Themes Of Italian Renaissance Art Essay Research

Themes Of Italian Renaissance Art Essay, Research Paper

Themes of Italian Renaissance Art

As the fourteenth century ushered out the Middle

Ages in Italy, a new period of cultural flowering began,

known as the Renaissance. This period in history was

famous for its revival of classical themes and the merging

of these themes with the Catholic Church. These themes of

humanism, naturalism, individualism, classicism, and

learning and reason appeared in every aspect of the Italian

Renaissance, most particularly in its art.

Humanism can be defined as the idea that human

beings are the primary measure of all things (Fleming,

29). Renaissance art showed a renewed interest in man who

was depicted in Renaissance art as the center of the

world. Pico della Mirandola said that, “there is nothing

to be seen more wonderful than man.” (Fleming, 284) This

could almost be taken as a motto for Renaissance art.

Michelangelo’s David clearly supports Mirandola’s statement.

Since Renaissance art focused on representing

tangible, human figures, rather than depicting scenes from

the Bible in order to praise God, the artists had to think

in more natural, scientific terms. Artists became familiar

with mathematics and the concept of space, as well as

anatomy. Lorenzo Ghiberti studied the anatomical

proportions of the body, Filippo Brunelleschi was

interested in mathematics in architecture, Leone Battista

Alberti, who was skilled in painting, sculpture and

architecture, stressed the study of mathematics as the

underlying principle of the arts (Fleming, 285). Leonardo

also looked at the geometric proportions of the human body

(Calder, 197). In painting, but especially in sculpture,

artists were inspired to express the structural forms of

the body beneath its external appearance. Their anatomical

studies opened the way to the modeling and the movements of

the human body. In painting, naturalism meant a more

realistic representation of everyday objects. In Fra

Angelico’s Annunciation, he shows an exact reproduction of

Tuscan botany (Wallace, 237). Also, the concept of space

was important. In painting, figures were placed in a more

normal relationship to the space they occupied.

Human figures tended to become more personal and

individual. Three clear examples of that are Donatello’s

David, and Leonardo’s Mona Lisa and Last Supper, in which

the twelve different expressions of the apostles were

shown. Every statue, every portrait was an individual

person who made a profound impression. Mary and the angel

Gabriel became very human in Fra Angelico’s Madonna

(Wallace, 45). Even when placed in a group, every

individual figure stood out separately, as in Boticelli’s

Adoration of the Magi. One form of art representing the

individual was the portrait. Wealthy families and

individuals commissioned artists to create statues and

paintings. High regard for individual personality is

demonstrated in the number and quality of portraits painted

at this time (Flemming, 286).

Italian Renaissance humanism were motivated by a

rediscovery of the values of Greco-Roman civilization. An

example of architectural revival is Bramante’s Tempietto, a

small temple built where St. Peter is said to have been

crucified. Bramante later got a chance to build on a much

greater scale: St. Peter’s Basilica. Clearly using

classical civilizations as his model Bramante said of St.

Peter’s, “I shall place the Pantheon on top of the Basilica

of Constantine.” (Flemming, 309-310) Other architects went

back to the central-type churches modeled on the Pantheon,

rather than the rectangular basilica that had evolved over

the centuries. They revived classical orders and

“blueprints.” Decorative motifs were derived directly form

ancient sacophagi, reliefs, and carved gems. Sculptors

revisited the possibilities of the nude. Painters,

however, didn’t have the classical references that

sculptors had, so they used mythological subjects.

With all of the studying and learning of art in the

Renaissance, it would be of little wonder that the subject

of some of the art was learning itself. The most famous

example of this is Raphael’s School of Athens. Raphael,

along with Michelangelo, was placed in the painting among

the ranks of artist-scholars. As members of a

philosophical circle intent on reconciling the views of

Plato and Aristotle, Raphael and his friends reasoned that

Plato and Aristotle were saying the same thing in different

words. The two philosophers were placed on either side of

the central. On Plato’s side, there was a statue of

Apollo, the god of poetry. On Aristotle’s side there was

one of Athena, goddess of reason. Spreading outward on

either side were groups corresponding to the separate

schools of thought within the two major divisions (Barrett,


No matter what theme of the Italian Renaissance is

named, there is always some example of a corresponding art

manifestation of it. For humanism it was David, for

naturalism it was Annunciation, for individualism, it was

The Last Supper, for classicism, it was St. Peter’s

Basilica, and for learning and reason, it was The School of

Athens. It was these themes, which dominated every other

aspect of the Renaissance, that dominated the artistic


Works Cited

Barrett, Maurice. Raphael. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1965

Calder, Ritchie. Leonardo and the Age of the Eye. New

York: Simon, 1970

Coughlan, Robert. The World of Michelangelo: 1475-1564.

New York: Time-Life, 1966

Flemming, William. Arts and Ideas. Fort Worth: Harcourt,


Walace, Robert. Fra Anglelico and His Work. Chicago:

Williamson, 1966


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