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European Renaissance Art

Renaissance artworks

Sistine chapel ceiling by Michelangelo

Buonarroti, M. (1508–12). Ceiling frescoes [Painting found in Sistine chapel, Vatican City]. Retrieved from

Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci

da Vinci, L. (1500–07). Mona Lisa [Painting found in Musée du Louvre, Paris, France]. Retrieved from

David by Donatello

Donatello. (1428-32). David [Painting found in Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence, Italy]. Retrieved from

Giovanni Arnolfini and Giovanna Cenami by Jan Van Eyck

Van Eyck, J. (1434). Giovanni Arnolfini and Giovanna Cenami [Painting found in National Gallery, London, England]. Retrieved from

Venus of Urbino by Titian

Vecellio, T. (1538). Venus of Urbino [Painting found in Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, Italy]. Retrieved from

Entombment by Raphael

Sanzio, R. (1507). Entombment [Painting found in Galleria Borghese, Rome, Italy]. Retrieved from

Dome of Florence Cathedral by Brunelleschi

Brunelleschi, F. (1418–36). Dome of Florence Cathedral [Painting found in Florence, Italy]. Retrieved from

Annunciation Triptych by the Master of Merode

Campin, R. (1425). Annunciation triptych [Painting found in Cloisters, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY]. Retrieved from

Birth of Venus by Botticelli

Botticelli, S. (1484). Birth of Venus [Painting found in Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, Italy]. Retrieved from

What was the Renaissance?

A retrospective term, ‘Renaissance’ describes a period, a style, and certain associated values (‘Renaissance man’). Opening the ‘modern’ or ‘early modern’ period, the Renaissance period succeeded the Middle Ages and was succeeded by the Baroque period, following a slightly varying chronology according to point of view, but within the frame of the 14th or 15th to the 17th century. In practice the ‘early’ Renaissance spans the 15th century, the ‘High’ Renaissance is located in the first quarter of the 16th, and the Renaissance as a whole is deemed to have finished its work by 1600, though in its original French usage, and as the late-starting ‘English Renaissance’ in current parlance, it is a phenomenon of the 17th century. As a style of architecture, art, and ornament the Renaissance originated in Italy and spread rapidly to the rest of Europe after the French invasions of the peninsula in the 1490s. Most obviously and outright in ornament and architecture, fairly clearly in sculpture, rather more obscurely and indirectly in painting, the Renaissance is marked by a return to classical form (see classicism), and displaces Gothic. Renaissance values are largely synonymous with humanism, although in today's terms, filtered through Jacob Burckhardt, a ‘Renaissance’ man is a polymath, bridging the gap between art and science which indeed did not then exist.

Above all the Renaissance signifies a break with the Middle Ages. However, despite attestations that the term depends on a rinascita or rebirth of which its own age was conscious, Renaissance-period people in fact perceived no such break until well after it was meant to have happened. Recent scholarship continues to demonstrate that in every sphere—art, literature, philosophy, technology—development was continuous through from the later Middle Ages and even earlier. For example, the paper technology that made possible the explosion of publishing due to the invention of printing in the 1460s—and also the rise of the status of the drawing among 16th-century artists—began to evolve in the 12th century. The Renaissance mastery of cannon, to such a degree that rather suddenly in the last years of the 15th century every castle and city in the world became indefensible, initiating a new era of fortification in the 16th century that had a profound effect on urban development, depended on the introduction of gunpowder much earlier and on a steadily evolving tradition of warfare. Even humanism cannot be so sharply distinguished from scholasticism as once it was: return to the original text of Aristotle, for example, was already advocated by Roger Bacon, and the Greek scholars of the 15th and 16th centuries never equalled the achievement of the Italian Barlaam of Seminara (c. 12901348), who, in Greek, argued the case of Latin theology in Constantinople (though he was said by the Greeks to have been worsted). The ‘lost’ classical manuscripts rediscovered by Poggio Bracciolini—in an enterprise often regarded as symbolic of the new spirit—were not late Antique exemplars but much later copies. So, too, in art, ‘Renaissance’ is etymologically not much more accurate a term than ‘Gothic’.

There are of course differences between the Renaissance and earlier periods, but those between the 14th and 15th centuries are hardly greater than those between the 15th and 16th (or between the periods 13501450 and 14501550). The Renaissance period was indeed one of transition and of progress. The changes are perhaps more strikingly quantitative than qualitative, more an acceleration than a change of direction. With the important exception of manuscript illumination, there is a vastly greater amount of cultural material surviving from the Renaissance than from the Middle Ages, one which accidental rates of survival can hardly explain; and it is more individuated and articulate—artists' careers in particular are much better documented. Though the tendency to improve written records has a long history, what earlier anywhere can compare with the fulsome surviving archives of the Gonzaga rulers of Mantua? In Italy this expansion becomes almost exponential in the second half of the 15th century and continues until the second half of the 16th, with which there ensues a period of recensionism and codification, even restriction—‘neo-feudalist’ tendencies in society, Tridentine ‘reforms’, academicism, and, in painting if not in drawing or sculpture, comparative sterility.

The overall goal of art in the Renaissance remained what it long had been: the perfection of naturalism. In work by such as Leonardo or Raphael, this goal might even seem to contemporaries to have been achieved. It was attained in the 16th century with increasing confidence and with the sprezzatura, or art of making accomplishment look easy, of Baldassare Castiglione's ideal courtier. And the scope of naturalism was greatly enlarged, beyond ‘a thing of birds and flowers only’, as Walter Pater dismissed medieval art. The Antique, though some have believed it an essential stimulus to Renaissance art, was studied by artists more as a means to this naturalism than as an end itself; it was not directly copied, even in fakes, but was emulated. Classical statuary, once it began to be collected and displayed, increasingly became a repertoire from which to borrow, but its role was obviously passive: formative influences on the young Michelangelo were Bertoldo di Giovanni and Ghirlandaio, possibly Tullio Lombardo, but not the Apollo Belvedere or Belvedere Torso. The older view seems more accurate that the Renaissance was, rather, an ‘age of discovery’ which took as its domain the Antique no less than the Atlantic. The Renaissance adoption of a ‘classical language’ of art was a work of synthesis undertaken not out of a passion for the past, but because it could be realized as a suitable vehicle for contemporary ideals or agenda.

Various attempts have been made to pinpoint the moment at which supposedly the Zeitgeist turned from old to new. With exceptional crudity John Ruskin decided (The Stones of Venice, 3 vols., 18513) that in Venice the Renaissance—in his perspective, of course, a period of decline—‘set in’ following the death of Doge Carlo Zeno in 1418. Aby Warburg (Sandro Botticellis ‘Geburt der Venus’ und ‘Frühling’: eine Untersuchung über die Vorstellungen von der Antike in der italienischen Frührenaissance, 1893), who saw the Renaissance as embodying a new sensibility or Einfühlung expressed in terms of movement, epitomized by the fluttering hem of an Antique nymph's shawl or frock, pointed to successive versions of a mid-15th-century Florentine print in which the costume of a woman changes from a style deriving from the Burgundian court to that of such a nymph. He emphasized the pathos that the Italian Renaissance saw again in Antique art, but Italians appreciated more explicitly the emotional clangour of such 15th-century Netherlandish art as Passion scenes by Rogier van der Weyden. Erwin Panofsky (Renaissance and Renascences in Western Art, 1960) believed that the earlier, medieval reuses of classical forms or figures (or ‘renascences’) were fundamentally different from the ‘real’ Renaissance use of them because, by contrast, classical figures in medieval art never carried their original meanings. It is a naive mistake, however, to suppose that the Renaissance restored or reintegrated classical culture, or in any sense reunited classical signifiers with their classical signifieds. On the contrary, what seems to occur in the 14th and 15th centuries is that writers (notably Boccaccio) begin to state clearly that the classical gods are only ciphers. Acknowledged as allegories, the classical gods and myths posed no threat to the Christian religion and for this reason from the end of the 15th century became available as the vehicle of a largely new moral and psychological repertoire. But if no single strand or moment can fix the switch from medieval to Renaissance, we surely can assert that printing, introduced from 1460, accelerated and consolidated the process and impact of the mix of changes affecting Renaissance Europe irreversibly.

In Giorgio Vasari's Lives of the Most Excellent Artists, Sculptors, and Architects (1550; 2nd edn. 1568) and in other sources in its wake the Renaissance gave an account of its own artistic development which, consolidated over the intervening period, has been subject to revision by 20th-century art history but not shifted. It is a nice tale. In its first phase or ‘manner’ Latin artists, turning to nature, let drop the naivety or clumsiness of the prevailing Greek (or Byzantine) and Frankish (or Gothic) styles, setting their figures on the ground rather than on their toes in a rational perspective. The pioneers of this movement were the sculptors Nicola and Giovanni Pisano and the painter Giotto. After these artists' heritage had been somewhat dissipated by their followers in the later 14th century, in the early 15th century Donatello and Masaccio led the reform of art and refounded this second manner on the study of the Antique and a still more ‘scientific’ perspective. Their efforts were continued by subsequent generations in a period of almost constant forward progress, lacking however the accomplishment, grace, and virtuosity of the third phase, inaugurated by Leonardo in the later 15th century and consolidated by Raphael, Michelangelo, Titian, and several other artists of genius in the 16th. For Vasari and other Florentine commentators Michelangelo's ‘divine’ achievement was a peak no one else could match; elsewhere in Italy and Europe Raphael of Urbino was preferred, or Titian of Venice. Describing Michelangelo's Sistine chapel ceiling (Vatican), Vasari stated his anachronistic belief that the oak garlands held by the artist's celebrated ignudi could be read as emblems of the Golden Age in which they were painted (in fact they are blazons of Pope Julius II's family name, della Rovere (= of the oak)). Still today the ‘High’ Renaissance is believed to have achieved an outstanding balance and synthesis that fractured after the death of Raphael in 1520. Indeed there are no commentaries from before Vasari offering rival schedules, and the pre-eminence of the High Renaissance was reiterated not only in theory but in imitative practice in the early 17th century by the Carracci and their school.

It is obviously incorrect, however, to depict the early Renaissance as a sequence of steps leading to the High Renaissance landing, especially when the only treads and risers used are the happy accidents of survival. It is a distortion to begin one's account with the series of monumental pulpits produced by Nicola Pisano and his workshop in the Papal States at the end of the 13th and beginning of the 14th century, ignoring, for example, the mutilated fragments some 50 years earlier of the statuary programme of Frederick II's Gate at Capua—though the former are prominently displayed, intact, on established tourist routes in hospitable Tuscany, and the latter languish headless in an unfrequented museum in a suburb of Naples. The art of Frederick's court may offer a plausible link connecting the earlier 13th-century style of Reims and other northern cathedrals to the Pisani, emphasizing in particular that the strain of classicism one may have hoped to isolate at the beginning of the Renaissance retreats indefinitely back into the Middle Ages.

It was, too, a medieval context that stimulated the development of the kind of narrative painting with which Giotto is associated, both in altarpieces and, predominantly, on church walls (we know little of contemporary palace decoration)—a context determined by the politics and economics of the rising medieval city-states and by the emergence of the preaching orders of Franciscans and Dominicans. This narrative painting, moving away from the abstraction of icon painting towards a naturalism comparable perhaps to contemporary theatre, gradually acquired, through the 14th century, ever greater sophistication in the work of Duccio, Giotto, Simone Martini, Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Tomaso da Modena, Altichiero, and others. Again artists working outside the Papal States (with the exception of Giotto at the Arena chapel in Padua) are less well known and appreciated, although these painters, like contemporary sculptors, were often peripatetic. Many of these artists developed individual styles, moving generally towards a more incisive portraiture, a more convincing mise-en-scène (at least the equal of sculptural tableaux), and a more accurate perspective. They initiated a development, for instance, in which the originally discrete, almost token figures of polyptych retables would eventually, in the next century, be united in a single, ordered space in a dynamic interrelationship—the sacra conversazione altarpiece.

In the early 15th century Filippo Brunelleschi in Florence achieved a decisive break with the past by preferring against the prevailing Gothic in architecture a deliberate revival of the local Romanesque, as represented in particular by the navel of Florence, the cathedral baptistery, which has such a highly classicizing ornament that it is extremely difficult to date. Initiated in the portico of the Foundling Hospital (1419), the new idiom was guaranteed success by Filippo's achievement in vaulting the gaping space above the cathedral's recklessly expanded tribuna (though the famous dome itself is not so obviously a ‘Renaissance’ work). Translated by Leon Battista Alberti into a principle of ornament that approximated more closely to classical examples, this new style of architecture took hold even outside Florence and, undergoing continual refinement or adaptation and codification, became the heritage of all Europe; it was not restricted to architecture proper but soon became the standard of every kind of ornament. Of course, Renaissance classical architecture did not consist in the imitation or revival of classical building types, but the adaptation of what was soon perceived as a language of ornament to modern requirements. Churches, for example, remained of Gothic dimensions rather than reverting to late Antique proportions, though the difficult attempt was made to front them in a ‘temple’ or ‘triumphal arch’ fashion and to constitute their elements of classicizing parts. Brunelleschi was also responsible for an experiment in which, looking through a pin-hole, the viewer could see the scene depicted on a panel exactly as it was in reality: with this, one might want to say, the goal of perspective shifted from an ancillary role enhancing the realism of a representation (medieval) to that of comprehensive illusionism (Renaissance). This illusionism, traceable through Mantegna, Melozzo da Forlì, Bramante, Correggio, Giulio Romano, Veronese, and many others, was associated from the beginning with a classicizing ornament.

The Renaissance, or humanist, ability to borrow from the past (or to invent on the basis of a mere hint from it) not simply occasional motifs or effects but whole organisms or procedures is also apparent in Alberti's short but fundamental treatise De pictura (1436), adapting the form of a rhetorical manual to a new subject area. Even if, in demanding a kind of dramatic unity for painting, involving for example single-point perspective and consistent mapping of lightfall and shadow, he was updating medieval paradigms, more important still he was articulating them, and by the end of the century attitudes had altered to such a degree that painting, sculpture, and architecture had become widely accepted as equals beside the traditional seven liberal arts. To a lesser degree artists were also gaining in status in northern Europe, though there is no contemporary appreciation of such consummate practitioners as Jan van Eyck or Rogier van der Weyden as great as is recorded in Italy; the effects they achieved with oil paint (such as glistening highlights, deeply saturated and resonant colours, or infinitesimally gradated shadows) were accompanied by perspectival inscenations actually more complex than those of the Italians (and notably more successful in landscape, for instance)—but, even if they were written up, it was never printed.

Later in the century, the tragic vividness and poignancy that Hugo van der Goes could achieve has parallels with the work of Perugino in central Italy or Giovanni Bellini in Venice (both using oils). However, if these artists seem to found their emotional transmittal in a static naturalism, others, in contrast to the Netherlanders, became increasingly adept in the handling of the movement, or the kinetic energy of their figures—Pollaiuolo, Botticelli, Giovanni Antonio Amadeo. This is already present in the expressionism, so to call it, of Donatello, and a factor may be the study of classical art, although Donatello's borrowings from classical material are full of solecism and barbarism, and Mantegna's more disciplined ‘classicizing’ style is, though powerful, drier. This quest to depict energy was tempered in the next century into a more rhetorical, heroic style by such artists as Fra Bartolommeo, Raphael, Titian, and Michelangelo.

One incongruous result of the ex post facto view of 14th- and 15th-century art is that those earlier artists who did not take a ‘classicist’ or High Renaissance direction when it was ‘offered’ by their immediate predecessors—such as later 14th-century artists after Giotto, or Fra Angelico or Filippo Lippi after Masaccio—tend to be placed, confusingly, in an implicitly non-progressive ‘late Gothic’ camp. One may note that the figures for Donatello's and Michelozzo's tomb for Bartolommeo Aragazzi in Montepulciano (142738, dismantled; fragments in Montepulciano Cathedral and London, V&A) seem almost to mimic an early Classical Greek style, but this almost ‘pure’ classicism was immediately discarded by these artists themselves. The art of Piero della Francesca, whose reputation has stood very high since his virtual rediscovery in the late 19th century, is not Gothic, is not classicist, does not lead ‘on’ in any obvious way to the High Renaissance. The Italian early Renaissance is notable for a proliferation of strongly individual, strongly localized ‘schools’ (to use a later term), based around its numerous autonomous courts or cities. As these centres became politically agglomerated in the 16th century, variations on what soon became virtually an artistic canon became more solely individual than regional.

Leonardo da Vinci's depiction of an archetype of the Renaissance interest in proportions, ‘Vitruvian Man’, has come to stand, in its satisfactory resolution of a man's outstretched body into a square and a circle, for the High Renaissance itself, just as he himself has become the archetype of a ‘Renaissance man’, indeed of a ‘modern’ genius. In painting Leonardo was most influential in rather a local way, in Lombardy after he had moved to Milan, but many artists emulated that subtlety of tonal gradation (sfumato) of which Leonardo was the master; meanwhile Leonardo's caricatural drawings and Madonna and Child compositions are early instances of Italian figuration making an impact on Netherlanders—paralleling that of the prints of Mantegna and his followers upon Dürer. Leonardo's influence is also clear on Fra Bartolommeo and Raphael, and the parallel direction of Michelangelo's early work (the Doni Tondo; Florence, Uffizi; the Pietà; Rome, S. Peter's) should not be underestimated.

Though extremely accomplished, northern artists of the early 16th century such as Gossaert tend to be overlooked, or rather eclipsed by the patronage and Europe-wide reception of the artists who were successful in the Rome of Popes Julius II (ruled 150313), Leo X (ruled 151321), and Clement VII (ruled 152334). Their achievement (and ambition) is enshrined primarily in the frescoes they carried out in the Vatican, but also in altarpieces, portraits, or other works sought after equally in other Italian courts and in the French king's. Michelangelo was conceded a heroic—or martyric—status unprecedented for an artist in history (even Leonardo, much of whose ‘genius’ is a late modern rediscovery), but also, in a backlash that focused around his Last Judgement in the Sistine chapel (153641; Vatican), he was held responsible for unleashing a school of artists captivated by aspects rather than by the full accomplishment of his style, and seduced by opportunities of their ‘demonstrating their skill’ away from traditional narrative paradigms. From Raphael's circle, too, there were released, onto an Italy of which the political structure was being violently dislocated and reset, a school of artists supremely accomplished in composition but not very certain of getting the job they wanted. This, the period following Raphael's death in 1520 and the sack of Clement VII's Rome by Charles V in 1527, is the era of Mannerism. It was not exclusively an Italian phenomenon or under Italian influence—the ‘Antwerp Mannerists’ are quite reasonably so called—and it is difficult to define, partly because, like the term Renaissance itself, it is meant to circumscribe a period, designate a style, and represent certain values, all at once.

Venice, too, felt the pull of High Renaissance Rome, Sebastiano del Piombo emigrating to the household of the papal banker Agostino Chigi, a lasting association with Michelangelo, and eventually the curia. Titian, merging all the colourism, and more, that Giovanni Bellini had learned from his own heritage and from Netherlandish art with a ‘classicist’ form emulating that of Fra Bartolommeo and Raphael—to this extent fusing disegno and colore—consolidated his international reputation by obtaining the patronage in 1530 of Charles V, the monarch who three years earlier had upset the careers of so many of his peers. From the vantage of ‘neutral’ Venice, he effectively became a court artist without ties of attendance—well might it be rumoured that Charles stooped to pick up his brush. Around him the local school flourished and even attracted foreign artists, the Veneto still offering plenty of ‘local dignitary’ patronage; in central Italy, and even for north Italian artists lacking the right kind of social skills (such as Lorenzo Lotto), patronage was less stable.

The High Renaissance was a watershed. Much in the way that the humanists, on the underpinning of a Latinate grammar, elevated the Tuscan dialect of past masters (Petrarch, Boccaccio) into a literary vernacular, or that Aldus Minutius translated the cancelleresca or ‘chancery’ hand into what we call italic typeface, High Renaissance artists set a standard—la buona maniera, as Vasari called it—which could be deviated from but not unlearned. Indeed this constructed ‘classical’ style of the Renaissance (though it is often, rather confusingly, called Mannerism) conquered Europe in the 16th century, whether by export or by migration—Rosso and Primaticcio to France; numerous northern artists to Italy. It spread increasingly through the means of prints, even emblem books, emanating especially from the Netherlands after the mid-16th century—although, ironically, Dürer well after his death became a source of inspiration to many Mannerists both in Italy and in the north.

The diffusion of the Renaissance in northern Europe should be sought not simply in the assimilation of Italianate styles, but also in the application of Renaissance principles to a native culture—as was done perhaps for the first time at the court of Maximilian I, for whom, for example, Dürer, Burgkmair, and other artists created in a consciously northern medium, the woodcut, a massive ‘triumphal arch’ parading imperial values. The Elizabethan court in England was resistant, perhaps, to some of the outward forms of the current Renaissance style (usually called the ‘Mannerist’ style) but its artistic patriotism presupposes some assimilation and effect of humanism.

Holberton, P. (2001). Renaissance. In The Oxford Companion to Western Art. Oxford, UK: Oxford University
      Press. Retrieved from