Early Renaissance Art and Artists
The Renaissance period began in 1400 in Florence, Italy and soon spread through the rest of Europe, lasting until 1700. The early Renaissance is centered in Florence, 1400-1450 and was inspired by Florentine’s political and social world during this period as the city fought off a takeover attempt by the duke of Milan. The city successfully defended itself, militarily, diplomatically and intellectually, unlike the rest of Italy. Florence was the only city that was able to resist the takeover. This aroused a patriotic pride and inspired Florentines to complete the great artistic enterprises they had begun the century before. A great competition developed for how to complete the dome in the Florence Cathedral, a project that lasted for thirty years when the Cathedral was completed. The total cost was not equivalent to current times, but was compared to rebuilding the Acropolis in Athens and brought out an emergence of great talent (445).
From the very beginning, the visual arts were considered an important part of Florence’s spirit. Prior to 1400, the arts had been classified with crafts or “mechanical arts.” Around 1400, a Florentine chronicler named Filippo Villani wrote an explicit statement defining the visual arts as liberal arts, a definition that was completely accepted by 1500. This change was important as it classified the visual arts among other disciplines necessary for a “gentlemen’s education,” including mathematics, dialectics, grammar, rhetoric and philosophy. Having won acceptance into this group, the artist was redefined as a person of ideas rather than a “mere manipulator of materials” (445). Works of art become more and more well known as a recording of history and began to be eagerly collected in all forms. The artist also changed his outlook now that he was among the company of scholars and poets. It was common for artists to become learned and write poems or theoretical treatises. In a remarkable short period, the new modern view of artists and art became the living world of Florence and the Early Renaissance. Six known artists of this period were Nanni Di Bianco, Donatello, Masaccio, Fra Filippo Lippi, Domenico Veneziano and Piero Della Francesca (445-446).
Born in 1384, Nanni Di Bianco was an Early Renaissance sculptor that created some of the most well known work of the early part of the 15th century. Though he was only in his late thirties when he died, two of his works, one completed around 1410, the other unfinished at his death in 1421, demonstrate how both the artist and the Renaissance movement had evolved in ten years. The four saints, called Quatro Coronati, finished between 1410 and 1411, was made for one of the niches of the exterior of the church Or San Michele. The figures presented are approximately life size, yet they give the appearance of being much larger. This work is reminiscent of Roman sculpture, capturing both the realism and agonized expressions, and demonstrated a new attitude toward classical art. When he died in 1421, Di Bianco left a nearly finished relief of the Assumption of the Virgin for the gable of one of the portals of the Florence Cathedral. The most pronounced change between these two sculptures is found in one of the figures carrying the virgin to heaven. The style is quite different from the Quatro and from the International Gothic period that preceded it. The angel is enveloped in thin, loose drapery fabric and balloon-like bulges show the force of the wind. Unlike earlier sculpture, the figure of the angel actually fills out the garment with “its own vigorous action” (447), giving the impression it is propelling itself rather than merely floating. This shows that Early Renaissance’s focus on the human figure similar to the art of classical antiquity (446-447).
The greatest sculpture of the Early Renaissance was Donatello, born in 1386, he lived until the age of 80 and spent the early part of his career completing commissions for the Florence Cathedral and Or San Michele. Unlike Di Bianco’s Quatro, Donatello’s St. Mark, which also was made for one of the Cathedral’s niches, stands architecturally independent from the building and would lose none of its integrity were it complete separated. This is the first sculpture since antiquity capable of standing on its own. Unequivocally quickly, Donatello had mastered the achievement of ancient sculpture. He was known for treating the human body as “an articulated structure” (447), capable of independent movement and its clothing and coverings as completely separate, secondary entities that were determined by the shape beneath rather than patters outside the sculpture. Between 1416 and 1435, Donatello filled five of the vacant niches on the campanile of the Florence Cathedral. In one of these sculptures, Zuccone, Donatello reinvented the image of the prophet in terms of realism. Historians believe that Donatello created his interpretation of the prophet by reading the Old Testament. This is the first surviving work to retain Donatello’s signature. Donatello worked under Ghiberti on the first Babtista doors and by the 1420s, he rivaled his former master. In 1425, Donatello completed The Feast of Herod for the baptismal font of Siena Cathedral and by medieval or classical standards, the main scene retains a poor composition, with a gaping hole in the center of the work. By doing so, the work has a greater impact of the shocking sight depicted. It also reflects the new architectural style that was becoming prevalent during the Early Renaissance. Donatello also retained the attitude of the classical nude with his sculpture of David. The figure is wearing an elaborate helmet of Goliath, a uniquely implausible distinction that directly refers to the dukes of Milan that had previously threatened Florence. After a decade absence from Florence, Donatello returned and found a completely different attitude toward art and sculpture and his work between 1453-1466 stood separate from the current trend and their personal quality and fierce expressiveness were more personal than anything the master had done before. These works confirm Donatello’s position as a “solitary genius” (455).
Early Renaissance paintings did not appear until the early 1420s and the artist to introduce it was a young, twenty-one-year-old genius named Masaccio. Dying at the age of twenty-seven, he made a remarkable impact in only six years. As Renaissance sculpture and architecture was well-established by this time, giving Masaccio a guide in his work, yet his achievement remains remarkable. His earliest surviving work is a fresco that dates to 1425, titled The Holy Trinity With the Virgin, St. John and Two Donors. A major distinction that separates Masaccio’s work is that the fabric falls as though it real, natural fabric, with the figures depicted as “clothed nudes” (459). The setting in the piece perfectly displays the new architectural style and unlike any work before it, all the information to calculate the interior depth of nine feet is provided. The largest group of Masaccio’s work to survive are the Brancacci Chapel frescoes. The most well known of these is The Tribute Money, illustrated the Gospel of Matthew 17:24-27. It gives the allusion of reality while never allowing the viewer to mistake it for real. It reveals Masaccio’s ability to merge the volume and weight with the functional image of body and drapery. He was equally skilled at panel painting and in 1426, he completed a large polyptych for the Carmelite church of Pisa which has since been divided between several collections. Masaccio was known for his delicacy and precision and his ability to allow light to retain its full function and working as an independent force that imposes a tonality and mood on everything it touches (459-463).
The early death of Masaccio left a gap that it took quite awhile to fill. Only his younger contemporary Fra Filippo Lippi ever had any contact with the master. Lippi’s earliest dated work is Madonna Enthroned in 1437. This piece calls to mind Masaccio’s earlier Madonna with the heavy throne, lighting, the large three-dimensional figures and the drapery folds, but it lacks Masaccio’s severity and appears cluttered by comparison. The Madonna Enthroned also evokes the Renaissance’s interest in movement. The large quantity of realistic detail and perceptibly undisciplined perspective suggest a vastly different artistic temperament that Masaccio and implies that Lippa must have viewed the Flemish paintings during his trip to northern Italy. Lippa died in 1469 and had a distinctive role in the centuries development for the remainder of the century (463-464).
A talented painter from Venice moved to Florence in 1439 named Domenico Veneziano. Historians are only able to venture guesses at his age, training or previous work as his life before Florence is unknown. It is estimated that he was born around 1410, and he died in 1461. He quickly became a master in the art of his adoptive home. His work, Madonna and Child With Saints, was the first painting of its type that proved to become so popular the end of the century. The architecture and space defined are clearly tangible yet appear to rise above the everyday world. The figures impose a formal solemnity while retaining a human link with the viewer. The basic elements of the painting were previously present in Masaccio’s work, yet Veneziano uses slender figures rather than massive ones in his portrayal. The slim portrayals of the male saints have highly individualized expressions, revealing Donatello’s influence. Yet in the use of color, Veneziano is completely unique, treating it as an integral part of the work and his paintings are well known for their color scheme, blending a harmony of pink, light green and yellow and his influence can be felt throughout the remaining work of the century (465-466).
Venziano’s assistant in Florence was a young man from Tuscany named Piero Della Francesca, born in 1420, he died in 1492 at the age of 72. Francesca became one of Venziano’s disciples and a truly great artist of the Renaissance. The Florentine view of Francesca’s work was somewhat provincial as it strongly reflected the aims of Masaccio. Masaccio’s influence, as the founding father of Renaissance painting, stayed strong in Francesca’s work for the rest of his career while the taste of Florentine art shifted in a different direction. Francesca’s most important accomplishment was his fresco cycle in the choir of S. Francesco in Arezzo, which took him seven years to complete. He finished the piece in 1459 and its many scenes represent the true cross used for Christ’s crucifixion. Venziano’s influence is apparent with Francesco’s use of color, which were less luminous but evoked early morning sunlight in the same way. The light served to define the three-dimensional shapes and lend the narrative drama. Unlike Venziano’s work, Francesco’s calls to mind Masaccio’s in that Francesco also depicts a harsher grandeur. The figures convey their inner life through gestures rather than expression. According to Francesco’s own statements, his work was born from his passion for perspective and he believed that scientific perspective was the foundation of painting. He wrote a vigorous treatise that demonstrated how to apply stereometric bodies and architectural shapes to the human form. All his work retains this scientific perspective, clearly relegating the spheres, cylinders, cones, cubes and pyramids that were the basis of the painting. He is called the earliest founder of abstract art as well due to his systematic simplification of basic forms, allowing him to achieve great popularity in the centuries to follow.
Janson, Anthony F. History of Art. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1991. 444-487.