Summary of Early Renaissance
At the beginning of the 15th century, Italy experienced a cultural rebirth, a renaissance that would massively affect all sectors of society. Turning away from the preceding Gothic and Romanesque periods' iconography, Florentine artists spurred a rejuvenation of the glories of classical art in line with a more humanistic and individualistic emerging contemporary era. Based in this flourishing new environment that empowered people to fully immerse themselves in studies of the humanities, Early Renaissance artists began to create work intensified by knowledge of architecture, philosophy, theology, mathematics, science, and design. The innovations that emerged in art during this period would go on to cause reverberations, which continue to influence creative and cultural arenas today.
This Early Renaissance is also known as the Quattrocento, derived from the Italian mille quattrocento, meaning 1400, and refers primarily to the period dominating the 15th century in Italian art. It was the forebear to the following High Renaissance, North European Renaissance, Mannerism, and Baroque periods that followed.
Key Ideas & Accomplishments
- An evolution of radically fresh artistic techniques came into practice, departing from the flat-planed and two-dimensional icon artworks that were popular prior. This included the introduction of revolutionary methods such as one point linear perspective, derived from an understanding of math and architecture, relieve schiacciato, a new style of shallow carving to create atmospheric effect, foreshortening, naturalistic and anatomical detail, proportion, and the use of chiaroscuro and trompe l'oeil to create illusionary realities.
- New subject matter evolved beyond the traditional religious stories that had historically dominated art. This included battle scenes, portraits, and depictions of ordinary people. Art was no longer a way to solely elevate the devotional, but became a way to document the people and events of contemporary times, alongside the historical.
- Early Renaissance artists were highly influenced by the Humanist philosophy that emphasized that man's relationship with the world, the universe, and God was no longer the exclusive province of the Church. This resulted in work that emphasized the emotionally expressive and individualistic characteristics of its subjects in fresh new ways, leading to a more intimate way for viewers to experience art.
- A new standard of patronage in the arts arose during this time, separate from the church or monarchy, the most notable of which was supported by the prominent Medici family. Artists were suddenly in demand to produce work that expressed historical, and often religious, narratives in bold new ways for a community that fostered the arts and nurtured its artists like never before.
Overview of Early Renaissance
Stating, "I propose to build for eternity," architect Filippo Brunelleschi solved the impossible problem of building the Florence Cathedral dome. And thus, he ignited the Italian Renaissance.
Important Art and Artists of Early Renaissance
This fresco portrays a nude Adam and Eve as they are expelled from the Garden of Eden. They walk out through an arch from which black lines emanate, representing the angry voice of God, with a red clad angel holding a black sword hovering above to usher them on their way. Adam buries his face in his hands, his body language and facial expression conveying deep anguish. Eve 's face is open mouthed and stricken, her hands held in a Venus Pudica pose to cover her breasts and pubic area as if in shame. The background is bare, only earth and a singular rock formation, evoking the hard fate ahead for the expunged couple. The composition is remarkably elegant, emphasizing the pair's banishment with heightened emotion. The line dividing earth and blue sky diagonally runs from left to right to highlight the pair's forward motion, as their opposing feet mirror each other along the path. The nudity of the two figures, classically proportioned, is not sensual but suggests the starkness of their situation, stripped of God's favor.
This scene is part of a fresco cycle of Biblical scenes in the Brancacci Chapel painted by Masaccio, as well as Masolino and other artists. In depicting the two naked, the artist departed from the Biblical account in which they wore fig leaves, and also, boldly, created the first nudes in painting since the Roman era. He also added the arch and reduced the multiple cherubs mentioned in the Biblical account to focus on one angel.
The scene resides at the left entrance to the Chapel hall, becoming the first image encountered by visitors, launching them into the famous narrative, as Adam and Eve walk out of the arch that is a painted extension of an architectural column. The artist's inclusion of the architecture into the pictorial space was not his only radical innovation. His use of linear perspective, chiaroscuro (the strategic use of shadow and light to create depth), and a realistic figurative approach were in direct opposition to the standard flat iconographic style of presenting religious stories and figures. The result is that Adam and Eve become humanized, rather than relegated on the devotional pedestal as sacred symbols. The pair are fully embodied and expressive, inhabiting real space, their shoulders bent, and their steps weighed down by the enormity of their expulsion. Art critic Clyde Haberman noted that Masaccio "broke with medieval traditions by giving raw realism to human forms and expressions. No one can doubt the anguish of his Adam and Eve as they are expelled from Paradise."
Subsequent artists would go on to envision their own work within this new aesthetic paradigm of Masaccio's vision. Both Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci extensively visited the Chapel to study and sketch Masaccio's human figures, which da Vinci called "perfect." Later artists like the sculptor Henry Moore also studied his works.
This fresco depicts the Holy Trinity. Christ, crucified, is the central figure with God the Father standing behind him. A small white dove above Christ's head represents the Holy Spirit. Within the architectural niche that holds the three, Mary can also be seen, dressed in blue on the left while John the Disciple stands at the right, both gazing up at Christ in devotion. On either side of the columns, the commissioned work's unidentified patrons kneel in profile. Below them, a skeleton lies in a tomb bearing the inscription: "I once was what you are and what I am you also will be," representing a memento mori, or an object that serves as a warning or reminder of the inevitability of death.
Customary to Masaccio's work, this piece helped revolutionize painting with its use of one point linear perspective, creating the illusion of three-dimensional space. The artist intentionally aligned the sighting of the fresco with the existing architecture of the church to enhance the trompe l'oeil effect. To create the work, he used a grid framework etched into the surface, and consulted Brunelleschi on linear perspective, as the perspective of even the nails in the cross show his rigorous approach. The design used a Roman triumphal arch and barrel vault to create a rational but divine space that the life-sized holy figures occupy, while the patrons and the skeleton, placed outside the barrel vault, occupy the space of the viewer. Visitors at the time were amazed at the artist's ability to create a work so realistic that many thought they were peering into a real chapel. A visceral experience of the work was spurred, creating an experience of contemplation in regard to mortality and timelessness.
The life-sized figures also present a remarkably naturalistic effect of volume, movement, and deep emotional expression. As Mary McCarthy, art historian, wrote, "The fresco, with its terrible logic, is like a proof in philosophy or mathematics, God the Father, with His unrelenting eyes, being the axiom from which everything else irrevocably flows." At the same time, Mary, her face solemn, creates a bridge between the divine and the human by looking toward the viewer and gesturing toward her son, providing a way into the sacred realm, through contemplation. As Vasari wrote in his Lives of the Artists (1550) about Masaccio's work, "Everything done before him can be described as artificial, whereas he produces work that is living, realistic and natural."
This photograph shows Brunelleschi's famous octagonal dome crowning the Florence Cathedral. Its red stone, emblematic of the Florentine love of stonework and Medici red, dominates the skyline with one of the world's most recognized and iconic views. Consisting of over four million bricks, it remains the largest masonry dome in the world.
Brunelleschi's architectural genius can be seen in the structure's sense of buoyancy with its white ribs emphasizing the vertical lift and the steep curvature narrowing at the top. Brunelleschi also designed the white lantern at its tip, though his friend, the architect Michelozzi, completed it in 1461, fifteen years after Brunelleschi's death. The dome became a visual symbol of "The New Athens," as Florence dubbed itself, as it evoked a sense of classical restraint and proportion, echoing the octagonal shape of the cathedral below and drawing it heavenward.
The dome was a revolutionary masterpiece, as the architect dispensed with both the internal scaffolding and the external supports (like buttresses) that were previously thought necessary. Instead, he created a dome within a dome, thus inventing a new system of support, where bricks lain in an inverted arch of herringbone pattern directed weight outward rather than downward. He also manufactured the technology he needed to materialize his project, including the first mechanical hoist and, later, the castello, or horizontal crane. Other structural innovations included the use of a catenary arch, a type of pointed arch, for support and internal wood, stone, and iron chains, formed in octagonals, to work like barrel hoops to hold the dome together.
This work was informed by Brunelleschi's careful study of the Pantheon (113-125) and other ancient Roman buildings. Yet, in his customary fashion, the architect kept his discoveries to himself, working without notes or plans. As he was later to say, when he applied for and was awarded the first modern patent for a water transport vehicle, "we must not show to all and sundry the secrets of the waters flowing in ocean and river, or the devices that work on these waters. Let there be convened a council of experts and masters in mechanical art to deliberate what is needed to compose and construct these works." Because of his enigmatic working fashion, many critics initially deemed his designs impossible. He was to prove them wrong. As historian Paulo Galluzi wrote of the Cathedral, "It is one of the most beautiful, technically audacious buildings ever constructed. It unites technology and aesthetics in an astonishingly elegant way. It symbolizes perfectly the union of science and of art."
All the architects of the next generation were influenced by Brunelleschi's work, and Leonardo da Vinci was fascinated by both his architecture and the technology he invented.
Useful Resources on Early Renaissance
- 1k viewsEarly Renaissance short documentary
- The Medici Makers of Modern ArtOur PickBy the BBC
- 113k viewsThe Late Medieval World: Medieval Gothic to Early RenaissanceOur PickLandmarks of Western Art Documentary Series
- Great Artists with Tim Marlow: GiottoOur Pick
- 27k viewsEmpire of the Eye: Masaccio's Holy Trinity
- Great Cathedral Mystery: Brunelleschi's DomeOur PickPBS
- 49k viewsDonatello and the RenaissanceOur Pick
- 73k viewsRenaissance Revolutions: Pierra della FrancescaBBC
- 6k viewsMasaccio and the Italian RenaissanceTalk by Peter Beal
- 25k viewsBrunelleschi's First Experiments in PerspectiveDemonstrated by Nigel Konstam
- 4k viewsBrunelleschi's Dome as the Internet of the RenaissanceTed talk by David Battistella
- 4k viewsBotticelli to Braque, lecture by Michael ClarkeFine Art Museums of San Francisco
- 62k viewsBotticelli: The Birth of Venus, lecture by Dr. David HemsollOur PickBirmingham University
- 64k viewsBotticelli: Venus and MarsTalk by Caroline Campbell / The National Gallery
- 23k viewsArt History Lecture Series: Orientations in Renaissance Art with Alexander NagelInstitute for Advanced Study
- 34k viewsThe Genius of Andrea MantegnaOur PickTalk by Keith Christiansen / The Metropolitan Museum of Art
- 3k viewsFra Angelico and the Early Renaissance in FlorenceTalk by Lawrence Kantor / Meadows Museum Dallas
- Early Renaissance: Style and CivilizationOur PickBy Michael Levey
- Brunelleschi's Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented ArchitectureOur PickBy Ross King
- The Lives of the Artists (Oxford World Classics)By Giorgio Vasari
- BotticelliBy Frank Zollner
- Masaccio and the Brancacci ChapelBy Ornella Casazza
- The Genius of Andrea Mantegna (Metropolitan Museum of Art)By Keith Christiansen
- Domenico Ghirlandaio: Artist and ArtisanBy Jean K. Cadogan and Domenico Ghirlandaio
- The Most Iconic Artists of the Italian Renaissance, from Masaccio to TitianBy George Philip LeBourdais / Dec 21, 2015
- A Chapel in Florence Reveals Its Wonders AnewBy Clyde Haberman / New York Times / June 9, 1990
- Masaccio's "Holy Trinity"By Bendicò / Globaldispatches / June 11, 2013
- Great works: Annunciation (1438-45), Fra AngelicoOur PickBy Michael Glover / Independent / July, 15 2010
- Great Works: The Dead Christ, by Andrea Mantegna c.1480By Michael Glover / Independent / September 2012
- Moving a MantegnaOur PickBy Nicholas Fox Weber / Art News / September 23, 2014
- Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446)By Paul Davies / Architectural Review / January 31, 2013