Art Dictionary

Renaissance Painting

Sandro Botticelli

Sandro Botticelli (1444/45-1510), Womanly ideal portrait (Portrait from Simonetta Vespucci as nymph), detail
Frankfurt, Städel Museum, photo: Ursula Edelmann – Artothek

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Commencing in Italy, the Renaissance developed a fresh vision of the world, and with it, a new kind of art, whose influence on later generations was overwhelming.

He who loves practice without theory is like the sailor who boards ship without a rudder and compass and never knows where he may cast. Practice must always be founded upon good theory.  (Leonardo da Vinci)

Giorgio Vasari, himself an artist, as well as the biographer of other artists, published his Lives of the Artists published in 1550. In it, Vasari described Giotto´s achievements as nothing less than a »renaissance (rinascità) of the arts,« and demonstrated that, at the turn of the fifteenth century, Giotto´s naturalistic depictions were the first step in transcending medieval forms of expression. Commencing in Italy, the Renaissance developed a fresh vision of the world, and with it, a new kind of art, whose influence on later generations was overwhelming.

This epoch, however, did not become generally known as the Renaissance until the nineteenth century, when Swiss art historian Jacob Burckhardt used the term in his book, Die Kunst der Renaissance in Italien (1860; published in English in 1904 as The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy). Burckardt´s book set the Renaissance in the years between 1350 and 1600. Of course, the exact time period is a matter of dispute: today, the bronze doors for the Baptistery of St. John in Florence are considered a crucial work, which signaled the start of a new era, yet these doors were commissioned in 1401—the same time that the Late Gothic style was in full bloom north of the Alps.

Humanism was the most influential philosophical movement of the time. Through the study of antique literature, history, and philosophy, the theocentric perspective propounded in the Middle Ages was gradually replaced by a worldview centered on mankind. Instead of a mystical, spiritual orientation, a search for mathematical, scientific clarity began.

Artists intently deliberated the formal vocabulary of antique art, while nature studies acquired more significance. The accompanying tendency toward secularization, however, did not alter the fact that the Church still remained the most important patron of the arts, ahead of the royal courts and the wealthy merchants of Florence, Milan, Venice, and Rome.

Innovation and discovery were the order of the day. Of special importance to art was the rediscovery of central perspective, used to create the illusion of three-dimensional space. The technique of fresco painting was also recovered, and the use of oils became widespread in Italy in the sixteenth century; in comparison to the previously pervasive tempera, oil paints offered artists entirely new creative possibilities. For the first time, painting (on both canvas and plaster) became the leading genre. Artists such as Leonardo da Vinci also conducted geographical, technological, and other scientific experiments, and recorded their results in treatises.

Portrait painting was a way of articulating the increased attention paid to the individual, and it became an independent genre around the mid-fifteenth century. Historical painting took on both mythological and biblical themes equally. The figure of the artist emerged from the anonymity of the Middle Ages; not only did the artist become a topic for historians, but his creative powers came to be considered a reflection of the divine spirit.

Masaccio is regarded as the founder of early Renaissance painting, as he adopted Giotto´s realistic style and began blending it with sculptural portraiture and central perspective. Paolo Uccello is another master of sculptural painting. Fra Angelico, a Dominican monk, combined beautiful portraits of people and translucent colors in his religious pieces.

Jacopo Bellini became the first early Renaissance painter in Venice. Piero della Francesca established a link between science and art in his theoretical works on perspective and mathematics. By discovering how to reproduce the hues of open air, he created a new sense of unity within the image. Leon Battista Alberti, a humanist, scholar, and universal artist, wrote a pioneering, three-volume work on painting, Della Pittura (On Painting, 1436), providing impressive evidence that the science of aesthetics began during the Renaissance.

In the ensuing decades, Antonio Pollaiuolo and Andrea del Verrocchio (Leonardo da Vinci´s teacher) concentrated on human anatomy through the study of live models. Paduan artist Andrea Mantegna used trompe l´oeil to create the illusion of vast space, and his opulent forms and bold perspective particularly influenced the art of his brother-in-law, Giovanni Bellini. Bellini worked almost exclusively in Venice and he, in turn, also had an impact on a series of important pupils, including Sebastiano del Piombo, Giorgione, and Titian. While a luminous palette distinguished Venetian painting, Florentine painting was dominated by the principles of drawing (disegno). With his lyrical, decorative, and monumental paintings of mythological themes, Sandro Botticelli was one of the major artists of the later Early Renaissance.

The High Renaissance, which began around 1500, was dominated by Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael, all of whom embodied the ideal of the universal artist. The center of the art world shifted to the court of Pope Julius II in Rome. Titian became the most important High Renaissance artist in Venice, as he set new standards with his stately, representative portrait painting. His style is remarkable for its richness of color, monumental figures, and idealized landscapes.

A new style called Mannerism became prevalent around 1520; it was characterized by stylized movement, and elongated, twisted figures whose relation to the background was indeterminable. As the most important Mannerist in Venice, Tintoretto combined Titian´s exquisite palette with Michelangelo´s powerful lines. Tintoretto had a fascination for optical effects, dramatic foreshortening, unusual compositions, and the virtuoso treatment of light.

Flemish painter Jan van Eyck is regarded as the founder of Renaissance painting in Flanders and the Netherlands. Rogier van der Weyden, who was originally from Tournai in Flanders, traveled through Italy in 1450, and his works left a strong impression, especially on the artists in Ferrara. Dirk Bouts was one of the first painters north of the Alps to employ central perspective consistently. Hieronymus Bosch´s world of imaginary, surreal images influenced the work of Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Dutch and Flemish Mannerists such as Bernard van Orley, Lucas van Leyden, and Jan van Scorel were influenced by engravings of works by Michelangelo and Raphael.

The apex of the German Renaissance arrived with Albrecht Dürer, who produced paintings, drawings, and prints, and set new standards with his woodcuts and copper engravings. Dürer traveled extensively in Italy in 1494, and from 1505 to 1507; later, he visited Flanders and the Netherlands in 1520 and 1521, respectively. Like many of his colleagues in Italy, Dürer was also interested in science and developed his own aesthetic theories. His work bridged the gap between the Italian Renaissance and later movements in the Netherlands.

By the early sixteenth century, different regional varieties of Renaissance art had spread throughout Europe. In Spain, El Greco´s religious visions marked the end of the epoch.

Illustration:
Sandro Botticelli (1444/45-1510), Womanly ideal portrait (Portrait from Simonetta Vespucci as nymph), Frankfurt, Städel Museum, photo: Ursula Edelmann – Artothek, detail

06.11.2009 Monika Wolz

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