• Shalini Guha

RENAISSANCE: Brief History of Art and Culture

Updated: Jun 30, 2020

Every change has beginning and an end. But we always forget that there is also a stage that acts like a bridge between the past and the coming future of present.

Such a bridge is Renaissance.

Being a Cultural movement for the world, this period witnessed urbanization and scientific developments. Let’s leap to the transition period


The word Renaissance means “rebirth”. Following the Dark and Middle ages and their associated turmoil and stagnation, not to mention the Black Death, Europe experienced a rebirth of sorts with a rediscovery of math, philosophy, astrology, astronomy, science, and literature.

The Renaissance typically refers to a period in European History approximately between 1400 and 1600. Many historians assert that it started earlier or ended later, depending on the country. It acted as the bridge between the Middle Ages and Modernity, and, depending on the country, overlaps with the Early Modern, Elizabethan and Restoration periods. The Renaissance is most closely associated with Italy, where it began in the 14th century.

The Renaissance of the 12th century was a period of many changes at the outset of the High Middle Ages. It included social, political and economic transformations, and a revitalization of Western Europe with strong philosophical and scientific roots. These changes paved the way for later achievements such as the literary and artistic movement of the Italian Renaissance in the 15th century and later the scientific developments of the 17th century.

The term Renaissance was not commonly used to refer to the period until the 19th century, when Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt popularized it in his classic, "The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy."


The changes of the Renaissance were not uniformly experienced across Europe. The very first traces appear in Italy as early as the late 13th century, particularly with the writings of Dante and the paintings of Giotto.

"Love, which quickly arrests the gentle heart, Seized him with my beautiful form That was taken from me, in a manner which still grieves me. Love, which pardons no beloved from loving, took me so strongly with delight in him That, as you see, it still abandons me not...” Dante Alighieri, Inferno

Although the Renaissance saw revolutions in many intellectual pursuits, as well as social and political upheaval, it is perhaps best known for its artistic developments and the contributions of such polymaths as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, who inspired the term "Renaissance man". It was epitomized by one of the most accomplished author, artist, architect, poet, priest, linguist, philosopher and cryptographer, Leon Battista Alberti, when he expressed the notion that “a man can do all things if he will.”

"Knowledge of the past and of the places of the earth is the ornament and food of the mind of man."
- Leonardo da Vinci

The Renaissance began in the 14th century in Florence, Italy. Various theories have been proposed to account for its origins and characteristics. Its political structure, the patronage of its dominant family, the Medici family who made Florence one of the wealthiest cities in the world, concerned with the arts and sciences, they had set up several competing guilds that spent great amounts of money commissioning artists to create lavish works of art. The Medici family supported artists such as Michelangelo, Sandro Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael.

Renaissance art marks a cultural rebirth at the close of the Middle Ages and rise of the Modern world. Artists turned to Greek and Roman sculpture, painting and decorative arts for inspiration and also because their techniques meshed with Renaissance humanist philosophy. One of the distinguishing features of Renaissance art was its development of linear perspective and other techniques of rendering a more natural reality in painting. Perspective and light and shadow techniques improved and paintings looked more three-dimensional and realistic.

The Arte di Calimala guild decided in the year 1401 to commission a new door for the Baptistery of the Florence Cathedral. A competition was held to decide on the Artist, which was then won by Lorenzo Ghiberti. Some consider this to be the beginning of the Renaissance Art.

“The sculptor and the painter also, should be trained in these liberal arts: grammar, geometry, philosophy, medicine, astronomy, perspective, history, anatomy, theory of design, arithmetic."
- Lorenzo Ghiberti

Renaissance sculptors became interested in Classic sculpture when sculptors Filippo Brunelleschi and Donatello became involved in the study of archaeology. Their study of Roman remains inspired painting, architecture, and sculpture as well as other artists, in any medium, of the time.

Florence was the initial epicenter of Renaissance art but by the end of the 15th century, Rome had overtaken it. Pope Leo X (a Medici) ambitiously filled the city with religious buildings and art. This period, from the 1490s to the 1520s, is known as the High Renaissance.

Northern Renaissance:-

The Northern Renaissance was the Renaissance that occurred in Europe north of the Alps and outside of Italy. This influenced the German, French, English, Low Countries and Polish Renaissance and other national and localized movements, each with different characteristics and strengths.

The Northern Renaissance art began when Venetian artists were commissioned by the King of France, King Francis I to send art to the great palaces he was building. He imported Italian art, commissioned Italian artists. Trade and commerce in cities like Bruges in the 15th century and Antwerp in the 16th and increased cultural exchange between Italy and the Low Countries.

Prior to the Renaissance, much of Northern Europe was under the yoke of feudalism and also the strain of the Church and its values, dictates, and taxes. As these countries became independent of these burdens, people were free to pursue individual interests.

The Northern Renaissance was famous for its advanced Oil Painting techniques, realistic, expressive Altarpiece Art, portraiture on wooden panel painting, as well as woodcuts and other forms of printmaking. Stone sculpture was not popular, but wood-carving was a German specialty.

The improvement of oil paint and developments in oil-painting technique by Dutch artists such as Robert Campin, Rogier van der Weyden, Jan van Eyck and Hugo van der Goes led to its adoption in Italy from about 1475 and had ultimately lasting effects on painting practices, worldwide.

“No single man can be taken as a model for a perfect figure, for no man lives on earth who is endowed with the whole of beauty”.
- Albrecht Durer

Northern Renaissance artists painted what they saw - and thus, as in the drawing of the tiled floor in the work of Rogier van der Weyden, they came very close to the effect of central perspective. Their observations, showed the artists that shapes lose their contours the further away they are, and that the intensity of the color decreases and assumes a bluish hue. For the landscape views which lent depth to their interiors, they invented, long before Leonardo, aerial and color perspective.

Artists in the visual arts learned of Renaissance styles partly through travel to Rome. Some who did so frequently was nicknamed Romanists. Other artists, such as the German and Dutch, held onto religious subjects even though they had fallen out of vogue elsewhere in favor of history, landscape, mythology, and genre painting. Portrait painting still mainly focused on nobles and royals and those that were able to afford it, with the exception of Johannes Vermeer who painted servants and everyday people such as in the case of The Girl with the Pearl Earring.

The movement in Poland was fond of intellectualism and as such its Kracow Academy graduated over 3000 students in the first decade of the 1500s.

Among Poland’s most esteemed Renaissance intellectuals was Nicolaus Copernicus, the father of the heliocentric theory of the universe.

“To know that we know what we know, and to know that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowledge.”
– Nicholaus Copernicus

The German Renaissance was noted for its graphic arts and printmaking, both connected to German expertise in the printing process, as in the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in the 1450s. Another early German pioneer of drawing and engraving was Martin Schongauer (1448-91) from Colmar.

Italian Renaissance and Northern Renaissance characteristics:-

Where the forms of art were concerned, the North knew as little about the true Renaissance as Italy did of the genuine Gothic art style: but the intellectual movement by which Western Europe emerged from the Middle Ages was as strong in the North as in the South.

Unlike Italian artists, northern painters were not interested in rediscovering the spirit of ancient Greece. Instead, they sought to exploit the full potential of oil paint, and capture nature exactly as they found it.

If the art of the Italian Renaissance is dreamy and idealized, Northern art is practical, down-to-earth and dispassionate.

While the Italian art of the 15th century was based on mathematically calculated linear perspective, Dutch art was determined by empirical perspective. The Florentine painters paid close attention to perspective; the painters of Netherlands ignored it. They focused on the very realistic recreation of their subjects.

Unlike the Italian Renaissance artists, who aimed for a scientific and rational understanding of the world, and constructed a picture from within, so to speak, the Dutch tried to get to the bottom of the mysteries of the world with a precise observation of all things, capturing every single detail.

Some Major Artworks:-

WOW! Now that was a hell of a ride. I feel like am a time traveler but only if I really was?

It is like juggling form on corner to the other, form one time frame to the other.

The exact date, time or reason for when Art became a part of people’s lives is just a theory that we have formed with the help of the evidences we found thanks to their Art.

Let’s see what does history has for us next, shall we?

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