What is the Italian Renaissance?
The Renaissance is a historical period with rough dates of about 1350-1600. It is not just an artistic style. As the name implies, it was a re-birth of art, literature, and architecture.
Humanism played a significant role in the Renaissance with a renewed study of the natural world, Greco-Roman culture, art, philosophy, political theory and literature. Humanism represented a new way of thinking and a belief system that differentiated the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries from the past. Think of humanism as a form of liberal arts study. More secular, less religious. The humanist forms of art emphasized an ideal, naturalized art. Not necessarily realistic art – but idealized representations.
These humanist concepts and ideas make the Renaissance much more than a time period. The Italian elite, authors and artisans had an intellectual nostalgia and deep connection to the Greco Roman past which informed their way of thinking about their present time.
The Renaissance is often characterized as having a distinct and somewhat dramatic break with the medieval period, when in fact, there was a gradual change and shift in ways of producing art. Many elements of the Renaissance were present in medieval times – humanistic thinking and ways of individualism for example. Those concepts gained more credence and popularity in the Renaissance, although mostly for the privileged and not necessarily the everyday person, especially for women. Another difference between medieval and Renaissance art is the role of patronage and the rise of the individual artist.
Most people associate Renaissance art with “the big three” artists: Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael. But it’s so much more than that. Renaissance art is more nuanced and complex than tourist guidebooks which often present art as a logical, sequential march towards naturalism, representation of perspective and the idealized form. These big three artists exemplify Renaissance ideals – most of the time.
Art is a reflection of society, culture, politics, patrons and religion. Art historians John Paoletti and Gary Radke aptly describe the Renaissance as the “marriage of intellect and craft.” These social, political, and economic influences varied greatly from region to region and from city to city – Florence and Siena for example couldn’t be more different artistically. Renaissance art does not progress in a linear fashion from early to high and to late periods. It isn’t always an evolution towards representing the ideal form – while that may have been what the big three artists are remembered for, there are many interesting and worthwhile artists and art works that don’t conform to this. Understanding these complexities brings great rewards when touring Italy, whether in a museum, church, or palazzo.
With that in mind, viewers are urged to check their biases at the museum entrance. Renaissance art does not represent the apex of European artistic achievement, with art that came before or after as something of lesser value. There has been a tendency to view Renaissance art as the exemplar; a preconception which a viewer should try to suspend. While much of what is considered “high Renaissance” art took place mainly in Florence and Rome, there are artistic wonders in nearly every Tuscan town that reflect their own history.
Continuity and innovation are key themes interwoven during the Renaissance, especially in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. There were different styles coexisting at the same time depending on patronage, society, and politics. The Sienese preference for gold background altarpieces while the Florentines painted backgrounds with a vanishing perspective is not a result of bad painter/good painter but rather what was valued and desired by patrons, the city, and as part of their respective artistic patrimonies.
However, even with these cautionary notes, the Renaissance is indeed very special. The scholars and writers of the Renaissance knew it. They saw the change in art, architecture and literature and how different the arts were from the past. That specialness of the Renaissance is still studied and admired today. We can all agree on that.