RENAISSANCE ART AND ARTISTS
The Renaissance is an important event in European history that stretched from the 14th century to the 17th century. It was preceded by the Middle Ages in Europe and eventually led to the major events of the Age of Enlightenment. In historical terms the Renaissance is important because it led to a major shift in European thought and worldview. This shift eventually led to the developments of the Enlightenment and set the stage for the modern western worldview. While the Renaissance is considered to have begun in the city-states of the Italian peninsula in the 14th century, the main ideas of the movement eventually spread to all of Europe by the 16th century. The most significant changes that emerged as a result of the Renaissance can be seen in European architecture, art, literature, mathematics, music, philosophy, politics, religion and science. Intellectual thought in these fields flourished during the timeframe of the Renaissance and led to many people questioning long held beliefs about each. This created an environment of discovery and curiosity in which new ideas were constantly being introduced and tested.
A major innovation that occurred during the Renaissance was in the artistic styles and methods used by Renaissance painters. Today, the Renaissance is perhaps best known for the famous artists and their famous works of art. Previous to the Renaissance, in the Middle Ages, art was much more stylized and focused on religious themes. This means that the art in the Middle Ages displayed humans and the world in a more unrealistic but stylized fashion. As well, since Christianity and the Catholic Church played such a large role in the lives of the people much of the art focused on religious figures and scenes. However, in the Renaissance, European artists were inspired to create paintings and sculptures that focused more on the realities of everyday life and real people. While religious themes were still prevalent and important throughout the Renaissance, artists began to display human beings in a much more realistic fashion. For instance, Renaissance artists were very concerned with making images appear to be existing in a three dimensional space, whereas pre-Renaissance art was not as focused on this. This includes not only the stylization of the people but also the types of people being depicted. The shift in art that occurred during the Renaissance was also in part due to the new techniques and methods used by artists at the time. This shift in art was likely due to the influence of humanism that helped spark the Renaissance.
For example, the two paintings above display the changes in art that occurred during the Renaissance. Both paintings depict the Last Supper of Jesus Christ before his crucifixion. Ugolino da Siena's 'Last Supper' is dated from 1325 and clearly shows many common features of pre-Renaissance art. For instance, the figures appear to be flat and lack depth in the space of the room. As well, the angles of the table, bench and corners of the room do not line up in true three dimensional space. Whereas, Leonardo da Vinci's famous 'Last Supper' from the late 1490s has easily defined lines. For example, is examined closely it can be seen that all of the lines of the ceiling, windows, and table connect to a singular point with the central figure of Jesus Christ. As such, da Vinci's version of the 'Last Supper' appears more life-like and contains a more photo-realistic quality than does da Siena's.
One of the main features of the Renaissance was the rediscovery by European thinkers of ancient Greek and Roman ideas and texts. For example, the term ‘renaissance’ in French means ‘rebirth’. This is in relation to the idea that the intellectual culture of the Renaissance was sparked by the rediscovery of these ancient philosophies and ideas which had largely been ignored in Europe throughout the Middle Ages. Many of these ancient texts were preserved by Islamic and Jewish cultures in the Middle East and were not rediscovered by Europeans until the time of the Renaissance. In general, Renaissance Humanism was the study of ancient Greek and Roman texts with the goal of promoting new norms and values in society. These norms and views varied from those at the time because they focused less heavily on a religious worldview. Instead, Renaissance humanists used ancient texts to promote a worldview based on logic and reason. This was to be accomplished through the study of the ‘studia humanitatis’, which today is known as the humanities and includes topics such as: grammar, history, poetry, and philosophy. Furthermore, Renaissance humanists promoted the idea that citizens should be educated in these topics in order to allow them to participate in the social and political life of their society. This was a fundamental shift from the feudalistic and religious life that was the reality for most people in the Europe in the Middle Ages.
Just as Renaissance humanist scholars such as Petrarch were inspired by earlier Greek and Roman workers, so too were Renaissance artists. This meant realism and the human form were important and central to the new styles of art. Furthermore, Renaissance artists such as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo pioneered new skills and techniques, such as linear perspective, that allowed them to portray people and the world in news ways. Perspective refers to the artistic technique of showing depth and dimension in a painting. Linear perspective was the technique of providing realistic depth to an image. It involved creating the illusion of depth by using angled lines and shadowing. Another technique from the Renaissance was sfumato. This was a painting technique whereby the painter would soften the lines and blend the different paints to create blurred areas. This is likely best displayed in da Vinci’s famous ‘Mona Lisa’. The masterful work of art does not focus on religious themes or stylized depictions of the world but rather shows an unknown woman in a realistic fashion. In fact, throughout history the painting has been praised for its use of shading and blending to enhance the photo realistic nature of the art. In addition, Michelangelo’s famous sculpture ‘David’ displayed the human form in a realistic and proportional nature. Therefore, these innovations in art helped spread the Renaissance ideas as more artists across Europe adopted the new techniques and methods. As well, it helped people view human beings and life in a much different way than they had previously in the earlier centuries.
Throughout the Renaissance, artists travelled and shared their techniques with others throughout Europe. This is one of the main ways that the Renaissance ideas first spread out of Italy and eventually to the rest of Europe. Art also flourished at the time due to the increase in wealth and the many different patrons of the art. For example, art flourished in the Italian city-states of the Renaissance and wealthy families such as the Medici family in Florence commissioned new paintings and sculptures. In France, the French King Francis I was also well known for being a patron of the arts and funded many different artists including Leonardo da Vinci. These wealthy families helped to foster creativity from the Renaissance artists as it allowed many of them to establish their own studios and practise and teach new techniques and methods. As such, artists in the Renaissance were often held in high esteem and became influential figures in Renaissance society.
As stated above, there were many different famous artists from the Renaissance across Europe. Below is a selection of some of the most influential artists from the time. Click on their names to learn more about each.
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