The Cultural Tutor

The Cultural Tutor



A brief introduction to Renaissance art:

The Italian Renaissance in art can be divided into four eras: 1. Proto-Renaissance (1300-1425) 2. Early Renaissance (1425-1495) 3. High Renaissance (1495-1520) 4. Mannerism (1520-1600) We'll look at them each in turn.

The best way to understand the art of the Renaissance is by comparing it to what came before. Medieval art was highly stylised, featuring unnatural perspectives and dimensions. The first development of the proto-Renaissance was a move towards realism.

And Giotto (1267-1337), a contemporary of Dante who was born in Florence, exemplifies this change. By comparing Giotto's paintings (on the right) with those of his teacher Cimabue (1240-1302), you can see the introduction of greater realism:

Giotto's preference for painting what he actually observed rather than following an artistic style laid the foundations for the Renaissance proper. He attempted to portray scenes in three dimensions, where people interacted naturally with their environment.

Masaccio (1401-1428) is regarded as the first true Renaissance painter. He achieved greater realism than had been seen before, particularly through his use of perspective and depiction of lifelike, natural human forms:

Fra Angelico (1395-1455) built on Masaccio's foundations and carried forward the search for realism. Notice the hands, faces, and clothes of the figures in this painting. They are three-dimensional, and possesses a clear weight and movement:

Paolo Uccello (1397-1475) was famously obsessed with perspective, staying up all night and working tirelessly to understand vanishing points and depth. His relentless work, as exemplified in Saint George and the Dragon, would be crucial for later artists.

Such as Giovanni Bellini (1430-1516) from the famous Bellini family, whose St. Francis in Ecstasy features an incredibly detailed and deep background.

Lamentation Over the Dead Christ by Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506) is a great example of the Early Renaissance development of perspective. This is a far cry from the typically two-dimensional paintings of Medieval art.

Among the other great Early Renaissance painters was Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510). His most famous painting, The Birth of Venus, shows how Renaissance art had started to depict Classical as well as Biblical subjects and themes.

And so the High Renaissance began around 1495. A century of artistic experimentation and progress had brought realism, perspective, and new subject matters into art. The time had come to perfect it...

Enter Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) Perhaps his important development was the proper study of human anatomy, which Leonardo believed every artist should know about. Understanding the human muscular and skeletal systems allowed for far more realistic paintings.

This coming together of realistic perspective and scientific naturalism is perhaps best exemplified by Michelangelo (1475-1564) in his Creation of Adam:

And here (from the Sistine Chapel ceiling) he displays a level of anatomical naturalism, realistic perspective, and accurate lighting which has come a long way since the days of Giotto:

To explain the overall change from Early to High Renaissance here is a later work by the aforementioned Giovanni Bellini, this one from 1505. You can see the shift from the relatively stylistic Ecstasy of St. Francis to a more refined, realistic form:

And then there's Raphael. His School of Athens is almost like a self-portrait of the Renaissance, summarising the movement both stylistically and thematically in a single painting. Realistic human figures, a classical subject, and real perspectival depth:

Then came Mannerism... Whereas the High Renaissance had aimed at realism, Mannerism sought a heightened, superhuman beauty. One of its defining traits is a subtle lengthening of human limbs combined with exaggerated poses. Like Pantormo's Entombment (1528):

But Mannerism was a broad church which entailed a great deal of experimentation with perspective, light, and form which went far beyond the High Renaissance. Such as Tintoretto's The Last Supper, from 1594:

And Mannerism's growing disinterest in the anatomical realism of the High Renaissance perhaps reached its culmination in the disarmingly modern works of El Greco (1541-1614) Like The Annunciation:

And that's a whistle-stop tour of Renaissance art. Lots has been missed, of course, but this was intended to provide a broad timeline for understanding when and how art changed during the Italian Renaissance. Though I would be amiss not to mention the Northern Renaissance...

An artistic revolution semi-independent of the one in Italy occurred in Northern Europe, particularly the Netherlands, where painters like Jan van Eyck achieved a level of realism and perspective way ahead of his time. But that's a thread for another day...

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