In 1453 Constantinople fell to the Turks, driving Turkish scholars westward to an Italy consisting of city states and various struggling new social classes (Taylor 1954, p. 39). It was also in Italy that trade routes converged, and where ancient Roman ruins were most visible (Kehoe et al, 1997)
The Italian Renaissance was driven by a few scholars rather than being populist, and it was a period of transition between adherence to the views of the Church, and the new method of free thinking (Russell 1961, p. 488). It ‘established the dignity of man’ (Bronowski 1973, p. 186) and is marked by the practice of Humanism, though that is a later term (Hooker, 1996a), which developed out of movements originating in the middle ages.
The concept of a ‘Renaissance’ originated with Jakob Burckhardt in 1867, with more recent scholars arguing whether there was any rebirth at all, preferring terms such as ‘early modern’ (Hooker, 1996b). While the idea of an all-encompassing ‘rebirth’ is no longer accepted, it is still true of the arts and learning which deliberately distinguished themselves from the past (Mainzer 2002).
Renaissance painting was notable for interest in perspective and anatomy, placing figures within the space of the painting (Taylor 1954, p.42). Renaissance art also saw the invention of oil painting, along with a more naturalistic representation of figures and a greater use of shading and shadows. (Kehoe et al, 1997).
Perspective, while not unknown in the ancient world (Kleiner 2009, p. 248) was rediscovered in the Renaissance, notably by Brunelleschi (1415) (O’Connor & Robertson, 2002) and in De Pictura (1435) by Leon Battista Alberti, in which he describes the use of parallel lines and a vanishing point (costruzione legittima) to create a three dimensional space that mimics how we perceive objects (Gregory 1985, p. 1064; Kleiner 2009, p. 547). Whereas art had previously been relatively flat, Renaissance art sought to move out of the plane of the surface (Davies et al, cited in Art and Cultural Rebirth – The Cross-Cultural Origins of the Renaissance 2007).
In considering how Renaissance art is different from what had gone before, it is worthwhile to consider how artists have depicted one particular scene: the Adoration of the Magi. For Medieval artists it was more important to depict the religious significance of the event, rather than a human event.
In the St Alban’s Psalter, for example, there is no attempt at accurate perspective. Buildings are arbitrarily seen as if in x-ray, and one of the Magi floats above the ground line. Iconography trumps reality.
Giotto (1267/77–1337), recognised as the first Florentine Renaissance painter, depicts a new naturalism, providing reality and drama to his scenes (The Free Dictionary, 2009).
Figure 2: Giotto. The Adoration of the Magi. 1304-1306. Fresco. Capella degli Scrovegni, Padua, Italy. (http://www.arthistoryarchive.com/arthistory/christian/images/Giotto-Adoration-of-the-Magi-1304-06.jpg)
Giotto is an artist in transition, using small spaces that are similar to Medieval art, but which utilise light more dramatically to create a greater depth (Davies et al, cited in Art and Cultural Rebirth – The Cross-Cultural Origins of the Renaissance 2007). His use of perspective is more accurate than that of Roman artists, but is still intuitive and not mathematically precise (The role of perspective in shaping the Renaissance n.d., p. 1), lacking a single vanishing point.
Giotto’s figures are clearly solid, real shapes, possessing gravity (in both senses of the word) while still retaining the previous formality. Perspective is basic in this panel (the manger is strictly orthogonal) and the action is still constrained to a tight plane, but the difference is dramatic and clear. In a further touch illustrating the new way of observing the world, it is thought that the star guiding the Magi is based on Halley’s Comet, and is an accurately foreshortened image that is considered unequalled in art until the 19th century (Olson & Pasachoff 1986, p. 210)
While Gozzoli (1420 – 1497) painted an Adoration with Fra Angelico, he is better known for his frescoes in the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi of the Procession of the Magi.
Figure 3: Benozzo Gozzoli. Procession of the Magus Balthazar. Detail.1459-1461. Fresco. East wall of the chapel, Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, Florence, Italy. (Benozzo Gozzoli. Procession of the Magus Balthazar. Detail, n.d)
This is no simple procession however, but rather a triumphal parade celebrating the Medici wealth – Lorenzo the Magnificent is portrayed as a Magus in a depiction that earlier would have been condemned as blasphemy (The Reader’s Digest Association 1974, p. 228) – arrayed in finery and accompanied by servants and animals in a celebration of worldly pleasures.
On another panel, Gozzoli portrays a rider in an almost proto-Cubist manner. While Renaissance art attempts to show figures with form and substance, here the same rider is shown three times from slightly different angles, though their three horses together have only seven legs, two heads and one body.
Figure 4: Benozzo Gozzoli. Procession of the Magus Melchior. Detail.1459-1461. Fresco. Soutern entrance wall, Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, Florence, Italy (Benozzo Gozzoli. Procession of the Magus Melchior. Detail n.d.)
Leonardo (1452-1519) is the archetypical ‘Renaissance man’, driven by a desire to rationally understand the world, relying on observation and experience rather than received wisdom (Taylor 1954, p. 76). His Adoration is incomplete though Monti (1967, p. 31) argues that the use of monochrome represents a rejection of limitations and tradition of previous art. Here Jesus and Mary form a triangle (Adoration of the magi, n.d.), around which a semicircular chiaroscuro of twisting figures are placed, balanced by the figures of fighting horsemen and ruins in the background.
Raphael (1483-1520), a student of Leonardo, has been described as the ‘culmination and conclusion of a long tradition’ (Taylor 1954, p. 59). His art is marked by vibrant colours, compositions that are balanced, and single point perspective (Kehoe et al, 1997; The role of perspective in shaping the Renaissance n.d., p. 3).
Figure 6: Raphael – The Adoration of the Magi (Oddi altar) 1502-03, Oil on canvas, 27 x 150 cm. Vaticano, Pinacoteca Apostolica Vaticano, Rome, Italy. (The Adoration of the Magi (Oddi altar) by RAFFAELLO Sanzio (n.d.).)
Raphael’s Adoration, originally for an altar, is full of colour: reds and greens and blues, though it is much more restrained than Gozzoli in its depiction of wealth. The figures, fully rounded, cascade in a long diagonal towards the infant Jesus who almost seems to levitate against the bright blue of his mother’s dress. There is movement in the image, but it is a gentle, rolling movement accentuated by the gestures of the arms and hands, stabilised by the level line through the bases of the figures. The perspective in this image is subtle, indicated by the roof of the manger, and leading to a vanishing point focussing on the magus in the centre of the picture. From him, other diagonals seem to radiate: to the right, through Joseph and Mary, ending up in the lamb (a symbol of Christ); following his gaze, through the infant to a kneeling shepherd; and through the line of heads to the left. There is obvious pleasure at depicting figures foreshortened (such as the animals), from behind, or in three-quarter view.
Though the Renaissance has roots in the past, it demonstrates a rebirth, particularly in the visual arts as can be seen by considering the different ways Giotto, Gozzoli, Leonardo and Raphael portrayed one particular Biblical scene. Unlike earlier art, perspective, weight and colour show an engagement with depicting real objects and spaces.
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