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Renaissance Art and Architecture

El Escorial, linear perspective, Spanish architecture, scientific experimentation, Renaissance painters

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Renaissance Art and Architecture, painting, sculpture, architecture, and allied arts produced in Europe in the historical period called the Renaissance. Broadly considered, the period covers the 200 years between 1400 and 1600, although specialists disagree on exact dates. The word renaissance literally means “rebirth” and is the French translation of the Italian rinascita. The two principal components of Renaissance style are the following: a revival of the classical forms originally developed by the ancient Greeks and Romans, and an intensified concern with secular life—interest in humanism and assertion of the importance of the individual. The Renaissance period in art history corresponds to the beginning of the great Western age of discovery and exploration, when a general desire developed to examine all aspects of nature and the world.

During the Renaissance, artists were no longer regarded as mere artisans, as they had been in the medieval past, but for the first time emerged as independent personalities, comparable to poets and writers. They sought new solutions to formal and visual problems, and many of them were also devoted to scientific experimentation. In this context, mathematical or linear perspective was developed, a system in which all objects in a painting or in low-relief sculpture are related both proportionally and rationally. As a result, the painted surface was regarded as a window on the natural world, and it became the task of painters to portray this world in their art. Consequently, painters began to devote themselves more rigorously to the rendition of landscape—the careful depiction of trees, flowers, plants, distant mountains, and cloud-filled skies. Artists studied the effect of light out-of-doors and how the eye perceives all the diverse elements in nature. They developed aerial perspective, in which objects become increasingly less distinct and less sharply colored as they recede from the eye of the viewer. Northern painters, especially those from Flanders and the Netherlands, were as advanced as the Italians in landscape painting and contributed to the innovations of their southern contemporaries by introducing oil paint as a new medium.

Although the portrait also developed as a specific genre in the mid-15th century, Renaissance painters achieved the greatest latitude with the history, or narrative, picture, in which figures located within a landscape or an architectural environment act out a specific story, taken either from classical mythology or Judeo-Christian tradition. Within such a context, the painter was able to show men, women, and children in a full range of postures and poses, as well as the subjects' diverse emotional reactions and states.

The Renaissance of the arts coincided with the development of humanism, in which scholars studied and translated philosophical texts. The use of classical Latin was revived and often favored at this time. The Renaissance was also a period of avid exploration; sea captains began to be more daring in seeking new routes to Asia, which resulted in the discovery and eventual colonization of North and South America. Painters, sculptors, and architects exhibited a similar sense of adventure and the desire for greater knowledge and new solutions; Leonardo da Vinci, like Christopher Columbus, discovered whole new worlds.

The Renaissance in Spain

In Spain, painters during the Renaissance never fully achieved the modernity found in northern Europe and Italy, although their art was almost totally dependent on these two traditions. The Spanish always imported painters and sculptors for most of their important decorative work. Even in the 16th century, Titian was the leading painter of the Spanish court, although he was not actually present there. In architecture, a fully Renaissance structure was not built until late in the century. Near Madrid, the architects of Philip II built El Escorial, combining a monastery, a seminary, a palace, and a church. Although indebted to Italian High Renaissance style, the austere majesty and complete lack of ornamentation of this structure mark a new style in Spanish architecture.


Beck, James H., M.A., Ph.D.

Professor of Art History, Columbia University. Author of "Italian Renaissance Painting", "Michelangelo: A Lesson in Anatomy", and other books.

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