Renaissance Art in Florence
History, Characteristics of Florentine Painting & Sculpture.

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The Early Italian Renaissance in Florence

La Primavera (1484-6)
By Botticelli (1445-1510).
Uffizi Gallery, Florence.
A masterpiece of Florentine painting.

The Dome of Florence Cathedral.
For details of its completion, see:
Florence Cathedral, Brunelleschi
and the Renaissance


Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446)
Masaccio (c.1401-28)
Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472)
Piero della Francesca (c.1420-92)
Antonio Pisanello (c.1395-1455)
Domenico Veneziano (c.1410-61)
Gentile da Fabriano (c.1370-1427)
Fra Angelico (1387-1455)
Paolo Uccello (c.1396-1475)
Giovanni Angelo di Antonio (c.1447-1475)
Andrea del Castagno (c.1420-57)
Sandro Botticelli (1444-1510)
Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449-94)
Greatest Renaissance Paintings (1400-1600)
Best Renaissance Drawings (c.1400-1550)


During the fourteenth century, Italy was composed of states of various sizes. Although the inhabitants of all of these states spoke the same language, the local dialects differed, as did many of their local customs and their forms of government. Naples was governed by a king, while the areas of central Italy around Rome, were governed by the Pope. In the north there were numerous small principalities, the large Duchy of Milan, and the republics of Venice and Florence. Despite these differences, many leading Italians were united in a growing sense of pride in their own national identity, which led to a growing respect for Roman and Greek art of antiquity.


In Florence, where an independence of spirit and intellect had flourished since the time of Dante (1265-1321), this new sense of pride in cultural achievement was even greater than in other Italian states. Pope Boniface VII had recognized the ingenuity and originality of the Florentines as early as 1300, when he complimented one of their envoys by remarking, "You Florentines are the fifth element." The Pope was referring to the general contemporary belief that the world was composed of four elements - fire, water, air, and earth. The fifth element was the genius that the Florentines had added to the make-up of the universe. During the 14th century, this civic genius achieved tangible artistic success in Pre-Renaissance painting, thanks to Giotto di Bondone.

By 1400, this remarkable city had reached a high level of prosperity because of her strategic position on the principal Mediterranean trade routes, and her healthy wool industry, which produced cloth for much of Europe. In the same year, Florence successfully weathered one of her greatest military tests, the attempt of the powerful Duke of Milan to bring Florence under his rule and so to dominate Italy. The victory produced a tremendous upsurge in civic confidence and cultural activity. It was in this atmosphere of excitement and optimism, at the very beginning of the quattrocento (fifteenth century), that an extraordinary group of young artists and intellectuals, formed under the patronage of the Medici family, began to create new modes of vision and thought that departed radically from the formulas of the past. Thus began the Florentine Renaissance, the first period of Renaissance art in Italy, which later spread to Rome, Venice and the rest of the country.

Filippo Brunelleschi

The central figure of this group, which included the sculptor Donatello and the painter Masaccio, was the architect and sculptor Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446).

See also: Renaissance Architecture and Renaissance Sculptors. For biographies of individual Florentine sculptors, see: Nanni di Banco (1386-1421), Luca Della Robbia (1400-1482), Antonio Rossellino (1427-79), Antonio Pollaiuolo (1432-98), Andrea Della Robbia (1435-1525), Benvenuto Cellini (1500-71), Andrea del Verrocchio (1435-88), Baccio Bandinelli (1493-1560).

Brunelleschi was engaged by the wool merchants' guild and the city government to complete construction of the Duomo, or cathedral. Although most of the structure had been built in the earlier Gothic style, which is characterized by soaring pointed arches and limited interior embellishment, the Florentines wished to increase its majesty by crowning it with a large dome or cupola. The desire for a domed structure illustrates the intention of Renaissance men to stress their links with the ancient past, for not since the Romans had erected the Pantheon, the great temple built in the second century CE, had a dome of such large proportions been attempted in Italy.

Brunelleschi submitted a daring and successful plan, and this initial commission was followed by many others, including the family church of the Medici, San Lorenzo, a chapel for their rivals, the Pazzi, and the Ospedale degli Innocenti (Foundling Hospital). Meanwhile, the sculptor Donatello (c.1386-1466) - the most innovative figure in early Italian Renaissance sculpture - turned his back on Gothic wall sculpture, introducing in its place free-standing figures whose proportions, postures, and clothing drew closely from antique models, and demanded a precise knowledge of human anatomy. In addition and simultaneously with Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455), Donatello invented a painting-like bas-relief sculpture in deep perspective (rilievo schiacciato).

Apart from his remarkable achievements as an architect, Brunelleschi helped provide the scientific basis for visual representation in the fifteenth century. He is credited with the formulation of a linear, central perspective based on mathematical principles. Utilizing the observation that parallel lines receding into space seem to converge on the horizon (as, for example, the experience of a straight highway or length of railroad), the painter may create the illusion of depth on the surface of his painting.

Although forms of perspective were known to artists of earlier periods, they were usually employed on an intuitive rather than a scientific basis. Brunelleschi wished to perfect a system of perspective which would give his architectural drawings a greater degree of reality or visual truth. In his various experiments to develop perspective aids, he constructed panels on which he inscribed views such as that of the Baptistry of Florence. The viewer would peer at the image through a hole cut from the reverse side of the panel. In his other hand, he would hold a mirror in which he would see the reflected image of the Baptistry. Through the hole or aperture, the eye of the observer would be drawn immediately to the spot which corresponded to the vanishing point.

Notwithstanding Brunelleschi's individual role, the simultaneous appearance of innovations in all areas of Florentine culture between 1410 and 1440 remains a remarkable phenomenon. The notion of the "uomo universale", the universal man - the many-sided intellectual who was both a successful artist and scienist - encouraged a fertile, interdisciplinary creativity. For example, the sculptors Donatello and Ghiberti self-confidently designed stained-glass windows for the Florence Cathedral, while the Brunelleschi and his fellow architect Alberti provided the theoretical basis for a new revolution in art.

World's Top Art
- For a list of the Top 10 painters/sculptors: see: Best Artists of All Time.
- For the Top 300 oils, watercolours, see: Greatest Paintings Ever.
- For the Top 100 works of sculpture, see: Greatest Sculptures Ever.

Masaccio - The Second Revolution in Painting

As new theories of perspective became known, painters quickly put them to the test. The most successful of these was undoubtedly Tommaso Masaccio (c.1401-28). If Giotto and other painters of the Proto-Renaissance had begun a new age in fine art painting at the beginning of the 14th century with the introduction of realism, it was Masaccio almost a century later who reorganized pictorial space by means of perspective.

Relatively little is known of the life of this artist, whose name means 'clumsy Tom'. In his Lives of The Artists, the art historian Giorgio Vasari says that he learned a great deal from Brunelleschi; he certainly produced an amazing body of work before he died at the age of twenty-seven. His style has been likened to those of both Giotto and Michelangelo; he shares with them a common concern for creating convincingly three-dimensional human forms and for the representation of deep feeling (see: Expulsion From the Garden of Eden). Also like Giotto and Michelangelo, he worked extensively in fresco, that challenging medium which demands such clarity and precision from the artist.

His fresco "Holy Trinity" marks a turning point in the history of art. The viewer gazes into a barrel-arched room whose depth is suggested with mathematical precision. By means of linear perspective (costruzione legittima), a relatively simple geometrical process, the various planes and layers of the three-dimensional space are projected onto the surface of the painting. Lines of vision direct the viewer's eye into the depths of the reconstructed pictorial room, and both real and virtual lines of perspective culminate in a vanishing point.

Masaccio faced the problem of arranging figures in a mathematically defined space without making the picture appear to be artificially constructed, and thus isolating them from the composition or even sacrificing them to the ideal proportions of the room. Masaccio solved the problem by placing the traditional portraits of his patrons, the figures of Mary and John next to the cross in different spatial planes, whereas the postion of God the Father remains unclear, thus softening to some extent the rigors of the mathematical perspective.

Masaccio was essentially the father of Early Renaissance painting and the first artist to unite Giotto's principles of composition with the possibilities offered by perspective, a combination particularly clear in the predella panels at the base of the altar pictures. His Brancacci Chapel frescoes in the Florentine church of Santa Maria del Carmine (1424-1425), far surpass even Giotto's depiction of both narrative and human figures. Masaccio not only distributes large numbers of figures across a wide pictorial field, but also depicts human beings in their individuality - a revolutionary break with the Medieval past, which had conceived of human figures only as types.

In the "Tribute Money" painted on the walls of a Florentine church, Masaccio depicts one of the miracles described in the New Testament: how Christ and the Apostles were confronted by a Roman tax collector, who demanded the "tribute"; how Christ told Peter to go to a nearby stream and extract the money from the mouth of a fish; how Peter, after following Christ's instructions, handed the tribute money over to the tax collector. This mural painting is an example of what is called "continuous narrative," since it represents consecutive events or moments in a single, unified space. Masaccio places his figures in a landscape and varies the character of the background slightly, so that each event is clearly separated from the others.

In a detail from the fresco, we see the figures of Peter and the tax collector framed by the architecture of a town. Both possess great dignity and almost sculptural three-dimensionality. The roundness of their bodies is established by firmly drawn contours and by alternating areas of light and shade that reinforce the contours. The drapery of the garments informs the viewer about the bodies underneath, while the proportions and stance of the figures suggest the artist's familiarity with - and admiration of - classical sculpture. It is not surprising to learn that the youthful Michelangelo, while training as a sculptor in Florence, copied these two figures in a drawing which emphasized the striking reality of Masaccio's forms.

The way in which Masaccio distinguishes the tax collector, a worldly man, from the other, sacred figures is interesting. While Christ and all of the apostles wear long, flowing garments that recall the costumes of the Greeks or Romans, the civil official is shown in the short jacket and tights of the artist's own time.

The same combination of dignity and solidity that is present in the figures of "The Tribute Money" can also be observed in "St. Peter Distributing the Common Goods and the Punishment of Ananias", another fresco depicting a miraculous event. Masaccio here conveys an impression of depth by using the technique of overlapping or partially overlapping forms, which Greek sculpture had employed many centuries before.

So concerned were other Florentine artists with establishing concretely real figures, that at times they virtually reduced the human body to a simple geometric structure. In Piero della Francesca's "Birth of Christ", the sharp outlines of the bodies, particularly those of the Virgin and the Infant, contribute a hardness to the forms, while the musical angels who serenade them appear to have been carved out of stone. In a detail from Piero's fresco "The Legend of the True Cross", we see that he, too, used overlapping forms to establish depth. The severe, oval faces of the women evidence the same concern with basic forms seen in Masaccio's paintings. See also Masolino.

Just as the scientists of the day were concerned with increasing their empirical knowledge of the natural world through observation and ex-periment, artists of the early fifteenth century attempted to observe carefully and to record the variety of their visual experience in a logical and clear manner. Page after page in artists' sketchbooks were covered with the evidence of their natural curiosity. Animals, men, ornamental details - all testify to the artists' insatiable thirst for knowledge of the visual world.

If there is any special quality which is shared by a majority of works of the early Renaissance, it is the fascination with space and the delight in experimenting with the placement of objects in space. Such artists as Masaccio and Piero della Francesca may have sacrificed some of the qualities of elegance of line and richness of surface decoration that characterized the efforts of earlier artists, but they achieved in their austere works convincing images of the real world. For these new artists, the two-dimensional surface of a wall or panel was like a pane of glass, through which one could see a scene of measurable depth.

Leon Battista Alberti

In 1435, some 7-8 years after the death of Masaccio, the architect and Italian intellectual Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472) published his influential treatise "On Painting" (Della Pittura). (For a comparison between Alberti's view of colourism and Titian's, see: Titian and Venetian Colour Painting c.1500-76.) Alberti was the ideal "uomo universale", or universal man. A pioneer in architecture, and active as both a sculptor and painter, his treatise and its influence on his contemporaries cannot be overestimated. Alberti's book prescribes artistic ideals which in effect record those of the early Florentine Renaissance as evolved by Donatello, Masaccio, Ghilberti and Brunelleschi, to whom the Italian version is dedicated. As a whole, Alberti elevates painting from a craft to the ranks of intellectual knowledge. In his first section, Alberti advocates the principles of linear perspective, as first employed by Masaccio: that is, the use of a single central vanishing point. In the second section, he concerns himself with "disegno" - a term which incorporates both drawing as well as all aspects of pictorial composition, including the choice and use of the right colours. Alberti's tract was directly influential on Leonardo Da Vinci and on certain non-Florentine artists, notably Mantegna.

Piero della Francesca

Piero della Francesca (c.1420-92) is one of the most mysterious figures of the Italian quattrocentro. There are only a few fixed dates that provide even a vague idea of the creative life of the painter as he moved between Sansepolcro, Florence, Rimini, Arezzo, and Urbino. Like Masaccio, Piero was another artist fascinated by perspective. A drawing of a street in an Italian town reveals his mastery of the principles of this subject - principles that he subsequently expanded and illustrated in a theoretical study of his own. All the diagonal lines in the drawing, those following the edges of the houses along the street and those implied by the projecting edges of the roofs, meet at a central vanishing point in the distance. This creates the illusion of an open and deep space, into which one could easily fit three, five, or fifteen figures. In fact, the general impression of the drawing is rather like that of a stage set awaiting the arrival of the actors.

Antonio Pisanello

Not all of their contemporaries shared Piero and Masaccio's enthusiasm for representing space and volume. Some artists still regarded the two-dimensional surface as something to be covered with suitably handsome flat shapes and brilliant colours. They produced highly decorative paintings whose compositional unity derives from an emphasis on the surface, not from the illusion of organization in space. Typical of these more conservative or traditional artists is Antonio Pisanello (c.1395-1455). A generation older than Piero della Francesca, Pisanello worked for many of the great princely houses of northern Italy. He was trained in the grace and decorative refinement of the late Gothic International style - a style so named because traveling artists had spread its appealing forms to all the major courts of Europe.

In Pisanello's "Portrait of a Princess of the House of Este", we find the important characteristics of this older style of figure painting. The young woman is shown in profile against bushes and flowers, which stand out against the clear blue sky. Her features are extraordinarily simple; her hair style is severe. In marked contrast to the simple rendering of the features is the amazing ornateness of the background elements and the curious way in which they absorb the complicated pattern of the young lady's dress. No attempt has been made to maintain clearly the separateness of the human form from the strangely artificial foliage; yet no conflict results, because the viewer's eye is content to explore the abstract. linear quality of the composition.

Domenico Veneziano

Another, slightly younger, artist whose work reveals a similar artistic temperament is Domenico Veneziano (c.1410-61), who was one of Piero della Francesca's teachers. Veneziano worked in Florence when Brunelleschi's theories of perspective were first generating great excitement. His "Portrait of a Young Woman of Quality" - a work which some scholars have attributed to Antonio Pollaiuolo - is similar to Pisanello's portrait; the clarity of the profile and the simplicity of the head stand out in contrast to the much more lively pattern of the costume. Although Veneziano's work shares with Pisanello's an almost total disregard for the individuality or character of the sitter, there is a significant difference. Veneziano's young lady is silhouetted against a light blue, delicately clouded sky. No patterned background competes with her for the viewer's attention. The presence of a ledge at the bottom of the painting subtly implies that the sitter is part of a real albeit remote world.

In his Santa Lucia Altarpiece (St Lucy or Magnolia Altarpiece), probably one of the most exciting paintings of its age, Veneziano's subtle gradations of colour fill the room with air, light, and shadows for the first time in the Italian Renaissance. When viewed from above, the fascade of the Arcadian architecture runs parallel to the surface of the painting, and appears to be the front, or first plane of the picture. Viewed from below, however, the columnar architecture seems to be in a second plane, in front of which the saints are standing on the boldly foreshortened floor tiles. Like Masaccio, Veneziano developed a pictorial room as an outgrowth of the space of the viewer. The enthroned Mary is not clearly to be located on a single pictorial plane, for the necessary points of reference are lacking. To faithful believers praying before the picture, she moves closer, or remains distant- the choice is left up to the viewer, who thus actively participates in the process.

Gentile da Fabriano

Although some early Renaissance artists were experimenting with the placement of figures in a clearly defined space, other painters at the beginning of the fifteenth century seemed hesitant about moving into this vanguard. They clung to the techniques and attitudes of the older, traditional style of painting that we have seen in the work of Pisanello and Veneziano - while making use of some of the innovations of the new spirit represented by Masaccio and Piero della Francesca. Typical of this more conservative group were Gentile da Fabriano (c.1370-1427) and Fra Angelico (1387-1455). Some four years before Masaccio painted "The Tribute Money," Gentile da Fabriano produced a panel almost ten feet high that depicted the story of the visit of the Wise Men to the Christ Child, "The Adoration of the Magi". Although the work contains remarkable examples of the contemporary preoccupation with recording nature, such as the careful representation of various kinds of animals and different types of people, like the exotically clad figures reminding one of the Orientals described in Marco Polo's adventures, the major impression is still that of a richly worked, jewel-encrusted surface. Space is not treated three-dimensionally, in a unified way, and clarity is sacrificed to sheer numbers of figures. Indeed, the crowding is so great that we feel that the artist must have had a positive dislike of empty spaces. Another major difference between this style of painting and that of Masaccio and Piero della Francesca is reflected in the atmosphere of the work. While their frescoes relate stories in a restrained yet dramatic manner, the mood of Gentile's panel is festive to the point of noisiness. Gentile da Fabriano also worked with the lesser-known Jacopo Bellini (1400-70), father of Giovanni Bellini (1430-1516) the leading figure in Venetian painting of the Renaissance era.

Fra Angelico

The work of Fra Angelico (1387-1455) reveals a similar concern for decorative values, but possesses at the same time a far greater sense of clarity and volume. In "The Coronation of the Virgin", the heavenly ceremony still occurs against an idealized gold background that does not induce the viewer's eye to penetrate space. The figures, however, do appear as distinctly three-dimensional forms, because of the way that light and shade are used to model the contours of the body. One is especially struck by the strict symmetry and logical order of the entire composition, a quality of the earlier style.

Fra Angelico came from a peasant family and joined a Dominican monastery at the age of twenty. Like other members of his order, he entered into the usual activities of the monastery, performing both his spiritual and physical duties with humility and conviction. However, when it was discovered that he had uncommon artistic ability, he was assigned the task of decorating the walls of the chapels and the monks' cells with sacred stories that would serve to inspire their inhabitants. One of the most popular themes of Christian art he represented was The Annunciation, which he was to paint many times. In one of these interpretations, he reveals the major characteristics of his style. Notice his gentle and poetic approach to the dramatic confrontation and his ability to portray the events of religious teaching in a tender, intimate way. Fra Angelico possessed a wonderful colour sense, which is demonstrated in the contrast of delicate crimson and royal blue. He was able to combine the linear grace and lovely colour of earlier painters such as Duccio and Cimabue with the new desire for clarity and dramatic realism.

In 'The Annunciation,' he juxtaposes events which are related to one another, although widely separated in time. In the garden at the left, Adam and Eve, grief-stricken and ashamed, are being driven from Paradise by an angel because of their disobedience to God. In the open cloister, the humble and pious Virgin receives the angel Gabriel's announcement that she has been chosen to be the mother of God's Son. One event is clearly the consequence of the other, for Christianity taught that it was Adam and Eve's original sin which brought about the need for a Redeemer.

It is interesting to note how Fra Angelico combined elements of naturalism - the tangibly real architecture, the simple wooden bench in the cloister cell, the lush garden, and the little finch that rests on the top of the column - with such obviously supernatural elements as the radiant disk at the left, with its golden path leading to the head of the Virgin. In addition, it is curious to see the juxtaposition of the ordinary finch - a common songbird - with a dove, the most familiar symbol of the Holy Ghost.

Space is developed convincingly, though not as logically worked out as in the works of Masaccio and Piero della Francesca, but there is a tendency towards clear, sharply outlined forms, rather than towards the rounding of forms through the use of light and shade. The cloister, with its combination of Gothic vaulting and classical decoration, such as the slender Corinthian columns, reflects the revolution which was taking place in contemporary architecture through the efforts of Brunelleschi. Fra Angelica also imbues the classical architectural decoration with Christian meaning, for on the facade of the building, directly above the central column which so effectively separates the Virgin from the angel, we see a likeness of God the Father. His head has been placed against a shell pattern, one of the old pagan symbols of immortality.

Fra Angelico's career stands in contrast to those of other contemporary religious painters like Fra Filippo Lippi. He did not choose to rise to high position on his talent, though he could have done so. His reputation as a painter was so considerable that the powerful gonfaloniere (ruler) of Florence, Cosimo de' Medici, invited him to leave his native village of Fiesole and work in the great Dominican monastery of San Marco in Florence, which he did. Yet when the Pope offered to make him archbishop of Florence in recognition of his great artistic gifts and widely celebrated piety, the gentle painter declined and chose to remain in the seclusion of his monastery.

Paolo Uccello

While Fra Angelico's paintings illustrate some of the ways in which painters adapted old formulas or techniques to the program of the new descriptive or naturalistic art, those of Paolo Uccello (c.1396-1475) show some of the difficulties that resulted from an imperfect understanding of the spatial innovations of Masaccio and Piero della Francesca. Uccello began his career as an assistant to the famed early fourteenth-century sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455), with whom Brunelleschi had once unsuccessfully competed for a monumental commission, the creation of gilt bronze doors for the Baptistry of the Cathedral of Florence. Uccello also accompanied Gentile da Fabriano to Venice in 1425 to work on mosaics. When he returned to his native Florence six years later, he was apparently quite sought after as a painter. In 1456, Cosimo de' Medici engaged him to paint a series of three battle pictures for the walls of a bedroom in his palace. (The Medicis are now not thought to have commissoned the painting.) The subject of all three panels was the Battle of San Romano, a supposedly glorious victory of 1432 in which Florence's general, Nicholas of Tolentine, held off the opposing Sienese army with only a handful of knights.

Although the event depicted was a ferocious clash of armed men and horses, nowhere does the artist suggest the horror and violence associated with war. The knights in armor with their tilting lances seem like gaily painted toys, while the horses appear to move as though they were placed on rockers. The foreground of one of the panels contains a jumble of objects - fallen horses with their riders, discarded armor, broken lances in every conceivable position. These are clearly but unsuccessfully designed to define the space between the picture surface or plane and the landscape background. Despite this creation of a shallow stage, the viewer's main appreciation of the painting lies in its decorative harmony of colour and constantly moving line. Everywhere the eye is pulled along the curves of the horses' backs and necks from an area of light to an opposing area of dark.

Fascinated with the technique of foreshortening - applying rules of perspective to specific objects - Uccello produced numerous drawings of animate and inanimate objects which were clearly useful preparation for paintings like "The Battle of San Romano." Vasari says the painter's wife complained that her husband would ignore her pleas that he come to bed and sometimes stay up all night working on the solution of some perspective problem. Yet for all of his enthusiasm, Uccello's works often resemble a lesson in misapplied geometry. Although thirty years of rapid evolution in Italian art separate "The Battle of San Romano" from Gentile da Fabriano's "The Adoration of the Magi," the paintings are strikingly similar in their effect, which derives from the establishment of a rich surface pattern, punctuated by areas of vivid colour.

Uccello's tendency to isolate figures and objects from a decorative landscape backdrop is also seen in a somewhat more spatially coherent painting, "St. George Rescuing the Princess from the Dragon". Here the religious nature of the subject is subordinated to an artistic concern with developing elegantly fantastic forms. The dragon is the center of the composition, with lines linking it to the other figures. The swift diagonal of St. George's lance leads the viewer's eye to the head of the beast; the eye then travels along the delicately curved line of the chain to the demure figure of the princess. Having exhausted the limited drama of the composition, the viewer can dwell on the stylized landscape details such as the cave, the garden, or the background trees, which tend to merge with the circular clouds that frame the head of the saintly knight. By the second half of the fifteenth century, the flat, decorative style which is still expressed in "St. George Rescuing the Princess from the Dragon" had been generally superseded by the new, more spatially ambitious and experimental style. Uccello was passed over by patrons in favour of younger, more progressive artists. See also Uccello's late work The Hunt in the Forest (1470, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford).

For details of the colour pigments used by Florentine Renaissance painters, in fresco, tempera and oil painting, see: Renaissance Colour Palette.

Giovanni Angelo di Antonio

Typical of the growing response to the challenge of perspective is a painting executed for the ducal Court of Urbino, a town somewhat east of Florence, which is celebrated as the birthplace of Raphael - one of the later great painters of the High Renaissance. The subject of "The Birth of the Virgin" is encountered in many fifteenth-century paintings, for the Virgin enjoyed high religious prestige from the Gothic period throughout the Renaissance. The artist has recently been identified by the Italian scholar Bruno Zeri as Giovanni Angelo di Antonio (c.1447-1475), who painted this panel and a companion piece "The Presentation of the Virgin," in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. He was surely a painter of extraordinary ability; there is great virtuosity in his handling of space and in his sense of accessory detail. The panel does not concentrate on the representation of a single scene taking place in one space, but rather depicts the momentous event within the context of a bustling and indifferent world. The birth is almost obscured by the profusion of detail and activity that accompanies or surrounds it. The viewer is so engrossed in the elegant Renaissance palace architecture, the costumes of the figures, and the general pageant of the scene, that he almost forgets the significance of the religious theme. Where thirty years before, Uccello still struggled with the problem of making two-dimensional forms seem three-dimensional, the anonymous master of this panel has succeeded remarkably in conveying an impression of considerable depth. The figures are grouped with assurance and contribute forcefully to the impression of a logically ordered space.

The painting also vividly reflects the splendor and variety of fifteenth-century life. The handsomely garbed women in the foreground, the gentleman with his trained bird framed in the doorway, the hunters and horsemen in the background are all citizens of a wealthy and cultivated secular society - a society with a taste for luxury and for the refinement of the arts. While we can conclude that leisure was the privilege of the wealthy, pomp and pageantry could be found in the city streets, as well as in the palaces. In Renaissance Italy, whole cities often served as stages for entertainment. Carnivals, religious mystery plays, and horse races on local feast days or civic holidays involved all segments of the population, and many of these events are recorded in paintings.

Andrea del Castagno

An important dimension of art in the fifteenth century is its relation to the ceremonial aspects of life. To celebrate weddings or births, artisans often created beautiful articles such as chests or ceramic plates painted with scenes pertinent to the occasion. Similarly, painters would often lend their talents to the decoration of metal or leather objects.

Among the most startling of fifteenth-century paintings is one executed on a leather shield nearly four feet high. Painted c.1450 by Andrea del Castagno (c.1420-57), the ambitious farmer's son who rose to a place of prominence in the circle of the great Cosimo de' Medici, the work represents the Old Testament hero David. The shield is clearly intended for ceremonial, not combat, use, and the subject has a special significance for the city of Florence. In Italy, it was common for certain saints to be singled out as patrons or civic champions under whose banner or image the army of Siena, Padua, or Venice might fight. David, like his feminine counterpart Judith, symbolized for Florence the triumph of liberty over oppression. In addition to his physical courage and ability as a national leader, David was also an accomplished musician and poet. It was doubtless this combination of bravery and beauty, of power and intellect, that captivated the Florentines and persuaded them to choose him as their protector. This accounts for the numerous representations of David found in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century art, including the celebrated bronze sculptures by Donatello and Verrocchio and, of course, the marble giant by Michelangelo, which stood originally at the entrance of Florence's town hall in the Piazza della Signoria in the heart of the city.

Like the city he symbolizes, Castagno's David is triumphant. The head of the slain giant Goliath can be seen in the foreground, where it is framed by the young hero's legs. David, with his short classical tunic and muscular legs and arms, seems the embodiment of nervous energy. Indeed, every form in the painting has been animated, from the curly hair of the giant's head to the dynamic swirls of David's costume. Even the blue sky seems troubled by the presence of quickly passing clouds that indicate the effect of a strong wind.

Castagno was well aware of the problems posed in projecting an illusion of convincing depth. That he had mastered the principles of perspective and that he was interested in nature and in recreating lifelike forms is demonstrated in other paintings, such as the curious frescoes he painted to advertise certain conspirators who had fled Florence after an unsuccessful uprising. (Castagno represented the conspirators as hanging upside down, and this commission resulted in his earning the nickname Andreino degli Impiccati, or "Andrew of the Hanged Men.") Yet despite his demonstrated concern for drawing or painting from nature and his interest in creating convincing illusions of space, Castagno in this work seems more fascinated by the kind of emotional tension that can be produced when an artist consciously exploits the juxtaposition of two and three-dimensional forms in a composition. The sense of tremendous energy in his "David" is a far cry from the quiet monumentality of the works of Masaccio or Piero della Francesca, and reveals just how far Renaissance Old Masters had travelled from the tentative solutions first proposed by Giotto. It is precisely because he does understand how to create the illusion of three-dimensionality that Castagno permits himself to revert to the older emphasis on line and the flat surface. It is this new vitality of line that makes his composition seem dramatic and emotional to a degree previously unrealized by Renaissance painting.

Sandro Botticelli

No artist is more closely identified with painting towards the end of the early phase of Italian Renaissance than Sandro Botticelli (1444-1510). Like many young Florentines, Botticelli was originally apprenticed to a goldsmith. Later he studied painting with the worldly monk Fra Filippo Lippi. If we compare the central portion of Botticelli's "The Adoration of the Magi" to Lippi's "Virgin Adoring the Christ Child", we see a definite similarity of approach to form in the two artists' works. The figures are delicately conceived in each, and there is the same warm, golden beauty about the Virgin and Infant. The atmosphere of sweetness and reverence that prevails in Lippi's painting is still very much present in Botticelli's bigger and somewhat busier composition.

Two paintings which further identify Botticelli's mature style are the enormous Birth of Venus (1484-6) and La Primavera (1484-6) ("Spring"). The first of these was inspired by a contemporary poem written by Poliziano, one of the humanists in Lorenzo's circle and tutor to his children. According to this poem, Venus was born of the sea. In Botticelli's painting, we find her carried across its waters on a shell that is propelled by the winds. A beautifully costumed handmaiden awaits the slender goddess of love and reaches out with a garment to cover her nudity. The work seems particularly revolutionary when we recall that the depiction of nude figures had previously been tolerated by religious authorities only when the figure represented was Adam or Eve or a partially covered, crucified Christ. Here Botticelli has not used the nude figure for any apparently religious purpose, but rather in order to re-create the impression of an ideally beautiful classical statue, and indeed the pose suggests dependence on an early Greek or Roman model.

The "Primavera" was also occasioned by verses by Poliziano, and was in part the result of the contemporary Florentine preoccupation with nature, which led to representation of the changing seasons in painting. In a fresco by Francesco del Cossa (c.1435-77), who worked in neighboring Ferrara, we see that artists sometimes painted landscapes with the specific activities of particular seasons. A detail from his cycle "The Twelve Months" shows the spring landscape of April, with amorous couples paying tribute to Venus, the love goddess and patron of the month. In other scenes in del Cossa's fresco cycle, figures are shown in appropriate landscapes honoring Saturn, Mars, and other gods. Botticelli's "Primavera" is also set in the decorative domain of Venus. The bleak winter is over and spring, in the person of a lovely young woman, is reborn. Symbolic figures appear in a densely flowered land-scape: to the right are personifications of the winds, then Flora in her elaborate blossom-covered dress, while just beyond the central figure of Venus are the three dancing graces, as March, April, and May. At the left, the young man in the short classical costume has been identified as young Giuliano de' Medici idealized as the god Mercury. It is interesting to compare this likeness with a portrait Botticelli painted of Giuliano shortly before he painted the "Primavera." In the portrait, the young man is shown in sharp profile, eyes glancing downward, lips set in a confident smile. His tight curly hair frames a distinguished but not an idealized face, and the viewer is impressed rather by the sitter's air of determination than by his beauty. In his 50s, Botticelli abandoned painting for a spell, under the influence of the extremist cleric Savonarola (1452-98), and his later works are rather muted and gloomy.

Domenico Ghirlandaio

In the church of Santa Maria Novella, Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449-94) painted a fresco, the "Birth of the Virgin". With typical Florentine clarity and assurance, his elegantly robed figures are placed in a light-filled, convincing three-dimensional space. How different the elaborate classical decoration of this interior seems from the stark simplicity of earlier Florentine paintings. However, we immediately perceive in the solid dignity of the figures, the technique of building a sense of space through overlapping forms, and the logical arrangement of objects in space, a connection with the pioneering works of Masaccio and Piero della Francesca. We can compare details of this painting with Piero's figures in his "Birth of Christ" or the detail of his fresco "The Legend of the True Cross" that shows the ladies in waiting of the Queen of Sheba and find the same crispness of profile and statuesque dignity.

The principal action in the "Birth of the Virgin" centers around the washing of the newborn baby by the midwife. Looking at a drawing that Ghirlandaio made in preparation for this fresco, we can see how the painter anticipated the marvelous flowing movements of the woman who pours water into the basin. With studies like this, a painter could build a repertoire of physical types, movements, and attitudes that could be used again and again.

The awareness of nature, especially of the workings of the human body, which had been one of the earliest manifestations of the Renaissance spirit, was especially characteristic of the Florentines. Then too, they were often subject to violent or extreme awareness of nature's force, such as in the frequent floods. And since Dante's time, they had also expressed a fascination with the complexities of the cosmic system that governed the celestial bodies, which they wished to understand in order to better comprehend the nature of man. Since it was felt in those times that the stars had a great influence on man's destiny, every court had its astrologer; every prince hoped that this wise man would help him to discover the secrets of nature.

Italians were the first Europeans to study carefully plants and animals and to create botanical gardens and menageries. In paintings by Gentile da Fabriano, Benozzo Gozzoli, and Sandro Botticelli there are examples of extraordinary animals and plants. Gozzoli did not have to invent the exotic leopard that accompanies the young man in "The Journey of the Magi", for it was quite common for nobles to keep leopards and lions as household pets. The lion was sufficiently well known to be the symbol of Florence's power. Some Renaissance princes even created human menageries: Cardinal Ippolito de' Medici, the natural son of Giuliano, kept a strange company of Africans, Tartars, Indians, and Turks. Lorenzo the Magnificent, Poliziano, and others devoted much of their poetry to celebrating the beauty of human life and the wonders of nature. Their enthusiasm was not confined to the grander, more majestic aspects of nature, but extended to the tiniest and humblest of her forms. A similar delight was evidenced by contemporary artists. A drawing by Leonardo da Vinci that examines lovingly the anatomy of a tiny crab, or the larger studies of the human body in action by Luca Signorelli both display the same passionate concern with detailed visual truth.

Ghirlandaio's "Portrait of an Old Man with a Young Boy" reveals yet another aspect of the Florentine painters' ever-increasing naturalism. This wonderful little painting confronts us with striking contrasts: youth and old age, ideal beauty and real ugliness. The opposition of the smooth, youthful skin of the boy to the wart-covered, wrinkled face of the old man is touching, as is the human warmth conveyed in the gaze of the two figures at one another. Florentine artists like Ghirlandaio were constantly broadening their horizons. No longer content with representing the mere appearance of persons or objects, they tried to recreate the key aspects of a sitter's character, suggesting his mood or temperament through the angle of an eye, the expression of the mouth, or the set of the chin. Perhaps the best-known example of portrait art which transcends outward appearance and projects personalityand character is Leonardo da Vinci's "Mona Lisa."

The same touching quality found in the Ghirlandaio portrait of the old man and child is also seen in a painting by Lorenzo di Credi (c.1459-1537), the "Virgin and Child with St. John and Angels". Unlike earlier, more ceremonial religious art, Lorenzo's painting is concerned with one poignant moment. The atmosphere of the painting is sad and gentle; the artist tries to show that all of those present recognize that the Infant who blesses St. John will one day sacrifice His life on a cross. The mood of this painting is very different from the static beauty of earlier Byzantine-influenced works by artists like Duccio di Buoninsegna (c.1255-1319). Clearly, religious painting was changing in the late fifteenth century in Italy, and we can see that it was affected by the increasing awareness of human emotion - something that had an even greater impact on the later Mannerism art movement.

For chronological lists of more Renaissance painters and sculptors, please see:
High Renaissance Artists and Mannerist Artists. See in particular the Florentine Mannerist painter Jacopo Pontormo (1494-1556).

The True Florentine Gentleman

The study of the human body was complemented in this period by the study of human nature. During the age of Lorenzo de' Medici, simplicity of character was no longer necessarily regarded as a virtue. No more was it enough for a man to lead a simple, pious life. A true gentleman was expected to be a man of thought, as well as a man of action; he was a connoisseur of the arts, music, and literature, as well as of horses and weapons. So great was the general desire to appear competent and cultivated that a writer named Castiglione (see Raphael's Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione) produced an immensely popular volume entitled The Book of the Courtier, which advised the potential gentleman how best to create the impression of culture and character. According to Castiglione, the ability to appreciate painting, sculpture, and architecture was indispensable to a more general appreciation of beauty.

"Portrait of a Youth" by Filippino Lippi (1457-1504) could easily serve as an illustration of the successful young courtier. The fine features, firmly set mouth, and slightly aggressive angle of his shoulder all assert the attitude of calm, rationality, and self-assurance that so many Renaissance men prized.

Notwithstanding the creative genius of these Florentine artists, no explanation of the Early Renaissance is complete without referring to the dynastic patronage of the ruling Medici family, which gave the city of Florence its leading role in the Rinascimento.

For information regarding the High Renaissance in Florence, see the careers of the artists Fra Bartolommeo (1472-1517) and Andrea del Sarto (1486-1530).

Further Information

• For events in other cities, see Renaissance in Rome and Renaissance in Venice.
• For Florentine art collections, see: the Uffizi Gallery and the Pitti Palace.

• For the chronological history of Italian culture, see: History of Art Timeline.
• For Florentine painting and sculpture, see: Homepage.

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