Even if you can’t name a renaissance artist, don’t know what the renaissance is, can’t even pronounce renaissance, you’ve probably seen at least one painting from the era known as “the renaissance”. Ever heard of the Mona Lisa for crying out loud? Well that’s renaissance art my friend. That one actually may be the most famous painting in the world, painted by the true renaissance man if there ever was one, our boy Leonardo da Vinci. Leo was so diversely intelligent and innovative that his works in art, his inventions, and his contributions to science (among other things) are still famous today.
The period of the renaissance was from about the early 1300’s to the mid 1500’s. It means “rebirth” in French and refers to the revival of classical learning and art that was popular in ancient Greece and Rome. Italy was the undisputed hub of the early renaissance, and vigorous production by artists and admiration by fans stimulated the art scene.
This period of art and philosophy followed the middle ages and signified new forms of prosperity and mercantilism. Can we take a second to remember how dismal the middle ages were? In France they were putting pigs on trial for murder and in Germany they had divorce by combat—splitting couples got in a ring and fought it out UFC-style. I mean they tried to even the playing field by putting the man in a waist-deep hole, but they were both given weapons, so the barbarianism was still strong. I just want you to have this kind of thing in your mind so you can truly appreciate Europe’s cultural transition into the renaissance.
Okay back to it. In order for aspiring artists to have the time and money to focus on art, they would have mentors who taught them and patrons who paid the bills. These sugar daddy’s and mama’s had no small part in advancing science, philosophy and art. The Di Medici family, for instance, was one of these patrons. Cosimo Di Medici, the patriarch of the banking family which essentially controlled Florence, is thought to be one of the most important patrons of the arts at this time. One of his patrons, Donatello, sculpted his famous statue of David as a commission for Cosimo. Michelangelo’s arguable more famous David statue came about a hundred years later.
The point is, people started focusing on art again and this cultural glorification, financial support and increased competition of the era inevitably improved the quality of the art that was being produced. Artists started paying attention to things we take for granted now that we’re walking around with a camera in our pocket at all times—things like light and shadow, and perspective. Pictures wouldn’t come onto the scene for another 400 years, so a little time learning to paint an accurate portrait would have a lot of value for the preservation of history.
The ability for a society to put more focus on art is certainly a privilege, but also a necessity for advancing culture. Those who could afford to commission paintings from the most famous artists saw it as an opportunity to preserve the legacy of their name or family, and signify to others their wealth, religion and virtue.
Religion is a big part of the renaissance. Much of the depictions in famous paintings that we still see today have some tie to religion or depicted a religious figure. Remember we’re talking about a time and a place where the papacy was making and enforcing laws, so repping your Catholicism in a painting was going to earn points with the big boys. The thing is, later in the renaissance, because of this premium put on culture and education, people started to read and learn more and dare I say, think for themselves. This thinking for yourself madness always ends up stirring the pot, and of course, led to the questioning of Europe’s method of practicing religion.
Steering away from the dominance of religious thought, “humanism” was an intellectual revolution; and revolutions always affect art (and perhaps vice versa). It was called humanism because it meant to shift focus to the possibilities and potential of human thought and creation, as opposed to endless obedience and deference to the divine for creation. This mentality of openness to innovation may be one of the most important transitions for western thought, and certainly still resonates in the individualistic western ideology of today.
Hey did I mention the printing press?
That was another epic invention to storm out of the renaissance period (back in the 1440’s). All these poets, philosophers and scientists were writing their ideas down and people wanted to read them. Free thinkers and radicals became bestsellers, and books were the vehicle for this dissemination.
Before the printing press, if you wanted a book, you had to commission for it to be copied! Can you imagine? Sure you can have that book, in about a year and a half when I’m done writing it out by hand like Bart Simpson in detention.
With mass production comes mass spreading of knowledge, and with that, comes more education, creativity, innovation and organization.
SO, ask not what the renaissance has done for you; but what you can do for the renaissance—the next one that is. Which could be right now for all we know.