Renaissance - Italian

Movement: Renaissance - Italian
Dates: c. 1300 - c. 1600

The Italian Renaissance (Italian: Rinascimento [rinaimento]), a period in Italian history that covered the 15th and 16th centuries, developed a culture that spread across Europe and marked the transition from the Middle Ages to modernity. Proponents of a "long Renaissance" argue that it began in the 14th century and lasted until the 17th century. The French word renaissance (rinascimento in Italian) means "rebirth" and defines the period as one of cultural revival and renewed interest in classical antiquity after the centuries which Renaissance humanists labeled the "Dark Ages". The Renaissance author Giorgio Vasari used the term "Rebirth" in his Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects in 1550, but the concept became widespread only in the 19th century, after the work of scholars such as Jules Michelet and Jacob Burckhardt.

The Renaissance began in Tuscany in Central Italy and centred in the city of Florence. The Florentine Republic, one of the several city-states of the peninsula, rose to economic and political prominence by providing credit for European monarchs and by laying down the groundwork and foundation in capitalism and in banking. Renaissance culture later spread to Venice, heart of a Mediterranean empire and in control of the trade routes with the east since its participation in the crusades and following the voyages of Marco Polo between 1271 and 1295. Thus Italy renewed contact with antiquity which provided humanist scholars with new texts. Finally the Renaissance had a significant effect on the Papal States and on Rome, largely rebuilt by humanist and Renaissance popes such as Alexander VI (r.14921503) and Julius II (r.15031513), who frequently became involved in Italian politics, in arbitrating disputes between competing colonial powers and in opposing the Protestant Reformation which started c. 1517.

The Italian Renaissance has a reputation for its achievements in painting, architecture, sculpture, literature, music, philosophy, science, technology, and exploration. Italy became the recognized European leader in all these areas by the late 15th century, during the era of the Peace of Lodi (14541494) agreed between Italian states. The Italian Renaissance peaked in the mid-16th century as domestic disputes and foreign invasions plunged the region into the turmoil of the Italian Wars (14941559). However, the ideas and ideals of the Italian Renaissance spread into the rest of Europe, setting off the Northern Renaissance from the late 15th century. Italian explorers from the maritime republics served under the auspices of European monarchs, ushering in the Age of Discovery. The most famous among them include Christopher Columbus (who sailed for Spain), Giovanni da Verrazzano (for France), Amerigo Vespucci (for Portugal), and John Cabot (for England). Italian scientists such as Falloppio, Tartaglia, Galileo and Torricelli played key roles in the scientific revolution, and foreigners such as Copernicus and Vesalius worked in Italian universities. Historiographers have proposed various events and dates of the 17th century, such as the conclusion of the European Wars of Religion in 1648, as marking the end of the Renaissance.

Accounts of Renaissance literature usually begin with the three great Italian writers of the 14th century: Dante Alighieri (Divine Comedy), Petrarch (Canzoniere), and Boccaccio (Decameron). Famous vernacular poets of the Renaissance include the epic authors Luigi Pulci (author of Morgante), Matteo Maria Boiardo (Orlando Innamorato), Ludovico Ariosto (Orlando Furioso), and Torquato Tasso (Jerusalem Delivered, 1581). 15th-century writers such as the poet Poliziano (1454-1494) and the Platonist philosopher Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) made extensive translations from both Latin and Greek. In the early-16th century, Baldassare Castiglione laid out his vision of the ideal gentleman and lady in The Book of the Courtier (1528), while Niccol Machiavelli (1469-1527) cast a jaundiced eye on "la verit effettuale della cosa"the effectual truth of thingsin The Prince, composed, in humanistic style, chiefly of parallel ancient and modern examples of virt. Historians of the period include Machiavelli himself, his friend and critic Francesco Guicciardini (1483-1540) and Giovanni Botero (The Reason of State, 1589). The Aldine Press, founded in 1494 by the printer Aldo Manuzio, active in Venice, developed Italic type and pocket editions that one could carry in one's pocket; it became the first to publish printed editions of books in Ancient Greek. Venice also became the birthplace of the Commedia dell'Arte.

Italian Renaissance art exercised a dominant influence on subsequent European painting and sculpture for centuries afterwards, with artists such as Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Michelangelo (1475-1564), Raphael (1483-1520), Donatello (c. 1386-1466), Giotto di Bondone (c. 1267-1337), Masaccio (1401-1428), Fra Angelico (c. 1395-1455), Piero della Francesca (c. 1415-1492), Domenico Ghirlandaio (1448-1494), Perugino (c. 1446-1523), Botticelli (c. 1445-1510), and Titian (c. 1488-1576). Italian Renaissance architecture had a similar Europe-wide impact, as practised by Brunelleschi (1377-1446), Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472), Andrea Palladio (1508-1580), and Bramante (1444-1514). Their works include the Florence Cathedral (built from 1296 to 1436), St. Peter's Basilica (built 1506-1626) in Rome, and the Tempio Malatestiano (reconstructed from c. 1450) in Rimini, as well as several private residences. The musical era of the Italian Renaissance featured composers such as Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c. 1525-1594), the Roman School and later the Venetian School, and the birth of opera through figures like Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) in Florence. In philosophy, thinkers such as Galileo, Machiavelli, Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) and Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) emphasized naturalism and humanism, thus rejecting dogma and scholasticism.

Painting and sculpture

In painting, the Late Medieval painter Giotto di Bondone, or Giotto, helped shape the artistic concepts that later defined much of the Renaissance art. The key ideas that he explored classicism, the illusion of three-dimensional space and a realistic emotional context inspired other artists such as Masaccio, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. He was not the only Medieval artist to develop these ideas, however; the artists Pietro Cavallini and Cimabue both influenced Giotto's use of statuesque figures and expressive storylines.

The frescos of Florentine artist Masaccio are generally considered to be among the earliest examples of Italian Renaissance art. Masaccio incorporated the ideas of Giotto, Donatello and Brunelleschi into his paintings, creating mathematically precise scenes that give the impression of three-dimensional space. The Holy Trinity fresco in the Florentine church of Santa Maria Novella, for example, looks as if it is receding at a dramatic angle into the dark background, while single-source lighting and foreshortening appear to push the figure of Christ into the viewer's space.

While mathematical precision and classical idealism fascinated painters in Rome and Florence, many Northern artists in the regions of Venice, Milan and Parma preferred highly illusionistic scenes of the natural world. The period also saw the first secular (non-religious) themes. There has been much debate as to the degree of secularism in the Renaissance, which had been emphasized by early 20th-century writers like Jacob Burckhardt based on, among other things, the presence of a relatively small number of mythological paintings. Those of Botticelli, notably The Birth of Venus and Primavera, are now among the best known, although he was deeply religious (becoming a follower of Savonarola) and the great majority of his output was of traditional religious paintings or portraits.

In sculpture, the Florentine artist Donato di Niccol di Betto Bardi, or Donatello, was among the earliest sculptors to translate classical references into marble and bronze. His second sculpture of David was the first free-standing bronze nude created in Europe since the Roman Empire.

The period known as the High Renaissance of painting was the culmination of the varied means of expression and various advances in painting technique, such as linear perspective, the realistic depiction of both physical and psychological features, and the manipulation of light and darkness, including tone contrast, sfumato (softening the transition between colours) and chiaroscuro (contrast between light and dark), in a single unifying style which expressed total compositional order, balance and harmony. In particular, the individual parts of the painting had a complex but balanced and well-knit relationship to the whole. The most famous painters from this phase are Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and Michelangelo and their images, including Leonardo's The Last Supper and Mona Lisa, Raphael's The School of Athens and Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel Ceiling are the masterpieces of the period and among the most widely known works of art in the world.

High Renaissance painting evolved into Mannerism, especially in Florence. Mannerist artists, who consciously rebelled against the principles of High Renaissance, tend to represent elongated figures in illogical spaces. Modern scholarship has recognized the capacity of Mannerist art to convey strong (often religious) emotion where the High Renaissance failed to do so. Some of the main artists of this period are Pontormo, Bronzino, Rosso Fiorentino, Parmigianino and Raphael's pupil Giulio Romano.


In Florence, the Renaissance style was introduced with a revolutionary but incomplete monument by Leone Battista Alberti. Some of the earliest buildings showing Renaissance characteristics are Filippo Brunelleschi's church of San Lorenzo and the Pazzi Chapel. The interior of Santo Spirito expresses a new sense of light, clarity and spaciousness, which is typical of the early Italian Renaissance. Its architecture reflects the philosophy of Renaissance humanism, the enlightenment and clarity of mind as opposed to the darkness and spirituality of the Middle Ages. The revival of classical antiquity can best be illustrated by the Palazzo Rucellai. Here the pilasters follow the superposition of classical orders, with Doric capitals on the ground floor, Ionic capitals on the piano nobile and Corinthian capitals on the uppermost floor. Soon, Renaissance architects favored grand, large domes over tall and imposing spires, doing away with the Gothic style of the predating ages.

In Mantua, Alberti ushered in the new antique style, though his culminating work, Sant'Andrea, was not begun until 1472, after the architect's death.

The High Renaissance, as we call the style today, was introduced to Rome with Donato Bramante's Tempietto at San Pietro in Montorio (1502) and his original centrally planned St. Peter's Basilica (1506), which was the most notable architectural commission of the era, influenced by almost all notable Renaissance artists, including Michelangelo and Giacomo della Porta. The beginning of the late Renaissance in 1550 was marked by the development of a new column order by Andrea Palladio. Giant order columns that were two or more stories tall decorated the facades.

During the Italian Renaissance, mathematics was developed and spread widely. As a result, some Renaissance architects used mathematical knowledge like calculation in their drawings, such as Baldassarre Peruzzi.

External links

  • The High Renaissance in Florence video
  • Victoria and Albert Museum: Renaissance House
  • The Prince by Niccol Machiavelli

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