THE EARLY RENAISSANCE
The word renaissance means “rebirth.” In art history, it specifically means the rebirth of interest in the
classical forms: the idealized human body, simple architectural proportions, and ornament based on the
classical orders. In Italy, artists quoted classical forms in their work even in the thirteenth and fourteenth
centuries, but these were isolated cases. It was not until the beginning of the fifteenth century that artists
and architects began to study classical ruins and incorporate what they learned into new works of art.
The revival of the glory of ancient Rome made political and practical sense in Italy. Roman culture is part
of the Italian peoples’ heritage, and it was a unifying force in an age when Italy was only a loose collection
of duchies, small republics, and papal territories. Practically speaking, during the Renaissance, the remains
of ancient Rome were still visible in many Italian cities. Buildings like the Colosseum were dilapidated, but
they were standing; statues may have been laying in pieces, but they still had the power to inspire.
The desire to revive classical culture was not as strong in northern Europe as it was in Italy; in fact, in areas
like France, the Gothic style was considered the national style, and artistic developments in fifteenth-
century France are sometimes considered to be late Gothic. More commonly though, we refer to northern
European art of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries as northern Renaissance art. The name may be
imperfect (historians are more inclined to call the entire period early modern), but it makes us aware that
important innovations were taking place in the Low Countries, Germany, and France, as well as in Italy.
These innovations included a careful observation of natural appearances and the development of oil
painting, a technique well suited to recording precise textures and lighting effects.
Both north and south of the Alps, the Renaissance was the age of humanism. Humanists are scholars who
study literature, history, and philosophy—subjects we think of as the humanities. In the north, humanists
studied early Hebrew and Christian writings; in Italy, humanists were more interested in Roman and Greek
texts. But we should not confuse humanism with humanitarianism. Humanists are indeed interested in
human beings (and many other things), but they are not necessarily sympathetic to the downtrodden
people of a society. In fact, the Renaissance was a time when violence, prejudice, and social injustice were
at least as common as they are now.
While secular learning became much more important in the Renaissance, the Church was still a powerful
force in people’s lives. Most of the objects discussed in this unit and the next are religious works. Secular
art began to play a larger role in the sixteenth century, especially in northern Europe where the rise of
Protestantism led to fewer religious commissions. Artists began to look for other art markets, and new
forms, like landscape and genre painting, appeared. Printmaking also provided a way for artists to offer
their work to a much larger audience.
Most of the developments we associate with the early Renaissance in Italy took place in Florence, which
became wealthy through cloth manufacturing, trade, and banking. Florence’s growth into a major cultural
center began in the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries (we have already discussed the innovations of
Giotto and the building of huge new churches within the city). The outbreak of the plague in the mid-