This series of articles outlines the history of the Italian Renaissance, concentrating on paintings made in and around the city of Florence. This article presents the contents of the articles composing the series.
A selection of paintings showing episodes from the history of Florence.
A selection of landscape paintings of the city.
1 Was there art before the Renaissance?
Far from being a gap in the history of painting, the period between the collapse of the Roman Empire and the start of the ‘Gothic’ was marked by great works of art, and considerable change.
2 A Gothic introduction
By the end of the fourteenth century, the city of Florence had wealthy patrons with a love of art, a flourishing university and intellectuals, many of whom were humanist, and painters who were steadily moving towards a very different style from that of their predecessors.
3 What changed in the Renaissance and when?
Most of of the changes are subjective, and when traced through different paintings by various artists vary widely. Three can be investigated more formally: perspective projection, use of oil paints, and the appearance of secular genres such as landscapes. The earliest dates for those fairly objective landmarks distinguishing Renaissance painting are thus 1420, 1475, and 1504. They not only emphasise how late painting changed compared with literature, but show how the Renaissance wasn’t a sudden event, but an evolution which proceeded over a period of about a century.
4 Was perspective essential to the Renaissance?
Perhaps the most important question is how much perspective was an end in itself. The evidence from the century or so before Masaccio’s Holy Trinity suggests that it was just part of the quest for realism, for the creation of paintings which more closely resembled what we perceive of the world around us. As such, it was but a sign of the Renaissance rather than a requirement.
5 Changing to oils
Oil paints were an enabler and accelerant which arrived late on the scene, and later in Florence than in Venice.
6 How patrons shaped the Renaissance
While the artists of the Renaissance undoubtedly chose their own course in the development of their art, it was their patrons who funded, enabled, and occasionally directed its movement towards realism and secular subjects. Ultimately it was they who were at least in part responsible for the genres which became popular.
7 Fabrics and materials
The development of the rendering of surface textures only followed what had occurred with the adoption of oils in the Northern Renaissance. What happened next was initally unique to the southern Renaissance, but was exported north. As early as 1501, Giovanni Bellini and Giorgione started to use impasto, initially in fine details of fabrics, metalwork, and jewellery, where those details were applied in the upper layer of paint.
8 The rise of narrative painting
A greater challenge to the artist, and perhaps the viewer too, is to integrate two or more scenes from one story into a single image, what I prefer to refer to as multiplex narrative, as two or more scenes are multiplexed into its single image.
Raphael’s Sistine Madonna is built upon Leonardo’s pyramid or triangle, here featuring two trompe l’oeil cherubs with tousled hair at its foot as gentle touches of humour. The upper reaches of its triangular form are emphasised by the curtains, another part of the trompe l’oeil to fool the viewer into thinking that they were looking at a painting behind real curtains, at least until they got close.
10 Manuals and learning
In 1435, Alberti completed his book Della pittura (On Painting), dedicated to Brunelleschi, the first instructional manual to distinguish three components in painted images, those of form, composition and colour. His account includes a simplified description of perspective projection which enabled many artists to use it in practice. From about 1500, Piero della Francesca’s De Prospectiva Pingendi (On Perspective for Painting) superceded its account of perspective. In 1550, Vasari published his collected biographies of artists, known in short as Lives of the Artists, marking the start of modern art history.
11 The end of the Renaissance
By the end of the sixteenth century, the late phase of the Renaissance, known as Mannerism, gave way to Caravaggism and the Baroque. The Renaissance was in the past, and Florence was no longer the beacon that it had been.
12 A timeline in paintings
A timeline of some of the milestone paintings which marked most of the changes which took place.