Italian Renaissance art exhibits the qualities of balance, repose and rational precision. Art from this period celebrates the beauty of the human form and frequently depicts nude subjects. It strives for realistic proportion and accurate depiction of the natural world. The colors are often vivid and eye-catching. Biblical and mythological subjects prevail.
Painters in Renaissance Italy developed a variety of techniques for creating the illusion of reality. Linear perspective, in which parallel lines converge to a vanishing point, lends a sense of depth to a scene. Similarly, atmospheric or aerial perspective, in which distant objects become hazy and washed-out, gives a sense of far-off vistas. Volumetric shading involves the careful application of shadows and highlights. Chiaroscuro creates a dramatic contrast between light and dark areas in the painting.
Artists painted directly on plaster to adorn the walls and ceilings of the hundreds of churches and palaces around Italy. Such art works are known as frescoes. When artists painted on wooden panels (to make altarpieces, for example), they often employed tempera, a type of paint with an egg mixture as the base. By contrast, oil paint used linseed oil for its base. Oil on canvas was a frequent choice for detailed portraits and landscapes.
The many marble and bronze sculptures left over from ancient Greece and Rome served as important models for Italian Renaissance sculptors, who strove to depict human figures with a high degree of anatomical accuracy. The sculptures from this time often feature a relaxed, natural stance and a gentle S-curve to the body, known as contrapposto.
Italian architects of the Renaissance prowled around the ruins of ancient Rome looking for ideas. They replaced the busy, highly ornate style of Gothic architecture with simpler geometry and balanced proportions. These designers resurrected the Doric, Ionic and Corinthian columns from ancient temples and also began to use the temples' distinctive pediment shape as a decorative motif.
The most obvious changes during Renaissance times are seen in the paintings and sculptures. Though they continued the medieval tradition of using religious subjects, illustrating stories from the Bible, they combined this interest with classical ideals of the human figure and an increased interest in depicting nature. Secular works were also popular, often inspired from Greek and Roman mythology. Artists began to experiment for the first time with oil-based paints, mixing powdered pigments with linseed oil (gradually abandoning the medieval technique of egg tempera). The paints dried slowly, and remained workable for a few months. The fresco technique was employed on plaster walls (reaching perfection with artists such as Michelangelo). Sculpture began to be conceived "in the round", instead of as relief decorations on cathedrals. Perspective and light were also introduced into art, perfecting the sense of three-dimensional reality.
The 16th century heralded a new era for painting in the Netherlands and Germany. Northern artists were influenced by the great innovations in the South; many artists travelled to Italy to study; and the Renaissance concern for bringing modern science and philosophy into art was also evident in the North. There was, however, a difference of outlook between the two cultures. In Italy change was inspired by Humanism, with its emphasis on the revival of the values of classical antiquity. In the North, change was driven by another set of preoccupations: religious reform, the return to ancient Christian values, and the revolt against the authority of the Church.
The Renaissance in the north has a distinctively different character than that of Italy and the southern countries. Though the styles of Northern artists vary according to geography, one characteristic that is fundamental to all northern art of this period is a fondness for meticulous rendering of details. In addition, there is generally less of the classical ideal apparent in the figures (which can be partly explained by their lack of access to Greek and Roman statues). Instead, remnants of Gothic influences are apparent in their compositions.
The Renaissance in the North crystallized around the intense vision and realism of Dürer's work. Other painters in both Germany and the Netherlands followed the Northern impulse for precise observation and naturalism in the fields of landscape painting (Patinir and Bruegel) and portraiture (Holbein). As in Italy, the Northern Renaissance ended with a Mannerist phase. Mannerism was to last about a generation longer in the North than it did in Italy, where it was outmoded by 1600.
Comparison Chart: Italian versus Northern Renaissance Art
Symmetrical, balanced, good sense of mass, linear perspective.
Attention to surface detail, naturalism.
Figures with mass and volume, knowledge of underlying anatomy.
Minute surface detail.
Fresco, tempera, oil.
Oil on panel.
Michelangelo, Creation of Adam from the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
Jan van Eyck, Arnolfini Wedding Portrait.
Great Artist of the Italian (Southern) Renaissance
Brunelleschi: Born in 1377, died in 1446. Before looking at painting in the Early Renaissance, we need to learn about the discovery or rediscovery of linear perspective sometime close to 1420 by Filippo Brunelleschi (rediscovery, because the ancient Greeks and Romans may have understood linear perspective too, but if so, knowledge of it was lost during the Middle Ages). Linear perspective is a way of creating a convincing, perfect illusion of space on a flat or two-dimensional surface. Nearly every Renaissance artist wanted linear perspective—a way of creating an accurate illusion of space that could match the new naturalism then being applied to human figure.
Brunelleschi was the architect in Florence that made the cupola of the Florence cathedral. The Duomo of Florence has become the symbol of Florence, is its tallest building and is a symbol of the wealth and civic pride of the affluent families of the city during the Renaissance. The church, on which construction began in 1299, is crowned by the massive dome designed by Brunelleschi almost two centuries later. This building did not have a roof for 175 years because it posed a major architectural challenge with the large area the dome had to span. Beyond his abilities as an architect, Brunelleschi was recognized for using geometric principles in creating perspective and influencing both Masaccio and Donatello to follow that style.
When Brunelleschi (re)discovered linear perspective circa 1420, Florentine painters and sculptors became obsessed with it, especially after detailed instructions were published in a painting manual written by a fellow Florentine, Leon Battista Alberti, in 1435. John Berger, an art historian, notes that the convention of perspective fits within Renaissance Humanism because "it structured all images of reality to address a single spectator who, unlike God, could only be in one place at a time." In other words, linear perspective eliminates the multiple viewpoints that we see in medieval art, and creates an illusion of space from a single, fixed viewpoint. This suggests a renewed focus on the individual viewer, and we know that individualism is an important part of the Humanism of the Renaissance.
Leonardo da Vinci: Born 1452, died 1519. His most famous works are the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper which are works in oil. He had a nature that was careful and precise, so that he never hurried to finish a work. He developed what are regarded as technical, manual skills that were so excellent that few artists in history have rivaled his ability. He had an exceptional intellect and fascination with the world around him. Besides his paintings, he left us a legacy of detailed drawings of the human anatomy, plans for a tank, helicopter, ideas on the construction of multi-level canal and road systems.
Artist Work: Leonardo Da Vinci's Mona Lisa is one of the most famous and most celebrated works of all time. The mastery of the painting lies in its subtle detail, including the faint smile, and Mona Lisa's distinctive gaze. The work is said to have been commissioned by a gentleman named Francesco del Giocondo, who hired Leonardo to paint a portrait of his wife, and this is why The Mona Lisa is sometimes referred to as La Gioconda. While this is a theory on the origination of the painting, scholars have disagreed throughout the ages about how factual this story really is.
Donatello: Born in 1386, died in 1486. Famous for many things including the youthful sculpture of David in Florence. A less famous work in the city is the brass pulpits he build for the Old Sacristy of San Lorenzo which was built by Brunelleschi. Like Masaccio, Donatello was one of the earliest artists working with the idea of perspective. His method was sculpture and he brought dramatic shapes to life with his skills.
Artist Work: Donatello's famous St. George and the Dragon - a relief in which the dauntless St. George, astride his horse, plunges a spear into a dragon's chest - is one of the earliest reliefs of its kind and Donatello's first attempt to produce a three-dimensional effect on a flat surface. He later invented and perfected this technique, known as schiacciato, or shallow relief. Schiacciato caused a major stir in the art world and Donatello found himself much in demand. In 1443, he spent ten years in Padua as the head of a huge workshop
Michelangelo Buonarroti: Born 1475,died 1564. In the 89 years that he lived, Michelangelo created many of the works of art that we think of when we think of the Renaissance. A skilled painter who spent many years completing the frescoes that adorn the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo had trained as a sculptor and created two of the world's greatest statues--the enormous David and the emotional Pieta.
Artist Work: The statue of David was started by a different artist, Agostino di Duccio, in 1463. He picked out a rather narrow piece of stone, which was customary for artists of his denomination. If you are an art expert, you can see from the side that this is not a piece that Michelangelo would have picked. It is too thin. Traditionally, David was portrayed after his victory, triumphant over Goliath. Both Verrochio's and Donatello's Davids are depicted standing over Goliath's severed head. Michelangelo has depicted David before the battle. Davis is tense, but not so much in a physical as in a mental sense. The slingshot he carries over his shoulder is almost invisible, emphasizing that David's victory was one of cleverness, not sheer force.
Titian: Born in c. 1487, died in 1576. The most famous painter from Venice at the start of the 16th century. Trained by Giovanni Bellini, he was noted for use of color and for the use of thick, dramatic brush strokes. Among his famous paintings is Bacchus and Ariadne.
Artist Work: This work is the last of a series of four celebrated paintings by Titian. The two earliest of the group, representing Venus and an organ player), date about 1548–55. Venus and the Lute Player is a late work executed about 1565–70 with studio assistance. The subject of the paintings has been thought to relate to Neoplatonic ideas about whether beauty is better apprehended through sight or through sound, but it may just as well signify the way music inspires love.
Botticelli: Born 1445, died 1510. His best paintings are a series of mythological topics including the Birth of Venus and Mars & Venus, the Roman gods which reflected the return of Renaissance thought to its classical roots.
Artist Work: In the Return of Judith to Bethulia, Botticelli uses a familiar theme and a familiar type of figure. Judith was the female character that subdued the male in a hostile environment. Many times in Botticelli’s paintings he explores the relationship between sexes and often times, the female comes out on top. This was especially true in paintings that Botticelli did for weddings or for new moms. At these events, the female became the center of attention and their dominance showed. Judith and her maid look similar to the young nymphs that are often found in this era of painting. Botticelli paints them in flowing robes that are a definite part of his style. The nymphs were charming, young, girl-like figures that were often found to be the caretakers of fertility. The nymphs were also associated with a group of young women who were found to be violent in nature. They were an odd mixture of grace and yet had the potential to become violent indicated by their female dominance. They made a great subject for Botticelli to use when he was painting on the themes related to female dominance.
Raphael: Born 1483, died 1520. Popular with the popes of the period, Raphael decorated the papal apartments of Julius II, continued to do so under Leo X. He is credited with revolutionizing portrait painting because of the style he used in the portrait of Julius II.
Artist Work: In his painting The School of Athens, he reflected the classical influence upon Renaissance art, but he also paid tribute to the men who inspired him by using the faces of da Vinci, Bramante and Michelangelo as philosophers participating in the debate between Plato and Aristotle.
Great Artist of the Northern Renaissance
Albrecht Dürer, or Duerer: A painter, mathematician, theorist, printmaker and engraver originating from Nuremburg, Germany. He was considered as one of the greatest artists of the Northern Renaissance. Having lived between the Netherlands and the European Art capitals of those times paved way for his inspiration and motivation to paint and engrave on wood.
Artist Work: This small double-sided devotional painting, which depicts Saint Jerome in a landscape on the front, and a scene with a heavenly body in a night sky on the reverse, probably dates from just after Dürer's first journey to Italy, in 1494-5, early in his career. Although the saint's pose is conventional, Saint Jerome is set against an atmospheric landscape evocative of some of the most famous of Dürer's early watercolor landscapes.
Pieter Bruegel: Born in 1564. He worked primarily in Antwerp and Brussels, seldom traveling. Bruegel painted mainly religious themes and peasant genres. Focusing on biblical proverbs and apocalyptic scenarios. Through his artworks he made fun of the stupidity and wickedness of human kind. He worked almost entirely for private patrons, rarely securing church commissions. After his famous father he is regarded as the greatest painter of the Netherlands during the 16th Century.
Artist Work: He developed an original style that uniformly holds narrative, or story-telling, meaning. In subject matter he ranged widely, from conventional Biblical scenes and parables of Christ to such mythological portrayals as Landscape with the Fall of Icarus; religious allegories in the style of Hieronymus Bosch; and social satires. But it was in nature that he found his greatest inspiration. His mountain landscapes have few parallels in European art. Popular in his own day, his works have remained consistently popular. Bruegel died in Brussels between Sept. 5 and 9, 1569.
Jan van Eyck: Considered to be a founder of the Early Renaissance style in the Northern Renaissance. Jan van Eyck is credited with originating a style of painting characterized by minutely realistic depictions of surface effects and natural light. This was made possible by using an oil medium, which allowed the building up of paint in translucent layers, or glazes.Little is known of van Eyck's origins, but he probably came from Maaseik, near Maastricht, and was of the gentry’ class. He is first heard of in 1422 working in The Hague for John of Bavaria, ruler of Holland. From 1425 he was at Bruges and Lille as painter to Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. In 1428 van Eyck was sent to Portugal to paint Philip the Good's future wife, Isabella of Portugal. Van Eyck appears to have painted many religious commissions and portraits of Burgundian courtiers, local nobles, churchmen and merchants.
Artist Work: This work is a portrait of Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and his wife, but is not intended as a record of their wedding. His wife is not pregnant, as is often thought, but holding up her full-skirted dress in the contemporary fashion. Arnolfini was a member of a merchant family from Lucca living in Bruges. The couple is shown in a well-appointed interior. The ornate Latin signature translates as 'Jan van Eyck was here 1434'. The similarity to modern graffiti is not accidental. Van Eyck often inscribed his pictures in a witty way. The mirror reflects two figures in the doorway. One may be the painter himself. Arnolfini raises his right hand as he faces them, perhaps as a greeting. Van Eyck was intensely interested in the effects of light: oil paint allowed him to depict it with great subtlety in this picture, notably on the gleaming brass chandelier.