Renaissance art is divided into two primary areas. Early Renaissance art had distinct characteristics that separated it from later developments. It began to emerge in Florence during the first decade of the 15th century. Building upon ‘Proto-Renaissance art’, which refers to the era just before renaissance art and was, in many ways, the foundation built on top of Medieval art that sculpted Renaissance art. It took from traditions of Byzantine, or Gothic art and pushed the movement into a new area. Artists like Brunelleschi, Donatello and Masaccio instigated a series of discoveries and improvements in all the visual arts, from architecture, sculpture, and painting. This revolutionized the face of art in Italy and beyond. Even though it eventually spread throughout Italy, the Early Renaissance was centered in Florence and primarily funded by the Medici family.
The Medici family were wool merchants and bankers and were incredibly wealthy. At that time in history and in Italy, power revolved around the major merchant families so it is no surprise that through their patronage, the Medici’s essentially funded the start of the Renaissance movements. The Medici family even produced four Popes and two Queens and they dominated their city’s government. Through this, they were able to bring Florence under their family’s power and created an environment in which art and humanism flourished.
So, with the aid of the Medici family and a new desire for change, Florence shook off the old ways of thinking, from religion, philosophy, and art. The reasons in general still remain fairly unclear as to why this shift happened but a change was desperately needed. The general theme that they then modeled themselves from actually originated out of a desire to bring back classical techniques. This was called Classical Antiquity and it was because they believed that Greek and Roman art was the absolute pinnacle of artistic worth. This also expressed the new ‘mood’ which arose in Italy at this time. This mood or desire called for a shift to a more human-focused art and not necessarily just religious representation. This was referred to as Humanism. Humanism was a way of thinking which attached more importance to Man and less importance to God. Although Christianity still remained the primary religion, Humanism just reinterpreted it to give it a human, relatable face. For example, religious figures like Evangelists, Saints, Apostles, and the Holy Family were portrayed as real people and not stereotyped, idealized figures. Humanistic philosophy placed Man at the center of things and in the visual arts, this led to a close study of the human body, a significant return to nude forms and then, leading on from this, a preoccupation with nature in all its forms.
In keeping with this new ideal of Humanism, Early Renaissance painting really strove to achieve greater realism in all their works. In contrast to the flat, stiff images of Byzantine art, human faces became more life-like, bodies were painted in more realistic postures and poses and figures began to express real emotion. At the same time, great efforts were made to create realistic depth in paintings using scientific perspective. With this greater interest in realism now a driving factor, artists had to really dive into the proper study of light, shadow and human anatomy. Although significant advances were made in these areas during the early and mid-15th century it wasn’t until the late Renaissance period that these techniques were mastered.
What is also important to note is the shift in the subject matter. Although most works still represented religion and stories from the Bible, Early Renaissance artists also introduced narratives and characteristics from Classical mythology. This illustrated their beliefs but it is noteworthy that during Medieval times, everything about Greek art and mythology was perceived as being pagan and despised for it. In the Renaissance, Greek art and mythology were associated more with enlightenment. This more than anything represents how times were changing. Early Renaissance art really was, more than anything that came before it, a real start for the practice of art and people were swiftly becoming more aware of its importance in all facets of life.