A radical break with medieval methods of representing the visible world occurred in Italy during the second half of the 13th cent. The sculptor Nicola Pisano evoked an interest in the forms of classical antiquity. In painting Giotto led the way in giving the human figure a greater sense of physical presence. He also worked toward a more realistic depiction of space, and his efforts were expanded during the 14th cent. in Siena by the Lorenzetti brothers. However, after the Black Death of 1348 came a marked decline in artistic activity as many artists and patrons died.
Florence became the great center of quattrocento (15th-century) art and art theory. The artist began to emerge from the role of artisan to participate in the active current of intellectual pursuits. Together with early humanists (see humanism), artists augmented their veneration of the purely celestial realm with an appreciation of all aspects of physical nature. They shared a growing esteem for the individual and a vital enthusiasm for classical antiquity. The architects Brunelleschi and Alberti and the sculptor Donatello were among the first to visit Rome in order to study the ruins of antiquity and to incorporate many of the ancient principles into their work.
At the same time artists were intensely preoccupied with problems of representing the dimensions of nature on a flat surface. With Masaccio they pioneered in developing a mathematically based illusion of space—the system of perspective. Masaccio and Uccello worked out a geometrical system, whereas Fra Angelico and Fra Filippo Lippi concentrated on a unifying color scheme. While the Florentines inclined toward an abstract simplicity of form, they never lost awareness of the visible world, particularly in their portrayal of the human figure. Antonio Pollaiuolo, Castagno, and above all Leonardo da Vinci were dedicated to the study of anatomy.
During the 15th cent. artists came to be supported not only by churchmen but also by private collectors. Besides commissioning paintings of the traditional sacred themes, these patrons created a new demand for pictures of secular subjects. For the embellishment of private palaces, painters adorned cassone (chest) panels, plates, and walls with allegorical and mythological episodes often derived from literary sources, such as the works of Petrarch and Boccaccio.
To fulfill the patrons' dreams of glory and perpetual fame, the art of portraiture began to flourish. In commemoration of notable citizens and events, medals were designed and struck by great metalworkers, such as Pisanello, in a revival of an ancient practice. Piero della Francesca, Mantegna, and Botticelli painted remarkable portraits of political leaders, at the same time emphasizing their individual characteristics and conveying an air of princely splendor. Chief among the Florentine patrons were the Medici, who fostered a group of poets, philosophers, and artists. Botticelli and Michelangelo were profoundly influenced by the Neoplatonic philosophy developed in the Medici circle.
Outside Florence there were bursts of artistic activity in Urbino, Mantua, Rimini, Milan, and Naples. Their courts attracted such artists as Piero della Francesca, Mantegna, Antonello da Messina, and Leonardo, as well as a number of Flemish artists who left their mark on N Italian painting. In the early 16th cent. the leadership in Italian art shifted from Florence to Rome. The works of Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael were the culmination of the ideals of the period. These were the men who created the short-lived but glorious style now known as the High Renaissance (c.1490–1520), characterized by order, grandeur, grace, and harmony.
Their successors sought more diversified ideals, and the style known as mannerism followed. Meanwhile, by the beginning of the 16th cent., Venetian art had come into its full glory. The great colorists Giovanni Bellini and Giorgione were succeeded by Titian, Veronese, and Tintoretto, who added a new freedom of brushstroke to the canvas.
The superb coloring of the Venetians was achieved as the effects of the golden age of painting in the Low Countries were felt across Europe. In the 1420s Hubert and Jan van Eyck developed an extremely effective technique of oil painting, and with it the ability to render the most subtle variations of light and color. They did not practice the system of geometric perspective, but nonetheless created a convincing appearance of reality. An exquisite sensitivity is reflected in their minute detailing of objects of daily life, which were often symbolic. Robert Campin (often identified with the Master of Flémalle), Roger van der Weyden, and Hugo van der Goes were among the most remarkable masters of 15th-century Flanders. Netherlandish painting was enriched by the wild fantasies of Hieronymus Bosch and the spirited peasant scenes of Pieter Bruegel the elder (see under Bruegel family).
In Germany, Schongauer and above all Dürer made the first and greatest contributions in the media of woodcuts and engravings. Other important German painters of the 16th cent. included Grünewald and Hans Holbein the younger. In addition, Lucas Cranach the elder straddled the Renaissance and the Reformation, producing mainly court portraits, altar pieces, and paintings.
Many artists in France continued to paint fine altarpieces in the Gothic tradition. Under the influence of Flemish and Italian art, France produced admirable portraitists such as Fouquet and Clouet. Francis I invited Italian painters and architects to his court, including Leonardo and Andrea del Sarto. In the 1530s the influence of mannerism began to be felt, particularly at Fontainebleau (see Fontainebleau, school of). Artists in England and Spain were influenced by Netherlandish painting until the 16th cent., when the Italian Renaissance began to permeate Europe.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.