Early Renaissance Painting
Characteristics of Italian 15th Century Art (Quattrocento).

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Brancacci Chapel Frescoes by Masaccio
Brancacci Chapel Frescoes in the
Church of S. Maria del Carmine,
Florence. (1425-8). By Masaccio,
one of the most influential artists
of the Renaissance in Florence.

ITALIAN ART 1300-1500
For art of the trecento period,
see: Pre-Renaissance Painting.
For a general guide to the
Florentine Renascimento,
see: Renaissance Art.

Early Renaissance Painting (Italy) (c.1400-90)


The Early Renaissance in Italy: Characteristics
Tommaso Masaccio (1401-1428)
Fra Filippo Lippi (c.1406-69)
Fra Angelico (c.1400-55)
Paolo Uccello (1397-1475)
Andrea del Castagno (1420-57)
Domenico Veneziano (c.1416-61)
Piero della Francesca (1415-92)
Antonio Pollaiuolo (1432-98)
Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510)
Other Early Renaissance Painters in Florence
Florentine Renaissance Spreads
Andrea Mantegna (1430-1506)
Bellini Family
Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)

Related Resources

High Renaissance Painting (c.1490-1530)
Mannerist Painting, Italy (c.1530-1600)

Flagellation of Christ by Piero Della Francesca
The Flagellation of Christ
By Piero Della Francesca.
Considered to be one of the
Greatest Paintings Ever.

For details of art movements
see: History of Art.
For a chronological guide to
see: History of Art Timeline.

For a list of the Top 10 painters/
sculptors: Best Artists of All Time.

The Early Renaissance in Italy: Characteristics (c.1400-1490)

Early Renaissance art in Italy was basically a period of experiment, characterized by the styles of certain individual artists rather than by any uniform trend as in the case of the High Renaissance (c.1490-1530) or Mannerism (c.1530-1600). Early Renaissance painting grew up in Florence, from where it spread to such cities as Urbino, Ferrara, Padua, Mantua, Milan and Venice from the middle of the century onwards.

The political climate of Renaissance Italy was frequently unstable, although Florence did provide an intellectual and cultural environment that was very beneficial for the development of art. The prevailing philosophical climate of Humanism, for instance, fostered a tendency, already evident in Florentine painting as early as Giotto (1270-1337), to see the world in human terms. In the early quattrocento, Masaccio (1401-1428) emphasized exclusively the human angle in his painting Expulsion From the Garden of Eden (Brancacci Chapel, Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence), rather than the theological one. Also, both Masaccio in his fresco painting The Holy Trinity (Santa Maria Novella, Florence) and Fra Angelico (c.1400-55) in his San Marco altarpiece seem to focus far more on the human relations between the figures than with the purely devotional aspects of the composition. Similarly, the Renaissance painter became more and more concerned with the relations between the painting and the observer. This particular aspect relied heavily on the invention of the one-point linear perspective system, which in turn derived from new learning and a new vision of the world. The empirical system devised through mathematical studies by the architect Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446) was given theoretical form and universal application by Leon Battista Alberti (1404-72) in his treatise on fine art painting, called Della Pittura.



According to Alberti's system all parts of a picture have a rational relationship with each other and to the spectator, for the distance the latter is to stand from the painting is controlled by the artist when organizing his perspective construction. This system enables the microcosm of the painting and the world of the observer to become visually one, and the spectator participates, as it were, in what he observes. To fortify the illusion of a painting as a window on the world, quattrocento painters studied the effects of light in nature and how best to represent them in a picture, as well as human anatomy, and the world about them. These characteristics are essentially what separates early Renaissance painting from Late Gothic painting in Italy.

Note: Much of the early work concerning the attribution of paintings was done by the art historian Bernard Berenson (1865-1959), who lived most of his life near Florence, and published a number of highly influential works on the Italian Renaissance across the country.

Tommaso Masaccio (1401-1428)

Not surprisingly, Masaccio is known as the father of Renaissance painting, for every major painter of the 15th and 16th centuries in Florence began by studying Masaccio's fresco painting. Masaccio is the artistic heir of the traditions of Giotto, yet there is no direct borrowing from the earlier master. Masaccio was also a friend of Brunelleschi who may have taught him perspective and how to create a rationally articulated space. He was also a friend of the Florentine sculptor Donatello (1386-1466) from whom he may have learned the effectiveness of simple drapery folds over a powerful figure. Whatever his creative resources, Masaccio's surviving work reveals a concern with simple figures clad in simple draperies. He was also occupied with light and how it gives the illusion of solidity to a painted figure. He created a clear and well-organized space in his paintings, and was above all concerned to create human characters carrying out some purposeful human activity. His only work that can be clearly dated is the Pisa Altarpiece of 1426 (of which the central panel portraying the Madonna enthroned with Christ Child and Angels, now hanging in the National Gallery, London, is the largest section). While Masaccio followed the medieval tradition of having a gold background, the architectural elements of the throne show an awareness of the influence of Ancient Rome. Furthermore, his Madonna is no longer a graceful heavenly queen but an earthly mother with a baby on her lap. The figure of the Christ Child is a clear demonstration of how light and shade can be manipulated in a painting to produce the illusion of a three-dimensional body. In this picture Masaccio laid the foundations for one major theme in Florentine painting. His focus on the sculpturally conceived figure, bathed in light and executed in a clear and simple manner, manages to produce a work of quiet dignity and great monumentality in that it appears to be larger than it really is.

Masaccio's great series of Brancacci Chapel frescoes in the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence adds another dimension to early Renaissance art. In this narrative cycle on the life of St. Peter, he chose the most important point in the narrative and then captured the drama by laying bare the human reactions to it. In these works Masaccio also demonstrated his sense of the real world, for the light in the paintings, indicated by their shadows, is the same as the natural light falling onto the chapel walls.

The Holy Trinity (1428) in Santa Maria Novella, Florence, effectively summarizes Masaccio's brief career as well as the aesthetics of early Renaissance painting. The sculpted figures have acquired even greater dignity. The drama of the work is presented in touching human terms as the Madonna turns to the observer to indicate her crucified Son. As well as using light to unite the space of the painting with the space of the spectator, Masaccio also uses what seems to be the earliest example of one-point perspective, later to be articulated by Alberti. All the exalted aims of Early Renaissance painting are present in this work: simplicity, strength, monumentality; man as observer, and participant.

Masaccio had no immediate followers of equal stature, although there was a group of other Florentine artists of about the same age as Masaccio - namely, Fra Filippo Lippi, Fra Angelico, and Paolo Uccello - who followed in his footsteps to a greater or lesser extent. The innovative Sienese master Giovanni di Paolo (c.1400-82), noted for his small-scale religious panels, was another contemporary of Masaccio.

Fra Filippo Lippi (c.1406-69)

Fra Filippo Lippi was a Florentine Carmelite monk who spent his youth and early adult life at the Santa Maria del Carmine monastery, where Masaccio's religious paintings were before his eyes every day, Lippi's earliest work, the Madonna and Child (1437) from Tarquinia Corneto, relies on the Madonna from the Pisa altarpiece, but in his Christ Fra Filippo already displays an earthiness and a touching sweetness unlike anything by Masaccio. The Madonna and Child with Two Angels (Uffizi, Florence) - with its urchin-like angels and elegant Madonna - is perhaps one of his most famous late works: the placing of the Madonna by an open window is one of the key features of later Renaissance portraits - witness Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa (1503-6) - while the elegance and sweetness of the Virgin were to find their greatest expression in the work of Lippi's student, Alessandro Botticelli (1445-1510).

Fra Angelico (c.1400-55)

Born just before Masaccio, Fra Angelico was a Dominican friar who lived at Fiesole and at the Sylvestrine monastery at San Marco in Florence. His earliest painting, the Linaiuoli Altarpiece (Museum of San Marco, Florence) of 1433, is in the tradition of medieval Gothic art, although the male saints in the side panels already reveal the influence of Masaccio. The altarpiece that he created between 1438 and 1440 for the high altar of San Marco is a landmark of early Florentine Renaissance art. It represents the first appearance in Florence of the sacra conversazione, a design in which angels, saints, and occasionally donors are placed in the same space as the Madonna and Christ Child, and in which the subjects seem to be engaged in conversation. As well as exemplifying a new phase of religious art, the altarpiece reveals the influence of Masaccio in the sculptural style of the figures and an accurate awareness of Alberti's theories of perspective. At about the same time, Fra Angelico was given the commission of decorating the monks' rooms at San Marco with traditional devotional pictures, allowing him to execute some of his most beautiful works. The Annunciation (1450), for instance, that he painted for the north corridor of the convent is probably his finest version of this traditional theme. He followed this project with the paintings in the Chapel of Nicholas V in the Vatican.

Paolo Uccello (1397-1475)

The reputation of Paolo Uccello as an early exponent of perspective has tended to overshadow his immense talent for decorative art. Studies of his paintings indicate that he was more interested in medieval optics than in the mathematical system of perspective championed by Alberti and Brunelleschi. His earliest known work, the 1436 "Sir John Hawkwood" fresco painting in Florence cathedral, is a decorative piece of a very high order. Uccello is best known for the three panels which comprise his famous Battle of San Romano (1438-55) painted for the Medici Palace (now in the Louvre, Paris; the National Gallery, London; and the Uffizi). The paintings were intended as wall decorations and as such resemble tapestries: Uccello is only interested in creating a small box-like space for the action, since he ends the background with a tapestry-like composition of men and animals. His main concern is with the rhythmic arrangement of the elements of the composition across the surface, an emphasis which he underlines with a repetition of arcs and circles. Uccello's focus on the decorative and linear aspects of painting had a significant impact on the cassone (chest) painters of Florence and found its greatest champion in the Florentine master Botticelli. See also his late work Hunt in the Forest (1470), in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

Andrea del Castagno (1420-57)

Masaccio had arguably the greatest influence on three younger painters, Castagno, Domenico Veneziano, and Piero della Francesca. The short-lived Andrea del Castagno (1420-57) was the leader of the group. His Last Supper (1447) for the former convent of Sant'Apollonia in Florence, clearly shows the influence of Masaccio in the sculpture-like treatment of the figures, the handling of light, and the creation of a credible and rationally conceived space. Castagno also reveals a pedantic interest in antiquity, through his use of sphinxes for the bench ends and fictive marble panels on the rear wall, both of which are precise copies of Roman artifacts. In his final period, Castagno's style changed abruptly, as he switched to an intensely expressive emotionalism, which - curiously - paralleled a similar development in the work of his contemporaries. Initially, for instance, his Trinity Appearing to Saints Jerome, Paula and Eustochium (1455) in the Florentine church of the Santissima Annunziata, was designed with calm and balanced figures, as the underpainting reveals. In the completed work, however, the figures, though sculpturally conceived, resonate with agitation at the emaciated figure of St. Jerome and the radically conceived body of the crucified Christ. The optimism, rationality, and poised human drama of the earlier Renaissance in Florence was about to be superceded by a more personal, expressive, and linear style.

Domenico Veneziano (c.1416-61)

Another feature of this new direction can be seen in the work of the enigmatic Domenico Veneziano. His name indicates that he came from Venice, and it is recorded that he arrived in Florence in 1438. He was associated with both Fra Angelico and Andrea del Castagno, and was involved in training the somewhat younger Piero della Francesca. Veneziano's St. Lucy Altarpiece (c.1445-50, Uffizi) is an example of the sacra conversazione genre and owes a clear debt both to the painting of Masaccio and the earlier sculpture of the Florentine Nanni di Banco (1375-1421). The colour in the altarpiece, however, is Domenico's own and bears no relation to the Florentine tradition. His juxtaposition of light greens and pinks and his light tonality point instead to the Venice Renaissance and his initial training in the city. Also, by lowering the vanishing point so as to make the figures appear to tower over the observer, the monumentality of the painting is increased but the observer's sense of participating in the painting is correspondingly reduced.



Piero della Francesca (1415-92)

After receiving his early artistic training in Florence, Piero della Francesca spent most of his career as a painter outside the city, in such places as Urbino, Arezzo, Rimini, and his native Borgo San Sepolcro, in Umbria. His best-known masterpiece Flagellation of Christ (1450-60), now in the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, Urbino, reveals a keen interest in mathematics, perspective, and proportion. The poised sculptural figures are disposed in clear, rational space and bathed in a cool light. This gives them a calm dignity that can only be compared to ancient Greek sculpture. A similar tendency can be seen in Piero's fresco cycle in the church of San Francesco in Arezzo. Piero della Francesca's approach to painting had a noticeable influence on younger artists including the foreshortening expert and quadraturista Melozzo da Forli (1438-94).

There was a temporary hiatus in Florentine Renaissance painting during the period 1465-75. All the older artists had passed away, and those fated to dominate the second half of the century were too young to have experienced prolonged contact with them. Three of these younger artists, Antonio Pollaiuolo, Alessandro Botticelli, and Andrea del Verrocchio, began their careers as goldsmiths, which explains the linear and decorative emphasis if not also the sense of movement noticeable in Florentine painting of the later quattrocento.

Antonio Pollaiuolo (1432-98)

In addition to being a goldsmith, Antonio Pollaiuolo was a sculptor, painter, engraver, and also an architect. His work reveals a fascination with muscles in action, and he is reportedly the first artist to dissect a human body. In the celebrated altarpiece The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian (1475, National Gallery, London) he shows the archers from two angles in order to demonstrate their muscular activity. His sculpture Hercules and Antaeus, like the engraving of The Battle of the Nudes, portrays violent struggle. The Rape of Deianira (Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut) emphasizes another new element in Florentine painting, namely the landscape setting - in this case a beautiful view of the Arno Valley with Florence in the background.

Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510)

A similar interest in moving figures, a feeling of movement across the surface of the painting, and landscape, is found in the earlier works of Botticelli, one of many great artists patronized by the Medici Family in Florence. In his celebrated work La Primavera (1482-3, Uffizi) he uses line in depicting hair, billowing drapery, and the contour of an arm in order to suggest the movement of the figures. At the same time the flow of the figures created a rising and falling linear movement across the picture surface. Similar effects of movement are evident in his other masterpiece The Birth of Venus (1484-6) Uffizi, Florence). Botticelli's well-known Madonna and Child paintings reveal a sweetness that may derive from Fra Filippo Lippi, together with his own sense of grace. Sadly, following the terror and chaos instigated by the fanatical religious reformer Girolamo Savonarola, Botticelli allegedly suffered a breakdown: an event which led him to adopt a more emotional and overtly devout style of painting which effectively denied almost all of the aesthetics of Renaissance art.

Other Early Renaissance Painters in Florence

Florentine artists active towards the end of the 15th century include Andrea del Verrocchio (1435-1488), best known as the master of Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) and Perugino (1445-1523), noted for his Sistine Chapel fresco Christ Handing the Keys to Saint Peter (1482). There was in addition Filippo Lippi's son Filippino Lippi (1457-1504), who became a pupil of Botticelli's after the death of his father. Filippino Lippi was responsible for a group of Madonnas that are easily mistaken for Botticelli's own work. By 1485, however, he had developed a rather agitated style of painting as shown in his masterpiece, the expressive Vision of St. Bernard in the Badia, Florence. His later works like the series of frescoes in Santa Maria Novella (1502) are marked by a colour and distortion of form that may have influenced the development of Mannerism some two decades later. Another figure active in Florence in the final decades of the 15th century was Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449-94), the prolific and popular fresco painter, whose artistic career was spent as a chronicler of life in Florence. His paintings on the subject of the Life of the Virgin in Santa Maria Novella (c.1485-90) can be understood as the life of a young Florentine girl as well as a religious narrative. His art, though already old-fashioned, helped to train a large number of Florentine artists, among them Michelangelo (creator of the monumental Genesis fresco and Last Judgment fresco cycles in the Sistine Chapel), in the difficult practice of fresco painting. See also his great humanistic portrait Old Man with a Young Boy (1490, Louvre, Paris).

The Florentine Renaissance Spreads

By mid-century, the artistic discoveries and experiments of quattrocento Florence had already begun to spread across Italy. Its impact in Siena was slight however, since in general, the Sienese School of painting upheld the conservative decorative traditions of the International Gothic style, in both panel-painting and altarpieces as well as International Gothic illuminations. However, in Ferrara, Cosimo Tura, Ercole de' Roberti and Francesco del Cossa were all influenced by Florence through the work of Piero della Francesca and Andrea del Castagno. Meanwhile, in the centres of Padua and Venice, painters emerged whose interpretation and enhancement of Florentine techniques actually began to challenge the preeminence of the Renaissance capital.

Andrea Mantegna (1430-1506)

Andrea Mantegna was considerably influenced by the teaching of his master, Francesco Squarcione (1395-1468), the art of antiquity around him, and the sculpture produced by Donatello in Padua. The frescoes he painted in 1455 in the Ovetari Chapel of the Eremitani Church in Padua (lost during World War II) derived from the traditions of Florence, albeit ones to which Mantegna gave his own special interpretation. His pictorial space, for instance, while similar to that devised by the Florentines, has a lower horizon line which allows his figures greater monumentality. The figures themselves are modelled on Roman prototypes in the general manner of Donatello. His decorative finesse derives from antiquity and the almost archeological training that he got from Squarcione. By 1460 Mantegna was at the Ducal Palace in Mantua, where he became official painter to the Gonzaga family, executing a number of group portraits of the family. Perhaps more importantly, he created a number of illusionistic masterpieces, such as the Camera degli Sposi frescoes in the so-called bridal chamber, of the palace. These fresco paintings transformed the chamber with colour and extra space, using the trompe l'oeil painting technique known as quadratura. His grasp of perspective, exemplified in his mastery of foreshortening (witness his Lamentation over the Dead Christ, 1470-80, Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan), along with his altarpieces and engravings lent him an artistic preeminence in northern Italy.

Bellini Family - Venice

The Bellini family of Venice was one of the great dynasties of Italian art. Jacopo Bellini (c.1400-71), the father, a former student of Gentile da Fabriano (c.1370-1427), had a style that combined the rich realism of Flemish painting with the aesthetics of the Renaissance. He was succeeded by his sons Gentile Bellini (1430/5-1507) and Giovanni Bellini (1430/5-1516) who between them effectively dominated Venetian painting until the early 16th century. The former is best known for his Venetian religious processions and his portraits of Doges and Sultans - both of which influenced Vittore Carpaccio (1460-1525). Giovanni was greatly influenced by his brother-in-law Mantegna, and also by the oil painting of the Netherlandish Renaissance. The highly personal style that he evolved from around 1480 onwards had a major impact on the work of subsequent Venetian painters. Its chief characteristics - which include the creation of a softly diffused Venetian light that softens outlines and produces an elegiac mood - can only be accomplished using an oil medium. His Enthroned Madonna from San Giobbe (c.1488, Gallerie dell'Accademia di Venezia) defined a composition and a way of painting that endured in Venetian painting for centuries. His feel for landscape painting was also exceptional. In his Ecstasy of St. Francis (c.1480, Frick Collection, New York), the observer's eye is ineluctably drawn away from the saint and his cell into the distant landscape. See also his Doge Leonardo Loredan (1502, National Gallery, London) and the San Zaccaria Altarpiece (1505) Church of San Zaccaria, VeniceVenetian painters who were particularly influenced by Giovanni Bellini include Lorenzo Lotto (1480-1556), Giorgione (1477-1510) and Titian (1488-1576).


Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)

The advances and contradictions of 15th-century Florentine painting are embodied yet transformed in the art of the first authentic Renaissance genius, Leonardo da Vinci. Although he devoted much effort to his treatise on the theory and practice of painting, he was mostly interested in the appearance of things and in how they operated. This intense curiosity in turn led him to spend an enormous amount of time studying all sorts of natural and mechanical phenomena, including plants, human anatomy and many other things. His supreme talent for drawing enabled him to record the results of these studies and so apply them in his art. Unfortunately, his corresponding sense of perfectionism rarely permitted him to complete a work of art on time.

Apprenticed to Andrea del Verrocchio, Leonardo learned drawing, the preparation and mixing of colour pigments, and painting. Since Verrocchio was himself a trained goldsmith, the young Leonardo doubtless also learned how to model in wax and clay and how to cast bronze sculpture. He was also introduced to sculpting in marble, although he later admitted that he did not relish this difficult craft. Leonardo's talent is already evident in the Baptism of Christ (c.1474-75, Uffizi, Florence), which he painted in collaboration with Verrocchio: his own contribution being the landscape and the figure of an angel. The unfinished altarpiece Adoration of the Magi (1481, Uffizi) intended for the monastery of San Donato a Scopeto near Florence, along with the preparatory drawings, is both a summary of 15th century Florentine art and a forecast of what was to come during the High Renaissance. Although he owes a clear debt to the rational compositions of the earlier quattrocento, designed around their well-developed sense of perspective, Leonardo's Adoration of the Magi goes much further. It synthesizes many of the divergent tendencies of the Florentine Renaissance and its composition is simultaneously ordered and free, calm and full of movement. The figures are arranged in a free yet regulated space that gives a sense of grandeur and expansion. How the work might have looked upon completion is a matter of guesswork, but the work done - along with the preparatory underpainting of its figures and landscape elements - demonstrate a mastery and innovation that was only understood by the group of younger painters who emerged some 20-25 years in the future.

In 1481 Leonardo began an 18-year stint in Milan, working mainly in the service of Duke Ludovico Sforza (Il Moro), for whom he completed a number of paintings and numerous drawings, began a never-to-be-finished equestrian monument to the Ducal dynasty, designed a new canal system for the city, designed theatrical costumes for various entertainments, and wrote extensively in his notebooks. His painting Virgin of the Rocks (c.1483-5, Louvre version) stands on the threshold of the High Renaissance. In this work he introduces the pyramidal composition (used also by Raphael) that was to become a hallmark of High Renaissance painting. His delicate sfumato painting technique was also much imitated, as was his use of light and shade as a unifying compositional factor. The latter was quite revolutionary: never before had a painter succeeded in achieving such tonal continuity of the shadows, a continuity dependent upon a drastic restriction of local colour.

These painterly effects as well as the delicately diffused light, characteristic of Venetian painting, were only feasible for artists using the Netherlandish Renaissance medium of oil paint, which, due to its lengthy drying time, allows for all parts of a painting to be advanced and adjusted together as well as the transparent glazes which produce atmosphere and chiaroscuro. The bold impact of impasto (thickly painted surface textures) was also only possible when using the oil medium and was particularly exploited in Venice, where canvas first began to replace wooden panels on a regular basis.

Leonardo's brave but misguided attempt to transfer this new concept of painting to the troublesome technique of mural painting led to the tragedy of The Last Supper (1495-8, Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan). Because the traditional Italian method of fresco painting was too final for Leonardo's more gradualist approach, he invented a new technique (using a mixture of tempera and oil on gesso, pitch and mastic) that permitted him to continue to make changes in the manner of oil painting. The technique proved to be flawed and the painting began to deteriorate during Leonardo's own lifetime. Even so, in its disegno (conception and composition) the painting remains one of man's finest achievements. All elements lead the eye to the poised, pyramidal figure of Christ. The scene is laid out strictly according to the rules of linear perspective, with all the lines of the architecture converging at the vanishing point in the head of Jesus. In short, Leonardo combines the drama and agitation of the differing groups of apostles, the pivotal figure of Christ, and the rationally designed space of the first half of the quattrocento, with the movement and emotion of the second half, in a new synthesis that far exceeds anything his predecessors had produced. One reason why the work is seen as the beginning of the High Renaissance in Italy.

For details of one of the first painters to understand Leonardo, see the Florentine Piero di Cosimo (1462-1522).

Venerated by travellers on the Grand Tour, early Renaissance paintings can be seen in the best art museums throughout the world, notably the Pitti Palace and the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, and the Vatican Museums in Rome. Early Renaissance aesthetics were revived in the 19th century by groups like the Nazarenes (active 1810-30), the Purism movement and the Pre-Raphaelites.

• For the meaning of important early Renaissance pictures, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed.
• For information about Italian painting and sculpture, see: Homepage.

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