Art History for Normal People: Italian Renaissance (Part I)

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The Renaissance was a period in history that spanned roughly from 1320-1545.

The name (which wasn’t invented until the 1850s) describes a “rebirth” of culture and a flourishing of human ingenuity after the dark, “Gothic” period that followed the fall of Rome.


IntroductionMesopotamia • Egypt • Ancient Greece (Part I) • Ancient Greece (Part II) • Ancient Rome • The Monastic Period • Romanesque • GothicProto-Renaissance • Italian Renaissance (Part I)


If you are wondering about the bland introduction, you should know that this is the post I have been dreading and putting off since the beginning of the AHFNP series. There is just too much to be said, and whatever I write will be woefully inadequate, a nightmare for a perfectionist like myself. I’m imposing a limit of 700 words for this post (and I’ve already used up 100) so I can just get it overwith.

The Renaissance took on vastly different forms across Europe but the core of the action (particularly for our Catholicism-focused blog) was in Florence. Because of economic and political factors that truthfully I find super boring, Florence emerged as an extremely prosperous and stable city in the 14th century.

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Paul Johnson writes:

If one had to define the success of Italian art during these times in one sentence it would be: a cultural climax occurs when a superb workshop tradition of craftsmen is led by a ruling elite of discernment, taste, and imagination.

Art and Liturgy - Portrait of Cosimo de Medici by Bronzino
Portrait of Cosimo de Medici, first of the Medici dynasty, by Bronzino. Cosimo was less sinister than he appears here.

The “ruling elite” includes the Medici family, who dominated the Florentine Republic and the first of whom were pretty cool guys. They realized that investment in learning and the arts was the best way to ensure Florence’s prestige and legacy. Thus, the Medici would become probably history’s most important artistic patrons.

It was around this time that scholars began to (re)discover forgotten Latin and Greek texts. They read these texts voraciously and found that they surpassed much of what had been passed along during the medieval period. Scholars began to see the wealthy, peaceful, democratic Florence as a virtuous revival of Rome and Athens. Artists frequently competed with one another, which suited the brutally commercial Florentines just fine. International travel, universities, and the printing press aided the interchange of ideas. And so it was in this atmosphere of confidence and competition that art and thought flourished in a way not seen since the Golden Age of Athens.


A key figure of the early renaissance was Filippo Brunelleschi. He was really the first Renaissance architect. His masterpiece was the dome of Florence Cathedral, which remains one of the world’s most seminal feats of engineering 581 years after the fact. But perhaps even more important is the Ospedale degli Innocenti (Orphans’ Hospital) which has been called the first Renaissance building.

Arcade of Ospedale degli Innocenti

It doesn’t take a genius to look at this building and pick out the classical pieces, but rearranged in an entirely new way. It is elegantly proportioned, airy and graceful, and on a human scale — something the Romans and Greeks had a hard time managing.

Another example is Bramante’s Tempietto (1502), which has vaguely Roman parts but in its entirety is not classically Roman at all. “Though small, it has all the dignity of a building on the largest scale.” It is a good example of the re-exploration of geometry and proportion, things that weren’t priorities during the Medieval age.

Art and Liturgy - Tempietto Chapel by Bramante - from flickr user Bruno
“Tempietto del Bramante” by Flickr user Bruno. Used under CC license.

In painting, we can see this through the mastery of perspective (which was rediscovered by our boy Brunelleschi) through mathematical means.

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Pietro Perugino, Delivery of the Keys, fresco, 1482.

We should not overlook the increasingly natural depictions of the human form, clothed and otherwise. Kenneth Clark relates that Michelangelo, commissioned to paint a scene in a grand, new government building (of which only sketches survive) chose to illustrate an embarrassing episode in Florentine military history because it gave him the opportunity of depicting the nude. Clark writes, “It was the first authoritative statement that the human body — that body which, in Gothic times, had been the subject of shame and concealment … — could be made the means of expressing noble sentiments, life-giving energy, and God-like perfection. It was an idea that was to have an incalculable influence on the human mind for four hundred years.”

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Study for Michelangelo’s Battle of Cascina (1504)


The Renaissance saw the rise of architecture in which man could delight — not to be crushed or overwhelmed — and the rise of art, thought, and theology that delighted in man.

The forthcoming AHFNP: Renaissance (Part II) will be a breezier look at famous works of Italian Renaissance art and architecture.