The Most Iconic Artists of the Italian Renaissance, from Masaccio to Titian
Unfolding from around the year 1300 to the middle of the 16th century, the Italian
Masaccio’s early Renaissance Trinity with the Virgin, Saint John the Evangelist, and Donors (ca. 1425-27/28) in the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella, in Florence, demonstrates this renewed interest in human, rather than only divine, religious space. Through the scientific application of one-point, linear perspective, the fresco is considered to have depicted three-dimensional space on a flat surface for the first time since antiquity. By giving the illusion of depth in the representation of the vault’s coffers, and by portraying the figure of Mary gesturing to the viewer, the Trinity creates a conduit between the space of the viewer and the realm of the divine.
As the first free-standing nude since the contrapposto.
Representing the Biblical story of “David and Goliath,” Donatello’s sculpture was also a metaphor for the might of the small Florentine Republic in the 15th century. While often at war with neighboring powers like Milan, Florence maintained a cultural importance that exceeded its small size. The famous Medici family was the most powerful in Florence and the city’s most ardent patron of art.
Painted in the 1480s for Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, Sandro Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (ca. 1486) took its theme from Ovid’s “Metamorphoses.” One of the most iconic images in all of Western art, Botticelli’s painting reinterprets an ancient Greek statue of Venus in a Neoplatonic mode, depicting a nude female body as an allegory of both physical and divine beauty. Incorporating traces of real gold in Venus’s hair, the work exemplifies the Golden Age of Quattrocento painting.
The onset of the 15th century leads to the
While Leonardo argued for the superiority of painting in both his artwork and writing, the younger virtuoso Michelangelo (born Michelangelo Buonarroti) claimed that sculpture was the supreme art. Their rivalry was part of the ongoing Renaissance debate of paragone, which asked what the ultimate form of art was: painting or sculpture. Like Leonardo, Michelangelo was a polymath, an exceptional talent in many fields. Yet although he redesigned the architecture of St. Peter’s Basilica and arduously painted the revered frescoes in the Sistine Chapel (including the iconic Creation of Adam, 1508–12), Michelangelo considered himself first and foremost a sculptor.
No work encapsulates his so-called divine gifts or ambition so much as the colossal David (1501–04). Based on the same Old Testament story of “David and Goliath” that inspired Donatello years earlier, Michelangelo’s 14-foot-tall sculpture offers a different interpretation. Rather than standing on the head of the slain giant in the aftermath of battle, this muscled, heroic nude in contrapposto pose stares intensely the moment before the confrontation. Carving such a large figure from a block of marble was a precocious technical achievement for an artist in his 20s, but Michelangelo’s clear grasp of human anatomy astounded his contemporaries.
The Italian Renaissance reached its zenith in the first decades of the 16th century, and Raphael Sanzio’s School of Athens (1510–12) is a culmination of the era’s classical style and spirit. Part of a series of frescoes in the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace, The School of Athens offers a synthesis of technical refinement, linear perspective through perfected architecture, and the personification of philosophical ideals. The figures represent the most renowned minds of antiquity (Plato and Aristotle are framed at center by concentric arches) as well as a number of the artist’s contemporaries, including Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael himself.
While the Renaissance installed these Neoplatonic ideals in Western culture, it also generated changes in the social regard and purposes of art. If Florentine artists were known for the clarity of their design, Venetian artists were known for their mastery of color. Titian was the greatest painter of that school, bringing a rich palette to his portraits, altarpieces, and mythological subjects like Bacchus and Ariadne (1520–23). His Venus of Urbino (1538), one of his best-known of his works, approached the nude with specificity and sensuality. This is not the sleeping goddess painted a few years earlier by Giorgione, but a real woman in flesh and blood, reclining on the sheets in front of the viewer. A testament to its iconic status, Titian’s Venus would later be quoted by artists like
Many of these explorations in subject and color are considered examples of
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