The word Renaissance

The Renaissance may be vivid in the mind's eye - in images of human figures sculpted in the round, or in scenes painted with a profound and moving realism. But as a concept it is a slippery customer.

The word is French for 'rebirth'. Historians first use it (from about 1840) for the period from the 14th to the 16th century, implying a rediscovery of rational civilization (exemplified by Greece and Rome) after the medieval centuries - seen as superstitious and artistically primitive. The term 'Middle Ages', also coined by historians, makes the same point in a different way - defining the medieval period merely as the gap between classical and modern civilization.

The first problem with this scenario is that the Middle Ages have a vivid cultural identity of their own, different from the classical pattern but not necessarily inferior. And the later medieval centuries, in particular the 12th and 13th, are unmistakably civilized.

The second difficulty is that it is impossible to establish clear dividing lines between medieval and Renaissance. In art (particularly Sculpture) stylistic hints of the coming Renaissance can be seen well before 1300. But there is one field in which a new start is consciously made in the 14th century. This is the revival of the study of classical literature.

Petrarch the Laureate: AD 1341

On the Capitol in Rome, in 1341, a ceremony deliberately echoes the ancient Roman empire. The king of Naples, ruling in Rome on behalf of the Pope in avignon, places a laurel wreath on the brow of Petrarch - honouring him just as Augustus might have honoured Virgil.

The event deliberately symbolizes a renewed interest in classical culture, a movement in which Petrarch is a leading figure. But the new poet laureate adds a contemporary touch. He immediately goes to the tomb of St Peter and places on it his wreath.

This blending of the old and the new Rome, using the classical tradition in the service of Christianity, becomes a characteristic of Renaissance Painting and Sculpture. Christian saints are sculpted with the freshness of classical boys (Donatello's Saint George, for example), and painters place the gospel scenes in ancient Roman settings.

The roots of these artistic developments are too complex to be explained by a simple interest in classical culture. Only in the world of learning is the link between the Renaissance and the ancient world unmistakably clear. Only among Petrarch and his followers in the 14th and 15th century is the rebirth of the past (rinascimento in Italian) a conscious aim.

Petrarch Boccaccio and humanism: 14th - 15th c. AD

In Florence, in April 1350, Petrarch makes his first influential convert to the cause of classical studies. He is visited by an admirer, Boccaccio, nine years younger than himself, who has written a biography of Petrarch but has not previously met him.

The encounter changes Boccaccio's life. He is in the middle of writing the work for which he is now famous, the Decameron. After completing it, probably in the following year, he abandons Italian literature - writing henceforth only in Latin and devoting himself to tracking down original manuscripts of classical texts.

Boccaccio is just one of the many followers of Petrarch who visit ancient monastery libraries in search of forgotten Latin manuscripts. They travel to Constantinople to bring back trunkloads of Greek parchments. They clamber among ancient ruins to note the inscriptions.

They copy out their findings and present their manuscripts to friends (soon the invention of Printing will greatly speed up the spread of these texts). They form academies (echoing Plato's academy) in which they read learned papers on classical themes. They attempt performances of music and drama in what they believe to be the classical style. The members of one academy in Rome are even arrested for indulging in pagan classical rites.

Scholars of this kind become known as humanists, implying an admiration for the finest achievements of the human race. Human excellence and virtue is now seen as valuable in itself, in this present world of ours, rather than as a necessary qualification for entry to a world beyond.

An emphasis on the next world has characterized medieval teaching, broadly described as Scholasticism. Humanism, in contrast to Scholasticism, represents the cast of mind of the Renaissance. Beginning as a movement in Italy in the 14th century, it finds some of its greatest adherents in northern Europe as late as the 16th century - in influential figures such as Erasmus and Thomas more.

Roman and italic: 15th century AD

Italian scholars of the 14th and 15th century, followers of Petrarch in their reverence for classical culture, search through libraries for ancient texts. Copying out their discoveries, they aspire also to an authentic script. They find their models in beautifully written manuscripts which they take to be Roman but which are in fact Carolingian.

The error is a fortunate one. The script devised for Charlemagne's monastic workshops in the 8th century is a model of clarity and elegance. It is adapted for practical use, in slightly different ways, by two Florentine friends - Poggio Bracciolini and Niccolò Niccoli.

Bracciolini, employed as secretary at the papal court in Rome from 1403, uses the ancient script for important documents. To the rounded lower-case letters of the the Carolingian script he adds straight-edged capital letters which he copies from Roman monuments.

By contrast his friend Niccoli adapts the Carolingian script to the faster requirements of everyday writing. To this end he finds it more convenient to slope the letters a little (the result of holding the pen at a more comfortable angle), and to allow some of them to join up. Joining up is not in itself new. In several forms of medieval hand-writing the letters flow together to become what is known as a 'cursive' hand.

Printers in Venice later in the century, attempting to reflect the classical spirit of Carolingian script, turn to the scripts of Bracciolini and Niccoli. The rounded but upright style of Bracciolini is first used by the French printer Nicolas Jenson shortly after his arrival in the city in 1470. This type face is given the name roman, reflecting its ancient origins.

In 1501 another great Venetian printer, Aldus Manutius, needs a contrasting and smaller type for a 'pocket edition' of Virgil. He turns to the script of Niccoli, in everyday use by fashionable Italians, and calls it accordingly italic. Roman and italic eventually become a standard part of every printer's repertoire.

Italian Renaissance

Art and architecture in Florence: AD 1411-1430

Three Florentine friends, an architect, a sculptor and a painter, are recognized in their own time as being the founders of a new direction in art - subsequently known as the Renaissance. In the preface to an influential book on painting, published in 1436, Alberti says that the work of these three has convinced him that the ancient arts can be revived.

They differ considerably in age. The architect, Brunelleschi, is the oldest. The sculptor, Donatello, is about ten years younger. The painter, Masaccio, is about fifteen years younger again, though he is by a wide margin the first to die.

Brunelleschi is the pioneer who first consciously applies a Renaissance curiosity to the arts. Where the Humanists visit Rome and other ancient cities to copy inscriptions, he notes the dimensions and sketches the details of the ruins and surviving buildings of classical antiquity. These include the columns and arches of Rome, but also the domes of Byzantine Ravenna and even of the baptistery in Florence - a Romanesque building of the 11th or 12th century which Brunelleschi and his contemporaries believe to be a temple of Mars adapted for Christian worship.

His aim is to abandon entirely the medieval heritage, even if lack of historical knowledge makes the break less absolute than he intends.

Brunelleschi's first biographer (Antonio Manetti, writing in the 1480s) states that Donatello accompanies the older man on trips to Rome to study the style of the ancients. Whether true or not - and scholars tend to doubt the story - it is undeniable that between 1411 and 1417 Donatello carves two free-standing figures in a more purely classical style (and with much greater artistry) than anything attempted by predecessors such as Nicola pisano.

These figures, profoundly significant in the story of sculpture, are commissioned by two of Florence's guilds. The linen drapers and the armourers need statues of their patron saints.

Brunelleschi is a painter and sculptor, as well as architect, and his interest in classical buildings leads him into pioneering work of another kind. He is the first to evolve a scientific theory of perspective, which he is said to have used to startling effect in murals in the Baptistery and the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence (none have survived).

This newly discovered skill is adopted by Masaccio and becomes of absorbing interests to Renaissance artists after Alberti has described the techique in detail in his book of 1436, crediting Brunelleschi as its originator.

Donatello: AD 1411-1450

In 1406 the authorities in Florence order the guilds to commission statues for the niches already allotted to each of them in the outer wall of Orsanmichele, a building erected in the mid-14th century as a combination of trading place and shrine (in honour of a miracle-working image of the Virgin Mary which is housed here). Any guild which has not provided a statue within ten years will lose all claim to its desirable and prestigious niche.

In 1411 the linen drapers commission the young Donatello, in his mid-twenties, to provide a marble statue of St Mark. In about 1415 he delivers to them the first free-standing Renaissance sculpture.

The larger-than-lifesize St Mark stands in a completely relaxed pose, with his weight on one foot. Folds of loose drapery vividly suggest a projecting knee and jutting hip. The figure has the solid and uncompromising quality of Roman portrait sculpture, even though the beard and long robes seem to echo the saints on the façades of Gothic cathedrals.

Donatello's next work for Orsanmichele, probably completed in 1417, has much more openly a classical quality. St George, a clean-shaven young man scantily clad in Roman armour, confronts the viewer with a direct look closer to the heroic quality of Greek sculpture than to the Brutal realism of Rome.

The same openness, amounting now to a positively provocative sense of physical confidence, is characteristic of Donatello's most famous statue - the astonishing bronze David, a boy in a saucy hat with the head of Goliath at his feet.

Done in about 1430, to stand in a courtyard of the Medici palace, this is the first life-size Nude sculpture since classical times. It reintroduces one of the great themes of Greek sculpture in a burst of glorious confidence, and with a new mood of wit and playfulness.

Donatello revives yet another ancient tradition, in a work of lasting influence, when he is commissioned in 1443 to provide an equestrian portrait for Padua of the Venetian condottiere Erasmo da Narni, known as Gattamelata. The work is completed in about 1450 and is set up in Padua in 1453.

The massive composition (horse and rider together stand more than 11 feet high) harks back to the mounted statue of Marcus aurelius in Rome. This is the predecessor of every dignitary riding in bronze through the streets of modern cities, but few have the stern severity of this uncompromising soldier of fortune.

Brunelleschi and the Renaissance style: AD 1419-1430

The creative blend of Brunelleschi's Classical studies and his own imagination is first seen in a hospital for foundling children, of which construction begins in 1419. Although the ingredients of the façade of the Ospedale degli Innocenti are the familiar ones of Roman architecture (an arcade of columns, supporting rounded arches, beneath a row of rectangular windows surmounted by pediments), there is an entirely new feeling in the balance between them, the proportions, the sense of slender elegance.

This new Renaissance style, Brunelleschi's contribution to the story of architecture, can be seen in its purest form in another building in Florence - commissioned by a member of the Pazzi family of bankers.

Work begins on the Pazzi chapel in 1430. The columns and central arch on the façade of this tiny building are reminiscent of Brunelleschi's earlier Foundling hospital. But here the mood of calm and perfect balance extends also to the interior.

Every surface, from floor to dome, is planned in an interacting display of curves, circles, arches, rectangles and small roundels. Texture and colour, as well as shape, create the pattern - contrasting the pale plaster of the walls, the darker grey of stone pillars and arches, and the bright ceramic reliefs (the blue and white ones by Luca della Robbia) in the roundels. This is not only a gem of the Renaissance. It is the beginning of interior design.

Masaccio and the Brancacci Chapel: AD 1423-1428

In about 1423 a Florentine silk merchant, Felice Brancacci, commissions frescoes for a chapel in Santa Maria del Carmine. His choice of artist is Masolino, who brings into the project a younger colleague, Masaccio. Most of Masolino's frescoes in the chapel have been destroyed or painted over. But those done by Masaccio, before his very early death in 1428, are among the great turning points of the Renaissance.

Masaccio clearly admires the work of Giotto. He adopts the solid manner in which the earlier master depicts character (this can be seen superbly in the figure of St Peter paying the tribute money), and he adds to it two further qualities.

One of these qualities is a new freedom in the expression of emotion. The bodies of the naked Adam and Eve, driven from Paradise, are almost distorted in the intensity of their shame, as seen in the agonized upturned face of Eve.

The other significant new element is an increased ability to create figures with a real sense of air around them. The apostles, hearing Jesus tell them that tribute money should be paid to Caesar, make a freely arranged group in an entirely believable open space flanked by receding buildings on one side and a landscape on the other.

Classical perspective: 15th century AD

The sense of depth achieved by Masaccio is partly thanks to the new Renaissance interest in the science of perspective, which goes hand in hand with the rediscovery of the appeal of classical architecture. Masaccio makes use of both themes in his illustionistic Trinity in the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, where the cruficied Christ and other figures appear within a dramatically receding Roman arcade.

The perspective in this painting derives from personal knowledge of Brunelleschi and his work. But after Alberti's treatise of 1436 (De Pictura), the new science becomes widely practised. Indeed perspective becomes something of an obsession with Italian painters of the 15th century.

A genius such as Piero della francesca uses perspective with exquisite skill and restraint. But Paolo Uccello, famous for his use of the technique, verges on the obsessive in his painstaking arrangement of crossed lances and foreshortened corpses in The Battle of San Romano.

The twin Renaissance interest in perspective and classical architecture can be seen above all in the work of Andrea Mantegna. His Christian scenes take place in totally convincing vistas of Roman buildings, often ruined. And the Dead Christ of about 1485, with the pierced soles of his feet thrust into the face of the onlooker, is the most famous example of foreshortening in the history of art.

Northern Renaissance

Jan van Eyck and the Ghent altarpiece: AD 1432

On 6 May 1432 a vast new painted altarpiece is set in place in the cathedral of Ghent. An inscription on it states that it was begun by Hubert van Eyck and completed in 1432 by his brother Jan.

Nothing is known of Hubert apart from this one mention of his name. But the Ghent altarpiece is only the first of a succession of masterpieces signed by Jan van Eyck during the 1430s. This is the decade in which the Renaissance makes a spectacular appearance in the painting of northern Europe.

The Ghent altarpiece is part of a late medieval tradition of works of this kind made up of many panels, in this case folding in on each other. Duccio's Maestà in Siena is a noble predecessor. But Duccio's panels are for the most part small and crowded. Each, on its own, would be interesting, delightful and touching - but not spectacular.

Van Eyck, painting with a new certainty of detailed design and execution, makes each panel a powerful work in its own right. And yet each collaborates with its immediate neighbour and its opposite number to make a balanced whole which is even more impressive than the separate parts.

The central panel, the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, is the most ambitious composition up to this point in the story of art. Scores of Christian saints, dignitaries and pilgrims are set with complete realism in a complex landscape.

The surrounding panels, tall and thin, are equally impressive. Whether they be the naked Adam and Eve, or organist and singers, or the archangel and the Virgin in the two halves of an Annunciation, these figures occupy their allotted spaces with complete naturalness and realism. Each is a powerful composition in its own right, striking when seen at a distance and fascinating in its detail if viewed more closely.

Jan van Eyck and portraiture: AD 1433-1444

The faces in the panels of the Ghent altarpiece are so real that they could be portraits, and indeed two of the panels depict the kneeling donors. This degree of realism, introduced here in Flanders, is also found in the paintings by van Eyck which are commissioned as portraits - again among the first of their kind.

Van Eyck's most famous portrait is of a married couple - an Italian merchant in Bruges, Giovanni Arnolfini, and his wife Giovanna. Painted in 1434 and known now as The Arnolfini Marriage, this view of the pair holding hands in a bedroom is thought to symbolize their union rather than to depict an actual ceremony.

The representation of the room as a three-dimensional space, together with the almost tangible textures of the couple's rich clothes, gives notice that an exact depiction of reality can now be achieved. Henceforth, in the work of the best artists, this can be taken for granted.

Similarly the character in the faces of the stern Italian merchant and his yielding wife signify that portraiture has come of age. The same is true of a deeply personal image of a man in a turban, painted by van Eyck in 1433 and possibly a self-portrait. But in these pioneering works of portraiture, in the 1430s, van Eyck is not alone - and perhaps cannot even claim priority.

Robert Campin: AD c.1430

In about 1430, probably in Flanders, a husband and wife have their portraits painted by an artist whose identity has been something of a mystery. Believed now to be Robert Campin, he has been known in the past as the more anonymous Master of Flémalle.

These two sitters are simpler than the Arnolfinis (painted four years later). In a head-and-shoulders format, each panel is almost filled by a friendly face in an elaborate headdress of everyday cloth. These people are well-off, but they have few pretensions. They are the first real glimpse of Europe's new middle class. I know of no couple, so far away in time, to whom art brings one so close.

A sense of close involvement is a hallmark of Robert Campin and his workshop. It is seen in one of their favourite subjects - the Virgin and Child in an ordinary domestic interior. In these views Mary is not enthroned as she would be in an Italian painting of this period. Here she is more likely to sit on everyday furniture, nursing her child in a cosy room with wooden panelling, tongs in the fireplace, a useful towel hanging up ready to hand and a view through a leaded window over a northern townscape. It is all reassuringly real.

In his mastery of illusionistic technique Campin, like Van eyck, has one technical advantage peculiar at this time to northern Europe - oil paint (see oil and tempera).

Rogier van der Weyden: AD 1435

The extraordinary decade of the 1430s, in Flanders, introduces yet another outstanding master. Rogier van der Weyden, who probably learns his craft in the studio of Robert Campin, becomes the official painter to the city of Brussels in 1435. In the next few years he produces a succession of masterpieces, of which the Descent from the Cross in the Prado is merely the best known.

Van der Weyden retains the clarity and realism of Campin and van Eyck, but replaces the calm and stillness of their work with a new intensity of emotion - seen in the Prado painting in the gruesome dead weight of Christ's body and the collapse into grief of his mother.

The three great Netherlands artists of the 1430s are central figures in the story of Renaissance painting. By contrast their successors, in the rich sequence of great painters from this small northwest region of Europe, are decidedly quirky. The gloriously eccentric canvases of Bosch and brueghel are much appreciated by collectors of the time, particularly within the Habsburg family. But they are a byway of their own, far from the mainstream.

For a century after the heyday of van Eyck, Campin and van der Weyden, Italy is the centre of European painting. But the Netherlands and Italy have strong economic links.

The three great Netherlands artists of the 1430s are central figures in the story of Renaissance painting. By contrast their two greatest successors during the following century, in the rich sequence of great painters from this small northwest region of Europe, are decidedly quirky.

The gloriously eccentric canvases of Bosch and brueghel are much appreciated by collectors of the time, particularly within the Habsburg family. But they are a byway of their own, far from the mainstream.

Bruges and Italy: 15th century AD

The links of Trade and finance between cities in Italy and the Netherlands have been immortalized in two works of art. Giovanni Arnolfini is a merchant from Lucca living and trading in Bruges. In 1434, when newly married, he commissions a double portrait from Jan van eyck.

Hoping for a memorial to himself and his wife, Giovanni could not possibly have made a wiser investment. The Arnolfini Marriage is now one of the most famous paintings in the world. It is also an early glimpse of the Italian interest in Flemish art which will result, later in the century, in the spread southwards of the northern technique of oil painting (see oil and tempera).

An altarpiece of about 1475 proves very influential in this same respect when it reaches Florence. Tommaso Portinari, the agent in Bruges for the Medici bank, commissions from Hugo van der Goes an altarpiece for the church of St Egidio in which his family has a chapel.

The central panel of the triptych shows the Virgin with her newly born Child visited by angels and shepherds, while the kneeling Portinari family are presented from the side panels by saints. This large altarpiece makes the journey south by sea and river. It is the most imposing example of the northern style of painting to have reached Florence, the heart of the southern Renaissance.

Mid-15th century

City of learning: 15th century AD

Florentine leadership in the arts is well established by the time of Cosimo's rise to power in 1434. His patronage brings much work to the city's painters, sculptors and architects. But he also greatly encourages another strand of the Renaissance in which Florence plays a major role - the scholarship of Humanism.

This city, in which Petrarch first inspires Boccaccio with a love of the classics in 1350, already has a clear distinction in this field. Cosimo, who develops a passion for scholarly studies, has a firm foundation to build upon.

Cosimo founds three libraries in Florence, the greatest of them being the collection of books and manuscripts now known as the Laurentian library (because it is housed next to the church of San Lorenzo). It is during these same years that Cosimo's friend, the humanist pope Nicholas v, establishes the Vatican library.

The interest of both men extends beyond the Roman theme of the early Renaissance. They are fascinated also by the ideals of ancient Greece, and in particular by the philosophy of Plato.

Reliable manuscripts of Plato first become available in the west during Cosimo's lifetime. They are brought from Constantinople by Greek Orthodox churchmen and by Byzantine scholars, whose city is now under increasing Threat from the turks. In 1439 Florence has first-hand experience of these eastern scholars. At Cosimo's invitation, a council of the church moves from Ferrara to Florence to continue a debate between Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox clerics on their long-standing Doctrinal differences.

The rival churches eventually fail to agree. But the interest of Cosimo and of Florence in Greek culture is increased by the encounter.

Towards the end of his life Cosimo conceives a personal ambition to read all the works of Plato. He commissions their translation into Latin by a Florentine scholar, Marsilio Ficino. In 1462 he establishes an informal Platonic Academy in Florence, with Ficino at its head.

Ficino's Latin translation of the complete works of Plato is published in Florence in 1484, too late for Cosimo himself. But with the texts now widely available, Plato gradually recovers the leading role in philosophy which has been held since the time of Aquinas by Aristotle.

Ficino also translates many of the works of Neo-platonism, including everything written by Plotinus. The result is an attempt, beginning in Florence but widely influential, to find a synthesis between Neo-platonism and Christianity; Plato is seen as a Christian before his time. The mystical elements of Neo-platonism become one of the major themes of Renaissance thought and art.

A famous result of this influence is the work of Sandro Botticelli, who has links with Ficino and the Platonic Academy.

Fra Angelico and San Marco: AD 1443-1447

The Dominican order has among its ranks a superbly talented painter. As a friar he is referred to as 'brother' (frater in Latin, fratello in Italian), and the name by which he becomes known is Fra Angelico - the angelic brother.

From 1443 Dominicans in Florence employ him to provide contemplative images for the walls of their convent of San Marco. Over the next four years he and his assistants create an extended masterpiece of Italian Renaissance art - though they would not have thought of it in those terms.

There are large frescoes in the cloisters and in the public areas of the convent (mainly by Fra Angelico), and forty-four smaller scenes from the Gospel story in the cells of the friars (many of them painted by his assistants). But the master's style - clear colours, strong design, a sense of depth and light learnt from the example of Masaccio - is one which the pupils can adopt with a fair measure of success.

The result is a building whose interior, as intended, is marvellously conducive to a sense of wonder and contemplation - certainly for the friars for whom the images were painted, and almost as much among today's tourists.

Jean Fouquet: AD 1445-1460

Jean Fouquet, born in Tours in about 1420, spends four years in Italy in the 1440s. When he returns to Tours, he begins a decade of very fruitful activity blending Italian and northern influences.

One of Fouquet's most striking works, from about 1450, is the portrait of his patron, Étienne Chevalier, seen praying with St Stephen and painted as one half of a diptych for a church in Melun. The realism with which the two men are depicted derives from the example of the Netherlands masters of the time, such as Van eyck and van der Weyden, but Fouquet adds a classical calm of his own.

In about 1452 Étienne Chevalier commissions from Fouquet the work on which his reputation is mainly based. It is a Book of Hours, for which Fouquet provides detailed miniature illustrations of scenes from the Bible and the lives of the saints. Fouquet probably completes the work by 1456. The original number of the scenes is not known but forty-seven exquisite images survive, nearly all of them in the museum at Chantilly.

In these small but beautifully controlled compositions Fouquet again brings together two traditions from outside France.

The colourful elegance of Fouquet's scenes develops the tradition of the miniatures of northern Burgundy and of the Limburg brothers, masters of the International gothic style. But in other elements - his use of the motifs of classical architecture, his interest in persective, the rounded solidity of his figures and of their spatial relationships - Fouquet reveals the influence of what he has his seen in Renaissance Italy, such as the work recently completed by Fra angelico in Florence.

A link with Italy remains a central characteristic in the next great period of French painting, the 17th century.

Piero della Francesca: AD 1445-1460

A religious fraternity in Sansepolcro, near Arezzo, requires a new altarpiece. In January 1445 the members commission it from a young man in his late twenties, who has been away in Florence for the past few years learning his craft but who is now back in his small provincial home town.

The painter is Piero della Francesca. He spends much of his working life in Sansepolcro and in Arezzo, far from the main artistic centres, which to some extent explains why his name is largely forgotten for several centuries after his death. Another reason may be the profound calm of his work, unfashionable in periods when art has tended more to the dramatic gesture. He is now recognized as one of the great masters of the Italian Renaissance.

While in Florence, the young Piero has clearly seen Masaccio's frescoes. His first altarpiece at Sansepolcro is old-fashioned in concept, with a gilded background, but the figures already achieve the rounded solidity pioneered in the frescoes of the Brancacci chapel.

From this beginning, within a few years, Piero evolves his own characteristic and inimitable style. It is visible in the famous Baptism of Christ, probably painted as an altarpiece in Sansepolcro in the early 1450s. The figures stand with monumental stillness, bathed in a cool light of seemingly eternal clarity. This is Renaissance Humanism in its broadest sense, allowing full weight to the dignity of man.

The stillness, the sense of a scene perfectly positioned in space, the use of patches of almost pure colour to suggest a harmony of pattern and order - all these are characteristics of Piero's timeless art. They can be seen at their best in the fresco cycle on the Legend of the True Cross, which he paints in the church of St Francis in Arezzo in the years around 1460.

Underpinning the calm certainty of Piero's created world is a fascination with theories of form and Perspective, very characteristic of the Italian Renaissance. Piero is the author of two learned treatises on the mathematics of pictorial illusion.

Botticelli: AD 1470-1510

If Piero's work offers the mystery of stillness, Botticelli introduces mystery of another kind - mysterious content, expressed in a restlessly sinuous line. From about 1470 Botticelli is established as one of the leading painters of Florence, frequently working for the Medici.

His very characteristic style is seen in two of the best loved and most widely recognized paintings of the Renaissance. The Birth of Venus (c.1482) is a traditional subject (in classical mythology the goddess is born from the foam of the sea and floats ashore in a scallop shell). But Botticelli's tall nude and her attendant winds are a strikingly original way of depicting the scene.

In Primavera (Spring, c.1478) the scene itself is profoundly mysterious. In a grove of oranges the three Graces dance, while Flora scatters flowers upon the ground. She wears an exquisitely embroidered floral dress and is attended by a woman with a plant growing vigorously from her mouth. This woman, in her turn, is seized by a man in flight.

These figures depict a scene in Ovid. Zephyr (the west wind) grasps his bride Chloris (the goddess of flowers), whereupon blooms sprout from her lips and she is transformed into the fully developed Flora, strewing spring flowers upon the ground.

These two paintings, imbued with classical allusion, are believed to contain themes of special significance to the Neo-Platonists of Florence's Platonic academy. It is even possible that their content is devised by the academy's director, Marsilio Ficino. Primavera also conceals within its imagery several hints of the names Medici and Lorenzo.

Both works are commissioned for his private villa by Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici, a cousin of Lorenzo the magnificent. They suggest very well the rarefied nature of Renaissance Florence in the late 15th century - an atmosphere about to be brutally interrupted by the more strident certainties of Savonarola.

High Renaissance

Renaissance man: 15th - 16th century AD

The term Renaissance Man has come to mean someone with exceptional skills in a wide range of fields. The description applies to many people during the Renaissance (a period when it is assumed that artistic talent can be easily adapted to differing crafts), but there are two outstanding candidates for the title.

They are Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. The older man, Leonardo, is exceptional in that he excels in two entirely different disciplines - experimental science and the visual arts. But on the artistic side alone, Michelangelo must be the man. He creates works, all of the highest quality, in the four distinct fields of sculpture, painting, architecture and poetry.

Leonardo da Vinci: AD 1482-1519

Leonardo trains in Florence as a painter, almost certainly with Verrocchio, and he becomes a member of the painters' guild in 1472. But in about 1482 he sends a letter to Ludovico Sforza, the duke of Milan. In it he offers the duke his skills, which he lists under ten headings. The first nine are all to do with war. The 30-year-old genius declares that he can provide the duke with original designs for portable bridges, siege engines, mining and explosive equipment, mortars to spray the enemy with small stones, and even a cannon-proof vehicle to transport troops safely into the midst of the enemy - in other words a tank.

In the tenth and final clause Leonardo adds that he is also a talented architect, sculptor and painter.

This imbalance may be Leonardo's guess at the duke's priorities, but it also reflects to some extent his own interests. His famous notebooks show his hand and his eye and his feverish mind working ceaselessly together to observe and to analyze the physical world, and then to develop the ideas and designs which emerge from that process of observation.

Leonardo is ahead of his time in the notions which he dreams up (his flying machines, like the tank, are useless until there is an engine to propel them). But he is also the pioneer of new scientific principles. In his Anatomical researches, as with Vesalius half a century later, observation takes precedence over theory and tradition.

The draughtsmansip in Leonardo's notebooks and sketches would in itself rank him among the world's greatest artists. So would the quality of his surviving paintings, few though they are.

Little remains of his two most ambitious projects, a large mural in Milan and another in Florence. The Last Supper in Santa Maria della Grazie in Milan has been so much restored (because Leonardo used a new but defective technique) that only its linear design is authentic. The scene of the victory at Anghiari for the council chamber in Florence was never completed and was subsequently painted over. Only a few sketches survive, some of them showing skirmishes in the battle.

Sfumato and the Mona Lisa: AD 1505

Art historians can demonstrate the influence of both these works. Leonardo is a pioneer in his treatment of the human drama between Jesus and the apostles at the Last Supper, and in his depiction of movement in battle.

But no expert guidance is required to appreciate Leonardo's panel paintings. They introduce a subtlety in the use of paint, and in the treatment of light, which adds a new technique to the painter's repertoire. Leonardo gently blurs his colours, one into another, to avoid hard lines. The effect is known as sfumato (smoky) - or in Leonardo's words 'without lines or borders, in the manner of smoke'.

Leonardo's smoky style is seen in the portrait of a young woman which he paints in Florence in about 1505. She smiles at the viewer, with her hands folded serenely on a ledge in front of her. Her gaze is wonderfully mysterious; so is the dream-like rocky background; so even is her identity.

It is probable that the sitter is Lisa Gherardini, the wife of Francesco del Giocondo, so the portrait is variously known now as La Gioconda or the Mona Lisa (from monna, an old Italian word for 'lady'). Now in the Louvre, she has been in France since 1517 - when Francis i makes the elderly Leonardo his court painter, and takes Monna Lisa into the royal collection.

Michelangelo the sculptor: AD 1499-1516

Early in 1499 a sculpture of the Virgin Mary, holding on her lap the dead Christ, is placed in one of the chapels of old St Peter's in Rome. This Pietà is still one of the most beautiful works of art in the mighty new St Peter's, completed a century later. It is by a sculptor who has just turned twenty-four - Michelangelo.

The precocious genius receives a commission two years later in his home city of Florence. The authorities want a marble statue of David. Michelangelo, using a vast slab of marble abandoned by another sculptor, presents the biblical hero (more than twice lifesize, about 13 feet high) as a naked youth standing with petulant confidence, sling thrown over his shoulder, before the encounter with Goliath.

Michelangelo works on David from September 1501 until January 1504. In 1505 the pope, Julius ii, summons him to Rome with a commission to provide a sculpted tomb, with many figures, for the pope's own memorial. The vast project hangs over Michelangelo for the next four decades. Some of his best known works are later carved to form part of it (the great marble Moses and the two tormented Slaves of 1513-6). But the project is doomed to remain unfinished.

Part of the reason is that Julius ii has an even more challenging task for this multi-talented artist. In 1508 he commissions Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine chapel.

Michelangelo the painter: AD 1504-1550

Michelangelo's reputation as a painter derives, almost entirely, from his work in one building - the Sistine chapel. A few panel paintings possibly survive from his hand from the period 1495-1508, though only one of them is accepted by scholars beyond any doubt. This is the circular Virgin and Child commissioned by Angelo Doni in about 1504, now in the Uffizi. Two panel paintings in the National Gallery in London have long been attributed to Michelangelo by some and rejected by others.

At the end of his life there are frescoes for another Vatican building, the Pauline chapel, which Michelangelo completes in 1550. But all the rest of his painting is done in two creative bursts - on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel (1508-12) and on the wall above the altar (1536-41).

Michelangelo's concept for the ceiling of the chapel is as bold as his execution of the figures. An elaborate architectural perspective draws the eye up past alcoves, in which huge figures sit, to ever-receding panels which eventually display a series of narrative scenes.

These vast but distant-seeming panels along the centre of the ceiling (each about 10 by 18 feet) tell the story at the start of Genesis - from God's creation of the universe to the famous spark of life (from the Creator's finger to the languid Adam), and on through the expulsion from Eden to the more conventional form of human frailty in the drunkenness of Noah.

The attendant figures, many of them cramped in the available spaces, twist and turn with convincing flexibility. They seem to have a muscular certainty, even where distortion is involved, deriving from Michelangelo's skills as a sculptor. The colours, revealed afresh in a cleaning programme during the 1990s, are vibrantly bright, in often startling combinations. (With these surprises, of posture and colour, Michelangelo inspires a younger generation to develop the style known as Mannerism).

The effect of the Sistine ceiling is exuberant, optimistic. It fits with the confident papacy of Julius ii. The end wall of the chapel is very different. But it too reflects its times.

In 1527 Rome is sacked by an unruly army of German mercenaries, while Clement VII shelters helplessly in the Castel Sant'Angelo. In the aftermath of this appalling event, Clement commissions Michelangelo to paint the end wall of the Sistine chapel. The subject is to be the Last judgement. Again Michelangelo captures the mood perfectly, giving this traditional cautionary tale a dark and dramatic violence (though the anguished nudity proves too much for some - twenty years later Daniele da Volterra is employed to paint in some loincloths).

From the Creation to the Last judgement, the Sistine chapel forms a single masterpiece. Giotto's chapel in Padua is the only other building to express so thoroughly one painter's vision.

Michelangelo the architect and poet: AD 1520-1564

From the 1520s, when Michelangelo is indisputably Italy's greatest artist (Leonardo and Raphael have died in 1519 and 1520), he is frequently commissioned to provide architecture as well as sculpture and painting.

His first major architectural project, in Florence, is a commemorative chapel for the Medici family. Michelangelo designs it from 1520, providing both the architectural setting and sculptures for the tombs. The full scheme is never completed, for the chapel contains only two tombs - on which recline the famous pairs of allegorical figures, Day and Night, Dawn and Dusk. Another commission begun in Florence a few years later is the Laurentian Library (or Biblioteca Medicea-Laurenziana).

In Rome in the 1530s Michelangelo designs the buildings on the Capitol, together with the steps leading up to them, much as they are today. In the centre of the piazza of the Capitol he builds a plinth and moves on to it the magnificent equestrian statue, from Roman times, of the emperor Marcus aurelius.

The final architectural commission of Michelangelo's long life comes in 1546. Much against his will, he is put in charge of the new St Peter's. With a sure touch he simplifies the project (bringing it back towards Bramante's original conception). The great drum supporting the dome is completed, to his own design, before his death in 1564.

From his early days in Florence, when his talent is encouraged by Lorenzo de' Medici, Michelangelo also takes a keen interest in literature and philosophy.

About 250 of his poems survive. A few are madrigals, others are religious, but the majority are sonnets, written with platonic passion to a female poet, Vittoria Colonna, and a young boy, Tommaso de' Cavalieri. Published first in a bowdlerized form in 1623, they only become fully known and appreciated after an edition of 1863. They have subsequently won Michelangelo a reputation among Italy's leading poets, to add to his other distinctions.

Raphael: AD 1504-1520

While Michelangelo is painting the ceiling of the Sistine chapel, Raphael - his junior by eight years - is working on another commission from Julius ii just a few hundred yards away.

Raphael may be described as the boy wonder of the Italian Renaissance. Born in Urbino in 1483, the son of a minor painter (Giovanni Santi), Raphael makes his way in about 1504 to Florence. Over the next few years he paints the serenely beautiful Madonnas and Holy Families, set in luxuriant landscapes, which first reveal his genius. The style derives from Perugino, in whose studio Raphael probably learnt his craft, but in these paintings there is a new certainty of composition, modelling and colour.

News of his talent must have spread rapidly among the patrons of the day, because towards the end of 1508 he is summoned to Rome and is given a papal commission of great importance. Julius ii wants frescoes for a series of rooms in the Vatican which he intends to use as his own apartment. This sensitive task is entrusted, in 1509, to the 26-year-old Raphael. It occupies him for the rest of his life.

Raphael's astonishing achievement in the Stanze (Italian for 'rooms', and the simple name by which they are still known) is a triumph over many different problems, all new to him when he begins.

The themes to be depicted for the pope are often intellectual and thematic, and thus much harder to bring to life than the intimacy of the Holy Family. They involve large numbers of characters, requiring compositional skills similar to those of a director presenting a scene on a stage. And the vaulted rooms, with walls interrupted by doors or alcoves, present irregular and difficult surfaces.

Raphael triumphs over these obstacles. In the very first room which he undertakes, the Stanza della Segnatura, he creates with great confidence two crowded and contrasted scenes - the School of Athens, featuring Plato, Aristotle and many others, and the Disputa in which biblical figures and saints discuss the Christian sacrament.

Raphael's work on the Stanze is interrupted from 1515 by another important papal commission. Pope Leo x, elected in 1513, wants a set of ten tapestries to hang around the lower walls of the Sistine chapel. He asks Raphael to design ten scenes from the New Testament, to be sent north to Europe's best weavers in Brussels.

Raphael, by now a master of large narrative compositions, paints the scenes as full-size cartoons in gouache on paper. In spite of hazardous journeys to Brussels and back to Rome, and then to England in 1623 (after being bought for Charles I's tapestry factory in Mortlake), seven of these cartoons survive in surprisingly good condition in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

During these same years Raphael has been developing formidable skills as a male portraitist, painting his subjects more informally than has been the tradition, with a soft play of light on fabric and flesh, usually against neutral backgrounds, to focus all attention on the man's character. His sitters include both his papal patrons, Julius ii and Leo x, and his friend the writer Baldassare Castiglione.

The brilliant portrait of Castiglione, with its muted range of blacks and greys and browns, is the perfect example of this new style. It is a style which will be developed with great flair during the 16th century by the portrait painters of Venice, in particular Titian.

When Raphael is painting Castiglione's portrait, in 1515, Michelangelo has recently finished the Sistine ceiling and Leonardo da Vinci is also in Rome - not painting, but busy with scientific experiments. A mere six years after beginning the Stanze, Raphael is as much admired as the two older men. He has a thriving studio, with a great number of assistants. He has been appointed architect of St Peter's (in 1514) and is busy with other achitectural projects.

These three artists are already seen as the outstanding figures of the time - a period subsequently regarded as the High Renaissance in Florence and Rome. Five years later, after a brief illness in 1520, Raphael dies. He is thirty-seven. His career has spanned just sixteen years.

Venetian painting: AD 1475-1576

During the 15th century, the great formative period of the Italian Renaissance, Venice lags far behind Florence and Rome in responding to the spirit of the time. The reason is partly the long centuries of Byzantine influence; Venetian patrons still expect a painting to be an object of solemn formality, preferably against a gilded background in the tradition of Icons.

It is also true to say that in architecture, at this same period, the Venetians are enjoying a magnificent late flowering of the earlier Gothic tradition. The mood of the Renaissance has less immediate appeal here. But in terms of painting this changes rapidly after 1475.

In 1475 a Sicilian painter, Antonello da Messina, arrives in Venice, where he spends about eighteen months. He is expert in the northern technique of oil painting, and the rich glowing quality of his work greatly impresses Venice's leading painter, Giovanni Bellini (see oil and tempera).

After Antonello's visit, the figures in Bellini's paintings evolve towards the rounded and richly human style of the Italian High Renaissance. The grouping of the figures in his altarpieces becomes solidly three-dimensional; his Virgins sit at ease with their infants in enchantingly natural landscapes; his portraits (such as the superb image of Venice's doge in 1501) are of flesh-and-blood people, even if in their Sunday best.

In the last years of Bellini's long life there are two young painters in Venice capable of more than equalling his genius. They add to the Venetian palette the richness of colour which becomes the outstanding characteristic of the school.

The first of the two is Giorgione. He dies young in 1510 (though only two or three years younger than Raphael), and his work is only known from a very small number of richly glowing masterpieces. The second is Titian, whose life is as long as Giorgione's is short. Titian establishes a dominant position in northern Italian painting equal to that of Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael in Florence and Rome.

Like any other good painter of the time, Titian receives commissions for church altarpieces (his Assumption of the Virgin for the church of the Frari in Venice, in 1518, is by far the largest yet seen in the city), but he also produces large secular paintings for delivery to an impressive clientele of princely customers.

The first such patron is Alfonso d'Este of Ferrara, for whom Titian paints three magnificent classical subjects between 1517 and 1523. One of them, Bacchus and Ariadne, is today one of the treasures of the National Gallery in London.

Titian's customers also include the two great rivals of the era, Francis I of France and the emperor Charles V. He has no need to enter their service abroad. He despatches works to them from his studio in Venice.

Charles V and his son, Philip II, become Titian's most persistent patrons. They particularly like his mythological subjects, or poesie. Mythology provides many opportunities to display the naked female form, and these paintings build upon a rich new tradition in western art. Botticelli has pioneered the theme of the nude, but Giorgione and then Titian develop it seductively in the art of Venice. (Cranach is doing so at much the same time, with less subtlety, in Germany.)

Titian also has an extremely busy career as a portrait painter, particularly in the 1530s and 1540s. During his long life (into his mid-80s) he paints in an increasingly free style, until his brush strokes become bold short cuts to the depiction of reality.

A similar freedom of execution is characteristic of Tintoretto, the next of Venice's great masters. Veronese, arriving from Verona in 1555, completes the trio who together give this Venetian school such distinction. Veronese paints his vast canvases in a more measured and controlled style than Titian or Tintoretto. But the richness and colour remain unmistakable, as with so many other painters in the studios of Venice at this time.

German pioneers

Dürer: AD 1494-1528

In 1494 a young German artist, trained originally by his father as a goldsmith, arrives in Venice to improve his skills as a painter. The following year he returns to Nuremberg to open a studio in his home town, but in 1505 he is back in Venice - staying eighteen months to savour the artistic delights of this city. He is impressed above all by the aged Bellini.

The young man is Albrecht Dürer, who becomes the outstanding figure in Renaissance Germany. His achievement is enhanced by his originality in many differing fields of art.

An early example is his extraordinary self-portrait at the age of twenty-two, now in the Louvre. A young man with dishevelled blond hair, wearing exotic red headgear and lavish robes, stares moodily from the canvas. It is the first example in history of an artist presenting himself as an eye-catching figure of dramatic interest. Renaissance painters in Italy have sometimes inserted themselves as bystanders in a crowded scene. But Dürer takes centre stage, beginning a long romantic tradition of the self-portrait (carried by Rembrandt to its greatest lengths).

Five years later Dürer paints himself in even more splendid clothes, with a view of the Alps through a window. Here, he says, is a man who has travelled - to Italy.

Dürer's two trips to Italy result in other work of great originality. As he travels, he sketches in watercolour the features of the landscape which take his fancy - trees by a lake, a castle on a hill, mountain valleys. These watercolours are not preparatory work for oil paintings. They are done, it seems, purely for pleasure - beginning a rich tradition in the story of art. Dürer's astonishing skill in the medium is evident in his famous 1502 sketch of a hare.

He breaks new ground yet again, travelling to Antwerp in 1520, when he keeps the first example of a journal illustrated with sketches. Meanwhile he makes himself the most prolific Renaissance master in the new Printmaking techniques of woodcut, engraving and etching.

The first artists' prints: 15th - 16th century AD

When the first European prints are published, in the early 15th century, they are the work of craftsmen supplying a demand for cheap holy images or for Playing cards. Artists only become interested in the possibilities of the medium from the 1450s. They are first attracted by the newest technique at that time, Intaglio engraving in copper.

The pioneer in the field is extremely prolific, creating more 300 engraved plates, but he is known only as Master ES from the two initials with which he sometimes signs his plates. The first two known artists to specialize in engraving begin work at the same period, the 1460s, but in different places - Mantegna in Mantua and Schongauer in Colmar.

The greatest printmaker among Renaissance artists is, like Schongauer, a German. But unlike his predecessors, he excels in woodcut and etching as well as engraving.

Albrecht Dürer, familiar with metal from his early training as a goldsmith, begins engraving copper plates in his twenties and rapidly develops a mastery of the technique. He is more unusual in tackling at the same period, the 1490s, the much more mechanical craft of the woodcut (where each area of white in the image has to be scooped from the block of wood). But Dürer's large and completely assured Woodcuts immediately demonstrate that this too can be an artist's medium.

The third form of printing in which Dürer shows his originality is Etching. This is a technique invented during his lifetime (the first etchings are printed, probably in Augsburg in about 1500, from iron plates at this stage rather than copper). Dürer first tries the new medium in 1515. He only etches six plates. But he is the first to demonstrate the informality of Etching, which can give the artist almost the same freedom as sketching in pencil.

From the end of the 16th century Etching is virtually the only form of printing to attract the artist until the arrival of Aquatint and Lithography. Later masters, such as Rembrandt, develop the potential first shown by Dürer.

The influence of Erasmus

Northern humanism: 16th century AD

Although the pictorial style associated with the Renaissance features early in northern art (with Jan van eyck and his contemporaries in the Netherlands), the interest in classical studies, which provided the original impulse for the movement in 14th-century italy, arrives late in the north. It is associated above all with Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam.

Erasmus spends much of his life travelling Europe as a scholar, finding employment where he can. This brings him into contact with other like-minded men such as John Colet and Thomas More in England.

The interest which unites them can be described as Christian humanism. These men wish to use the classics not as an alternative to Christianity but as a means of strengthening Christian life. Erasmus learns Greek so as to edit the New Testament in its original form, stating in his preface that he wants the holy text translated into every language to bring the Gospel truth closer to ordinary men and women.

John Colet, in similar vein, founds the London school of St Paul's to educate the next generation in both the classics and the Greek New Testament.

These men have a detached and even humorous view of the foibles of the world, as is seen in two of the most popular satirical works of the 16th century - Erasmus's Praise of Folly (1509) and Thomas more's Utopia (1516).

But events, in the violent upheaval of the Reformation, overtake these well-meaning Christian scholars. Erasmus is side-lined in his old age by religious controversies in which he refuses to come down firmly on either side. Thomas more dies a martyr's death because he cannot in good conscience accept the political cynicism of the English Reformation.

In these early decades of the 16th century the idealism of the Renaissance dies. What lasts is a new ability to question all aspects of life and to accept the stark facts of reality. The unflinching pragmatism of Machiavelli is a legacy of the Renaissance. So is the more gently observant eye of Montaigne, and the all-embracing genius of Shakespeare.

The Renaissance spirit is capable of reflecting the horror of the Sack of rome in 1527 in the contrast between the ceiling and end wall of the Sistine chapel. With the same clear sight, Shakespeare's Hamlet can begin a speech in marvelling mood ('What a piece of work is man!') and end in disillusionment ('and yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not me').
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