Italian Renaissance Term Paper

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Italian Renaissance

Renaissance ("Rebirth") refers to the period after the Middle Ages when a series of dynamic intellectual, cultural and artistic movements from the 14th to 16th century catapulted Europe towards rapid development leading to the Age of Enlightenment, the industrial revolution and the modern time. During this rich period of exciting developments in arts, sciences and politics, Italy was the major catalyst and became the cultural leader of Europe. It also produced several outstanding artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Michaelangelo and Raphael who changed the face of European art forever and are worthy representatives of the Renaissance era. This paper is about the Italian Renaissance and the impact of the three great artists on European culture.


The period following the eclipse of the Roman Empire around 500 AD until the start of the "Renaissance" at the start of the 14th century is known in history as the Middle Ages of Europe. The period saw the rise of Christianity and the power of the Church that became a major influence in culture as well as politics. The Christian doctrine focused on salvation and the life hereafter and de-emphasized the worldly life and possessions. The period also saw the rise and spread of Islam, although most of Europe remained under the Byzantine Empire and a fragmented West. Italy's cities and towns in general became largely depopulated and the country, as a whole, became a rural society after the fall of the Roman Empire. This situation lasted until the 11th-12th century when Italy's strategic location on the trade routes between Western Europe and the Muslim world and Asia helped revive commercial and trade activity in the region. The new found wealth generated by the trading activity as well as the declining influence of the Church due to the jockeying for power between the papacy and the Holy Roman Emperor towards the end of the Middle Ages resulted in conditions that were ripe for 'Renaissance' in the Italian city-states, particularly Florence. (Hooker)

Italian Renaissance and its Emphasis on Art group of Italian scholars in the 14th century started to believe that they lived in an era that resembled the great Greek and Roman civilizations of the past because there was an unusual amount of focus on artistic achievement in the period. They believed that their age was different from the darkness and ignorance that characterized the preceding era. The intellectuals and artists of the time began to take a marked interest in the physical world and in the knowledge derived from concrete sensory experience rather the abstract speculations and interest in life after death of the Middle Age artists. Humanism and individualism became the motto of the new age rather than the monastic ideology centered on religious issues. Italy became the hub of artistic, cultural and political developments during the early part of the Renaissance and the influence of its art and culture soon spread to other parts of Europe. ("Renaissance" Encarta; Hooker) number of remarkable Italian artists lived and worked during the Renaissance. The three most influential among them were Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael. Their works and achievements are discussed below:

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519):

Leonardo da Vinci is considered one of the greatest thinkers in history and is known not only as a masterful painter but as an accomplished architect, sculptor, engineer, and scientist. He embodied the curiosity and individualism of the era and was the quintessential "Renaissance man."

Being a keen observer of nature and infinitely curious, Leonardo sought answers through careful observation, reasoning, and experimentation. He thus rejected what was then the primary mode of seeking knowledge- studying the Bible and the writings of the ancient Greek philosophers.

With his natural artistic skills that he had developed at an early age, Leonardo produced meticulously detailed drawings that were based on his observations of anatomy- drawings that he believed to be of far greater scientific value than contemporary reports written, he often lamented, "in tormentingly long-winded and confused styles." (Leonardo, quoted in "Renaissance Futurist" 26)

Naturalism' was one of the characteristics of the Renaissance. Even before the start of the 'Early Renaissance' innovative artists such as Giotti (1267-1337) had abandoned the stifling stylizations of Byzantine art and introduced new ideals of naturalism. When Leonardo joined Verrocchio's studio at the age of 15, it was the foremost art place in the city of Florence and the place where 'Florentine naturalism' was organized. ("Leonardo da Vinci" Malaspina biography) Leonardo thus gained all the essence of the Florence art that had been developed by the time of his apprenticeship in Verrocchio's studio. Very soon the precocious pupil not only absorbed the virtues of his master but transcended him. As an artist, Leonardo borrowed almost nothing from the past and took the Florentine tradition of 'naturalism' quite a few notches upwards and the few works that survive from Leonardo's 'Florentine period' show his flashes of his brilliance that he was to exhibit later in his more famous paintings such as Virgin of the Rocks, Last Supper and Mona Lisa. ("Renaissance Futurists" 15-26)

Leonardo, perhaps because he was involved in several different pursuits, produced a relatively small number of paintings during his lifetime, many of which he left unfinished. Due to his penchant for innovation, he experimented with painting in oil and encaustic but avoided fresco which he believed to be too hurried a process. His painting methods have contributed to the destruction of several of his paintings such as the "Last Supper" that was painted in oil on a wall. Enough examples of his innovative work, however, remain to remind us of his undoubted genius. He developed several new approaches in painting that were copied by many notable contemporaries and influenced several generations of Europeans artists. For example, as depicted in one of his early paintings "The Adoration of the Magi" introduced a new approach to composition, in which the main figures are grouped in the foreground, while the background consists of distant views of imaginary ruins and battle scenes. (Magurn, para on "Paintings") In the "Last Supper" that shows the 12 apostles painted in dynamic compositional groups of three with Christ himself isolated in the center of the painting -- representing a clam nucleus -- Leonardo has re-introduced the style pioneered earlier by Masaccio, considered to be the father of Florentine painting. (Ibid.)

In Mona Lisa, perhaps the most famous painting of all times, Leonardo exhibits his mastery of several technical innovations, particularly the techniques of sfumato and chiaroscuro. Sfumato is characterized by subtle transitions between color areas, creating a delicately atmospheric haze or smoky effect. The technique is evident in the delicate gauzy robes worn by the figure. Chiaroscuro is the technique that defines forms through contrasts of light and shadow and the hands of the woman in the painting reflects the technique.

Although Leonardo da Vinci's influence as a painter alone would have ensured his greatness in history, it is his mastery of a variety of disciplines such as architecture, engineering and science along with his profound love of knowledge and research is what make him such an awe-inspiring figure -- the worthy representative of a truly epoch-making era, a time when a whole civilization was re-born. Leonardo's emphasis on the importance of education, knowledge of nature through keen observation and experimentation instead of getting stuck in abstract religious concepts as was the norm in the Middle Ages, signals a change in the thinking of people that led to unprecedented scientific development in the centuries that followed.

Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564)

While his countryman and peer Leonardo da Vinci may edge out Michelangelo as the quintessential Renaissance man due to his versatility, for sheer artistry alone, no one even comes close to Michelangelo. The sheer weight of Michelangelo's body of work consisting his sculptures, paintings, and frescoes is unequaled leaves every other artist of the millennium, far behind. Recognizing his almost superhuman genius as an artist, Georgio Vasari in his famous book about Renaissance artists, Lives of the Artists advises all other artists to simply "thank heaven for what has happened and strive to imitate Michelangelo in everything you do."

Michelangelo was born in Caprese, Tuscany, Italy, but like Leonardo, grew up in Florence -- the artistic center of the "Early Renaissance." When Michelangelo was a young lad, Renaissance was well and truly underway and he got his initial training in art by absorbing the ambience of Florence and the abundance of sculpture, architecture and paintings that he came across. As a 13-year-old, he entered the apprenticeship of a notable Florentine painter of the time, Domenico Ghirlandaio. He later denied that Ghirlandaio had any influence on him, but he is believed to have learned the basic technique of fresco painting from his master. (Jeffery)

It was customary at the time for rich and influential art patrons to commission notable artists. Michelangelo was recommended to the ruler of Florence and its leading art patron, Lorenzo de Medici and stayed with him from 1490 to 1492. The Medici household was…[continue]

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