Renaissance history: Why and how it happened

1400 – 1600


View Renaissance art characteristics (Accordion View).

How Renaissance art got its name? and where?

Some time at the beginning of the 15th century, somewhere in Florence, finally Europa removed her clothes and stepped into a bath for the first time in a thousand years! At least, that’s how one 19th-century historian succinctly put it to describe the European sentiment at that time regarding the Renaissance. In their view it was a transition from the “rat-infested, plague-ridden dark ages” into a period where a fascination with all things Graeco-Roman spread among intellectuals and artists. The Romans had left behind a great legacy well beyond the ruins of public baths, to which the historian was alluding.

The original line by historian Jules Michelet was “a thousand years of history but not a single bath” (“mille ans d’histoire mais pas un seul bain“). He unfairly derided the Middle Ages (400-1400). Michelet was also the first to coin the word “Renaissance” (French for rebirth) to describe the cultural renewal of the following historical period, from 1400 to 1600.

What gave rise to the Renaissance?

1. The Black Plague recedes, feudalism crumbles and cities grow

Suddenly you display symptoms of a flu: chills, fever, headache and vomiting. Then you’re dead within hours or, if you’re lucky, within at most seven days. Sometimes you go to bed at night with these symptoms and you never wake up again. That was the Black Death – one of the most devastating plagues in human history. It decimated between one third and one half of the European population in the 1300s. For centuries, Feudalism was the social and economic glue of Western Europe, dividing people into nobility, knighthood, clergy and peasantry, also known as serfs. But the Black Death didn’t discriminate between rich and poor, although the destitute peasants were hardest hit due to the filthy life conditions around them. The high rate of peasant mortality meant an eventual breakdown of the feudal system. Another factor that contributed to that breakdown is the availability of abundant and cheap land vacated by now-dead noblemen. That allowed for unprecedented social mobility because many surviving peasants were the new owners. At the peak of the plague, in countries like Italy, trade had come to a halt to reduce the chances of spreading infection causing an economic crisis and further poverty. But as the Black Death receded a new Europe emerged.

After the plague, trade made a strong comeback; many peasants chose to become traders, moved into the cities rather than go back to work on the farm. Previously, while the Grim Reaper is on the prowl in your neighborhood, you wouldn’t have been in the mood to fantasize about charming Venus! Now life in the city, free from the Plague, allowed people to dedicate time to earthly pleasures and innovations. It’s unlikely that the cultural rebirth would have happened on the sparsely-populated farmland, especially during the dark days of the Plague.

2. Where do you buy culture? Merchants become grand patrons of art

As prosperity spread, a new social class appeared, that is of merchants. The increase in trade meant more assets are exchanging hands in the form of money (capital), instead of land as it always did since the ancient times. These were the foundations of a new economic system: Capitalism. With such economic growth, there was a need for a convenient way to manage money, give loans and finance projects. That’s the moment when banking was born. For multiple generations, a handful of families provided international banking services. A few of these families’ descendants are still active in the financial markets today. Among these families are the Bardi, Peruzzi, Oppenheim, Rothschild and Medici. In Florence and other Italian city-states, competition intensified between them in showing off their wealth and endowing sensually-decorated chapels. For many of them, patronage of the arts was a compensation for their lack of blue blood. Prominent families of merchants, similar to the Church, were motivated by displays of wealth and power but they also were constantly trying to prove that they’re as cultured as the centuries-old nobility of Europe.

Tourists today can visit monuments and chapels in Florence that embody that competition between the wealthy banking families like the Medici, Strozzi, Peruzzi and Albizzi. It was indeed an artistic push into a ‘renaissance’ period that left us with some of the greatest and most creative works of art ever produced.

3. Humanism powers the Renaissance: Looking backwards in order to progress forward

Life in the city brings people physically closer where collective knowledge increases and different ideas and worldviews clash. That’s what happened in Italian cities of the early 15th century. Urbanization combined with an increase in prosperity and international trade routes created a new reality there. In any society, when life conditions drastically change, new concerns, questions and anxieties appear. Consequently, a new vision in dealing with such questions was required. It would be labelled “humanism.”

Renaissance humanism could be defined as the return to Greek and Roman philosophy and texts. That very revival or “rebirth” is what gave us the term Renaissance. Despite the zeal for classical (Greco-Roman) literature lying at the heart of the new intellectual current, it was much more as will be explained below.

Most of us encounter the word Humanities in universities as it’s still used in its original sense. “Studia Humanitatis” is the medieval reference to “human-oriented” studies of classical literature and art as separate from “divinity’ studies, i.e. theology. In the 19th century, as Europeans reflected on the profound evolution of their own civilization four centuries earlier, they coined “humanism,” derived from the original academic term, to refer to the intellectual movement that put human experience in focus.

Fifteenth-century Italians seeking a fresh worldview did not need to look far. They were literally surrounded by the ancient ruins of the great Roman Empire (buildings like the Colosseum, aqueducts, statues and other artifacts). Although many of these buildings had been abused and barely standing, they were still constant reminders of a glorious past. Thus in their quest for answers, they resorted to that ancient wellspring of knowledge: the Greek and Roman writings of intellectuals such as Plato, Socrates and Ovid. It’s not coincidental that ancient Rome and Athens were thriving cities too, not unlike the Italian ones. The humanists started a mission of recovery and rediscovery of classical texts. Thanks to monasteries, the legacy had been preserved for centuries, although the writings were not widely shared, and the understanding was naturally limited to a religious outlook. Up to that moment, Christian Europeans had disdain for their pagan ancestors but they simultaneously harbored deep admiration. Now, that admiration of the classical culture was out in the open. It pervaded art, culture and society and captivated almost everyone among the educated, from popes and priests to merchants. The humanist ideals and the intense study of ancient Greek and Roman art shaped the Renaissance art movement. Intellectual and architectural plundering of classical heritage was replaced with appreciation and respectful scrutiny.

Italian cities were fortunate for their location being close to both the Arabs and Byzantines, both of whom preserved and studied texts of the Antiquity during the Middle Ages while Europe struggled. In fact, the origin of the recent appreciation of Greco-Roman culture was indirectly caused by the downfall of the neighboring Byzantine Empire. The Greek-speaking empire had been doomed for a while and by the time its capital, Constantinople, fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 many Greek scholars had fled to Italy. Archives, manuscripts and scrolls were salvaged and brought to the nascent Italian libraries. Among the émigrés was Byzantine philosopher Manuel Chrysoloras (1355 – 1415), one of the pioneers behind introducing Greek literature to Florence. Also the Constantinopolitan Johannes Argyropoulos (1415 – 1487) taught the brothers Pietro and Lorenzo de’ Medici (of Florence’s ruling family) Greek language and philosophy.

Those who belong to the educated elite started to outright reject the centuries-old spiritual outlook as their social and economic conditions continued to improve. No longer they accepted hardship and suffering as paths to grace. No longer they viewed this world with apathy while waiting for the next one. No longer their main source of knowledge was through the Bible, church doctrine and the clergy. And they no longer saw themselves as helpless creatures under relentless control by God. In their eyes, walking away from society and opting for a monastic life should never mark one as a virtuous citizen. Similarly, theology and scriptures were not the only worthy fields of study. Nature, human nature or that of any species merit equal or greater attention. Now life was not just worth living but also deserved every attempt to make it better. The spiritual outlook was replaced with a secular one that put humans in the center, instead of God. Thus, one of the tenets of humanism was secularism.

In medieval times, the feudal system and communal life divided society into rigid groups where individual expression barely had any value. Likewise, the Church’s ascetic doctrine had always equated self-interest with the capital vice of pride. “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself” – That was the Biblical teaching. Self-denial and unconditional obedience to Church fathers were always righteous attributes. But with more economic opportunities and wealth, that mindset of the medieval civilization was becoming archaic. Burgeoning private enterprise is by definition individualistic. A newly acquired confidence prompted people to pursue individual achievements and to look for new ways to protect themselves and their own interests (as evidenced by proto-science and proto-medicine). Thus, the concept of Individualism was another important component of humanism.

This is the period that gave us the ‘Renaissance Man’ – an enviable person who’s proficiently experienced in a wide range of fields. Michelangelo was a painter, architect, engineer, poet and above all, as he considered himself, a sculptor. Leonardo da Vinci was a sculptor, painter, caricaturist, inventor, architect, engineer and anatomist. For humanists like da Vinci and Michelangelo and many others, the gates of knowledge had been kicked open and they would’ve found it incomprehensible to be specialized in a single area as we do today. To our defense, these Renaissance polymaths (or “generalists”) didn’t have to reckon with the vast amounts of knowledge that force us to become specialists.

The humanist zeitgeist was manifested in pagan and mythological themes in paintings (e.g. Primavera by Botticelli); in emphasis on the human body and its beauty (An Allegory with Venus and Cupid by Bronzino); in documenting individual achievements of the era’s geniuses (Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects by Giorgio Vasari); and in even the mere act of signing artworks which the self-negating medieval artists would never have done.

Renaissance artists revealed humanist influence in the realistic depiction of the Holy Family and other biblical figures. Some artists, particularly the Florentines, went as far as dressing the characters in the local fashion of the day. They even placed them among important contemporary citizens including chapel donors and occasionally set the whole scene against their own European landscapes or next to ancient Roman architecture.

Nevertheless, biblical figures at this point are not ordinary bunch of people. You won’t see in Renaissance paintings St. Joseph as a poor laborer with dirty fingernails. That would happen four and half centuries later when we reach the Pre-Raphaelite style which depicted the Holy Family as a working class members in a shabby carpenter’s workshop. Subsequent art movements, including even the Pre-Raphaelite group who were hostile to the Renaissance art as seen from their name, wouldn’t have existed if it weren’t for the Renaissance artistic revolution.

The Renaissance was a crucial moment of human self-consciousness and self-understanding. Western civilization was on the threshold between the Medieval era and the Modern era. The former relied on faith and the supernatural, and the latter was an evolution that was yet to present two centuries later the Enlightenment, reason, the scientific method and individual human rights. It was the cusp of an epoch where innovation and discovery were encouraged (Italians Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci were about to enter the stage), questioning authority and traditional knowledge were tolerated, challenging established religion was gaining momentum and the seeds were sown for the immense revolt of Protestant Reformation. humanist values such as secularism and individualism are still cornerstones of Western Civilization.

Note: Don’t confuse Renaissance humanism with today’s Secular humanism (simply known as “humanism”). Italian humanists saw the importance of religion and the Divine power although they started to lessen their dominance. French Enlightenment thinkers marginalized them. But Secular humanism today is atheistic or agnostic at its core. To borrow a metaphor from sports, in the medieval period God was at the front line of the game, Renaissance humanism and later the Enlightenment put him on the sidelines but today’s Secular humanism simply kicked him out of the arena.

4. The Kingdom of Heaven is for the poor: wealthy merchants have to “compensate”

Every Catholic merchant would’ve known that Jesus said that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Based on the traditional interpretation of this verse, poverty was considered a virtue, so much so that thousands of men and women for centuries had been willingly embracing it and living in monasteries all over Europe. The Protestant work ethic would eventually arrive to turn this on its head, where their view was wealth is a sign of grace. (Sociologist Max Weber argued that this was partially responsible for Capitalism to fully develop in future Protestant countries.) For Catholic merchants to deal with that age-old dilemma (still an open question to this day for many Christians) and reconcile their new reality of wealth accumulation with biblical teachings, they chose to spend some of it for “the glory of the Lord”. Besides donations to the poor, they built and decorated dazzling chapels.

5. Thanks Cosimo and Lorenzo: the Medici family bankrolls the Renaissance in Florence

Although many merchant families were patrons of art as explained above, the Florentine Medici family towered above all of them. It’s almost impossible to talk about the genesis of the Renaissance in Italy without including them. Their role was so important that the British historian, Paul Strathern, called them Godfathers of the Renaissance. Their involvement did not just happen during the Renaissance, but, to a great extent, made the Renaissance happen, at least within Florence. Their patronage is the reason why we call Florence the cradle of the Renaissance. They transformed it culturally and artistically. Two Medici family members in particular were very influential: Giovanni de’ Medici and his grandon, Lorenzo the Magnificent.

Originally, they were wool merchants like many other Florentine families – it was one of the largest industries at the time. The first significant character in their story is Giovanni de’ Medici (ca. 1360–1429) who turned a small bank and a modest inheritance into a great financial enterprise. With Cosimo, his son, at the helm of the business, it expanded further to become the largest in Europe. Using his wealth, he rose in political power which prompted a conflict with rival Florentine banking families. The conflict ended with his exile for a year, but he was able to use his financial and political might to return victorious back to Florence in 1434. He was the de facto leader upon his return. His leadership lasted for the following three decades and started a three-century dynasty (1434-1743). The Medici interest, starting with Cosimo, in art patronage and philosophy was more than just propaganda. Indeed, they, like other wealthy patrons, sought prestige and self-glorification, but they proved that they also had a real passion for honing their cultural and artistic sensibilities.

Cosimo hired painters, sculptors and architects, some of whom were well-known masters like Donatello and Fra Angelico. He also financially supported scholars and philosophers, such as the humanist Catholic priest Ficino, who was assigned the job of translating ancient Greek works into Latin. He started an informal group bringing together the greatest Florentine minds for reading and dicussing the works of Plato. It would later be known as the Platonic Academy and lay the basic principles behind humanist philosophy, making the Renaissance much more than just an artistic movement. Humanism spread to other countries and shaped the development of European thought. Cosimo began a Medici tradition where his residence was a place for scholars to congregate. That bears some similarity to the literary role played by Viennese and Parisian cafés at the end of the 19th century, where intellectuals and future revolutionaries met and ideas were debated. Although the difference here is that most of the Renaissance output was in the form of philosphical ideas and art (the visual kind), rather than literature. He encouraged the study of humanism and the return to antiquity to the point of sharing his library of Greek and Latin volumes with scholars to kindle their interest. He himself learnt enough to be able to engage in philosphical debates with them. After his death, Florentines gave Cosimo de’ Medici (1389—1464) a title never given to anyone before or after: Pater Patriae (father of the nation).

Cosimo’s son, Piero, was too ill to leave a significant legacy behind but he continued with the tradition of sponsoring artists. After 5 years in power he was dead. His son Lorenzo (1449—1492), on the other hand, was one of the most important figures of the Renaissance period. During his first few years, he survived an assassination plot at the hands of the Medici arch-rivals, the Pazzi family supported by Pope Sixtus IV. Lorenzo was a true Renaissance man; a politician, a poet and an art patron. He was educated from his youth in classical literature; a privilege his self-taught grandfather never had. To contemporary Florentines he was maestro della bottega (‘boss of the shop’) who also called him il Magnifico (the Magnificent). He assumed the role of the benevolent leader of Florence, and as his grandfather once did, he also sponsored architects and artists like Botticelli, Ghirlandaio and Filippino Lippi. Additionally, he established a school of art for young boys and Michelangelo was among its first students. Perhaps the greatest service il Magnifico gave to the world of art was discovering and sponsoring the talent of the 13-year old Michelangelo. He moved Michelangelo into their palazzo and was one of the family. Lorenzo’s Florence was the cultural capital of Europe. He enlarged the Medici library by adding more manuscripts to it and continued supporting the Platonic Academy. He was another Medici who enjoyed evenings with artists and intellectuals. Who needs television when you have the most brilliant minds of Europe, the likes of Michelangelo and Botticelli and philosophers, Mirandola and Ficino, drinking wine and sharing tales with the Magnificent himself – perhaps even listening to some of his humorous, dirty poetry. The death of Lorenzo marked the end of Florence’s golden age. Rome would take over as the cultural capital of Europe. In retrospect, without the Medici patronage, we may never have heard about artistic geniuses such as Donatello, Michelangelo and Botticelli.

6. Stability within and among Italian city-states though not a Golden Age of Peace

Italy was neither rich nor powerful. It wasn’t even unified. Other powerful nations were France, England or the so-called Holy Roman Empire (centered on modern-day Germany). The Renaissance flowered in Italy, not despite of, but thanks to its fragmented sovereignty. City-states like Milan, Florence and Venice competed in building ever-grander palaces and cathedrals. As more men became artists and architects, more commissions were awarded and experimentation took place on a scale unseen before.

Some traditional sources portray the Renaissance in Italy as an era of harmony, but that would be inaccurate. Italy was spared from foreign invasions, but the city-states, and the Papal States too, often engaged in violent conflicts among themselves. And when city-states were not rising up in arms, it was rival families that plotted against one another. Florence which gained a period of peace under the Medici rule was one well-known example of how a city had divided loyalty between two powerful families, as explained above. Nevertheless, overall Italy enjoyed relative stability while other parts Europe were still battling the plague or mired in war. For example the Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453) kept both England and France locked in a long military conflict – the longest in Europe’s history.

7. Chapel endowments: Can I get my mother to heaven faster if I commission another painting?

Today people in Western Europe often live into their 80s. At the dawn of the Renaissance era, you were lucky to live up to 40 years. And at that you’d be considered ‘aged’. Catholic Christians surrounded with so much death in the Middle Ages had a solution to an old spiritual puzzle. If you’re evil enough, you go to hell and if you’re good enough you go to heaven. But where do you go if you belong, like most people, somewhere in the middle? Their answer was a third hellish place and they called it Purgatory. Their doctrine stated that it was an actual place, where souls would have to stay for a period of time for purification, pain and penitence before they’re released into heaven. If your loved one’s soul is there, could you do anything to alleviate its suffering and expedite its release from Purgatory? Yes, donations to the poor or intercessory prayers and Masses. And, if you’re truly determined and you got deep pockets, you could, besides buying indulgences, directly endow a chapel in their name and furnish it to impress. Such family chapels, though usually small, were springboards for Renaissance creativity. Modern eyes sometimes miss the fact that there’s more to the Renaissance art than aesthetics; it represented a gateway between salvation and eternal suffering. All of this would be rejected by Protestant Reformation in the 16th century.

8. Il Papa is back in town: the advent of great papal commissions in Rome

At the start of the 1300s, a major conflict was brewing between Pope Boniface VIII (reigned 1294–1303) and King Philip IV of France (r. 1285–1314). The conflict was over money (church revenue and taxation) and political power. They were both power-hungry. They competed on whose authority is higher and officially condemned each other. In 1303, the French king sent a bunch of thugs to arrest the 80-year old pope and bring him to France to stand a trial. He was rescued by loyalists from his hometown and brought back to Rome, but died three weeks later. The pope who succeeded him took several steps to bring about peace between the papacy and the French royalty. He was dead within a year. The following one, Clement V, a former bishop of Avignon, planned to bring a final settlement to the conflict. In 1309, he decided to stay temporarily on papal territory at Avignon which was not part of France at the time but close enough to help him deal with the ongoing crisis. Ironically, that evolved into another crisis, an existential one that threatened the the papal institution itself. The ‘temporary’ residence at Avignon became an absence from Rome that lasted for seven decades.

The immutable papal view was that Rome is the home of the papacy but lack of revenues and the presence of hostile city-states stood in the way of their return. Eventually Pope Gregory XI (the seventh and last Avignon pope) returned to Rome in 1377. Pope Urban VI who was elected after him was incompetent and abusive to even his own supporters. A few cardinals within months deposed him and returned to Avignon to elect another pope (an antipope). That started the Great Schism (1378–1417), a three-decade period where Rome and Avignon claimed their own lines of popes. Europe was divided in its allegiance between them. At one point, some cardinals in Pisa stepped up to resolve the problem by electing a third one, turning the crisis into a farce of three men, each claiming to be the one and only true pope! Finally, the Council of Constance, convened in 1414, brought an end to the schism by successfully deposing the claimants of Avignon and Pisa, and the one in Rome abdicated. In 1417, the council elected a new pope, Martin V.

Now that the papacy was permanently based in Rome, it was geographically closer to the future birthplace of the Renaissance. In fact, the successor of Martin V, Eugenius IV (r. 1431–1447) and his court, had a first-hand contact in Florence with the earliest Renaissance artists. One of whom was Fra Angelico (1395-1455) whose work was admired by that pope so much that he was invited to paint two chapels in Rome. The following pontiff, Nicholas V (r. 1447-1455), was the first to be considered a truly Renaissance pope. He inaugurated an era which would transform Rome, restored old buildings and established new ones. His personal library, with volumes of Greek and Roman literature, was the seed of the Vatican Library.

Some might argue whether the Renaissance popes of the following 100 years were spiritual leaders, luxury-loving princes, or perhaps conniving criminals. But there is no argument over how great patrons of art they were. Pius II, a lover of art and literature, chose his papal name after the Latin epithet ‘pius‘ given by the Roman poet Virgil to his hero Aeneas. It’s hard to determine how ‘pious’ and pure he was, but we know that he had the unique distinction of being the only pope who had ever written erotic fiction before he was ordained.

Sixtus IV built the Sistine Chapel, invited scholars into the Vatican Library and sponsored painters and sculptors around Rome. However, he had no shame in practicing nepotism, like many others popes of the time. He made six nephews cardinals. He was also personally involved in a murder conspiracy along with the Pazzi family against the famous Medici family. It resulted in injuring Lorenzo the Magnificent and the killing of his brother Giuliano. He then waged a war against Florence, which was one of his many military adventures. Thanks to his wars and corruption, the papal treasury was emptied and he had to start selling indulgences to the believers – basically tickets to heaven. You could even purchase them on behalf of those who were already dead!

The following pope, Innocent VIII, also lived la dolce vita and had an interest in creating great architectural work. However he’s better known for creating useless religious offices and selling them to whoever pays the most in order to finance his princely lifestyle. Before his ordination, he fathered not one but three illegitimate children.

Another Renaissance pope who was known for his support of art was Alexander VI. He commissioned many artists like Michelangelo, Raphael and Bramante. Alas, many historians consider him to be the most corrupt pope of all time. He started his papacy by committing the offense of simony (a bribery to obtain a church office). In other words, he basically paid to become a pope. His promiscuous lifestyle was not stifled by his ordination, as was the case with other pontiffs. During his papacy, he had multiple mistresses and illegitimate children. He had the nerve to ordain his own son to be a cardinal. Debauchery and nepotism with his leadership rose to new levels. He ran the papacy like a Mafia boss and was behind multiple assassinations and executions, one of which was of the rebellious ‘mad monk’ Savonarola.

Pope Julius II was not much different from his predecessors: He commissioned some of the greatest artists of the period. Among his grand projects was the reconstruction of St. Peter’s Basilica into its current shape. He commissioned Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. But he hated his predecessor, Alexander VI, to the point that he couldn’t stand being in his notorious residence, the Borgia Apartments (they were sealed off for centuries). Luckily for us and for a young artist named Raphael Sanzio, he moved into a new suite of apartments. He commissioned him to paint frescoes in what’s today known as the Raphael Rooms (Italian, Stanze di Raffaello). The best known of them is the School of Athens. That was among grand works that mark the High Renaissance era. However, he also continued to finance his commissions and construction projects through the sale of indulgences. He too had illegitimate children, three of them, before his election as a pope.

The above-mentioned commissions to Michelangelo and Raphael continued into the papacy of the succeeding pope, Leo X. He was another hedonistic pope with a great passion for art, literature and music. Reconstruction of St. Peter’s Basilica continued and so did its financing scheme through the sale of indulgences. But Leo X expanded the business of selling forgiveness to never-seen-before levels which makes it hardly surprising that an unprecedented backlash was on the horizon.

The sale of indulgences is seen today as one of the most shameful religious abuses in history. It’s a dark irony how millions of gullible and impoverished Catholics indirectly financed the Rome we adore today, including its world-famous St. Peter’s Basilica. That level of corruption paved the way for a monk, named Martin Luther, to begin a ‘protest’ in 1517 that would break up Western Christianity forever. By the time Leo X died in 1521, Europe was about to enter a period of great religious strife. Leo X viewed Martin Luther as an insignificant German monk, not unlike many others that challenged the Church throughout its history (remember, Savonarola was one of them). He also didn’t fully comprehend the urgency of reforms required to put an end to the corruption rife throughout all ecclesiastical ranks.

Overall, the Renaissance papacy was morally low, but artistically high. The motives for their patronage of art were selfish and grandiose. They used sculptors, architects and painters as tools for their extravaganza and power projection. Although that era concluded with the Reformation and the beginning of a violent religious conflict, it also introduced a new Rome rebuilt as the cultural center of the world.

9. Linear perspective unleashes a great wave of creativity

How do you render our three-dimensional world on a flat two-dimensional surface?! From the time they dwelled in caves, humans successfully represented length and width with varying degrees of accuracy, but the third dimension, that is depth, was always the elusive one. While we should refrain from assuming that there was a universal desire to represent three-dimensionality in earlier cultures, that craving was definitely present in the Renaissance one from its conception. They were more inclined towards a realistic style. Unlike their predecessors, they used exactitude to depict religious characters as more human and less heavenly. That did not contradict with Church doctrine. Jesus, after all, in theological terms, had two natures: the human and the divine. Emphasizing the former doesn’t invalidate the latter.

For the first time ever, artists were able to achieve the illusion of depth in paintings through linear perspective. This Florentine discovery was the defining feature of Renaissance art. Linear perspective is a technique that uses mathematical formulas which apply imaginary (or drawn) lines converging in the far distance at a single point — the vanishing point. It tricks our eyes by providing a sense of depth where objects are bigger in the foreground and as they recede in the background, closer to the vanishing point, they appear smaller till they seem to “vanish.” This technique is based on how the human eye perceives a huge castle or a cruise liner on the horizon as smaller than they actually are. The vanishing point is also easy to encounter: find any parallel lines like railroad tracks and they will appear to converge to one point in the distance.

Linear perspective might seem to you like the wheel, toilet paper or condoms — why did they take so long to invent it? The answer is it’s more complicated to construct than it seems. Giotto (1267-1337) was among the first artists in history to dabble in perspectival creations with works like Ognissanti Madonna (1310). It lacks the naturalness and impeccable precision visible in Renaissance paintings but it was still one of the most important artworks in history. Giotto relied on his own intuition since it would be a hundred years before mathematical perspective is developed. In other words, Giotto was a genius Medieval artist who had showed up one century too soon.

Brunelleschi (1377-1446) formalized around 1415 the mathematical system that established the basis for linear perspective. It was the 15th century’s most significant development in art. With mathematical formulas and geometric calculations, each painting was both an artistic and a technical challenge. The first artist to apply that innovative method with accuracy was Masaccio (1401-1428) in his groundbreaking fresco of 1425 titled The Holy Trinity. (His reputation might have matched that of Michelangelo or Da Vinci if he were not to tragically join, or perhaps inaugurate, the infamous “Club 27,” which would later include names like Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse.) It was for more than just showing depth. It was a revolutionary way for Western artists to construct their compositions. The School of Athens (c. 1510) by Raphael represents a prime example of that technique.

10. Fortuna bestows upon Florence an incredible abundance of talent

Historians don’t often talk about fortune but it always lurks in the background beyond all historical analyses and interpretations. There’s a slim chance you would be reading this if it weren’t for astonishing coincidences that took place in the San Francisco Bay Area — rather than anywhere else in the developed world — during the 1970s firing up the PC revolution. Similarly fate and fortune made Florence, out of all Italian cities, the cradle of the Renaissance in the 1400s. Professor Judith Testa explains in her book An Art Lover’s Guide to Florence: It remains amazing that a city of less than a hundred thousand people produced such a disproportionate number of the great sculptors, architects, and painters of the early Renaissance. Indeed, Florence was fortunate.

Rebels of a New Generation

The Renaissance was a monumental shift that involved many professions. But when you think of the Renaissance, which profession comes to mind first? Your answer is probably the artist. The artists did not only change art radically but they also changed how society viewed them. At the very beginning of the period, socially they were considered craftspeople, “lowly workers” who had to get their hands dirty to earn a living. They were in the same category as stone-smiths, blacksmiths, weavers and tanners. Like any craftspeople, the concepts of their handiwork were not their own, but had to align closely with the requests of their clients. By the end of the Renaissance, painters and sculptors rose up in social ranks and were highly respected in all European elite circles. For example, Pope Urban VIII (r. 1623–1644) was a patron and a close friend of the brilliant sculptor Bernini, who had to occasionally intervene to protect him. (In an infamous incident, Bernini lost his temper when he found out his lover cheated on him with his own brother. As punishment, he sent a servant to shred her face to ribbons with a razor. Thanks to the pope, he got away with only a fine!)

Renaissance artists replaced the flat Gothic art of the Middle Ages with realistic three-dimenstionality. A fresh look at the canvas involved techniques that utilized geometric patterns, accurate proportions, linear perspective, a vanishing point, and foreshortening (compressing an object to give the sense of depth). None of these innovations had been available before.

Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli represents two ways Renaissance artists broke from the past. It depicts a mythological theme – anathema to the Middle Ages where only religious icons were venerated. Secular subjects were widely explored in Renaissance art and personal portraits became common among the wealthy. Also, Venus, the pagan goddess, is stark-naked which would have been offensive to medieval eyes unless the icon is showing the horrors of hell or the garden of Eden. Nudity in paintings and sculpture was yet another declaration that the departure from medievalism is irreversible. The male figure was just as glorified as the female one. Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam is one famous example. Homoerotic undertones of Renaissance male nudity still raises eyebrows of modern museum visitors, stunned by the boldness of artists.

From the 1520, some Renaissance artists took a different path from what had been established as traditional for more than a century. They were the Mannerist artists. They chose to elongate the human figures to the point of absurdity and twist them in strange positions. They also abandoned the simpler order and perfectly symmetrical composition preferred by preceeding artists and instead they crowded asymmetrical scenes with entangled human flesh. Although, they altered their artworks in defiance to Renaissance norms, they were still part of the same art movement and supporters of the same ideals. Hence, today we call their style the Late Renaissance.

View Renaissance art characteristics (Accordion View).