» A Brief History of Renaissance Art

A Brief History of Renaissance Art

A Brief History of Renaissance Art

Background & Introduction

Carl Blackburn Diamond Necklace
Carl Blackburn Custom Fine Jewelry

Carl Blackburn holds a deep appreciation for the Renaissance masters, and, as a fine jewelry designer, is inspired by their fine attention to detail and sublimation of the beautiful.

Blackburn studied Product Design at the prestigious Accademia Italiana Art Academy, based in Florence, Italy–which further intensified his interest in the Renaissance period, especially the Baroque period, where traditional Roman sculpture techniques were used for creating opulent robust designs in furniture, architecture, and jewelry, and where artisans made great use of nature-driven themes and organic forms.

Therefore, we would like to provide a brief history of Renaissance art for clients of Carl Blackburn’s new fine jewelry, so they can more fully appreciate the designer’s inspiration, and the fine goldsmith mastery of Old World craftsmanship that transforms Blackburn’s fine jewelry designs into extraordinary pieces of wearable art.

A Brief History of Renaissance Art

The French term Renaissance translates to “rebirth,” and refers to the flowering of philosophy, science, literature, and especially art, from the late 14th century to the early 16th century. The period was unparalleled in its depth of artistic talent, and the works of the great masters of the period remain treasured cultural artifacts.

Proto-Renaissance and the Rise of Neo Classicism

The Madonna and Child (1320) by late medieval artist Giotto di Bondone.
The Madonna and Child (1320) by late medieval artist Giotto di Bondone.

Beginning in the late 13th century, the Proto-Renaissance writers Petrarch and Boccaccio focused their efforts on reviving the languages and ideals of ancient Greece and Rome. Renaissance artists began to look for inspiration from classical Greek art, especially sculpture and painting.

This Neo-Classicism revived the Greek notion of “Humanism,” downplaying the role of religious dogma in favor of the dignity and worth of the individual. Most art throughout the Middle Ages had been commissioned by the church, and subjects were accordingly religious, and depicted flat, static figures. One of the most famous artists of this early period, Giotto, was known for realistic representations of the human body.

Florence and Renaissance Art

Florence is widely considered the birthplace of Renaissance art, though the wider cultural movement spread throughout Europe. By 1400, Florence was a prosperous trade center, making it an intellectual crossroads welcoming ideas from all over the world. Florence was also a republic, boasting a level of political stability and social freedom conducive to artistic and intellectual advancement.

The wealthy and powerful Medici family played a monumental role in fostering the arts in Florence by commissioning works, and encouraging other wealthy Florentines to do the same. In addition, a strong and stable middle class began to emulate the upper class in its patronage of the arts. Many of these commissioned pieces depicted domestic themes such as birth, marriage, and everyday life.

The Guild System

The artists of Florence in the Early Renaissance were far from the “starving artists” one might imagine. They usually studied as apprentices, and were then admitted to a professional guild and worked under an established master. This allowed for a steady stream of innovations as the younger artists built on the work of the older masters.

Early Renaissance Art (1401-1490s)

A scene from the "Gates of Paradise" at the Florence Baptistery by Lorenzo Ghiberti (1401).
A scene from the “Gates of Paradise” at the Florence Baptistery by Lorenzo Ghiberti (1401).

Inspired by the new emphasis on humanism, early Renaissance artists portrayed lifelike human forms, with an emphasis on correct proportions and realistic expressions. In 1401 the sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti won a competition to design bronze doors for the Florence Baptistery.

Though only two of the seven entries in the competition survived, both exhibit elements of the new Renaissance style. Ghiberti’s panel was of a muscular, realistic Isaac derived from Classical originals. The gilded bronze doors took 27 years to finish, and a second set of doors he completed became known by Michelangelo’s name for them: The Gates of Paradise.

The architect Filippo Brunelleschi rediscovered the ancient principles of linear perspective, known to the Greeks and Romans, but lost during the Middle Ages. Guided by the observation that parallel lines appear to converge in the distance, Brunelleschi developed techniques that allowed artists to create the illusion of three-dimensional depth on flat surfaces, revolutionizing painting in a way that informs art to this day.

Tommaso Masaccio’s Holy Trinity Fresco in the church of Santa Maria Novella is regarded as the first implementation of Brunelleschi’s techniques. His fresco paintings portray boldly realistic, self-assured characters, with a high degree of naturalism.

Masaccio’s painting of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden is known specifically for the realistic depiction of their bodies. He is also one of the first Renaissance artists to paint models in the nude, another acknowledgement of the influence of Greek and Roman artistic practice.

Donatello was the pioneer of sculpture in the Early Renaissance. His work captured fluidity, emotion, and intense realism. His masterpiece, David, typifies the new style in both its use of contrapposto (twist of the hips) and its Classical nudity.

The emphasis on realistic human form was further advanced by Antonio del Pollaiuolo’s masterwork, Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian. His careful study of anatomy, including animal dissections, contributed to his depictions of bodies in motion and under stress.

High Renaissance Art (1490s-1527)

A biblical scene fresco from one of the Raphael Rooms in the Palace of the Vatican (1500s).
A biblical scene fresco from one of the Raphael Rooms in the Palace of the Vatican (1500s).

By the end of the 15th century, the center of artistic focus had shifted to Rome. Beginning with the patronage of Pope Leo X, (a son of Lorenzo de Medici), the three great masters of High Renaissance Art flourished: Leonard da Vinci, Michelangelo Buonarroti, and Raphael Sansio da Urbino.

Raphael was both a painter and architect, and despite living only 37 years, left a large body of influential work. His most famous works are the frescoed “Stanze,” or “Raphael Rooms,” in the Vatican. Commissioned by Pope Julius II, the brilliant frescos include The School of Athens, The Parnassus, and the Disputa.

Michelangelo is widely known for both sculpture and painting, but he was also an architect, poet, and an engineer. Many of his works are among the most famous in the world, and the artist himself was widely famous in his lifetime. His style typified High Renaissance art with its intense emotion drawn from dramatic and complex poses of his human subjects. Many of his works were created on a vast scale. His sculpture of David stands over 15 feet high, and the masterpiece fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel covers over 12,000 square feet.

Leonardo da Vinci was the ultimate “Renaissance Man.” Though renowned mainly as a painter, he was the most diversely talented artist of the Renaissance, with unparalleled skills as a sculptor, musician, engineer, mathematician, anatomist, cartographer, botanist, geologist, and inventor. Only about 15 of his paintings have survived, including two of the most famous paintings in history, the Mona Lisa, and The Last Supper. His drawing of the Vitruvian Man is instantly recognizable throughout the world.

The Spread of the Renaissance

Throughout the 15th and 16th centuries, the essence of the Renaissance spread throughout Italy and into France, Spain, and northern Europe. In the north, Renaissance art was typified by the representation of light and reflection.

Northern Renaissance artists, most notably Jan van Eyk of Bruges, pioneered the use of oil paint on canvas. Because of its longer drying time, oil paint could be reworked for weeks, allowing for finer detail and greater realism. The use of oils spread eventually to Venice, where the painter Titian refined oil techniques that inform Western art to this day.