Definition of the Renaissance
A period of artistic, literary and scientific revival, the Renaissance began in the 14th century in northern Italy. A real revolution in terms of thought and all artistic fields, this movement rapidly spread its ideas across Europe, where it prevailed until the end of the 16th century. It radically transformed Western art, but on a deeper level, beyond modes of representation, it penetrated to Man’s very relationship with nature, the world, God and other people.
The word Renaissance was used for the first time in the 16th century by Giorgio Vasari, founding father of modern art history, in the famous anthology Lives of the Most Famous Painters, Sculptors and Architects, to refer to the artistic trend which had emerged in Italy two centuries earlier.
The Renaissance lasted for nearly three centuries, in three successive periods: the Trecento (14th century), the Quattrocento (15th century) and the Cinquecento (16th century). In his work, Vasari describes three ages: that of the pioneers, Cimabue and Giotto, that of the instigators, Masaccio, Brunelleschi and Donatello, and finally that of the accomplished masters, Bramante, da Vinci, Raphael and Michelangelo, who according to Vasari equal and even surpass those of Antiquity. It was not until the 19th century that the historians Michelet and Burckhardt extended the concept of Renaissance to a whole civilization.
Artistic Renaissance followed on from the medieval aesthetic, the symbols and rules of which it challenged. This new cultural form is firstly characterized by the attention it pays to Antiquity. Its singularity lies in its restoration of past grandeur, its search for ancient lessons. From the Trecento, Italian men of letters Petrarch and Boccaccio expressed a desire for renovatio: this reconquest found its first artistic incarnations in Florence (see the section "At the heart of the Renaissance: Florence").
Humanism and the Renaissance
The revival of philosophical thought in the 16th century was represented by the affirmation of a liberation of Man in relation to God.
Artistic creativity was no longer limited to simply serving religion and strict respect for its rules of representation. It slowly made way for humanist representation which gave a new place to the individual. Artists felt and then affirmed that Man belongs to nature and his place is in the centre of the universe.
The characters represented have a new presence, a substantial body and soul. In painting, the figures were no longer arranged in rows on the background of wooden altarpiece panels. They inhabit the space, which gains depth and perspective, while the golden backgrounds passed down from Byzantine icons and carpets of medieval flowers gradually make way for new lines of perspective with gardens and innovative architecture. Symbols of saintliness (aureolas, halos), still prominent in the painting of the Trecento, were replaced by an incarnation of the divine in a new humanity.
In the 14th century, humanist thought and new models of representation spread even more widely and more quickly, along with other knowledge, as a result of the invention by Gutenberg of the printing press in 1468. They also benefited from the development of trade and international communication following the discovery of the unknown territories of America, the New World, in 1492.
The return to Antiquity
Lessons from Antiquity were everywhere. Taking their example, for Renaissance artists the nude became one of the most accomplished artistic forms. Within this major retrospective movement, however, everyone worked on perfecting their own expression. This artistic awareness, this quest, was also very new. Painters and sculptors reworked Classical influences in a unique way, now attempting to affirm their visions and aspirations through their works.
Knowledge of ancient art was scarcely underway when Tuscan sculptor Donatello had the idea, in 1430, of representing the future King David as a young shepherd striking down Goliath, as told in the Bible. A young man, his body still frail, this first Renaissance David had proportions which freed it from Greek rules. Later the nudes of Tuscan sculptor, painter and architect Michelangelo Buonarroti, known as Michelangelo, would identify themselves more clearly with Greek heritage, but in a particular and unique maniera, far removed from stereotypes (David of 1501), expressing a new humanity, emotion and tension.
The taste for Antiquity remained ubiquitous. Artists and art lovers took lessons in beauty from Roman monuments discovered, Greco-Roman statues collected by the new patrons, as well as from the source of Latin and Greek texts. Excavations of ancient sites began everywhere, particularly in Rome. The archaeological discoveries in the Laocoon (1506) and Apollo Belvedere groups seized the contemporary imagination. Studied, copied, passed round, these large groups of sculptures and Classical models inspired a whole generation of artists and their studios.
However beyond the formal similarities which it inspired in the Renaissance, Classical art also reconciled Christianity and Pagan culture. Michelangelo placed prophets from the Bible and ancient sibyls side by side. In 1510, painter and architect Raphael represented the great thinkers of Antiquity beneath the vaulted ceiling of Saint Peter’s basilica in Rome.
The earliest and most remarkable innovation of the Renaissance on the architectural level was the dome of Santa Feira cathedral in Florence. This great achievement resulted from the skill of Brunelleschi, “the man sent by heaven to renew the art of architecture lost for centuries”.
This Florentine architect is also distinguished for having been the first to set out the principles of perspective. This defined structures of representation, construction of the image and geometrical laws governing representation of objects of a standard shape. Brunelleschi’s experiment aimed to identify the line of perspective as a projection of the viewpoint on the painting.
Alberti the architect was then the first to theorize this mechanism. The scope of the image, the relationship of scale between characters and their surroundings and the sober aesthetic were transformed.
These new architectural forms spread across Europe from Italy during the Quattrocento. The treatise by Vitruvius, a 1st century Roman architect, printed in Latin in 1486, is the only architectural treatise to have survived into the 15th century. It brought together a range of experiences and knowledge accumulated before Vitruvius by Greek builders.
From 1450, one of the most important figures of the Renaissance, Leon Battista Alberti, delivered an architectural treatise, De re aedificatoria, which radically influenced his contemporaries and provoked an immense critical reaction. This Genoese architect, theoretician of mathematical perspective and the Arts, writer and philosopher, was interested in all visual arts. He devoted a famous work to painting, De pictura, in which he set out the new principles of this art. These two manifestoes would play a key role.
During the Quattrocento, architects, influenced by these treatises, imitated Antique forms and drew inspiration from them. It was with the Romanesque work of Bramante (San Pietro in Montorio, Saint Peter’s in Rome), a painter and architect at the court of Urban, that a sense of architectural order developed, to create a real decorative language which Michelangelo then experimented with.
At the heart of the Renaissance: Florence
Florence, the capital of Tuscany, is the true home of the Renaissance. Thanks to the patronage of wealthy families of merchants and bankers, mainly the Medicis, the Arts experienced considerable growth from the 14th century and throughout the entire 15th century. For the erudite Renaissance prince Lorenzo the Magnificent, art embodied a new order and could be used politically, quite apart from the delight it provided.
With Cimabue, painting began to cautiously free itself from the Byzantine two-dimensional aesthetic and the restrictions of religious control. But it was with the striking works of Giotto di Bendone (1266-1337), notably the frescoes in the Scrovegni chapel in Padua, that space became hollow, almost illusory and three-dimensional, that shapes became tangible, the profane encountered the sacred.
During the first half of the Quattrocento, Tuscan painting was highly diverse. Every artist participated in this growth, the innovations of which still bore the academic mark of international Gothicism and a certain consecrated permanency: Gentile da Fabriano, Fra Angelico, etc. The most innovative painter of the 1420s was certainly Masaccio (Brancacci chapel, Santa Maria del Carmne, Forence): he gave his figures perspective and volume, like his architecture, giving them monumental proportions lost up until then. His work is characterized by a great sobriety, as well as a new humanity, a real and intense presence.
The influence of this artist and this new pictorial direction was considerable on painters of his generation (Fra Angelico, Paolo Uccello), the next generation (Filippo Lippi, Domenico Veneziano, Piero della Francesca) and beyond that, particularly on Sandro Botticelli, and then on the great Renaissance masters.
The simultaneous presence in Florence at the end of the 15th century and the beginning of the 16th century, of Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael and Michelangelo, decisively steered the development of painting. As well as the Virgin of the Rocks in 1483 (Louvre Museum), Leonardo da Vinci produced a large mural fresco, The Last Supper, for the refectory of the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. At the end of the 15th century, he studied the conditions in which perception of an image coincides with that of the object it represents and drew up a criticism of the optical foundations of perspective. He then proposed a new technique which he christened sfumato (smoked) which involves taking account, in the image, of the conditions in which the object is perceived. Sometimes referred to as atmospheric perspective, this technique involves overlaying very fine layers of translucent paint to give the subject a diaphanous outline, corresponding to the receding appearance created by distance.
It was then again in Florence that Mannerism became established, in the early 16th century. A complex artistic movement, refined to the extreme, it developed the beautiful style or in Italian, la bella maniera. It is perceived as an ideal of beauty which tends towards the intensification of the style of the great Renaissance masters.
Mannerism involves an intensive practice of drawing and a taste for deformation. The work of art is composed of a divided space, favours a certain acidity of colour and includes complex iconographic symbols. The Mannerism represented by Vasari, Bronzino Andrea Del Sarto, Giulio Romano, Parmesan and Le Corrège, particularly favours snaking lines and deliberately breaks away from exactness in proportions.
Seat of the papacy, at the beginning of the 14th century Rome became, with the imposing pontificates of Popes Julius II and Leo X, the principal political and artistic centre in Europe.
Great patrons, collectors of antiques and academics, these sovereign popes commissioned the most innovative artists, in particular Michelangelo (for the Sistine chapel) and Raphael (the Vatican stanze or apartments).
While Tuscan artists were used as reference points, from the 14th century, each artistic centre developed its own specific characteristics. Strong regional differences persisted into the 15th and 16th centuries. Florentine painting favoured drawing, Venetian painting gave primacy to colour and, from the beginning of the 16th century, through papal and princely patronage, Rome took on a growing importance.
A meeting point between East and West, in the 16th century Venice played a leading political and cultural role.
Giovanni Bellini was the first great Venetian master of the Renaissance, in the 15th century. He broke with international Gothic tradition, abandoned codes of representation and adopted the rigour of construction which characterizes the Renaissance.
Bellini taught his successors the development of form, the resources of colour, the expression of nature and sentiments. Following on from him, Tizino Vecellio, known as Titian, represented the high point of Venice in the Cinquecento. He was famous throughout Europe for his portraiture science and his skill. Charles V appointed him as the official painter to the Habsburg court.
The changing blue skies and delicate luminosity of Venice influenced the works produced there. The most important are those of Titian and Giorgione. The 16th century was a Golden Age in Venetian painting. Its colour in the early Renaissance and its warm light (Giovanni Bellini, Giorgione, and the young Titian) was enriched by the Mannerist works of Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese and Bassano.
The Venetian Renaissance was also marked by the work of Paolo Caliari, known as Veronese, who set himself up in Venice in 1555. He rivalled Tintoretto as the great decorator of Venice and produced The Wedding at Cana (1562-1563, painting housed in the Louvre Museum) for the refectory at San Giorgio Maggiore. He merged Tuscan-Roman tradition and Venetian tradition. He strived for sumptuous colours which exalted the luminosity of the image with coloured shadows and superimposed tones. Veronese can be placed at the meeting point between great Renaissance and international Mannerism.
The Renaissance in Europe
Born in Italy, the Renaissance spread through the rest of Europe.
In France, King Francis I commissioned Italian painters and decorators, Rosso and Francesco Primaticcio, known as Primatice, from Florence and Bologna, to decorate the Château de Fontainebleau. These artists’ presence at court made Fontainebleau a centre for dissemination of the Italian artistic Renaissance in Europe. While Primatice worked on the apartment of the king and queen, Rosso decorated the château’s gallery. A real artistic Renaissance was thereby created in France.
All of northern Europe would soon allow the last embers of international Gothic to burn out to espouse Renaissance ideas and forms. Two regions developed specific expression drawing inspiration from Italian pioneers: Flanders and south-west Germany.
Flemish artist Jan Van Eyck broke decisively with the Gothic style. In his paintings, he attempts to capture the reality of light, space and forms. Vasari attributes to him the invention of oil painting, which had, however, been known about since the 14th century.
His paintings remove the boundary between the painted work and its surroundings. Van Eyck also abandoned profile portraits, inherited from coins, to adopt a three-quarter view emphasizing the volume of the face and body. The most illustrious Flemish painters, such as Christus and Hans Memling, followed Van Eyck’s example throughout the 15th and into the first half of the 16th century.
The Renaissance was represented differently in the work of Albrecht Dürer, a famous painter and engraver from Nuremberg. His work Adam and Eve (1504, Prado National Museum, Madrid) embodies the Italian desire for balance and a profound awareness of nature and humanity.
This artistic boom occurred at the same time as a religious reform which led to a profound transformation in northern European art: in 1517, Martin Luther proclaimed his theories and caused a confrontation between reformed and Catholic princes. Christianity was split to the point of tearing apart (sacking of Rome in 1527). In response, the Counter-Reformation led from Rome by the popes had a considerable influence on religious thinking, iconography and all fields of artistic creativity.
End of the Renaissance
From 1570 to 1610, as a reaction to Mannerism and a sign of the new times, art changed direction: a simplification of compositions and forms, a return to traditional rules, and a spirituality standardized following the Council of Trent (1545-1563), which sparked the Counter-Reformation. These Catholics wanted to purify the Church, to reaffirm essential dogmas and control sacred art, and therefore all iconography and its rules. The Council of Trent reacted against the aesthetic refinements and profane subjects of Mannerism. Works of art had to exercise an influence on the faithful and stimulate emotion, achieving compassion through emphasis on pathos. This first required a very classical nostalgia, then a more spectacular form of persuasion with the Baroque style, which reached its full maturity in the 17th century.
A rediscovery of the humanist, political, philosophical and artistic ideals of Antiquity, a movement breaking completely from Gothicism, Medieval thought and subjection to God, the Renaissance was the basis for numerous foundations of modern thought and art history.
A Renaissance artist was a rounded artist, often a painter and goldsmith, sculptor and architect, theoretician and poet, as were Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. The artist became an academic, who used treatises, knew the rules of perspective and felt it was important to know the human body. His social status evolved during the 15th century, as the intellectual dimension of the created work became recognized.