So How Did the Renaissance Begin?

Mon, 10/17/2011 - 08:22
Christ Giving the Keys to St. Peter, a fresco by Perugino

John Bensalhia recalls the era of the High Renaissance and looks at the work and influence of some of the great artists of that period...

The Renaissance: A period of cultural rebirth. Its influence can still be felt today, and one of the greatest legacies out of this era is the artwork.

So how did the Renaissance begin? It's a movement that began in Florence in the late 13th century. Historians have pinpointed Florence as the source of the beginning of the ideas that led to the Renaissance, including the writings of poet Dante Alighieri and Francesco Petrarca, the scholar, poet and humanist.

From an economic viewpoint, Italy is said to be the source of the birth of the Renaissance, since finance was a key factor in spurring on works from a new creative force of artists and writers. By the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, Italy was trading with Asia and Europe, increasing its wealth, and in addition, luxuries acquired during the Crusades boosted the wealth of Genoa and Venice. Many of the paintings during the High Renaissance era were commissioned by the Medici family, or those who had links with them, such as the Sassetti or the Tornabuoni.

From this point on, there was to be a greater interest in learning in fields such as mathematics, science, philosophy, literature, and of course, the arts. Renaissance art was one of the most influential aspects on Europe – other artists throughout took their cues from these new methods and techniques of painting, sculpture and decoration. Florence and Rome in particular were responsible for a new breed of artists who would prove to be masters in their field, and with wealthy Italian families prepared to encourage this burgeoning talent, there was to be a prodigious outpouring of influential work that would last throughout the following centuries.

With respect to Italian Renaissance painting, this can be broken down into four distinct eras: The Proto Renaissance era, in which the seeds were sown for future great works; the Early Renaissance period; the High Renaissance period, and finally, Mannerism.

The period of the High Renaissance is the most enduring. Three High Renaissance artists stand out, and their influence can still be felt all over the world today. Leonardo da Vinci, in particular, is very much THE quintessential Renaissance man, not only in his artwork, but in his outlook on life. Driven by imagination and curiosity, Leonardo was not just an artist, but a scientist, a mathematician, a musician, an engineer and a writer to name but five.


Virgin of the RocksBut it's his artwork that proves to be the most commonly known aspect of da Vinci's life. As with the early Renaissance painters, Leonardo's paintings are characterised by innovative technique that makes the most use of light and tone, and an emphasis on detailed studies of human anatomy, physiognomy and emotion (commonly seen in expressions and gestures). Having started with the Baptism of Christ, Leonardo's reputation began to flourish in the 1480s, in particular with Virgin Of The Rocks, commissioned in Milan for the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception. Detailing a meeting between Jesus and John the Baptist on the flight into Egypt, the painting hangs in the Louvre, while a similar painting (later than the original mid-1480s version but still believed to be again attributed to da Vinci) hangs in the National Gallery in London.

The next decade brought another iconic masterpiece, again drawing on Biblical influences, in the form of The Last Supper. The painting depicts the key moment in which Jesus takes supper with his disciples and tells them that one of them will betray him. This painting shows da Vinci's talent for portraying intense human emotion, with the various disciples reacting to the declaration in different ways, with variations of shock, surprise, hurt and anger.

But arguably the most famous Leonardo composition is that of The Mona Lisa, completed in the early part of the 16th century. The painting is a portrait of Lisa del Giocondo, and her enigmatic facial expression, detail and composition have all added up to a truly iconic piece of work. Its legacy has been felt throughout the ages – not only have subsequent artists been influenced by The Mona Lisa, it has also been debated, analysed and talked about by historians and critics – the Baedeker Guide regarded it as “The most celebrated work of Leonardo in the Louvre”, and has also been seen countless times by visitors queuing to see this masterpiece in the Louvre.


The other two notable High Renaissance artists are Michelangelo and Raphael. Michelangelo's best-known work is that of the painting of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, which was carried out in the first two decades of the 16th century. The design of the ceiling mainly comprises nine scenes from the Book of Genesis. The extraordinary design has attracted many theories with regards to its subject matter. The most obvious one is that of humanity's need for salvation which was offered by God through Jesus. But in addition, aside from the symbolism of the early church, it has also been argued that some aspects of the ceiling design also relate to Renaissance schools of thought – more precisely, the attempt to reconcile humanist beliefs with Christian theology. Because Humanists thought that people should answer to God directly rather than through the church, the church took the view that because people were flawed beings with the potential for sin, the two viewpoints clashed. However, Michelangelo's vision reconciles these two opposing viewpoints by presenting religious and Humanist aspects without any sense of visual conflict (for example, non-religious figures like the Sibyls appear). Again, this work of art has influenced both future artists and has attracted countless visitors over the years.

Sistine Chapel Michelangelo

Raphael was a great admirer of both Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci (he was notably younger than both – 18 years younger than Michelangelo and nearly 30 than Leonardo). If Raphael is maybe not quite as well known as either artist, it can be argued that his work is a unique amalgamation of many of the High Renaissance artists' styles and techniques. His work takes on board, for example, the lighting techniques and the detailed realism of Leonardo and the notable colours of his tutor Perugino.

One of the most notable works of Raphael is The School Of Athens, painted between 1510 and 1511 as part of a group of wall frescoes in the Vatican chambers. This work of art is regarded as Raphael's masterpiece in that it sums up the Classical spirit of the High Renaissance. By the 15th century, Classical/Greek mythology and philosophy were key aspects of the Renaissance. So with that in mind, The School Of Athens is very much a celebration of Greek philosophy, and while most of the identities are notably ambiguous, critics have argued that Raphael pays homage to every Greek philosopher in the painting. Plato and Aristotle are the most recognisable figures in the painting, although it has also been argued that Plato is modelled on Leonardo da Vinci, while Heraclitus is modelled on Michelangelo.

In addition to The School Of Athens, Raphael is also well remembered for his smaller Florentine pictures, La Belle Jardinière and The Sistine Madonna. Both are again iconic works of art even to this day – the former resides in the Louvre, while The Sistine Madonna has influenced future designs of stained glass windows. Perhaps more significantly, the two cherubs at the bottom of this picture have been reproduced countless times on various items of merchandise.

Scuola di Atene

And that's maybe the greatest legacy of all: In that so much of this High Renaissance art is familiar to people in the 21st century today. Whether they are visiting the Louvre, studying the works of these artists, or buying postcards, pictures or any form of merchandise, people are still acknowledging all that great work from centuries ago. Timeless works of art that are both studied and enjoyed the whole world over.