The Renaissance

Topic 5: The Renaissance

  • While the Gothic style reached Italy, it had to compete there with the enduring influence of Classical Rome, whose ruins covered Italy and whose culture formed an important element of local identity. Italy also remained largely a collection of city-states; the political landscape remained unstable and uncertain, even as the cities of northern and central Italy became some of the wealthiest in Europe. Some of these city-states experimented with republican forms of government; it seemed natural for them to emphasize their Roman heritage by embracing Classical Roman art and culture.

  • By far the most influential and artistically innovative of these city-states was Florence, whose ruling class of merchants spent lavishly on monuments to civic pride. It was a Florentine painter, Giotto di Bondone, born in the thirteenth century, who developed new ways of depicting pictorial space that made figures and objects look convincingly three-dimensional. Over the next two centuries, a series of Florentine artists would develop the modern system of linear perspective and revolutionize western art.

  • In the fields of architecture and sculpture, direct study of Roman art and buildings inspired a similar revolution. The sculptor Donatello and architect Filippo Brunelleschi are said to have conducted their own excavations in the ruins of Rome. This tradition of close study of antique models was continued by the most celebrated of Florentine artists, Michelangelo Buonarroti.

  • The works of Michelangelo, especially the commissions he executed in Rome for the pope such as the paintings in the Sistine Chapel, are widely considered the high point of the Italian Renaissance, along with works by his two contemporaries, Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael. The late Renaissance in Italy was marked by an apparent rejection of the ideals of order, balance, and harmony, and by an exaggeration of the style's most distinctive features. This development is known as Mannerism; it is reflected in the late work of Michelangelo.

  • Many of the most celebrated paintings of the Italian Renaissance are wall paintings known as frescoes. The technique of buon fresco, or "true fresco", involves painting directly on wet plaster so that the paint becomes part of the wall itself, an exacting process requiring precision and speed.

  • Paintings were also made on wooden panels, and later on stretched canvases. The evolution of panel painting was influenced by the introduction of oil paints from northern Europe. Earlier painters worked in tempera, which is less easily manipulated and more opaque than oil paints. Oil paints dry more slowly and can be more effectively layered, creating a more luminous effect.

  • The technique of painting in oils was developed by painters in northern Europe, especially the Low Countries, where Jan van Eyck and his brothers worked. Early painters of the Northern Renaissance were less influenced by Classical models. They focused on the meticulous rendering of every detail, rather than on overall effect. Complex patterns of symbolism could be embodied in seemingly mundane objects.

  • Later Northern Renaissance artists, notably Albrecht Durer, fused Italian and Northern traditions into a unique whole. Close ties between the Low Countries and Spain also ensured that some of the first European artists to work in the New World were Flemish, or trained in the Flemish tradition.

Related Links:
Italian Renaissance and Northern Renaissance Quiz
The Baroque Era
AP Art History Quizzes
AP Art History Notes