a history of western art

from the renaissance to the present

the italian renaissance


people, terms, and concepts:  Renaissance, empiricism, classicism, contrapposto, chiaroscuro, linear perspective, vanishing point, orthogonal line, aerial perspective, scale, proportions


The Renaissance (1400s-1500s)

Using the terms from the prior topic, we can give a broad definition of what happened to art during the Renaissance:  there was a turn away from the conceptual approach of the Medieval period (c. 400-1400 C.E.), toward a more naturalistic and expressive approach.  Medieval art is 'other-worldly' in focus, rejecting the natural appearance of the world and the drama of human emotional responses because these are distractions from spiritual life and salvation (see the Autun sculpture of the Vision of the Magi, below, for example). By contrast, the Renaissance was much more this-worldly in its focus.  Empiricism (the belief that a study of the physical world will lead to significant truths) resulted not only in rapid advances in science, such as anatomy and astronomy; it also resulted in art that much more closely resembled the world.

The period is called the 'Renaissance' (French for 're-birth') because it was a revival of the values of the Ancient period (c. 500 B.C. through c. 400 A.D. in Greece and Rome).  Hence the Renaissance is also characterized by classicism, the revival of the ideals, values, and styles of Ancient Greece and Rome.

Be able to describe how any of the works below show a greater concentration than Medieval art on natural appearances (naturalism) and on the psychological and emotional drama of the stories they are telling (expression). We went into some detail in describing the various techniques that Renaissance artists developed (or re-developed) for making their works look naturalistic. Be able to define, recognize, and describe the use of devices such as contrapposto, chiaroscuro, linear perspective, aerial perspective, cast shadows, a single light source, anatomical accuracy, proper scale and proportions, and so forth, as ways of making art look naturalistic.

Autun Cathedral, The Vision of the Magi, Medieval (Romanesque), c. 1130

Giotto, Lamentation from the Arena Chapel, Early Italian Renaissance, c. 1305

Masaccio, The Tribute Money, Italian Renaissance, c. 1425

Donatello, David, Italian Renaissance, c. 1450

Donatello, Mary Magdalen, Italian Renaissance, c. 1450