The ‘Renaissance’ (‘rebirth’), which began in Italy in the early 1400s, spread progressively through the rest of Europe, and (from an artistic standpoint at least) ended in the early 1600s, left with us some of the greatest names and most recognisable masterpieces in European art.
After the centuries of intellectual decimation left in the wake of the collapse of the Roman Empire, the Renaissance was a time of increasing enquiry and experimentation in multiple fields. A renewed interest in the workings of the natural world led to the beginnings of modern science. The questioning of old religious assumptions and hierarchies led, in the North, to the Protestant Reformation. The invention of the printing press led to an unprecedented spread of literature, literacy, and literary endeavour. And in art a quest for greater realism led to changes in both technique and subject matter.
One of the most significant technical changes to impact on art in the Renaissance period actually occurred at the end of the Gothic, with the invention of oil paints. Another, based on formulas developed by people like Leon Battista Alberti (1404-72), was an understanding of perspective, which allows an image to be painted onto a two-dimensional surface in such a way as to give an illusion of the existence of the third dimension, depth. Key to this illusion is the concept of a vanishing point: that which is ‘closer’ to the viewer is painted larger, and images become progressively smaller as they ‘move farther away’ until, ultimately, one can imagine that the painting continues invisibly into the ‘distance’ beyond the smallest objects. Although some earlier artists had stumbled upon this idea the new, more scientific, approach to art led to its consistent adoption.
A shift in cultural attitudes also permitted a widespread return to sculpture and, in some circumstances, the depiction of the nude: while ‘real’ people were still painted clothed, Biblical and mythical characters such as Adam and Eve or the Greco-Roman gods and goddesses, could now readily be depicted unclothed.
In Italy the artistic world was divided into the Florentine and Venetian schools, the former dominated by Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) and the artistic ‘holy trinity’ of Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Michelangelo (1475-1564), and Raphael (1483-1520) (as well as the sculptor Donatello (1386-1456), for those like me who can never hear those names without thinking of the Ninja Turtles), and the latter by Titian (Tiziano Vincelli, 1488-1576), Tintoretto (1518-1594) and ‘El Greco’ (‘the Greek’ – Doménikos Theotokópoulos, 1541-1614). These last two in particular would be at the forefront of the Mannerist style, with its bright colours and exaggerated elegance, which developed in the late Renaissance.
Whether Florentine or Venetian, the main subject matter of the Italian Renaissance artists was much the same. Portraiture was coming into its own, with the wealthy and powerful now clamouring to have themselves and their families immortalised by the most fashionable artists. In religious art images of the Virgin Mary with the infant Jesus became increasingly popular, while an interesting conflation of angels with Classical images of Cupid/Eros led to the creation of the ‘Putti’, or ‘cherub’ – chubby little boys with wings, very different from the infinitely-more-intimidating biblical Cherubim. Classical myths, too, began to find their way back into the artistic vocabulary, which I’m sure was a purely aesthetic decision and had absolutely nothing to do with the commercial appeal of images of gorgeous nude or scantily-clad women!
When the Renaissance reached the north of Europe, in around 1500, it was embraced by a very different cultural climate. The Reformation emphasised sobriety, individual piety, and a rejection of the Catholic ‘cult’ (as they viewed it) of the saints and the Virgin. There are no cute little cherubs here. Portraiture, however, was extremely popular, particularly with one of the most influential artists in the Northern Renaissance, Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528). If you think contemporary teenaged girls spend a lot of time and effort taking the perfect selfie, I invite you to pause for a moment and reflect on the time, effort, and expense required to produce not one, but three, self-portraits in oils.
Dürer, like some of the artists in Venice, where he had studied, includes a miniature landscape in the background of his portrait, but in the North landscape was about to come out of the background and into the limelight as a genre in its own right. Foremost among these landscape artists is Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1525-69), who also captured sympathetic but unsentimental images of the everyday lives of the Flemish peasantry.
While Brueghel turned his gaze on the labouring classes, Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/8-1543) focused his attention not only on the nobility but also the growing bourgeoisie, painting them with a mixture of luxurious splendour and Protestant sobriety. His ‘The Ambassadors’ (1533) has an interesting feature: while the shelves between the two men display an array of scientific and artistic accoutrements no doubt intended to demonstrate that we are indeed looking at two ‘Renaissance men’, the distorted image at the bottom of the painting resolves itself, when viewed on an angle, into the shape of a skull. ‘Memento mori’, the Reformists intoned: remember, you too shall die. Equally sombre is another Holbein work; disturbingly so, considering that it’s a portrait of his own family. What on Earth, we wonder, was going on in his domestic life to cause such evident sadness?
Religious and Classical subjects still made their appearance in Northern art, particularly as Southern Mannerism spread north via the School of Fontainbleau in France, but, influenced by the landscape tradition, the settings for these are often less idealised and more ‘real’. And the Protestant sense of propriety can at times give the sensuous nudity of the South a subtly sinister twist.
By 1600, in both the North and the South, the Mannerism of the Late Renaissance was beginning to evolve again, this time into the elaborate hyper-real embellishment of the Baroque and Rococo.
Have you been looking, really looking, at these paintings? If, like me, you’re a ‘words’ person I invite you to go back and take the time to really examine them. Think about the details, the colours, the lines. Believe me, it’s worth it.