A long time ago, in a far away land known as Italy, something uniquely special happened that changed the world forever. Its profound effects are still being felt today in science, art, and our everyday lives. So potent were its primary luminaries that they forever changed the world in monumental ways. Leonardo Da Vinci, one of the greatest artists, inventors, and scientists humanity has ever known helped make the renaissance possible. Through his personal contributions we have art that continues to inspire millions daily and inventions that benefit our daily lives. From helicopters, tanks, and mechanical bridges to parachutes, scuba gear and clocks Leonardo's vision helped make them possible. The counterpart to Leonardo's science was Michelangelo's intuition. Michelangelo didn't believe in perfectly measured ratios as Leonardo did, Michelangelo put all his faith in an artist's ability to intuitively know and feel what was right. He used this to incomparable effect with his truly epic sculptures and paintings that transcend art and are imbued with a life of their own. Two well known names today, yet they lived about 700 years ago as the renaissance occurred around the the 14th to the 16th centuries. That kind of fame is normally reserved for religious figures. Indeed that is the scale, importance and magnitude of the renaissance and its contributors. Along with Raphael, Titian, Botticelli, Donatello, and Ghiberti to name just a few, art went from flat, objectified, almost abstract, renditions of people and places, to realistic and convincing illusions of space that used science, humanity, empathy and observation to masterfully captivate viewers. It must have seemed like magic.
The genius and talent of these rare individuals was magnified by huge advances in transportation and through, it communication. However this was all possible because there was an unheard of free flowing and exchanging of ideas. Rather than hoarding their discoveries and have them die with them these people exchanged techniques, ideas and discoveries allowing them to advance at unprecedented speeds and they all benefited exponentially from the knowledge they shared. It is unfortunate we did not retain that lesson as a species. Today we guard information with patents, lawsuits and corporate entities assuring only those who pay can benefit from the end product of any innovation. Surely there must be a more beneficial balance between rewarding the innovator and allowing all of humanity to benefit from the innovation.
The renaissance did not happen over night. There is a clear development of techniques and concepts such as Linear Perspective, light, modeling, atmospheric perspective and realistic emotional expression. You can see the effect of these concepts spread in the works of artists both over time and geographically.
In Giotto's image Pentecost, from 1305 we see a mixture of many medieval qualities as well as some burgeoning renaissance characteristics. We see the people depicted in flattened forms and the figures all appear to be arranged on the same vertical plane. While there is some rudimentary use of perspective as seen in the foreshortening of the architecture it is still more an idea of a thing than a realistic illusion. We see a group of people and while some may be looking at each other their faces are relatively expressionless and it looks almost like a painting of mannequins positioned together but staring blankly off into the distance with no emotional connection. While the cloth is communicated effectively and even has a pattern in places it lacks modeling, texture and depth. It is still very reminiscent of Icons created for prayer from the middle ages. That said this painting separates itself well from its middle age counterparts by the early use of and attempts at perspective, human interaction, shading, and deeper modeling of forms.
Masaccio really helped push renaissance art by pioneering the use of perspective and championing a more natural depiction and aesthetic. His images also expressed the subjects emotions with more depth, range, and sincerity. His perception and representation of light was more realistic adding much depth to the modeling that he imbued his paintings with. Gone are the stark solid outlines that broke and objectified forms in the middle ages. Masaccio instead defined forms with light and dark emulating the way light works in real life. I think being aware of and using perspective and vanishing points allowed him much more freedom as an artist. It allowed him to push the envelopes of composition by not limiting him to a single plane. This allowed him to reproduce buildings and wide open spaces with the illusion of depth. He could then place his subjects in a perceived 3 dimensional space rather than just a 2d flat page representation of the same scene. Truly ground breaking as these are things that were not available before he did them. It seems so obvious now but to be the first one to achieve something like that is pure magic.
It is interesting to see the progression, there are very few checkboxes of techniques you can say yes or no, but rather you see the gradual progression. Elements of the middle ages are still visible in the Neophytes image. While there is clear emotion on people's faces they are still simplistic and crude. Clothing, while having more dimension, is still relatively flat and the modeled is not as developed as it could be. The landscape despite shrinking into the distance is simplistic and flat almost like a background in a play. The gilded golden halo of middle age Icons is still used to mark the holy nature of the main figure. Also while Masaccio made huge strides over his predecessors the human anatomy in this painting is still rough and simplified, especially in the depiction of people's hands. Characters poses show more emotion but in a limited and simple range.
It must have been an exciting time to be alive for Ghirlandaio with so many advances to his art in such a short time. His work Adoration of the Shepherds, shows a radical leap forward in perspective. Not only do things get smaller into the distance but he has items that are properly foreshortened which go to their own vanishing points such as the (crypt or water trough, baptism?) below the cow and to the right of Mary (?). Figures and buildings disappear into the distance effectively creating the illusion of vast depth back to the town, lake, and hills beyond. We also see an effective use of atmospheric perspective with the hills disappearing and fading into the distance. There is deep modeling of architecture, people and clothing with a clear understanding of natural light and its properties. Buildings appear sculpted and human forms are detailed, delicate and expressive. A range of emotions and interactions can be seen as well making the scene more human and compelling. Figures are talking to one another with evocative gestures and a variety of well rendered expressions. Even the animals are foreshortened and deeply modeled with clear attention to their features and demeanors. The idealization of the renaissance is also apparent with the a general cleanliness and perfectly chiseled architectural elements. The triangular composition of the renaissance is also evident with many forms reinforcing it like the road with travelers and even ears of the donkey although the figures seems to be organized in a double triangle. There is balance and harmony between the deep blacks and bright whites, each enhancing the other. This is less a painting and more a window into a miniature world letting viewers experience this magical moment.
In this day and age of human hyper specialization it is astonishing to think that Michaelangelo was a sculptor and yet created one of the great artistic paintings and indeed human achievements with the Sistine chapel. His stunningly modeled human forms are soft as skin should be yet powerful beyond words. His complete mastery of human anatomy and human psychology are evident in the delicate details that harmoniously reinforce his bold primary depictions of expression. It seems as though every limb, finger and muscle echo the emotions projected by the subjects face. I never realized the body was such an indicator, I took it for granted and focused on the face assuming that was where all the indicators were. Perhaps beyond the individual characters emotions it is the profound connection between them that makes them come alive and pushes the work to such heights of resonance with viewers. Indeed it imbues them with life in a successfully captured moment. The idealization of the human form is also apparent in the muscular physiques and elegant poses but magically they do not undermine or overwhelm the complex emotions of the subjects. Balance, symmetry and stability, so loved during the renaissance, are incorporated into an energetic composition by the steep diagonal between the two figures and their corresponding angled poses. These two triangles, in oppose corners, add drama befitting the moment.
Revolutionary innovation, communication, and hyper intelligent observations combined to usher in one of if not the greatest era art has ever known. Coupled with the benefit of some of the greatest minds and most prodigious talents beauty, humanity, balance, glorious light, intelligent spacial illusions, and the masterful pursuit of perfection define the wondrous era of the Renaissance.