Renaissance Art

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The Renaissance was the rebirth of the world of the ancient Greeks and Romans, and of antique ideals, such as individualism, education and the arts. The Italian cities became autonomous city states where the bourgeoisie was more important than the clergy. People were more interested in the world around them and in nature. This led to the development of modern natural sciences and humanism. It was the time of such famous men as Christopher Columbus, Galileo Galilei, Nicolaus Copernicus, Martin Luther, William Shakespeare and Johannes Gutenberg.

The style of this period replaced the Gothic style, which was invented in France in the 12th Century. In northern Europe, it took longer for the new ideas to supplant medieval ones, for the Renaissance needed some time to spread up from Italy, so Gothic architecture remained until the 16th Century, although the first influences of the Italian Renaissance can be found in paintings from the 15th Century. Gothic architecture featured strong vertical lines and pointed arches. Gothic painting and sculpture showed thin, idealised figures, with very little individuality. The name stile gotico (Gothic style) was first used in the Renaissance. The term Gothic was originally intended in a deprecating sense because this style was against the idea of harmony in the Renaissance. 'Gothico' meant ugly, in bad taste and barbaric. Goths had nothing to do with this period.

In the Renaissance the fine arts were relieved of the symbols and conventions of the Middle Ages. It was thought that the only progress in arts could be the rebirth of the Classical Period. For the first time artists were not merely craftsmen; historians took note, not only of the names of patrons, but also of the names of the artists. The centres of interest were the human being and the world he lived in. Two of the most important achievements of the Renaissance arts were the careful observation of nature and human anatomy and the use of linear perspective. Before the Renaissance, there was no method to show 3-dimensional subjects on a plane surface in a realistic way.

The whole Renaissance was influenced by a Dutch invention: oil painting. Before the invention of oil paint, egg tempera was generally used, the adhesive being the yolk rather than oil. The disadvantage of this paint is that you can't create floating colours, they always stand next to each other without a connection. Oil painting made it possible to use techniques like Leonardo's aerial perspective.

The Renaissance era came into being in Italy, where it also reached its peak. In the 14th Century Giovanni Pisano and Giotto di Bondone became pioneers of a whole epoch, which was to come into its own a century later. The sculptors Giovanni Pisano and his father revived the classical Roman sculptural style, which they combined with Gothic elements. The painter Giotto, although lacking in knowledge of anatomy and perspective, was great at showing human emotions and brought up new ideas of naturalism.

Early Renaissance

The 15th Century, the Italian Quattrocento, is known as the Early Renaissance, which had its centre in the city of Florence.

With new technical skills architects created harmonic and functional buildings, which were oriented towards the Romanesque style and Greek decorations. At first, architects designed only sacred buildings, but in the middle of the 15th Century the importance of civic architecture had increased. The new palazzi1 were cubes, with arcades around the inner courtyard, the facades of which, with rounded romanesque arches over the windows, were arranged with rigid regularity. The whole architecture was built on mathematical proportions, which gave it lucidity and finality. Churches of the Early Renaissance were halls with side chapels. A new concept in ground plans was the latin cross. The first architect since the antiquity who used the classical orders Doric, Ionic and Corinthian2 in a consistent and appropriate way was Filippo Brunelleschi, whose greatest work was the Florence Cathedral. He was the first Renaissance architect who designed round buildings.

Painters and sculptors turned their attention towards nature and nudes, reliefs3 reached more depth and realism by the use of perspective. The first artist whose sculptures showed the individuality of the sculptor was Donatello; he also was the first one who created a nude statue4 after the Middle Ages (when even Adam and Eve have worn fig leaves). Sculptures were no longer only included in architecture, but were artistic works in their own right. Two of the most important artists of this time were Masaccio5 and Sandro Botticelli6. Masaccio combined Giotto's style with new methods of technique and perspective, which is best shown in his The Holy Trinity with the Virgin, St. John and Two Donars. The most important pictures by Botticelli are Primavera and The Birth of Venus, they are full of complex symbols and show mythological scenes.

A very important person for arts theory was the architect Leon Battista Alberti. His writings about painting, sculpure and architecture were the theoretical basis of arts in the Renaissance. For him arts was part of the humanities and no longer a craft. The work of the artist was the 'idea', while the artist's conception is executed by craftsmen. For Alberti beauty is dependent on harmonic proportions of mathematics. His books De re aedificatoria7 were the first works on arts theory in modern history.

High Renaissance

The High Renaissance (about 1500-1520), which had its centre in Rome, is closely connected with three artists: Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo Buonarroti and Raphael8. They strove for the harmony and beauty captured in the art of ancient Greeks and Romans. Many pictures from this time contain hidden geometric compositions; triangles are a common example9. Landscapes, although still background decoration, stopped looking like sets of a theatre, with several levels of stylized rocks, a few trees and hills.

Leonardo da Vinci was a universal genius. His studies of nature and technology were as important for the people of his time as the art for which he is remembered today. The few paintings he created have remained incredibly popular, with at least two of them being among the most famous works in the world: Mona Lisa and the Last Supper. Also easily recognised is his drawing of the Vitruvian Man.

Leonardo's Last Supper was painted on one wall of the refectory (dining hall) in the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie. It is the first picture of this subject which shows Judas on the same side of the table as all other diciples; the separation is achieved by giving every figure its own personality. The main point of the perspective composition is Christ's head, so you immediately recognize him as the most important person. Another remarkable fact about the perspective in this fresco is, that the table is drawn in a way which makes it look like it would reach out into the room, so it seems like the table whould stand next to the others in the dining room.

Many artists drew versions of the Vitruvian Man, a concept of proportions invented by the Roman architect Vitruvius. He thought that the body of a man fits perfectly into the geometric figures of circle and square, with the navel being in the centre. Leonardo was the first artist who corrected the Vitruvian concept according to his own anatomical studies.

Leonardo was also the inventor of the aerial perspective10, sfumato11 and chiaroscuro12 and wrote about ats theory.

Michelangelo was one of the most passionate artists of the Renaissance period. The paintings in the Sistine Chapel, the unfinished tomb of pope Julius II and the extension of St. Peter's Church are his most important works, but the most famous may be his David statue.

Although Michelangelo disliked painting and prefered sculptoring, the fresco in the Sistine Chapel is the greatest in the world. He alone with only a few helpers decorated 1000m2 of ceiling with about 300 figures. The fresco shows an overwhelming amount of complexity and dynamism.

The work on the unfinished tomb of Julius II lasted for 40 years and should include 32 statues, but only few of them were actually made. The greatest existing statue of the tomb is a giant Moses.

Raphael created perfect harmony; he was a master of perspective and composition and in the use of colours he even surpassed Leonardo and Michelangelo. The acme of his creative powers were the frescos in the Vatican Apartments; the most famous part of this fresco cycle is the School of Athens in the library of the pope. The artist and his pupils spent 10 years in painting the apartments.

Raphael's style was a synthesis of all artistic achievements of his time.

The most important shape in architecture of the High Renaissance was the circle, which symbolized divine order. Together with squares, crosses and shapes like hexagons and octogons, the circle was used in ground plans; another characteristic feature for Renaissance churches is the huge dome on the roof. For the clergy however, round churches were impractical for Mass. Such round buildings were designed by Donato Bramante, the greatest architect of the High Renaissance. The most perfect chapel of this shape was his Tempietto, which was seen as the ideal bulding of a new architecture based on the antiquity. Bramante also extended Santa Maria delle Grazie, where Leonardo painted the Last Supper.

Palladio13, another important architect, specialised in domestic architecture; his villas show the classical ideals of symmetry, axiality and clarity. In the Renaissance country life regains the importance it had in times of the Roman emperors. While in the Middle Ages life in cities was much more preferred.

The time of the High Renaissance in Italy was a time of religious dissension and Peasants' Revolt in Germany, so the Early Renaissance here didn't start until 1520. Albrecht Dürer, Hans Holbein, Matthias Grünewald and Lucas Cranach created very different sorts of art. In Germany two very important artistic printing technologies were invented - woodcut and copperplate engraving.

The most important German painter of the Renaissance was Matthias Grünewald; his paintings show dramatic scenes of mostly religious matters and contain many mythological symbols. His masterpiece is the Isenheim Altarpiece.

Albrecht Dürer's paintings could never reach the level of the Dutch and Italian painting, but his drawings, woodcuts and watercolour paintings show his talent and accuracy. One of his most famous pictures is A Young Hare.

Late Renaissance

In the 16th Century, the usage of colours and shapes had improved. This time is also known as Mannerism. After Florence and Rome, Venice now became the most important city of arts. The most important artists of this time were Titian, Giorgione and Tintoretto, who were forerunners of the Baroque Era. Architects gave up harmony and proportion for decorative effects and taller buildings.

The Titian's speciality was portraits. He was great in the use of colours and in composition and managed to depict different materials, such as metal or glass, in a very realistic way. Giorgione's14 paintings have mainly warm colours and show a mysterious and spiritual concept of nature. The most significant aspects of Tintoretto's 15 works are diagonal compositions, theatrical lighing and expressive style.

The first picture of winter was painted by a Fleming in the Renaissance, it was Hunters in the Snow by Pieter Brueghel the Elder. This painter placed particular emphasis on the everyday life of ordinary people and also transfered themes from the Bible to his own time. Sometimes, however, his religious subjects were actually comments on political affairs.

Oil painting was improved by the Dutch painter Jan van Eyck; with this technique he was able to paint microscopic details which can be seen for instance in his picture Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife.

In the second half of the 16th Century a new Baroque style was developed in Italy. The clean simple lines and proportions of the Renaissance were replaced by more complex forms, giving a strong sense of dynamism and power, with highly ornate and often overpowering decoration. This style conveyed the power of the Catholic Church in the Counter-Reformation, and in the 17th Century spread throughout Europe.

1You can find a ground plan of the same palazzo (Palazzo Medici)here2Doric, Ionic and Corinthian are the three orders of ancient Greek columns which describe different architectural systems with different proportions and detailing3relief: the picture on a coin for instance is a kind of relief, it is not absolutely flat, but it is no real sculpture either4the statue was a David5real name: Tommaso di Ser Giovanni di Simone Guidi Cassai6Botticelli = little barrel7About Architecture'8Raffaello Sanzio9e.g. Raphael's Madonna in the Meadow and Jesus in Leonardo's Last Supper10perception of depth in nature by athmospheric haze (e.g. background Mona Lisa)11blurring or softening of sharp outlines12light-shade effects13Andrea di Pietro della Gondola14Giorgio Barbarelli15 Tintoretto = the little dyer; his real name was Jacopo Robusti

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