Italian Renaissance


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The Italian Peninsula remained outside the Gothic mainstream. Its examples of Gothic art have a very special character and are always more closely related to Italy's own Romanesque and Classical traditions than to the stylistic evolution taking place in France, the heart of the Gothic style. During the Trecento new concerns had established the basis for an artistic revolution. When the revolution started it shook the art world's foundations to the point that it came to reassess the very essence of art and artists, especially the role of painters as intellectual agents who wished to be included in the cultural elite and high society. This revolution had its roots in the theories of individuals like St. Francis of Assisi, the pictorial manifesto represented by Giotto's frescos and the Pisano family's sculptures. The causes of the break were various. The most significant of these was Humanism which changed the theocratic vision of society and the cosmos towards a focus on the central role of man and his actions. Human anatomy was the object of careful studies by scientists, who carefully drew each one of their discoveries. The skills required for these drawings often led to confusion between the role of the scientist and that of the painter, who had acquired an unprecedented importance at this time. A painter, as well as being an inspired creator, also had to have a profound knowledge of mythology, history and theology to be qualified to represent pictorially the stories that were to be narrated. This new confidence in the human did not mean the divine was abandoned, but rather that the divine was revised from a human perspective to endow it with greater significance. The Humanists believed that God tried to make himself understood to human reason, and was not restricted only to the emotional realm of faith. The mechanism of the recovery of Reason was supported by the reintroduction of classical wisdom through the translation of surviving Ancient texts. The fall of Constantinople to the Saracens provoked a massive exodus of Byzantine artists and intellectuals, who settled in Italy and brought with them new classical manuscripts, conserved by the Arabs; Hellenistic wisdom; and their knowledge of cabbala and eastern astrology. The enormous influence of the Neo-Platonic schools came from Hellenism, filtered through Christianity, which proposed an adaptation of the demiurge and the Platonic and Aristolean cosmological order, considering the demiurge to be on the same level as the figure of God and Jesus Christ. The weight of classical tradition meant painting in this style was called "pintura alla antiqua", as modernity, understood as progress and the development of Gothic premises, was centred on Flemish painting, the so-called "pintura alla moderna". The Church was still the major patron of the Arts, but it abandoned its monopoly. As a result the importance of the secular order grew and lay aristocratic patronage played an increasingly significant role. The flourishing merchant republics filled with merchant families who established dynasties, such as the Medici family, whose power was based on international banking, the control of maritime routes and the prestige of being patrons of artists and scientists. Thanks to the emergence of this new type of patronage there was an increase in genres, which up until then had been limited to religious paintings. Portrait painting rapidly became an important genre, as those who bought art wanted to be able to contemplate themselves in it. Mythologies were introduced, often with religious backgrounds, and even allegorical paintings were done, difficult to interpret except in restricted circles, such as in the case of Botticelli's sophisticated Primavera. The Renaissance was also one of the first movements that was conscious of its era. Its members called themselves Renaissance men, aware that they were inaugurating a new era, the Modern Age, as opposed to the period that they had already begun to call the Middle Ages, which was the transitional link between the grandeur of Ancient classicism and the new splendour of their own time. In this period artists started to sign their work, their biographies were written by art experts, and their pictorial theories formed treaties that represented great intellectual advances. The myth of the modern genius started in these years with icons like Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci. The Renaissance is traditionally organised into two periods, the Quattrocento or 15th century and the Cinquecento or 16th century. The delimitation is not exact as some features of one period can be found in the other and vice versa. However, it is possible to group artists of one century and the other by the similarity of their intentions. Apart from its own splendour, Italy cultivated the Renaissances of other countries, such as Spain and France.

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