What Is Renaissance Art All About?

After the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 AD, there was a time for a few hundred years known as the Middle Ages.  People in the Middle Ages were very conservative and restrictive, and the art reflected this attitude, in that although it depicted life, it too lacked realism and flair. Or, to put it another way, middle ages art was fairly blah.  Oh, doest thou contest?  Behold!  A typical medieval piece of art…

art-in-the-middle-ages

The Church with the capitol C began to gain power because people needed so much emotional and spiritual support, and they could get that from religion.  Much of the advances in the arts and sciences, and even government, that had been made by the Greeks and Romans, were lost when those societies collapsed.  Even such things as sanitation systems, which were commonplace in ancient Rome, were now just a sweet memory.  For this and other reasons, some referred to this period as the Dark Ages.  

Indeed, if you look upon the paintings of babies that were portrayed at this dark time, you will see that they had been Humunculi, not adorable cherubs, and we assert this as one more reason that Middle Ages art is likely either to strike you blind, or cause a narcoleptic episode the second you see it.

Here is a video which attempts to explain the homeliness of babies depicted around this time period.

Some Say, “Did The Renaissance Really Happen?”

In the early 1300’s, a rebirth in all aspects of society was thought to have begun.  It was said to be subtle at first, but then picked up speed very quickly, according to most historians.  The general consensus is that people were ready to feel some joy de vivre once again, and leave the dark times behind. 

After the great societies of Rome and Greece collapsed, history draws a dark curtain over the people of Europe, but now those same people wanted to regain some elements of the “good life” that those ancient cultures had experienced but had since gone away.  It was time for new ideas and a feeling of being positive. 

This was the beginning of the Renaissance, although some have even suggested that the Renaissance didn’t even happen… like Mr. Crash Course World History himself, John Green.

Ok, so maybe the Renaissance didn’t exactly happen the way some books say, but let’s give our art professors the benefit of the doubt here for a moment.  Not everything in our history books is bunk.  

Any art history textbook is going to tell you the Renaissance is generally considered to have started in the southern part of the Netherlands known as Flanders, and in Florence and Venice Italy, around the years 1350 to 1400.   It was time to bring emotions back into every day life, and, hence, into art. 

One must consider that realistic art, which included not only people but the natural space that they existed in, it didn’t come all at once.  In fact, those who disagree with the concept of a “Renaissance” suggest that it was not any kind of widespread grassroots movement. Rather, it actually was specifically reserved for the upper echelons of society who had the money to buy the books that taught of the ways of ancient Greeks and Romans, and spread enlightened thought through then-modern Europe.

15th-century-book-of-hours

During the 14th and 15th centuries, common folk lead their lives in much the same way as they had in centuries previous, by living according to sunrise and sunset, with no real knowledge that big changes were coming for European society as a whole.  Be that as it may, change was in the air, even if the average pleb wasn’t able to kick back with a glass of wine and enjoy this “Renaissance” for themselves.  There were those who were in favor of it, and these were the aristocrats.

To add perspective, here is what England looked like in the 1300’s, providing us with a taste of the “feudal” system that prevailed around this time.  Surely these folk were not preoccupied by too many lofty aspirations…

Art In The Renaissance

So, no, do not think that there was a single moment where art changed overnight from drab Gothic art to nature-filled scenes of unbridled idealism and progressive thinking.  Indeed, it took a few hundred years for paintings to fully transform from the rigid rules that had been established to anything a person from 2016 might consider lively and bursting with creativity.  

However, it was during the 1400’s that painters like Fra Angelico began to inject some more natural color palettes into their work, not to mention likenesses of Jesus that began to look less like squint-eyed oldsters.  In these decidedly subtle shifts, the Renaissance had begun, but this was no small matter to art appreciators of the time.  

fra-angelico-circa-1395-1455

Humanism In The Renaissance

During this time, a new movement had cropped up called “Humanism”, which you might call the specific mindset needed to get the Renaissance rolling along.  Renaissance humanism was the beginning of thinking differently about life in general, although it was actually an intellectual movement which started with the elite classes and had to “trickle down” to the common man.  Still, the more people read about the Greeks and Romans, the more educated the people became in a general sense. 

One of the first humanist thinkers was Petrarch, pictured below, who was quoted as saying “I’m unlike anyone I know”.

humanist-petrarch

As the Renaissance ideologies spread out across Europe, philosophers began to believe that everyone had a uniqueness and a value.  Now, people thought that life could be enjoyable and they could have comforts. They started to think that people should learn about art, music, and science once again, like they used to. This new information, it was decided, would make life better for everyone. This was a real change in the way people thought and this progressiveness is at the heart of what we consider to be the Renaissance.

The Medici Family And The Renaissance

There were many rich and powerful families in Florence, Italy at this time.  Even though Europe was made up of countries with royal families who were very powerful, each city was in charge of its own future.  The government was known as a city state.  The Medici Family was one very powerful family living in the Florence area of Italy.  Italy was divided in to city states that were controlled by wealthy families and the Medicis had the most money, so they basically controlled Florence. 

704cosimo-de-medici

The government of Florence was a republic, which meant that the people elected their own leaders. There were so many rich families in Florence that they began to compete by hiring artists to create art for them.  Religion was still an important theme.  The Medicis were bankers and they supported the arts and the Humanism idea.

Here’s a video showing the Medici family at the height of their influence, and how they reigned over Florence at this time.

Education During The Renaissance

Education became very important also, and the wealthy families wanted the common people to become smarter (strange as that may sound) so those in power tried to improve the education system. 

This was also a time when explorers were sent around the world to find new lands, to bring back riches that could support these new and fruitful ideas.  It was a time when scientists were valued and many things were invented.  This Humanist way of thinking began to spread increasingly throughout Europe, and the world was opening up.  People such as Columbus, Galileo Gutenberg, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Da Vinci were all part of this movement.

Now, keep in mind, although a new way of thinking was spreading across the land, this did not always equal happiness for all.  For instance, when Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492, he didn’t arrive in America to a crowd of enthusiastic revellers who immediately spit roasted ol’ Tom Turkey and toasted to their arrival.  Instead, the true tale is much more lurid.

What Is Naturalism In Art?

Naturalism describes a true-to-life style which involves the representation or depiction of nature (including people) with the least possible distortion or interpretation.  Naturalism is different that realism.  Naturalism is concerned with the method of painting and the techniques used to make the subject look accurate.  The naturalism of the Renaissance was a method of painting that elicited emotions.  It was a way to represent the all people as human with all kinds of emotions no matter how much money they had.  Realism came later and was concerned with the content and why certain things were in the painting.

Jacopo Tintoretto: Summer, oil on canvas, c. 1555

As was expected, life in Europe became more and more complicated.  There were always groups who wanted to be in control.  The Church, the State, the Royal families, the aristocracies, and even the commoners, all needed to feel worthy and wanted control over their lives.  The Renaissance was evolving into a time when more risks were being taken.  Around the beginning of the 1600’s, the Baroque period began.

Begin The Baroque

Baroque is a term used to describe a period and style of art. It is used to describe paintings, sculptures, architecture, and music of that allowed much freedom of expression.  The Catholic Church was being challenged.  Art was representative of what was happening to the people. 

The Taking of Christ by Caravaggio

The Baroque style spread to where much of the art of the time became very dramatic, full of life, colours, movement, and emotions.  There was lots of action and movement in the paintings, architecture, and sculptures.  Angels flew, people fought, crowds cowered in fear, and saints rose to the heavens. Baroque sculptures were often made of rich materials, such as colorful marble, bronze, or even gilded with gold.

Rococo art happened at the tail end of the Baroque period when artists tried to create lots of emotions through the use of light i.e. Caravaggio was thought of as the father of Rococo and Rembrandt was thought of as the best at it.

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Meet famous artists and learn more about their work in the next in a series of articles on the Renaissance and Baroque art.

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