Renaissance Italy

The Renaissance was a period in European History when classical Greek and Roman culture came to the forefront of intellectual, artistic, and aristocratic consciousness. It was a time when the Hellenic vision was revived and understood as the historical root of Western culture and civilisation. Ancient Greek ideas from Platonism to Epicureanism, and Greco-Roman political thought spanning from civic humanism to the moral primacy of the cardinal virtues (justice, prudence, temperance and courage), formed a point of reference upon which the state of contemporary society and the arts were judged. Renaissance Humanism was an intellectual movement where scholars critiqued the manner in which ancient ideas had been understood and represented throughout the Middle Ages. Humanists advanced a revival of classical learning and were committed to understanding classical texts in the ancient languages in which they were originally written. This meant learning classical Latin, Greek and even Hebrew. This was because the Humanists wanted to gain an authentic understanding of what the ancient texts really meantand the thoughts of those who belonged to ancient civilisation. Antiquity in both its Greek and Roman manifestations became a standard of judgement whereby Renaissance intellectual and political elites would critique their own contemporary culture and the achievements of their own society and medieval predecessors.

Perhaps the main point the Humanists of The Renaissance wanted to make was that an authentic connection to Greco-Roman antiquity in the Middle Ages had broken down and that medieval scholarship was deeply flawed. This was because medieval scholarship was conducted under a model which sought to synthesise all learning and knowledge with Christian orthodoxy. There were certain ancient authors on medicine, astronomy, geography and biology – mainly Aristotle and Galen – considered to be authoritative and conclusive, and rather than critiquing, analysing and interpreting original ancient texts, medieval scholars predominantly studies commentaries on them written by preceding medieval intellectuals. These texts were authored in medieval rather than classical Latin and they derived their understanding of ancient ideas from medieval commentaries rather than original ancient texts or accurate manuscripts. This led scholars in the Renaissance to oppose this scholastic intellectual culture: their mission was to revive an understanding of the ancient world and use it to better understand humanity, politics, art and science.

Francesco Petrarch, the fourteenth century Florentine intellectual was perhaps the pivotal figure who visualised a distinct set of moral, artistic and philosophical values as pertaining to Greco-Roman Antiquity and which had been displaced and lost throughout the Middle Ages. While medieval scholars were aware that the Ancient Greek and Roman worlds were pagan, they were not – in Petrarch’s analysis – familiar with the range of ideas from classical antiquity, nor how dynamic the ancient approach to Philosophy was. Medieval scholars had crowned Aristotle as an authority on the all matters cosmological and to do with the natural order. Humanists like Petrarch would challenge Aristotle’s primacy and regard his thought as ranked among a long trajectory of ancient ideas. Not only were Renaissance Humanists concerned with challenging the authority of the Aristotelian model; they questioned the basis upon which Medieval scholars gained their understanding of Aristotle’s ideas. Humanists wanted to access Aristotelian manuscripts in their original Greek so that they could understand the ideas from their source rather than reading the commentaries and versions written by generations of medieval scholars which speak more of how Aristotle was understood in the Middle Ages than about Aristotle’s actual ideas. Petrarch also went beyond challenging medieval Aristotelianism; he recognised Platonism as having a greater degree of compatibility with Christianity, and Cicero’s writings as illuminating of a virtuous political life. Petrarch went as far as so call for a revival of Roman virtus – the classical civic morality of the Roman Republic. While a man of both the Late Middle Ages and the Early Renaissance, Petrarch is a thinker who personifies the transition from the latter to the former in his explicit recognition of a cultural and moral divide between Hellenic Antiquity and the age in which he lived in a manner which championed Antiquity as an inspiration for positive change: a “light” as opposed to his own “dark” age. This was radical and counter-propositional for his day.

In the arts, the revival of ancient philosophical ideas because of Humanists like Petrarch, Dante, Marsilio Ficino and Pietro Bembo led to new possibilities for artists in their workshops. Hellenic ideas were challenging the visual culture of formalism and the theocentric aesthetic of medieval art. This is because Humanism was bringing more Hellenic ideas into wider literate circles in European society and the educated classes in cities like Florence and Rome were becoming increasingly enthusiastic about the Hellenic vision. While remaining adherents of Christianity and very rarely challenging belief in its core doctrines, Renaissance Europe underwent a remarkable efflorescence of Hellenic spirit. The inflow of ancient texts from Byzantium reshaped the imagination of Europe and opened up a positive receptivity to anthropocentric and naturalistic art.

Manuscript illuminators

Some of the most remarkable expressions of the Late Medieval and Early Renaissance creative imagination lies in illuminated manuscripts. These books or scrolls held in monasteries and libraries which were illustrated by craftsmen using medieval tools, methods and techniques onto parchment or vellum to accompany text. Some painters into the Renaissance, such as Giovani di Paolo (c. 1400-5 – 1482) were also manuscript illuminators who carry this medieval and formalistic aesthetic into their painting. In the painting from the presentation: The Creation of the World and the Expulsion from Paradise (1445), di Paolo did something remarkable and depicted God flying through the air with his divine touch initiating the existence of the terrestrial spheres. This is reminiscent of the Aristotelian conception of the cosmos. The depiction of God himself as a man combined with a conceptual depiction of the terrestrial spheres shows both the use of naturalism and formalism in one picture and the illustrative vision of the manuscript illuminator. That he also depicts Adam and Eve in the nude being expelled from Eden in the same painting, just next to the scene of God in the act of creation shows the stretching of the visual imagination and the ongoing legacy of the Middle Ages and a new sensitivity to naturalism. It is at once Hellenic, Christian, formalistic and naturalistic. The significance of this for our class was to show that examples which combine the ideas we have uncovered so far help us to see them apart while acknowledging that they often intermesh.

Pisano and Roman Antiquity

Nicola Pisano (c. 1220 – 1284) is the Pisan sculptor of the Late Middle Ages who marks a pivotal development in the history of European sculpture; being the first to consciously revive the Roman style with a direct reference to classical sculpture. He was active as a craftsman at a time of great economic development which drove more people into urban centres. This brought the need for more building work which resulted in the rediscovery of many Roman artefacts which inspired artists.

The naturalism of Pisano’s Pulpit in the Baptistry of Pisa in an example of his use of the naturalistic human form to narrate dramatic stories. The depth of relief in the carved panels is evidently influenced by Roman relief sculpture in its naturalism and monumentality. The face of the virgin in the Nativity scene and the Annunciation is reminiscent of a Roman Venus with her head inclined in a manner indicative of human emotion. These sculpted reliefs tell the stories of biblical events which are grounded in naturalism and express them in relatable, human terms.

Nicola Pisano even goes a step further, as early as the thirteenth century in his figure of Fortitude, also on the Pulpit in Pisa: Fortitude here is a male nude personification of a philosophical value. The figure of Fortitude stands contrapposto at the support for the upper section of the pulpit. He is muscular and stands elegantly and expressively with pride. This shows that Pisano had the imagination to use the expressive nude male body to convey the concept of fortitude in a manner akin to the artists of Greco-Roman antiquity. What we see in these examples from Nicola Pisano is a revival of Hellenic thinking – both in naturalism and anthropocentrism – because of how the human form is represented in a natural, even if idealised manner, and because it is a concept of the human and attainable value of fortitude which is being affirmed. We therefore begin to see a revival of Hellenism in the work of Pisano because of these things.

Cimabue, Duccio an Giotto

Another great an innovative artist of the thirteenth century was Cimabue (c. 1240 – 1302). This Florentine painter responded to the rediscovery of Roman art by introducing a greater sense of relief in his work. The figures in his paintings interact more intimately and closely as we see in the Torment of Christ and in the Virgin and Child with Angels. In his small panel paintings, Cimabue shows the ongoing influence of the Byzantine’s in Italian art with their sense of being remote from the natural world but show a greater degree of empathy with human feeling and experience than the Medieval icon proper. Cimabue is recognised as being important for how instrumental he was in the development of Giotto (c. 1267 – 1337), the painter seen by many in the Renaissance such as Cennini and Vasari to have begun a revived authentic Western style having broken at last from the “Greek” manner.

Giotto certainly took naturalism further than any painter since antiquity. His paintings in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua and in the Santa Croce in Florence channel a sincere and self-aware connection to classical art. Giotto attempted to portray his scenes as though they were taking place in nature in the manner of the ancients. He was incredible at showing an immense depth of emotion in the faces of the people he painted – and movement in their actions. Of all the painters in all the history of Western Art, Giotto is possibly the most influential in how he served as a reference point for all Florentine artists of the Renaissance beyond the mannerists of the sixteenth century.

Duccio (c. 1255/60 – c. 1315/18) was a Sienese painter and a contemporary of Giotto. His use of naturalism has a more subtle poetic depth and retains more of the Byzantine sense of the transcendent. In his Temptation of Christ, Duccio depicts Christ, the Devil, and the angels as naturalistic and with a muted dynamism. While the forms of these figures have volume and physical depth, the setting they occupy is symbolic. While the mountains and walled cities are rendered as physical forms in space with some sensitivity to the principles of perspective, they are symbolic because of how small they are in comparison to the figures. This is another example of formalism and naturalism in the same painting. The figures are naturalistic, and the landscape has a degree of naturalism, while the relation between the figures and the landscape is symbolic; amplifying the higher reality and moral value of the figures.

Brunelesci, Ghiberti and Masaccio

It is with these three figures that we mark a new epoch in the visual arts and their theoretical underpinnings. Both in the technical application of mathematical principles of perspective to design and in the understanding of classical antiquity, these artists transformed Renaissance culture and are the chief contributors the Renaissance Proper in the first half of the quattrocento. Filippo Brunelleschi (1337 – 1446), Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378 – 1455), and Masaccio (1401 – 1428) each brought into their work a connection to antiquity that was so original and revolutionary that they shaped the further course of the development of Western Art profoundly. Their contribution was vital to the consolidation of the principles and process of drawing which characterise Renaissance draughtsmanship because their works set the standard upon which later quattrocento and subsequent cinquecento artists would work from.

Brunelleschi’s revival of the Ancient Greek principles of linear perspective enabled artists to generate the visual effect of an infinite regress of space and accurate relative proportions between forms in an environment. This had the remarkable effect of artists to find a way to interact with classical antiquity in a way not attempted in the Middle Ages: Classical art uses perspective to create a naturalistic sense of space and forms within it whereas Medieval art was less concerned with this sort of naturalism. The use of perspective also allowed artists to paint with greater narrative depth and dynamism – conveying the intent of figured in a painting – to make their works narrate on the same level as literature. This made a important contribution to bringing artists to a higher level of recognition because throughout the Middle Ages and into the quattrocento they were considered as craftsmen: equal to carpenters and tailors; not as artists. Perspective allowed the flat painted surface to become a visual world which interacted with the viewers imagination and their own space. Telling them stories and relating their own world with the great narratives of history, mythology and Christianity. Moreover, the use of mathematical schema meant that the skillset and theoretical knowledge used by the design-based arts placed artists closer to intellectuals and poets than the more labour-based craftsmen.

Ghiberti was the incredible sculptor who truly Hellenised the naturalistic nude in a manner that served as a foundation for the future development of Florentine drawing, painting and sculptor. The figures in his sculpture embody the tension and emotionally expressive character of the great naturalistic works of Antiquity. He was instrumental in the development of other great sculptors like Donatello (1386 – 1466) because they were active in his workshop and gained an insight into how he directly responded to classical sculpture. Ghiberti used classical sculpture as inspiration for his expressive figures and built on Brunelleschi’s rediscovery of linear perspective to remarkable effect in his relief sculpture. It is the maturity, subtlety and taste of Ghiberti’s work that granted him the long-lasting esteem of High Renaissance Masters like Michelangelo.

Masaccio’s influence on painting cannot be overstated. He was another artist of the early quattrocento to integrate the principles of perspective as rediscovered and articulated by Brunelleschi into his work to amazing effect. The narrative power, depth of perspective, and naturalistic empathy for life in his paintings established him as a nexus between antiquity and the development of contemporary art in the Renaissance. It was through Masaccio’s frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel and Santa Maria Novella that young apprentices in the late quattrocento like Michelangelo and Pietro Torrigiano were able to learn about the visual rhetoric of combining the human form in a narrative within a believable space. Michelangelo’s earliest surviving drawing is of a figure in the Brancacci Chapel; a testament to Masaccio transformed the manner in which the craft and practice of drawing was learned in the Renaissance.

These three spearheads of the Renaissance are central to our understanding of how the Hellenic past served as a source of ideas for the development of art in the quattrocento. The nucleus of their innovations are the key attributes of the Hellenic vision: naturalism and anthropocentrism. At this point we mark a striking disparity between the work of these three artists and the formal aesthetic of the Romanesque and International Gothic still dominant just decades prior.

Desiderio, Rosellino and Leonardo

Desiderio da Settignano (1428 – 1464), Antonio Rossellino (1427 – 1479) and Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519) were the artists whose work we looked at in order to link this history to our drawing practice for the day. Both the freestanding sculpture and relief carving of Desiderio and Rossellino are fantastic examples of how the preceding developments of the aforementioned artists were build upon. The eccentric and arresting naturalism of Desiderio and the proto-realism[1] of Rossellino show how the reception of both Greek and Roman visual ideas had transformed Renaissance culture.

Leonardo was drawing at a time when it was essential for apprentices to learn about relief. This means giving the drawing a sense of the drawn form lifting from the page. In Leonardo’s apprenticeship under Andre del Verrocchio (1435 – 1488) – one of the central influences on this very initiative who I look to as a source of technical and theoretical inspiration and grounding – it was essential that one uses a process of design to uncover the structure of a form and then articulate its physical undulations. It is more about analysing the structure and fabric of the subject rather than describing the surface or the play of light and shade. The preoccupation with the relief of the drawing was influenced by the contemporary obsession with the legacy of Roman relief sculpture. As we saw earlier, Pisano helped to bring this idea into artistic currency, and it had reached its full flush by the time of Leonardo. The concept of relief was fundamental to the Renaissance apprenticeship in design


[1] I say proto-realism because realism proper is a development which occurred much later on – in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – although some argue that several seventeenth century painters (including Caravaggio and Velázquez) were “realists.” I distinguish realism from naturalism on the basis that realism seeks to mimic the superficial external appearance of material phenomena with objective accuracy. Naturalism, by contrast, delineates the impressions that an external form makes on the subject in order to make a recognisable representation while also channelling a higher vision, intent or meaning – often with a lesser regard to objective accuracy, mimetic description or rendering. I call Rossellino a proto-realist because of the manner in which his sculpture mimics the outer surface of his subjects to a greater degree than the idealism of traditional naturalism.

Sign up to our mailing list!

Sign up to the mailing list for a free weekly study sheet and opportunities to learn and experience the historical process of Renaissance drawing.

By submitting your information, you're giving us permission to email you. You may unsubscribe at any time.