During the 15th century in Europe, a prosperous middle class arose in the Netherlands, France, and Italy. They supported scholarship, literature, and the arts. Their generous patronage led to the revival of classical art, architecture, learning, and creativity called the Renaissance. Merchants began to have a rising social status. Humanism is a term that refers to the revival of classical learning and literature. Humanism promoted a “worldview that is focused on human beings, an education that perfects individuals through the study of past models of civic and personal virtue, a value system that emphasizes personal effort and responsibility, and a physically or intellectually active life that is directed at a common good as well as individual nobility” (Stokstad 613). The greatest humanist was Petrarch, who saw history in three periods: the ancient classical world, the “dark ages,” and a rebirth. Petrarch also introduced writing in the vernacular, as opposed to Latin; Giotto introduced a vernacular style in painting. The people of the Renaissance had an appreciation of Greek and Roman culture, and classical antiquity was considered the standard model. Popular subjects in art were history, religion, and mythology. Portraiture became more common, and anatomical accuracy became important. Linear perspective, which created the illusion of three dimensional space on a two dimensional surface, developed. The Renaissance began in 14th century Italy, and spread to the rest of Europe in the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries.
The most famous architect of the early Renaissance was Filippo Brunelleschi. He became the designer of the dome of Florence Cathedral, which was revolutionary engineering. Brunelleschi then designed a sacristry as a chapel and mausoleum, for the Medici family, and was then commissioned to build the church itself, replacing the old basilica. This church, San Lorenzo, was rebuilt with the plan of an early Christian basilica. A long nave and two side aisles are intersected by a transept. San Lorenzo has mathematical regularity and symmetry. Palazzo Medici-Riccardi’s plain exterior related to political and religious thinking in Florence, which was strongly influence by Christian ideals of poverty and charity. The building was constructed around a central courtyard surrounded by a covered gallery, or loggia. The spread of Renaissance architecture was partly because of Leon Battista Alberti, who traveled widely. Alberti was commissioned to enlarge the Church of Sant’Andrea, who began work on it but died that summer. One of Alberti’s ideas for the church was the Latin-cross plan, where a nave more than 55 feet wide is intersected by a transept of equal width and has a square, domed crossing. A votive church was a church built as a special offering to a saint. The large congregations and processions made the long nave a basilica almost a necessity for local churches, but votive churches often had a central plan. The medium of the churches and palazzo were stone, marble, and pietra serena.
A popular subject in sculpture was Old Testament figure like Moses, David, Jeremiah, and Isaiah, and so was large figures of patron saints of a church. In the 15th century, the two most important sculptural commissions in Florence were the new bronze doors for the Florence Cathedral Baptistry, and the exterior decoration of the Church of Orsanmichele. Lorenzo Ghiberti won the competition to do the bronze relief panels for the doors. The most famous sculptor of early Italian Renaissance was Donatello. He used a pictorial approach to relief sculpture, and created the impression of deep space by using new linear perspective and varying heights of relief. Donatello constantly explored human emotions and expressions and medium, such as bronze, marble, and polychromed wood. In bronze sculpture, Donatello made the first life-size male nude since antiquity (David) and the first life-size bronze equestrian portrait since classical Rome (Gattamelata). Near the end of his career, Donatello’s style became more emotionarlly expressive, as seen in his Mary Magdalen. Equestrian statues became more popular, and so did portrait tombs. To supply the increasing demand for architectural sculpture, artists turned to nontraditional materials such as terra cotta, although bronze and marble were the most popular mediums. In later 15th century, small bronzes were popular, such as Hercules and Antaeus.
Giotto created a new style in painting. He introduced heightened human actions and emotions by painting enormous figures, modeled by a natural and consistent light and acting in a shallow but clearly defined space. He was a great storyteller, and his painted biblical events were understandable. Outside of Italy, there was an interest in the natural world. Along with the new desire for accurate depiction came an interest in personalities because of the humanist interest on people. Northern artists were interested in details, while Italian artists were more concerned with classical elements. Oil paint became the new medium of painting, although tempera and oil were still combined in some paintings. Atmospheric perspective was introduced, as artists painted more distant objects with a grayish or bluish cast to make it seem farther away. Italian patrons usually commissioned murals and large altarpieces for local churches, and smaller panel paintings for private chapels. Frescoes were in great demand, and Italian painters showed little interest in oil painting. The new Renaissance style and painting had solid, volumetric forms, perspectivally defined space, and references to classical antiquity. Popular subjects were any biblical scenes, mythology, and portraits. Oil painting largely replaced other mediums.