During this period, Italy—and in the fifteenth century, Florence above all—is the seat of an artistic, humanistic, technological, and scientific flowering known as the Renaissance. Founded primarily on the rediscovery of classical texts and artifacts, Renaissance culture looks to heroic ideals from antiquity and promotes the study of the liberal arts, centering largely upon the individual’s intellectual potential. As a result, tremendous innovations are made in the fields of mathematics, medicine, engineering, architecture, and the visual arts, while a surge of vernacular literature attempts not only to emulate, but also to surpass antique models. Some of the most celebrated figures of Renaissance Italy, supremely exemplified by the artist, scientist, and inventor Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), excel in several fields.
At this time, Florence is a hub of humanist scholarship and artistic production, due largely to the funding of the powerful Medici family, who, by the end of the period, exert their political and financial influence over much of central Italy. Significant urban development also occurs in Siena, an important artistic center, and the influential Montefeltro rulers of Urbino establish an illustrious court at which the liberal and visual arts flourish.
The Medici family of merchants and bankers rises to power in Florence. Although no member of the family holds an official title until the sixteenth century, the Medicis’ enormous wealth and influence grant them virtual rule of Florence. Throughout the period (save intermittent periods of public resistance), they dominate the political, commercial, and cultural life of the city; it is under their patronage that Florence becomes a center of humanist learning and the seat of a tremendous flourishing of the arts that takes classical antiquity as its inspiration.
Florentine sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti (ca. 1378–1455) wins a competition that secures a commission for the bronze doors of the Baptistery of San Giovanni, Florence. Ghiberti sets to work on the north portal, which depicts scenes from the life of Christ, completing it in 1424. He finishes the east portal, with scenes from the Old Testament—later called the “Gates of Paradise” by an admiring Michelangelo—in 1452. Spanning nearly fifty years of the artist’s career, the doors illustrate a transition in Ghiberti’s sculptural style from that of the International Gothic to one influenced by classical forms and incorporating recent innovations in the depiction of perspective. Ghiberti runs a large and successful workshop, and many of his assistants become great masters in their own time. Among them are the architect and sculptor Michelozzo (1396–1472)—a favorite of Cosimo de’ Medici (1389–1464) and architect of the Palazzo Medici (begun 1444)—and Donatello (ca. 1386–1466), a founding father of the Renaissance sculptural style also favored by the Medici.
The republic of Pisa falls to Florentine rule.
Donatello executes the revolutionary Saint Mark and Saint George for the guildhall of Orsanmichele in Florence. The Saint Mark conveys a realistic sense of mass and stands in a convincing contrapposto pose, while the Saint George depicts a warrior youth clearly inspired by classical ideals. Shortly thereafter, Donatello pioneers the technique of carving in shallow relief, known as schiacciato, which uses perspective to produce an illusion of spatial depth; one of the earliest examples of this is the scene of Saint George Slaying the Dragon, depicted in a panel on the base below the statue of Saint George.
After losing the competition for the Florentine Baptistery doors in 1403 to his great rival Ghiberti, Filippo Brunelleschi (1377–1446) turns his attention to architecture, developing systems of linear perspective and proportion which he demonstrates in two experimental panels (now lost) depicting the Palazzo della Signoria (Palazzo Vecchio) and the Baptistery in Florence. Among Brunelleschi’s most celebrated architectural projects is the ribbed dome for the cathedral in Florence (completed 1436), unprecedented in its time.
Florentine citizens led by Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici (1360–1429) undertake the rebuilding of the Church of San Lorenzo, an eleventh-century structure. The Medici commission Brunelleschi to construct a new nave, transept, several chapels, and the domed sacristy (now called the Old Sacristy).
Masaccio (1401–ca. 1428) is the foremost painter of the early fifteenth century. In his brief career, spanning only a few years, he produces several landmarks of Italian painting. A fresco of the Trinity for the Church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence applies Brunelleschi’s theories of linear perspective to painting, and a series of frescos for the Brancacci Chapel of Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence, achieves in its depiction of figures not only a classical proportion but also a profound psychological depth. Masaccio’s younger brother, Giovanni di ser Giovanni (1406–1486), called Lo Scheggia, is at first closely associated with his brother’s workshop, but is known primarily for his painted birth trays (deschi da parto) and other decorative furniture.
Painter Gentile da Fabriano (ca. 1370–1427), champion of the International Gothic style, is active in Florence and Siena. During this period, he completes (1423) his great masterwork, the Adoration of the Magi altarpiece (called the Strozzi altarpiece) for the sacristy of Santa Trinità in Florence (now in the Uffizi, Florence). The characteristic attention to naturalistic detail, softly luminous palette, dignity of form, and courtly elegance of this monumental work make it a landmark of Florentine painting.
The Florentine Fra Filippo Lippi (ca. 1406–1469) leaves the Carmelite convent in which he resides and, in the following decades, earns great success for his lively and gracefully ornamental frescoes and easel paintings. His son Filippino Lippi (ca. 1457–1504) is also an accomplished master, and in 1480–82 completes Masaccio’s fresco cycle in the Brancacci Chapel.
Florentine painter and Dominican friar Fra Angelico (ca. 1400–1455) executes an altarpiece for the Church of San Domenico in Cortona (now in the Museo Diocesano). The central panel, depicting the Annunciation, exemplifies the elegance and delicacy of form characteristic of Fra Angelico’s oeuvre. In 1436, the Dominican friars of Fiesole move to the convent of San Marco in Florence; here, Fra Angelico produces many frescoes for the convent interior that effect a devotional mood for the Dominican monastic community.
Leon Battista Alberti (1404–1472)—an architect and humanist scholar—writes the treatises On Painting (1435–36), On Architecture (ca. 1450), and On Sculpture (ca. 1464), each a vital contribution to its field in its discussion of theory, perspective, and, in the first book, the aims of painting. In his own building projects, such as the facade of the Palazzo Rucellai in Florence (ca. 1452–70), Alberti is among the first architects of the Renaissance to integrate classical orders with complete understanding.
Federigo da Montefeltro (1422–1482) becomes duke of Urbino. Acquiring vast wealth as an astute warrior and politician, Federigo sponsors several large-scale building projects, including his greatest commission, the Palazzo Ducale in Urbino—designed by Luciano Laurana (active by 1464, died 1479) and completed by Francesco di Giorgio (1439–1501/2)—and the Palazzo Ducale in Gubbio. Both palaces include small rooms or studies (studioli) exquisitely paneled with intarsia designs. A studiolo from the palazzo at Gubbio is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (39.153).
The Della Robbia family of sculptors is active in Florence, where they produce luminous glazed terracotta reliefs including those in the Pazzi Chapel. Funded by the influential Pazzi family, the space serves not only as a chapter house for the friars of the Church of Santa Croce (its original purpose), but also as a family chapel.
Benozzo Gozzoli (1420–1497), a painter trained in Florence and Rome under Fra Angelico, becomes an independent master. In the following year, he begins a series of frescoes depicting scenes from the life of Saint Francis for the Church of San Francesco in Montefalco. In 1459, Gozzoli returns to Florence, where he paints the splendid Procession of the Magi frescoes for the Palazzo Medici chapel. To several of the elegant and brilliantly arrayed figures in the frescoes, Gozzoli lends the features of various members of the Medici family.
Leonardo da Vinci is born in Tuscany. A precociously talented young man, Leonardo enters the workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio (1435–1488) in Florence in the 1460s. For Verrocchio, Leonardo contributes a kneeling angel to the Baptism of Christ (ca. 1470; Uffizi). In 1472, he is an independent master, and in 1481 receives a commission for a large Adoration of the Magi for the monastery of San Donato a Scopeto in Florence. Left unfinished, the Adoration (Uffizi) nevertheless displays the subtle modeling of figures with varying degrees of light and shade (chiaroscuro) that will characterize his later works. About 1482, Leonardo leaves Florence for Milan, entering the service of Ludovico Sforza, called Il Moro (1451/52–1508).
Piero della Francesca (ca. 1420–1492) paints the Legend of the True Cross for the Church of San Francesco, Arezzo (Tuscany). Considered Piero’s masterpiece, this fresco cycle exemplifies the chief characteristics of the master’s oeuvre: a stately grandeur effected by meticulous attention to color, scientific perspective, and a carefully calculated system of proportion.
Florentine sculptor Desiderio da Settignano (ca. 1430–1464) carves a marble tomb effigy for Cardinal Marsuppini (Florence, Church of Santa Croce). His only large-scale commission, this work is imbued with the same delicacy of detail and refinement of surface as may be found in the portrait busts for which he is best known. In the same church nave is the tomb of Leonardo Bruni (ca. 1446–48) by Desiderio’s contemporary and fellow Florentine, Bernardo Rossellino (1407/10–ca. 1464). Bernardo’s work employs a bolder sculptural approach and is markedly inspired by classical prototypes. Displaying a greater fluidity and simplicity of form are the sculpted portraits and tomb monuments of Bernardo’s younger brother, Antonio Rossellino (1427–ca. 1479).
Florentine sculptor and architect Agostino di Duccio (1418–after 1481) produces the lavishly ornamental facade of the Oratory of San Bernardino, an outstanding monument of Renaissance architecture in Perugia.
Pope Pius II (1458–64), of the powerful Piccolomini family, visits his birthplace in the small Tuscan hamlet of Corsignano, where he conceives an ambitious project to urbanize the area. Around 1462, it is renamed Pienza, and by the mid-1460s many new structures are erected, including a cathedral and the papal palace, Palazzo Piccolomini. Pius chooses as his architect for this and other projects in Pienza the illustrious Florentine Bernardo Rossellino (1407/10–ca. 1464), known for his rigorous adherence to classical ideals.
Foremost among the Medici as a poet, scholar, and humanist, Lorenzo (1449–1492), called “the Magnificent,” comes to power. He gathers at his court many of the greatest luminaries of the day: artists such as Sandro Botticelli (1444/45–1510), Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449–1494), and Michelangelo (1475–1564), the poet Angelo Poliziano (1454–1494), and philosophers Marsilio Ficino (1433–1499) and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463–1494).
Conspirators including members of the Pazzi family and Pope Sixtus IV devise a plot to oust the Medici, namely Lorenzo and his brother Giuliano, from power in Florence. The Pazzi Conspiracy, if effective, would place the pope’s nephew Girolamo Riario in power, adding the Florentine state to papal territorial holdings. On April 26, Giuliano de’ Medici is assassinated during mass at the cathedral, while Lorenzo escapes. Although the Medici successfully quell the conspiracy, revolts against their rule continue until the 1490s, when they are expelled from Florence (1494). During their exile, religious reformer Fra Girolamo Savonarola (1452–1498) comes to power, condemning the worldliness and corruption of the city, but he is tried and executed as a false prophet in 1498. The Medici return to power after 1512.
Sandro Botticelli (1444/45–1510), a favorite of the Medici, produces the works of his maturity. Outstanding among these are the mythological allegories Primavera and The Birth of Venus, which not only display Botticelli’s lyrical handling of color and line, but also reflect a contemporary celebration of classical poetry and mythological subjects. Probably as an ardent follower of Savonarola, Botticelli turns in his later years to deeply devotional works of greater simplicity.
Giuliano da Sangallo (1445–1516) is the favored architect and engineer of Lorenzo de’ Medici, for whom he designs, among numerous projects, the Church of Santa Maria delle Carceri (1485–99) in the Tuscan town of Prato. The church has a simple Greek cross plan that exemplifies a Brunelleschian vocabulary of architectural form, but also includes Sangallo’s highly original conception of ornamental details.
Raphael (died 1520) is born in Urbino. By the early sixteenth century, he produces works influenced in their color and delicacy of figural style by the Umbrian painter Perugino (ca. 1445–1523) and the Florentine Fra Bartolommeo (1472–1517), whose works Raphael studies during his years of activity in Florence (1504–8).
Francesco di Giorgio (1439–1501/2), the versatile Sienese painter, architect, sculptor, and engineer, designs the Church of Santa Maria del Calcinaio, an outstanding monument of Renaissance architecture in the Tuscan city of Cortona. In ca. 1482 he writes the influential architectural treatise Trattato di architettura civile e militare.
Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475–1564) resides with the Medici family as a follower of Bertoldo di Giovanni, a sculptor in their service. He is exposed to the circle of humanists, scholars, poets, and artists that gathers in the Medici household, where he learns the principles of Neoplatonic thought and develops a profound appreciation of classical form. Leaving Florence when the Medici are exiled in 1494, he returns in 1501 to execute the David (completed 1504), intended for a buttress of the Florence Cathedral. Placed instead in front of the Palazzo della Signoria (Palazzo Vecchio), the gigantic statue of heroic youth symbolizes the Florentine Republic as it challenges foreign intervention.
In 1464, the first book is printed in Italy. The first printed book to include woodcut illustrations appears in Rome in 1467. In Florence, where illuminated manuscripts continue to be prized, the printed book is slow to catch on; by the 1490s, however, a flood of small publications begin to issue from Florentine presses. Directed to a broad public, these range from devotional pamphlets to textbooks to love stories, many of which are enlivened by distinctive and delightful woodcut illustrations. With rare exceptions, Florence’s golden age of book illustration does not last into the next century. Instead, works published in the sixteenth century continue to be illustrated with the blocks produced in the 1490s.
Perugino (ca. 1445–1523), a master of the Umbrian school, undertakes a series of large-scale allegorical and religious frescoes for the audience hall of the Collegio del Cambio (banker’s guild) in Perugia. The success of these frescoes earns him widespread renown in the region of Umbria and the Marches, his primary area of activity until 1500. It is probable that during this period Perugino’s workshop includes the young Raphael, whose early works display the elder master’s influence.
Painter Luca Signorelli (born in Cortona, 1441–1523) produces a monumental fresco series of apocalyptic scenes for the San Brizio Chapel at the cathedral of Orvieto. These complex compositions of intensely dramatic impact and masterful command of anatomy represent the pinnacle of the Tuscan painter’s career.
After nearly two decades in Milan, Leonardo returns to Florence, where he pursues the study of engineering, mathematics, and topography. In 1503, he is commissioned to paint a monumental commemorative wall painting (no longer extant) for the Great Council Hall of the Palazzo della Signoria (Palazzo Vecchio). The painting of the Battle of Anghiari celebrates a Florentine victory over Milan in 1440. The mural is left unfinished, while another fresco, depicting the Battle of Cascina—commissioned from his rival Michelangelo for a nearby wall—is never executed. Before his second departure for Milan in 1508, Leonardo begins the famed portraitMona Lisa (Paris, Louvre), now identified with a Florentine merchant’s wife.
Pinturicchio (1454–1513), an Umbrian painter working in Siena, Perugia, and Rome, enters the service of Cardinal Francesco Todeschini Piccolomini, later Pope Pius III (1503), for whom he decorates the library adjoining Siena Cathedral with scenes from the life of his famous uncle Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini (Pope Pius II). Raphael seems to have supplied Pinturicchio with drawings for this project.
Venetian painter Lorenzo Lotto (ca. 1480–1556) travels to Recanati, a town in the Marches, where he paints an altarpiece for the Church of San Domenico. Within three years, he departs for Rome to work on the Stanze of the Vatican Palace—then being decorated by Raphael and his workshop—but returns to the Marches in 1511 to execute several notable works, including anEntombment for the confraternity of the Buon Gesù in Jesi, and the fresco Saint Vincent Ferrer in Glory (ca. 1512) for San Domenico in Recanati. After nearly two decades in Bergamo and Venice, Lotto resettles in the Marches between ca. 1532 and 1540; among his works of this period are aCrucifixion altarpiece (Monte San Giusto, Church of Santa Maria in Telusiano) and the Madonna of the Rosary (Cingoli, Pinacoteca Civica). Even during his long absences, Lotto maintains contact with patrons in this region, often executing his commissions in Venice and shipping them to the Marches.
Raphael leaves Florence for Rome, where he becomes the main contributor in the fresco decoration of the Vatican Palace.
Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527), the formidable Florentine statesman who was dismissed from public service, publishes Il principe (The Prince), a treatise on the methods by which a ruler may acquire and sustain power. The text, which asserts the value of cunning and strategy over ethics, expresses one of the chief preoccupations of Machiavelli’s career: the establishment of an Italian state free of foreign rule.
Andrea del Sarto (1486–1530), an eminent painter working in High Renaissance style, is active in Florence, where he is commissioned to provide a fresco cycle for a salon at the Medici villa at Poggio a Caiano. Among the colleagues and assistants who accompany Andrea is his pupil Jacopo da Pontormo (1494–1556). It is at this time that Andrea’s work first displays Mannerist characteristics; these elements are more fully developed by Pontormo and his colleague Rosso (called Rosso Fiorentino, 1494–1540), who become the chief exponents of Mannerism in central Italy. Rosso’s famed Deposition for the Chapel of the Compagnia della Croce di Giorno in the Church of San Francesco, Volterra (1521; now Pinacoteca Civica), with its serpentine forms, bright palette, and unnatural light, is a masterwork of the Mannerist style. Pontormo executes his own celebrated Deposition, for the Church of Santa Felicità in Florence, several years later (1525–28).
Michelangelo designs and executes the New Sacristy for the Church of San Lorenzo, intended as a burial chapel for the Medici. In 1523, he also begins, but never finishes, the vestibule for the nearby Laurentian Library (Biblioteca Laurentiana). In both projects, Michelangelo infuses architectural space and detailing with the energy and tension of a Mannerist sculptural vocabulary.
Agnolo Bronzino (1503–1572) is court artist to Cosimo I de’ Medici (1519–1574; duke from 1537), and dominates Florentine painting during this time. He is known primarily for his portraiture: the Mannerist style with which he depicts his noble patrons emphasizes their sophistication and positions in society, and earns him great success.
Recognized as one of the finest metalsmiths of the period, Benvenuto Cellini (1500–1571) is invited to Paris by the French king Francis I, for whom he executes a lavishly decorative gold and enamel saltcellar, depicting the elegant and elongated Mannerist figures of Neptune and Earth (now Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum). Returning to his native Florence in 1545, Cellini enters the service of Cosimo I de’ Medici, producing portrait busts and large-scale sculpture. From 1558 to 1562 he writes his autobiography, a vibrant if exaggerated account of the artist’s adventures and a vivid portrait of sixteenth-century cultural life.
Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574) publishes the first edition of Lives of the Artists (second ed., expanded, 1568), tracing the development of Italian painting from Cimabue to Michelangelo, of whom Vasari is a great admirer. A painter and architect in his own right, Vasari executes mural paintings for the Palazzo della Signoria (Palazzo Vecchio) in Florence, and designs the Palazzo degli Uffizi (begun 1560) as a public office for Cosimo I de’ Medici.
Cosimo I de’ Medici commissions the Boboli Gardens for the Palazzo Pitti in Florence. A vast, multileveled complex, the gardens contain not only cultivated flora and other vegetation, but also fanciful fountains, pools, and grottoes. The grottoes, most often elaborately sculpted and decorated with frescoes, reflect the contemporary popularity of a structure believed in the classical world to be the shelter of deities and muses. The most celebrated of these is the Grotta Grande (1583–85) designed by Bernardo Buontalenti (ca. 1531–1608), so called because of his renown as one of the age’s finest polymaths.
Holy Roman Emperor Charles V seizes Siena; it falls under Florentine power, however, in 1557. In 1569, Tuscany is made a grand duchy ruled by Cosimo I de’ Medici. Only the duchy of Massa-Carrara and the republic of Lucca remain independent in Tuscany.
Undoubtedly influenced by the work of Italian Mannerist artists in France—notably Cellini and Francesco Primaticcio (1504–1570)—Douai-born sculptor Jean Boulogne (ca. 1529–1608) travels to Italy. After a brief stay in Rome, he settles in Florence, where he earns great success under his Italianized name, Giambologna. Among his finest works executed in Florence are theFlying Mercury (1580; Bargello) and the Rape of the Sabine Women (1583; Loggia dei Lanzi), an extraordinary composition of spiraling forms.
The first art academy, the Accademia del Disegno, is founded in Florence.
Federico Barocci (ca. 1535–1612) produces a Deposition for the Chapel of San Bernardino in Perugia Cathedral. Among the most influential painters of the second half of the sixteenth century, Barocci at first emulates the work of Raphael, Michelangelo, and the Roman Mannerist style of his cousin Taddeo Zuccaro (1529–1566); he is later influenced by the painter Correggio, whose compositional technique, lighting effects, and mastery of dramatic intensity inspire works such as the Deposition. The finest work of his maturity is the Madonna del popolo of 1579, painted for the Misericordia of Arezzo. Barocci’s lyrical handling of this and other subjects influences Baroque artists of the following generation.
Santi di Tito (1536–1603), an artist active in Florence, paints the Resurrection altarpiece for the Church of Santa Croce. Turning away from the stylized elegance of Mannerist painting, Santi favors a more direct narrative approach reflective of contemporary church reform and the return to a simplified and purer religious climate.
“Florence and Central Italy, 1400–1600 A.D.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ht/?period=08®ion=eustc (October 2002)