The Renaissance: One of the Most Influential Periods in the History of Art

Art Wise

The Renaissance is a unique and culturally rich period in history, marked by a great flourish of philosophy, literature and art in Europe. Immediately following the Middle Ages, the Renaissance era emerged in Italy in the late 14th century, and reached its zenith in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, through Italian art masters like Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael, amongst many others. Though the Renaissance as a unified historical period ended with the fall of Rome in 1527, Renaissance art is celebrated till today, for its beautiful representations of humanism and nature.

The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci, 1495-98 (Source:

The Origin of Renaissance Art

The origin of Renaissance art can be traced back to the late 13th and early 14th centuries in Italy. This “proto-Renaissance” period (1280-1400) saw Italian scholars and artists reawakening to the classical learnings and values of Greek and Roman culture, after the long period of stagnation that had followed the fall of the Roman Empire in the sixth century. The proto-Renaissance was the pre-Renaissance period when Italian artists and poets also began to take pleasure in the natural world around them. The Florentine painter Giotto was the most famous artist of this period and his ground-breaking work made massive advances in the realistic representation of the human body in art. Thus, he pioneered figurative "realism", which was later fully developed by other artists of the Renaissance era.

Lamentation (The Mourning of Christ) by Giotto, c. 1305 (Source: Wikimedia Commons/Web Gallery of Art)

The Early Renaissance Period

The proto-Renaissance was stifled by the plague and war in the later 14th century. Its influence then re-emerged in the 1400s, and this period is known as the Early Renaissance, marked by the works of Lorenzo Ghiberti, Filippo Brunelleschi, Donatello and Masaccio.

A 16th-century portrait of Donatello (Source: Wikimedia Commons/Sailko)

In 1401, the sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti won a competition and landed the opportunity to design bronze doors for the Baptistery of the cathedral of Florence, beating his contemporaries – the architect Filippo Brunelleschi and sculptor Donatello. Defeated, Brunelleschi and Donatello left for Rome, where they studied ancient architecture and sculpture. The duo later returned to Florence and put their knowledge into practice, in a revival of classical sculpture and architecture. Donatello would later emerge as the master of early Renaissance sculpture. Masaccio, who is tagged the “founder of Renaissance painting,” was known for his frescoes of the Holy Trinity displayed in churches. Though he painted for a short period – less than six years, Masaccio was highly influential in the early Renaissance period for the intellectual nature and naturalism in his art.

A fresco depicting the Holy Trinity by Masaccio, c. 1427 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

A Golden Age in Florence

The situation in Florence, Italy, was especially favourable for the flourish of art during the Renaissance period. The Catholic church – including convents, monasteries and other religious institutions – was a major patron of the arts during this time. But apart from the church, the government, courts and wealthy individuals also increasingly commissioned artworks. A bulk of the art produced during the early Renaissance era was commissioned by the wealthy merchant families of Florence. Most notable amongst these was the Medici family, who presided over a golden age for the city of Florence from 1434 until 1492.

The family of Piero de' Medici portrayed by Sandro Botticelli in the Madonna del Magnificat, 1481 (Source: Wikimedia Commons/The Yorck Project) 

Varied Themes, Trained Artists

Although religion was an important aspect of life in the Renaissance period, an increasing awareness of the natural world and of humanity’s worldly existence characterised the era. The period derived its name from the French word ‘renaissance,’ meaning ‘rebirth’ and it saw scholars and artists beginning to investigate what they believed to be a revival of classical literature and art.

Primavera by Sandro Botticelli, c. 1482 (Source: Wikimedia Commons/Uffizi Gallery)

Religious altarpieces, fresco cycles, and small artworks for private devotion featuring subjects such as the Virgin Mary or Madonna were very popular during the Renaissance era. Seeking to imitate the aristocracy and elevate their own status, Italy’s rising middle class purchased art for their homes. Apart from religious subjects, Renaissance artworks also portrayed domestic themes such as marriage and birth and even depicted scenes of the everyday life of families.

Portrait of a Woman by Piero del Pollaiuolo, c. 1480 (Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Artsy)

Renaissance artists came from all sections of the society and usually trained as apprentices before being admitted into a professional guild, where they would work under an older master. Artists worked on commission and were hired by patrons who encouraged the arts.

The Masters of High Renaissance Art

Towards the end of the 15th century, Rome became the new centre of Renaissance art. The High Renaissance, coined to denote the artistic pinnacle of the Renaissance, flourished for about 35 years, from the early 1490s until the sack of Rome by the troops of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V of Spain in 1527. The period was dominated by three towering masters – Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475–1564) and Raphael Sanzio (1483–1520). They embodied three vital aspects of the period – Leonardo was the ultimate “Renaissance man” with his intellect and vast and diverse interests and talents, Michelangelo drew inspiration from the human body for his brilliant projects and Raphael created works which were harmonious, beautiful, and serene, thereby perfectly depicting the classical spirit.

Madonna in the Meadow by Raphael, c. 1505 (Source: Wikimedia Commons/Google Art Project)

One of the greatest artists of all time, Leonardo da Vinci spent his entire lifetime on researches into anatomy, the nature of flight, and the structure of plant and animal life, which left him with little time to paint. His fame rests on a few completed paintings, like the Mona Lisa (1503–05), The Virgin of the Rocks (1483–86), and the fresco The Last Supper (1495–98; restored 1978–99). Adopting oil paint as his primary medium, da Vinci used light and its effects in his artworks more naturally and with greater dramatic effect than had ever been done before. His poignant expression of human emotions in The Last Supper (1495–1498) set the benchmark for religious painting.

Leonardo da Vinci (Source:

Virgin of the Rocks by da Vinci, c. 1483 (Source: Wikimedia Commons/Louvre Museum)

Michelangelo Buonarroti, Leonardo’s young contemporary, was a master in sculpting and painting and produced some extraordinary figurative compositions with his keen observation of the human body. He was the dominant sculptor of the High Renaissance, producing stunning pieces such as the Pietà in St. Peter’s Cathedral (1499) and the David in Florence (1501-04), where he was from. The five-metre high David was carved by the artist by hand out of an enormous marble block, and is one of the most famous sculptures in history. Michelangelo scaled heights of greatness with his paintings as well – his giant fresco adorning the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, (1508-12) depicting various scenes from Genesis, has inspired generations of artists from Europe and across the world.

A portrait of Michelangelo by Daniele da Volterra, c. 1544 (Source: Wikimedia Commons/Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The Sistine Chapel fresco by Michelangelo, 1508-1512 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The youngest of the three masters, Raphael Sanzio learned a lot about art from both Leonardo and Michelangelo. Celebrating the spirit of the Renaissance, his paintings expressed the classical ideals of beauty, serenity and harmony. His most notable painting, The School of Athens (1508-11), was painted at the same time as Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel fresco, and brings together representatives of the Aristotelian and Platonic schools of thought. The elaborate painting depicts groups of conversing philosophers and artists in a vast court. Influenced by Leonardo, Raphael adopted the pyramidal composition and beautifully modelled faces of The Virgin of the Rocks into many of his own paintings depicting Madonna.

The School of Athens by Raphael, 1508-11 (Source: Wikimedia Commons/

A presumed self-portrait by Raphael, c. 1504 (Source: Wikimedia Commons/Uffizi Gallery)

Raphael’s death in 1520, aged 37, is considered as the end of the High Renaissance period by many art historians. Sandro Botticelli, Bramante, Giorgione, Titian and Correggio were some of the other great Italian artists who worked during the High Renaissance period.

An Eventual Decline

The spirit of the Renaissance spread all over Italy and into France, northern Europe and Spain, through the 15th and 16th centuries. But by the late 1500s, the Mannerist style of painting, with its emphasis on artificiality, had developed in stark contrast to the ideals of Renaissance and spread starting from Florence and Rome to become the dominant style in Europe. This led to the eventual decline of Renaissance art, though its ideals of humanism and naturalism are celebrated and continue to live on, even today. For many, the artistic creations of the Renaissance still represent the highest works of excellence in the historical art canon and in the history of art itself.

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