The word Renaissance means “rebirth”. Following the Dark and Middle ages and their associated turmoil and stagnation, not to mention the Black Death, Europe experienced a rebirth of sorts with a rediscovery of math, philosophy, astrology, astronomy, science, and literature.
With the advent of the printing press, knowledge was for the first time in over 1000 years accessible to people outside of the clergy, the noble, the aristocratic, and the royal. Special attention was given to the classical eras in Greece and in Rome, which until the Renaissance were the pinnacle of human achievement.
A renewed passion for learning and for human achievement led to the influence of all of these new studies in the formation of greater art.
Origins and Historical Importance:
In the early 15th century, the de Medici family of papal and banking fame had made Florence, Italy one of the wealthiest cities in the world. Concerned with the arts and sciences, they had set up several competing guilds that spent great amounts of money commissioning and funding artists to create opulent and lavish works of art.
The Arte del Calimala guild decided in the year 1401 to commission a new door for the baptistery of the Florence Cathedral and to decide who the greatest artist for such an important job would be, they held a competition in which they asked for samples of probable compositions. Seven young artists entered and the competition was won by Lorenzo Ghiberti. This set of doors decorated with paneled scenes is considered by some to be the beginning of the Renaissance.
Renaissance sculptors became interested in Classic sculpture when sculptors Filippo Brunelleschi and Donatello became involved in the study of archeology. Their study of Roman remains inspired painting, architecture, and sculpture as well as other artists, in any medium, of the time.
Further north, in the Netherlands, painters were improving upon oil paint, which had previously been mostly used for painting on leather because animal hides needed a flexible paint that would not crack and flake off. Prior to using oils, painters had used tempera, but when they began to use oil they far surpassed the range of techniques they had been working with. Oil allowed for variation in light, texture, tone, and value and because it can be thinned with oil and create one effect and thinned with turpentine to create another, it gave them the ability to paint light, mist, fog, chiffon and other ephemeral elements into their art. Oil techniques were spread to Italy and then from there to Venice.
The Italian painters in Florence were interested in how light and perspective affected what we see and how it is painted. They spent a great deal of time not just wondering about it, but in trying to discern how it worked and how to manipulate it. Piero della Francesca studied the issue scientifically.
Ever the scientist, Leonardo Da Vinci made a study of light and perspective and carried it further to investigate different types of perspective, the order and detail of the natural world, the effects of value and shadow on depth, and how light played on the near and far elements on the landscape. His study of human corpses gave him greater insight into the skeletal proportion of the human body as well as the arrangement of musculature. The fruits of his study are very evident in the paintings he produced.
The great sculptor and painter, Michelangelo, was also intensely interested in human anatomy. Early in his career he sculpted the Statue of David, one of the finest examples to date of sculpture recreating the human body in perfect proportion. His interest in the subject was present throughout his career in both sculpture and in painting. He not only wanted to be physically and scientifically accurate, he wanted to show the expression of the body through emotion and movement as well. His dedication is forever painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel where it has inspired artists and all of humanity for over 500 years.
- Renaissance intellectuals, artisans, and eventually the general public became exposed to Humanist philosophy which explored the idea that man was responsible with his own relationship with God and with his fellow man, and the idea that the Church was not solely in the authority on those relationships.
- When the oil painters in the Netherlands first began using oil, their paintings still had the non-linear proportion of the medieval periods and the hierarchal placement structure of that era as well.
- Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper depicted Christ and his followers exhibiting great depth of emotion, inspiring religious art from that time forward.
- While the Florentine painters paid close attention to perspective, the Netherlandish painters ignored it. They focused on the very realistic recreation of their subjects.
- Mona Lisa – Leonardo Da Vinci
- The Creation of Adam – Michelangelo
- Mars and Venus – Sandro Botticelli
- The Birth of Venus – Sandro Botticelli
- Sacred and Profane Love – Titian
- The Three Graces – Raphael
- Sistine Madonna – Raphael
- David – Donatello
- The Last Supper – Leonardo Da Vinci
- Statue of David – Michelangelo