7 Art in the Renaissance

Art in the Renaissance

The art of the Renaissance has had a profound impact on the art that has followed. Many of the artists that people are most familiar with today, as well as much of the art, are from this time period. Focus on each artist. What was their style? What important works did they create? Is it beautiful? What inspired them? What do those works say about the society in which they were created? Who are the subjects? What is included in the background? While much of the work has religious themes, other glimpses into perceptions of humanity are apparent. What do you see?

The Italian Renaissance

The art of the Italian Renaissance was influential throughout Europe for centuries. The Renaissance began during the 14th century and remained the dominate style in Italy, and in much of Europe, until the 16th century. The term “renaissance” was developed during the 19th century in order to describe this period of time and its accompanying artistic style. However, people who were living during the Renaissance did see themselves as different from their Medieval predecessors. Through a variety of texts that survive, we know that people living during the Renaissance saw themselves as different largely because they were deliberately trying to imitate the Ancients in art and architecture.

Greek statuary was revived by Renaissance artists. As travel increased and Grand Tours became popular, evidence of this popularity is shown in the reproduction of these statues for tourism, much like one might pick up a reproduction of the Statue of Liberty today on a trip to New York.

A small bronze replication statue of Venus by Massimiliano Soldani
A small bronze replication statue of Venus in the style of Massimiliano Soldani (Italian, Montevarchi 1656–1740 Montevarchi) is in The Met’s collection. Such statuettes were produced for Grand Tour visitors and reflect the vogue for reductions of antique statuary and their reinterpretations by the great eighteenth-century sculptors.

Florence and the Renaissance

When you hear the term “Renaissance” and picture a style of art, you are probably picturing the Renaissance style that was developed in Florence, which became the dominate style of art during the Renaissance. During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Italy was divided into a number of different city states. Each city state had its own government, culture, economy, and artistic style. There were many different styles of art and architecture that were developed in Italy during the Renaissance. Siena, which was a political ally of France, for example, retained a Gothic element to its art for much of the Renaissance.

Certain conditions aided the development of the Renaissance style in Florence during this time period. In the 15th century, Florence became a major mercantile center. The production of cloth drove their economy and a merchant class emerged. Humanism, which had developed during the 14th century, remained an important intellectual movement that impacted art production as well.

Early Renaissance

During the Early Renaissance, artists began to reject the Byzantine style of religious painting and strove to create realism in their depiction of the human form and space. This aim toward realism began with Cimabue and Giotto, and reached its peak in the art of the “Perfect” artists, such as Andrea Mantegna and Paolo Uccello, who created works that employed one point perspective and played with perspective for their educated, art knowledgeable viewer.

During the Early Renaissance we also see important developments in subject matter, in addition to style. While religion was an important element in the daily life of people living during the Renaissance, and remained a driving factor behind artistic production, we also see a new avenue open to panting—mythological subject matter. Many scholars point to Botticelli’s Birth of Venus as the very first panel painting of a mythological scene. While the tradition itself likely arose from cassone painting, which typically featured scenes from mythology and romantic texts, the development of mythological panel painting would open a world for artistic patronage, production, and themes.

The goddess Venus is depicted as a naked woman standing on a shell.
Birth of Venus: Botticelli’s Birth of Venus was among the most important works of the early Renaissance.

High Renaissance

The period known as the High Renaissance represents the culmination of the goals of the Early Renaissance, namely the realistic representation of figures in space rendered with credible motion and in an appropriately decorous style. The most well known artists from this phase are Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Titian, and Michelangelo. Their paintings and frescoes are among the most widely known works of art in the world. Da Vinci’s Last Supper, Raphael’s The School of Athens and Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel Ceiling paintings are the masterpieces of this period and embody the elements of the High Renaissance.

painting depicting a marriage ceremony between Mary and Joseph.
Marriage of the Virgin by Raphael. The painting depicts a marriage ceremony between Mary and Joseph.


High Renaissance painting evolved into Mannerism in Florence. Mannerist artists, who consciously rebelled against the principles of High Renaissance, tended to represent elongated figures in illogical spaces. Modern scholarship has recognized the capacity of Mannerist art to convey strong, often religious, emotion where the High Renaissance failed to do so. Some of the main artists of this period are Pontormo, Bronzino, Rosso Fiorentino, Parmigianino and Raphael’s pupil, Giulio Romano.

Art and Patronage

The Medici family used their vast fortune to control the Florentine political system and sponsor a series of artistic accomplishments. It has long been a matter of debate why the Renaissance began in Florence, and not elsewhere in Italy. Scholars have noted several features unique to Florentine cultural life that may have caused such a cultural movement. Many have emphasized the role played by the Medici, a banking family and later ducal ruling house, in patronizing and stimulating the arts. Lorenzo de’ Medici (1449–1492) was the catalyst for an enormous amount of arts patronage, encouraging his countrymen to commission works from the leading artists of Florence, including Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli, and Michelangelo Buonarroti. Works by Neri di Bicci, Botticelli, da Vinci, and Filippino Lippi had been commissioned additionally by the convent di San Donato agli Scopeti of the Augustinians order in Florence.

The Medici House Patronage

The House of Medici was an Italian banking family, political dynasty, and later royal house that first began to gather prominence under Cosimo de’ Medici in the Republic of Florence during the first half of the 15th century. Their wealth and influence initially derived from the textile trade guided by the guild of the Arte della Lana. Like other signore families, they dominated their city’s government, they were able to bring Florence under their family’s power, and they created an environment where art and Humanism could flourish. They, along with other families of Italy, such as the Visconti and Sforza of Milan, the Este of Ferrara, and the Gonzaga of Mantua, fostered and inspired the birth of the Italian Renaissance.

The biggest accomplishments of the Medici were in the sponsorship of art and architecture, mainly early and High Renaissance art and architecture. The Medici were responsible for the majority of Florentine art during their reign. Their money was significant because during this period, artists generally only made their works when they received commissions in advance. Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici, the first patron of the arts in the family, aided Masaccio and commissioned Brunelleschi for the reconstruction of the Basilica of San Lorenzo, Florence, in 1419. Cosimo the Elder’s notable artistic associates were Donatello and Fra Angelico. The most significant addition to the list over the years was Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475–1564), who produced work for a number of Medici, beginning with Lorenzo the Magnificent, who was said to be extremely fond of the young Michelangelo, inviting him to study the family collection of antique sculpture. Lorenzo also served as patron of Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) for seven years. Indeed, Lorenzo was an artist in his own right, and an author of poetry and song; his support of the arts and letters is seen as a high point in Medici patronage.

A painting of the Medici House
The Medici House. Medici family members placed allegorically in the entourage of a king from the Three Wise Men in the Tuscan countryside in a Benozzo Gozzoli fresco, c. 1459

In architecture, the Medici are responsible for some notable features of Florence, including the Uffizi Gallery, the Boboli Gardens, the Belvedere, the Medici Chapel, and the Palazzo Medici. Later, in Rome, the Medici Popes continued in the family tradition by patronizing artists in Rome. Pope Leo X would chiefly commission works from Raphael. Pope Clement VII commissioned Michelangelo to paint the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel just before the pontiff’s death in 1534. Eleanor of Toledo, princess of Spain and wife of Cosimo I the Great, purchased the Pitti Palace from Buonaccorso Pitti in 1550. Cosimo in turn patronized Vasari, who erected the Uffizi Gallery in 1560 and founded the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno (“Academy of the Arts of Drawing”) in 1563. Marie de’ Medici, widow of Henry IV of France and mother of Louis XIII, is the subject of a commissioned cycle of paintings known as the Marie de’ Medici cycle, painted for the Luxembourg Palace by court painter Peter Paul Rubens in 1622–1623.

Although none of the Medici themselves were scientists, the family is well known to have been the patrons of the famous Galileo Galilei, who tutored multiple generations of Medici children and was an important figurehead for his patron’s quest for power. Galileo’s patronage was eventually abandoned by Ferdinando II when the Inquisition accused Galileo of heresy. However, the Medici family did afford the scientist a safe haven for many years. Galileo named the four largest moons of Jupiter after four Medici children he tutored, although the names Galileo used are not the names currently used.

Leonardo da Vinci

While Leonardo da Vinci is admired as a scientist, an academic, and an inventor, he is most famous for his achievements as the painter of several Renaissance masterpieces.

While Leonardo da Vinci is greatly admired as a scientist, an academic, and an inventor, he is most famous for his achievements as the painter of several Renaissance masterpieces. His paintings were groundbreaking for a variety of reasons and his works have been imitated by students and discussed at great length by connoisseurs and critics.

Among the qualities that make da Vinci’s work unique are the innovative techniques that he used in laying on the paint, his detailed knowledge of anatomy, his use of the human form in figurative composition, and his use of sfumato. All of these qualities are present in his most celebrated works, the Mona LisaThe Last Supper, and the Virgin of the Rocks.

This painting shows the Madonna and Child Jesus with the infant John the Baptist and an angel, in a rocky setting
The Marriage of the Virgin by Leonardo da Vinci

The Last Supper

Da Vinci’s most celebrated painting of the 1490s is The Last Supper, which was painted for the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria della Grazie in Milan. The painting depicts the last meal shared by Jesus and the 12 Apostles where he announces that one of the them will betray him. When finished, the painting was acclaimed as a masterpiece of design. This work demonstrates something that da Vinci did very well: taking a very traditional subject matter, such as the Last Supper, and completely re-inventing it.

Prior to this moment in art history, every representation of the Last Supper followed the same visual tradition: Jesus and the Apostles seated at a table. Judas is placed on the opposite side of the table of everyone else and is effortlessly identified by the viewer. When da Vinci painted The Last Supper he placed Judas on the same side of the table as Christ and the Apostles, who are shown reacting to Jesus as he announces that one of them will betray him. They are depicted as alarmed, upset, and trying to determine who will commit the act. The viewer also has to determine which figure is Judas, who will betray Christ. By depicting the scene in this manner, da Vinci has infused psychology into the work.

Unfortunately, this masterpiece of the Renaissance began to deteriorate immediately after da Vinci finished painting, due largely to the painting technique that he had chosen. Instead of using the technique of fresco, da Vinci had used tempera over a ground that was mainly gesso in an attempt to bring the subtle effects of oil paint to fresco. His new technique was not successful, and resulted in a surface that was subject to mold and flaking.

Leonardo de Vinci's The Last Supper
The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci, although much deteriorated, demonstrates the painter’s mastery of the human form in figurative composition

Mona Lisa

Among the works created by da Vinci in the 16th century is the small portrait known as the Mona Lisa, or La Gioconda, “the laughing one.” In the present era it is arguably the most famous painting in the world. Its fame rests, in particular, on the elusive smile on the woman’s face—its mysterious quality brought about perhaps by the fact that the artist has subtly shadowed the corners of the mouth and eyes so that the exact nature of the smile cannot be determined.

The shadowy quality for which the work is renowned came to be called sfumato, the application of subtle layers of translucent paint so that there is no visible transition between colors, tones, and often objects. Other characteristics found in this work are the unadorned dress, in which the eyes and hands have no competition from other details; the dramatic landscape background, in which the world seems to be in a state of flux; the subdued coloring; and the extremely smooth nature of the painterly technique, employing oils, but applied much like tempera and blended on the surface so that the brushstrokes are indistinguishable. And again, da Vinci is innovating upon a type of painting here. Portraits were very common in the Renaissance. However, portraits of women were always in profile, which was seen as proper and modest. Here, da Vinci present a portrait of a woman who not only faces the viewer but follows them with her eyes.

Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa
In the Mona Lisa, da Vinci incorporates his sfumato technique to create a shadowy quality.


Michelangelo was a 16th century Florentine artist renowned for his masterpieces in sculpture, painting, and architectural design. His most well known works are the David, the Last Judgment, and the Basilica of Saint Peter’s in the Vatican.

Sculpture: David

Michelangelo’s David stands in contrapposto pose.
The David by Michelangelo, 1504. The sculpture was intended to be placed on the exterior of the Duomo, and has become one of the most recognized works of Renaissance sculpture.

In 1504, Michelangelo was commissioned to create a colossal marble statue portraying David as a symbol of Florentine freedom. The subsequent masterpiece, David, established the artist’s prominence as a sculptor of extraordinary technical skill and strength of symbolic imagination. David was created out of a single marble block, and stands larger than life, as it was originally intended to adorn the Florence Cathedral. The work differs from previous representations in that the Biblical hero is not depicted with the head of the slain Goliath, as he is in Donatello’s and Verrocchio’s statues; both had represented the hero standing victorious over the head of Goliath. No earlier Florentine artist had omitted the giant altogether. Instead of appearing victorious over a foe, David’s face looks tense and ready for combat. The tendons in his neck stand out tautly, his brow is furrowed, and his eyes seem to focus intently on something in the distance. Veins bulge out of his lowered right hand, but his body is in a relaxed contrapposto pose, and he carries his sling casually thrown over his left shoulder. In the Renaissance, contrapposto poses were thought of as a distinctive feature of antique sculpture.

Painting: The Last Judgement

In painting, Michelangelo is renowned for his work in the Sistine Chapel. He was originally commissioned to paint tromp-l’oeil coffers after the original ceiling developed a crack. Michelangelo lobbied for a different and more complex scheme, representing Creation, the Downfall of Man, the Promise of Salvation through the prophets, and the Genealogy of Christ. The work is part of a larger scheme of decoration within the chapel that represents much of the doctrine of the Catholic Church.

The composition eventually contained over 300 figures, and had at its center nine episodes from the Book of Genesis, divided into three groups: God’s Creation of the Earth, God’s Creation of Humankind, and their fall from God’s grace, and lastly, the state of Humanity as represented by Noah and his family. Twelve men and women who prophesied the coming of the Jesus are painted on the pendentives supporting the ceiling. Among the most famous paintings on the ceiling are The Creation of Adam, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the Great Flood, the Prophet Isaiah and the Cumaean Sibyl. The ancestors of Christ are painted around the windows.

The fresco of The Last Judgment on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel was commissioned by Pope Clement VII, and Michelangelo labored on the project from 1536–1541. The work is located on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel, which is not a traditional placement for the subject. Typically, last judgement scenes were placed on the exit wall of churches as a way to remind the viewer of eternal punishments as they left worship. The Last Judgment is a depiction of the second coming of Christ and the apocalypse; where the souls of humanity rise and are assigned to their various fates, as judged by Christ, surrounded by the Saints. In contrast to the earlier figures Michelangelo painted on the ceiling, the figures in The Last Judgement are heavily muscled and are in much more artificial poses, demonstrating how this work is in the Mannerist style.

In this work Michelangelo has rejected the orderly depiction of the last judgement as established by Medieval tradition in favor of a swirling scene of chaos as each soul is judged. When the painting was revealed it was heavily criticized for its inclusion of classical imagery as well as for the amount of nude figures in somewhat suggestive poses. The ill reception that the work received may be tied to the Counter Reformation and the Council of Trent, which lead to a preference for more conservative religious art devoid of classical references. Although a number of figures were made more modest with the addition of drapery, the changes were not made until after the death of Michelangelo, demonstrating the respect and admiration that was afforded to him during his lifetime.

Michelangelo's The Last Judgment
The fresco of The Last Judgment on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel was commissioned by Pope Clement VII. Michelangelo worked on the project from 1534–1541

Architecture: St. Peter’s Basilica

Finally, although other architects were involved, Michelangelo is given credit for designing St. Peter’s Basilica. Michelangelo’s chief contribution was the use of a symmetrical plan of a Greek Cross form and an external masonry of massive proportions, with every corner filled in by a stairwell or small vestry. The effect is of a continuous wall surface that is folded or fractured at different angles, lacking the right angles that usually define change of direction at the corners of a building. This exterior is surrounded by a giant order of Corinthian pilasters all set at slightly different angles to each other, in keeping with the ever-changing angles of the wall’s surface. Above them the huge cornice ripples in a continuous band, giving the appearance of keeping the whole building in a state of compression.

St. Peter's Basilica
St. Peter’s Basillica. Michelangelo designed the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica on or before 1564, although it was unfinished when he died

Adapted from Art in the Renaissance by LibreTexts is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Beyond the Madonna: an early image of enslaved people in Renaissance Florence.” YouTube, uploaded by Smart History, 1 Dec. 2006.


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