Renaissance art and architecture

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Renaissance art and architecture, works of art and structures produced in Europe during the Renaissance.

Art of the Renaissance

The Italian Renaissance

A radical break with medieval methods of representing the visible world occurred in Italy during the second half of the 13th cent. The sculptor Nicola Pisano evoked an interest in the forms of classical antiquity. In painting Giotto led the way in giving the human figure a greater sense of physical presence. He also worked toward a more realistic depiction of space, and his efforts were expanded during the 14th cent. in Siena by the Lorenzetti brothers. However, after the Black Death of 1348 came a marked decline in artistic activity as many artists and patrons died.

Florence became the great center of quattrocento (15th-century) art and art theory. The artist began to emerge from the role of artisan to participate in the active current of intellectual pursuits. Together with early humanists (see humanism), artists augmented their veneration of the purely celestial realm with an appreciation of all aspects of physical nature. They shared a growing esteem for the individual and a vital enthusiasm for classical antiquity. The architects Brunelleschi and Alberti and the sculptor Donatello were among the first to visit Rome in order to study the ruins of antiquity and to incorporate many of the ancient principles into their work.

At the same time artists were intensely preoccupied with problems of representing the dimensions of nature on a flat surface. With Masaccio they pioneered in developing a mathematically based illusion of space—the system of perspective. Masaccio and Uccello worked out a geometrical system, whereas Fra Angelico and Fra Filippo Lippi concentrated on a unifying color scheme. While the Florentines inclined toward an abstract simplicity of form, they never lost awareness of the visible world, particularly in their portrayal of the human figure. Antonio Pollaiuolo, Castagno, and above all Leonardo da Vinci were dedicated to the study of anatomy.

During the 15th cent. artists came to be supported not only by churchmen but also by private collectors. Besides commissioning paintings of the traditional sacred themes, these patrons created a new demand for pictures of secular subjects. For the embellishment of private palaces, painters adorned cassone (chest) panels, plates, and walls with allegorical and mythological episodes often derived from literary sources, such as the works of Petrarch and Boccaccio.

To fulfill the patrons' dreams of glory and perpetual fame, the art of portraiture began to flourish. In commemoration of notable citizens and events, medals were designed and struck by great metalworkers, such as Pisanello, in a revival of an ancient practice. Piero della Francesca, Mantegna, and Botticelli painted remarkable portraits of political leaders, at the same time emphasizing their individual characteristics and conveying an air of princely splendor. Chief among the Florentine patrons were the Medici, who fostered a group of poets, philosophers, and artists. Botticelli and Michelangelo were profoundly influenced by the Neoplatonic philosophy developed in the Medici circle.

Outside Florence there were bursts of artistic activity in Urbino, Mantua, Rimini, Milan, and Naples. Their courts attracted such artists as Piero della Francesca, Mantegna, Antonello da Messina, and Leonardo, as well as a number of Flemish artists who left their mark on N Italian painting. In the early 16th cent. the leadership in Italian art shifted from Florence to Rome. The works of Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael were the culmination of the ideals of the period. These were the men who created the short-lived but glorious style now known as the High Renaissance (c.1490–1520), characterized by order, grandeur, grace, and harmony.

Their successors sought more diversified ideals, and the style known as mannerism followed. Meanwhile, by the beginning of the 16th cent., Venetian art had come into its full glory. The great colorists Giovanni Bellini and Giorgione were succeeded by Titian, Veronese, and Tintoretto, who added a new freedom of brushstroke to the canvas.

The Flemish Renaissance

The superb coloring of the Venetians was achieved as the effects of the golden age of painting in the Low Countries were felt across Europe. In the 1420s Hubert and Jan van Eyck developed an extremely effective technique of oil painting, and with it the ability to render the most subtle variations of light and color. They did not practice the system of geometric perspective, but nonetheless created a convincing appearance of reality. An exquisite sensitivity is reflected in their minute detailing of objects of daily life, which were often symbolic. Robert Campin (often identified with the Master of Flémalle), Roger van der Weyden, and Hugo van der Goes were among the most remarkable masters of 15th-century Flanders. Netherlandish painting was enriched by the wild fantasies of Hieronymus Bosch and the spirited peasant scenes of Pieter Bruegel the elder (see under Bruegel family).

German Art

In Germany, Schongauer and above all Dürer made the first and greatest contributions in the media of woodcuts and engravings. Other important German painters of the 16th cent. included Grünewald and Hans Holbein the younger. In addition, Lucas Cranach the elder straddled the Renaissance and the Reformation, producing mainly court portraits, altar pieces, and paintings.

Renaissance Art Elsewhere in Europe

Many artists in France continued to paint fine altarpieces in the Gothic tradition. Under the influence of Flemish and Italian art, France produced admirable portraitists such as Fouquet and Clouet. Francis I invited Italian painters and architects to his court, including Leonardo and Andrea del Sarto. In the 1530s the influence of mannerism began to be felt, particularly at Fontainebleau (see Fontainebleau, school of). Artists in England and Spain were influenced by Netherlandish painting until the 16th cent., when the Italian Renaissance began to permeate Europe.

Architecture of the Renaissance

During the Renaissance the ideals of art and architecture became unified in the acceptance of classical antiquity and in the belief that humanity was a measure of the universe. The rebirth of classical architecture, which took place in Italy in the 15th cent. and spread in the following century through Western Europe, terminated the supremacy of the Gothic style.

Italian Renaissance Architecture

In Italy, there was a rediscovery and appropriation of the classical orders of architecture. Rome's structural elements, its arches, vaults, and domes, as well as its decorative forms, served as an open treasury, from which the designers of the 15th cent. unstintingly borrowed, adapting them to new needs in original combinations. Although built using Roman motifs, the churches, town halls, palaces, and villas showed new developments in plan and structure. The stone houses of Florence, of which the Medici-Riccardi Palace by Michelozzi is a principal example, are marked by a rugged simplicity. On the other hand, fondness for the free use of beautiful details led, particularly in Lombardy, to graceful designs, in which the more massive appearance of the building was submerged; the facade of the Certosa di Pavia exemplifies this spirit.

Brunelleschi, the earliest great architect of the Renaissance, produced its first examples (c.1420) in the Florentine churches of San Lorenzo and Santo Spirito and in the revolutionary plan for the dome of the Cathedral of Florence. Alberti was the first important architectural theoretician of the Renaissance. In his works he was strongly influenced by the writings of the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius; the books of both men served as a basic source of inspiration for later architects. In ecclesiastical building there was a trend toward the centralized structure. Brunelleschi, Filarete, Francesco di Giorgio, and Leonardo designed many variations on the theme, creating polygonal and Greek-cross plans. The greatest realization of the circular form was achieved by Bramante in his Tempietto (c.1502) in Rome.

Numerous palaces and churches erected in Rome gave the city architectural preeminence, and Raphael, Peruzzi, Vignola, and Michelangelo worked there, as well as Antonio da Sangallo the younger, whose Farnese Palace exemplifies the period's highest standards. Work on St. Peter's Church was begun by Bramante and carried on by a succession of the finest artists and architects that Italy produced. The classical orders, often on a monumental scale, now played the chief role in decoration. Palladio, Serlio, Vignola, and others codified the system of proportioning, and their ideas were extremely influential in the development of European architecture.

French Architecture

In France in the 16th cent., Renaissance taste made one of its first tentative appearances in the Louis XII wing of the château of Blois. In the first period Gothic traditions persisted in plan, structure, and exterior masses, onto which fresh and graceful Renaissance details were grafted. The movement was sponsored by Francis I, a prolific builder. Handsome and livable châteaus replaced grim feudal castles. Fontainebleau, Chambord, and Azay-le-Rideau are famous examples.

The beginning (1546) of the construction of the Louvre by Pierre Lescot usually serves as the opening date of the classical period. Classical proportions and methods of composition were assimilated, and the use of the orders became general. Although Italian models were followed, a distinctively French brand of classicism took form. The leading architects were Lescot, Philibert Delorme, and the Androuet du Cerceau family. Jean Goujon and others contributed fine sculptural adornments.

Renaissance Architecture Elsewhere in Europe

In England the Renaissance flowered in the middle of the 16th cent. The Elizabethan style and the Jacobean style applied classical motifs while retaining medieval forms. The move toward a pure and monumental classical style was largely the work of Inigo Jones, whose royal banqueting hall (1619) in London decisively established Palladian design in English architecture.

In Germany, about the middle of the 16th cent., the medieval love for picturesque forms still dominated, although transferred to classical motifs. Freely interpreted and resembling the Elizabethan work in England, these gave full play to originality and craftsmanship. The style, however, lacking truly great architects, failed to achieve full development as in France and England. Nuremberg and Rothenburg ob der Tauber are rich in works of the early period.

In the first period of the Renaissance in Spain, Gothic and Moorish forms (see Mudéjar) intermingled with the new classical ones. Under the leadership of Francisco de Herrera the younger, who imported strictly classical principles from Italy, the second period was one of correctness and formality. The palace of Charles V at Granada (1527) is its finest product.


See A. Blunt, Artistic Theory in Italy, 1450–1600 (1940, repr. 1982) and Art and Architecture in France, 1500–1700 (4th ed. 1980); E. H. J. Gombrich, Norm and Form (1966) and Symbolic Images (1972); R. Wittkower, Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism (3d ed. 1962, repr. 1965); C. Gilbert, History of Renaissance Art (1973); S. J. Freedberg, Painting of the High Renaissance in Rome and Florence (2 vol., 1985); P. Murray, The Architecture of the Italian Renaissance (repr. 1986); C. Harbison, The Mirror of the Artist: Northern Renaissance Art in Its Historical Context (1995); L. Barkan, Unearthing the Past: Archaeology and Aesthetics in the Making of Renaissance Culture (2000).

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