A Very Brief Introduction to Renaissance Art

A short, simplified introduction to Renaissance art follows:

Renaissance artists contrasted themselves with the art of the Middle Ages, which roughly divides into three main periods and styles: Byzantine, Romanesque, and Gothic.

Lack of realism characterizes Byzantine art. The art focused on the symbolism. Paintings appear flat with no shadows and subjects are generally very serious, somber and religious; many are of Christ and the Virgin Mary.

mosaic in Hagia Sophia, 12th century

Romanesque art also is heavily Christian and notably found in architectural details like stained glass, large murals, and carvings on buildings and columns. It also includes illuminated manuscripts.

Gothic art began to use brighter colors and moved toward more realism with efforts to show dimension, shadows and light. Subjects included more than religion. However, the term “gothic” was synonymous with “barbarian”. Raphael first used the term pejoratively to describe what he saw as primitive architecture. Giorgio Vasari popularized the notion of Gothic art as describing “monstrous and barbarous” art or art that showed “disorder”.

Artists through most of the medieval period remain anonymous. Names were rarely recorded because the artist was considered nothing more than a craft worker, not an individual author. Patrons of religious commissions paid far more for costly materials, such as gold and coloured minerals, than they paid the artist.

The origins of Renaissance art can be traced in Italy to the so-called “proto-Renaissance” period (ca. 1300-1400), when Italian scholars and artists saw themselves as reawakening to the ideals and achievements of classical Roman culture. Writers such as Petrarch (1304-1374) and Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) looked to ancient Greece and Rome, and sought to revive the languages, values and intellectual traditions of those cultures after a long period of stagnation.

In painting, proto-Renaissance refers to the development of a new realism for depicting the human body, most notably, in the work of the Florentine Giotto di Bondone (ca. 1267-1337). His bodies look more three dimensional and his subjects are placed in space and location in a more convincing way. The display of emotions also reflect the influence of humanism that characterizes the Renaissance.

Giotto “Lamentation”

For a number of reasons, the Renaissance centered in Florence. Trade was an important part of the economy of northern regions of what is now Italy. As a city state, Florence grew more powerful and wealthy in the 14th century after securing Pisa as a port. With money and interaction amongst the various merchants and rulers, came the need to impress the neighbours–and the ability to pay for art.

And then there were the Medici.


They began as wool merchants but moved into banking to become bankers to most of present-day Europe, and thereby amassed staggering wealth. Although the Catholic Church remained a major patron of the arts during the Renaissance, works of art were increasingly commissioned by civil government, courts and wealthy individuals. During the 15th century, the Medici spent astronomical sums of money on architects and artists. Because they spent their money where they lived, artists flocked to Florence.

Artistic competition was another reason for artists to go to Florence. Florentines liked to hold competitions for commissions. One famous example was the 1400 competition to sculpt bronze doors for the Baptistery (part of the Cathedral complex). Anyone could enter and the winner would be awarded a very profitable commission. Artistic competitions recognized that artists had individual merit and could become famous. An artist was no longer regarded as a mere craftsman. Lorenzo Ghiberti (ca. 1378-1455) won the competition, beating out contemporaries such as the future architect of Il Duomo, Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446), and the young Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi, better known as Donatello (ca. 1386-1466). The possibilities for such success made going to Florence the equivalent of going to Hollywood.

Ghiberti “Sacrifice of Isaac”, the work entered for the competition

A major artist to emerge from Florence during this period was the painter Tommaso di Ser Giovanni di Simone, known as Masaccio (1401-1428). He painted for less than six years but was highly influential in the early Renaissance for the intellectual nature of his work and its degree of naturalism. He gets credited as painting the first Renaissance work using linear perspective, a system of creating an illusion of depth on a flat surface by making all parallel lines (orthogonals) converge in a single vanishing point on the composition’s horizon line.

Masaccio “Trinità” or “Holy Trinity”

From 1434 until 1494, the Medici, particularly Lorenzo “the Magnificent”, presided over a golden age for Florence. Pushed from power by a republican coalition in 1494, the Medici family spent years in exile but returned in 1512 to preside over another flowering of Florentine art seen in the many sculptures in the Piazza della Signoria.


By the end of the 15th century, three great masters–Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael–dominated the period known as the High Renaissance.

Leonardo (1452-1519) was the ultimate Renaissance man for the breadth of his intellect, interest and talent, and his expression of humanist and classical values. His best-known works showcase his unparalleled ability to portray light and shadow, as well as the physical relationship between figures and the landscape around them.

madonna of the rocks

Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) was the dominant sculptor of the High Renaissance drawing on the human body for inspiration and creating works on a vast scale.


Raffaello Sanzio or Raphael (1483-1520), the youngest of the three, learned from both da Vinci and Michelangelo to skillfully express the classical ideals of beauty, serenity and harmony.

“La Belle Jardinière”

Over the course of the 15th and 16th centuries, the spirit of the Renaissance spread throughout Italy and into France, northern Europe and Spain. Venice was particularly important as artists such as Giorgio Barbarelli da Castelfranco known as Giorgione (1477/78-1510) and Tiziano Vecelli or Titian (1488/90-1576) further developed painting in oil directly on canvas; the technique of oil painting allowed the artist to rework an image­–which fresco painting on plaster did not–and it would dominate Western art to the present day.

Giorgione “Sleeping Venus”
Titian “Venus of Urbino”

Painting in Early and High Renaissance Venice is largely grouped around the Bellini family: Jacopo, the father (ca. 1396-1470), Giovanni (ca. 1430-1516) and Gentile (ca. 1429-1507), his sons, and Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506), a brother-in-law to Giovanni and Gentile. Giorgione may have trained in the Bellini workshop and Titian apprenticed there as a boy. They developed a Venetian style of painting characterized by deep, rich colours, an emphasis on patterns and surfaces, and depiction of the effects of light.

Giovanni Bellini “Virgin and Child and Four Saints”

In the Late Renaissance, Titian’s mastery was rivaled by Jacopo Tintoretto (1518-1594) and Paolo Caliari known as Veronese (1528-1588). Each attempted to out-paint the other with increasingly dynamic and sensual subjects for local churches and international patrons.

veronese mars venus
Veronese “Mars and Venus”
Tintoretto “Origin of the Milky Way”

Venice also was home to the most influential Renaissance architect, Andrea Palladio (1508-1580), whose work was strongly based on the symmetry, perspective and values of the formal classical temple architecture of the Ancient Greeks and Romans. His interpretation was adapted as the style known as Palladian. Despite the small area of Venice and the Veneto mainland where his buildings are to be found, his ideas were spread through his writings. Most art history experts consider him to be one of the most influential architects in history.

villa rotonda
Villa Capra “La Rotonda”

By the later 1500s, the Mannerist style, with its emphasis on artificiality, had developed in opposition to the idealized naturalism of High Renaissance art. Mannerism spread from Florence and Rome to become the dominant style in Europe.

But Renaissance art continues to be celebrated in no small part because of the book written by Florentine artist Giorgio Vasari, “Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects” (1550), which essentially invented art history. His book was biased in favour of Florentine artists, and often inaccurate, but its influence was enormous. Vasari saw the High Renaissance as the culmination of all art, a popular view still held by many today.

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