My aim in writing about art has always been to make it more accessible to people. I want people who are traveling to have a resource where they can learn a bit more about the art they will see and maybe have a greater appreciation for it. I hope this contribution to June’s ArtSmart Roundtable, all on the theme of paintings, allows you to appreciate that somewhat intimidating world of Renaissance art. Next time you visit a museum or see the art of the Renaissance in Italy, you might find these tips to understanding Renaissance paintings helpful.
1) Look for the use of line
Linear perspective was created during the early Renaissance in the first part of the 15th century. It was one way of making paintings look more realistic–it allowed artists to depict realistic, three-dimensional space. After that, artists like Botticelli showed off their command of perspective by using lines that converge in the background.
Another way artists showed perspective was by depicting architectural details that recede into space.
2) Realism was front and center
The main goal of the Renaissance was to reawaken an appreciation for man. Humanism took many forms, one of which was a celebration of the potential of humans, including the human body. Realistic representations of the human form became increasingly important, easily seen in Michelangelo’s work:
For many artists, realism also meant depicting the familiar: clothing, decorations, and landscape typical of 15th century Florence, not from 1400+ years earlier when these religious scenes actually took place. This means that you can get a feeling for what Renaissance Florence looked like through the little details in the paintings. The fresco below provides a glimpse of the decoration, furniture, and clothing that were valued by the rich in Florence in the 15th century even though the painting depicts a completely different time period, the birth of the Virgin Mary.
Another way of introducing realism and the familiar into the painting was to include familiar landscapes. This Biblical scene takes place with a landscape based on the Dolomite mountains of Northern Italy.
3) Who’s in the painting?
Pay attention to the faces you see in the painting. Do they all look the same, or did the artist depict people realistically, with unique features? Many paintings include self-portraits of the artist (usually the one looking out at the viewer instead of at the scene). This one is a self-portrait of the painter Ghirlandaio included among the many people in the painting.
It was also common to include the patrons in the painting. While the patrons may not be the most interesting people for you to think about, they were essential because they gave the artists work–commissions usually of religious scenes in an effort to secure a place in heaven. This early Renaissance fresco from the church of Santa Maria Novella shows the patrons kneeling at the bottom, one on either side of the scene.
A more interesting who’s who is the artist’s favorite model. In the case of Filippo Lippi, the young and beautiful Lucrezia Buti became his favorite model. Despite the fact that he was a monk and she was a nun, they had a 30-year love affair; in fact, their son Filippino Lippi became an artist of the High Renaissance.
4) Fine details
As the Renaissance progressed, artists became more adept at painting small details, such as the jewelry and headdresses that were fashionable at that time (see the above example as well). This gives you an opportunity to see what was considered beautiful, including hairstyles, accessories, and clothing, during the Renaissance.
Such attention to fine detail and an almost ethereal quality led to the delicate beauty in Da Vinci and Raphael’s paintings of the High Renaissance.
5) Allusions to the Roman and Greek past
Humanism meant a strong connection to the philosophy and arts of ancient Greece and Rome. The Italian Renaissance aimed to resurrect these, as we can see not only in the style of the the architecture but also in the stories portrayed in painting. While religious themes were the most common subjects of the Renaissance, themes from ancient Greek and Rome, including mythology, became more popular with the support of Lorenzo de’ Medici in the late 15th century.
If you’d like to learn more about Renaissance art, please visit these posts and books about art in Italy: