The early Renaissance began with the rediscovery of ancient classical texts and comprised much of the 15th century in Italy. During this era, painters such as Botticelli, Fra Angelico and Masaccio, and sculptors like Ghiberti and Donatello drew on classical and biblical themes, and experimented with bold new techniques to create works of enduring significance.
Classical and Mythological Themes
Constantinople, one of the great cultural centers of the world, fell to the Ottoman Empire in 1453. In the decades preceding its collapse, dozens of humanist scholars poured into the city to retrieve ancient Greek texts and bring them to Italy. Greek drama, philosophy and mythology became pillars on which the Italian Renaissance rested. During the 1480s, one of the foremost artists of the era, Sandro Botticelli, painted a series of striking mythological scenes in "Venus and Mars," "Pallas and the Centaur," and the iconic "Birth of Venus," in which Venus emerges naked from sea foam. At around the same time, in 1486, a 1,500-year-old text by Vitruvius, "De Architectura," was printed in Italy. During the next century, architects inspired by this work would refashion Rome and Florence in the style of ancient Rome.
Although classical motifs were gaining respectability, the Catholic Church remained the foremost patron of the arts. The church nourished the early Renaissance, both financially and conceptually. For example, the sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti spent 21 years sculpting reliefs of figures from the New Testament onto a double door of the Florence Baptistery. The finished work was so admired that he was commissioned to spend another 27 years sculpting another pair of doors with figures from the Old Testament. Observing the two doors a century later, Michelangelo called them the gates of paradise. Yet even Ghiberti's work is surpassed in genius by that of Donatello, who in his 20s and 30s sculpted statues of St. Peter, St. Mark and King David, which are among the greatest legacies of the Italian Renaissance.
One of the major problems that vexed artists of the early Renaissance was how to create realistic portraits -- a task rendered all the more difficult by the fact that medieval paintings lacked perspective, and two figures separated by a great distance might be the same absolute size. Early 15th-century painter Paolo Uccello sought the assistance of a mathematician in mastering the techniques of perspective, and his discoveries were furthered by Masaccio, who shortly before his death in 1428 painted a series of frescoes depicting the life of St. Peter. In a revolutionary stroke, Masaccio portrayed Christ and each of the 12 apostles as distinct individuals with realistic human anatomy and vivid facial expressions, a move that anticipated Leonardo da Vinci's even more famous "Last Supper" some 60 years later.
While popular culture has passed down the image of the lonely Renaissance artist hunched over his easel, the reality is that the creation of art was just as often a communal affair, with sculptors and painters working alongside potters, carvers, gem-setters and other artisans. Verrochio's studio in Florence was a workshop in which this man of genius mentored other great men of genius. At least one of them, Leonardo da Vinci, would eventually surpass him. In the same manner, when Masaccio was painting his fresco in the Brancacci Chapel, he appears to have befriended and closely studied the works of architect Brunelleschi and sculptor Donatello. Together, these three men would exert an enormous influence on the artists of the High Renaissance.
- Will Durant: The Story of Civilization, Volume 5: The Renaissance: A History of Civilization in Italy from 1304-1576 AD
- Web Gallery of Art: Allegoric Paintings (1480s)
- Visual Arts: Architecture: Vitruvius
- The Art Institute of Chicago: The Gates of Paradise
- Mary McCarthy: The Stones of Florence
- Museums in Florence: Brancacci Chapel
- Patricia Lee Rubin: Images and Identity in Fifteenth-Century Florence
- Photo Credit wjarek/iStock/Getty Images
- Francis Ames-Lewis: The Intellectual Life of the Early Renaissance Artist
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