Renaissance Art as a Reflection of Humanism and Shifting Ideals  

When we think of the Italian Renaissance, we often think of the “rebirth” that took place in art, culture, literature, and politics. Images of marble statues, dreamy, yet academic paintings, and the city-state structure often come to mind when studying this important period of history. Artwork was one of the most significant aspects of Italian culture to change, with a distinct shift in the subject matter, technique, and the inspirations of artists. This blog post aims to explore how changes in ideas, especially philosophy, came to reflect in various pieces of Renaissance art. Specific techniques will be identified, and their intellectual significance as it relates to Renaissance values will demonstrate just how important the shift of the Renaissance mind was to this rebirth of art.  

Humanism:  

Humanism was a new philosophical train of thought that emerged in the late 1200s-early 1300s, the earliest part of the Renaissance (Davies, 73). Though it is a very complex and intricate concept, the name also speaks for its most simple components itself- it focuses on the human, his capabilities, and his excellence (Davies, 73). This is a stark contrast from the ideas of the preceding Middle Ages, a time where man was valueless in comparison to the greatness of God. Scholarship was not encouraged, as man did not hold any value except to serve the Lord and carry out whatever life He had designed for them. For most, this meant years of hard labor on feudal land, a path that broke people physically and did not give space for deep, introspective thought or artistic expression (Davies, 74). This, however, did not mean that these ages were devoid of art altogether. The Catholic Church of the Middle Ages had almost complete control of all “mainstream” art of the time, dictating that the only valid focus for practicing artists was religious subject matter. The catalyst that allowed for Italy to diverge from this way of life was the development of the city-state. Though this post does not focus on the role of city-states, it is important to note that this new structure of society in Northern Italy ended the extremely oppressive ways of the feudal system, helped to create a merchant middle class, and subsequently created the time and space for more intellectual thought and analysis of the world (Brady et al.).  

Scholars and thinkers began to reject the idea that the Catholic Church had sold for centuries previous, finding that individual men were important- in fact, man became the new center of the universe. This is not to say that Christianity was not still an extremely important part of society, and was incorporated into the study of humanist ideas. Much of the relationship between humanism and Christianity is founded on the idea that God made man in his own image- in other words, the world was made with man as the measure of all things, making him the center (Brady et al.). Writers and philosophers like Dante argued that Church literature should be written colloquially instead of in perverted Latin, which was represented in his depiction of Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory in the Divine Comedy (Davies, 79). Although there was a movement calling for translation of Church texts and services away from Latin (which was not particularly successful), there was also a newfound interest in classical antiquity and in the study of classical Latin and Greek (Brady et al.). This is likely due to the fact that man was so valued and revered by both civilizations. The accurate depiction of man’s form was one of the greatest art achievements made, and inspiration from their art, especially in sculpture, is seen in pieces of the Renaissance (“Italian Renaissance Art”).  

Humanism in Literature:  

Literature like Machiavelli’s The Prince even go as far as placing God in an almost secondary role to the importance of man regarding earthly happenings. His recommendations for running a state and administering government openly endorses human qualities that are traditionally considered “poor”, and certainly go against the morals of the Church. He justified this by putting the importance of the success of a nation, or the survival of a secular state, over the adherence to established moral code. Machiavelli makes little mention of the Church until the end of his book, where he directly disagrees with the Middle Ages notion that God controls absolutely every aspect of human life and earthly happenings. He says, “God will not do everything, lest he deprive us of our free will and a part of that glory which belongs to us” (71). This concept of free will was central to humanism, as man is emboldened to make his own choices instead of believing that God wills his capacity for choice. Man’s responsibility is greatly increased, justifying the newfound focus on his capabilities. Prominent philosopher Pico agrees with this notion, though he does not directly endorse the use of poor moral behavior like Machiavelli does. In his Oration on the Dignity of Man, Pico insists that men have a responsibility to push themselves to surpass their animal-like tendencies and to use their God-given capabilities to reach divinity. This kind of statement would have been highly controversial in the Middle Ages, as men would not consider themselves to have such faculties. Pico states, “Let us… fly to the court beyond the world and next to God… let us not even yield in place to them, the highest of the angelic orders, and not be content with a lower place… if we choose to, we will not be second to them in anything.” He implies that men have the ability to reach not only the level of God, but even beyond if they push hard enough. His words demonstrate how deeply humanism penetrated intellectual thought, and analysis of art reveals a similar level of impact.  

Evolution of Art and Technique in the Renaissance Period:  

The most obvious change from the art of the Middle Ages to that of the Renaissance is the mastery of depicting the human form. Though this had been achieved during classical antiquity, the practice had been lost during the Middle Ages, and therefore rediscovered once again (Cast, 421). Renaissance artists remastered the formulas needed to create the necessary proportions for a realistic rendering of the human figure. The focus artists put into this achievement and ability demonstrates the importance of man when considering artistic subject matter. The contrapposto stance, a position taken directly from classical Greece, poses figures with one leg in front of the other in order to create the sense that figures hold their weight in the same way real people to (“Italian Renaissance Art”). Another important aspect and technique that emphasized the importance of realistic representation was the introduction of linear perspective, or one-point perspective. Engineered by artist and architect Filippo Brunelleschi, this method of using a central point and rays that extend outward in order to place objects in a way that mimics how they would be viewed by the human eye in real life (Charles, 18). This revolutionary technique is especially apparent when looking at Renaissance and Medieval art side-by-side. Renaissance figures also began to show emotion on their faces, something that was never seen in Medieval art and rarely in classical art (“Italian Renaissance Art”). This was a direct consequence of the priority of human characteristics and idealization, as the expression of emotion became an acceptable characteristic of man. Other important characteristic shifts include the medium of fresco, or painting on wet plaster, a shift from the Middle Ages technique of painting on wood, mosaics, illuminated manuscripts, tapestries, and metalwork, as well as the use of tempera (egg-based) paint (“Italian Renaissance Art”). There was also a limited use of oil paint nearing the end of the Renaissance period, though it is more prominent during the next artistic period (Charles, 31). Some artists employed the technique of chiaroscuro, which uses more extreme shading in order to highlight how light bounces off of objects. This both enhances the realism of the piece, and can be used to convey an important message (“Italian Renaissance Art”). 

The Annunciation: A Progression of Technique and Thought

The following series of artwork depicting the scene of The Annunciation, an important story within the Bible where Mary is told by the Angel Gabriel that she is pregnant with God’s son, will be analyzed for technique as it relates to the ideas of humanism and shifting Renaissance ideas. The progression in technique employed and the shift of focus onto the accurate and central depiction of human figures becomes very clear as the scene is created again and again throughout time.

Pietro Cavallini, 1291, Mosaic, Trastevere, Rome

This mosaic is a very classic example of Medieval art. There is very little effort put into the accurate depiction of human figures, and the image itself has no successful rendering of depth, demonstrating that linear perspective was not employed. Mary sits on a throne that looks awkward in its space, and the arches do not appear to “go back” like they are intended to. There is no emotion displayed by the figures, despite the biblical story being somewhat emotional in nature. The backdrop has almost no detail.

Piero della Francesca, 1455, Fresco, San Francesco, Arezzo

This fresco shows significant progression from the previous piece, but is still not quite right in terms of accurate scaling. God appears to be directly above the angel, rather than looking down from behind as intended. The figures are far too large for their setting, and there is still very little depth. The background shows much more detail, but is not incredibly detailed. The angel’s head looks too small for his body, and his position is very awkward. However, the human forms are significantly more proportionate in regard to their own bodies than in Cavallini’s rendition. Mary appears to stand in contrapposto, making her stance appear a bit more natural. There is very little emotion visible from either figure, but the hint of it shows progression. The shift to fresco as the medium also demonstrates that this piece is transitional.

Sandro Cestello Botticelli, 1489-90, Tempera on Panel, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Botticelli’s depiction shows significant progress, and is what we think of when we think about Renaissance artwork. The more vivid use of color and the beauty of the figures make this piece very aesthetically pleasing. The angel appears more emotional than Mary, reflecting that heavenly figures may be more subject to emotional weakness than Mary, a human. Both of these aspects create a more emotional experience for the viewer. Their forms are extremely accurate and realistic, and the way in which Mary holds her weight makes her human. It is reminiscent of contrapposto, but is not quite the traditional pose. The background is detailed, and the use of Italian landscape in the backdrop demonstrates the importance of what mattered to Botticelli when making this piece- his homeland. The injection of this aspect into a biblical story shows the blending of the Bible with the human experience, indicative of humanist influence. Linear perspective is appropriately used to create a realistic depth.

Leonardo da Vinci, 1472-75, Tempera on Wood, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Da Vinci’s use of linear perspective is arguably even more accurate than Botticelli’s, as the sense of depth in his rendition feels very realistic. He heavily employs chiaroscuro, placing the greatest amount of light on Mary, followed by the angel. His use of technique brings these figures to the forefront, despite there being a significant amount of detail in the background. The scenic backdrop is similar to the Italian landscape that Botticelli depicted, again emphasizing the blending of the Bible with the world at the time. The figures are proportional on their own and to their setting. The figures are not particularly emotional, but still show nuance within their face. Tempera on wood produces a much more vivid color experience than that of fresco, creating even more depth. Da Vinci seems to use deep, jewel-toned colors to convey the seriousness of the scene he is depicting. Both Botticelli and da Vinci’s works demonstrate that images illustrating Christian stories were very important during the later stages of the Renaissance, but the interest in academic, intellectual renditions of these stories demonstrate their commitment to humanism too.

Analysis of Other Renaissance Art:

The Birth of Venus, Sandro Cestello Botticelli, 1485-86, Tempera on Canvas, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Botticelli’s choice to depict a pagan mythological scene, rather than a biblical scene, demonstrates the significance of classical antiquity during this time. The painting tells the story of the birth of the Roman goddess of love Venus, who mysteriously emerged out of sea foam. The painting is in Botticelli’s usual dreamy, more vivid style. His use of canvas was unique, a medium that would become increasingly more popular in subsequent periods of art. He employs linear perspective, and the figures are proportionate. Their faces show surprise, and their bodies are dynamic, bringing the painting to life. Venus stands in contrapposto, bringing herself to the human level despite being divine herself. The decision to keep her in the nude is also evidence of classical inspiration, as nudes were very common in the art of Roma and Greece.

School of Athens, Raphael, 1509-11, Stanze di Raffaelo, Vatican

Raphael idolizes the influence of Greece and Rome in his painting that spans centuries of famous intellectuals. He includes many influential philosophers, though the focus is on one of the most foundational- Plato. Raphael draws an important parallel between him and his own personal “Plato”- Leonardo da Vinci, who was his teacher. Aristotle holds his work The Nicomachean Ethics, which is the foundation of many of the civic values promoted during the Renaissance in city-states. Other prominent philosophers, mathematicians, and cultural influencers are also seen. These figures are in the throes of intense conversation, as shown by their facial expressions. All figures are accurate and realistic in their depiction. The entire painting is laden with classical influence, from the marble statues, to the Roman coffers, to the employment of arches. Linear perspective is used masterfully, as Raphael successfully achieves extreme depth. The room really looks like it goes far back, all while using such intricate detail. The painting values academia and human achievement, while neglecting the interests of the church, demonstrating Raphael’s commitment to humanism and his idolization of his fellow men.

If you would like to learn more about the characteristics and influence of Renaissance art, this video is a great resource!

Works Cited

Brady, Thomas A., et al. Handbook of European History: 1400-1600: Late Middle Ages, Renaissance and Reformation. E.J. Brill, 1995, Google Books, https://books.google.com/books?id=S6WODwAAQBAJ&dq=middle ages renaissance &lr=&source=gbs_navlinks_s

Cast, David. Renaissance Humanism, Volume 3: Foundations, Forms, and Legacy. vol. 3, University of Pennsylvania Press., JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv512qm8.16?seq=3#metadata_info_tab_contents.

Charles, Victoria. Renaissance Art: Art of Century. Confidential Concepts, 2014, ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/northeastern-ebooks/reader.action?docID=887044&ppg=12.

Davies, Tony. Humanism. Routledge, 2008, ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/northeastern-ebooks/detail.action?docID=165942#.“

Italian Renaissance Art – What Was the Italian Renaissance?” Artincontext.org, 1 July 2021, https://artincontext.org/italian-renaissance-art/.

Machiavelli Niccolò. The Prince. Edited by Quentin Skinner and Russell Price, 2nd ed., Cambridge University Press, 2019.

Mirandola, Pico. Oration on the Dignity of Man. Translated by Richard Hooker.

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