Renaissance Humanism Artworks
The Most Important Art in Renaissance Humanism
Dome of Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore (Florence Cathedral) (1420-1436)
This photograph depicts the iconic octagonal dome of Florence Cathedral dominating the skyline of the city. A marvel of innovative engineering and design, constructed of over four million bricks, the dome became a symbol of Renaissance Humanism, its soaring buoyancy evoking classical proportion and mathematical order. At the same time, the red brick linked the era's "rebirth" with the tradition of Florentine stonework and the red emblem of the Medici. Viewed as rivaling the Roman Pantheon (113-115), the dome exemplified a new era of humanist values, as historian Paulo Galluzi wrote; "It unites technology and aesthetics in an astonishingly elegant way. It symbolizes perfectly the union of science and of art."
When his design for the Florence Baptistery doors was rejected, Brunelleschi left Florence in disappointment and traveled to Rome. Wandering the city and countryside, accompanied by the young artist Donatello, he meticulously studied the design principles of Roman ruins and buildings and turned his energy toward architecture. His discoveries not only led to his design for the dome but the inventions that made constructing the structure possible, and his development of linear perspective - an idea that led the innovations of the time. The problem of creating a dome for Florence Cathedral was viewed as almost insoluble, until Brunelleschi radically created a new system of support by creating a dome within a dome. He also invented the horizontal crane and the mechanical hoist needed to lift and place the bricks in the herringbone pattern that made up an inverted arch.
His work exemplified the combination of artistic principles, informed by knowledge of classical design, with tireless scientific innovation. At the same time, often keeping his designs and ideas to himself for fear that his rival might appropriate them, he also operated with the belief in the unique knowledge of the inspired and cultivated artist, as he wrote "Let there be convened a council of experts and masters in mechanical art to deliberate what is needed to compose and construct these works." The dome and the design principles embodied in it became fundamental to subsequent architects.
Sandstone, marble, brick, iron, wood - Florence
Primavera (late 1470s-early 1480s)
This famous Early Renaissance painting depicts figures from classical mythology: the god Mercury plucking a golden fruit from a tree, the three graces dancing together, and Venus, the goddess of love, at the center with Primavera, the goddess of spring, to her left.
The meaning of the mysterious scene, located within a woodland garden, has been much debated by scholars, as it has been viewed as an allegory, a depiction of various scenes from the writing of the Roman poet Ovid, or as a purely aesthetic arrangement. At the same time, some critics have deeply analyzed the work, finding its elements, including the hundreds of specific flowers naturalistically depicted, as reflective of Neoplatonic thought. Neoplatonism emphasized ideal love and absolute beauty as reflections of the ideal forms posited by the Greek philosopher Plato.
A sense of the hidden and sublime order of the world that, while pagan, was not inconsistent with Christianity, is shown in the artist's central figure, that simultaneously evokes Venus and the Virgin Mary. Botticelli's use of mythological subjects and his near nude female figures were groundbreaking. As art critic Jonathan Jones puts it, "Botticelli's Primavera was one of the first large-scale European paintings to tell a story that was not Christian, replacing the agony of Easter with a pagan rite. The very idea of art as a pleasure, and not a sermon, began in this meadow."
Botticelli was particularly influenced by Dante, the early Renaissance poet, whose platonic love for Beatrice informed his Divina Commedia (Divine Comedy) (1308-21), depicting his journey through Hell and Purgatory to Paradise. The artist drew illustrations and wrote commentary on the famous poet's work. Associated with the artistic and intellectual circles around Lorenzo de' Medici, the artist was influenced by Marsilio Ficino. Later in his career, as Florence was roiled by the rise of Savonarola, a priest who railed against pagan art and influences, Botticelli refuted his earlier subjects and began to focus on a series of illustrations depicting Dante's vision of the suffering souls in Hell and Purgatory. Though his art fell into relative obscurity, it was subsequently rediscovered in the 19th century and his paintings have become among the most recognizable artworks, reproduced in countless advertisements, brochures, and digital platforms.
Tempera on panel - Uffizi Gallery, Florence
The Vitruvian Man (c. 1485)
This drawing shows the ideally proportioned figure of a man in two superimposed positions, standing within a circle and square. Due to the superimposition of poses and geometric forms, the symmetrical and balanced figure evokes kinetic movement, while the drawing feels almost three-dimensional as if the viewer were looking into a volumetric geometric space.
Often called "The Canon of Proportions," and also known as "The proportions of the human body according to Vitruvius," the drawing and Leonardo's accompanying text reference the mathematical proportions of the Roman innovator. In the upper margin, Leonardo paraphrases from Book III of Vitruvius's De architectura, writing, "Vetruvio, architect, puts in his work on architecture that the measurements of man are in nature distributed in this manner." While in the lower text, Leonardo draws upon the architect's proportions but corrects them according to his own anatomical studies. Leonardo shared the architect's belief that the proportions of the human body were a kind of microcosm of the symmetry and order of the universe.
Other Renaissance artists drew the human figure according to Vitruvian proportions, but Leonardo innovatively drew upon his own study of human anatomy, as he realized that the center of the square had to be located at the groin rather than at the navel, as Vitruvius thought, and that the raised arms should be level with the top of the head. Combining scientific knowledge and mathematical study with the aesthetic principles of ideal proportion and beauty, the drawing exemplified Renaissance Humanism, seeing the individual as the center of the natural world, linking the earthly realm, symbolized by the square, to the divine circle, symbolizing oneness. Later artists have continued to draw upon the image for inspiration as seen in William Blake's Glad Day or The Dance of Albion (c.1794), and Nat Krate's Vitruvian Woman (1989).
Pen and ink on paper - Accademia, Venice
Self-Portrait with Fur-Trimmed Robe (1500)
In this three-quarters portrait, the artist, dressed in a nobleman's coat with fur trim, faces forward with his right hand raised as if in a gesture of blessing. This, along with his intense and serious expression, evoke traditional images of Christ Pantocrater, as if the artist were a living icon. Using chiaroscuro, his image is shadowed, merging into the dark background, while light highlights the right side of his face and body. The artist has signed the work twice, and prominently, with his initials and the year alongside the phrase, "Thus I, Albrecht Dürer from Nuremburg, painted myself with indelible colors at the age of 28 years" which floats in the inky background.
The groundbreaking work pioneered self-portraiture. Artists had been previously portrayed only as bystanders or secondary figures, often witnessing a scene. For example, Jan van Eyck's The Man with the Red Turban (1433) is thought to be a self-portrait but was presented as an anonymous individual. Dürer's image reflects the importance of the individual and the artist as an inspired genius, both concepts central to Renaissance Humanism.
Dürer travelled to Italy as a young man and was influenced by Renaissance Humanism and the leading artists or the era. He played an important role in the development of Northern Humanism, as he synthesized classical models with cultural beliefs and devotional practices in order to create a better society. His closest friend in Nuremberg was the classical scholar and translator Williblad Pircklheimer, a leading figure in the city's Humanist circles. Their intellectual discussions ranged from the writings of the Humanist Erasmus to the use of perspective in Italian painting to the meaning of Egyptian hieroglyphs.
In later life, Dürer's lifelong interest in geometry, proportion, and perspective was reflected in treatises including Four Books on Measurement (1525) and Four Books on Human Proportion (1528). As Jonathan Jones noted, the artist's "role model was Leonardo da Vinci... Dürer understood the sum of Leonardo's parts, at once craftsman, scientist and humanist intellectual. More than anyone else except Michelangelo, Dürer took up the challenge of the supreme Renaissance mind. And yet the sublime energies that Dürer's art channels are not those of a solitary mind but of an entire culture."
Mixed media on panel - Alte Pinakothek, Munich
This iconic statue was the first male nude carved in marble since the classical era. It depicts the Biblical hero David, as he turns to face the giant Goliath with a look of purposeful assessment, his raised left hand grasping his shepherd's sling and a stone cradled in his right. Over 17 feet tall, his muscular figure was seen as not only reviving the ideal male beauty represented in classical Greek sculpture but surpassing it. As Vasari wrote, "...this figure has put in the shade every other statue, ancient or modern, Greek or Roman." The work also exemplified a humanistic awareness of individual sensibility, as David is poised and yet with a touch of adolescent awkwardness. For the people of Florence, the figure of David represented the emerging primacy of the city-state as a "giant killer" among the European powers.
The artist employed a radical simplicity, as only the slingshot identifies the figure as David, and while the work evinces his mastery of anatomical knowledge, Michelangelo also deviated from the rules of proportion, making the right hand slightly larger than the left with his eyes looking in two slightly different directions. He did this because the work was created to stand at an elevated position on the base of Brunelleschi's dome of Florence Cathedral, and the sculptor seemed to have been aware that the work's full effect could be realized only by its relationship to the space around it, thus tweaking the anatomy in regards to the audience's viewpoint and unique perspective. As art historian Lois Fichner-Rathus noted, "No longer does the figure remain still in a Classical contrapposto stance, but rather extends into the surrounding space away from a vertical axis. This movement outward from a central core forces the viewer to take into account both the form and the space between and surrounding the forms - in order to appreciate the complete composition."
Marble - Galleria dell'Accademia, Florence
School of Athens (1509-1511)
This famous fresco employs perspective to draw the viewer's eye into an animated scene where noted Greek philosophers, including Socrates, Pythagoras, Euclid, and Ptolemy converse or sit alone in a moment of reflection. At the center, beneath replicating classical arches, Plato in orange robes and Aristotle in blue walk side by side as they discuss philosophy and represent the Humanist view that art and science, beauty and logic, were mutually compatible endeavors. The books the two men carry - Plato's Timaeus and Aristotle's Nichomachaean Ethics - were fundamental texts to Renaissance Humanists. The painting creates a dynamic sense of philosophy, as thought is expressed in gestures, facial expressions, and intense conversations. The cynic philosopher Diogenes sprawls on the stairs, while in the lower center the philosopher Heraclitus seems to be writing or drawing. Some of the figures are believed to be contemporary portraits: Pico della Mirandola as a young man, Michelangelo as Heraclitus, and Leonardo da Vinci as Plato.
A statue of Apollo, the Greek god of music and art, is placed on the left, referencing Plato's philosophy of ideal forms, while Athena, the goddess of wisdom on the right, aligns with Aristotle's belief in empirical knowledge and logic. While the setting is classical with its arches and columns, the building is also designed as a Greek cross, influenced by the designs of the contemporary architect Bramante and representing the harmony between Christianity and the tenets of classical philosophy. This theme of harmony is reflected in the four frescos that Raphael painted for the study and library of Pope Julius II. The Disputation of the Holy Sacrament (1509-10) and The Cardinal Virtues (1511) depicted Christian subject matter, while The Parnassus (1509), showing the god Apollo, the muses, and noted classical and contemporary poets, along with The School of Athens, emphasized the classical world, reflecting both worlds united in the pursuit of wisdom.
Fresco - Apostolic Palace, Vatican City
Self-Portrait as Bacchus or Sick Bacchus (c. 1593-94)
This painting is thought to be a self-portrait of the artist as Bacchus, the Greek god of intoxication, fertility, and the theater, a figure of wildly creative and destructive energy. Here, dressed in Attic garb and wearing a garland of ivy, he twists to face the viewer, a bunch of white grapes clutched in his right hand, his head oddly turned as if suggesting he is in pain. Cast in a greenish light, the pallor of his skin, accentuated by his blue lips and dark shadowed eyes, evokes dissolution or illness. On the table in front of him, a bunch of purple grapes and two apricots, are naturalistically rendered, while at the same time evoking a phallic shape.
This was the first of a series of portraits, portraying a solitary young man in classical garb and emphasizing the hedonistic enjoyment of life. While drawing upon the classical subject matter of Renaissance Humanism, the work departed from that tradition in its naturalistic treatment of both the figure and its inclusion of still life. Here, some of the fruit on the table show signs of decay, and the figure, ill or, perhaps, drunk or hung over, is a radical departure from the Renaissance's idealized beauty and classical calm.
The art historian Roberto Longhi attributed the work to Caravaggio in 1913 and, at the same time, identified the figure as Bacchus, giving it its title. Previously, the work had been titled A Satyr, as garlands of ivy traditionally identified the licentious half-men, half-goat figures that haunted the forests of Greek myth, while Bacchus was usually depicted wearing a wreath of grape vine, though a bit of ivy was sometimes interwoven. Longhi also explained the figure's sickly pallor as due to the artist's discharge from the Hospital of the Consolazione after a severe bout of malaria. However, some scholars favor the explanation of Giulio Mancini, whose study of Caravaggio in Considerazioni sulla pittura (Thoughts on painting), written between 1617 and 1621, attributed the artist's hospitalization to severe injuries sustained by a kick from a horse. In essence, the work conveys a kind of mystery and ambiguity, as if alluding to other meanings outside the pictorial plane, in keeping with the development of individualism toward the idiosyncratic and the psychological in the Mannerist and Baroque periods.
Giovanni Baglione who wrote The Lives of Painters, Sculptors, Architects and Engravers, active from 1572-1642 (1642) said the artist used a convex mirror to paint the work and that it was originally a cabinet piece. The work was not commissioned, and it's thought that the young artist, in effect, painted it as a kind of advertisement of his skills in portraiture, classical subject matter, and still life, in order to attract patronage. But at the same time it may have announced his inclusion in the arcane scholarly circles associated with d'Arpino's studio where he then worked.
Oil on canvas - Galleria Borghese, Rome