Early Renaissance

Early Renaissance


Quattrocento, translated from Italian like “four hundred”, is the term of identifying the cultural life of Italy of the 15th century – the period of Early Renaissance.

Early Renaissance Architecture

Early Renaissance architecture is defined the harmony, lucidity and power of proportions, given by classical motifs and antique order. At the same time, reference of the Italian architecture (Florentine in particular) to ancient models didn’t suggest a radical break up with Gothic or Romanesque heritage. Elements of succeeding styles and local building traditions were often implied In new structures, connecting old and new with the ideas of continuity and civic pride.

During the Renaissance two types of church planning were most common, both deriving from antique and early Christian monuments. The first one was centric – it’s main characteristic was organizing space symmetrical around central point, shaping it as a circle, a square, or a Greek cross (with four equal arms). Circle was considered the ideal geometric figure, which perfectness make it an expression of divine. The second type was basilica, well-know from the epoch of the Roman Empire.

Medieval palaces were solid, monumental, but visually unattractive, resembling fortresses. In the 15th cent. a new form of residential architecture emerged. It was so-called palazzo – palaces, built in the city boundaries. Their main distinctive features:

  • Three clearly identified floors (though there could be a fourth “hidden” floor for servants, like in Palazzo Rucellai);
  • Rustic trimming of the low floor, so upper part of the palace seemed lighter;
  • Inner courtyard, with arcades and corbels (or consoles).

Sometimes, their facades were decorated with architectural orders, not necessarily of the same kind. For instance, in aforsaid Palazzo Ruccelai, which façade was the first one to be decorated with order, Leon Battista Alberti applied Ionic on for the first floor and Corinthian – for the rest two. The architect went even further and in his work “De architectura” for the first time mentioned a new kind of architectural order – composite order, that combined Ionic volute and Corinthian decoration of acanthus leaves.

Urban environment became the question a society’s prestige. That’s why all cities strived to overshadow each other with grandiose buildings. And Filippo Brunelleschi was a key person, that gave such flourishing center as Florence, a masterpiece of engineer and artistic thought – the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore. Another outstanding architect, who contributed both in Early and High Renaissance art, and worked primary in Lombardy and Rome, was Donato Bramante.

Early Renaissance Painting

The Quattrocento’s painting, as well as architecture, gradually moved away from Byzantine and Gothic influence. The main focus of the artists shifted from manuscripts to panel and mural painting – the tendency, traced already in Protorenaissance. These forms of painting predominated over less popular mosaic and stained-glass. For a very long time tempera was a principal medium, but since the introduction of oil painting to the Italian art in the middle of the 15th cent., it bit by bit replaced it. The artist, who is believed (according to Giorgio Vasari) to be a pioneer of oil painting in the South was Antonello da Messina. But the oeuvre of Giovanni Bellini, from Venice, witnesses his primacy in the employment of the medium, as early as 1460s.

Although religion still had a tremendous impact on life at that time, the humanistic philosophy led to a shift from decorative style of icons to a greater naturalism. The latter was inspired by creations of Giotto: their monumental plasticity, laconism and emotional tension impressed artistic generation of the 15th and 16th century. One of the idea fix of the Early Renaissance period was realistic interpretation of 3-dimensional space. After Brunelleschi’s rediscovering of linear perspective, it turned into an artistic trend. For the first time since the decay of Rome, lifelikeness and illusionsim came to be in a great demand. A famous adherent of the perspective construction in Quattrocento was Piero della Francesca, who published a treaty “De Prospectiva Pingendi”, that gave his followers a theoretical background to master their skills in this field.

Various historical and cultural factors stimulated the beginning of genre diversification that would end only in the 18th century. If before only religious scenes and portraits had been common, esthetic orientation on antiquity led to proliferation of a new painting genre – historical. Attention to secular themes (expressed through real historical events or mythological scenes) can be seen on canvases of Paolo Uccello and Sandro Botticelli. Besides, another result of Quattrocento inspiration with pieces of Ancient Greek and Roman art was extending knowledge of human’s anatomy and its accurate proportions. As a consequence – many mythological episodes (or even episodes from Old Testament – about Adam and Eve, for example) were used to depict nude figures. A fresco “Expulsion from the Garden of Eden” by Masaccio brightly illustrates this.

Political situation on the Apennine peninsula caused the foundation of manifold regional schools. The leading and the most innovating one appeared in Florence. Apart from names of Uccello, Botticelli and Masaccio, Domenico Veneziano, Andrea del Castagno and Ghirlandaio were renowned Florentine painters that received their recognition during their lifetime.

Another big, but more conservative, art center was in Siena. Such great personalities as Sassetta, Giovanni di Paolo maintained the local Protorenaissance traditions, originated by Duccio and Ambrogio Lorenzetti. Unlike their Florentine contemporaries, they weren’t so much enthusiastic about replicating reality, but preferred exploring more subjective and spiritual spheres. Religious themes prevailed in their art: it was Sienese Domenico Di Bartolo, who сreated a touching image of the Virgin – Madonna dell’Umilta. Anyway, even here, in Siena, the interest to foreshortening and other ways of expressing depth on flat surface are evidential. Luca Signorelli was noted for his arduous style, achieved by applying perspective.

Whether in Florence and Siena drawing (disegno) took priority over coloring, introducing of oil painting by Giovanni Bellini (we’ve already talked about it) was favorable for evolving lyrical, picturesque manner in Venice. Bellini, a key member of the school, had a brother-in-law – Andrea Mantegna. He was from Padua, but settled and fruitfully worked in the Venetian Republic.

Early Renaissance Sculpture

If gothic sculpture is essentially connected to the architecture, Quattrocento epoch, looking back at antique masterpieces, promoted its self-sufficiency. Analogically to the situation in painting, discovery of the ways of accurate representation of human body was the most actual problem of the period. By the middle of 15th cent., nudes transformed into kind of symbols of antiquity and its renaissance. Male characters were more common, as female were mostly casted in small bronze figurines. The refined example of early sculptural nude is the statue of David by Donatello. It became a visualization of new ideal of a person. Youth was thought to be the most proper embodiment for it (and you’ll hardly find an image of ugliness and senility in Quattrocento). Together with harmonious classical Greek proportions in this piece, Donatello demonstrates knowledge of classical contraposto stance, invented by Polikleitos.

An important event that largely stimulated the emergence of a new sculptural style in Florence, was a contest, to the design of the doors of the city’s Baptistery. Here, among casts and carvings of many young artisans, four prominent masters showed up Lorenzo Ghiberti, Filippo Brunelleschi, Donatello and Jacopo della Quercia. Ghiberti won the commission. Highly competitive atmosphere catalyzed the emergence of tangible depictions of human individuality. Though, it’s important to underline, that as for sculptors the reference point was Greek antiquity, it prompted them to somewhat idealize their characters. The classical delicacy and keen psychological insight were rendered in another image of David, this time by Andrea Verrocchio, teacher of Leonardo da Vinci.

In relief, sculptors, like painters on their canvases, tried to solve the problem of depth illusion. The stiacciato technique (low relief in marble) allowed them to overcome the shallowness and create spacial compositions. In round sculpture, among different techniques, like polychromes, gilding, etc., casting of small-scale bronze statuettes became the area of creative pursuit for sculptors, where they could perfect their ability to display physical proportions and bodily movement precisely. That enabled them to produce different types of works (reliefs, portrait busts, funeral monuments, equestrian statues) of the highest artistic level.

Manuscript illumination

In Renaissance, marked by its interest to knowledge, a much wider part of population (though comparatively small in retrospection) became interested in books. So, patronage became a significant factor in the development of illumination. A number of schools and centers of this art formed in the first half – middle of the 15th cent.

The peculiarity of illumination in Florence was the involvement of masters, who were successful in panel and mural painting, like Fra Beato Angelico. One of the manuscripts that belongs to his hand is the Dominican Diurnal 3. A large number of illuminations were ordered by cartolai (booksellers), who furthered building of big private librarian collections all over Italy. In Siena manuscripts were more of religious purpose, whether in such Northern cities as Milan, Ferrara and Visconti artists were engaged in illuminating humanistic treaties and secular books. In miniatures of Michelino da Besozzo the influence of International Gothic is obvious, and it proves that among all kinds of fine art, illumination was the most inert in adopting new style. But creations of such artists as Girolamo da Cremona were strikingly up-to-date for his epoch, as his “trompe-l’oeil” (“deceive the eye” – lifelike) paintings were consonant to the naturalism of the whole art.

The unifying characteristic of miniature painting of all regions was tendency to reveal the decorative quality of an image, that was almost always intertwined with an ornamented frame around it. For an artist it was important to show the materials he used, as gold, natural pigments were often praised not less than the picture itself.

Quattrocento epoch was the first stage, in which the Renaissance concept of resurgence of ancient classical principals was formulated. In architecture and sculpture, artists started applying innovative techniques to the already familiar types from Ancient Greek and Roman art. Painting was carried away with elaboration of idealistic realism that glorified human’s identity and virtues.

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