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Art History 101:

The Renaissance

The history of art is the history of mankind. As long as humans have been communicating, they have also been making art. Through this crash course in basic art history, we’ll take you on a journey through some of the most groundbreaking periods and highlight some of the most important artists in our shared history. Together we can develop a deeper understanding of how artists in the past have helped to shape art-making in the present.

It is widely acknowledged that the Renaissance was a major turning point in the development of Western art history. Its name literally is the French word for “re-birth,” a fitting name for an era that ushered in widespread scientific and creative development. In the centuries preceding the Renaissance, Europe had plunged into the Middle Ages (or Dark Ages), during which innovation was largely stifled. The fall of the Roman Empire catalyzed the deterioration of social structures and, with fewer literate and educated populations, people believed more fervently in the concept of fate and turned to God to find solace and protection. Religious artworks and Christian commissions flourished during these periods, but artistry and technique were sacrificed for faithful representation of religious iconography. The artwork from these centuries is flat, foregoes any strict sense of naturalism, and emphasized religious piety above all else. 


In the fifteenth century, the concept of humanism began to take hold in Italy and shifted the focus from Christian iconography towards human accomplishment. Interest in the Roman and Greek civilizations peaked, and Renaissance thinkers celebrated the achievements and values that the Classical philosophers and scientists. Knowledge, education, and discovery were once again encouraged and the artwork of the time began to evolve both in subject matter and technique. Renaissance artwork is characterized by an embrace of naturalism and beauty and the widespread renewed interest in the sciences enabled artists to incorporate perspective, shadows and scale to make their artwork even more true-to-life. 


Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, c. 1484-1486, Image courtesy of The Uffizi Gallery.

Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, completed during the Early Renaissance, is a prime example of these trends taking hold. Botticelli chose a pagan subject matter, depicting the birth of the Roman goddess of love, reproduction, and beauty, whose origin can be traced back to the poetry of Homer. The artist very explicitly celebrates the beauty of the female form; Venus is at once both demure and brazen with her body. On the left Botticelli has included the human incarnations of the winds, likely Zephyr and Aura, characters that also figured commonly in the Classical myths. Another piece made by Benvenuto Cellini nearly a century later is inspired by the myth of the demigod Perseus at his moment of triumph after he has defeated the monstrous snake-haired gorgon, Medusa. Again, there is great emphasis placed on physical beauty, and the artist has sculpted Perseus as the ideal male at the height of his youth and strength. Cellini demonstrates his mastery of bronze casting in his delicate treatment of Perseus’ hair and musculature, rendering the sculpture very life-like with fine detail throughout. Lastly, Cellini’s decision to sculpt his subject with his body weight on one leg borrows directly from ancient Greek and Roman sculptors. This pose, with the shoulders and arms slightly twisted off the axis of the hips and legs, is called contrapposto, meaning counterpoise.


Benvenuto Cellini, Perseus with the Head of Medusa, circa 1545–1554, Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Artists of the Renaissance also evolved their visual treatment of space and architecture. Below, in the detail of an illuminated manuscript dating from the 14th century, the architectural space is less of a priority because the viewer’s focus is meant to be on the birth of the Virgin. Although there is some semblance of foreground and background, the artist did not devote a lot of effort to rendering the building structures to a proportional scale. The ceilings and doorways have been shrunken down to fit the biblical scene. In his painting dating from the 15th century, Piero della Francesca took great care in representing the architectural space with accuracy and detail. Through an acute understanding of perspective and of light in relation to space, della Francesca has successfully rendered the construction of the chapel behind the figures in the foreground. The arcade and ceiling actually seems to curve and recede from the viewer and the shadows and highlights make the space look three-dimensional. The artist has also considered the space that the viewer of the painting occupies, and included moldings of the left and right edges of the canvas to allude to the space existing beyond what is depicted beyond the foreground.

Medieval Manuscript.jpg

Image left: Don Silvestro de' Gherarducci, Manuscript Illumination with the Birth of the Virgin in an Initial G, from a Gradual, ca. 1375. Image courtesy of The Rogers Fund, 1921, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image right: Piero della Francesca, Pala di Brera (or The Montefeltro Altarpiece), 1472-1474, Image courtesy of Wikipedia.


While the Renaissance ushered in a renewed interest in Classical content, religious themes were still incredibly important. Yet, Renaissance artists instilled qualities of humanism and beauty into their religious artworks. The timeless image of the Madonna and the infant Jesus is given both treatments - Medieval and Renaissance - below. The work on the left is from the 13th century, and to the Medieval viewer it would be immediately clear the image is of the Madonna and Child. Their faint halos and long fingers were both symbols of saints, and the deep blue coloring of the shawl was deeply associated with the Virgin Mary. However, the two figures are incredibly flat and do not convey a sense of physical weight. Their hands are grotesquely long and the proportions of the child are more of a miniature adult than an infant. His posture, symbolic hand pose, and expression are much too stoic and composed to make him seem like an infant. On the right are the same two figures painted by Raphael in the 16th century. This Madonna embodies the Classical and Renaissance ideals of beauty - she is voluptuous, fair-haired, with pale skin, also shrouded in thick folds of fabric. The body language between mother and child is more natural, and the viewer feels almost as if the baby is about to writhe out of his mother’s arms. Furthermore, Raphael’s Jesus looks like an actual child: chubby, with thick fleshy folds on his thighs and arms, round fingers and toes, and balanced awkwardly. The mother and child seem to sit in a three dimensional space; as the Madonna’s right knee comes toward us, the hill and castle are distinctly in the background.


Image Left: Berlinghiero (Italian, Lucca, active by 1228–died by 1236), circa 1230s, Gift of Irma N. Straus, 1960, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image Right: Raphael, The Small Cowper Madonna, c. 1505, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Widener Collection. Image courtesy of the Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art.

It is clear the Renaissance was a rich period of innovation and curiosity among all members of society, and the artists of the era were open to embracing concepts both old and new. By drawing inspiration from Classical luminaries and leveraging scientific learning of their contemporary times, Renaissance artists developed the visual arts by leaps and bounds, and directly paved the way for the artists of future generations from all around the world.

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