ bodies by stretching them, exaggerating their postures and applying unreal colors. Mannerist painters also used portraiture to create sophisticated elegance.(C pg 676)
Mannerism was not limited to painting. It also included sculpture and architecture. Benvenuto Cellini, a mannerist sculptor, tended to exaggerate the characteristics of his work in accordance with the rules of mannerism. This was evident in his sculpture of Genius of Fontainebleau. Similar to the Mannerism paintings, the characteristics of the sculptures also exaggerated and out of proportion.(C pg 678)
The Renaissance was a period of incredible achievements and innovations in the arts. A few artists with exceptional talent, an amazing level of imagination and an ability to express themselves through their work, changed the world of art forever in a relatively short period of time. They took advantage of the opportunity that history had given them to put man and the human figure at the center of their work. The Renaissance was a time of great artistic development where painters and sculptors were discovering individualism, harmony, perspective and realism in their portrayal of human being. The Renaissance began relatively slow during the Early Renaissance but sprang into full gear during the High Renaissance waned during the Late Renaissance.
Although the Renaissance was a period of major achievements in literature, philosophy and the sciences, the most dramatic accomplishments were achieved in the Arts. This period of rebirth is most and foremost associated with the artistic accomplishments of Masaccio, Donatello, Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael. The High Renaissance represented an outstanding pool of talent that surfaced in the same area around the same time. These artists were individual geniuses who combined classical work and realism to transform the art. They took the flat and stiff images from the previous periods and converted them into more life-like figures that displayed emotion and reality. Italian artists and sculptors were innovative, creative, ambitious, and bold. They dared to go above and beyond to achieve their goals and were determined to achieve greatness in their field. As a result of the extraordinary artistic accomplishments, Italian art had the most significant impact in the Renaissance that brought about the re-birth of Europe.
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