The Development of Early Renaissance Oil Painting - 1400-1479 – Masaccio’s Perspective
The term Renaissance is Italian and means rebirth. It was not used in conjunction with the arts, which includes literature, sculpture and oil painting until the nineteenth century when historians began to analyze and define this era. During the Renaissance oil painting rose to a dominant position for the first time ever in the history of Western Art. The Renaissance was significant and yet remained largely confined to the social and intellectual elite throughout its progress – Which began around the end of the thirteenth century, ultimately phasing out toward the end of the sixteenth century.
Early fourteenth century sculptors Nicola and Giovanni Pisano along with the Florentine painter Giotto are both marked down in those history books as the first to create notable art works in the naturalistic style which now identifies Italian Renaissance Art. Around the early fourteen-hundreds Donatello was the most renowned sculptor of the Early Renaissance period. And it was Donatello’s contemporary Tommaso di Ser Giovanni di Simone (1401-1428) – known as Masaccio – who was considered his painterly equal.
Masaccio’s career was brief and so his profound artistic influence upon fresco wall art and consequently oil painting can tend to be overtly overlooked. Masaccio is most renowned for his Fresco wall art paintings in the Cappella dei Brancacci in Florence – The Brancacci Chapel. The Fresco wall art by Masaccio which adorns this Chapel had a notable influence upon later Renaissance artists such as Michelangelo and Fra Angelico. Indeed Michelangelo’s training included extensive studies of Masaccio’s painting - It is this influence which initiated the Brancacci Chapel being regarded as the ‘Sistine Chapel’ of the early Renaissance.
Ambassador Felice Brancacci originally commissioned Masolino da Panicaleto to complete a series of Fresco wall art paintings for his family’s private Chapel. However, Masolino was called to Hungary where he served as the King’s painter after which his student (come associate) the much younger Masaccio took over the undertaking.
Amongst the greatest and most influential innovations of this new artistic era was the exploration of perspective and proportion. Masaccio was among the first to consider linear perspectives and the ‘vanishing point’ which would literally reinvent oil painting – Projecting it from a two dimensional to three dimensional World that was far more convincing and so compelling for the viewer: Oil painting moved away from elaborate ornamentation toward a more naturalistic and convincing mode.
Fresco wall art and oil paintings no longer simply fulfilled there function as a decoration. Instead, a new relationship was born between the painting and the spectator. The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden was the first Fresco by Masaccio and it has become renowned for its unique and expressive realism: Particularly with regards to the facial expressions. To the left of this is Masaccio’s The Tribute Money which is the most renowned Fresco wall art in the series of all.
In this work Masaccio’s use of the vanishing point evident. However, Masaccio also considers the aerial perspective which was an entirely unique thing to do at the time. In art, particularly with regards to oil painting, an aerial perspective is a technique which creates the illusion of depth by blurring objects in the distance. In The Tribute Money, Masaccio has paled out Peter and the mountains to create depth. This technique was known to the artists of ancient Rome. Therefore like many concepts and techniques within the arts over the centuries, it was something rediscovered. Leonardo da Vinci also used the aerial perspective when he created the Mona Lisa oil painting and The Last Supper.
The way Masaccio used light and perspective was ground breaking: Particularly for oil painting. Unlike others his light source originated from a specific point which existed outside of the painting: Thus sculpting his compositions in a three dimensional way using shadow and light. This gave way to the Chiaroscuro technique which became popular during the Renaissance: Although again this technique was not unknown to the artists of ancient Rome.
Masaccio did not finish The Tribute Money entirely. He was called to Rome and died there shortly afterward at the age of twenty seven. Masolino completed the head of Jesus and Saint Peter. Filippino Lippi restored the paintings in 1481 and finished the complete cycle.
Italian Proto Renaissance Art - Giotto di Bondone and The Scrovegni Chapel
Italy marked the emergence of the Renaissance: A cultural revolution that witnessed the rebirth of ancient traditions which continued to evolve over a period of more than two hundred years. The Renaissance spanned across Europe bringing with it a wave of change that dragged Medieval Europe from intellectual obscurity into social and cultural enlightenment.
From around the end of the thirteenth century the transition began. Scholars regarded intellectual advancement in a humanitarian sense seeking to encourage people to take onboard scientific, philosophical and religious concepts in order to develop culturally as a society. Thus influencing many artistic enquiries which included literature and of course the visual arts. By the end of the fourteen century (beginning of fifteenth) the Renaissance had reached its highest level in Italy: Ultimately phasing away by the end of the sixteenth century.
The Renaissance is considered to mark the beginning of Modernism and there are many theories as to when, where and why the Renaissance began in Italy. The Florentine painter and architect Giotto Di Bondone (1266 – 1337) is regarded as one of the first notable Italian Renaissance artists. The common oeuvre for Renaissance artists was to portray realism and emotion in a naturalistic and intellectually human sense. Giovanni Villani was a leading statesman of Florence who wrote the Nuova Cronica (New Chronicles), which record the early history of Florence until 1346. A man very much in touch with ‘the times’ he describes Giotto as “the most sovereign master of painting in his time, who drew all his figures and their postures according to nature”.
Until the Renaissance the traditional Byzantine style which was contrived and two dimensional in comparison. In many ways the Renaissance breathed new life into the arts: Life that was humanistic as well as naturalistic. Giotto Di Bondone created a Fresco for the Cappella Degli Scrovegni in Padua – Also known as the Scrovegni or Arena Chapel. The Fresco was completed in 1305 and is considered to be a superlative example of early Italian proto Renaissance art as well as one of the most significant masterworks ever created in the West.
The Fresco was commissioned by Enrico Degli Scrovegni who was one of Padua’s Nobles. Enrico and his father Reginaldo were known as harsh money lenders and so it is believed Enrico commissioned the Fresco to account for his sins and ill gotten gains. It is also believed that Enrico was a member of the Calvalieri Gaudenti Military Order: Also known as the Frati della Beata Gloriosa Vergine Maria - Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Members of the order were given permission by Pope Urban IV to take up arms in defense of the Catholic Faith and for religious freedom - When ordered by Rome to do so.
The Chapel provided a private place of worship and burial for the Scrovegni family and was situated on an old Roman Arena site: Hence it is widely known as the Arena Chapel. At the time it was also situated next to an old Palace which Enrico was restoring. The Fresco depicts the cycle of Joseph, The Virgin Mary and Christ: From the expulsion of Saint Joachim (Mary’s Father) from the Temple, to The Last Judgment. Giotto created a series of thirty seven panels to complete the Fresco, of which The Annunciation is central.
There is much in the theme of the Fresco to suggest Enrico did indeed commission this grand undertaking to in some way earn salvation from his sins and so purgatory: In the fact that the Chapel is dedicated to the Virgin Mary who is The Virgin of Charity. The story begins with Mary’s mother and father on the first register: Moving on to include the birth of Mary, the Annunciation and birth of Jesus. The scenes of the second and third register convey the life of Jesus - The Last Judgment on the West wall being the final as well as the most formidable of them all.
The figures depicted in Giotto’s Fresco are neither elongated nor stylized as was prototypical for the Byzantine genre. Instead they are naturalistic and three dimensional. Their faces are expressive as are their gestures. Giotti’s observation and naturalistic interpretations earned him quite a reputation which lasted throughout the Renaissance. Indeed, as the famous sixteenth century biographer of the Italian artists Giogio Vasari stated, Giotti is regarded as the artist who rescued and restored art from the Byzantine tradition.
Renaissance Painting – The Early Years
During the Early Renaissance, oil painting rose to a position of primacy amongst its fellow disciples for the first time in the history of Western Art. A new relationship was born between the work of art and the spectator; the oil painting no longer sought to merely fulfil a function, but issued its own challenge to the person before it.
Amongst the great innovations of the new era was the exploration of perspective and proportion, a new understanding of portraiture as the likeness of the individual and the beginnings of landscape paintings. Artists increasingly trod a path away from superficial “naturalness” in their works and towards a more profound understanding of the natural world, a trend seen in Italy in Masaccio, Uccello, in Piero della Francesca, Botticelli and Mategna and in Germany in Multscher and Witz. In the Netherlands meanwhile, panel oil painting flowered at the hands of the van Eyck brothers, Roger van der Weyden, Hugo van der Goes, Memling and in the mysterious spectral world of Hieronymus Bosch.
In Venice in the late 15th century, Antonello da Messina and Giovanni Bellini in particular spearheaded a revolution in oil painting whose impact would reverberate beyond the high Renaissance and in to the 16th century.
Renaissance and Mannerism
In the oil paintings of the Renaissance, Western art reached its absolute zenith. The new intellectual horizons opened up by the natural sciences and the great voyages of discovery, together with the religious tensions of the era and its political and social unrest – all were reflected in oil paintings. The real and the ideal, the secular and the sacred, ecstatic absorption and cool scepticism flourished side by side.
It was Leonardo da Vinci who took the divisive steps by abandoning the balance which has been previously maintained between colour and line, and choosing instead to modulate his contours by means of colour. Raphael and Michelangelo followed his example and created forms that would set the standard for the whole of Europe. At almost the same time, Giorgione, Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese in Venice were crafting a new artistic vision in which man and nature were combined in to a single unity. In Germany, oil painting saw an unprecedented flowering at the hands of the Durer and Grunewald, Altdorfer, Holbein and Lucas Cranach. While in the Netherlands the creative genius of Pieter Brueghel outshone all else, the epoch found its final voice in the religious visions of El Greco.
The term Mannerism which is today widely used to describe the art of the late Renaissance can be traced back, like the terms Gothic and Renaissance, to Vasari’s ‘Lives of the Artists’, a selection of biographies of Italian artists from Cimabue to Vasari’s own times, first published in 1550 and reprinted in a second, expanded edition in 1568. In this book Vasari wrote of Michelangelo maniera, by which he simply meant “manner” in the sense of “style”. Understood in this light, Michelangelo’s manner can indeed be said to influence not just the 16th century but much of the baroque era too. Having a similar sound but different meaning was the concept of maniera which had existed in the history of French Literature since the late Middle-Ages. Maniere denoted behaviour in accordance with one’s social standing and thus lay as the root for our own phrase “to have good manners”. Both words started out thoroughly positive connotations. During the transition from the late Baroque era to early Neoclassicism in the second half of the 18th century, however, they came to be used in a derogatory way to describe behaviour that was “mannered”, in other words artificial, exaggerated and even peculiar. In the late 19th century art historians adopted “Mannerism” as a pejorative term for the trend in art from 1520 to 1600 which from the standpoint of a classicist aesthetic , were perceived as corruptions of the High Renaissance. Since the opening years of 20th century however, recognition of the profound artistic innovations wrought by Mannerism has led the term once again to be used in an increasingly positive sense.
As a name for a stylistic phenomenon in European art, Mannerism, none the less remains problematic. The common foundation of the art of the 16th century was the High Renaissance, even if its ideals and standards were exceeded or even destroyed. In this respect it was an era which virtually made contradiction one of its principles. It is nevertheless impossible to formulate a succinct definition of Mannerism – unless it is within a very general framework, reduced to the common denominator of contradiction or the self contradictory. Rather than use the term Mannerism, we might cautiously speak of a broad range of “mannerisms” in the art of the years between 1520 and 1600, whereby it should be remembered that the centre of European art in the 16th century, Venice , and its most important representative, Titian, both largely defy such categorisations.