This lesson focuses on 1401 to 1440 AD in Florence, Italy, as highlighted in the timeline below.
As this lesson begins, it is important to remember that Italy was not a kingdom at this time. There was no centralized power like there was in other areas of Europe. Instead, this area was made up of independent city-states, which were owned by the Church, or republics such as Florence and Venice.
“Term prince” was a term applied to a person in charge of one of those areas. A term prince could be, for instance, a duke or a count--not necessarily an actual prince. These term princes were often enormously wealthy and strong supporters of the arts, so much so that they were one of the main sources of artistic patronage at this time.
EXAMPLEOne example of a term prince is the Duke of Urbino, pictured below.
The resurgence of humanism during this time began to swing the pendulum away from the Byzantine style and towards that of the classical style. Artists were interested in the naturalism and scientific rationalism that had developed in ancient Greece. These artists longed to apply it to the work that they were producing.
By this time, nude form had essentially vanished from artwork of the Middle Ages. It was viewed as obscene and idolatrous, a relic of the pagan past. Within religious imagery, however, it could be reinterpreted as a depiction of innocence. The commission to create the baptistery doors in Florence was the prize given to the winner of a contest in which several artists were given the task of creating a bronze panel relief depicting the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham.
This contest came down to two finalists, the artist Brunelleschi and the actual winner, the artist Ghiberti. While Ghiberti’s submission was a much calmer depiction of the event, Brunelleschi’s work displayed much dynamism.
EXAMPLEBelow is Brunelleschi’s panel.
You can see dynamic movement. Notice all the angels rushing in to stop Abraham from killing his son and Abraham’s clothes flowing back as he rushes towards Isaac.
EXAMPLEAlthough there is still some sacrificing going on here, the panel below by Ghiberti is not as dynamic or energetic as the previous panel:
His rendering of Isaac as a male nude is particularly interesting. This could be the first example of a male nude since antiquity, which is a title usually given to the statue of David by the artist Donatello.
Ghiberti’s winning is largely attributed to the artist’s superior skill at casting compared to that of Brunelleschi. Brunelleschi went back to study architecture and eventually designed one of the most impressive domes in history, the dome of Florence Cathedral.
The mathematical description of perspective was undoubtedly influential on the artist Masaccio and his Holy Trinity painting from the Church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, Italy. Masaccio used his understanding of linear perspective to near perfection in how he essentially creates extremely realistic depth in his composition. The entire image is a painting, a fresco in fact, which is an important form of painting in Italy and a medium suitable to its mild climate. You wouldn’t see fresco paintings in northern Europe.
EXAMPLEBelow is an image of the Holy Trinity painting from the Church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, Italy.
The above image is divided into two sections. At the bottom is a crypt. The imagery and writing above it are a reminder of what is to come for all mankind. Above it are the patrons, a husband and wife kneeling and praying below the image of Christ crucified, flanked on either side by his mother Mary and by Saint John, and held by the image of God the Father. The vanishing point is below the feet of Christ. This entire scene is fixed within a triumphal arch of sorts with a coffered barrel vaulted ceiling that recedes believably back into space.
The artist Donatello is often credited with bringing back the male nude, specifically with his sculpture of David that was commissioned by members of the wealthy and influential Medici family to sit within their courtyard.
EXAMPLEHere is the sculpture of David:
This sculpture is depicted as a youth standing in the Grecian contrapposto style with one hand on his sword, one hand on his hip and one foot on the severed head of Goliath. Notice here the return to naturalism that was so celebrated during the classical era. There is a clear understanding and deep appreciation for the mechanics of the human expressed in this sculpture.
EXAMPLEThe sculpture of St. Mark by Donatello was another impressive example of the artist’s understanding of human form and human mechanics. Take, for instance, the contrapposto stance and perspective in the sculpture below:
Donatello mastered perspective, and he incorporates it into the proportions of the statue. It was intended to be viewed in a niche well above eye level, and so Donatello adjusted accordingly. From straight on, the statue looks slightly disproportionate, particularly with the head, but these adjustments were made so that from the original vantage point, where the person would be below the statue, the statue appears perfect.