When you visit an art museum or you read about art history, you’ll see lots of terms used to describe artistic periods and styles—Renaissance, Baroque, Impressionist, and so on. But did the men (yes, they were mostly men) making the art know about these labels, or identify with them? Or, as a visitor recently asked me, did Renaissance artists know they were in the Renaissance?
I loved this question and decided to find out.
What Is the Renaissance?
As we think of it today, the Renaissance refers to a time period in which a series of shifts took place in European art. Beginning in the early 1300s, artists looked again for inspiration to ancient Greece and Rome, which they saw as a high point in European art and culture. Creators of all kinds—painters, sculptors, architects, writers, musicians—began to pursue art with self-conscious attention to the glorification of man, realistic portrayal of the human body and landscape, and the artist as an individual.
Today we call this new age for music, art, and philosophy, spanning the 1300s to the 1600s in Europe, “the Renaissance.”
I asked Davide Gasparotto, senior curator of paintings at the Getty Museum, whether the artists doing this work identified as “Renaissance” artists at the time.
The answer? Sort of yes…but sort of no. “As always in history,” he added, “it is very complex.” To see how, we have to consider what inspired the use of the term to begin with.
Who Used It First—And Why?
The word “Renaissance” is French for “rebirth.” It came into common English usage in the early 1800s to refer to the period as a “rebirth” of vaunted antiquity.
But the first mention of a term referring to this idea came almost 300 years earlier. In 1550, in the book Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, Giorgio Vasari used the Italian word rinascita, meaning “renewal” or “rebirth” to embody a new style of art being practiced by artists like Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael. (Today the usual Italian term for the Renaissance is Rinascimento.)
Often called Europe’s first art historian, Vasari divided these artists into three periods in his highly influential tome. The Prima Eta (“First Age”) included Giotto, one of the earliest Italian painters to move away from stylization and embrace a more naturalistic approach to depicting humans, landscape, and architecture. His efforts were so innovative that his artistic successors in the fifteenth century spent years building on his technical innovations. Vasari credited him as heralding a new moment in painting; art historians today tend to identify him as part of a proto-Renaissance.
Among the artists Vasari included in the “Second Age” were Masaccio, Donatello, and Brunelleschi, all active in the 15th century. Thanks to books like Lorenzo Ghiberti’s I Commentarii, one of the earliest autobiographical accounts by an artist, we know that these artists were consciously pushing new artistic conventions, including the naturalistic rendering of the human body (inspired by examples from antiquity) and of the environment (through the development of one-point perspective).
Vasari’s “Third Age” was for the most part his own time—the first half of the sixteenth century. The artists of this stage worked in la maniera moderna—“the modern manner”—that had evolved from Giotto and culminated in the highly naturalistic work of the artists most famously associated with the Renaissance: Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo, Titian, and Correggio.
So, during the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries, the word Renaissance (or Rinascimento) may not have been falling from the lips of artists, but they were aware that something new was afoot. Figures of the rinascita were deliberately pushing the artistic envelope. They were pouring drama and emotion into their masterpieces, and while inspired by classical Greek and Roman art, they also were spurred by a competitive desire to create something new and different than previous generations. In the process, they also birthed the field of art history as we know it today, and paved the way for artists that followed to also consciously strive to create something new.
Reading to Feed More of Your Renaissance Curiosity
Intrigued? See these classic titles:
- Burckhardt, Jacob. The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. Translated by S. G. C. Middlemore. New York: Harper, 1958. (Original: Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien, 1860.)
- Campbell, Stephen J., and Michael Wayne Cole. A New History of Italian Renaissance Art. London: Thames & Hudson, 2012.
- Cennino D’ Andrea Cennini. The Craftsman’s Handbook. The Italian “Il Libro dell’ Arte.” Translated by Daniel V. Thompson, Jr. New York: Dover Publications, Inc. 1933.
- Vasari, Giorgio. Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. Translated by Jonathan Foster. London: H.G. Bohn, 1851.
Explore answers to more art questions in our #QuestFest series on The Iris.
Good article but I wld like just to add one point
Il Rinascimento had also a huge political meaning
In fact for the first time aftet centuries the focus is the man with his body and brain…not God….
So it was the first step toward the french revolution
One example is the David statue
Where the is head a bit bigger …as michelangelo wanted to tell us that the man is the center of all…and within the man the head n the brain…is the most important thing…as Freedom and creatività comes right fm there…so after the dark ages dominated by only by God. ..finally the men were ready to walk out fm the dark…
I appreciate this answer as tomorrow I am starting a class at SDMA on the renaissance in preparation. For becoming a volunteer docent . This was timely!
I like your live FB broadcasts and this ask a curator.. I especially appreciate the reading recommendations
After reading your article on the Renaissance it reminded me of my recent visit to Italy. My wife and I visted the town of Vigevano near Milan whilst on the trail of Leonardo who engineered the canals system and worked on the model farm in Vigevano. In particular, we dropped in to visit “La villa della Sforzesca” that was built in 1486 by Ludovico il Moro, one of Leonardo’s patrons. To our surprise, we found the main agricultural building called “Colombarone” closed to the public and in a state of decay. I wrote to the Commune seeking clarification about its fate and sadly it remains in ‘No Man’s Land’ in urgent need of a good samaritan or two! Here is the Commun’s reply:
La segnalazione 4749 creata in data 03-09-2016 con oggetto La “villa della Sforzesca” è stata chiusa dal settore Teatro, turismo, eventi, musei, gestione spazi del castello e del centro storico con la seguente risposta:
Gentile sig. Griffith, Purtroppo al momento non sono attivi dei progetti per il recupero del Colombarone della Sforzesca. Lei ha ragione è un edificio splendido che avrebbe grandi possibilità. Per il suo recupero però necessitano numerosi milioni di euro e ci vorrebbero degli imprenditori disposti ad investire. Grazie per l’interesse per la nostra città. Gian Paolo Degli Agosti
NB: Non rispondere a questa email generata automaticamente dal servizio Segnalazioni del Numero Verde del Comune di Vigevano
Can the Getty Center help in any way to restore this magnificentRenaissance architectural legacy?
The entire purpose of rennasance art was to recast divinity, nobility and virtue in the color of white skin. All the great masters of the rennaisance were aware that black people existed in their own societies, afterall blacks ruled Europe for hundreds of years and were it’s original inhabitants. And yet, despite this awareness, every single one of them chose to omit black people from all of their works. They painted scenes which they were aware consisted only of black people, with no black people present. Not a single master chose to use their artistic skill to create an accurate portrayal, and this is impossible to have occurred by chance. The one overarching theme of the renaissance, the common thread that connects every work of the period that survived destruction, is iconoclasm. History is written by the victor, and a picture is worth a thousand words today and was probably worth even more back then. I mean why did so many artists deliberate painstakingly to draw the same biblical and mythological scenes over and over and over and not ever bother to do a version that was historically accurate? It’s obvious. All discourse on art of that period other than around the sociopolitical or the purely technical qualities is an exercise in futility because all of it’s art is propaganda.
I shared your comment with Thomas Kren, curator of the exhibition The Renaissance Nude (October 30–January 27, 2019), which examines the depiction of the body in European art in the 1400s and 1500s, for his input. Here is his response:
—Annelisa, Iris editor