The Renaissance
The Renaissance CHAPTER 1
The Renaissance
The Renaissance CHAPTER 1
Italy during Renaissance

It was no accident that Florence wanted to create such a gigantic dome. In the 15th century, Italy  looked quite different from the Italy of today. The country was divided into numerous  independent city states.


The rivalry that existed  between them was expressed through either military action or the arts. This motivated each of their ruling families to attract the best scholars, painters, sculptors and architects to contribute to their city’s prestige.

  • The Republic of Florence was dominated by the Medicis, a family of bankers.
  • Rome and the surrounding provinces were governed by the Pope.
The Pitti Palace,
1464, Florence. Photo: Jean-Christophe BENOIST, CC BY 2.5
Basilica of St Peter,
built between 1506 and 1626, Rome.
In a nutshell

During the 15th century, Italy was divided into several rival city-states, who tried to attract the best artists.

The birth of geometric perspective

At the same time, painting underwent a minor revolution, with the arrival of geometrical perspective!

Practically speaking, this meant that it was possible to create an impression of depth on a two- dimensional medium, thanks to “lines” that all seemed to end at the same place, called the vanishing point”.


In the end, all the painters adopted this technique, which broke away from what was practiced during the Middle Ages. This marked the end of the idealized, symbolic art of this era! Artists now wanted to portray scenes with realistic landscapes and characters, experiencing real emotions.

Piero della Francesca, The Flagellation of Christ,
after 1444, oil on canvas, 23 x 32 inches, National Gallery of the Marche, Ducal Palace
Piero della Francesca, The Flagellation of Christ,
after 1444, oil on canvas, 23 x 32 inches, National Gallery of the Marche, Ducal Palace
Anonymous, The Temptation, 1150-1170, illumination of Game of Adam, a liturgical drama

This is a picture from the Middle Ages.

Masaccio, Adam and Eve, Banished from Paradise on Earth, 1426-1427, fresco, 6’10” x 2’11” Brancacci Chapel, Santa Maria del Carmine Church, Florence

This is Renaissance picture, in which we see the characters’ desperation.

In a nutshell

Paintings, which were more realistic, adopted geometrical perspective techniques, opening the way to create an impression of depth.


Speaking of technique, the innovation came from Flanders. Up till then, to paint, the following were needed:

This “distemper” paint, as it was called, was quick-drying. It was very difficult to modify, but Flemish painters were intelligent and resolved this by modifying just one ingredient.

This “oil” painting was all the rage throughout Europe, and with it, colours were brighter and more transparent.


Modifications and highly detailed work became possible.

Jan Van Eyck, Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife, also known as the Arnolfini Wedding,
1434, oil on oak wood, 32 x 23.6 inches, The National Gallery, London
In a nutshell

Thanks to the emergence of oil-painting, more detailed painting work and modifications became possible.

The Humanist school of thought
Cristofano dell’Altissimo, Jean Pic de la Mirandole,
15th century, oil on canvas, 23 x 18 inches, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Near the end of the 15th century, there was also movement in the intellectual sphere. A new school of thought emerged: humanism.


There were two aspects to this:


  • Firstly, pride of place was given to human beings. A human being is intelligent and curious, and always in search of the truth.
  • Secondly, ancient Christian texts were again considered a source of inspiration for this.


He had enormous influence in the world of art. In architecture, for example, the ancient treaty of Vitruvius would inspire all the builders of the time.

« There was nothing to be seen more marvelous than man. »
Jean Pic de la Mirandole (1486)

Diderot, d’Alembert, Capitals with classical shapes, 1761, from Plate VII (volume XVIII) of the Diderot and d’Alembert Encyclopedia

Léon Palustre, Dome of St Peter’s, 1892, taken from Renaissance architecture. Photo: National French Library

Different types of pediments, 1922, scanned from the drawings in Larousse 1922

In a nutshell

Humanism focused on the importance of the human being, drawing its inspiration from ancient writings.

The reference to antique works
From Agésandros, Athanodoros and Polydoros, Laocoon,
around 40-30 BC, Roman copy of the Greek original dating from 200 BC, marble, 95 x 63 inches, Pio-Clementino Museum, Vatican.
From Apollonios of Athens, Torso of the Belvedere,
1st century BC, marble, Pio-Clementino Museum, Vatican. Photo: Jean-Pol Grandmont, CC BY-SA 3.0
Apollo of the Belvedere,
around the 1st century, Roman copy of the Greek original in bronze around the 4th century BC, marble, 88 inches, Palace of the Belvedere, Vatican. Photo: Livioandronico2013, CC BY-SA 4.0

Thanks to these writings, there was enthusiasm in Italy with regard to Antiquity. This resulted in an increase in archaeological excavations, with the hope of finding ever more ancient works. When the statue of Laocoon, so often mentioned in Roman writings, emerged from the ground, the event took on European proportions.
All of these sculptures were considered to be harmonious and balanced, or, put simply, perfect! They were therefore a must as models for modern artists, who certainly did not hold back on this.

Artistic subjects that had been forgotten for centuries, suddenly came back into favour: a (renewed) welcome was extended to nudes and portraits!

On the left: Donatello, David, around 1435-1440, bronze, 5’2″ high, Bargello National Museum, Florence. Photo: Patrick A. Rodgers CC BY-SA 2.0. On the right: Apollo Sauroctonus,1st century, 58.6 inches (height), Roman copy in marble from the original Greek work by Praxiteles, Louvre Museum, Paris. Photo: Own work, CC BY 2.5
On the left: Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, 1484, tempera on canvas, 5’6” x 9’,1”, Uffizi Gallery, Florence. On the right: Aphrodites of Cnidos, 4th century, Roman copy in marble from the Greek original by Praxiteles, with restored elements: head, arms, legs and base (cloak and jug), Altemps Palace National Museum, Rome
In a nutshell

Ancient works of art, such as the statue of Laocoon, inspired modern Italian artists.

A definition of the Renaissance

Maybe we should summarize? At the end of the 15th century, then, this was the situation in Europe:


  • Artists with new ideas…
  • Who had the benefit of revolutionary techniques
  • Support from families who were patrons of the arts
  • An exciting intellectual context
  • Seeking to return to antique sources


If we mix it all in together, what we get is the “Renaissance”! This was a time of cultural upheaval that was to last until the 16th century.


Which countries were the most affected?

In a nutshell

The “Renaissance” was a cultural movement and an upheaval for Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Michelangelo, David
Michelangelo, David,
1501-1504, 171 inches, marble, Galleria dell’Accademia, Florence. Photo: Own work, CC BY 3.0

Towards 1504, a sculptor was putting the final touches to his work in Florence. Michelangelo had portrayed King David, a hero from the Bible, in a 4-metre-high statue.


This sculpture was much talked about, because it met all the criteria to make it a masterpiece of the Renaissance:


  • It was a technical feat: the sculpture was created from a single marble block. Michelangelo won this battle with matter simply by reasoning.
  • It was a Christian subject, but its form was antique (seen in its nudity, and the swaying hips)
  • It was a political statement that, like David, the city of Florence was determined to face up to its rival cities.
In a nutshell

Michelangelo’s sculpture of David the Biblical hero is a work typical of the Renaissance.

In summary, you have discovered:

  • Italy during Renaissance
  • The birth of geometric perspective
  • Oil-painting
  • The Humanist school of thought
  • The reference to antique works
  • A definition of the Renaissance
  • Michelangelo, David
To train

In 1848, whose idea was it to create a self-supporting dome for the Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral in Florence?

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Lines create perspective converging towards the…

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Who painted the portrait of the Arnolfini in 1434?

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