The Renaissance: The Rebirth of Arts and Imagination

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The Mona Lisa by Leonardo Da Vinci. One of the most famous paintings of the Renaissance...and ever.

The Renaissance was an era when learning and inquiry were beginning to take hold within society over what is sometimes considered to be the dogma and mysticism of the Middle Ages. It was a "rebirth" (Renaissance literally translates to rebirth from Latin) of ideas and art of the Ancient Greeks and Romans. Society saw a rise in ingenuity, creativity, ambition, and individualism in commerce, politics, and in intellectual circles. Achievement in art especially rose to an entirely new level during the Renaissance. Great artists whose names were known throughout Europe created masterpieces using new techniques and styles such as perspective, shadowing, and detailed emotion. However, the Renaissance was not one well defined, uniform transformation of Europe. Depending on where one was in Europe, the Renaissance was a different experience. Renaissance art in Italy and southern Europe was marked by distinctly classically Grecian style and themes. The Northern Renaissance had a more sober style, less focused on mythology and more on daily life. Also, the Renaissance does not imply a  complete overhaul of society. Many elements of continuity remained. Society and culture was still unbelievably saturated with the Catholic Church and religion and the Church was still the major power in Europe, greatly influencing the art of the day.

Below are some of the most famous works from the Renaissance. While looking through them, think about the scenes that are depicted in the paintings. Are there any trends? What looks visually appealing to you? What doesn't look as good? What did beauty mean during the Renaissance, do you think?


Allegory of Spring or Primavera by Botticelli

The painting to the right, Allegory of Spring or Primavera by Botticelli incorporates many of the themes that were mentioned above. The painting includes several figures from Roman mythology such as Venus, Cupid, and the three Graces. Yet we can see the Christian influences in how Venus is standing. Her position and gesture would signify to anyone viewing this during the Renaissance that she is meant to represent the Virgin Mary. Also, the orange trees in the background represent the financial powers that were emerging at this time. The oranges were a symbol of the infamous Medici family, the family who commissioned this painting, who had become the rulers of Florence due to their success in the financial market.

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School of Athens by Raphael

Raphael’s The School of Athens represents the value of classical ideas in the art world of the Renaissance. The painting depicts several prominent philosophers of Ancient Greece coming together to share knowledge in a large, open building. The image represents how the Renaissance idealized the Ancient Greeks, and sought to revitalize the teachings of philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato.


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Creation of Adam by Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel

Michelangelo's painting to the left represents the influences of the patronage system on Renaissance artists. The patronage system involved wealthy individuals or institutions sponsoring artists requesting specific works of art, which supported artists’ careers. This system allowed talented artists to gain recognition and live a relatively comfortable lifestyle, but it also bred resentment among artists who did not receive such support. Michelangelo was sponsored by Pope Julius II, who commissioned the Pietá, and the Sistine Chapel, some of the greatest works of Western Art; Michelangelo's wonderful statue of David was commissioned by members of Florence's important mercantile class.  The patronage system was a hallmark of Renaissance artistic and cultural life, and Michelangelo is a prime example of its positive outcomes.

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The Dome of the Florence Cathedral

The dome of the Florence Cathedral was designed and engineered by Filippo Brunelleschi in 1436. Before and during construction, the dome was thought to be an impossible feat. Its successful completion launched Brunelleschi to a level of stardom shared by Leonardo and Michelangelo. The Florence Cathedral still stands in Florence, Italy today and is a symbol of city pride for the dwellers of Florence. 

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David by Donatello

Donatello is considered the greatest sculptor of the early Renaissance. He paved the way for his successors in terms of his techniques and style, portraying natural beauty as realistically as possible. Donatello’s bronze David is a departure from Medieval style and is an excellent example of the Renaissance ideal of natural beauty. The sculpure of David in particular marks a milestone in Western art. Though it is hard to believe, Donatello's sculpture of David was the first know free standing statue since Ancient times. 



The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger

The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger shifts us from the south of Europe to the north during the Renaissance. This painting depicts French ambassadors at the court of Henry VIII of England. It is obvious that this was painted in a different style from the Italian paintings. The scene is set inside, depicting characters of this world rather than from mythology. Art in the Northern Renaissance is marked by indoor scenes as well as attention to perfecting fabric in painting. Note the globe in the back, which demonstrates the emphasis on worldliness and exploration that was coming about in the early 16th century. You should look at the misshapen figure at the bottom of the painting. What do you think it is? What do you think the artist was trying to do?


The Harvesters by Brueghel

This painting from the Northern Renaissance is different from paintings of the Italian Renaissance in that it portrays ordinary people in their ordinary lives. Many of the paintings by Brueghel depict peasants and food in some way, reminding us how important food was to peasants in their daily lives and political decisions. When peasants revolted during this time, it was often because of a lack of food.

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