Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, 1484-1485
Art,  English,  History

The Renaissance: the rebirth of art, knowledge, and culture

The text below is the excerpt of the book Renaissance Paintings (ISBN: 9781683257035), written by Victoria Charles, published by Parkstone International.

For the entire European economy, the Renaissance was a decisive period. In the 15th century great European families like the Medici from Florence pushed international commerce. Parallel to the increase of fortunes resulting from this trade, art experienced a new time of opulence, especially thanks to the new innovative techniques and the materials which it disposed of. In the 1440s Johannes Gutenberg developed the movable-type printing press, a more efficient and less expensive method than xylography. At the same time, painters set egg based tempera painting aside and orientated towards oils. Filippo Brunelleschi discovered the principles of perspective, a revolutionary method allowing him to overcome the lack of depth found in medieval art by simulating a three-dimensional space. Finally, in 1452, a man was born who is would eternally incarnate the typical Renaissance scholar: humanist, scientist and artist Leonardo da Vinci.

Sandro Botticelli (Alessandro di Mariano Filipepi), Madonna of the Book, c. 1483, Renaissance Paintings
Sandro Botticelli (Alessandro di Mariano Filipepi), Madonna of the Book, c. 1483. Tempera on wood panel, 58 x 39.5 cm. Museo Poldi Pezzoli, Milan.

The 16th century marks the heyday of the Renaissance. It begins with the two main catalysts of Protestant Reformation: the Ninety-Five Theses by Martin Luther in 1517, and John Calvin’s intention to reform the church. These movements result in the formation of Protestantism, which focuses on personal belief rather than ecclesiastical doctrine. The invention of the printing press in the previous century had made the Bible accessible to everybody; knowledge of the Scriptures was a main characteristic of the Reformation. At the same time, in the 1530s, the English Reformation, initiated by Henry VIII, leads to a break with Rome, resulting in the separation of the Anglican Church. In these tumultuous times the Catholic Church reacts with extreme measures to regain control over religious belief through the Holy Office of the Inquisition and the Council of Trent (1545-1563) which launches the Counter-Reformation.

Fra Bartolomeo, Vision of St Bernard, c. 1505, Renaissance Paintings
Fra Bartolomeo, Vision of St Bernard, c. 1505. Oil on panel, 220 x 213 cm. Galleria dell’Accademia, Florence.

Creator of numerous talents, the Renaissance offered the history of art great names such as Botticelli, Raphael, and Leonardo da Vinci, whose glorious masterpieces still today hang on the walls of museums the world over.

Major Artists

Fra Angelico (Fra Giovanni da Fiesole) (born in Vicchio di Mugello in 1395 – died in Rome in 1455)

Secluded within cloister walls, a painter and a monk, and brother of the order of the Dominicans, Angelico devoted his life to religious paintings.

Little is known of his early life except that he was born at Vicchio, in the broad fertile valley of the Mugello, not far from Florence, that his name was Guido de Pietro and that he passed his youth in Florence, probably in some bottega (atelier), for at twenty he was recognised as a painter. In 1418 he entered in a Dominican convent in Fiesole with his brother. They were welcomed by the monks and, after a year’s novitiate, admitted to the brotherhood, Guido taking the name by which he was known for the rest of his life, Fra Giovanni da Fiesole; for the title of Angelico, the “Angel,” or Il Beato, “The Blessed,” was conferred on him after his death.

Fra Angelico (Fra Giovanni da Fiesole), Noli Me Tangere (cell 1), 1440-1441, Renaissance Paintings
Fra Angelico (Fra Giovanni da Fiesole), Noli Me Tangere (cell 1), 1440-1441. Fresco, 180 x 146 cm. Convento di San Marco, Florence.

Henceforth he became an example of two personalities in one man: he was all in all a painter, but also a devout brother; his subjects were always religious ones and represented in a deeply religious spirit, yet his devotion as a brother was no greater than his absorption as an artist. Consequently, though his life was secluded within the walls of the convent, he kept in touch with the art movements of his time and continually developed as a painter. His early work shows that he had learned of the illuminators who inherited the Byzantine traditions, and had been affected by the simple religious feeling of Giotto’s work.

Also influenced by Lorenzo Monaco and the Sienese School, he painted under the patronage of Cosimo de’ Medici. Then he began to learn of that brilliant band of sculptors and architects who were enriching Florence by their genius. Ghiberti was executing his pictures in bronze upon the doors of the Baptistery; Donatello, his famous statue of St George and the dancing children around the organ-gallery in the Cathedral; and Luca della Robbia was at work upon his frieze of children, singing, dancing and playing upon instruments. Moreover, Masaccio had revealed the dignity of form in painting. Through these artists the beauty of the human form and of its life and movement was being manifested to the Florentines and to the other cities. Angelico caught the enthusiasm and gave increasing reality of life and movement to his figures.

Fra Angelico (Fra Giovanni da Fiesole), The Deposition, c.1437-1440, Renaissance Paintings
Fra Angelico (Fra Giovanni da Fiesole), The Deposition (altarpiece of Santa Trinità at Florence, the three scenes in the tympanums have been depicted by Lorenzo Monaco), c. 1437-1440. Tempera on wood panel, 176 x 185 cm. Museo di San Marco, Florence.

Leonardo da Vinci (born in Vinci in 1452 – died in Le Clos-Lucé in 1519)

Leonardo’s early life was spent in Florence, his maturity in Milan, and the last three years of his life in France. Leonardo’s teacher was Verrocchio (1435/1436-1488). First he was a goldsmith, then a painter and sculptor: as a painter, representative of the very scientific school of draughtsmanship; more famous as a sculptor, being the creator of the Colleoni statue at Venice, Leonardo was a man of striking physical attractiveness, great charm of manner and conversation, and mental accomplishment. He was well grounded in the sciences and mathematics of the day, as well as a gifted musician. His skill in draughtsmanship was extraordinary; shown by his numerous drawings as well as by his comparatively few paintings. His skills are at the service of most minute observation and analytical research into the character and structure of form.

Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa (La Gioconda), c. 1503-1506, Renaissance Paintings
Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa (La Gioconda), c. 1503-1506. Oil on poplar wood, 77 x 53 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris.

Leonardo is the first of a series of great men who had the desire to create in a picture a kind of mystic unity brought about by the fusion of matter and spirit. Now that the Primitives had concluded their experiments, ceaselessly pursued during two centuries, by the conquest of the methods of painting, he was able to pronounce the words which served as a password to all later artists worthy of the name: painting is a spiritual thing, cosa mentale.

He completed Florentine draughtsmanship in applying to modelling by light and shade, a sharp subtlety which his predecessors had used only to give greater precision to their contours. This technique is called sfumato. This marvellous draughtsmanship, this modelling and chiaroscuro he used not solely to paint the exterior appearance of the body but, as no one before him had done, to cast over it a reflection of the mystery of the inner life. In the Mona Lisa and his other masterpieces he even used landscape not merely as a picturesque decoration, but as a sort of echo of that interior life and an element of a perfect harmony. Relying on the still novel laws of perspective this doctor of scholastic wisdom, who was at the same time an initiator of modern thought, substituted for the discursive manner of the Primitives the principle of concentration which is the basis of classical art.

Leonardo da Vinci, The Virgin and Child with St Anne, 1st quarter of the 16th century
Leonardo da Vinci, The Virgin and Child with St Anne, 1st quarter of the 16th century. Oil on poplar wood, 168 x 130 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris.

The picture is no longer presented to us as an almost fortuitous aggregate of details and episodes. It is an organism in which all the elements, lines and colours, shadows and lights, compose a subtle tracery converging on a spiritual, a sensuous centre. It was not with the external significance of objects, but with their inward and spiritual significance, that Leonardo was occupied. In addition to the Mona Lisa are his principal works: Mary, St. Anne and the child (1510), Virgin of the Rocks (1493) and The Last Supper (1495-1497).

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