Early Renaissance (1310 - 1490) - paintings

 

Go on to almost any site about The Renaissance and you will be told that it was a period of great creative and intellectual activity. A period during which artists broke away from the restrictions of Middle Ages and Byzantine Art. A period where artists studied the natural world in order to perfect their understanding of such subjects as anatomy and perspective.


We will learn that early Italian Renaissance art began to emerge in Florence during the first decade of the 15th C. It built upon what some experts have called Proto-Renaissance art (1300-1400), including the work of Proto-Renaissance artists such as Cimabue and Giotto (the latter's Scrovegni Chapel frescoes are almost always mentioned), as well as the Pre-Renaissance painting of Duccio di Buoninsegna. Florentine and other Tuscan artists such as Filippo Brunelleschi, Donatello, Masaccio and Andrea Mantegna, instigated a series of discoveries and improvements in all the visual arts (architecture, sculpture, painting), which effectively revolutionized the face of public and private art in Italy and beyond. It even influenced the more conservative Sienese School of painting in Siena. Although it eventually spread throughout Italy, the Early Renaissance was centred on Florence and patronized by the Florentine Medici family. Among the many great artists of this period were Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Paolo Uccello and Piero della Francesca.


Towards the end of the 15th C, the movement reached its high point during the period known as the High Renaissance (ca.1490-1530), notably with the works of Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Michelangelo and Titian.


During the Early Renaissance period there was also a similar advancement in Gothic Art centered in Germany and the Netherlands, which later evolved into a distinctive style known as the Northern Renaissance.


All this sounds very nice and organised, but can we “see” this evolution in the way paintings changed, the way new buildings were built, the way sculptors worked, the way man lived and worked?


Well the first thing we must recognise is the importance of the Church during the Middle Ages. With the collapse of the Western Roman Empire (476 AD) Europe went through a long period of de-population, invasion, and population displacement. New barbarian kingdoms were created and North Africa and the Middle East were lost, but the Byzantine Empire in the east survived. The Code of Justinian was “re-discovered” in 1070 and some extant Roman institutions again florished. A gradual campaign to Christianise a pagan Europe was started (think the Carolingian Empire and the coronation of Charlemagne - a period often now called the Carolingian Renaissance), and Crusades were launched to regain control of the Holy Land. After 1000 AD Europe again was on the move. Technological and agricultural innovations went hand-in-hand with the emergence of feudalism and a new class of nobles. Kings became heads of centralised nation states, and Europe’s intellectual life was marked by scholasticism, a philosophy that emphasised joining faith to reason. Universities were founded in many great European cities. The Late Middle Ages was marked by famine, plague, and war, which much diminished the population of Western Europe. In fact between 1347 and 1350, the Black Death killed about a third of Europeans. Yet despite a schism within the Catholic Church (1378-1418) we must recognise that the Christian Church was the only preserver of literature and knowledge acquired from Greece and the Roman Empire. Throughout all this time only the fortified monasteries had continued as centres of both learning and the preservation of surviving ancient Greek and Roman texts, as typified in their beautiful illuminated manuscripts. As we move through the 12th C and 13th C we see the medieval Church as the only real actor standing between the aristocracy and the peasantry (or perhaps it is better to say between the excesses of feudalism and the treatment of serfdom).


The church building and the monastery had their role to play, as did paintings. The buildings were defined in large part by practical considerations, but paintings were seen as a way to show religious themes to the illiterate, and to convince them of the “better world to come”. However with the Holy Inquisition in 1184 the Church demanded a strict adherence to its dogma of Faith and Creed, and imposed a clear set of rules about what a “good” church painting should look like.


So our starting point for introducing the early Renaissance will be the painting. But to do that we must take a further step back in time. In Italy, the period of Romanesque Art lasted somewhat longer than in other countries. The rapid development of Romanesque painting, due to direct contact with the East, was intensified by the fact that Byzantine exponents of mosaic art, centred in Rome and elsewhere in the Italian peninsula, were still carrying on their impressive work, and which undoubtedly influenced fresco painters. Its continuance was due, moreover, to the late appearance of the Gothic Art style, for in fact Italian Romanesque art may be said to have only concluded with the artists from the Duecento (13th C) and Trecento (14th C). We are going to look at three artists who have all been said to have paved the way for Quattrocento (15th C), or the early Renaissance art that emerged in Florence. The first artist is Duccio di Buoninsegna (ca. 1255-1319) who was the father of the conservative, but highly decorative and graceful, Sienese School of painting. The second artist is the Florentine Cenni di Pepi or Cimabue (ca. 1240-1302), who some say was the first great Italian painter to break with the Italo-Byzantine style. The third artist is the Florentine Giotto di Bondone (ca. 1266-1337) who everyone considers the first of the great Italian Renaissance artists.


To really set the scene lets us go back even further in time, and visit the Basilica Cattedrale Patriarcale di San Marco (Saint Mark’s Basilica) in Venice. This example of Italo-Byzantine architecture was complete around 1093, and was used as the chapel for the Doge (the basilica is connected to the Doge’s Palace). The upper levels of the interior are completely covered with bright mosaics covering an area of about 8000 m2 (the great majority use the traditional background of gold glass tesserae to create a shimmering effect). Although heavily restored the original mosaics date from between 1070-1290’s. The below mosaic is a detail of the main portal, and is dated ca. 1250.

We must first understand that at that time Venice was making a claim to “one quarter and a half of one quarter of the Roman Empire”, and thus adopting the Byzantine style was a way for the city to visually confirm the time-honoured traditions and apostolic roots of their cult and institutions. It was specifically said that the mosaics should show the greatness of the Venetian polity and “give the visitor a pointed, meaningful message at the moment of entry into the sacred place”. So the building of the churches and sanctuaries, the acquisition of relics, and the use of Byzantine style decoration was all designed as a way to underline the fact that divine providence worked through the Doge. In some ways it was all propaganda, fusing political and religious imagery in a double statement of authority. The imagery of the mosaic also contained a complex set of symbols, e.g. the shepherd (or caregiver) would signify Christ, but equally a lamb could also signify Christ (in particular when surrounded by 12 sheep or apostles), the Lion would signify St. Mark, the ox St. Luke, the eagle St. John, and the winged man St. Matthew, the phoenix would signify the Resurrection, the peacock would signify eternal life, the palm fond would signify the righteous path to paradise, and to a Christian grapes and the grapevine (and wine) would signify the Eucharist and Christ’s blood. There were even secondary symbols such as a figure holding a small model of the church would be its patron and square “halos” would be used for people still alive when the mosaic was created. Over time symbolism became even more complex, e.g. with the Trinity only being shown by a hand, dove and cross. Outlines would be strongly delineated, folds would be rhythmical, and with the symbols the viewers would be educated about the stories of the Gospels and the everlasting truths of the Christian faith.


The religious, theological and didactic elements would fuse to become a rigid canon, e.g. elongated form, rigid countenance, abstract background, and Christ must be stern but compassionate. The profusion of mosaics and decoration in the church was designed to give the viewer a vision of heaven, and the organisation of images within the Church would follow a strict program designed to accentuate the workings of the spirit. The strict iconography was to ensure a proper interpretation of the Gospel and combat heresy.


During this time icons in fact could be anything, including marble, ceramic, textile, frescoes and mosaics. They could include many large panels, or be hung around the neck. But with time they became associated with an individual’s prayers, and thus with a demand for miraculous healing or good fortune.


And of course icons were subject to the same rigid set of rules. Christ, the Saints and angles all had to have halos. Angels were messengers and had to have wings. Poses were conventual, gold was for Heaven, red for divine life, blue for human life, white for the light of God, and texts could be included naming a person or event. As an example of the strict rules, Jesus must be seen with red undergarments and a blue outer garment, symbolising God becoming human.



Below we have a detail of the Madonna Enthroned with the Child, St Francis and Four Angels by Cimabue (1240-1302). It probably dates from around 1280, and can still be found in the Basilica Papale di San Francesco in Assisi.

Cimabue (meaning Bullhead) was at the forefront of a slowly evolving movement away from the rigid constrains of the Byzantine style. There was Guido de Senis, or Guido of Siena (active in the 1270’s), possibly the first great master of the Sienese School, and there was Giunta Pisano (active during the period 1202-1236), who was the earliest Italian painter whose name is found on an extant work. Giunta Pisano is known for his crucifixes, and we know that he initiated a new way of representing Christ, eventually substituting once and for all the traditional Byzantine image of Jesus serene though crucified (Christus gloriosus) with a Christ dying in agony (Christus patiens). Experts think that Cimabue was one of a circle of artists influenced by Giunta Pisano, even if he would late evolve his own characteristic style (and he would impart his unique style to his great pupil Giotto).


Cimabue is credited with the move towards more life-like and proportioned figures, realism and naturalism are said to emerged from his brush. Although clearly trained in, and heavily influenced by Byzantine traditions, he used softer, more natural outlines, and his compositions were less stiff and more disorganised but more natural. In the eyes you can see best the evolution. They still have that pronounced look characteristic of Byzantine art, but now the curves are different and the iris more elliptical, creating a more natural and expressive look. Cimabue gave to the flesh-tints a clear and carefully fused colour, and with softer more infused colours he was able to imparted to the forms some of the rotundity associated with muscles and bones. With him vanished the sharp contrasts of hard light, clear-cut half-tones and shadows.



Below we have a detail of the so-called Rucellai Madonna by Duccio di Buoninsegna (ca. 1255-1319).


We should not forget that the detail shown above is taken from a work measuring 3.2 by 3.4 meters, and the detail below is taken from a work measuring 4.5 by 2.9 meters. These were not small, detailed icons, but large works designed to be seen and appreciated from a distance, yet they both posses a great delicacy in their detail.

Duccio is considered the father of the Sienese School of painting, and one of the most important artists of the Trecento. You can really see in this example why the Sienese School is known for its curving outlines, its sinuous movement, and its decorative beauty and elegance.


Experts have highlighted how Duccio abandoned the rigid postures of the Byzantine traditions, and introduced a more delicate colouring. They suggest that there is a certain Gothicism in the way the figures are arranged, in the rich background, and in the structural complexity. Given that Duccio’s name is absent from Sienese records for several years, it is possible that he travelled to Paris and may well have been influenced by early Gothic styles. For example, the angels are more elegantly drawn, some fabrics have an unusually effective veiled transparency, and the contact between the Infant Jesus and the Madonna is more intimate and tender than would be usual at the time.



All this is really only an introduction to Giotto di Bondone (ca. 1266-1337), whom everyone considers to be the first great artist of the Early or Italian Renaissance. Pupil of Cimabue, it was said that he “drew all his figures and their postures according to nature”.


Here below we have a detail from the Ognissanti Madonna painted around 1310, another tempera on wood of substantial size being 3.25 by 2.04 meters. This type of representation was called a Maestà, being an enthroned Madonna with the child Jesus.

You can see that it is still has the rather formal, stiff look of an Italo-Byzantine icon, But, and everything is in the “but”. But the thrown is clearly Gothic in design, the figures are rounded and have weight, the folds more realistic, and they occupy more space in the work. You can even detect a human form under the tunic, this sense of volume is typical of the technique of chiaroscuro where light is used to graduate colour giving a sense of illumination and thus “body”.


Giotto’s masterpiece is the Cappella degli Scrovegni in Padua, and today it is considered one of the most important works of Western art. Experts think that Giotto both designed the chapel as well as decorating it with frescoes on the life of Christ and the life of the Virgin.

It is said that the genius lies in the narrative layout of the chapel. The scenes are set in large panels that run chronologically around the walls, each scene foreshadowing the next. The compositions are clearly designed to draw the viewers‘ attention to the desired points of focus on each panel. Giotto has also used a more realistic palette of bright colours, allowing him to use reddened cheeks, dark skies and brown foliage to capture emotions. Shading and illumination is used to get the viewer to focus on the important characters, and he has willfully intensified facial expressions, gestures and postures to underline those emotions.


Given the almost revolutionary approach taken it is important to note that the chapel was in fact visited by many thousands of people during the artist life, and it also had the blessing of Pope Benedict XI who granted indulgences to those who saw the frescoes.


We will look at just one panel, the Kiss of Judas, or the betrayal of Christ. If we compare this with the early mosaics in Venice we can see both the volume given to the characters, the sense of capturing a moment in time, the realism of the scene, and above all the emotion. This is what the Renaissance was all about!

Now that we are into the early Italian Renaissance, we want to focus on how the art of painting evolved. Our first step is going to be a small one. We are going to look at a work by Taddeo Gaddi (ca. 1290-1366). He was probably the most talented pupil of Giotto, and it is said that he worked with him for 24 years, and there are even references suggesting that Taddeo was Giotto’s godson. Mosts experts say that Gaddi did not quite rival Giotto in his overall technique. However I want here to highlight one particular aspect of Gaddi’s technique, his understanding and use of light. He studies optics and even seriously injured his eyes studying the solar eclipse of 1339.

This is the Annunciation to the Shepherds, in the Baroncelli Chapel in the Basilica di Santa Croce (executed between 1328-1338). What we see is Gaddi’s almost unique adoption of nightlight. The real problem in the chapel was that the location of the window was on the same wall as the frescoes, e.g. there was no direct light source for those scenes on the same wall as the window. How did he account for a light source when the actual light source was backlit? He created an artificial light source instead, with the scenes taking place during nighttime. His supernatural light in the form of an angel provided a “flash” to make the scenes visible in the dark. Giotto vary rarely portrayed nighttime, and when he did he simply used torches. In many ways Taddeo Gaddi changed the meaning of light and the way light interacted with the architectural space in which he was working. 



When looking at the way Gaddi understood and created his light it should remind us that we tend today to consider such works as just beautiful tourist attractions. Some experts might examine them in terms of aesthetics, or symbolism, or the originality of composition, or technique. But we can not really imagine the experience of a medieval individual discovering the frescos for the first time. Firstly they were set together inside the chapel so that they would be observed from the same single spot inside the chapel. As a tourist we are always outside looking at many of the frescoes at an oblique angle. The perspective and lighting was really only created for that one individual standing at that one spot in the chapel, without the artificial lighting available to us today. The frescos would have changed dramatically through the day, depending upon the natural lighting available. And that same medieval individual would rarely, if ever, have seen something similar in the past.


To really see how that medieval individual would have looked at these frescos we must empty ourselves of the all the images and symbols we see every day. We must pack away our analytic view of the world, and stop looking at that moment solely from a romantic perspective. Are we able to experience the emotions that the artist intended?

We are going to mention rapidly Fra Angelico (ca. 1395-1455) because he was active during the period when International Gothic was yielding to the modern Florentine idiom.


Above we have on the left the Annunciazione in the Cortona Altarpiece painted around 1433-34, and on the right we have the Annunciazione in the San Marco Museum in Florence, painted sometime between 1437-1446 (both of course painted by Fra Angelico).


On the left we have a “classical” interpretation. The scene is set in a closed garden, referring to virginity. Mary welcomes Gabriel with humility, her head it tilted towards the archangel. She is sitting beneath the portico, with the Bible in her lap, her hands crossed. Above her head we can see a dove, the symbol of the Holy Spirit, that sends celestial rays towards Mary. The angel bends before the Virgin, he points to her with his right hand. They both wear precious garments, the seat of Mary is also covered by a rich fabric. The fancy furnishing and garments aim to glorify the splendor of God. The angel is painted somewhat larger in size, shown in profile, his golden-wings are beautifully elaborated. Fra Angelico could perfectly use the technique of perspective and he placed the scene in an elaborate architectural setting. On the left side he depicted Adam and Eve, as they take leave from Paradise. This kind of art was used for didactic purposes.


On the right we have one of the most important paintings of the Early Renaissance. You can see that the painting itself is sparse and uncluttered. Mary and Gabriel are in an outdoor colonnade with no decorations or objects of any kind. Mary holds no book, and the angel does not carry flowers. Yet while there are no objects that clutter the scene, there are many beautiful decorative details, such as the colours of the angel's wings and the delicate grass and flowers in the left-hand side of the painting. Whilst the scene itself is extraordinarily simple, there are two inscriptions on the painting which add to the message that the image itself conveys. The first inscription reads, in Latin, Salve, Mater pietatis et totius Trinitatis nobile triclinium Maria!, "Greetings, Mother of dutifulness, the noble triple-couch of the entire Trinity, Maria!" It's hard to translate the pun on Latin triclinium into English. The Latin word means a "three-fold couch," which was used as a dining couch, wrapped around three sides of a rectangular table. Hence, it was a couch with room for all three members of the Trinity to take their places. These words are part of a Latin hymn that would have been known to people at the time. It makes reference to Mary as a vessel - celestial, distinguished, chosen, but still a vessel. In addition to the evocation of Mary and the triclinium, there is another inscription below the painting. This inscription is an example of "speaking words," which directly address the passer-by who might be looking at the painting. Here is what that inscription says: Virginis intacte cum veneris ante figuram pretereundo cave ne sileatur ave, "When you come before the figure of the intact Virgin, as you pass by, take care that you do not fail to say "Ave!" (Ave Maria, the "Hail, Mary!").



The story of the Annunciation in the Gospel of Luke has been portrayed richly and variously in the visual arts from the earliest centuries of Christianity. With the rise of the cult of the Virgin during the Middle Ages in Roman Catholicism, depictions of the scene became especially prominent in Italy, and the Annunciation continued to occupy a principal position in church art through the Renaissance. The Annunciation held two meanings for the faithful. As the story of the conception of Jesus, it represented a central tenet of Christianity, the Incarnation of Christ. Yet it also contained the ideal of womanhood, chastity, and submissiveness, revealed in Mary's virginity and humble acquiescence to the divine commandment. With the new humanist style of art introduced in the early Renaissance, however, Gabriel's approach to Mary takes on a new, more earthly dimension, displaying the drama of a human encounter. While Mary continues to play the sacred role of Virgin Mother decreed for her in Scripture, we also see in Gabriel and Mary the suitor proposing to his beautiful and alluring lady in an attitude of courtship. In fact certain Annunciation pictures tell a second secular story that runs counter to received Mariological doctrine. Mary Annunciate hovers during the Italian Renaissance between two traditional images of womanhood, the spotless female elevated in the Virgin Birth and the enchanting beauty, descendant of Eve.


In fact on the left we see Mary depicted as the obedient celibate mother. You can almost feel the fact that as the bride of God, Mary is preserved in an asexual state, and her saintliness is predicated upon her modesty and continence. So Gabriel and Mary act out their parts as divine messenger and gracious recipient of God's Word. From the earliest representations in the fourth century Mary is pictured in a devout pose, sitting or sometimes standing to receive Gabriel's pronouncement and welcoming the angel in astonishment or with an assenting gesture. In fact the fertilisation is rendered visually beginning in the Middle Ages, the Holy Ghost is shown approaching Mary's body in the euphemistic form of the symbolical dove. Mary is portrayed reading a book, understood to be a prayer book or the Bible, conjecturally the prophetic Book of Isaiah. The angel interrupts and startles her in this righteous activity, often kneels before her, and may present her with a lily, the symbol of her purity, or with an olive branch as a gesture of peace and reconciliation. The figure of the Virgin may be represented as beautiful, but her attractiveness as a woman is never the intended message. Instead, her beatific posture and manner convey the religious meaning of the episode, God's choice of her as the medium for the birth of Christ so that humankind may be saved.


In Italian paintings, however, Mary is often shown sitting in the Thalamus Virginis, her bedroom. Moreover, especially in the fourteenth century the scene, whether or not it occurs in the vicinity of a bed, is typically rendered in a closed, womb-like space. Also common in the 1300’s is for the event to be portrayed in proximity to an enclosed garden, the hortus conclusus, symbol of the womb and of virginity, and to be shown within view of a distant interior window, the fenestrum crystallinam, medieval symbol of Mary's intact hymen. The penetration of Mary's private space by the dove or by a beam of light representing the Holy Ghost is evidently phallic.  Fra Angelico's Annunciation in the upper corridor of the Convent of San Marco, in variation, does not represent the Holy Ghost graphically, but shows the angel entering Mary's abode through a fenced garden, bearing the Word that will transform her woman's body and life. However during the Middle Ages artists maintained the sexual neutrality of both actors. Gabriel, an androgynous angel, typically appears in a womanly guise, sometimes mirroring the facial features and posture of the Virgin. Mary herself, particularly during the 14th C, is commonly shown with her head bowed and eyes lowered. Also characteristic of the 14th C is to find the Virgin drawing back as though startled and, possibly, initially frightened by the angelic apparition. Again in the 14th C it became customary to place Virgin and angel within an architectural framework that contained, but significantly also divided them. The barrier might be a wall, or a pillar, or a vast space on the floor. In his late medieval fresco in the Scrovegni Chapel, Giotto painted Mary and Gabriel in individual frames high on the wall on either side of the altar so that they can be seen as a pair only from the rear of the nave.


But the restrictive spatial layouts conventional in the 14th C began to break down toward the end of the century. The shift contributed to the new orientation of Annunciation art with recognizably human gestures and responses, for once Mary and Gabriel were brought together, it became possible to portray them in closer contact and with a more personal interaction. It became common for Gabriel and Mary to meet in an exterior architectural setting. On the right we see the pair on Mary's portico, connected behind the pillar between them by the continuous arch of their bodies as they lean forward and look into each other's eyes. As the figures of the Annunciation are drawn together through the 15th C a new way of reading them as human drama is opened up. Often set in the vast out-of-doors, the meeting becomes emotionally charged with a forthright youth and a surprised but poised young woman on her porch, and unaccompanied by extra characters, e.g. God, a dove, other angels, onlookers, etc. Mary now looks fully equal to the unexpected turn of events that enters her life in the person of this urgent lad. Mary and Gabriel start to look like two flesh-and-blood beings, we can even occasionally see Gabriel's physical wings outgrowing from his torso. The Madonna is never seductive but she now appears as a beautiful woman almost ambiguously receptive to Gabriel, who may be seen as her suitor. The angel may approach the Virgin closely, and when he does, his kneeling posture lends him the air of a lover. In some paintings, if we were not expecting an Annunciation, we would see the approach of a courtier to his mistress.


Through all of these variations enough paintings celebrate Mary's earthly beauty and nobility to suggest a double patterning of the Annunciation in the 15th C. However the etiquette of sexual neutrality is inviolable. As exquisite as she may be, Mary preserves an appropriate reserve with God's messenger in all of the art works. Only in Fra Angelico's delicate and spiritual San Marco Annunciations (on the right) could Mary be said to look into Gabriel' s eyes. In the others she looks modestly toward, but not at him. We must not forget that art follows society, and by the time of Botticelli in the Renaissance, Mary had become "the highest of all God's creatures, queen over the angels themselves, even in her earthly life". Experts have suggested that during the medieval period Mary became, in conflict with Christian doctrine, a veritable goddess of popular worship. Mary became revered for her role as a second Eve, but an Eve uncorrupted by sexuality. So initially Mary became the model of restraint, submissiveness, and heavenly perfection as defined by her chastity. At times the Church had curtailed the risky tendency to make Mary into a bodily Eve, but in the 14th and 15th C’s a trend to see Mary as a voluptuous woman started to appear. The Church (as the only major client) asked that Renaissance painters should show Mary with a certain erotic vitality that is held firmly in check. Officially, the Annunciation, like other sacred events from the Bible, should offer a single meaning consonant with the ultimate truth of the story in Scripture. However overtime, and in accord with the humanist spirit of the Renaissance, Mary becomes more accessible, recognizably ordinary, and polyvalent as well as sacred and extraordinary in their meaning for us.


It is well to remember, finally, that these Annunciation scenes, like the multiple images of the Virgin Mary in religious art and lore, were conceived by men. And as such should  reminds us all of the one-dimensional male perspective of the heritage and art. The Annunciation story is a biblical scene and the origin for the myth of the perfect woman.  Mary herself, what she thought and how she might have responded as a woman to such a great moment, remain a mystery, for her voice is forever mediated by the recollections of Luke and the imaginings of artists. With this in mind, we can enjoy the splendor of the paintings whilst at the same time taking instruction on the male fashioning of a woman's life that takes place before our eyes in representations of the Annunciation.



Now for something completely different. Paolo Uccello (ca. 1397-1475) was obsessed about visual perspective in art. He is best known for the way he created depth in his paintings, and his love of colour and pageantry. 

Now we hit the big time, with probably the most famous Early Renaissance painter, Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi, better known as Sandro Botticelli (ca. 1445-1510). And to keep with the theme of our discussion about the Annunciation, we have Botticelli’s Cestello Annunciation painted in 1489-1490. This is quite a mix of the “modern” view of the Annunciation, and a “traditional” view. “Modern” because we see the angel really kneeling and looking up to a beautiful woman who looks calm and graceful, and maybe even slightly pregnant already (as opposed to a young teenage from a backwater village with her arms crossed looking a bit in awe of an angel towering over her). Do we see this moment when Mary is afraid and Gabriel is begging her to accept? Also “modern” because it looks as if they might even touch hands! “Traditional” with the walled garden and closed room symbolising purity, the lily symbolising virginity (with the three open buds for the Trinity), the book on the reading stand, and the way the floor pattern and window act to separate the divine (Gabriel) from the pure (Mary).

Technically the rigid floor patterns of straight lines helps attract the views eye to the landscape in the background and the “tree of life” (the so-called “Brunelleschi Perspective”). This approach adds contrast to the flowing lines of the drapery. Botticelli uses both chiaroscuro to make his figures 3-dimensional and more real and natural, and contrapposto in the way Mary turns to listen to the angel, a more natural pose than just a profile view.

We know that Paolo Uccello was an apprentice to the Lorenzo Ghiberti (famous for his doors on the Florence Baptistery), and he was a life-long friend of Donatello. He also studied geometry by Antonio Manetti, and he later became a well-known artist in Florence.

He was obsessed with the study of perspective and 3-dimensional space, and it is known that he influenced later artists such a Piero della Francesca, Albrecht Dürer, and Leonardo da Vinci.


And here we have a study of a Calice by Paolo Uccello.


But he was also an artist in the pure Late Gothic tradition, where colour and pageantry were more important than classical realism. Below we have the “Battle of San Romano”, presently in The National Gallery in London.  

This is one of three panels depicting the battle, and they are all examples of one-point linear perspective, where you can see the foreshortening of the shapes (particularly evident with the broken lances). The one-point linear perspective is where there is just one vanishing point on the horizon line. It is particularly used to represent those railway tracks going off into the distance, or in this case the way the broken lances all go towards the same vanishing point. Check out this video tutorial about types of perspective.



Another artist who was renowned for his use of linear perspective was Tommaso si Ser Giovanni di Simone, or Masaccio (1401-1428), but in many ways he went that one step further with his recreation of life-like figures in movement.

Perhaps his most famous paintings are the frescos in the Cappella dei Brancacci in Santa Maris del Carmine in Florence. This chapel has often been called the “Sistine Chapel of the Early Renaissance”, and it was painted by Masolino de Panicale (ca. 1383-1447) and Masaccio. It is thought that Masaccio did most of the work, but he died in Rome before he could finish the chapel. The chapel is decorated with a whole series of panels set in a narrative order, each employing the “new” Renaissance conception of space and the use of linear perspective. 

On the left side of the above panel (the so-called Tribute Money) is one of the Masaccio’s masterpieces, the Expulsion from the Garden of Eden. You can see why it is famous. So unusual for the period, you can feel the energy and emotion of the moment. Look at the armed angel pointing to the way out. Look at the desperation, the shame, the guilt as they leave Paradise.


Even here Masaccio used a vanishing point across their torsos in order to focus attention on the naked human bodies. It is important to understand that Masaccio reduces the story to its essential, no symbols as in the past, just two people forced to leave. But there is a message in the body language, Adam expresses shame, but Eve expresses grief (according to the Benedictine sign language used at the time).



Most experts have noted how these frescos have influenced later artists, and in particular Michelangelo.


Around 1700 Cosimo III had fig leaves added, but they were removed during a restoration in the 1980’s.

We are now going to look at Piero della Francesca (1415-1492), who was both a painter and a mathematician and geometer. In fact his studies and treaties are still known to mathematicians even today (although his work has been absorbed into the writing of others). As a painter he liked large, plain masses of colour in patterns which suggested an underlying geometrical scheme (he has often been called the “poet of light”). He liked large areas of white and big, bright, sunny skies. He avoided clutter and over detail, except where it highlight a detailed geometric pattern. He also liked, through perspective, to drag the eye of the viewer to some smaller part of the painting occupied by a less significant character (possibly even partly hidden by a curtain or pillar).


Below we have two views of the "Brera Altarpiece" (also known as the Brera Madonna) painted between 1472-1474, and showing the condottiero (a warlord of mercenaries) Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino. This type of work is what is called a “sacra conversazione”, or a depiction of the Virgin and Child in an informal setting with saints. You can see the apse is formed with a semi-domed shell, and an ostrich egg. The shell suggest Venus and eternal beauty (remember we are in a period when the Madonna was seen as the new Venus), as well as the immaculate conception (since you don’t need a male to obtain a pearl). The egg is a classical symbol of the Creation.


The other thing that was interesting with Piero was that he never established a workshop (although he did have apprentices), and he lived by freelanced around Italy. He is also known for using oil as a binder with tempera. Oil was often used by the Flemish painters and Piero is known to been attracted to the Flemish eye for detail and their command of oil paints. Yet another element of Piero’s complex character was his experimentation with different techniques. For example he is now known to have used tempera as others would use “buon fresco”, painted immediately after the plaster had dried. This technique intensified the blue in the skies, the pinks in clothes, and the red in blood.

Of course all artists did not evolve in the same way and at the same time. A good example is Andrea Mantegna (ca. 1431-1506), known for his violent foreshortened perspective and his use of stony or flinty colours. Our example is the Lamentation of Christ, probably painted around 1480. Here we have a painting that aims at realism and not idealism. To the casual observer the perspective looks perfect, but in fact the feet are far too small (with this perspective they would normally cover most of the body). We know that Mantegna was interested in sculpture, and you can kind of detect that in the way he models the body, almost as if it is made of cold stone and the muscles are emphasised in chiaroscuro.

You may ask how we can follow Botticelli? Well we will try with Pietro Vannucci, or Perugino (ca. 1446-1523), who in some ways was a forerunner of the so-called High Renaissance. He is often simply classified as the teacher of Raphael, but there is much more to him than that, for example he was asked to paint the Sistine Chapel and in his mature period he was considered the finest painter in Italy. We are going to take just one work by him, the so-called Delivery of the Keys, a fresco in the Sistine Chapel and painted between 1481-1482.

If you visit the East Gallery of the Uffizi in Florence you will find a recently-restored main room housing the paintings of Botticelli. This unique group includes the Birth of Venus, the Primavera, the Madonnas "of the Magnificat" and "of the Pomegranate". “Nascita di Venere” (painted between 1482 and 1485) depicts the goddess Venus emerging from the sea. This is almost certainly his most famous painting and in many ways it is the “icon” that represents the Italian Renaissance and the city of Florence itself.

Here we have another iconic painting by Botticelli, the “Primavera” (or the “Allegory of Spring” possibly painted around 1482), again depicting Venere (the central figure) as a representative of spiritual love. As with many paintings of the Renaissance this one has several levels of interpretation and appreciation. The first is what you see. On the right Zephyrus (the blue faced young man representing the west wind, or Spring wind of March) chases the nymph Chloris (equated with Flora the fertility goddess of flowers and Spring) and fecundates her with a breath. Flora turns into Spring, the elegant woman scattering her flowers over the world. Venus, in the middle, represents the “Humanitas” (benevolence or kindness), which protects men (and of course Mercury represents la Ragione). On the left The Three Graces dance and Mercury dissipates the clouds. And of course we must not forget the more than 190 different types of flowers in the meadow. The humanistic meaning is that Venus who is goodwill (Humanitas), is surrounded on right with material values and on the left with spiritual values.


There is another side to the painting. It is suggested that it was executed over some considerable time and in at least two phases. It might have been originally commissioned by Giuliano de’ Medici for the birth of his son Giulio, who would later become Pope Clemente VII (Giuliano married in secret Fioretta Gorini, whom it is said was the model for Venus). But Giuliano changed his mind and it was modified to celebrate the marriage of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici (identified with Mercury) and Semiramide Appiani. Two of the three graces have been identified as Caterina Sforza and Simonetta Vespucci. But it has also been said that Mercury was in fact Giuliano and Venus was his mistress Simonetta Vespucci. 


There is another interpretation that suggests that the painting symbolises the cities linked to Florence - Mercury is Milano, Cupido is Rome, the three graces are Pisa, Naples, and Genova, the ninfa Maya is Mantova, Venus is Venice, and Borea is Bolzano. 


Unlike the Birth of Venus this painting is temperasu tavola”, i.e. the traditional technique involving painting on to a primed wood panel, in this case made up of 8 pieces of popular fixed together. The support was covered with a linen cloth and the surface prepared with 2 coats of white gesso, “gesso grosso” and then a “gesso sottile”. A dark tempera “imprimitura” was used for the background and a white one for the figures.



Below we have La Madonna del Magnificat (painted between 1483 and 1485) which is said to represent the spirit of the Christian faith in a classical naturalist style. The “Magnificat” in the name derives from words on the book held before the young Christ.   

And below we have detail from La Madonna della Melagrana (or Pomegranate, dated 1487) showing the child Christ holding the fruit. In fact the fruit, when broken or bursting open, is a symbol of the fullness of Jesus' suffering and resurrection.

It is argued that this Venus represents the Neoplatonic view of beauty in the sense of purity, simplicity, and nobility of spirit. It is unusual in that it is painted on two canvases stitched together, rather than on a wood panel. It has been said that it was the first large-scale canvas ever used in Florence. And Botticelli used a blue undercoat to give that pervasive blue colour, and a so called “tempera magra” with the colours mixed with oil to give the painting a surface luster. The overall composition is typical of Botticelli - well balanced and symmetrical, contrapposto to give a sense of movement, delicate very plastic lines, full volume clothing, rich colours and highly decorative, a slight malinconia in the expressions, and full of what some experts have called “intellectual emotion”.

This is a massive work, some 3.3 by 5.5 meters, showing St. Peter receiving the keys to Heaven. It is a kind of natural subject for the Sistine Chapel just next to Saint Peter’s cathedral, and it will have reminded the viewer that St. Peter later handed power to the Popes. The modelling of the perspective to create an illusion of depth is typically of the Renaissance. The drapery is incredibly complex, but if you look carefully the figures have similar attitudes left and right. This is because the artist certainly use the same “cartoon” back and front. Perugino is well known for the solidness of his bodies, and for heads that a little too small but finely detailed. These frescos were the most important in the Sistine Chapel until the arrival of Michelangelo and his ceiling.



The question is now who will close this page on the paintings of the Early Renaissance? Well we are going to conclude with someone who trained Michelangelo, who had a particular talent to depict contemporary life in Florence, and who was a friend of both Perugino and Botticelli. We are talking about Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449-1494), someone that many people will not have come across. We will look at The Birth of Mary (Nativity of Mary) set as a domestic scene from the life of contemporary Florentine nobility. It can be found in Cappella Tounabuoni in Santa Maria Novella, and it was painted between 1485-1490).

We can see a luxurious room with inlaid wooden panels, and some say it was a bedroom in the Tounabuoni house. The noble ladies are in contemporary dress and have clearly come to congratulate Mary on the birth. The first lady is Ludovica Tounabuoni, the only daughter of the patron Giovanni Tounabuoni. She is wearing a “giornèa” or a kind of over-dress for everyday use. It is possible that the other women are all part of the Tounabuoni family.


Ghirlandaio was not only a good artist, but he was also a good businessman. He built up the most important workshop in Florence, and he used his name as a kind of brand or corporate identity. Along with his two bother, and later his son, he competed for almost every type of work in Florence, e.g. altars, portraits, frescos, chalices (his father had been a goldsmith), etc.


Interestingly some experts have seen the hand of Michelangelo in the maid pouring water in the lower right-hand corner of the above painting. This is an excellent way to both conclude this page on Early Renaissance painting, and point to the page on High Renaissance.