The Renaissance: a brief summary

February 29, 2012 § Leave a comment

The word Renaissance is a French word meaning re-birth and that is literally what it refers to. It refers to a re-birth of arts and culture into Europe after the Middle Ages that basically passed by without the arts. The word Renaissance is often interpreted, however, as two things. Firstly it is often interpreted as everything that occurred during the Renaissance Period such as the wars fought, governments that ruled and colonies settled. But Renaissance also refers to the actual revolution, which lay solely in the arts and focused around one of the city-states of Italy, Florence. This revolution was the resurgence of creative study and the glorification of artists, painters and sculptures instead of them being treated as baggage in the community. This revolution really only effected the higher parts of the social ladder and the peasants were still too poor to enjoy such luxuries.

The central issue in the development of Renaissance Art in Italy was the renewed connection with Classical Antiquity, that is, ancient philosophy, literature and science from Ancient Greece and Rome. The philosophy that underpinned this interest in Classical Antiquity is referred to as ‘humanism’ – a celebration of humanity and its ability and power to create and discover new things. The Renaissance is commonly divided into two parts, the Early Renaissance and the High Renaissance. During this time the emergence of art and architecture was an ongoing process.

Early Renaissance generally refers to the Renaissance art produced in the 15th century (1400s). Florence, a city in Italy, was the world center for artistic thinking because of its political situation. Rather than being an aristocracy like most European states, Florence was a Republic, a form of governance that respected artists as great men instead of mere puppets of those in power. Further, wealthy families such as the Medici and Pazzi families in Florence had enough money to commission artists to create incredible artworks that would display their wealth to the rest of society. In an effort to compete for social power in this way, these patrons of the arts provided both the funds and new uses for art that helped generate the artistic growth in Florence during this time. Around 1450 a lot of new artists appeared in Italy such as Botticelli and Pollaiuolo who came to settle in Florence with its ideal political and social circumstances.

Some of the principal figures in the Early Renaissance artistic revolution were the three artists Donatello (a sculptor), Masaccio (a painter) and Brunelleschi (an architect). These and other Renaissance artists sought to find a better way to paint or create the natural world. They tried to show human personality and behaviour inside their painting and sculptures to create a more vivid image. This was a major advance from the medieval period as the artist’s purpose was no longer to only create art for within monasteries and ‘brainwash’ the population with art. Rational inquiry was the way to create this idea of perfect representation of the body. There was therefore a push to discover the proper laws of proportion for architecture and the correct representation of the human body in paintings. Three important concepts during the whole Renaissance were proportion, contraposto and linear perspective.

The High Renaissance period spanned for a brief period of about 75 years and went from approximately 1495 to 1520. It was said to have been created by the artistic genius of people like Leonardo da Vinci, Titian, Donato Bramante, Michelangelo and Raphael. All people who study art in the Renaissance period consider Leonardo da Vinci a model of perfection and excellence. He was in fact an illegitimate son of a Florentine notary who was accepted into the Painters Guild of Florence when he was 20. He was an enigmatic genius who began a huge variety of projects, many of which were never finished. His impressive intellect gave him an insight into the natural sciences in which he was interested for he understood that how to see was the basis to understanding nature. Some of his most famous works were the Mona Lisa, The Last Supper and The Virgin of the Rocks.

A significant artistic development during the Renaissance was the expansion of the types of subject matter artists were allowed to focus on. Up until just before the Renaissance, art was mainly created about religious themes because it’s main context was churches and monasteries. Because wealthy patrons were buying their own art during the Renaissance, they could dictate the subject matter for themselves. Mythological scenes from Ancient Greek and Roman myths became a popular subject. Portraiture also became popular given the motivations of art patrons to show themselves off. Of course, the Catholic church remained a significant influence in society at this time, so a lot of Renaissance art developed religious themes such as the Virgin and Child (baby Jesus with Mary).

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