Early Renaissance Art

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The chaotic 14th century, characterized at its outset by the onset of the "Little Ice Age" (scroll to 37:00) that caused crop failure and subsequent famine all across Europe, transformed European economic, social, and political structures. The catastrophic bubonic plague pandemic, the 100 Years War, the Avignon Papacy, the Great Schism of the West, the spread of lay piety and heresy, and peasants' revolts all contributed to the dramatic changes that marked the era. In addition, two other trends merit note: one was the spread of vernacular literature, as seen in the writings of Petrarch, Dante, and Boccaccio, in Italy, Chaucer in England, Francois Villon in France; Out of the Flames makes the spread of literacy, the invention of the printing press, and dissemination of books a major theme of this period. The second, and the focus of these pages, was the explosion of artistic creativity that swept Italy, originating in Florence, then spreading across the peninsula, over the Alps, and to the rest of Europe. A new "vernacular"--perspective--revolutionized painting as did the rediscovery of the classics.

Good summary of Plague and influence on art ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sw771FW6ljo >
more Little Ice Age < https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LObn2Sk7tVg >

Eugen Weber's The Western Tradition
Scroll to episode #25--"The Renaissance and the Age of Discovery

< http://www.learner.org/vod/vod_window.html?pid=843 >


GIOTTO Di Bondone (1266 [?] - 1337)

Giotto's dates make him an almost exact contemporary of Dante, the great precursor in developing the Florentine vernacular. Breaking from medieval traditions of anonymity, Giotto revelled in success and fame; he wanted credit for his achievements and was among the first artists to sign his work. Scorning a life of poverty, he wrote, "'Poverty is not commendable, it leads the world to evil, judges to corruption, maidens to dishonor and men in general to violence and lying...'" (Batterberry 24).


Trained in Byzantine tradition, Giotto endeavored to paint from life rather than relying on old stereotypes or symbols; he lent new realistic and emotional vitality to familiar Biblical stories. His impact was enormous: Dante called him "...the best of artists" (Batterberry 22). Giotto reflected the growing interest in naturalism, in addition to his familiarity with Gothic sculptural forms (Tansey 634). Though influenced by themes and trends of his own era, Giotto ranks as the "father of Western pictorial art" (634). Painting in the familiar medium of fresco, Giotto's most famous efforts lay in his series known as "The Life of Christ" in the Arena Chapel in Padua. Enrico Scrovegni commissioned Giotto to decorate his private chapel with scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary and of the life, Passion, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of Christ. The panel ( left) is variously entitled "Lamentation," "Pieta," "Descent from the Cross." The Virgin cradles Christ in her arms while Mary Magdalene cradles his feet. The recent hoo-haw over The Da Vinci Code adds a frisson of interest to a redefined view of Mary Magdalene.


< http://www.artunframed.com/giotto.htm >


Giotto was a revolutionary. Art historians comment that he "inaugurated a firm method of pictorial experiment through observations...initiating an age that might be called 'early scientific'" (Tansey 635). Tansey continued, "Giotto is more than an imitator [of nature]; he reveals nature in the process of observing it and divining its visible order" (635). Like other Renaissance artists, Giotto was accomplished in many areas. He is credited with drawing the plans for the Campanile in Florence. Brunelleschi and Donatello continued the groundbreaking artistic revolution begun by Giotto.


Florence emerged as the home of a stupendous outpouring of the visual arts based on, stimulated by, and supported by a "vast accumulation of wealth..." and civic pride (Tansey 680). The Medici family--wool merchants, bankers and patrons of the arts--played a leading role in the Florentine Renaissance. Cosimo and his grandson Lorenzo epitomized Renaissance humanism; Lorenzo "gathered about him a galaxy of artists and gifted men in all fields...revitalizing his academy for the instruction of artists...and lavishing funds...on splendid buildings, festivals, and pageants" (680).


BRUNELLESCHI (1377 - 1446)

A Florentine like Giotto, Brunelleschi was a Renaissance jack-of-all trades with wide-ranging interests in archaeology, engineering, optics, drawing, painting, architecture, woodcarving, mechanics, and gold- and silver-smithing. In 1400, he competed with Ghiberti to design low relief bronze decorations for the doors to the Baptistry in Florence. The contestants (including Brunelleschi and Ghiberti) were assigned the subject of Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac. Ghiberti and Brunelleschi emerged as finalists, with Ghiberti winning the commission.


Brunelleschi's design, though vigorous and realistic, failed to earn him the commission. Apparently the judges found it too busy and complex, with the donkey distracting from Isaac and Abraham. Brunelleschi worked in secret, creating a dramatic panel "portraying both Abraham and the angel in histrionic and even violent poses above the contorting figure of Isaac" (King 19). A disgruntled Brunelleschi set off for Rome with Donatello to engage in an enthusiastic study of antiquity. Although he never earned fame or fortune as a painter, Brunelleschi devised the rules of "linear perspective as the principle of rational distribution of architectural elements in space..." (Batterberry 60). To put it another way, he learned how "to create scientifically the illusion of reality in the sense of depth in space" (Batterberry 60). He codified how to portray three dimensions on a flat surface. Vasari, the biographer of many of the Quattrocento artists called him, "'...a genius so commanding that we can surely say he was sent by heaven to renew the art of architecture'" (Batterberry 60).


< http://www.wga.hu/frames-e.html?/html/b/brunelle/abraham.html >



An additional word or two about the Ghiberti v. Brunelleschi contest: the judges found Ghiberti's design (left) more graceful and less violent than Bunelleschi's. Ghiberti's Abraham seems less likely to stab his son. "The figure of Isaac, beautifully posed and rendered, recalls Greco-Roman statuary and could be regarded as the first really classicizing nude since antiquit." (Tansey 681). In his autobiography, Ghiberti bragged that he won the competition, "'without a single dissenting voice'" (King 20). Brunelleschi's biographer told it differently. Ghiberti anticipates the later Renaissance fascination with the male nude. After Ghiberti won the competition for the east doors (later termed the "Gates of Paradise" by Michelangelo) of the Baptistry in Florence, he went on to complete a second set of doors while Brunelleschi labored over the dome of Florence's cathedral. The unforeseen result of Ghiberti's victory was that afterwards, Brunelleschi went on to concentrate on architecture.


< http://easyweb.easynet.co.uk/giorgio.vasari/ghiberti/pic1.htm >
Brunelleschi studied Roman ruins and understood of the principles of their construction. Most famous as an architect, he solved the "engineering problem that no other 15th century architect could have solved--the design and construction of a dome for the huge crossing of the unfinished cathedral of Florence" (Tansey 690). Once again, Brunelleschi competed with his perennial rival Ghiberti over the commission, essentially tricking or manipulating Ghiberti out of the picture (see Brunelleschi's Dome for details.) "With exceptional ingenuity, Brunelleschi not only discarded traditional building methods and devised new ones, but he also invented much of the machinery that was necessary for the job" (690). In this and other works, he incorporated classical motifs, with a new emphasis on balance, harmony, and mathematical use of space.

< http://www.uic.edu/depts/ahaa/classes/ah111/imagebank.html >
If you are interested in seeing other of Brunelleschi's designs, such as the Pazzi Chapel or the Hospital of the Innocents, try a google search using the image option. The silk merchants' guild awarded Brunelleschi the commission for a foundling hospital for abandoned infants confirming that the "little ice age" brought hard times to Europe in the 15th century.

DONATELLO (1386 - 1466)

Donatello, also a Florentine, was too young to compete with Ghiberti and Brunelleschi for the Baptistry doors, but he earned fame as a sculptor who also worked in bronze. He went with Brunelleschi to Rome. "A new realism based on the study of hmanity and nature, an idealism found in the study of Classical forms, and a power of individual expression characteristic of genius are the elements that define the art and the personality of...Donatello" (Tansey 683). He "...defined and claimed as his province the whole terrain of naturalistic and Humanistic art" (683).

Before the trip to Rome, Donatello made a name for himself as a sculptor under the patronage of Cosimo d'Medici, for whom he created the stunningly beautiful, revolutionary "David." Donatello's "David" was the first free-standing nude created since classical antiquity (Batterberry 66-7). It was daring: David's nakedness shocked many as did Donatello's depiction of the future King of Israel as a young Greek god. According to Tansey, Donatello "reinvented the Classical nude..." (688) and did for sculpture what Brunelleschi did for architecture: fuse the rediscovered ideas of classical balance, harmony, and a man-centered use of space with familiar religious themes and subjects. He captured an essential, vigorous, and spiritual vitality in his works.

< http://www.whyimright.net/blog/archives/david-thumb.jpg >


The sculptures of "John the Baptist" (near right) and "Mary Magdalene" (far right)reveal the many dimensions of Donatello's art as well as his continuing recourse to Biblical themes, even during Florence's love affair with the classics. "Mary Magdalene" (1454-1455) illustrates yet another dimension to his art: "...his style changes... [to] an intensely personal kind of expression...with purposeful exaggeration and distortion." (Tansey 689) Here, instead of the classically harmonious or beautiful, Donatello seems deliberately to "jar the sensibilities; he give us the ugly, the painful, and the violent." (689) "Mary Magdalene" appears in her old age, an emaciated repentant in an almost medieval rendering of piety.


Donatello's "John the Baptist" http://www.kfki.hu/~arthp/art/d/donatell/3_late/2john_2.jpg

Donatello's "Mary Magdalene" http://www.kfki.hu/~arthp/art/d/donatell/3_late/3magda_1.jpg

Very much a man of his own time, Donatello illustrated in "Judith Slaying Holofernes" a Renaissance interest in politics; according to one author, this statue in particular "symbolized the Florentines' love of liberty and hatred of tyranny." (Kishlansky, et al. 330-331.) According to Biblical tradition, Judith saved Jerusalem from the Assyrians by sneaking into the tent of the Assyrian king Holofernes, where--with the help of her maidservant--she beheaded him with his own sword. Donatello translated the "bold and muscular torsos" of classical sculpture into his own naturalistic style. He was skilled in portrayal of the human form (see "David" above) but equally adept in sculpting robes or clothing. "'Judith Slaying Holofernes' is an outstanding example of Donatello's use of geometric proportion and perspective. Each side of the piece captures a different vision of Judith in action." (Kishlansky, et al. 330).

< http://gallery.euroweb.hu/art/d/donatell/3_late/1judith1.jpg >
"Zuccone" also illustrates Donatello's mastery of his craft. In addition, "Zuccone," thought to be the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk, indicates how Donatello identified Biblical heroes with the great orators and leaders of the classical past. (Janson 176-177). By 1425 when he sculpted "Zuccone" (or "Pumpkinhead,") Donatello was already experimenting with distortion to convey powerful emotion.

< http://www.wga.hu/frames-e.html?/d/donatell/1_early/duomo/index.html >

In February, 2015, New York's Museum of Biblical Art offered an exhibit,
"Sculpture in the Age of Donatello." Visit link to read review and see slide show.

< http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/20/arts/design/review-donatello-in-a-valedictory-show-at-the-museum-of-biblical-art.html?ref=design&_r=0# >



In the Quattrocento or 1400's, Italian art came into its own. The so-called "Big Three" of Italian Renaissance art--Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Raphael--are certainly the most well-known, but others, too numerous to discuss here in detail, warrant mention: Fra Angelico, Fra Filippo Lippi, Paolo Uccello, are just a few whose names come to mind. One, Masaccio merits a special look.


MASACCIO (1400 -1428 )

Tommaso "Masaccio" Guidi ("Messy Tom") moved to Florence as a young man where he joined the painters' guild. He was profoundly influenced first by Giotto's monumental style and then by Brunelleschi's formulation of the laws of linear perspective and inclusion of classical architectural elements. He immediately incorporated them in his work (not shown here, a "Crucifixion" and "Holy Trinity" in Pisa--go to Google > image to view) Vasari wrote of him, "'...it was Masaccio who perceived that the best painters follow nature as closely as possible.... [H]e produced work that is living, realistic and natural.'" (Batterberry 71) His most famous frescoes are "The Life of St. Peter" in the Brancacci Chapel in Florence, completed around 1426. Like many frescoes painted in the medieval and Renaissance periods, Masaccio's "Life of St. Peter" was didactic: to instruct the illiterate in the stories of the faith and lives of the saints. "No other painter in history is known to have contributed so much to the development of a new style in so short a time as Masaccio...." (Tansey 695)


"The Tribute Money" tells the story of the tax collector (center) demanding money from Christ and the disciples. Christ both looks and points to the left, drawing the eye of the beholder to Peter (a fisherman by trade) taking coins from the mouth of a fish, as instructed by Christ (Matthew 17:27); on the far right, Peter pays the "tribute" to the tax collector. Masaccio rooted his visual narrative in both his 15th century present with obvious allusions to the classical past: Masaccio dresses the tax collector (seen twice) in "modern" attire and paints his own face on one of the apostles.


For a much larger rendering of "The Tribute Money," go to

In both "The Tribute Money" panel from "The Life of St. Peter" and "Expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden," Masaccio gives reality, volume, weight, and seriousness to his figures. Pope Martin V, recently restored to Rome after the Council of Constance, called Masaccio to participate in the restoration and beautification of his and western Christendom's capital. Masaccio journeyed to Rome where, according to legend, he was either poisoned or killed in a street brawl in 1428--a brilliant career cut short by the violence of 15th century Rome. "Masaccio's figures recall Giotto's in their sinmple grandeur, but they stand before us with a psychological and moral self-realization that is entirely new." (Tansey 696) Here, Adam and Eve "...stumble on blindly, driven by the will of the angel and their own despair. The composition is starkly simple, its message incomparably eloquent." (697) In Masaccio's original version, the fig leaves are absent.

< http://idbsu.edu/courses/hy309/pics/pics.htm >
Masaccio's frescoes " in the Branccaci Chapel in Florence were studied and sketched by all of the great artists of the next generation, who unreservedly praised his naturalism." They also praised his "shading of light and shadow and his brilliant use of linear perspective to create the illusion...[of]...three dimensions." (Kishlansky, et al. 331) Masaccio's use of light and shadow anticipates the sophistication of High Renaissance artists. His "...chiaroscuro [the interplay of light and shadow] gives the illusion of deep sculptural relief. Between the extremes of light and dark, the light is a constantly active but fluctuating force....; few painters between Masaccio and Leonardo...have so realistically created the illusion of space as a substance of light and air existing between our eyes and what we see." (Tansey 696)


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Background. Ruskin, Ariane. "Raphael's 'The School of Athens.'" Art of the High Renaissance. New York et al.: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1968

Artunframed, 2001.

Batterberry, Michael. Art of the Early Renaissance. New York, et al.: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1968.

Curzio, Michael. "Art across the Ages: the Slaying of Holofernes." Modern World History Art Web Quest. 1996-2001. Online Available.

Grishin, Sasha. "Abraham's Sacrifice of His Son Isaac." Art History and Film Studies. Canberra: Australian National University.
Online Available. < http://www.anu.edu.au/ArtHistory/renart/pics.art/0200/20043.JPG

Hales, Peter Bacon. "Brunelleschi's Dome." The Art History Image Base. Online Available.

Janson, H. W. History of Art for Young People. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, 1983.

King, Ross. Brunelleschi's Dome. New York, et al.: Penguin Books, 2000.

Kren, Emil and Daniel Marx. Web Gallery of Art. Oneline Available.
< http://www.wga.hu/index1.html >

Kishlansky, Mark, et al. Civilization in the West. New York: HarperCollins College Publishers, 1995.

Museo Virtuele Estética. Universidad del Norte. (this site has flown away)

Tansey, Richard and Fred Kleiner. Gardner's Art through the Ages, vol. ii, 10th edition.
Fort Worth, et al.: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1996.