The "rebirth" of art in Italy was connected with the rediscovery of ancient philosophy, literature, and science and the evolution of empirical methods of study in these fields. Increased awareness of classical knowledge created a new resolve to learn by direct observation and study of the natural world. Consequently, secular themes became increasingly important to artists, and with the revived interest in antiquity came a new repertoire of subjects drawn from Greek and Roman history and mythology. The models provided by ancient buildings and works of art also inspired the development of new artistic techniques and the desire to re-create the forms and styles of classical art.
Central to the development of Renaissance art was the emergence of the artist as a creator, sought after and respected for his erudition and imagination. Art, too, became valued--not merely as a vehicle for religious and social didacticism, but even more as a mode of personal, aesthetic expression.
Although the evolution of Italian Renaissance art was a continuous process, it is traditionally divided into three major phases: Early, High, and Late Renaissance. The last phase has been the subject in recent years of complex interpretations that recognize many competing and contrasting trends. Some scholars date the beginning of the Italian Renaissance from the appearance of Giotto di Bondone in the early 14th century; others regard his prodigious achievements in naturalistic art as an isolated phenomenon. According to the second view, the consistent development of Renaissance style began only with the generation of artists active in Florence at the beginning of the 15th century.
The principal members of the first generation of Renaissance artists--DONATELLO in sculpture, Filippo BRUNELLESCHI in architecture, and MASACCIO in painting--shared many important characteristics. Central to their thinking was a faith in the theoretical foundations of art and the conviction that development and progress were not only possible but essential to the life and significance of the arts. Ancient art was revered, not only as an inspiring model but also as a record of trial and error that could reveal the successes of former great artists. Intending to retrace the creative process rather than to merely imitate the final achievements of antiquity, Early Renaissance artists sought to create art forms consistent with the appearance of the natural world and with their experience of human personality and behavior. The challenge of accurate representation as it concerned mass sculptural form, or the pictorial considerations of measurable space and the effects of light and color, was addressed in the spirit of intense and methodical inquiry.
Rational inquiry was believed to be the key to success; therefore, efforts were made to discover the correct laws of proportion for architecture and for the representation of the human body and to systematize the rendering of pictorial space. Although these artists were keenly observant of natural phenomena, they also tended to extrapolate general rules from specific appearances. Similarly, they made an effort to go beyond straightforward transcription of nature, to instill the work of art with ideal, intangible qualities, endowing it with a beauty and significance greater and more permanent than that actually found in nature. These characteristics--the rendering of ideal forms rather than literal appearance and the concept of the physical world as the vehicle or imperfect embodiment of monumental spiritual beauty--were to remain fundamental to the nature and development of Italian Renaissance art.
The term Early Renaissance characterizes virtually all the art of the 15th century. Florence, the cradle of Renaissance artistic thought, remained one of the undisputed centers of innovation. About 1450 a new generation of artists that included such masters as Pollaiuolo (see POLLAIUOLO family) and Sandro Botticelli came to the fore in Florence. Other Italian cities--Milan, Urbino, Ferrara, Venice, Padua, Naples--became powerful rivals in the spreading wave of change. Leon Battista ALBERTI's work in Rimini and Mantua represented the most progressive architecture of the new HUMANISM; Andrea Mantegna's paintings in Padua displayed a personal formulation of linear perspective, antiquarianism, and realistic technique; and Giovanni Bellini's poetic classicism exemplified the growing strength of the Venetian school.
By the late 15th century the novelty of the first explosive advances of Renaissance style had given way to a general acceptance of such basic notions as proportion, contraposto (twisted pose), and linear perspective; consequently many artists sought means of personal expression within this relatively well-established repertoire of style and technique. The Early Renaissance was not, as was once maintained, merely an imperfect but necessary preparation for the perfection of High Renaissance art but a period of great intrinsic merit. In retrospect, however, Early Renaissance painting seems to fall short of thoroughly convincing figural representation, and its expression of human emotion is stylized rather than real. Furthermore, the strength of individual features of a work of art is disproportionate to the whole composition.
The art of the High Renaissance, however, sought a general, unified effect of pictorial representation or architectural composition, increasing the dramatic force and physical presence of a work of art and gathering its energies and forming a controlled equilibrium. Because the essential characteristic of High Renaissance art was its unity--a balance achieved as a matter of intuition, beyond the reach of rational knowledge or technical skill--the High Renaissance style was destined to break up as soon as emphasis was shifted to favor any one element in the composition.
The High Renaissance style endured for only a brief period (c.1495-1520) and was created by a few artists of genius, among them Leonardo da Vinci, Donato Bramante, Michelangelo, Raphael, and Titian. Leonardo da Vinci's unfinished Adoration of the Magi (1481; Uffizi Gallery, Florence) is regarded as a landmark of unified pictorial composition, later realized fully in his fresco The Last Supper (1495-97; Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan). Leonardo is considered the paragon of Renaissance thinkers, engaged as he was in experiments of all kinds and having brought to his art a spirit of restless inquiry that sought to discover the laws governing diverse natural phenomena. In a different way, Michelangelo has come to typify the artist endowed with inexplicable, solitary genius. His universal talents are exemplified by the tomb of Julius II (c.1510-15), San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome; the Medici Chapel (1519-34), Florence; the SISTINE CHAPEL ceiling (1508-12) and Last Judgment (1536-41), Rome; and the cupola of SAINT PETER's BASILICA (begun 1546)--works that represent major and inimitable accomplishments in the separate fields of sculpture, painting, and architecture. Raphael, a man of very different temperament, evoked, in paintings of Madonnas and in frescoes, not overwhelming forces but sublime harmony and lyric, graceful beauty.
A major watershed in the development of Italian Renaissance art was the sack of Rome in 1527, which temporarily ended the city's role as a source of patronage and compelled artists to travel to other centers in Italy, France, and Spain. Even before the death of Raphael, in 1520, anticlassical tendencies had begun to manifest themselves in Roman art. Some early exponents of MANNERISM, including Jacopo Carucci PONTORMO, PARMIGIANINO, and ROSSO FIORENTINO, contributed to the development of a style that reached its most extreme expression in the work of Giorgio VASARI and Giovanni da BOLOGNA. Mannerism was an aesthetic movement that valued highly refined grace and elegance--the beautiful maniera, or style, from which Mannerism takes its name. Although the fundamental characteristics of Late Renaissance style were shared by many artists, this period, dominated by Mannerism, was marked by artistic individuality--a quality demonstrated to its fullest extent by the late works of Michelangelo. The display of individual virtuosity became an important criterion of artistic achievement, and rivalry often provoked competition based on brilliance of individual performance. The self-consciousness of Mannerist artists, and their efforts to match or surpass the great masters who had immediately preceded them, were the symptoms of a somewhat overripe development, far removed from the fresh dawn of discovery that first gave meaning to the concept of the Renaissance.