Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael and Donatello- the four crime-fighting turtles. That's where everyone knows the names from right? The Big Four of the Renaissance and no their gender is not lost on me.
The thing about the Renaissance- is that art was not as we understand it today. There was no art for art's sake. Nor was there very much of art as a means of self-expression, comfort or a critique on humanity. (I mean there is but it is certainly not the majority).
Artist's were sponsored. They were commissioned by the richest families in Europe in a time when self-promotion and indulgent money spending was illegal. How then, would Mr X be able to publicly impose his power over the state if displays of wealth and power were banned? By commissioning a devotional artwork whose "sole" purpose was to praise God and provide visual encouragement for devotion and contemplation. That's number one.
Number two, the Renaissance artists began to inject mathematical principles and general advancements happening in the scientific world into their paintings. Before the likes of Da Vinci and his undying passion for human anatomy, human forms in art were... well... lumpy. Fluid. Wobbly. A spring wind could probably send them flying.
And so with these incredibly pared-down factors, we have the Renaissance artworks we all know and love.
Art meets mathematics
Put simply, the mercantile class (goods and trade) was on the rise and there was suddenly a need to calculate things. With large sale numbers and increased circulation of products and services, a new need for maths was created in a way that hadn't been used before. This brought about developments in maths and was so widespread that they infiltrated the art world.
Based on the linear perspective theory coined by Florentine architect, Fillipo Brunelleschi (brainchild of the famous Florence Duomo) artists began to play around with depth and perspective. Linear perspective is made up of three components are parallel lines, the horizon line and a vanishing point. By utilising these three perspectives, artists were able to create realistic scenes to place their religious figures in- thus giving them more credence and weight in the real world.
With these three lines in play, the size and representation of forms were manipulated to pull focus to the most important bit of the painting- usually Jesus. It draws your eye straight to the subject while everything else in the painting is filler. Good quality filler- but filler nonetheless.
Artists were dissecting dead bodies
Dedicated to their craft in a way that I may never be, the Renaissance saw artists take an interest in the study of human anatomy that flourished in the 15-16th centuries. Despite popular belief, Leonardo da Vinci was not the first artist to begin dissecting cadavers in search of a realistic portrayal of musculature but he did popularise it- Vasari recorded this as Antonio Pollaiuolo as being the“first master to skin many human bodies in order to investigate the muscles and understand the nude in a more modern way."
However, it was da Vinci's anatomical dissections and their recording that became widely disseminated and were included in the first Renaissance treatise 'De Humani corporis fabrica' (trans. that which makes up the human body or quite literally, the fabric of the human body). At this point, a realistic portrayal of the human form became required of the artists as per their patron's expectations.
Decadent emerald green. Rich ruby red. Bottomless black that seems to have no end.
We're used to seeing oil paints- it might even be the paints you associate with paintings whether you know it or not. But before Jan van Eyck started getting a little crazy with linseed oil, color was flat and had very little feeling of depth. Imagine that you're a 13th-century bread maker on your way to church and you're suddenly confronted with an altarpiece that looks so real.
The figures central to your faith take on a physical presence that they didn't have before. In combination with the interest in anatomy, Christ the King was now depicted in such clarity that there was little room in the believer's mind for doubt.
Use Ancient Greece to talk about how clever you are
As we've already mentioned, the Renaissance was a period of 'rebirth.' The rebirth of science, culture- you name it. We've also already mentioned that art was primarily used as propaganda by key political players as a means of displaying their virtue. Something that I've seen in the history of visual propaganda is that you always align yourself with a past 'Golden Age,' typically Ancient Greece or Rome. In doing this, you're simply creating dots to connect that say "Hey, we're not too different."
Ancient Greece and Rome are viewed as being the 'Birth of Contemporary Culture' so it makes sense for the 'second greatest rebirth' to harken back to a time that's is praised as being one of the greatest periods of civilisation.
Easy ways to do this:
- Adopt the artistic style of the period you're seeking to aspire to- enter the naked and idealised man.
- Portray your figures as men and women of Ancient Greek/Roman history- enter Apollo, David and such figures whose stories represent the virtues you want to forge.
- Use Carrara Marble AKA the material the Ancients used which as a result, is now associated with beauty and the height of sophistication.
Quite frankly, this doesn't begin to touch the surface of what was happening to art during the Renaissance. A period heavily influenced by the developments in science, literature, philosophy and a rise in the mercantile class makes the Renaissance a long, and extensive period of study. But hopefully, it shed a little bit of light on what's heralded as the peak of civilisation- a remarkably Euro-centric claim.