Renaissance through Modern Art

The artistic movement that we call “Renaissance” was born in Italy, in Florence, in the first decades of the 15th century. By the end of 1400, it had spread throughout Italy. In the first half of the following century, when Rome overtook Florence as the main artistic center, it had achieved the most classic results.

At that same time, it began to spread throughout the rest of Europe, initiating a complete artistic revolution, the effects of which would last, with constant events, for centuries, until almost the threshold of our time.

This movement, although quite complex and varied internally, established principles, methods and, above all, original and typical, but common forms.

Such forms come from two main sources: the reuse, after an interval of almost a millennium, of the characteristic forms of classical art – Greek art and Roman art. And the application of a new technical discovery: perspective, a set of mathematical and drawing rules that allow the real appearance of objects to be reproduced on a sheet of paper or on any flat surface.

In addition to reviving the ancient Greco-Roman culture, during this period there were many advances and countless achievements in the field of arts, literature and science, which overcame the classical heritage. The ideal of humanism was undoubtedly the motel for this progress and became the very spirit of the Renaissance. It is a deliberate return, which proposed the conscious resurrection (of the rebirth) of the past, now considered as a source of inspiration and a model of civilization. In a broad sense, this ideal can be understood as the valorization of man (Humanism) and nature, in opposition to the divine and the supernatural, concepts that had permeated the culture of the Middle Ages.

General features:

  • Rationality;
  • Human dignity;
  • Scientific Rigor;
  • Ideal Humanist;
  • Reuse of Greco-Roman arts.

The maritime expansion with the exploration of new continents and scientific research proclaimed confidence in man and, at the same time, the Protestant Reformation diminished the dominance of the Church. The result was that the study of God as the Supreme Being was replaced by the study of the human being, including the study of anatomy. From detailed portraits, such as emotional intensity and surreal lighting, art was the means to explore all facets of life on earth.


In the Italian Renaissance formed on the same principles of harmonious geometry on which painting and sculpture were based, architecture recovered the splendor of Ancient Rome.

The most notable Renaissance architects were Leon Battista Alberti, Filippo Brunelleschi, Donato Bramante, Andrea Palladio and Michelangelo Buonarotti.

Alberti (1404-72) writer, painter, sculptor and architect, was the greatest theorist of the Renaissance and left treatises on painting, sculpture and architecture. He underestimated the religious objective of art and proposed that artists should seek in the study of sciences, such as history, poetry and mathematics, the foundations of their work. Alberti wrote the first systematic perspective manual, offering sculptors the norms of ideal human proportions.

Another multi-talented Renaissance artist was Brunelleschi (1377-1446). Excellent goldsmith, sculptor, mathematician, watchmaker and architect, he is best known, however, as the father of modern engineering. Brunelleschi not only discovered the mathematical perspective but also launched the central church project, which replaced the medieval basilica. Only he was able to build the dome of the Cathedral of Florence, then called the eighth wonder of the world. This technique consists in building two cells, one supporting the other, surmounted by a skylight stabilizing the ensemble. In the Pazzi Chapel project in Florence, Brunelleschi used classical motifs on the facade, illustrating the resumption of Roman forms and the Renaissance emphasis on symmetry and regularity.

In 1502, Bramante (1444-1514) built the Tempietto (Small Temple) in Rome, on the site where Saint Peter was crucified. Although small, it is a perfect prototype of the church with a central plan topped by a dome, expressing the Renaissance ideas of order, simplicity and harmonious proportions.

Famous for its towns and palaces, Palladio (1508-80) had an enormous influence on the later centuries through his treatise Four Books of Architecture. Pioneers of the neoclassical were based on Palladio’s manual. The “Villa Rotonda” incorporated Greek and Roman details, such as porticoes, Ionic columns, flat dome, such as the Panteon, and rooms arranged symmetrically around a central roundabout.

Also noteworthy is Michelangelo Buonarotti (1475-1564) who in his last years dedicated himself to architecture, supervising the reconstruction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. He believed that “members of architecture are derived from human members”. Architectural units should symmetrically surround a central vertical axis, so that arms and legs flank the human torso. Another example of this innovative style is the Capitoline Hill in Rome, the first major civic center of the Renaissance. He broke the Renaissance norms by designing this square with interconnected ovals and variations of the right angle, being one of the precursors of Mannerism.

In Renaissance architecture, the occupation of space by the building is based on mathematical relationships established in such a way that the observer can understand the law that organizes it from any point in which he places himself.

“It is no longer the building that has the man, but the man who, learning the simple law of space, has the secret of the building”. (Bruno Zevi, Saber See Architecture)

The main characteristics of Renaissance architecture are:

  • Architectural Orders;
  • Perfect-Round Arches;
  • Simplicity in construction;
  • Sculpture and painting are detached from architecture and become autonomous;
  • Buildings: palaces, churches, villages (rest home outside the city), forts (military functions) and urban planning.


The Renaissance was characterized as a movement practically restricted to the Italian cultural universe during its first two centuries of evolution (between the 14th and 16th centuries, approximately), a period during which, in the rest of Europe, architectural styles, in general, linked Gothic or late Romanesque.

At its peak, in Italy, classical aesthetics began to be widespread in several European countries due to different reasons (such as wars, annexations of territories, due to the fact that Italian artists travel through Europe or are contracted by different courts).

Regardless of the reasons, it is certain that this diffusion will inevitably occur due to the assimilation of certain anti-classical ideals brought by Mannerism, a style in vogue at that time (early 16th century). It is a time when classical treatise is fully developed, so that architects, in general, have a good command of classical compositional rules and their canonization, which allows them a certain creative freedom.

This slight freedom that artists of the period enjoy will naturally be absorbed by the Renaissance production of countries outside the Italian cultural spectrum. It should be noted, however, that there are scholars who do not consider Mannerism as a movement linked to the Renaissance, but a new style and radically opposed to this.

In this way, the so-called mannerist production of the other European countries may, eventually, not be considered as a genuinely Renaissance architecture. In a sense, it is possible to say, according to this point of view, that these countries “jumped” directly from a typically medieval production to a post-Renaissance architecture (as in France).

As the forms of diffusion differ from country to country, even though the architecture produced by those countries at the moment is effectively Renaissance, there is a different Renaissance for each region of Europe (at least from an architectural point of view). It will be possible to speak of a French Renaissance, a Spanish Renaissance and a flamenco Renaissance, for example.

In Portugal, classical forms will spread only for a brief period, being soon replaced by Manueline architecture, a kind of reinterpretation of medieval styles and considered by some to be the effective representative of the Renaissance in this country, even though it pursues an aesthetic distant from classicism (it is, in fact, in the late Gothic style).


Perhaps no artistic era has been as rich and as talented with great painters as the Renaissance.

Piero dela Francesca, Fra Angelico, Botticelli, Mantegna, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Antononello da Messina, to name but a few. And then, Masaccio, Perugino, the supreme Rafael, the Bellini, Giorgione, Titian, Paolo Uccello, Lucas Signorelli, the two Lippi, Ghirlandaio, Carpaccio, Cosmè Tura. Any of them would be enough to make a period and a nation worthy. But, they all lived in the same country and at the same time, or almost.

The main characteristics of the painting are:

  • Perspective: figure art, in drawing or painting, the different distances and proportions between objects seen at a distance, according to the principles of mathematics and geometry;
  • Use of chiaroscuro: painting some areas of light and others in the shade, this game of contrasts reinforces the suggestion of volume of the bodies;
  • Realism: the Renaissance artist no longer sees man as a mere observer of the world that expresses the greatness of God, but as the greatest expression of God himself. And the world is thought of as a reality to be understood scientifically, and not just admired;
  • The use of canvas and oil paint begins;
  • Both painting and sculpture, which previously appeared almost exclusively as details of architectural works, become independent manifestations;
  • Emergence of artists with a personal style, different from the others, since the period is marked by the ideal of freedom and, consequently, by individualism.

Let us comment briefly on the most well-known painters of that period:

Giotto di Bondone  (c.1267-1337), better known simply by Giotto, Italian painter and architect. Born near Florence, he was a student of the master Cimabue. He is known as the founder of Renaissance art. The impressive realism and dramatic power of his works constituted a revelation for his contemporaries, heralding a new era in the development of painting. Considered the link between Renaissance, medieval and Byzantine paintings. The main characteristic of his work is the identification of the figure of the saints as human beings of common appearance. These humanized-looking saints were the most important of the scenes he painted, always occupying a prominent position in painting. Thus, Giotto’s painting meets a humanistic view of the world, very characteristic of the Renaissance.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was the artist who came closest to the ideal “man of the Renaissance”, which means an individual of multiple talents, who radiated knowledge. He had multiple talents, left notebooks and more notebooks with his research and studies. He had great curiosity and a desire to fly like birds. This constant search for understanding the whole “mechanism” that surrounded him, did not leave a large number of works in painting, but his genius is undeniable. He wisely mastered the expressive play of light and shadow, generating an atmosphere that starts from reality, stimulating the observer’s imagination. He possessed a versatile spirit that made him capable of researching and carrying out work in different fields of human knowledge.

Michelangelo Buonarotti (1475-1564) was the major contributor to raising the status of the artist’s activity. Believing that creativity was a divine inspiration, he broke all rules. Admirers referred to him as the “Divine Michelangelo”, but the price of glory was solitude. Between 1508 and 1512 he worked on painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. For this chapel, he conceived and performed a large number of scenes from the Old Testament. Among so many that express the artist’s genius, a particularly representative one is the “Creation of Man” and the fresco “The Last Judgment”, which was completed 29 years after the ceiling painting, and this painting impresses with its sinister atmosphere.

Rafael Sanzio (1483-1520) was, among the greatest figures of the High Renaissance school (Leonardo, Michelangelo and Rafael) elected the most popular. While the other two were revered, Rafael was adored. A contemporary of the three, called Vasari, who wrote the first history of art, stated that Rafael was “so kind and kind that even animals loved him”. Rafael’s father, a minor painter, taught his precocious son the rudiments of painting. At 17 years of age, Rafael was considered an independent master. At the age of 26, called to Rome by the Pope to decorate the Vatican rooms, he painted the frescoes, with the help of 50 disciples, in the same year that Michelangelo finished the roof of the Sistine Chapel. “Everything he knows, he learned from me,” said Michelangelo. From Leonardo, he assimilated the pyramidal composition and learned to model faces in light and shadow ( chiaroscuro). From Michelangelo, Rafael adopted dynamic figures, with full body and the “opposing” pose. He was the great painter of the Madonas. He died at the age of 37 and the entire court “went into mourning” according to Vasari.

Sandro Botticelli(1445-1510) was one of the most important artists of the Italian Cultural Renaissance. From a young age, he dedicated himself to painting showing great talent for the arts. In his works he followed religious and mythological themes. It brilliantly rescued various cultural and artistic aspects of the Greek and Roman civilizations. He also made portraits of famous people of the time, such as princes, members of the bourgeoisie and nobles. Botticelli’s paintings are marked by strong realism, smooth movements and vivid colors. For him, beauty was associated with the Christian ideal. For this reason, the human figures in his paintings are beautiful because they manifest divine grace, and at the same time, melancholic because they suppose that they have lost this gift of God. One of his best known works, even today, is “The Birth of Venus”, which the painter made in 1485.

Titian Vecellio  (c.1473-90-1576), like his Venetian contemporaries, dominated the world of painting for sixty years, using strong colors as the main means of expression. First he painted the canvas red, to give warmth to the painting, then he painted the background and the figures in vivid hues and accentuated the tones using thirty to forty glazed layers. This laborious method made possible a convincing painting of any texture, from the polished metal to the shine of silk, from golden-blond hair to warm skin. His production includes religious scenes full of emotion, pulsating mythological episodes of sensuality and expressive portraits, often with bathed landscapes and light in the background. Like Michelangelo, Titian was one of the precursors of the Mannerism movement.

Piero Della Francesca (c.1415-1492), painter, mathematician and art theorist. Only in the 20th century did the austere purity of its forms and the complete mastery of light and color begin to be properly appreciated. The delay in getting him to the gallery of the great artists reflects the relative obscurity of his career. He spent much of his life in small Borgo San Sepolcro, a Tuscan town, and in nearby Arezzo. And, despite having passed through eminent Renaissance courts, he never enjoyed the same artistic prestige as his illustrious contemporaries. Today, however, Arezzo’s frescoes are recognized as one of art’s greatest treasures.



The hallmark of northern European artists was their incredible talent for portraying nature realistically, in the smallest details.

Artists from the Netherlands:

Trained as a miniaturist and illuminator of manuscripts, Jan Van Eyck (1390-1441) painted microscopic details in vivid colors. One of the first masters of the new art of painting portraits, Van Eyck even painted tiny details like beard spots on the figure’s chin. His “Man with a Red Turban”, which is perhaps a self-portrait, was the first painting to show the model looking at the viewer. In one of the most famous paintings of the Northern Renaissance, “Wedding of the Arnolfini”, Van Eyck accurately captured the appearance and texture of the surfaces and produced direct and diffuse light effects at the same time.

Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516) was chosen by the 20th century Surrealists as his patron saint, which is not difficult to understand, since his moralistic painting suggests creative forms of torture applied as punishment to sinners. Grotesque images – hybrid monsters, half human, half animal – inhabit their insides in disturbing landscapes. His painting seems to show that humanity, seduced and corrupted by evil, should suffer catastrophic consequences.

Rogier van der Weyden (c.1399-1464) was born in Tournai, Belgium. After studying with Robert Campin, he moved to Brussels, where he soon became the city’s official painter. I also carry out numerous and important orders for members of the Burgundian court, including Duke Filipe the Good. He was a calm man, whose career, also quiet, greatly gratified him: he became rich and achieved international fame. With an intense emotional charge, his religious paintings reflect a strong personal conviction, while his portraits are always characterized by introspective character. The expressive naturalist style of his work exerted a great influence in determining the direction of the arts in the Netherlands.

Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel, “The Old Man” (1525-1569) was influenced by pessimism and Bosch’s satirical approach. He adopted the theme of country life, scenes of humble people at work, at parties and dances, in which there is always an aspect that shows little human nobility. The “Wedding in the Field” picture shows guests eating and drinking greedily. In addition to elevating the painting of the genre of everyday life, Bruegel illustrated proverbs, such as “A Blind Man Leading Another” with horrendous, bestial facial expressions, typical of Bosch’s biblical scenes.

From Germany, we have:

Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543) is known as one of the greatest portraitists of all time. Like Albrecht Dürer, Holbein mixed the strengths of the North and the South, combining the Germanic technique of realistic lines and precision with the balanced composition, the chiaroscuro, the sculptural form and the Italian perspective. Although born in Germany, Holbein started working in Basel. When the Reformation decreed the “papal” decoration of churches, orders disappeared and he moved to England. Holbein’s impressive talent earned him the position of court painter for Henry VIII, where he painted portraits of the king and four of his wives. He painted faces with the same accuracy as Dürer, but instead of the intensity of this painter’s portraits he adopted the neutral expression characteristic of Italian art. The Holbein style set the standards for portraits, which continued to be the most important art form in England for the next three centuries.

Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), the first Nordic artist with a Renaissance spirit, combined the detailed talent of the North with the conquests of the Italian Renaissance. Called “Leonardo do Norte” due to the diversity of interests, Dürer was fascinated by nature and deepened his studies in botany. He published treatises on ideal perspectives and proportions. In addition, he assumed the position of artist as a gentleman and scholar, raising the status of the profession, until then comparable to a mere craftsman, to an importance worthy of a prince.

He was the first to be captivated by his own image, leaving a series of self-portraits (the first, painted at the age of 13). In his self-portrait, from 1500, he painted himself in a pose similar to that of Christ, indicating the exaltation of the artist’s status, not to mention the high regard he had. His greater reputation as a Northern Renaissance artist is due to Dürer’s graphic works. Before him, the engravings were primitive studies in black and white contrast. As an engraver, he used the thickening of lines to express differences in texture and tones, as subtle as in oil painting. Dürer was the first to use printmaking as a major art form.


Unlike, for example, Greek art, the Renaissance no longer felt the need to develop a series of rules for sculpture comparable to those of architecture. This does not mean that there was a lack of characteristic forms and tendencies in Renaissance sculpture.

Simply, the passage of art from the previous period is less abrupt, it is more a matter of taste than theory. Above all, the recognition of a Renaissance sculpture is done looking for the background motifs on which it is inspired.

The main reasons are:

  • Accentuated naturalism, that is, the search for verisimilitude;
  • A strong interest in man, in the shape of his body, in his expression;
  • Taste marked not only by knowledge and technique, but also by the display of knowledge;
  • Aspiration for monumentality;
  • Compositional schemes, that is to say global forms, geometrically simple.

Sculpture, like painting, was no longer part of the architectural project as ornamentation of the building. They gained autonomy and shone through their own expression.

The extreme importance that Humanism gave to man translates into images in which man himself is represented with the greatest possible “truth”. This concept appears as a continuation of interest in nature. And, as in reality, curved and sinuous lines predominate.

The greatest of all Renaissance sculptors was Michelangelo Buonarroti using geometric designs for his sculptures: Pietá, in St. Peter’s Basilica; Davi, at the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence; Pietá de Rondanini, at the Sforza Castle in Milan.

Donato di Niccoló di Betto Bardi (1386-1466), known as Donatello , his first artistic knowledge came from the training he received in a goldsmith’s workshop. He also worked, while still young, for a short period of time in the artist Lorenzo Ghiberti’s workshop. He made great sculptures and in the city of Padua he sculpted an equestrian statue, in marble, of Erasmo da Narni, known as Gattamelata. Donatello used as inspiration for this work the equestrian statue of Marco Aurélio, in Rome. One of his most famous sculptures is “Davi”, made in bronze and found in the National Museum in Florence.

Andrea di Francesco di Cione (1435-1488), better known as Andrea del Verrocchiohe was the son of a potter, and during his childhood the family suffered from poverty. Tradition says that he was trained by a goldsmith named Giuliano Verrocchi, from whom he would have adopted the surname. Around 1460, he began to study painting. A few years later, with the death of Donatello, who was the favorite of the Medici, he took his place as a protégé, and produced paintings and sculptures for them, as well as designs for decorations, clothing and armor. Becoming conservative of the family’s antique collections, he restored many Roman busts and statues. Then his fame began to spread, he opened a large workshop that attracted many disciples, among them Leonardo da Vinci and Perugino. Despite his fame as a painter and his production, which is supposed to have been significant today, almost nothing can be attributed to him with certainty. He dedicated himself with more emphasis to sculpture, but also in this field his authenticated works, although in greater number, are still few. His first big order was a tomb for Pedro and João de Médici in the old sacristy of São Lourenço. His reputation as one of the great bas-relief sculptors of the 15th century was established with the Cenotaph of Cardinal Niccolò Forteguerri for the Cathedral of Pistoia, being completed only after his death.


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