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Early Renaissance Collage

Early Renaissance - History and Concepts

Started: 1401
Ended: 1490
Early Renaissance Timeline

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.

Cimabue's <i>Santa Croce Crucifixion</i> (1287-1288), bringing an element of human suffering and anatomical detail to religious imagery, has influenced later artists like Michelangelo, Velázquez, Caravaggio, and Francis Bacon.

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's <i>Lamentation (The Mourning of Christ)</i> (1304-1306) creates sculptural figures, their clothes hanging with form and weight, their expressions depicting individualized emotion, and uses elements of perspective and foreshortening to create a sense of real space.

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

Bronzino's <i>Posthumous Portrait of Cosimo di Medici</i> (1565-1569), painted on the centenary of Cosimo's death, shows the legendary and continuing impact of the first Medici ruler.

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

This photograph shows Abraham’s Sacrifice of Isaac (1401) created by Brunelleschi (on the left) and by Ghiberti (on the right). Historian Paul Robert Walker describes, Brunelleschi’s panel as “more dramatic and disturbing, all angles and movement and raw emotion… a new and more powerful vision of reality, “and Ghiberti’s as, “more elegant and more beautiful” with “a perfectly modeled classical nude [that] demonstrates masterful perfection of art.”

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.

Filippo Brunelleschi

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.


Donatello's <i>Feast of Herod</i> (1423-1427) used linear perspective to a dramatic scene, as Herod and others react with horror as the head of John the Baptist is brought to the table.

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 included this self-portrait in his Brancacci Chapel fresco, <i>St. Peter Raising the Son of Theophilus and St. Peter Enthroned as First Bishop of Antioch</i> (1426-1427).

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

Renaissance Humanism

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.

Andrea del Castagno's <i>Petrarch</i> (1450) depicted the poet as a scholar, a book in one hand, and his other hand in the gesture of making a precise intellectual point.

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.

A photograph of Leon Battista Alberti's façade of Santa Maria Novella depicting the classical design, and the scroll motifs that were, subsequently, widely adopted. The building is home to Masaccio's <i>Holy Trinity</i> (1428) Giotto's <i>Crucifix</i> (c. 1290), and other noted masterworks.

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.


Domenico Veneziano's <i>St. Lucy Altarpiece</i> (1445-1447) exemplified the artist's novel employment of color.

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.

Andrea del Castagno's <i>Farinata degli Uberti</i> (c.1450) depicts a Florentine military commander, standing partially outside the painted niche that frames him.

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).

Paolo Uccello's <i>Niccolo da Tolentino Unseats Bernardino della Ciarda</i> (c.1435 to 1455) is one of three panels depicting the contemporary battle.

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.


Ghiberti's <i>The Gates of Paradise</i> (1452) has had a long lasting influence, as seen in Rodin's <i>The Gates of Hell</i> (1880-1917), and both works were lifetime projects for the artists.

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 <i>Penitent Magdalene</i> (1453-1455), made of poplar wood with polychrome and gold, is radical in its expressionistic technique and effect.

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.

Key Artists

  • Masaccio was the first great painter of the Quattrocento period of the Italian Renaissance recreating lifelike figures with a convincing sense of three-dimensionality.
  • Famed Renaissance sculptor Donatello was known particularly for his bas-relief sculptures and for his bronze David, commissioned for Palazzo Medici.
  • Fra Angelico was an Early Italian Renaissance painter whose frescoes were conduits for expressing his religious devotion. Fra Angelico's works are lauded for their use of linear perspective and muted, humble color palettes.
  • Piero della Francesca was a painter, sculptor, architect, and mathematician of the Early Renaissance. His most famous works are revolutionary in a serene realism and overall geometric perspective.
  • The important Renaissance painter Mantegna' work pay equal homage to Roman imperial rulers and Christian saints, and exude chiaroscuro hardness and soft, naturalistic delicacy.
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Do Not Miss

  • The High Renaissance, the epitome of Italian art before the modern era was the exemplified in the works of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael - among others.
  • North of the European Alps an artistic, literary, and philosophical movement grew that was influenced by the spread of the Italian Renaissance's art and ideas.
  • The Venetian School, or Venetian Renaissance, was a thriving cultural movement with a passion for lush color and a distinctly Venetian adoration of embellishment.

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Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Nichols

"Early Renaissance Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Nichols
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First published on 09 May 2018. Updated and modified regularly
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