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A brief history of Italian Renaissance art

Posted by mandyf on January 9, 2012

Art hailing from the era of the Italian Renaissance period is widely regarded as being some of the most influential work ever created in one of the most productive eras in art history. The creations of these masters were not limited to painting, but rather spread across all forms of art including sculpture and architecture (Which can be an art form as well as a science) primarily over the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The masters of this time include but are not limited to Michelangelo, da Vinci, Raphael, Titian, Donatello, and Brunelleschi. What made this rebirth in art so significant and what are some of the key creations of the time?

Alessandro di Mariano Filipepi (Bottecelli) worked under the influence of Neoplatonisim and is regarded as the single greatest artist of the time in regards to line. Botticelli is best known for his paintings the Birth of Venus and Primavera which were works commissioned by the Medici family. As he aged his worked changed due to a different perspective on life created by the internal troubles of Italy as did many of his contemporaries. His work took on a more religious slant and no longer held the technical precision of his earlier creations, but is said to convey more emotion. Upon Botticelli’s death his work was no longer regarded as vogue, nor was it classified as a part of the High Renaissance. Still for those that have had the opportunity to view his rendering of Venus it is agreed this is a truly breathtaking creation, and his elevation of the distinct use of line in painting is pivotal to the development of generations of artists that followed.

The High Renaissance was ushered in with da Vinci’s painting of The Last Supper around 1497, although many art history scholars debate it began upwards of ten to fifteen years earlier when Leonardo first began his important works. While many artists painted their take of what the last supper may have been like, da Vinci broke ranks and painted the scene as no one ever had before. His use of depth was unparalleled while still maintaining a central focus point on the head of Christ. Furthermore da Vinci’s last supper does not portray a serene or happy occasion, but rather one of hostility reflected in the faces and body language of the disciples as da Vinci imagined would be their reaction to learning Christ was going to be betrayed by one of them. He also employed a more minimalist approach eliminating whatever was not essential to the visual telling of that single particular moment. The Mona Lisa of course is still considered one of the greatest paintings ever which has inspired artist of all genres and attracts viewers from around the world. Like da Vinci’s last supper, work of the High Renaissance era is earmarked by simplicity, rejection of the merely pretty, nobility to the depicted figures, and depth. Raphael, and during a small part of his career Michelangelo, were considered as the true masters of this genre. By no later than 1530 this short lived era faded, some believe due to Raphael’s passing, or several years later following the sacking of Rome.

During the era of the High Renaissance Tiziano Vecellio (Titian) was considered the master painter. Titian was a Venetian trained painter whose works were hallmarked by color and beauty. It is also quite widely believed he began the idea of under sketching rather than the more lengthy and detailed process of under drawing his paintings. After painting a series of portraits of Emperor Charles V, Titian was knighted and became the preferred artist for all nobles desiring a portrait. The Sacred and Love, and the Bacchanal of the Andrians were two of his earliest works and are often held as up as his best. In his seventies Titan was quoted as saying “I think I am beginning to learn something about painting” which shows that even after having been the official painter of the Republic and one of the most sought after artists of his era, Titian still considered himself a student.

Raphael Sanzio was both a painter and architect. His paintings are mostly those of a religious nature due in large part to his close connection to his uncle whom was a priest and his twelve year tenure under the patronage of two popes. As Raphael died young at thirty seven the opportunity to expand the topics he worked on was prematurely ended. The Stanze de Rafaello are set of public reception rooms in the papal apartments in which Raphael had painted a set of frescoes. The four rooms depicted the Sala di Constantino, Stanza di Eliodoro, Stanza della Segnatura, and the Stanza dell’incendio del Borgo. Copies of Raphael’s many renderings of the Madonna and child adorn the walls of of homes even today as it is believed Raphael’s work has enjoyed greater mass reproduction than any other artist in the world ever had. He is considered one of the greatest painters of portraits from the Renaissance and one of the greatest draftsmen in Western art history.

Other significant points in Renaissance history are the introduction of oil based paints to Italy by Antonello da Messina, as well as his sharing of the Flemish techniques of light and shade. Antonio Pollaiuolo is credited with having created the first nude sculpture of the human body in “Violent action” which was a true representation of human anatomy in his masterpiece The Labors of Hercules. Also of note is Paolo Uccello whose mastery of foreshortening and perspective are textbook exercises still repeated by students. Donatello’s bronze David was the first freestanding nude sculpture of the Renaissance and has long been considered as an ideal expression of physical beauty. Brunelleschi’s dome for the Cathedral of Florence is considered perhaps the greatest architectural achievement of the Renaissance, as well as the Innocenti which was not only the first such hospital in the world, but was also regarded as the first true Renaissance building.

No discussion of the Renaissance would be complete without special mention of MIchelangelo Buanarroti. Although he insisted he was primarily a sculptor, he was also regarded as one of the finest architects and painters of his time. Michelangelo is recognized as the most important figure in the Renaissance as he influenced countless artists in all mediums including the great Leonardo da Vinci. Personally he was regarded as a miserable man and a constant complainer, but his incredible talents often excused his poor attitude. While he will always be best known for his painting of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, his Pieta` now housed in St. Peters is equally breathtaking. As an architect his vision and contribution to the construction of St. Peter’s in Rome is considered by some his greatest achievement even though the job was modified and completed without him.

During this period important advancements changed the face of painting forever. One Advance was the a new found knowledge of anatomy, and the other being the introduction of mathematical principle to art. Why these advancements are so significant is that through better knowledge of anatomy a truer picture of the human body could make it’s way into paintings and sculptures. For us now it may not seem like a big deal, but six hundred years ago this was an immense advance. Secondly the introduction and application of a mathematical principle in painting images provided an actual formula to move out of the two dimensional world and into the more realistic three dimensions we are most accustomed to seeing today. While Ciambue and Giotto achieved three dimensions nearly a century earlier, they did so by empirical means which is basically to say it was done by instinct and experimentation. It is generally believed Brunelleschi was the first person to employ a duplicable mathematical technique to achieve three dimensions in painting sometime around 1420.

It is important to realize that prior to the Renaissance artists were regarded more so as craftsmen, and carried little or no social clout. During this rise artists began being regarded on the same level as liberal artists, and the concept of a person being an artistic genius became accepted. This new found appreciation allowed artist to move in more elite social circles, and patronage of artists became a regular occurrence to the point of being competitive. For the royals, religious leaders (Particularly both Popes as there were dual Popes at the time), and the wealthy, owning the work of highly regarded artists was just as important as being connected socially to the artists them self and helped pave the way for generations of creators to focus solely on their craft and flourish. Without this significant change in views it is likely the Renaissance as we now know it would not have lasted so long, been so groundbreaking, and so influential as it was.

While there are many important figures and wondrous works that sprung from the Renaissance, these are some of the highlights of what I consider to be important to this great era of history. There are numerous books dedicated to each of these achievements and artists available which go into much more in depth analysis. Hopefully this brief overview will spur your curiosity and lead your way to further exploring the art of the Italian Renaissance.


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