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Index |  History |  Highlights |  WhatWhenWhere
Early civilizations
6th - 11th century
Medieval Europe
Works on paper
Renaissance in Europe
     The arts in Florence
     Masaccio and the Brancacci Chapel
     Classical perspective
     Van Eyck and the Ghent altarpiece
     Van Eyck and portraiture
     Robert Campin
     Rogier van der Weyden
     Bruges and Italy
     Fra Angelico and San Marco
     Jean Fouquet
     Piero della Francesca

The High Renaissance
16th century in Europe
17th century in Europe
18th century in Europe
To be completed

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Art and architecture in Florence: 1411-1430

Three Florentine friends, an architect, a sculptor and a painter, are recognized in their own time as being the founders of a new direction in art - subsequently known as the Renaissance. In the preface to an influential book on painting, published in 1436, Alberti says that the work of these three has convinced him that the ancient arts can be revived.

They differ considerably in age. The architect, Brunelleschi, is the oldest. The sculptor, Donatello, is about ten years younger. The painter, Masaccio, is about fifteen years younger again, though he is by a wide margin the first to die.


Masaccio and the Brancacci Chapel: 1423-1428

In about 1423 a Florentine silk merchant, Felice Brancacci, commissions frescoes for a chapel in Santa Maria del Carmine. His choice of artist is Masolino, who brings into the project a younger colleague, Masaccio. Most of Masolino's frescoes in the chapel have been destroyed or painted over. But those done by Masaccio, before his very early death in 1428, are among the great turning points of the Renaissance.

Masaccio clearly admires the work of Giotto. He adopts the solid manner in which the earlier master depicts character (this can be seen superbly in the figure of St Peter paying the tribute money), and he adds to it two further qualities.


One of these qualities is a new freedom in the expression of emotion. The bodies of the naked Adam and Eve, driven from Paradise, are almost distorted in the intensity of their shame, as seen in the agonized upturned face of Eve.

The other significant new element is an increased ability to create figures with a real sense of air around them. The apostles, hearing Jesus tell them that tribute money should be paid to Caesar, make a freely arranged group in an entirely believable open space flanked by receding buildings on one side and a landscape on the other.


Classical perspective: 15th century

The sense of depth achieved by Masaccio is partly thanks to the new Renaissance interest in the science of perspective, which goes hand in hand with the rediscovery of the appeal of classical architecture. Masaccio makes use of both themes in his illustionistic Trinity in the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, where the cruficied Christ and other figures appear within a dramatically receding Roman arcade.

The perspective in this painting derives from personal knowledge of Brunelleschi and his work. But after Alberti's treatise of 1436 (De Pictura), the new science becomes widely practised. Indeed perspective becomes something of an obsession with Italian painters of the 15th century.


A genius such as Piero della Francesca uses perspective with exquisite skill and restraint. But Paolo Uccello, famous for his use of the technique, verges on the obsessive in his painstaking arrangement of crossed lances and foreshortened corpses in The Battle of San Romano.

The twin Renaissance interest in perspective and classical architecture can be seen above all in the work of Andrea Mantegna. His Christian scenes take place in totally convincing vistas of Roman buildings, often ruined. And the Dead Christ of about 1485, with the pierced soles of his feet thrust into the face of the onlooker, is the most famous example of foreshortening in the history of art.


Jan van Eyck and the Ghent altarpiece: 1432

On 6 May 1432 a vast new painted altarpiece is set in place in the cathedral of Ghent. An inscription on it states that it was begun by Hubert van Eyck and completed in 1432 by his brother Jan.

Nothing is known of Hubert apart from this one mention of his name. But the Ghent altarpiece is only the first of a succession of masterpieces signed by Jan van Eyck during the 1430s. This is the decade in which the Renaissance makes a spectacular appearance in the painting of northern Europe.


The Ghent altarpiece is part of a late medieval tradition of works of this kind made up of many panels, in this case folding in on each other. Duccio's Maestà in Siena is a noble predecessor. But Duccio's panels are for the most part small and crowded. Each, on its own, would be interesting, delightful and touching - but not spectacular.

Van Eyck, painting with a new certainty of detailed design and execution, makes each panel a powerful work in its own right. And yet each collaborates with its immediate neighbour and its opposite number to make a balanced whole which is even more impressive than the separate parts.


The central panel, the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, is the most ambitious composition up to this point in the story of art. Scores of Christian saints, dignitaries and pilgrims are set with complete realism in a complex landscape.

The surrounding panels, tall and thin, are equally impressive. Whether they be the naked Adam and Eve, or organist and singers, or the archangel and the Virgin in the two halves of an Annunciation, these figures occupy their allotted spaces with complete naturalness and realism. Each is a powerful composition in its own right, striking when seen at a distance and fascinating in its detail if viewed more closely.


Jan van Eyck and portraiture: 1433-1444

The faces in the panels of the Ghent altarpiece are so real that they could be portraits, and indeed two of the panels depict the kneeling donors. This degree of realism, introduced here in Flanders, is also found in the paintings by van Eyck which are commissioned as portraits - again among the first of their kind.

Van Eyck's most famous portrait is of a married couple - an Italian merchant in Bruges, Giovanni Arnolfini, and his wife Giovanna. Painted in 1434 and known now as The Arnolfini Marriage, this view of the pair holding hands in a bedroom is thought to symbolize their union rather than to depict an actual ceremony.


The representation of the room as a three-dimensional space, together with the almost tangible textures of the couple's rich clothes, gives notice that an exact depiction of reality can now be achieved. Henceforth, in the work of the best artists, this can be taken for granted.

Similarly the character in the faces of the stern Italian merchant and his yielding wife signify that portraiture has come of age. The same is true of a deeply personal image of a man in a turban, painted by van Eyck in 1433 and possibly a self-portrait. But in these pioneering works of portraiture, in the 1430s, van Eyck is not alone - and perhaps cannot even claim priority.


Robert Campin: c.1430

In about 1430, probably in Flanders, a husband and wife have their portraits painted by an artist whose identity has been something of a mystery. Believed now to be Robert Campin, he has been known in the past as the more anonymous Master of Flémalle.

These two sitters are simpler than the Arnolfinis (painted four years later). In a head-and-shoulders format, each panel is almost filled by a friendly face in an elaborate headdress of everyday cloth. These people are well-off, but they have few pretensions. They are the first real glimpse of Europe's new middle class. I know of no couple, so far away in time, to whom art brings one so close.


A sense of close involvement is a hallmark of Robert Campin and his workshop. It is seen in one of their favourite subjects - the Virgin and Child in an ordinary domestic interior. In these views Mary is not enthroned as she would be in an Italian painting of this period. Here she is more likely to sit on everyday furniture, nursing her child in a cosy room with wooden panelling, tongs in the fireplace, a useful towel hanging up ready to hand and a view through a leaded window over a northern townscape. It is all reassuringly real.

In his mastery of illusionistic technique Campin, like van Eyck, has one technical advantage peculiar at this time to northern Europe - oil paint (see Oil and tempera).


Rogier van der Weyden: 1435

The extraordinary decade of the 1430s, in Flanders, introduces yet another outstanding master. Rogier van der Weyden, who probably learns his craft in the studio of Robert Campin, becomes the official painter to the city of Brussels in 1435. In the next few years he produces a succession of masterpieces, of which the Descent from the Cross in the Prado is merely the best known.

Van der Weyden retains the clarity and realism of Campin and van Eyck, but replaces the calm and stillness of their work with a new intensity of emotion - seen in the Prado painting in the gruesome dead weight of Christ's body and the collapse into grief of his mother.


The three great Netherlands artists of the 1430s are central figures in the story of Renaissance painting. By contrast their successors, in the rich sequence of great painters from this small northwest region of Europe, are decidedly quirky. The gloriously eccentric canvases of Bosch and Brueghel are much appreciated by collectors of the time, particularly within the Habsburg family. But they are a byway of their own, far from the mainstream.

For a century after the heyday of van Eyck, Campin and van der Weyden, Italy is the centre of European painting. But the Netherlands and Italy have strong economic links.


Bruges and Italy: 15th century

The links of trade and finance between cities in Italy and the Netherlands have been immortalized in two works of art. Giovanni Arnolfini is a merchant from Lucca living and trading in Bruges. In 1434, when newly married, he commissions a double portrait from Jan van Eyck.

Hoping for a memorial to himself and his wife, Giovanni could not possibly have made a wiser investment. The Arnolfini Marriage is now one of the most famous paintings in the world. It is also an early glimpse of the Italian interest in Flemish art which will result, later in the century, in the spread southwards of the northern technique of oil painting (see Oil and tempera).


An altarpiece of about 1475 proves very influential in this same respect when it reaches Florence. Tommaso Portinari, the agent in Bruges for the Medici bank, commissions from Hugo van der Goes an altarpiece for the church of St Egidio in which his family has a chapel.

The central panel of the triptych shows the Virgin with her newly born Child visited by angels and shepherds, while the kneeling Portinari family are presented from the side panels by saints. This large altarpiece makes the journey south by sea and river. It is the most imposing example of the northern style of painting to have reached Florence, the heart of the southern Renaissance.


Fra Angelico and San Marco: 1443-1447

The Dominican order has among its ranks a superbly talented painter. As a friar he is referred to as 'brother' (frater in Latin, fratello in Italian), and the name by which he becomes known is Fra Angelico - the angelic brother.

From 1443 Dominicans in Florence employ him to provide contemplative images for the walls of their convent of San Marco. Over the next four years he and his assistants create an extended masterpiece of Italian Renaissance art - though they would not have thought of it in those terms.


There are large frescoes in the cloisters and in the public areas of the convent (mainly by Fra Angelico), and forty-four smaller scenes from the Gospel story in the cells of the friars (many of them painted by his assistants). But the master's style - clear colours, strong design, a sense of depth and light learnt from the example of Masaccio - is one which the pupils can adopt with a fair measure of success.

The result is a building whose interior, as intended, is marvellously conducive to a sense of wonder and contemplation - certainly for the friars for whom the images were painted, and almost as much among today's tourists.


Jean Fouquet: 1445-1460

Jean Fouquet, born in Tours in about 1420, spends four years in Italy in the 1440s. When he returns to Tours, he begins a decade of very fruitful activity blending Italian and northern influences.

One of Fouquet's most striking works, from about 1450, is the portrait of his patron, Étienne Chevalier, seen praying with St Stephen and painted as one half of a diptych for a church in Melun. The realism with which the two men are depicted derives from the example of the Netherlands masters of the time, such as van Eyck and van der Weyden, but Fouquet adds a classical calm of his own.


In about 1452 Étienne Chevalier commissions from Fouquet the work on which his reputation is mainly based. It is a Book of Hours, for which Fouquet provides detailed miniature illustrations of scenes from the Bible and the lives of the saints. Fouquet probably completes the work by 1456. The original number of the scenes is not known but forty-seven exquisite images survive, nearly all of them in the museum at Chantilly.

In these small but beautifully controlled compositions Fouquet again brings together two traditions from outside France.


The colourful elegance of Fouquet's scenes develops the tradition of the miniatures of northern Burgundy and of the Limburg brothers, masters of the International Gothic style. But in other elements - his use of the motifs of classical architecture, his interest in persective, the rounded solidity of his figures and of their spatial relationships - Fouquet reveals the influence of what he has his seen in Renaissance Italy, such as the work recently completed by Fra Angelico in Florence.

A link with Italy remains a central characteristic in the next great period of French painting, the 17th century.


Piero della Francesca: 1445-1460

A religious fraternity in Sansepolcro, near Arezzo, requires a new altarpiece. In January 1445 the members commission it from a young man in his late twenties, who has been away in Florence for the past few years learning his craft but who is now back in his small provincial home town.

The painter is Piero della Francesca. He spends much of his working life in Sansepolcro and in Arezzo, far from the main artistic centres, which to some extent explains why his name is largely forgotten for several centuries after his death. Another reason may be the profound calm of his work, unfashionable in periods when art has tended more to the dramatic gesture. He is now recognized as one of the great masters of the Italian Renaissance.


While in Florence, the young Piero has clearly seen Masaccio's frescoes. His first altarpiece at Sansepolcro is old-fashioned in concept, with a gilded background, but the figures already achieve the rounded solidity pioneered in the frescoes of the Brancacci chapel.

From this beginning, within a few years, Piero evolves his own characteristic and inimitable style. It is visible in the famous Baptism of Christ, probably painted as an altarpiece in Sansepolcro in the early 1450s. The figures stand with monumental stillness, bathed in a cool light of seemingly eternal clarity. This is Renaissance humanism in its broadest sense, allowing full weight to the dignity of man.


The stillness, the sense of a scene perfectly positioned in space, the use of patches of almost pure colour to suggest a harmony of pattern and order - all these are characteristics of Piero's timeless art. They can be seen at their best in the fresco cycle on the Legend of the True Cross, which he paints in the church of St Francis in Arezzo in the years around 1460.

Underpinning the calm certainty of Piero's created world is a fascination with theories of form and perspective, very characteristic of the Italian Renaissance. Piero is the author of two learned treatises on the mathematics of pictorial illusion.


Botticelli: 1478-1482

If Piero's work offers the mystery of stillness, Botticelli introduces mystery of another kind - mysterious content, expressed in a restlessly sinuous line. From about 1470 Botticelli is established as one of the leading painters of Florence, frequently working for the Medici.

His characteristic style is seen in two of the best loved and most widely recognized paintings of the Renaissance. The Birth of Venus (c.1482) is a traditional subject (in classical mythology the goddess is born from the foam of the sea and floats ashore in a scallop shell). But Botticelli's tall nude and her attendant winds are a strikingly original way of depicting the scene.


In Primavera (Spring, c.1478) the scene itself is profoundly mysterious. In a grove of oranges the three Graces dance, while Flora scatters flowers upon the ground. She wears an exquisitely embroidered floral dress and is attended by a woman with a plant growing vigorously from her mouth. This woman, in her turn, is seized by a man in flight.

These figures depict a scene in Ovid. Zephyr (the west wind) grasps his bride Chloris (the goddess of flowers), whereupon blooms sprout from her lips and she is transformed into the fully developed Flora, strewing spring flowers upon the ground.


These two paintings, imbued with classical allusion, are believed to contain themes of special significance to the Neo-Platonists of Florence's Platonic Academy. It is even possible that their content is devised by the academy's director, Marsilio Ficino. Primavera also conceals within its imagery several hints of the names Medici and Lorenzo.

Both works are commissioned for his private villa by Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici, a cousin of Lorenzo the Magnificent. They suggest very well the rarefied nature of Renaissance Florence in the late 15th century - an atmosphere about to be brutally interrupted by the more strident certainties of Savonarola.


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