A Short Guide to the Entire History of Italian Renaissance Painting

The art of the Italian Renaissance continues to fascinate and influence us more than four hundred years after it has ended.  But what exactly does the "Italian Renaissance" refer to in terms of painting and how can it best be understood?

Brancacci Chapel: Saint Peter Raising the Son of Theophilus and 
Saint Peter Enthroned as First Bishop of Antioch, Masaccio, 1425, fresco (Santa Maria del Carmine)

The exact parameters are up for debate but I am referring to art created by artists who lived in what is currently considered Italy from 1300 to 1600.  The definitive idea of the "Italian Renaissance" was conceived of in the mid-19th century. When I lecture on this subject I tell my students that the phrase "Italian Renaissance" is a bit misleading for a few reasons.
Temptation and Expulsion, Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo, Vatican, 1508-12

Keep in mind that Italy was not united as a modern country until 1861, during the Renaissance it was governed by several large city-states including The Vatican (Rome), The Kingdom of Naples (ruled after 1504 by the Spanish), the Republic of Florence, the Duchy of Milan, The Republic of Genoa, the Duchy of Savoy (Torino) and Sardinia among others. Due to the different independent city-states the art and architecture from each region was in fact quite different and should be noted as such rather than being thought of as one overall "Italian" style.

The three hundred year period known as the Renaissance (the rebirth of classical arts and humanities) can be further broken into several chronological periods.  Contemporary writer Giorgio Vasari conceived of the Trecento, Quattrocento and Cinquecento to describe the 1300's, 1400's and 1500's and I find that terminology useful as well as a way to describe the artistic differences between the early, middle and later periods.

Here then is our Short Guide to the Entire History of Italian Renaissance Painting:

Early Renaissance/Trecento (the 1300's)

Virgin Enthroned with Angels, Cimabue,                                  The Ognissanti Madonna, Giotto,
c-1290-95,tempera on panel, Louvre                                      1306-10, tempera on panel, Uffizi

The art of the Trecento is considered to be Medieval by some scholars and the start of the Renaissance by others.  The purpose of art at this time was primarily to teach Christianity and Biblical stories and was primarily found in churches.  Paintings typically used egg tempera on wood panels, the egg yolk was used as a binder for loose pigments.  This method was later supplanted by using oil such as linseed oil as a binder but egg tempera is still used today.

The background was a thin sheet of gold leaf carefully pressed on a thin surface of "bole" which was a red clay.  This helped the gold adhere to the panel and also helped it have a warm color.  

The idea of realism wasn't important as it would be later, the purpose of these devotional panels was to both teach people of Christianity and help the faithful reflect on God, Christ, Mary, Saints and Angels. Trecento devotional paintings were influenced by Eastern Orthodox Icon paintings.

Giotto di Bondone is considered by many to be the father of the Renaissance, compare his more realistic Madonna on the right with that of his master Cimabue.  Giotto started including individual expressions and a sense of perspective to his painting style.

Lamentation of Christ, Giotto, c-1305
fresco, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua    

Giotto's new use of realism can best be seen in his two major cycles of frescoes, one at the church of St. Francis of Assisi and the other at the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua.  The art of fresco was the most difficult painting method.  It involved adding pigment to fresh plaster, when it dried it would be permanently sealed.  Its permanence was attractive, that and it's ability to cover much more space than a devotional panel is what caused this type of painting to be so popular in the Renaissance.

Look at an example of Giotto's fresco above, the new naturalistic style became extremely popular.  Giotto moved away from the Iconographic portrayal of religious figures to depict each individual and his images were quite powerful.  His style was influential upon other artists, such as the Sienese painter Simone Martini, for the rest of the century.

Christ Carrying the Cross, Simone Martini, tempera on panel, 1333, The Louvre

The Renaissance had begun, in art as well as in the sciences and humanities.  However due to wars and plagues the artistic inventions of the Renaissance waned for a time until the early 1400's.

Middle Renaissance/Quatrocento (the 1400's)
One of the things that sets Italian Renaissance Quattrocento art apart from earlier art is the use of perspective to add depth and realism.  Sculptor and architect Filippo Brunelleschi carefully observed art and ancient Roman architecture and through his observations developed the modern system of single point perspective using a vanishing point.  The first painter to incorporate this new style was Masaccio in his St. Peter fresco cycle in Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence done around 1425 (see example below).

 The Tribute Money, Masaccio, 1425, fresco, Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence

This new perspective allowed multiple figures to occupy a space and not seem stacked on top of each other as in older paintings (compare Masaccio with Cimabue's Madonna).  Figures sat in different points on a plane and lines within architecture all converged at the same point in space.  Examples of both can be seen in Masaccio's fresco The Tribute Money.

Madonna and Child with Two Angels, Fra Filippo Lippi, 1465,
egg tempera on wood panel, Uffizi

Other hallmarks of the Quattrocento (or middle Renaissance) use of perspective are a clear foreground, middle ground and background within a painting.  The colors in the background would be faded and grayish in tone.  To add the sense of a background many artists such as Lippi (above) would set up a portraiture scene with a window in the background so that the viewer could see a landscape outside.  Madonnas and other figures were painted using life models rather than copying older painting or sculptures.

Oculus from the Camera degli Sposi (wedding chamber), Andrea Mantegna, 1465-74
fresco, Palazzo Ducale, Mantua, Italy

Andrea Mantegna from the Veneto region is thought as being the first painter to develop foreshortening in his paintings.  A good example can be seen above in the small fresco used to decorate the ceiling of the wedding chamber of the Ducal Palace in Mantua.

The figures and perspective have been altered to create a convincing illusion of depth when seen from below.  The surface they have been painted on is flat but due to the use of foreshortening appears to continue upward.  In Italian there is an expression for this "di sotto in su" which means to be seen from below upwards and this idea began to be incorporated into painting, sculpture and architecture.

Christ Giving the Keys to Saint Peter, Perugino, 1481-82, fresco
Sistine Chapel walls, Vatican, Rome

This period in the Renaissance is also noted for its sense of perfect harmony and proportion, again this harmony was used in painting, sculpture and architecture as well as music and writing.  Art was symmetrical and balanced, look at the example above by Perugino.  Here the artist uses a balance of shape, form, color and movement.

Landscapes and figures were idealized and beauty in all things was emphasized.  Common forms and shapes were circles, domes, squares, rounded arches, triangular compositions and a floor or ground which had lines or a grid which went back in space to emphasize the new perspective.  Perugino was from the city of Perugia in the Umbrian region and was one of the teachers of Raphael who acquired his master's sense of harmony.

The Birth of Venus, Alessandro Botticelli, 1486, egg tempera on canvas, Uffizi

For centuries Christian art and artists shunned the arts and literature of the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations as being pagan or heathen.  However the Renaissance is so described as it was a "rebirth" of Classical ideas.  The knowledge of the ancients was once again revered and art now reflected the combination of Christian values with Classical knowledge.  A good example of this can be seen in Botticelli's well know painting The Birth of Venus.

There are many theories as to the exact message in this work, but at this time we now see a turning towards Classical mythology for the first time in centuries.

As it states in the book Gardner’s Art Through the Ages

“The conquest of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453 caused an exodus of Greek scholars,  many of whom fled to Italy, bringing knowledge of ancient Greece to feed the avid interest in Classical art, literature and philosophy. The same conquest closed the Mediterranean making it necessary to fine new routes to the East. Thus began the age of navigation, discovery and exploration.”

Note- for more information of Brunelleschi, Ghiberti and the Beginnings of the Renaissance read my earlier blog post on the subject.

*Kleiner, Fred S. Gardner's Art Through the Ages: A Concise History. Wadsworth Publishing; 2nd  edition (April 15, 2008). pg. 246.

Art of the High Renaissance (1490-1520) 
I will start by saying that there were dozens of well known and influential painters during what has come to be known as the High Renaissance.  However since this is my "short guide" which is already lengthy I will focus on the most famous three: Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo Buonarotti and Raphael di Sanzio.  Such was their fame that they are today commonly called by their first names rather than their last names.

A short list of some of other influential painters of the High Renaissance includes: Antonio da Correggio, Luca Signorelli, Giorgio Vasari, Giovanni Bellini, Fra Bartolomeo, Lorenzo Lotto, Andrea del Sarto and Jacopo Bassano.  One of the hallmarks of the time was the fact that artists were so prolific during this period.

However Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael all achieved great fame in their own lifetimes as being masters of painting and it is easy to see why.  Each made huge progress within the arts, let's discuss some examples below.

         Mona Lisa (La Gioconda) Leonardo da Vinci, 1503-19
Oil paint on poplar panel
 Giovanna Tornabuoni, Ghirlandaio, 1489-90                            
  tempera on panel, Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum

I personally adore the egg tempera portraits of the quattrocento age such as the one by Ghirlandaio (above).  I think the colors appear jewel like and the primitive style is charming, this style of portraiture was quite popular.  The portrait in profile was influenced by having ones portrait on coins and medals, however it wasn't the most realistic view.

Let's compare it to the Mona Lisa which was painted less then 15 years later, the use of oil paint gives the work a richness that cannot be achieved with egg tempera.  Seen side by side Leonardo's painting looks almost like a photograph, he uses the more realistic 3/4 view of his sitter.  He also pioneered "chiaroscuro" which used light and dark to model form rather than using flatter outlines.  His technique of "sfumato" was to create painting with many thin glazes or layers of oil paint rather than the bright and flat washes of egg tempera.

The Last Supper, Leonardo da Vinci, 1495-98, fresco, Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan

He also used perspective convincingly and chose to focus on the character and personality of each figure in his composition.  Leonardo is considered a genius and ultimate Renaissance man, however since he worked on so many engineering projects he produced few paintings.

The Creation of Adam, Michelangelo, 1508-12, fresco, Sistine Chapel Ceiling, Vatican

Michelangelo  considered himself above all a sculptor, but his paintings also changed the direction of art at this time.  He was a rival of Leonardo but each also had an influence upon each other.  He was also a Renaissance man and worked at architecture and poetry as well, he only painted a few works....but what works they were, his Sistine Chapel frescoes have influenced generations of artists.
Michelangelo's  great breakthrough in art was his use of convincing and realistic human figures.  He studied anatomy, drew frequently from the model and even dissected corpses in order to better understand muscles and bone structure.  Look carefully at the samples from his fresco cycle to see how he changed the way the figure was portrayed.

The Lybian Sybil, Michelangeo, 1508-12 
fresco, Sistine Chapel Ceiling, Vatican  
La Donna Velata, Raphael, 1514-15, 
oil on canvas
Palatine Gallery, Palazzo Pitti
Raphael was considered a child prodigy when it came to painting, he captured the perfect harmony of his master Perugino, combined it with the new realistic painting techniques of Leonardo and added the dynamic force of Michelangelo to create a beautiful painting style all his own.

Unlike the other two masters of the High Renaissance Raphael painted many, many paintings.  He painted more paintings in his short life (Raphael died on his 37th birthday) than Leonardo and Michelangelo combined.  He painted both fresco and on canvas with oils and continued to enhance and reinvent his style.

The death of Raphael in 1520 signaled the end of the High Renaissance.

Deliverance of Saint Peter, Raphael, 1514, fresco, Stanza di Eliodoro, Vatican, Rome

The Late Renaissance/Cinquecento (the 1500's)

The Tempest, Giorgione, 1508,oil on canvas
The Accademia Gallery, Venice

The later part of the Renaissance was dominated by the Venetian School of painting.  The Venetian school also included many talented artists but I will focus on three: Titian, Paolo Veronese and Tintoretto (Jacopo Robusti).  The rivalry and influence between the three artists is reminiscent of the masters of the High Renaissance.

There are a few things to keep in mind with the Venetian school.  First is that unlike the Florentine and Roman painters the Venetians were using primarily oil on canvas.  The art of fresco painting didn't work as well with the dampness that Venice had.  This led to new painting methods and techniques as the method for fresco and for oil on canvas is completely different. 

Assumption of the Virgin, Titian, 1516-18, oil on canvas
The Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice

The Florentines focused on design and drawing while the Venetians focused on the richness of color that was available with the medium of oil paint.  Also the Venetians had a wider variety of pigments at their disposal because they were a major trading port- THE major trading port of Europe at that point and so many pigments came from other areas, Lapis Lazuli from Afghanistan, cinnabar from China, etc. 

The Venetians were known for using sensuality in art, including the use of the female nude which wasn't as popular before.  Perhaps that is due to the fact that the patronage had shifted from churches and the pope to individual wealthy patrons and ruling families.

Venus of Urbino, Titian, 1538, oil on canvas, Uffizi Gallery

Moses Striking Water from the Rock, Tintoretto, 1577, oil on canvas, Scuola di San Rocco, Venice

Part of the change in technique was that they didn't start out on a white background; especially Tintoretto used very dark backgrounds and built up layers of highlights.  Their technique is referred to as indirect painting as they use many washes and glazes of thin color to build up their final images.  Another change was the addition of dramatic approaches to painting, gone are the perfect harmony and Renaissance proportions (such as Perugino’s fresco shown above) and they are replaced by dramatic and asymmetrical compositions (such as Titian's Madonna).

Feast in the House of Levi, Veronese, 1571-73, oil on canvas, Accademia Gallery, Venice

The Venetians also had as patrons the churches in Venice and the Veneto (not as much with the papal rulers) and the Doge of Venice too.  This time period in art coincided with the Counter-Reformation so a lot of the art is very Catholic.  Veronese's huge painting Feast in the House of Levi was really a Last Supper but he was brought to trial in front of a judge to explain it as it didn't meet the Counter Reformations new codes for religious painting.  Veronese had worked for a few years on it, so he gave it a new title and modified the scene to fit with that.

While the Renaissance did continue after this time, the new style of Baroque was ushered in around 1600.

Additional Reading
History of Italian Renaissance Art, Painting∙Sculpture∙Architecture, Frederick Hartt and David Wilkins. Prentice Hall, 2010.

The Lives of the Artists (Oxford World's Classics) by Giorgio Vasari. Translated from Italian by Julia Conway Bondanella and Peter Bondanella. Oxford University Press, 1998.

Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling, Ross King. Penguin, 2003.

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