Learning and understanding about Italian art and architecture is one of my favorite areas to do as an expat in Italy. The Renaissance was a period of artistic and scientific growth that began in Italy during the 14th Century and lasted until the 17th Century; having transformed the entire cultural landscape of the European continent. This huge leap forward in scientific and engineering understanding catapulted Europe from the stagnating Middle Ages into the modern era and left an astounding legacy to future generations.
Following the scientific and artistic explorations of the Renaissance, Europe’s economic and scientific development continued at breakneck speed through the Edwardian and Victorian periods during which the Industrial Revolution set the stage for the advancements of the 20th Century.
In this way, the Renaissance is often seen as one of the most crucial periods in modern history that led to enormous improvements in the living standards of people of all socio-economic classes in the West.
However, as with all revolutionary movements, it was spearheaded by individual geniuses who were lucky enough to live in a time when their efforts were rewarded by wealthy patrons and supported by governmental structures that oversaw the economic life of their societies.
Florence – The Birthplace Of The Italian Renaissance.
The Renaissance was born in Florence, on the Italian Peninsula, although the ideas and concepts it spawned quickly spread to Tuscany’s neighboring city states. These city states were dominated by a wealthy and powerful merchant class who often patronized the upcoming artists, scientists and engineers for both cultural and economic reasons.
This created the perfect environment for the Renaissance painters who became the rock stars of their day! These artists were usually connected with a particular royal court or merchant family; however they also travelled extensively within Italy, teaching their new methods and philosophies, and spreading the Renaissance further afield.
The 4 Main Periods Of The Italian Renaissance.
In the history of art, painting in the Italian Renaissance is traditionally divided into 4 main periods. These periods are only loose definitions and do not cover every element of the Renaissance painters or the styles that they used but these categories are still helpful to understand the overall trends of the era.
- 1300-1425 AD : The Proto-Renaissance Period.
- 1425-1495 AD : The Early Renaissance Period.
- 1495-1520 AD : The High Renaissance Period.
- 1520-1600 AD : The Mannerism Period.
The Periods Before And After The Renaissance.
Although the Renaissance period is traditionally defined as stretching from the 13th Century to the 17th Century, it should be understood that these delineations are not particularly strict, since artistic styles evolve almost seamlessly into one another through the centuries.
Therefore, there are overlapping dates between the artistic periods because some artists continued to use the old styles while others pioneered the new techniques and methods. Nonetheless, the categorization of the major periods in the history of art are still useful for creating a mental framework in which the overall process of evolution can be understood.
The artistic periods before and after the Renaissance include these main categories:
- 500-1400 AD : The Medieval Period.
- 1300-1425 : The Proto-Renaissance Period.
- 1400-1600 : The Renaissance Period.
- 1600-1750 : The Baroque Period.
- 1700-1780 : The Rococo Period.
- 1750-1850 : The Neoclassical Period.
Main Characteristics of Renaissance Painting.
The Renaissance saw a flourishing of new techniques as well as the revival of traditional concepts that had almost been lost in the previous few hundred years. For instance, there was a huge revival in the classical Roman and Greek styles of art and geometry; which emphasized harmony and balance.
There were significant new concepts that emerged during the Renaissance; the most significant of which was a new faith in ‘humanism’, or the nobility of mankind as distinct from the divine. This was an idea that could never have flourished in the previous centuries due to the strict dogmas of the early church that dominated Italian and European culture during the Middle Ages.
The painters of the Renaissance also mastered new illusionistic techniques which gave their works a hyper-realistic depth which stunned their audiences and patrons. They used techniques such as foreshortening and carefully calculated geometrically accurate linear perspectives to give their paintings an extremely realistic appearance that contrasted with more symbolic art of the Medieval Period.
Renaissance paintings also tended towards portraying their subjects, and their faces, in a realistic way. This made it far easier for the viewers of the artist’s work to connect on an emotional level with the subjects of their paintings, even if they were important Biblical figures or Saints.
In short, the Renaissance painters looked to the past to resurrect the best elements of the classical Roman and Greek art while inventing a whole new series of stunning techniques and methods to bring their creations to life in a hyper-realistic manner. Together, these two main approaches transformed the world of art and the way that viewers connected with the subjects of the artwork, usually Biblical figures or scenes inspired by myths and legends.
The Most Important Italian Renaissance Painters.
It is somewhat unfair to list the most important renaissance painters. Most of us are familiar with the famous names, but there are plenty of others who are great painters but their work is less known and many others who worked with the famous painters and played a key role behind the scenes.
Leonardo da Vinci.
Possibly the most famous artist to have ever lived, Leonardo da Vinci was born in Tuscany in 1452; and after a brief period of formal education it was realized that he had an astounding natural talent for drawing and art. At the age of 12 he had already mastered a wide range of artistic disciplines that ranged from sculpting to metalwork and draftsmanship.
Da Vinci had an incredible talent for capturing realistic facial expressions in his drawings and sculptures and by the mid 1470s he was receiving many commissions from local merchants who wanted to decorate their estates with his work.
His big break came when he began working for the Duke of Milan, for whom he produced some of his most famous masterpieces including the Last Supper. However, this patronage wasn’t to last, and after the Duke of Milan was overthrown and lost his seat of power Da Vinci returned to his home in Florence. It was here that he started painting the Mona Lisa; the world’s most famous painting that is estimated to be worth $850 million when inflation is taken into account! The Mona Lisa in my view is not Da Vinci’s best work. It became world famous for the most part because the painting was stolen from the Louvre in 1911 by an Italian immigrant. Two years later the painting was recovered and the French started regarding it as a national treasure (during the search Pablo Picasso was once arrested as a suspect).
In 2017, another one of Da Vinci’s paintings, the ‘Salvator Mundi’, or ‘Savior of the World’ in English, sold for over $450 million, making it the most expensive painting ever sold. As Da Vinci’s career went on he turned more and more of his energies towards scientific studies and he eventually died in 1519, aged 67.
Michelangelo Buonarotti was one of the multi talented geniuses of the Renaissance who was a poet, painter, sculptor and an architect. Michelangelo’s main focus throughout his career was sculpting although he was also happy to paint commissions for his patrons.
His talents as an artist were noticed early and by the age of 14 he was already working in a professional capacity. He went on to work for Lorenzo de’ Medici who was the ruler of Florence at the time, before he left to work on other projects elsewhere in Italy.
Michelangelo’s most famous work of art is the fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, which is a must see for any visitor to Rome. He began work on the Sistine Chapel in 1508 and it took almost 4 years for him to complete.
However, his sculpture of David, which has stood in pride of place in the Accademia Gallery of Florence since 1873, is also hugely renowned in artistic circles. Michelangelo is also well known for his moving sculptures of the Madonna.
Raphael Sanzio was born in 1483 and after a short but prolific career he died in mysterious circumstances, at the age of just 37! Despite his early demise he produced a huge amount of work in his studio which had 50 pupils under his tutelage at its peak.
The vast majority of Raphael’s work is religious in nature and was commissioned directly by the Catholic Church and the Pope in Rome. Raphael was also hired as an architect by the Pope to design palaces for the church, although he did return to Florence throughout his career, where he painted his famous series of works of the Madonna’s.
Sadly, due to his early death, many of his best works were left unfinished, including his painting of the Transfiguration. This means that even though he was extremely talented one can only wonder what he might have been capable of achieving if he had lived for a few more decades.
Born in 1386 in Florence, Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi, or Donatello for short, originally started his career as a goldsmith’s apprentice. Following this, he went on to work as an apprentice for Lorenzo Ghiberti as a sculpture and metal worker. As his talents were noticed he was commissioned to make the impressive bronze doors of the Florence Cathedral, a highly prestigious commission that was a great boost to his career.
Following this success, in 1443 he was commissioned to create a monument in Padua although his most famous sculpture is the statue of David. This statue of David is housed in the Museo Nazionale del Bargello in Florence and is remarkable for its beauty but also for the fact that it was the first example of a freestanding bronze cast statue during the Renaissance era.
Throughout his career Donatello made use of a Gothic style of linear perspective which he combined with the latest trends of the Renaissance era; creating a huge body of work that is highly emotional, depicting the full range of suffering and joy in the dramatic moments of life.
Born in 1445 in Florence, Sandro Botticelli is one of the most famous painters of the era who primarily worked on religious topics; although he also produced some powerful works that were based on mythological and legendary scenarios. Botticelli began his career as an apprentice for a goldsmith until later he apprenticed with Fra Filippa to learn about painting frescoes.
Following his apprenticeship he painted frescoes for the churches of Tuscany and earned an excellent reputation throughout Italy. As a result he was commissioned by the Pope to create frescoes for the Sistine Chapel; although this was the only occasion during which he was working outside his hometown of Florence.
Botticelli had a tragic end after the fall of his Florentine patrons. Following the overthrow of the Medici, Botticelli fell into depression and lived in isolation until he died in 1510.
Born in 1488, Tiziano Vicelli, or Titian, was sent at the age of 10 to apprentice as a painter in Venice. After his talents were noticed he also apprenticed with Giovani Bellini, a master painter of the time.
Together with his teacher, Titian was commissioned to paint frescoes which were mostly religious or mythological in the nature of their subjects. After Bellini’s death Titian founded the Venetian School of Renaissance painting and was considered the leading artist of Venice for nearly 60 years.
One of his most famous paintings is Danae, which is part of his series of works in which his use of bright, vibrant colors really stands out as a perfect example of his trademark techniques. In 1576, aged 88, he succumbed and died from the Bubonic plague having revolutionized the art of Venice over his long and successful career.
Born in 1518, Jacopo Robusti, or Tintoretto as he was known, started his career as an apprentice for Titian although he was thrown out by his teacher after only a few days! No one knows the reason for Titian’s rejection of Tintoretto but following this shock he didn’t lose hope and studied on his own using Michelangelo’s art for inspiration!
His hard work paid off and eventually, in 1540, Tintoretto was commissioned by the church to paint religiously themed scenes and frescoes. Following the death of Titian, his nemesis, Tintoretto rose to become the leading painter in Venice.
Tintoretto’s most famous work is a narrative drama with strict perspectives that is called Paradise, which is an amazing 74×35 feet in size, making it the largest canvas painting of the Renaissance!
Tintoretto continued to work in Venice until he died in 1594 at the age of 76 from a sudden, unknown illness.
Born in Florence in 1265, Giotto di Bondane, was a Proto-Renaissance architect and painter that helped to pioneer what would become known as the Renaissance. He was an incredibly talented artist who broke away from the Byzantine style of his times and began to use more naturalistic representations of his subjects.
Giotto’s most famous work was completed in 1305 in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. His fresco in the Scrovegni Chapel shows the Life of the Virgin Mary and the Life of Christ and is widely considered to be a masterpiece of the early Renaissance, or the Proto-Renaissance era.
Giotto was also commissioned to design the bell tower of the Florence Cathedral but there is a great deal of controversy about other works that he may or not have done. He is said to have completed the frescoes in the Basilica of Saint Francis, in nearby Assisi, although this is not certain. Even the exact dates of his birth and death are uncertain but it is thought that he died in 1337.
The Italian Renaissance Painters Left A Lasting Legacy.
There have been few periods in the history of art that have had such a lasting impact on the modern world as the Italian Renaissance that began in Florence in the 13th Century. Not only did the Renaissance transform the artistic culture of Europe but it also impacted the sciences, engineering and philosophy; helping all areas of society to evolve into the coming Industrial Revolution and the 20th Century.
Therefore, it’s little wonder that many of the most valuable paintings in the world were painted during the Italian Renaissance. However, even if you can’t afford to pay several hundred million dollars for a genuine work you can still visit the museums of Italy, and Europe, to see the fantastic collections for yourself!