When they want to sound really smart and rather cultured, historians refer to the quattrocento and Cinquecento, Italian for “1400s” and “1500s.” For many, art defined the Renaissance and it is easy to understand why. Much of the artwork epitomized the isms. Many classical themes, thinkers, and characters appeared in Renaissance art. Many features of Renaissance architecture mirrored that of the mighty Roman structures that once stood on the same land.
Changes in Artistic Techniques
Italian Renaissance artists, perhaps more than any other group, scoffed at the primitive, inferior Middle Ages. For Renaissance artists, art regressed after classical Greece and Rome went by the wayside. Classical Greek and Roman sculptures accentuated the beautiful bodies and glorified the achievements of heroes both mortal and immortal. The classic artists worked hard to create realistic works of art.
In contrast, medieval art placed basically no emphasis on realism and detail. Medieval artists painted flat, two-dimensional figures that frequently seemed out of proportion with everything else in the piece. Furthermore, subjects of medieval art included primarily religious icons, scenes from peasant life, or scenes from wars. Finally, the art often served a greater purpose: glorifying God or the Church but not the artist.
Beginning in the 1400s, the quattrocento, artists experimented with new techniques that would redefine art for the next half-millennium. First, artists experimented with new mediums. No longer were all paintings done on wood or as frescos, or paintings done on wet plaster. Innovative artists began using a new medium: canvas. Artists also experimented with a vast array of colors. For the most part, medieval artists used drab colors. Renaissance artists, however, made their work bold and bright. The Renaissance artists created a new “international style” that emphasized these bold new looks.
Two of the most significant techniques employed by Renaissance artists were the use of light and shadow and the use of perspective. Artists used perspective to give paintings depth. Rather than everything in a painting depicted as the same size, objects meant to be close were larger; smaller objects were farther away. Artists did this by creating a vanishing point in their paintings. In other words, everything in a given painting receded to a far-off single point.
The other watershed technique of Renaissance artists, called chiaroscuro or “light and dark” in Italian, gave an added third dimension to objects. By shading part of an object and lighting other parts, a Renaissance artist of great skill could make a painting come alive.
A wise man once said that art imitates life. Perhaps that wise man meant that Renaissance art imitated life. After all, the art of the Renaissance reflected the Renaissance isms. Humanist art depicted classical heroes and stories of classical lore, not to mention beautiful human bodies. Secularism showed in the works of artists who strayed from religious themes and the works of artists who used nudes in religious paintings. Individualism became more deeply rooted in Renaissance art every time an artist signed his name to a painting or won a huge commission as a result of some patron’s bidding war.
The Changing Status of the Artist
Most people have heard the term “starving artist.” While many modern artistic ideas actually can be traced back to the Renaissance, this term cannot. In fact, Renaissance artists, at least the great ones, achieved rock-star status. Wealthy individuals, princes, and even the Church became patrons or financial supporters of artists. The patrons commissioned portraits, paintings, sculptures, and buildings, and they paid handsomely. Usually the patrons used the art to flaunt their wealth and to one-up the neighbors. Popes did the same thing. They often felt they had to outdo the pope who came before by commissioning bigger projects by the greatest artists.
Regardless of the motives of the patrons, the creative genius and brilliant talents of history’s finest artists were not only recognized but richly rewarded. Many of the finest artists of the day trained under a master and spent years working for little or no recognition. For those who found independence, the reward very often was worth the wait.
The Hall of Fame
Though there were many wonderful and exciting artists of the Renaissance era, a few stood head and shoulders above the rest. Often considered the founder of the Renaissance style of painting, Masaccio (1401-1428) painted humans with a sense of realism. In his paintings, he used light from one source to create consistent shadows throughout. Masaccio also used perspective brilliantly.
A pioneer in mathematics and perspective, Brunelleschi (1377-1446) achieved legendary status when he engineered and constructed the dome of Florence Cathedral. He combined a feat of engineering with classical Roman form and Renaissance style.
Define Your Terms
The term Renaissance man over time has come to mean one who is talented in a variety of areas or skills. As in Castiglione's The Courtier, the ideal man should be skilled in such things including but not limited to art, rhetoric, riding, dancing, and more. Leonardo comes as close as any to being the true “Renaissance man."
As Masaccio pioneered painting, Donatello (1386-1466) pioneered Renaissance sculpting. His masterpiece in bronze, David, epitomized his style. Donatello created figures who stood with their weight on one leg while the rest of their body was relaxed. This style was known as contrapposto.
One of the most famous of all Renaissance artists, both then and now, was Leonardo da Vinci (14521519). Even though fewer than two dozen of Leonardo’s paintings exist today, Leonardo holds a high place in the Hall of Fame. Leonardo did more than paintings, though. He sketched thousands of pages of figures ranging in topic from anatomy to botany to wild inventions. Perhaps the crowning achievements of his career were the Mona Lisa and the fresco The Last Supper.
Define Your Terms
A fresco is a painting done on wet plaster.
Painter of the great School of Athens, Raphael (1483-1520) became a master at the tender age of 17. He did many works for the Vatican and grew incredibly popular not only with the patrons but with the ladies, too. Raphael’s works, especially School of Athens, embody the ideals of the Renaissance as well if not better than the works of any other Renaissance artist.
Would You Believe?
Michelangelo completed the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in 1512—four years after beginning work.
Considered by many to be the greatest artist of all time was Michelangelo (1475-1564). Lorenzo the Magnificent took Michelangelo under his wing and sponsored the young master. Michelangelo painted, sculpted, wrote, and more. As a painter, Michelangelo reached the status of “divine,” as he was sometimes called, when he completed the masterpiece of all masterpieces, the Sistine Chapel, for Pope Julius II.
As a sculptor, Michelangelo’s David and Pieta, both of which are highly detailed works in marble, did what no one else could—create emotional, lifelike beings from stone. Oddly, Michelangelo, for all his skill and wealth, lived alone and lonely, unlike other popular Renaissance artists.
The Printing Press
European texts prior to the Renaissance were almost exclusively manuscripts, or books written by hand. This was a tedious and time-consuming process that produced few and very expensive books. An alternative to handwritten texts existed in China for centuries prior to the Renaissance: the printing press. However, the Chinese press printed one page or one image at a time, so its versatility was severely limited. Europeans used this block-printing technique until the middle of the fifteenth century, when a German made an adjustment that was to change the world.
In the 1450s, a German goldsmith named Johann Gutenberg (1399-1468) employed his knowledge and skill in metalworking to fashion single letters and words out of metal, which could be combined in trays to form words and sentences. In other words, the printing press no longer had to be limited to a single page printed by a wooden block. Rather, the press could print countless combinations of words simply by rearranging the movable type.
Would You Believe?
One of the most famous manuscripts first produced by the movable type press was the Gutenberg Bible from 1455. Unfortunately for poor Johann, he was in such debt that he had to forfeit his press and his Bibles to Johann Fust, a moneylender to whom he was greatly in debt.
Gutenberg’s invention allowed books to be mass- produced in a fraction of the time and at a fraction of the cost of books copied by hand or printed by the block-printing technique. Almost overnight, books and other printed materials were mass-produced and disseminated throughout Europe.
The Effects of the Printing Press on Europe
The printing press made it possible for printed material to be distributed across Europe quickly and inexpensively. This had profound effects on all of Europe.
Having words, stories, and names printed the same way over and over again contributed greatly to the standardization of language in many countries. No longer was language at the mercy of someone writing everything by hand and possibly misspelling words or misusing grammar. This aided in making vernacular literature, or literature written in one’s native language rather than a language such as Latin, very popular. Because books were available to people in their own language, people read more than ever, and the literacy rate increased across Europe as a result.
Ideas that were printed spread quickly across Europe, ideas such as those upheld by Christianity. Many of the first documents printed on the movable type press were Christian texts, either Bibles or pamphlets dealing with Christian theology. Europeans consumed the printed word at an astonishing rate and ideas spread like wildfire.