The term Renaissance was first used by French art historians of the late 18th century in reference to the reappearance of antique architectural forms on Italian buildings of the early 16th century. The term was later expanded to include the whole of the 15th and 16th centuries and, by extension, to include sculpture, painting, and the decorative arts. There is still considerable disagreement among art historians as to whether the term should be restricted to a phenomenon that had its origins in Italy and then spread through western Europe (the point of view taken here) or whether directly contemporary developments north of the Alps, and especially in the Low Countries, should be included on an equal footing with what was happening in Italy.
The controversies that raged after the publication of Jacob Burckhardt's Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (English translation, 1878) have abated, and the time span of the Renaissance is generally accepted as the period from roughly 1400 to about 1600, although certain geographical areas and certain art forms require greater latitude. This period is characterized as a rebirth or, better, the birth of attitudes and aims that have their closest parallel in the art of classical antiquity. Classical literature and, less often, classical painting were invoked as a justification for these new aims. The theoretical writings on art from the period indicate that man was the dominant theme. In religious painting, drama and emotion are expressed in human terms. From the late Middle Ages the theme of the Madonna enthroned with Christ Child is presented in an earthly setting peopled by mortals. This strongly humanistic trend serves to explain, at least in part, the development of portraiture as an independent genre and the ever-increasing number of profane, usually classical mythological, subjects in the art of the Renaissance. The painting of landscapes, as the earthly setting of man's activity, has its first modest beginnings in this period.
The role of art and of the artist began to take on modern form during the Renaissance.Leon Battista Alberti's De pictura (Della pittura), a treatise on the theory of painting, as opposed to the techniques of preparing and applying colours, appeared in Florence in 1435-36. The directions that art and art theory were to follow for the next 470 years are already present in this little book. The artist is considered to be a creator rather than a technician because he uses his intellect to measure, arrange, and harmonize the elements of his creation. The intellectual activity of art is demonstrated, by a series of comparisons, to be equivalent to that of the other liberal arts. Influences such asAlberti's book led to a new evaluation of the artist, with painters and their works being sought after by the rulers of Europe (Michelangelo and Titian were actually ennobled); the result was that great collections containing the works of major and minor masters were formed. At the same time the artist slowly began to free himself from the old guild system and to band together with his colleagues, first in religious confraternities and later in academies of art, which, in turn, were to lead to the modern art school. During the Renaissance, practitioners of all the arts evolved from anonymous craftsmen to individuals, often highly respected ones. Painting became more intellectual, sometimes to its own disadvantage, and changed from serving as a vehicle for didacticism or decoration to becoming a self-aware, self-assured form of expression.
For the sake of convenience, painting of the Renaissance is divided into three periods, although there is considerable overlap depending upon the painter and the place. The early Renaissance is reckoned to cover the period from about 1420 to 1495. The High Renaissance, or classic phase, is generally considered to extend from 1495 to 1520, the death of Raphael. The period of Mannerism and what has more recently been called late Renaissance painting is considered to extend from the 1520s to approximately 1600.
Early Renaissance in Italy
The early Renaissance in Italy was essentially an experimental period characterized by the styles of individual artists rather than by any all-encompassing stylistic trend as in the High Renaissance or Mannerism. Early Renaissance painting in Italy had its birth and development in Florence, from which it spread to such centres as Urbino, Ferrara, Padua, Mantua, Venice, and Milan after the middle of the century.
The political and economic climate of the Italian Renaissance was often unstable; Florence, however, did at least provide an intellectual and cultural environment that was extremely propitious for the development of art. Although the direct impact of humanist literary studies upon 15th-century painting has generally been denied, three writers of the 15th century (Alberti, Filarete, and Enea Silvio Piccolomini, later Pope Pius II) drew parallels between the rebirth of classical learning and the rebirth of art. The literature of antiquity revealed that in earlier times both works of art and artists had been appreciated for their own intrinsic merits. Humanist studies also fostered a tendency, already apparent in Florentine painting as early as the time of Giotto, to see the world and everything in it in human terms. In the early 15th century Masaccio emphasized the human drama and emotions in his painting "The Expulsion" (Brancacci Chapel, Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence) rather than the theological implications of the act portrayed. Masaccio in his "Trinity" (Santa Maria Novella, Florence) and Fra Angelico in his San Marco altarpiece seem to be much more concerned with the human relations between the figures in the composition than with the purely devotional aspects of the subject. In the same way, the painter became more and more concerned with the relations between the work of art and the observer. This latter aspect of early 15th-century Florentine painting relies in great part on the invention of the one-point perspective system, which derives in turn from the new learning and the new vision of the world. The empirical system devised through mathematical studies by the architect Filippo Brunelleschi was given theoretical form and universal application by Alberti in De pictura. In this system all parts of the painting bear a rational relation to each other and to the observer, for the observer's height and the distance he is to stand from the painting are controlled by the artist in laying out his perspective construction. By means of this system the microcosm of the painting and the real world of the observer become visually one, and the observer participates, as it were, in what he observes. To heighten the illusion of a painting as a window on the world, the Italian artists of the early 15th century turned to a study of the effects of light in nature and how to represent them in a painting, a study of the anatomy and proportions of man, and a careful observation of the world about them. It is primarily these characteristics that separate early Renaissance painting from late medieval painting in Italy.
Florentine painters of the mid-15th century
Masaccio had no true followers or successors of equal stature, though there was a group of other Florentine painters who were about the same age as Masaccio and who followed in his footsteps to a greater or lesser degree: Fra Filippo Lippi, Fra Angelico, and Paolo Uccello.
Fra Filippo Lippi was a Carmelite monk who spent his youth and early manhood at Santa Maria del Carmine, whereMasaccio's work was daily before his eyes. His earliest datable work, the "Madonna and Child" (1437) from Tarquinia Corneto, relies on the Madonna from the Pisa altarpiece, but in his Christ Child Fra Filippo already reveals an earthiness and sweetness unlike anything by Masaccio. "The Madonna and Child with Two Angels" (Uffizi, Florence)--with its urchin-angels, lumpy Christ Child, and elegant Madonna--is perhaps one of his best-known late works; the placement of the Madonna before an open window is one of the key sources for later Renaissance portraiture, including Leonardo da Vinci's "Mona Lisa," while the elegance and sweetness of the Madonna were to have their greatest reflection in the work of Fra Filippo Lippi's student, Botticelli.
Born about the same time as Masaccio, Fra Angelico was a Dominican monk who lived at Fiesole (just outside Florence) and at San Marco in Florence. His earliest documented work, the "Linaiuoli Altarpiece" (Museum of San Marco, Florence) of 1433, continues much that is traditional to medieval art, although the male saints in the wings (side pieces of a composite painting, typically a tripartite altarpiece) already reveal the influence of Masaccio. The altarpiece that he executed between 1438 and 1440 for the high altar of San Marco is one of the landmarks of early Renaissance art. It is the first appearance in Florence of the sacra conversazione, a composition in which angels, saints, and sometimes donors occupy the same space as the Madonna and Christ Child and in which the figures seem to be engaged in conversation. In addition to inaugurating a new phase of religious painting, the altarpiece reveals the influence of Masaccio in the sculptural treatment of the figures and an accurate awareness of the perspective theories of painting expressed by Alberti in his treatise. At about the same date, Fra Angelico was commissioned to decorate the monks' cells in San Marco. The nature of the commission--traditional devotional images whose execution required assistants--apparently turned Fra Angelico toward the religious and didactic works that characterize the end of his career; e.g., the Chapel of Nicholas V in the Vatican.
Paolo Uccello's reputation as a practitioner of perspective is such that his truly remarkable gifts as a decorator tend to be overlooked. Studies of his extant works suggest that he was more interested in medieval optics than in the rational perspective system of Alberti and Brunelleschi. His earliest documented work, the "Sir John Hawkwood" fresco of 1436 in Florence cathedral, is a decorative work of a very high order and one that respects the integrity of the wall to which it is attached. Uccello is perhaps best known for the three panels depicting "The Battle of San Romano," executed about 1456 for the Medici Palace (now in the National Gallery, London; the Louvre, Paris; and the Uffizi). The paintings were designed as wall decoration and as such resemble tapestries: Uccello is concerned only with creating a small boxlike space for the action, for he closes off the background with a tapestry-like interweaving of men and animals. His primary concern is with the rhythmic disposition of the elements of the composition across the surface, an emphasis that he reinforces with the repetition of arcs and circles. Uccello's concern with the decorative and linear properties of painting had a great impact on the cassone (chest) painters of Florence and found its greatest reflection and refinement in the work of Botticelli.
Masaccio's greatest impact can be seen in the works of three younger painters, Andrea del Castagno, Domenico Veneziano, and Piero della Francesca. Castagno was the leader of the group. His "Last Supper" of about 1445, in the former convent of Sant'Apollonia in Florence, reveals the influence of Masaccio in the sculptural treatment of the figures, the painter's concern with light, and his desire to create a credible and rationally conceived space. At the same time Castagno betrays an almost pedantic interest in antiquity, which roughly parallels a similar development in letters, by the use of fictive marble panels on the rear wall and of sphinxes for the bench ends, both of which are direct copies of Roman prototypes. In the last years of his life, Castagno's style changed abruptly; he adopted a highly expressive emotionalism that paralleled a similar development in the work of his contemporaries. His "The Trinity with Saints" in the church of the Santissima Annunziata, Florence, was originally planned with calm and balanced figures, as the underpainting reveals. In the final painting, however, the figures, though sculpturally conceived, project an agitation heightened by the emaciated figure of St. Jerome and the radically conceived figure of the crucified Christ. The optimism, rationality, and calm human drama of earlier Renaissance painting in Florence were beginning to give way to a more personal, expressive, and linear style.
One aspect of this new direction is met in the work of the enigmatic Domenico Veneziano, the second of the three principal painters who looked to Masaccio. His name indicates that he was a Venetian, and it is known that he arrived in Florence about 1438. He was associated with Castagno, and perhaps Fra Angelico, and helped to train the somewhat younger Piero della Francesca. His St. Lucy altarpiece of about 1445-50 (Uffizi) is an example of thesacra conversazione genre and contains references to the painting of Masaccio and the early 15th-century sculptureof the Florentine Nanni di Banco. The colour, however, is Domenico's own and has no relation to the Florentine tradition. His juxtaposition of pinks and light greens and his generally blond tonality point rather to his Venetian origins. In the painting he has lowered the vanishing point in order to make the figures appear to tower over the observer, with the result that the monumentality of the painting is enhanced at the expense of the observer's sense of participating in the painting.
Piero della Francesca received his early training in Florence but spent the active part of his career outside the city in such centres as Urbino, Arezzo, Rimini, and his native Borgo San Sepolcro, in Umbria. His "Flagellation of Christ" (late 1450s), in the National Gallery of the Marches, Urbino, is a summary of early 15th-century interest in mathematics, perspective, and proportion. The calm sculptural figures are placed in clear, rational space and bathed in a cool light. This gives them a monumental dignity that can only be compared to early 5th-century-BC Greek sculpture. Much the same tendency can be seen in Piero's great fresco cycle in the church of San Francesco in Arezzo