Italian Renaissance Artists: An Overview

Renaissance is a French term for rebirth. It was coined first in the 19th century to denote the revival of art and letters under the influence of ancient Roman and Greek models. This revival started in Italy in the 14th century, flourished in the 15th, and in the subsequent century reached apogee and then met with crisis. During these centuries, radical changes in art and science took place across Europe. In this sense, the term Renaissance has “also come to denote the era in general and its overriding spirit, in which desires intrinsic to human nature, generally repressed under medieval feudalism, burst forth with new fervor and resulted in a new culture.” (Osmond, 1998, p.18) For example, during the period, some basic changes in worldview took shape. It was a movement and an era of awakening that turned from the darkness and stagnation of the middle ages and laid the basis for Western civilization up to the present. The flowering of art during the Renaissance is what it is most remembered for today. Hence, the paintings and sculptures and their creators can be seen as springboards for discussing some fundamental changes in attitude – especially how art evidences new attitudes toward man, his place in the world, and his relationship to God. (Osmond, 1998, p.18) This essay will talk about Italian artists – the likes of Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Bellini, etc – who played pivotal roles in this great chapter in European history.

During the era of the early Renaissance, evolving modes of representation and choice of content led to a redefinition of painting and sculpture as liberal arts. It can even be said that visual artists themselves played a role in modifying the perception of their profession and art. In other words, artists both helped to shape and to react to an essential change in their status from craftsman to creator. This can be learnt from the broad ranging
“written and visual evidence, including treatises, contracts, letters, financial records, and, perhaps most interesting, the works of art themselves. That many of the most successful early Renaissance artists evinced a significant interest in intellectual and social issues is demonstrated in a number of different areas, including changes in artistic training; the involvement of artists in civic life; their engagement in the study of antiquity and antique art; artists pursuit of the literary arts, including poetry, autobiography, and theory; and their participation in the paragone debate.” (Rosenberg, 2001, p.937)

There was also a shift in the power relationship between patron and artist in favor of the latter, a shift ushered in by the emergence of the social value of artistic renown. The impact of this phenomenon is best illustrated in the “difficulties which Isabella d’Este, the Marchioness of Mantua, experienced as she went about negotiating with some of Italy’s “best artists” — Bellini, Mantegna, Perugino, and Leonardo — for paintings for her famous studiolo”. (Rosenberg, 2001, p.937) Likewise, artists such as Giovanna Garzoni, Bartolomeo Bimbi, Jacopo Ligozzi, etc “brought to their subjects not only a masterly technique, but a freshness and originality of style that would have a lasting influence on botanical illustration and the art of naturalistic painting.” (Hirschauer, 2002, p.62) The cartoons made by them are

“full-scale drawings characterized by extended passages of careful modeling and chiaroscuro, became collectible objects valued for their intrinsic aesthetic qualities. Raphael’s cartoon (Ambrosiana Gallery, Milan) for the School of Athens is the largest and perhaps best known example of this category of drawing. Because the transfer process often led to the destruction of a cartoon, artists introduced another intermediate step, the “substitute cartoon,” as a means of preserving workshop model drawings and of keeping the ben finito cartone intact” (Fletcher, 2000, p.347)

Towering above the achievements of other artists are the masterly works of Michelangelo, who, throughout his long career, maintained a deep interest in “the life of the human soul as expressed through the body. He often called the human body the mortal veil of divine intention. His colossal David (1501-1504) is the epitome of the heroic style for which he is best known, celebrating the nobility of the human form and the power of human will.” (Hirschauer, 2002, p.62)

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