Summary of Early Renaissance
At the beginning of the 15th century, Italy experienced a cultural rebirth, a renaissance that would massively affect all sectors of society. Turning away from the preceding Gothic and Romanesque periods' iconography, Florentine artists spurred a rejuvenation of the glories of classical art in line with a more humanistic and individualistic emerging contemporary era. Based in this flourishing new environment that empowered people to fully immerse themselves in studies of the humanities, Early Renaissance artists began to create work intensified by knowledge of architecture, philosophy, theology, mathematics, science, and design. The innovations that emerged in art during this period would go on to cause reverberations, which continue to influence creative and cultural arenas today.
This Early Renaissance is also known as the Quattrocento, derived from the Italian mille quattrocento, meaning 1400, and refers primarily to the period dominating the 15th century in Italian art. It was the forebear to the following High Renaissance, North European Renaissance, Mannerism, and Baroque periods that followed.
Key Ideas & Accomplishments
- An evolution of radically fresh artistic techniques came into practice, departing from the flat-planed and two-dimensional icon artworks that were popular prior. This included the introduction of revolutionary methods such as one point linear perspective, derived from an understanding of math and architecture, relieve schiacciato, a new style of shallow carving to create atmospheric effect, foreshortening, naturalistic and anatomical detail, proportion, and the use of chiaroscuro and trompe l'oeil to create illusionary realities.
- New subject matter evolved beyond the traditional religious stories that had historically dominated art. This included battle scenes, portraits, and depictions of ordinary people. Art was no longer a way to solely elevate the devotional, but became a way to document the people and events of contemporary times, alongside the historical.
- Early Renaissance artists were highly influenced by the Humanist philosophy that emphasized that man's relationship with the world, the universe, and God was no longer the exclusive province of the Church. This resulted in work that emphasized the emotionally expressive and individualistic characteristics of its subjects in fresh new ways, leading to a more intimate way for viewers to experience art.
- A new standard of patronage in the arts arose during this time, separate from the church or monarchy, the most notable of which was supported by the prominent Medici family. Artists were suddenly in demand to produce work that expressed historical, and often religious, narratives in bold new ways for a community that fostered the arts and nurtured its artists like never before.
Overview of Early Renaissance
Stating, "I propose to build for eternity," architect Filippo Brunelleschi solved the impossible problem of building the Florence Cathedral dome. And thus, he ignited the Italian Renaissance.
Artworks and Artists of Early Renaissance
Expulsion from the Garden of Eden
This fresco portrays a nude Adam and Eve as they are expelled from the Garden of Eden. They walk out through an arch from which black lines emanate, representing the angry voice of God, with a red clad angel holding a black sword hovering above to usher them on their way. Adam buries his face in his hands, his body language and facial expression conveying deep anguish. Eve 's face is open mouthed and stricken, her hands held in a Venus Pudica pose to cover her breasts and pubic area as if in shame. The background is bare, only earth and a singular rock formation, evoking the hard fate ahead for the expunged couple. The composition is remarkably elegant, emphasizing the pair's banishment with heightened emotion. The line dividing earth and blue sky diagonally runs from left to right to highlight the pair's forward motion, as their opposing feet mirror each other along the path. The nudity of the two figures, classically proportioned, is not sensual but suggests the starkness of their situation, stripped of God's favor.
This scene is part of a fresco cycle of Biblical scenes in the Brancacci Chapel painted by Masaccio, as well as Masolino and other artists. In depicting the two naked, the artist departed from the Biblical account in which they wore fig leaves, and also, boldly, created the first nudes in painting since the Roman era. He also added the arch and reduced the multiple cherubs mentioned in the Biblical account to focus on one angel.
The scene resides at the left entrance to the Chapel hall, becoming the first image encountered by visitors, launching them into the famous narrative, as Adam and Eve walk out of the arch that is a painted extension of an architectural column. The artist's inclusion of the architecture into the pictorial space was not his only radical innovation. His use of linear perspective, chiaroscuro (the strategic use of shadow and light to create depth), and a realistic figurative approach were in direct opposition to the standard flat iconographic style of presenting religious stories and figures. The result is that Adam and Eve become humanized, rather than relegated on the devotional pedestal as sacred symbols. The pair are fully embodied and expressive, inhabiting real space, their shoulders bent, and their steps weighed down by the enormity of their expulsion. Art critic Clyde Haberman noted that Masaccio "broke with medieval traditions by giving raw realism to human forms and expressions. No one can doubt the anguish of his Adam and Eve as they are expelled from Paradise."
Subsequent artists would go on to envision their own work within this new aesthetic paradigm of Masaccio's vision. Both Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci extensively visited the Chapel to study and sketch Masaccio's human figures, which da Vinci called "perfect." Later artists like the sculptor Henry Moore also studied his works.
Fresco - Church of Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence
The Holy Trinity
This fresco depicts the Holy Trinity. Christ, crucified, is the central figure with God the Father standing behind him. A small white dove above Christ's head represents the Holy Spirit. Within the architectural niche that holds the three, Mary can also be seen, dressed in blue on the left while John the Disciple stands at the right, both gazing up at Christ in devotion. On either side of the columns, the commissioned work's unidentified patrons kneel in profile. Below them, a skeleton lies in a tomb bearing the inscription: "I once was what you are and what I am you also will be," representing a memento mori, or an object that serves as a warning or reminder of the inevitability of death.
Customary to Masaccio's work, this piece helped revolutionize painting with its use of one point linear perspective, creating the illusion of three-dimensional space. The artist intentionally aligned the sighting of the fresco with the existing architecture of the church to enhance the trompe l'oeil effect. To create the work, he used a grid framework etched into the surface, and consulted Brunelleschi on linear perspective, as the perspective of even the nails in the cross show his rigorous approach. The design used a Roman triumphal arch and barrel vault to create a rational but divine space that the life-sized holy figures occupy, while the patrons and the skeleton, placed outside the barrel vault, occupy the space of the viewer. Visitors at the time were amazed at the artist's ability to create a work so realistic that many thought they were peering into a real chapel. A visceral experience of the work was spurred, creating an experience of contemplation in regard to mortality and timelessness.
The life-sized figures also present a remarkably naturalistic effect of volume, movement, and deep emotional expression. As Mary McCarthy, art historian, wrote, "The fresco, with its terrible logic, is like a proof in philosophy or mathematics, God the Father, with His unrelenting eyes, being the axiom from which everything else irrevocably flows." At the same time, Mary, her face solemn, creates a bridge between the divine and the human by looking toward the viewer and gesturing toward her son, providing a way into the sacred realm, through contemplation. As Vasari wrote in his Lives of the Artists (1550) about Masaccio's work, "Everything done before him can be described as artificial, whereas he produces work that is living, realistic and natural."
Fresco - Santa Maria Novella, Florence
Dome of Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore (Florence Cathedral)
This photograph shows Brunelleschi's famous octagonal dome crowning the Florence Cathedral. Its red stone, emblematic of the Florentine love of stonework and Medici red, dominates the skyline with one of the world's most recognized and iconic views. Consisting of over four million bricks, it remains the largest masonry dome in the world.
Brunelleschi's architectural genius can be seen in the structure's sense of buoyancy with its white ribs emphasizing the vertical lift and the steep curvature narrowing at the top. Brunelleschi also designed the white lantern at its tip, though his friend, the architect Michelozzi, completed it in 1461, fifteen years after Brunelleschi's death. The dome became a visual symbol of "The New Athens," as Florence dubbed itself, as it evoked a sense of classical restraint and proportion, echoing the octagonal shape of the cathedral below and drawing it heavenward.
The dome was a revolutionary masterpiece, as the architect dispensed with both the internal scaffolding and the external supports (like buttresses) that were previously thought necessary. Instead, he created a dome within a dome, thus inventing a new system of support, where bricks lain in an inverted arch of herringbone pattern directed weight outward rather than downward. He also manufactured the technology he needed to materialize his project, including the first mechanical hoist and, later, the castello, or horizontal crane. Other structural innovations included the use of a catenary arch, a type of pointed arch, for support and internal wood, stone, and iron chains, formed in octagonals, to work like barrel hoops to hold the dome together.
This work was informed by Brunelleschi's careful study of the Pantheon (113-125) and other ancient Roman buildings. Yet, in his customary fashion, the architect kept his discoveries to himself, working without notes or plans. As he was later to say, when he applied for and was awarded the first modern patent for a water transport vehicle, "we must not show to all and sundry the secrets of the waters flowing in ocean and river, or the devices that work on these waters. Let there be convened a council of experts and masters in mechanical art to deliberate what is needed to compose and construct these works." Because of his enigmatic working fashion, many critics initially deemed his designs impossible. He was to prove them wrong. As historian Paulo Galluzi wrote of the Cathedral, "It is one of the most beautiful, technically audacious buildings ever constructed. It unites technology and aesthetics in an astonishingly elegant way. It symbolizes perfectly the union of science and of art."
All the architects of the next generation were influenced by Brunelleschi's work, and Leonardo da Vinci was fascinated by both his architecture and the technology he invented.
Sandstone, marble, brick, iron, wood - Florence
This iconic five foot tall sculpture shows the Biblical hero David, depicted as a Classical inspired nude. Wearing only boots and a laurel-ringed Florentine hat, he stands in a jaunty contrapposto pose upon Goliath's severed head, holding a sword in his right hand, its point resting on a victory wreath. His right leg meets the diagonal of the sword to create a triangular space that emphasizes the sensuous curve of his hip. The overall effect is an unusually provocative and intimate rendition of David. With his expression of reverie and an enigmatic smile upon his lips, he jauntily assumes his role as the first freestanding nude created since the Roman era.
Donatello also revived and refined the classical technique of lost wax casting to create this work. After casting the form, he finished it by hand, adding a thin layer of gold to create a lustrous surface with warm tones. A sense of the tactile informs the work, as the sleek smoothness of the youth's skin contrasts with the rough materials of Goliath's hair and helmet. One of the wings of Goliath's helmet extends up the back of David's leg, as if caressing him, adding a homoerotic element to the work. At the same time on the fallen giant's helmet the sculptor depicted a scene of Bacchus, the Greek god of wine and excess, suggesting that the virtue of beauty has conquered the pagan warrior.
Having recently defeated the larger and more powerful city-state of Milan, Florence identified itself with the story of the shepherd boy who defeated the giant warrior Goliath with a single stone from his slingshot. Later depictions of David by Andrea del Verrocchio, Bartolomeo Bellano, and most notably, Michelangelo and Bernini, took Donatello's sculpture as the starting point, whether drawing upon or countering its influence. Vasari wrote of the work, "This figure is so natural in its vivacity and softness that artists find it hardly possible to believe it was not moulded on the living form." Contemporary criticism in The New York Times stated, "Donatello's sculptures are startling, dramatic and unpredictable.... a sustained meditation on time."
Bronze - National Museum of Bargello, Florence
This fresco, depicting the moment at which an angel announces to Mary that she will be the mother of Jesus, has a classical simplicity. Sitting on a wooden stool in the cloister, Mary, her form a subtle contrast of dark robes that frame her delicate pink tunic, leans forward listening intently. The angel too leans forward, one knee bent, as his robe unfolds in softly curving vertical lines. Both figures have their arms folded across their chests in the shape of a cross, creating a feeling of intimate understanding, emphasized by the matching pink hues of their clothing, cloister walls, floor, and columns. The setting is devoid of many extraneous details, just a patch of grass on the left and a wooden fence with Tuscan cypresses behind it.
The emphasis on an ordinary but intimate moment was radically new and reflected Humanism's appreciation of the individual. It also reflects the Early Renaissance's distinct move away from traditional medieval imagery of religious narratives, removing the barriers between the sacred and the everyday in ways that invited viewers to feel part of the devotional tales in more familiar ways. The perspective, emphasizing the repeating diagonal line of Corinthian columns on the left, the arch framing Mary, and the foreground's horizontal edging and column, emphasizes the sacred space the two inhabit, while the viewer stands outside, as if listening in upon a private conversation.
The Medici family commissioned this work, along with more than fifty additional frescos and a new altarpiece in 1440, to complete the redesign of the friary of San Marco, which also included the first public library since the Roman Era. Fra Angelico, a Dominican friar, painted small frescos of Biblical scenes in the monks' cells to aid in devotional meditation. His intention was to bring the sacred into the monks' everyday physical reality, and he painted this scene, one of the last frescoes to be painted, in front of the staircase, so that monks returning to their cells would encounter it first.
Michael Glover, the art critic, has noted, "austere and more intimate in mood... The whole scene is a masterpiece of quiet understatement."
Fresco - Museum of San Marco, Florence
Flagellation of Christ
This painting, divided vertically down the center by Roman columns, depicts the flagellation of Christ in the background on the left in contrast to three aristocratic Florentine men engaged in conversation in the foreground on the right. In the artist's time, religious subjects that employed perspective would usually focus the vanishing point central on Christ. This innovative use of perspective, though, further emphasized the division between the two scenes, conveying the dissonance between two worlds; the self-preoccupation of the important and wealthy ruling class of Florence implicitly critiqued by the suffering of Christ taking place in the adjacent space. Furthermore, the orthogonal lines divide the frame vertically and, contrasting with the red horizontal bands, create a division between interior and exterior space. A separate light source is portrayed in each scene, furthering a sense of the enigmatic relationship between the two. Various scholarly interpretations have tried to identify the various figures depicted, suggesting the power of the work to both suggest and resist narrative.
It was notable as an early example of oil painting on a small panel, for which Della Francesca departed from the large frescos, painted with tempera, favored by the artists of his day. A precision of detail and line is evinced in his treatment of the architectural motifs, as seen in the intricate slats of the building on the far right, and the lines of the figures, with a curiously modern effect. The work conveys a sense of surreal calm and order, its almost architectural harmony contrasting with the flagellation. With its precise delineation and scientific use of perspective, the artist, who was also a mathematician, created a naturalistic work that is both convincing, and yet almost modern in its dissonance.
The art historian Kenneth Clark was to rank the painting as one of the ten finest paintings of all time.
Oil and tempera on panel - Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, Urbino, Italy
Camera Degli Sposi Frescoes
This fresco depicts an illusory oculus, opening to reveal a painted sky. The oculus is ringed with figures looking down into the room below. An orange tree and a peacock, both symbolizing Juno, the Roman goddess of marriage, perch prominently on the edge.. A number of Cupids - one placing a wreath on his head, one holding an arrow while looking out at the sky, and a third holding an apple that seems as if it might suddenly drop, ring the balustrade. Three housemaids, clustered beside the orange tree, gaze down smiling. On the other side of the tree, an aristocratic young woman stands beside a slave woman in a striped turban.
Mantegna's fresco was groundbreaking for the time as it was the first example of di sotto in sù, or illusionistic ceiling painting. It also employed trompe l'oeil to create a scene where the architecture and painting become indistinguishable from each other within the fictive space. He incorporated the fresco into the building by painting the ceiling ribs and lozenges to resemble marble, and the triangular areas at the edge to look like mosaics.
He also used extreme foreshortening in the figures to tweak the viewer's perception of the height of the ceiling. This work embodied Alberti's argument in his De Pictura (1435) that a painting should be a window into reality.
The Gonzaga family commissioned this piece for their Camera degli Sposi, a small square reception room in their Ducal Palace. In addition to the ceiling fresco, he also painted The Court Scene (1465-1471), portraying the Gonzaga family on the north wall, and The Meeting (1465-1471), with two other smaller scenes on the west wall, and the last two walls with a decorative pattern.
Mantegna's work greatly influenced not only Renaissance artists like Raphael, but also artists of the Baroque and Rococo movements.
Fresco - Palazzo Ducale di Mantova, Mantua, Italy
Lamentation over the Dead Christ
This remarkable image shows the dead Christ, lying upon a marble slab, his lower body shrouded by a piece of linen, as the stricken faces of St. John and the Virgin Mary peer over him. The extreme foreshortening and vivid details, like the nail holes visible in Christ's feet, result in an experience of intense intimacy for the viewer. Christ becomes less a divine figure, and merely an affronting human cadaver, His flesh is hyperreal, and a harrowing feeling becomes further emphasized by the bloodlike stain of red that imbues the scene. A static stillness is created by the vertical lines of Christ's body and the edge of the slab contrasted with the horizontals of the bolster, the bottom edge of the slab, and the creases at his elbows and ribs. The placement of the scene within a window frame, cropping the viewer from the mourners, creates the claustrophobic sense of being in a morgue. Also known as The Dead Christ or The Lamentation, the image was painted following the death of two of the artist's sons and was meant to convey suffering and grief.
The artist's mastery of foreshortening to create a pictorial plane that becomes architectural, as well as the work's near graphic directness, was not only ground breaking for its time, but potently modern. Mantegna's sculptural sense of the human figure is apparent in the image, but his radical innovation was his sense of the painting as part of a total spatial illusion. His techniques influenced artists of his generation but also later masters, like Leonardo da Vince, Albrecht Dürer, and Correggio. Contemporary art historian Nicholas Fox Weber has called the work, "an unsettling masterpiece," where "Mantegna's vision of agony as a prelude to resurrection and celebration resounds."
Tempera on canvas - Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan, Italy
This masterpiece is a complex and mysterious allegorical work, depicting figures from classical Greek and Roman mythology in the garden of Venus. The goddess of love, framed by an intricate nimbus of sacred myrtle, stands in the center, raising her right hand in a gesture of welcome associated with the Virgin Mary from the Annunciation. The goddess, traditionally shown nude, wears the discrete clothing of a married woman. Above her, a blindfolded Cupid aims his arrows toward the three graces, who wear diaphanous robes and dance, their hands entwined. To the far left, stands the god Mercury, looking upward as he reaches toward one of the golden fruits that glow like orbs in the overarching canopy.
On the far right, the artist has combined two myths from the Roman poet Ovid. In the first myth Zephyrus, the god of the wind, depicted here with bluish green skin and puffed out cheeks, raped the nymph Chloris. In the painting, her nude figure, clothed in a diaphanous gown, falls forward, with feet that have already left the ground. As she turns back to look at him, tendrils and flowers emerge from her mouth, leading forward to the figure of Flora, the goddess of spring. The myth states, that full of remorse, Zephyrus changed Chloris into the goddess of spring.
This work, commissioned by the Medici family for a wedding celebration, broke new ground by borrowing from classical mythology for its subject. But it also reflects the integration of scientific observation into art as the artist depicted over 500 identifiable plant species into the piece. Each detail in the work is allusive in meaning. For example, the golden oranges allude to the symbol of the Medici family, the orbs of Hesperus from Greek myth, and to the Garden of Eden. The result is, as art historian Gloria Fossi has written, "one of the most written about, and most controversial paintings in the world."
Visually the work also presents an idyll of beauty, its female figures depicted with a linear rhythm, soft contours, and subtle color, to create what art historian Kenneth Clark described as, "one of the most personal evocations of physical beauty in the whole of art."
Tempera on panel - The Uffizi Gallery, Florence
Christ Handing the Keys of the Kingdom to St. Peter
The scene is meant to embody the New Testament moment when Jesus said to Saint Peter, "Upon this rock I will build my church... and I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven." The fresco focuses equally on that biblical narrative as well as the architecture, emphasized by the gold diagonal lines of perspective extending toward The Temple of Solomon in the background. Christ is emphasized slightly in scale and by placement, outlined and set apart by the space that surrounds him, and the diagonal that leads to the Temple's entrance of the building, which begins at the top of his head. The key is directly in line with the Temple entrance, and isolated, too, within its own space.
Behind, in the middle distance, two scenes from the New Testament are depicted. The scene on the left shows Christ and the disciples paying the tribute money, and the scene on the right shows Christ escaping from an attempted stoning. Two identical arches, resembling the Arch of Constantine, built by the Roman Emperor who in 313 legalized Christianity with the Edict of Milan, flank the Temple in the background. Beyond the plaza, mountains recede into the distance, due to the artist's employment of aerial perspective. Behind Christ on the left, and behind Peter on the right, illustrious figures of the era, including a self-portrait of the artist, mingle with the disciples. The central one point perspective married with the calculated composition of the painting's subjects, create a perfectly balanced symmetry.
The architecture of the scene reflects many things elemental to the Early Renaissance period. The work, commissioned by Pope Sixtus IV for the Vatican, was meant to illustrate the doctrine of apostolic succession and signal the rising importance of papal patronage in commissioning grand works of religious significance. The transmission of divine authority from Christ to Peter also harkens to the same transmission from Temple to the Vatican. Lastly, it is an example of the principles of science, mathematics, and design being injected into art by the leading artists of the time.
The elegant figures in their refined clothes, flowing drapery, and delicate detail reflect the influence of Andrea del Verrocchio's figurative treatments on the artist. Vasari was to credit Perugino with creating a new style that blended the Florentine line with a "delicacy blended with color," and the artist's sense of visual rhythm was to influence later artists, including Vasari himself.
Fresco - Vatican City
The Birth of Venus
This seminal, iconic work, inspired by the Roman poet Ovid's Metamorphoses (8 A.D.), focuses on the birth of Venus, the goddess of love, riding her scallop shell as she arrives on land. To the right, a female with billowing dress and hair leans toward Venus holding out a swirling red robe to clothe her. Flying at a diagonal and also leaning toward Venus, Zephyrus, the god of the wind, puffs out his cheeks, blowing her toward the shore, as pink flowers fill the air around them. Linear flow and movement in the swirling hair of the figures, the billowing draperies that soar along with Zephyrus's flight, and in the curvilinear forms of the figures accentuate the singularity and centrality of the nude. Some have seen in the spirals and swirls of Venus's red hair, Botticelli's allusion to Leon Battista Alberti's words in On Painting, "I am delighted to see seven movements in hair, which is especially pleasing when part of it turns in spirals as if wishing to knot itself, waves in the air like flames, twines around itself like a serpent, while part rises here, part there."
The enigmatic work has compelled multiple descriptions. Vasari identified the young woman with her arms entwined around Zephyrus's waist as Aura, a mythological figure personifying light breezes. The woman on the right was thought to represent the Hora of spring, one of three such figures who were attendants of Venus. Other scholars connect this work to Botticelli's earlier Primavera, and have argued that Zephyrus's companion is Chloris, as shown by the symbolism of the flowers, and that the woman on the right is Flora, the goddess of spring. The artist also employed contemporary political symbolism. The laurel trees and Hora's laurel wreath visually pun upon the name "Lorenzo" of the Medici family who commissioned the work, while the motifs and colors of Hora's clothing and the robe she carries allude to the Republic of Florence.
The work was innovative for its large scale, for being painted on canvas, as well as it use of alabaster powder to brighten the paint and of gold to create highlights on the wings, the hair, the fabric, and the shell. But these innovations were overshadowed by its unprecedented depiction of the female nude in a pagan setting. While the figure created an impression of classical beauty, the artist has diverged from classical proportions. For instance, her body is off center, and her right leg curves too far over for her left leg to bear her weight. As the art historian Kenneth Clark noted, "Her differences from antique form are...rhythmic and structural. Her whole body follows the curve of a Gothic ivory. It is entirely without that quality so much prized in classical art, known as aplomb. She is not standing but floating." In this too, the artist was innovative, almost modern in his willingness to depart from naturalistic depiction in order to express an imagined internal concept of beauty. The work shows, as contemporary art historian Frederick Ilchman said, "Botticelli's attitude, his yearning to express ideals of beauty and human form." The work also is seen to reflect the era's Neo-Platonic philosophy that the mind could be drawn to the knowledge of divine beauty by contemplation of earthly beauty.
During the High Renaissance, Botticelli's works were eclipsed, and he became relatively unknown in the centuries that followed. The title "Birth of Venus" was given to this painting only in the 19th century when Botticelli's works were revived by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and embraced by the Arts and Crafts movement. Subsequently this work has become one of the world's most recognizable paintings, and artists including Salvador Dalí, Renée Magritte, Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, and the Superflat artist Tomoko Nagao have revisited it. The painting has endured fame in popular culture as it has been referenced in film, television, music videos, and has also informed the work of fashion designers like Elsa Schiaparelli and Dolce & Gabbana.
Tempera on panel - The Uffizi Gallery, Florence
Portrait of an Old Man with His Grandson
This tender portrait vividly evokes a moment of embrace, juxtaposing a man toward the end of his life with a child at his beginning. The older man wears a red fur-lined robe, and the younger, a red doublet and cap. Behind them, the wall of the interior room is depicted in black and grey rectangles, framing a window that opens onto a landscape of winding roads through fields that lead toward a small church at the bottom of a terraced hill. Next to it, a monolithic rock rises out of a lake. The golden locks of the boy, echoed in the folds of his doublet, draw the viewer's eye up to the window, which, framed by somber grey and black, evokes a feeling of contrast between the two subjects' phases of existence. The painting creates a poignant moment marked by a sense of mortality.
Ghirlandaio was primarily known for his frescos, often portraying notable Florentines, as seen in his celebrated Tornabuoni Chapel cycle (1485-1490). What he brought to Early Renaissance painting most, though, was a vividly detailed and emotionally expressive portrayal of contemporary life and ordinary people, an emphasis that this singular portrait shares. The man's grey hair, the mole on his right forehead, and his deformed nose, indicate that he has the skin disorder rhinophyma. These characteristics are depicted with a remarkable realism that made the painting unique for its time. The work also subverted social attitudes, which associated defects in appearance with defects of character, by emphasizing the man's gentle and wise expression and quiet affection. Art historian Bernard Berenson wrote of this work, "There is no more human picture in the entire range of Quattrocento painting, whether in or out of Italy."
Ghirlandaio was also a notable teacher, as his most distinguished student was Michelangelo.
Tempera on panel - Musée du Louvre, Paris
Beginnings of Early Renaissance
The Proto-Renaissance of the 1300s
The term Proto-Renaissance refers to artists of the 14th century who developed the naturalistic approach that came to fruition in the Early Renaissance. The early art historian and painter Giorgio Vasari felt that during the Middle Ages the artists Cimabue and Giotto had kept alive the aesthetic principles of classical art with works, which laid the groundwork for the following Renaissance.
Like most artists of his time, Cenna di Peppi, known as Cimabue, created primarily religious works. Byzantine iconography and stylization dominated the era, depicting human figures in two-dimensional form on flat pictorial planes. Yet in bold contrast, Cimabue's works emphasized naturalistic elements, such as is seen in his Santa Croce Crucifixion (1287-1288). Still placed within Byzantine iconography, the work innovatively drew upon anatomical observation to create a sense of Christ's physical and emotional suffering.
Artists of this period received their training in a master's workshop, and Cimabue's most famous assistant was Giotto de Bendone, known simply as Giotto. A popular anecdote related how Cimabue discovered Giotto as a young boy, while he was drawing and watching his family's sheep.
Giotto was a pioneering figure, his importance acknowledged by his being named Magnus Magister (Great Master) of Florence in 1334. Discarding Byzantine stylization, Giotto's Scrovegni Chapel Frescoes (c.1303-10) in Padua were ground breaking due to their sculptural figurative treatment. Depicted naturalistically, his figures began to take on a three dimensionality, inhabiting real space, and conveying real emotion. This was a radical departure from the Byzantine styles still practiced by many of his contemporaries, and his became a singular influence upon not only his contemporaries like Taddeo Gaddi, Bernardo Daddi, and the noted Masolino, but the painters of the Early Renaissance, including Fra Angelico, Piero della Francesca, and Masaccio.
Defining the Term: The Renaissance
Giorgi Vasari, in his The Lives of the Artists (1550), first coined the term rinascita, meaning rebirth. However, the French-derived term "Renaissance" only became widely used to refer to the historical period later during the mid 19th century following the historian Jules Michelet's Histoire de France (1855). Subsequently Jacob Burckhardt's model of the period, beginning with Giotto and ending with Michelangelo, defined in his The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860), became widely adopted.
Contemporary scholarship has reconsidered these definitions, as in the 1980s historian Randolph Starn, described the overall Renaissance as, "...a network of diverse, sometimes converging, sometimes conflicting cultures, not a single, time-bound culture," and Stephen Greenblatt defined it as "early modern," when describing the period as a transition from the Middle Ages.
The Early Renaissance, informed by Humanism and Classical Roman and Greek art and architecture, was led by Brunelleschi whose works in architecture and the discovery of linear perspective informed the era, as well as the pioneering work of Donatello in sculpture and Masaccio in painting. Together, the three have been dubbed "the triumvirate of the Early Renaissance," centered in the Republic of Florence, as the rising power of Florence, and the patronage of wealthy families like the Medici, created a welcoming environment for the movement.
The Republic of Florence and the Medicis
The Early Renaissance flourished in the Republic of Florence, which dubbed itself "The New Athens," indicating that the city-state identified itself as heir to the classical tradition. The city was ruled by the merchant class and noble families, primarily the Medici family which was to become a ruling dynasty that lasted until 1737. The Medici family had made their fortune primarily in the textile trade governed by the Arte della Lana, the wool guild in Florence, and in 1377 Giovanni di Bicci di Medici founded the Medici Bank in Florence. His son, Cosimo di Medici, never occupied office, but used his wealth and political alliances to become, in effect, the ruler of Florence. He was an exceptional patron of the arts, spending a good part of his fortune commissioning art works, collecting classical texts, and supporting cultural projects, like founding the first public library. As he said, "All those things have given me the greatest satisfaction and contentment because they are not only for the honor of God but are likewise for my own remembrance. For fifty years, I have done nothing else but earn money and spend money; and it became clear that spending money gives me greater pleasure than earning it." Subsequently private patronage by wealthy families became an important driver of artistic creation, allowing for subjects and treatments that were off limits for religious and civic commissions.
The Baptistery Competition
It has been argued that the Early Renaissance began in 1401 with a competition held by the city of Florence to award a commission for new bronze doors for the Baptistery of St. John, and the consequences of the feud that followed. The doors would contain panels representing scenes from the Old Testament, and seven sculptors were selected to design a single panel showing the Sacrifice of Isaac for the competition. Only Lorenzo Ghiberti's and Filippo Brunelleschi's designs have survived, and both works reflect a humanistic and naturalistic Renaissance style. Admiring both works, the judges declared a tie between Ghiberti and Brunelleschi and suggested the two artists collaborate on the project. However, stung by the loss, Brunelleschi withdrew and Ghiberti alone took on the project, which made him famous. Nonetheless, it was Brunelleschi's subsequent work that became the foundation of the Early Renaissance, as, bitterly disappointed when his design did not win the competition, he abandoned sculpture and turned his attention to architecture.
The path that led to Brunelleschi's discovery of linear perspective, in which the relative size, shape, and position of objects are determined by drawn or imagined lines converging at a point on the horizon, began after his crushing defeat for the Baptistery project, and radically change art and architecture. He sold his small family farm and used the proceeds to go on a self-imposed exile to Rome, accompanied by his friend, the artist Donatello. For several years, often camping in the ruins until the locals mistook them for treasure hunters, the two artists measured buildings, took extensive notes, and researched classical design principles. Abandoning his focus on sculpture for architecture, Brunelleschi developed his theory and practice of perspective and the mathematical principles of design.
Upon returning to Florence, he entered a 1418 competition held by the wool merchant guild to build a dome for the cathedral. A number of previous architects had worked on the cathedral, including Giotto who had designed the bell tower in the 1330s, and by 1418 the building was almost complete, save for a gaping hole awaiting a dome, which no one knew how to build. Once again, Brunelleschi's primary competitor was Ghiberti, who, while a leading artist of the day, had little architectural experience. The competition required that each architect try to stand an egg upright on a marble surface.
Brunelleschi's solution became legendary, as Vasari wrote, "giving one end a blow on the flat piece of marble, [he] made it stand upright ...The architects protested that they could have done the same; but Filippo answered, laughing, that they could have made the dome, if they had seen his design." For in fact, Brunelleschi had already fashioned a technically accomplished model of the dome. To create his design, he conducted further experiments in perspective, and created several devices, involving the use of mirrors and painted panels. He shared his discoveries only with friends like Donatello and Masaccio, as he felt, "To disclose too much of one's intentions and achievements is...to give up the fruits of one's ingenuity." Accordingly, it was Leon Battista Alberti who wrote the early definitive works on perspective and technique, though he acknowledged Brunelleschi's leadership in all arts by dedicating On Painting (1435) to him.
Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi, known simply as Donatello, also competed for the commission of the Baptistery Doors, though, at the time, he was only 15 and training in Ghiberti's workshop. His close friendship with Brunelleschi began around the same time. They had much in common, both sculptors having first been trained as goldsmiths, and they were to remain close throughout their lives, described as "inseparable" by contemporaries. In Rome, Donatello studied Roman sculpture and the lost wax casting process used to create classical bronzes. Returning to Florence, his works became the first artworks to use linear perspective, as seen in his marble St. George and the Dragon (c. 1416) where he used perspective and pioneered relieve schiacciato, a new style of shallow carving, to create atmospheric effect. His bronze relief the Feast of Herod (1423-1427) combined emotional expressiveness and classical form with a perspective system based upon orthogonal diagonals and transversals to draw the viewer's eye into the empty space between the two groups at either ends of the table, thus creating a sense of tension.
Masaccio, an artist whose career lasted only seven years because he died of the plague at age 27, has also been dubbed "a father of the Renaissance." His work employed linear perspective and naturalistic figurative treatments in a new way that revolutionized painting. Little is known of his life or his art training, though by 1426 he was friends with Donatello and Brunelleschi. Brunelleschi's work on perspective influenced Masaccio, as he consulted the older artist on his The Holy Trinity (1427-1428), considered to be one of the earliest examples of perspective in painting. Masaccio's painting innovations included the use of one point perspective, a trompe l'oeil approach, naturalistic modeling of the human figure, and a single consistent light source casting accurate shadows. He also pioneered the use of chiaroscuro, thus creating the illusion of depth and portrayed his figures with emotional expressiveness, conveying their individuality. As art historian Mark Michael Astarita wrote Masaccio's, "hallmark oeuvre d'art embodied the shift away from the dreary Gothic...and the gradual shift towards paintings that embodied the rebirth, or Renaissance, of classical art and architecture."
Leon Battista Alberti
Leon Battista Alberti was the most important intellectual theorist of the Early Renaissance due to his three volumes, De Statua (On Sculpture) (1435), Della Pittura (On Painting) (1435), and De Re Aedificatoria (On Architecture) (1452). On Sculpture marked the first use of the terms additive sculpture, in which material is added to create a work, and subtractive sculpture, in which material is carved away or removed to reveal a work, while also emphasizing naturalistic treatments and classical proportions.
His On Painting, which consisted of three volumes, described painting "as a projection of lines and colors onto a surface." He codified Brunelleschi's one-point linear perspective, as well as the concepts of composition, proportion, and the use of disegno, design or line, and colorito, coloring, in creating pictorial harmony. He drew upon the contemporary practices of artists like Donatello, Ghiberti, Luca della Robbia, and Masaccio, though positing them within a theoretical basis that drew upon humanist literature and the classical works of the Romans and Greeks.
Early Renaissance: Concepts, Styles, and Trends
The Renaissance was philosophically driven by Humanism, a belief that placed human life at the center of the universe. The widespread cultural movement, which began in 14th century Italy advocated for studying and learning the humanities, as seen in works of classical Rome and Greece. Many humanists were priests or church leaders, who felt that enthusiasm for science and its rational discoveries, an interest in geometry and mathematics, understanding of classical ethics and logic, and an aesthetic appreciation of the art and architecture of the classical period would enrich Christian understanding. As a result, a new sophisticated society would emerge, expansive in scope and knowledge.
An early leader of Humanism was the great 14th century poet Francesco Petrarca, called Petrarch in English, who has been called "the founder of Humanism," as well as a "founder of the Renaissance." A noted scholar and collector of classical texts, he rediscovered the works of classical authors, like the Roman Cicero. His poetry was also revolutionary in that he wrote in Italian, rather than the Latin of medieval Europe, a period for which he coined the term "the Dark Ages." Reviving classical texts became key to Humanist thought. Poggio Bracciolini, whose findings included the rediscovery of Lucretius's De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things) in 1417, was a papal advisor, working under seven popes in his lifetime. In Florence, Niccolò de' Niccoli became a leader of Humanist thought primarily due to his extensive library of Latin and Greek classical texts, which became noted fodder for Florentine intellectual life. He was closely associated with Cosimo di Medici.
Brunelleschi's buildings and designs were widely employed by later architects. His innovations included the use of round columns with classical capitals, circular arches, and segmented domes, all constructed through mathematical ratios. His early Ospedale degli Innocenti (1419-1427), or Hospital of the Innocents, featured a decorative motif that combined white stone walls with grey architectural features, becoming known as the pietra serena, or serene stone, style. His designs for the Florentine churches of San Lorenzo (c. 1425) and Santo Spirito (c. 1428) launched the use of modular design and a church configured in the shape of a Latin cross. For Santa Maria degli Angeli (1434), he pioneered the design of a centrally planned church, which was widely adopted throughout the Renaissance.
Other noted architects were Leon Battista Alberti and Michelozzo di Bartolomeo Michelozzi. Cosimo di Medici commissioned Michelozzi to design his palace, the Palazzo Medici (1444-1484) in Florence. Michelozzi used a tripartite division to give the massive building a vertical lift and to reflect a classical sense of harmony and order. The resulting style became known as the Palazzo Style and continued to be popular into the 19th and 20th centuries.
In the 1440s, Alberti turned extensively toward the practice of architecture. His De Re Aedificatoria (On Architecture) was derived from Brunelleschi and the Roman architect Vitruvius's De Architectura, which advocated proportional harmony based upon the golden mean. In 1450 he undertook his first architectural project, redesigning San Francesco church in Rimini, and subsequently was commissioned to design and complete the façade of Santa Maria Novella (1456-1470) in Florence. As an architect, Alberti has been described as a "ghost architect," preferring to focus on design, while seldom engaged in the practical construction matters. Two of his most noted sites, the San Sebastiano church in Mantua and Santa Andrea church in Florence, were completed after his death, and his designs, and particularly his writing, influenced subsequent architecture.
Many of the great works of the Early Renaissance were religious frescos, beginning with Masaccio's Brancacci Chapel frescoes, which were studied by subsequent Renaissance masters. Many of the noted fresco masters, including Fra Lippi, Fra Angelico, Pierro della Francesca, Alessandro Botticelli, and Andrea Mantegna, focused on religious subject matter, while employing the new techniques of perspective, foreshortening, the Florentine emphasis on the fluid line, naturalistic and anatomical detail, and trompe l'oeil.
Oil painting was also introduced, as seen in Antonello da Messina's Sibiu Crucifixion (1454-1455). Other artists like Pierro della Francesca in his Flagellation of Christ, (c. 1455) experimentally combined oil with tempera on panels. And some artists brought an innovative emphasis on color and texture to tempera painting, as seen in the pastel pink and green palette of Domenico Veneziano's St. Lucy Altarpiece (1445-1447), influenced by the Venetian School.
New subject matter was also introduced. Andrea del Castagno's commissioned fresco Cycle of Famous Men and Women (c.1449-51) depicted portraits of three Tuscan poets, three famous women from antiquity, and three military commanders from Florence. His treatment was also novel, as he painted them within architectural niches to create the illusion of sculpture. Portraits of noble families were much in demand, as seen in Piero della Francesca's Portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino (1465-1472), while Domenico Ghirlandaio pioneered the portrait focusing on deeply individualized but ordinary people as seen in his Portrait of an Old Man with His Grandson (1490).
The painter Paolo Uccello pioneered battle painting with his renowned Battle of Romano (1435-1460) depicting the 1432 battle between Florence and Siena. Uccello was a noted mathematician who created an idiosyncratic style that combined a pioneering use of perspective with elements of the Late Gothic style. His Funerary Monument (or Equestrian Monument) to Sir John Hawkwood (1436), like many other works, was a fresco that appeared almost sculptural.
The most noted sculptors of the Early Renaissance were Donatello, Ghiberti, and later in the period, Andrea del Verrocchio. The naturalism and classical proportions of Roman and Greek sculpture inspired their works, though interpreted through the era's emphasis on individuality and Humanism. The period's most noted sculptures were created using the lost wax process, also revived from the Roman era.
Ghiberti was to design two sets of doors for the Baptistery in Florence of which the second, depicting ten panels of scenes from the Old Testament, completed in 1452, became the most famous. In them, Ghiberti perfected his use of perspective and figurative modeling to create works that were admired both for their classical beauty and their emotive individuality. Michelangelo dubbed them "The Gates of Paradise," the name by which the doors, 17 feet tall and gilded in gold, have been called since.
Donatello's Gattamelata (1453), a piece of realistic grandeur, was influenced by the bronze Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius (c. 173-76 C.E). However, Donatello's version revitalized the subject by emphasizing Aurelius' individuality, the anatomical musculature of the horse, and incorporating symbolic elements such as the horse's hoof resting upon a cannon ball. Evoking Venice's military power, it became a signature reflection of the Renaissance.
Donatello was considered to be the greatest sculptor of the Early Renaissance, in part due to his range of subject matter and his capacity for individualistic expression of each. This can be seen in his innovatively eroticized statue of David, or his powerfully expressive later work Penitent Magdalene (1453-1455), Andrea del Verrocchio was notably influenced by Donatello's work, as seen in his own bronze David (1473-1475) and his Equestrian statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni (1480-1488).
Later Developments - After Early Renaissance
The impact of the Early Renaissance cannot be overestimated, as rather than ending in the late 1400s, its innovations spread from Florence throughout Italy and Europe. The works of the Early Renaissance artists became foundational to the High Renaissance, North European Renaissance, Mannerism, and Baroque periods that followed. Florence itself continued to be an inspiring artistic environment for the generation that followed, as Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Raphael lived and studied there. Michelangelo was particularly influenced by Masaccio, his teacher Ghirlandaio, and his training in the workshops of the Medici family. Leonardo da Vinci was trained by Andrea del Verrocchio. Masaccio's fresco Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, 1426-1427 influenced him, and his studies of Alberti's On Painting (1435), as well as Pierro del Francesca's study of perspective, informed his thought and work.
The designs of Alberti, Michelozzi, Brunelleschi, and Mantegna's trompe l'oeil ceiling painting were to inform various architectural styles and designs into the 19th and 20th centuries. Botticelli's paintings, rediscovered in the 19th century, became a noted influence on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and, subsequently among the most popular and artistically revisited works of the 20th century.
The concept of Humanism that so heavily defined the Early Renaissance period remains an important model for thriving community and a timeless lesson about the benefits of intellectual and creative pursuits informed by a deep knowledge of the arts and sciences within a particular society.
Useful Resources on Early Renaissance
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