Renaissance Art (1400 -1500)


Michelangelo’s Pietà, sculptured in 1499, St Peter’s Basilica Rome

For most of us, art as we know it began during the Renaissance period. This is the period when artists discoverd how to paint in a manner that made a flat surface look three dimensional, with depth, shadows and a sense of reality.

For people living in the Renaissance period, art was suddenly as realistic as photographs are to us today. Renaissance literally means ‘rebirth’. This rebirth occured in Italy during the 14th and 15th centuries when Italy was quite a wealthy society.

Cities such as Florence and Siena were flourishing banking and commercial centers with global trade, and art was being funded by the Medici family of Florence, the Sforza family of Milan, and with Rome at the center of the Catholic Church, support came from Popes Julius II and Leo X.

Initially, Renaissance artists were determined to move away from religion and turn their attention to the individual man and woman in society. It was a time when individual expression and worldly experience became two of the main themes of Renaissance art. 

Leonardo da Vinci was the archetypal Renaissance man. He painted, he was a scientest, an inventor, a sculptor and unfortunately for us, he was also a dreamer. Many of his best works were so experimental that they have barely survived – but he was an artistic genius without a doubt.

Michelangelo (Buonarroti) and Raphael on the other hand, worked at their craft in a job like manner, producing works regarded for centuries as embodying the classical notion of perfection.

michelangelo DavidMichelangelo’s ‘David’ or his ‘Pietà’ (at the top of the page) are a high point in Renaissance sculpture, and his ultimate appointment as chief architect on the final phases of St Peters Basilica in Rome when in his 70’s, must stand as testimony to both his architectural and artistic genius.

If you ever have the opportunity to see ‘David’ – housed in Florence – you should bear in mind that this statue has spent centuries in the rain, was sculptured by a 24 year old, and centuries on, it still puts most modern art to shame.

That’s the level that Renaissance artists were at, and why this period in art and self discovery is so important.

Other Renaissance architects included Alberti, Brunelleschi – of Duomo fame – and Bramante whose works are dotted throughout Florence.

 Florence remained an important centre for the Renaissance into the 16th century eventually to be overtaken by Rome and Venice.

Some of the ideas of the Italian Renaissance did spread to other parts of Europe, most notably the ‘Northern Renaissance’ epitomised by the works of artist Jan Van Eyck.

By the 1520’s, Renaissance ideas had developed into a movement known as Mannerism – an artform characterised by complex composition, with muscular and elongated figures in complex poses.

Much of Michelangelos and Titians work also belongs to this period.


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