The Renaissance - Part 5: Art

Mon, 11/17/2014 - 09:28
The School of Athens, Raphael

John Bensalhia brushes up on one of the most famous sectors of the Italian Renaissance – the art world.

(Read Part 1 - Introduction and Overview here; Part 2 - Philosophy here; Part 3 - Literature here; Part 4 - Science here.)


When we talk about the Renaissance period, one of the most familiar sectors to roll off the tongue is that of art. The Renaissance era spawned a new age of creativity and paved the way forward for future artists in techniques and motifs such as light and shadow, human emotion and also perspective. Even today, people around the world come to museums and shows to see and admire works of art from Renaissance artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Paolo Uccello, Michelangelo and Raphael.

One of the first instances of Renaissance art takes us all the way back to 1401 in Florence. The challenge was laid down to hold a contest to seek talented artists who could create doors for the Baptistry of St John. The way it worked was to give each of the entering artists the task of producing a bronze panel. Out of the seven entrants, it was Lorenzo Ghiberti who won the competition. Over the course of 27 years, he would make the first set of Baptistry doors, and after the success of his results, he was asked to make another set.

Ghiberti's work received excellent praise from the inhabitants of the city, who admired the work and the detail of the art. Michelangelo later named the work as “The Gates Of Paradise”.

[Gates of Paradise, detail, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Baptistery of San Giovanni, Florence]


A common element of Renaissance art is that of religion. Because the church commissioned artists to provide works of art, there are many pieces produced during the Renaissance years devoted to religion. Many religious tableaux were created in this period, depicting a particular scene or theme. For example, Paolo Veronese's Wedding At Cana depicts Jesus performing the first of his seven miracles: turning water into wine. Leonardo Da Vinci's Last Supper portrays the moment in which Jesus takes supper with his disciples and informs them that one of them will betray him.

The Sistine Chapel contains many legendary pieces of art. In 1480, Pope Sixtus IV commissioned a number of Florentine artists to produce decorative frescoes that would adorn the Chapel. The frescoes were planned to show the life cycles of Moses and Christ, telling the stories through striking, vivid imagery. The works in the Chapel include Sandro Botticelli's Temptations Of Christ, Pietro Perugino's Delivery Of The Keys and Michelangelo's infamous artwork for the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. What's particularly noteworthy is that some elements of Michelangelo's work on the ceiling concerns Humanist ideals. The Humanists believed that one should answer directly to God, a viewpoint that clashed with the church. Michelangelo's works in the Sistine Chapel attempt to reconcile these two opposing points of view, most notably in pieces such as The Creation Of Adam, which portrays Man and God together – the potential of the human race is shown from a Humanist point of view, while recognising the importance of religious faith.

[Fall and Expulsion of Adam and Eve, Michelangelo, 1510, Sistine Chapel]

A popular image in Renaissance art is that of the Madonna, representing Mary. The Madonna can be seen in works such as Raphael's Madonna Of The PinksMadonna Of The Meadow and the influential Sistine Madonna; Giovanni Bellini's Madonna And Child and Michelangelo's Doni Tondo (also known as Doni Madonna), which shows a family picture of Jesus, Mary and Joseph (along with John The Baptist).


With the Renaissance coming to embrace Classical and Greek mythology and philosophy, it was inevitable that some of the artwork produced would reflect this growing interest. A principal example is Raphael's School Of Athens, designed as part of a wall fresco series in the Vatican Chambers between 1510 and 1511. This piece has been said to include all Greek philosophers, with the most recognisable being Plato and Aristotle. Clever use of perspective lines draws the eye to these pivotal players.


As the era of the Renaissance grew at pace, so more and more families commissioned artists to provide them with decorative paintings and frescoes. The Medici family and their associates, for example, would commission artwork on a regular basis – Domenico Ghirlandaio worked on two fresco cycles for the Sassetti Chapel and the Tornabuoni Chapel. The Duke of Ferrara, Borso d'Este asked two artists, Francesco del Cossa and Ercole de' Roberti to decorate his banqueting hall. Not only can the end results show the life of d'Este's family in the lower tiers, the dense, multi-layered artwork also includes elements of the zodiac and a myriad of creatures such as eagles, lions and unicorns.

Ludovico Gonzaga commissioned Andrea Mantegna to decorate the family's bridal chamber with frescoes. These frescoes depicted Gonzaga in locations and situations such as court (along with his wife, Barbara of Brandenburg and other relatives and courtiers) and a meeting with his son, Cardinal Francesco Gonzaga, Christian I of Denmark and Frederick III, the Holy Roman Emperor.

[The Court of Gonzaga, Andrea Mantegna, 1465-1474, Palazzo Ducale, Mantua]


One of the key aspects of Renaissance art is a term known as “linear perspective”. Linear perspective is basically an accurate depiction of space, view and perspective – all produced on a flat surface. Linear perspective allows for a viewpoint of accurate distance and scope – people, buildings, fields, rivers, skylines... they can all be depicted as being near to or further away from the person looking at the picture.

History suggests that linear perspective was actually said to originate in Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome. But Filippo Brunelleschi was the man who rediscovered this concept in the early part of the 1400s – furthermore, a new generation of artists latched onto this concept when detailed notes and instructions on Linear Perspective were printed by Leon Battista Alberti in a 1435 manual. This revitalised method became a mainstay of Renaissance art and was used by many artists of the era.

The linear perspective method is perfectly in tune with some of the beliefs of the era, notably individualism. Because artworks are produced to depict a scene looked at from a single point of view, this equates with one person's viewpoint of that scene, thus tying in with the notion of individualism. The world is seen from one person's eyes.

[The Delivery of the Keys, Pietro Perugino, 1481-82, Sistine Chapel]

This technique can be seen in many of the classic works of art in the Renaissance era. The realism strived for in art paid off with this technique, such as in early works from a linear perspective master, Masaccio – examples of this pioneering technique can be seen in works such as The Tribute Money and Trinity In The Church of Santa Maria Novella.

Paolo Uccello's paintings of the Battle Of San Romano also spotlight this innovative method. The detailed battles show the hills and countryside in the distance, acting as a backdrop for the fighting taking place. The soldiers and the horses are nearer to the eye. Another notable example of Uccello's use of linear perspective is the Presentation Of The Virgin In The Temple, which depicts a flight of steps leading up to the temple, which is realistically seen as further away from the eye.

Another Renaissance artist to make iconic use of linear perspective was Piero della Francesca. One of his most revered and debated creations was the Flagellation of Christ, a small (23 x 32 inches) but highly detailed work of art that depicts the eponymous flagellation taking place in the palace of Pontius Pilate. This piece depicts three unidentified men in the foreground as the flagellation takes place in the background – the stunning use of detailed perspective adds a realistic air, and has also sparked many theories as to who the three men actually are. Another great example of effective linear perspective is Pietro Perugino's Delivery Of The Keys fresco. In the foreground of the piece is St. Peter, who receives the keys to the kingdom of heaven from Christ. In the background of this piece, Perugino has cleverly and subtly worked in scenes from the life of Christ, such as the stoning and the Tribute Money.

[Mary's Presentation in the Temple, Paolo Uccello, c.1435, Duomo, Prato]


To add to the realism now present in Renaissance pictures, greater and more detailed use of lighting was employed. Renaissance artists would work with subtle lighting shades, contrasting between light and dark, to create the impression of a natural depiction of a situation, location or person. This use of light and shadow (known as Chiaroscuro) would portray people in a more realistic way than ever before.

A good example of natural and realistic light techniques is that of Paolo Uccello's Funerary Monument To Sir John Hawkwood. This work of art employs contrasting, differing tones and shades of light on the eponymous figure. The end result is akin to light coming through a window – it's a realistic depiction of a natural light source shining through.

Antonello da Messina's St. Jerome In His Study is another multi-layered piece of artwork that not only makes striking use of linear perspective, it also makes great use of light. The painting uses light techniques to spotlight St. Jerome himself, and shrouds the left and the right hand sides in shadow. This gives the effect of the light coming in through the front of the study – as if the person looking at the portrait is standing in the doorway, again emphasising the importance of individualism.


[Close up on the Mona Lisa, Leonardo da Vinci]

With realism the order of the day in Renaissance art, there was now greater concentration on using the face to generate human emotion and thought. Leonardo Da Vinci, of course, remains a main player in producing realistic depictions of the human face. His Last Supper uses facial reactions as a pivotal way of conveying the drama of Jesus informing his disciples that one of them will betray him. The disciples' faces show a range of emotions, running from shock and surprise through to anger and upset.

Arguably, the most celebrated example of a Da Vinci facial expression is one that gives nothing away. The Mona Lisa is one of the most iconic pieces of art, seen all over the world in museums, books, postcards and on TV. It is a picture that captures the enigmatic facial expression of the Mona Lisa in crystal clear clarity, utilising a depth and eye for detail in typical Leonardo style.