The rebirth of classical ideal, its artists using naturalism and linear perspective to achieve new heights of realism
From the 14th to 16th centuries, the popularity of the Humanist movement in philosophy prompted princes and powerful prelates to patronize a generation of innovative young artists.
These painters, sculptors, and architects were experimenting with new modes in art and breaking with static medieval traditions to pursue a greater degree of expressiveness and naturalism, using such techniques are linear perspective (actually pioneered by architect Brunelleschi and sculptors Donatello and Ghiberti).
The term Renaissance, or "rebirth," was only later applied to this period in Florence (from which the movement spread to the rest of Italy and Europe).
Tradition holds that the Renaissance started in 1401 when Lorenzo Ghiberti won a competition to cast Florence’s new set of baptistery doors. Although confined to Gothic frames, Ghiberti still managed to infuse his figures with an entirely new kind of fluid dynamism and emotional naturalism that earned him accolades galore when the doors were finished over 20 years later (he was immediately commissioned to do another set, which became known as the gate of Paradise, one of the cornerstone pieces of the early Renaissance).
Notable Italian Renaissance artists
- Ghiberti (1378-1455). Sculptor who labored over 50 years to complete two sets of doors, including the Gates of Paradise, full of relief panels for Florence’s baptistery. Since his competition piece to win this commission, crafted in 1401, won for its studied naturalism and dynamic action (it’s now in Florence’s Bargello), the event is taken to mark the beginning of the Renaissance.
- Donatello (ca. 1386–1466). The first full-fledged Renaissance sculptor, with a patented schiacciato technique of warping low relief surfaces and etching backgrounds in perspective to create a sense of deep space. His bronze and marble figures are some of the most expressive and psychologically probing of the Renaissance. Among his many innovations, this unassuming artist cast both the first freestanding nude (the Bargello’s David) and the first equestrian statue (in Bologna) since antiquity. There’s a plethora of his masterpieces in Florence’s Bargello, Museo dell’Opera dell Duomo, San Lorenzo, and Palazzo Vecchio, plus some works in Siena’s Duomo, baptistery, and Museo dell’Opera Metropolitana.
- Masaccio (1401-27). Before he died at 27, Masaccio produced the first example of painted perspective in Florence’s Santa Maria Novella's Trinità fresco (1427), as well as the famous fresco cycle in the Brancacci Chapel (1424-27) of Florence’s Santa Maria della Carmine, later studies assiduously by masters such as Michelangelo.
- Botticelli (1444-1510). His courtly, graceful paintings populated by languid figures have become among the most beloved of Early Renaissance. His masterpieces are The Birth of Venus and Allegory of Spring (1477-83) in Florence's Uffizi Gallery.
Where to find Early Renaissance art art in Italy
Milan's sprawling 15C castle is home to several excellent museums, of tapestries, archaeological artifacts, paintings by Bellini and Mantegna, and sculptures from medieval to neoclassical—including Michelangelo's final sculpture, the Rondanini Pietà