TIMELINE OF WORLD HISTORY
 

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  Late Gothic & Early Renaissance

Architecture
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Sculpture
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Painting
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CONTENTS
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Late Gothic & Early Renaissance
 
 
 
Painting
 
 
 
Robert Campin
Jan van Eyck & Hubert van Eyck
Rogier van der Weyden
Hugo van der Goes
Geertgen tot Sint Jans
Hieronymus Bosch
Konrad Witz
Jean Fouquet
Enguerrand Charonton
Michael Pacher
Martin Schongauer

Masaccio

Fra Filippo Lippi
Fra Angelico
Domenico Veneziano
Piero della Francesca
Paolo Uccello
Andrea del Castagno
Botticelli
Piero di Cosimo
Domenico Ghirlandaio

Pietro Perugino
Luca Signorelli
Andrea Mantegna
Giovanni Bellini
 
 
 
The Early Renaissance

 

The term Renaissance was first used by French art historians of the late 18th century in reference to the reappearance of antique architectural forms on Italian buildings of the early 16th century. The term was later expanded to include the whole of the 15th and 16th centuries and, by extension, to include sculpture, painting, and the decorative arts. There is still considerable disagreement among art historians as to whether the term should be restricted to a phenomenon that had its origins in Italy and then spread through western Europe (the point of view taken here) or whether directly contemporary developments north of the Alps, and especially in the Low Countries, should be included on an equal footing with what was happening in Italy.

The controversies that raged after the publication of Jacob Burckhardt's Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (English translation, 1878) have abated, and the time span of the Renaissance is generally accepted as the period from roughly 1400 to about 1600, although certain geographical areas and certain art forms require greater latitude. This period is characterized as a rebirth or, better, the birth of attitudes and aims that have their closest parallel in the art of classical antiquity. Classical literature and, less often, classical painting were invoked as a justification for these new aims. The theoretical writings on art from the period indicate that man was the dominant theme. In religious painting, drama and emotion are expressed in human terms. From the late Middle Ages the theme of the Madonna enthroned with Christ Child is presented in an earthly setting peopled by mortals. This strongly humanistic trend serves to explain, at least in part, the development of portraiture as an independent genre and the ever-increasing number of profane, usually classical mythological, subjects in the art of the Renaissance. The painting of landscapes, as the earthly setting of man's activity, has its first modest beginnings in this period.

The role of art and of the artist began to take on modern form during the Renaissance. Leon Battista Alberti's De pictura (Della pittura), a treatise on the theory of painting, as opposed to the techniques of preparing and applying colours, appeared in Florence in 1435-36. The directions that art and art theory were to follow for the next 470 years are already present in this little book. The artist is considered to be a creator rather than a technician because he uses his intellect to measure, arrange, and harmonize the elements of his creation. The intellectual activity of art is demonstrated, by a series of comparisons, to be equivalent to that of the other liberal arts. Influences such as Alberti's book led to a new evaluation of the artist, with painters and their works being sought after by the rulers of Europe (Michelangelo and Titian were actually ennobled); the result was that great collections containing the works of major and minor masters were formed. At the same time the artist slowly began to free himself from the old guild system and to band together with his colleagues, first in religious confraternities and later in academies of art, which, in turn, were to lead to the modern art school. During the Renaissance, practitioners of all the arts evolved from anonymous craftsmen to individuals, often highly respected ones. Painting became more intellectual, sometimes to its own disadvantage, and changed from serving as a vehicle for didacticism or decoration to becoming a self-aware, self-assured form of expression.

For the sake of convenience, painting of the Renaissance is divided into three periods, although there is considerable overlap depending upon the painter and the place. The early Renaissance is reckoned to cover the period from about 1420 to 1495. The High Renaissance, or classic phase, is generally considered to extend from 1495 to 1520, the death of Raphael. The period of Mannerism and what has more recently been called late Renaissance painting is considered to extend from the 1520s to approximately 1600.



 

Early Renaissance in Italy

The early Renaissance in Italy was essentially an experimental period characterized by the styles of individual artists rather than by any all-encompassing stylistic trend as in the High Renaissance or Mannerism. Early Renaissance painting in Italy had its birth and development in Florence, from which it spread to such centres as Urbino, Ferrara, Padua, Mantua, Venice, and Milan after the middle of the century.

The political and economic climate of the Italian Renaissance was often unstable; Florence, however, did at least provide an intellectual and cultural environment that was extremely propitious for the development of art. Although the direct impact of humanist literary studies upon 15th-century painting has generally been denied, three writers of the 15th century (Alberti, Filarete, and Enea Silvio Piccolomini, later Pope Pius II) drew parallels between the rebirth of classical learning and the rebirth of art. The literature of antiquity revealed that in earlier times both works of art and artists had been appreciated for their own intrinsic merits. Humanist studies also fostered a tendency, already apparent in Florentine painting as early as the time of Giotto, to see the world and everything in it in human terms. In the early 15th century Masaccio emphasized the human drama and emotions in his painting "The Expulsion" (Brancacci Chapel, Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence) rather than the theological implications of the act portrayed. Masaccio in his "Trinity" (Santa Maria Novella, Florence) and Fra Angelico in his San Marco altarpiece seem to be much more concerned with the human relations between the figures in the composition than with the purely devotional aspects of the subject. In the same way, the painter became more and more concerned with the relations between the work of art and the observer. This latter aspect of early 15th-century Florentine painting relies in great part on the invention of the one-point perspective system, which derives in turn from the new learning and the new vision of the world. The empirical system devised through mathematical studies by the architect Filippo Brunelleschi was given theoretical form and universal application by Alberti in De pictura. In this system all parts of the painting bear a rational relation to each other and to the observer, for the observer's height and the distance he is to stand from the painting are controlled by the artist in laying out his perspective construction. By means of this system the microcosm of the painting and the real world of the observer become visually one, and the observer participates, as it were, in what he observes. To heighten the illusion of a painting as a window on the world, the Italian artists of the early 15th century turned to a study of the effects of light in nature and how to represent them in a painting, a study of the anatomy and proportions of man, and a careful observation of the world about them. It is primarily these characteristics that separate early Renaissance painting from late medieval painting in Italy.


Florentine painters of the mid-15th century

Masaccio had no true followers or successors of equal stature, though there was a group of other Florentine painters who were about the same age as Masaccio and who followed in his footsteps to a greater or lesser degree: Fra Filippo Lippi, Fra Angelico, and Paolo Uccello.
Fra Filippo Lippi was a Carmelite monk who spent his youth and early manhood at Santa Maria del Carmine, where Masaccio's work was daily before his eyes. His earliest datable work, the "Madonna and Child" (1437) from Tarquinia Corneto, relies on the Madonna from the Pisa altarpiece, but in his Christ Child Fra Filippo already reveals an earthiness and sweetness unlike anything by Masaccio. "The Madonna and Child with Two Angels" (Uffizi, Florence)--with its urchin-angels, lumpy Christ Child, and elegant Madonna--is perhaps one of his best-known late works; the placement of the Madonna before an open window is one of the key sources for later Renaissance portraiture, including Leonardo da Vinci's "Mona Lisa," while the elegance and sweetness of the Madonna were to have their greatest reflection in the work of Fra Filippo Lippi's student, Botticelli.

Born about the same time as Masaccio, Fra Angelico was a Dominican monk who lived at Fiesole (just outside Florence) and at San Marco in Florence. His earliest documented work, the "Linaiuoli Altarpiece" (Museum of San Marco, Florence) of 1433, continues much that is traditional to medieval art, although the male saints in the wings (side pieces of a composite painting, typically a tripartite altarpiece) already reveal the influence of Masaccio. The altarpiece that he executed between 1438 and 1440 for the high altar of San Marco is one of the landmarks of early Renaissance art. It is the first appearance in Florence of the sacra conversazione, a composition in which angels, saints, and sometimes donors occupy the same space as the Madonna and Christ Child and in which the figures seem to be engaged in conversation. In addition to inaugurating a new phase of religious painting, the altarpiece reveals the influence of Masaccio in the sculptural treatment of the figures and an accurate awareness of the perspective theories of painting expressed by Alberti in his treatise. At about the same date, Fra Angelico was commissioned to decorate the monks' cells in San Marco. The nature of the commission--traditional devotional images whose execution required assistants--apparently turned Fra Angelico toward the religious and didactic works that characterize the end of his career; e.g., the Chapel of Nicholas V in the Vatican.

Paolo Uccello's reputation as a practitioner of perspective is such that his truly remarkable gifts as a decorator tend to be overlooked. Studies of his extant works suggest that he was more interested in medieval optics than in the rational perspective system of Alberti and Brunelleschi. His earliest documented work, the "Sir John Hawkwood" fresco of 1436 in Florence cathedral, is a decorative work of a very high order and one that respects the integrity of the wall to which it is attached. Uccello is perhaps best known for the three panels depicting "The Battle of San Romano," executed about 1456 for the Medici Palace (now in the National Gallery, London; the Louvre, Paris; and the Uffizi). The paintings were designed as wall decoration and as such resemble tapestries: Uccello is concerned only with creating a small boxlike space for the action, for he closes off the background with a tapestry-like interweaving of men and animals. His primary concern is with the rhythmic disposition of the elements of the composition across the surface, an emphasis that he reinforces with the repetition of arcs and circles. Uccello's concern with the decorative and linear properties of painting had a great impact on the cassone (chest) painters of Florence and found its greatest reflection and refinement in the work of Botticelli.

Masaccio's greatest impact can be seen in the works of three younger painters, Andrea del Castagno, Domenico Veneziano, and Piero della Francesca. Castagno was the leader of the group. His "Last Supper" of about 1445, in the former convent of Sant'Apollonia in Florence, reveals the influence of Masaccio in the sculptural treatment of the figures, the painter's concern with light, and his desire to create a credible and rationally conceived space. At the same time Castagno betrays an almost pedantic interest in antiquity, which roughly parallels a similar development in letters, by the use of fictive marble panels on the rear wall and of sphinxes for the bench ends, both of which are direct copies of Roman prototypes. In the last years of his life, Castagno's style changed abruptly; he adopted a highly expressive emotionalism that paralleled a similar development in the work of his contemporaries. His "The Trinity with Saints" in the church of the Santissima Annunziata, Florence, was originally planned with calm and balanced figures, as the underpainting reveals. In the final painting, however, the figures, though sculpturally conceived, project an agitation heightened by the emaciated figure of St. Jerome and the radically conceived figure of the crucified Christ. The optimism, rationality, and calm human drama of earlier Renaissance painting in Florence were beginning to give way to a more personal, expressive, and linear style.

One aspect of this new direction is met in the work of the enigmatic Domenico Veneziano, the second of the three principal painters who looked to Masaccio. His name indicates that he was a Venetian, and it is known that he arrived in Florence about 1438. He was associated with Castagno, and perhaps Fra Angelico, and helped to train the somewhat younger Piero della Francesca. His St. Lucy altarpiece of about 1445-50 (Uffizi) is an example of the sacra conversazione genre and contains references to the painting of Masaccio and the early 15th-century sculpture of the Florentine Nanni di Banco. The colour, however, is Domenico's own and has no relation to the Florentine tradition. His juxtaposition of pinks and light greens and his generally blond tonality point rather to his Venetian origins. In the painting he has lowered the vanishing point in order to make the figures appear to tower over the observer, with the result that the monumentality of the painting is enhanced at the expense of the observer's sense of participating in the painting.

Piero della Francesca received his early training in Florence but spent the active part of his career outside the city in such centres as Urbino, Arezzo, Rimini, and his native Borgo San Sepolcro, in Umbria. His "Flagellation of Christ" (late 1450s), in the National Gallery of the Marches, Urbino, is a summary of early 15th-century interest in mathematics, perspective, and proportion. The calm sculptural figures are placed in clear, rational space and bathed in a cool light. This gives them a monumental dignity that can only be compared to early 5th-century-BC Greek sculpture. Much the same tendency can be seen in Piero's great fresco cycle in the church of San Francesco in Arezzo.

 
 
Late 15th-century Florentine painters

A hiatus occurred in Florentine painting around 1465-75. All the older artists had died, and the men who were to dominate the second half of the century were too young to have had prolonged contact with them. Three of these younger artists, Antonio Pollaiuolo, Sandro Botticelli, and Andrea del Verrocchio, began their careers as goldsmiths, which perhaps explains the linear emphasis and sense of movement noticeable in Florentine painting of the later 15th century.
As well as being a goldsmith, Antonio Pollaiuolo was a painter, sculptor, engraver, and architect. His work indicates his fascination with muscles in action, and he is said to have been the first artist to dissect the human body. In the altarpiece "The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian" (1475; National Gallery, London) he presents the archers from two points of view to demonstrate their muscular activity. His painting (formerly in the Uffizi but now lost) and small sculpture (Bargello, Florence) of "Hercules and Antaeus," like the engraving of "The Battle of the Nudes", depict struggle and violent action. "The Rape of Deianira" (Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Conn.) emphasizes yet another new element in Florentine painting, the landscape setting, in this case a lovely portrait of the Arno Valley with the city of Florence in the background.

A similar concern with moving figures, a sense of movement across the surface of the panel, and landscape is found in the earlier works of Sandro Botticelli. In his well-known painting "The Primavera" (Uffizi) he uses line in depicting hair, flowing draperies, or the contour of an arm to suggest the movement of the figures. At the same time the pose and gesture of the figures set up a rising and falling linear movement across the surface of the painting. Botticelli's well-known paintings of the Madonna and Child reveal a sweetness that he may have learned from Fra Filippo Lippi, together with his own sense of elegance and grace. A certain nervosity and pessimistic introspection inherent in Botticelli's early works broke forth about 1490. His "Mystic Nativity" of 1501 (National Gallery, London) is even, in one sense, a denial of all that the Renaissance stood for. The ambiguities of space and proportion are directed toward the unprecedented creation of a highly personal and emotionally charged statement.

Florentine painters active in the closing decades of the 15th century include Andrea del Verrocchio, who is best known as the master of Leonardo da Vinci and Perugino. There was also Filippino Lippi, who was apparently apprenticed to Botticelli when his father, Fra Filippo Lippi, died; he painted a group of madonnas that are easily confused with Botticelli's early work. By 1485, however, he had developed a somewhat nervous and agitated style that can be seen in the highly expressive "Vision of St. Bernard" in the Badia, Florence. His last works, such as the series of frescoes he painted in Santa Maria Novella (1502), reveal a use of colour and distortion of form that may have influenced the later development of Mannerism in Florence a generation or so later. Another painter active at this time was Domenico Ghirlandajo, whose artistic career was spent as a reporter of the Florentine scene. The series of frescoes on the "Life of the Virgin" in Santa Maria Novella (finished 1490) can be viewed as the life of a young Florentine girl as well as a religious painting. His art was already old-fashioned in his own time, but he provided a large number of Florentine artists, among them Michelangelo, with training in the difficult art of fresco painting.

 

 
 
Diffusion of the innovations of the Florentine school

The discoveries and innovations of the early 15th century in Florence began to diffuse to other artistic centres by mid-century. Siena painters in general continued the traditions of the 14th century except for such artists as Matteo di Giovanni, Neroccio di Bartolomeo, and Vecchietta, who alone in that city were to a certain degree under Florentine influence. In Ferrara, Cosme Tura , Francesco del Cossa, and Ercole de' Roberti felt the influence of Florence as transmitted by Piero della Francesca. Only in Padua and Venice, however, did painters arise who could actually challenge the preeminence of Florence.


Andrea Mantegna was influenced by the sculpture executed by Donatello in Padua, the art of antiquity around him, and the teaching of his master, Francesco Squarcione. The frescoes he completed in 1455 in the Ovetari Chapel of the Eremitani Church in Padua (destroyed in World War II) grew out of the traditions of Florence, traditions to which Mantegna gave his own special stamp, however. His space is like that devised by the Florentines except that he lowers the horizon line to give his figures greater monumentality. His sculptural and often stony figures descend from Donatello and from ancient Roman models. His use of decorative details from antiquity reveals the almost archaeological training that he had received from Squarcione. By 1460 Mantegna had moved to Mantua, where he became court painter for the Gonzaga family, executing a number of family portraits and pictures depicting ancient myths. His altarpieces, interpretation of antiquity, and engravings made him preeminent in northern Italy and a strong influence on his contemporaries and successors.

 
 
The Bellini family of Venice forms one of the great dynasties in painting. The father, Jacopo, who had been a student of Gentile da Fabriano, adopted a style that owed something to both that prevailing in the Low Countries and that in Italy; he also compiled an important sketchbook (British Museum; Louvre). A daughter of Jacopo's was married to Mantegna, and the two sons - Gentile and, more especially, Giovanni Bellini--dominated Venetian painting until the first decade of the 16th century. Gentile followed more closely in his father's footsteps and is perhaps best known for his portraits of doges and sultans of Constantinople and his large paintings of Venetian religious processions. Giovanni early fell under the influence of Mantegna. The paintings each executed of "The Agony in the Garden" (both in the National Gallery, London) indicate how close they were stylistically and also their common reliance on Jacopo Bellini's sketchbook. At an unknown point in his career, Giovanni was in addition introduced to Flemish painting. These different influences permitted him about 1480 to evolve a highly personal style that greatly influenced the work of subsequent Venetian painters. This style consists above all of a softly diffused Venetian light that can only be achieved in an oil medium. Giovanni's work in the traditional medium for painting on panels--egg tempera--retains the crispness of contour and tightness of composition that the medium seems to require. The oil paintings, however, emphasize by their use of light the textures of the objects represented, softening the outlines and creating an elegiac mood. The "Madonna and Child with Saints" of 1488, in Santa Maria dei Frari, Venice, derived its composition from the Florentine sacra conversazione and two earlier altarpieces by Mantegna in which the Madonna and attendant saints are located in a unified but compartmentalized architectural setting. Giovanni's greatest innovation is the way in which the soft light suffuses the entire space, an effect particularly remarkable where it strikes the golden half dome of the apse and the ample draperies of the figures, which seem almost palpable. The "Enthroned Madonna from San Giobbe" (Gallerie dell'Accademia di Venezia) of about the same date goes even further in defining a composition and a way of painting that endured in Venice for centuries. The painting of "St. Francis in Ecstasy" (c. 1480; Frick Collection, New York City) adds yet another dimension to Giovanni's art. The observer's eye tends to wander from the saint and his cell into the distant landscape, for Giovanni was one of the greatest 15th-century masters of landscape painting. Figures, animals, trees, and buildings provide a series of guideposts leading the eye back into space. Giovanni influenced several Venetian painters: Lorenzo Lotto and Vittore Carpaccio and also, more importantly, Giorgione and Titian.
 

Encyclopaedia Britannica

 
 
 
 

Masaccio

Although Early Renaissance painting did not appear until the early 1420s, a decade later than Donatello's St. Mark and some six years after Brunelleschi's first designs for S. Lorenzo, its inception was the most extraordinary of all. This new style was launched single-handedly by a young genius named Masaccio (1401-1428), who was only 21 years old at the time and who died just six years later. The Early Renaissance was already well established in sculpture and architecture by then, making Masaccio's task easier than it would have been otherwise. His achievement remains stupendous nevertheless.
His first fully mature work is a fresco of 1425 in Sta. Maria Novella which shows the Holy Trinity accompanied by the Virgin, St. John the Evangelist, and two donors who kneel on either side. The lowest section of the fresco, linked with a tomb below, represents a skeleton lying on a sarcophagus, with the inscription (in Italian): "What you are, I once was; what I am, you will become." Here, as in the case of the Merode Altarpiece, we seem to plunge into a new environment. But Masaccio's world is a realm of monumental grandeur rather than the concrete, everyday reality of the Master of Flemalle. It seems hard to believe that only two years before, in this city of Florence, Gentile da Fabriano had completed The Adoration of the Magi, one of the masterpieces of the International Gothic. What the Trinity fresco brings to mind is not the style of the immediate past, but Giotto's art, with its sense of large scale, its compositional severity and sculptural volume. Masaccio's renewed allegiance to Giotto was only a starting point, however. For Giotto, body and drapery form a single unit, as if both had the same substance. In contrast, Masaccio's figures, like Donatello's, are "clothed nudes," whose drapery falls like real fabric.
The setting, equally up-to-date, reveals a complete command of Brunelleschi's new architecture and of scientific perspective. For the first time in history, we are given all the data needed to measure the depth of this painted interior, to draw its plan, and to duplicate the structure in three dimensions. It is, in short, the earliest example of a rational picture space. For Masaccio, like Brunelleschi, it must have also been a symbol of the universe ruled by divine reason. This barrel-vaulted chamber is not a niche, but a deep space in which the figures could move freely if they so wished. As in Ghiberti's later relief panel The Story of Jacob and Esau, the picture space is independent of the figures. They inhabit it but do not create it. Take away the architecture and you take away the figures' space. We could go even further and say that scientific perspective depends not just on architecture, but on this particular kind of architecture, so different from Gothic.
First we note that all the lines perpendicular to the picture plane converge upon a point below the foot of the Cross, on the platform that supports the kneeling donors. To see the fresco properly, we must face this point, which is at normal eye level, somewhat more than five feet above the floor of the church. The figures within the vaulted chamber are five feet tall, slightly less than lifesize, while the donors, who are closer to us, are fully lifesize. The exterior framework is therefore "lifesize," too, since it is directly behind the donors. The distance between the pilasters corresponds to the span of the barrel vault, and both are seven feet. The circumference of the arc over this span measures eleven feet. That arc is subdivided by eight square coffers and nine ridges, the coffers being one foot wide and the ridges four inches. Applying these measurements to the length of the barrel vault (it consists of seven coffers, the nearest one of which is invisible behind the entrance arch) we find that the vaulted area is nine feet deep.
We can now draw a complete floor plan. A puzzling feature may be the place of God the Father. His arms support the Cross, close to the front plane, while His feet rest on a ledge attached to a wall. How far back is this surface? If it is the rear wall of the chamber, God would appear to be exempt from the laws of perspective. But in a universe ruled by reason, this cannot be so. Hence Masaccio must have intended to locate the ledge directly behind the Cross. The strong shadow that St. John casts on the wall beneath the ledge bears this out.



Masaccio. The Holy Trinity with the Virgin, St. John,
and Two Donors.
1425.
Fresco. Sta. Maria Novella, Florence
Ground plan of
The Holy Trinity
 

The largest group of Masaccio's works to come down to us are frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel in Sta. Maria del Carmine, devoted to the life of St. Peter. The Tribute Money, in the upper tier, is the most famous of these. It illustrates the story in the Gospel of Matthew (17:24-27) by the age-old method known as "continuous narration". In the center, Christ instructs Peter to catch a fish, whose mouth will contain the tribute money for the tax collector. On the far left, in the distance, Peter takes the coin from the fish's mouth, and on the right, he gives it to the tax collector. Since the lower edge of the fresco is almost 14 feet above the floor of the chapel, Masaccio could not here coordinate his perspective with our actual eye level. Instead, he expects us to imagine that we are looking directly at the central vanishing point, which is located behind the head of Christ. Oddly enough, this feat is so easy that we take note of it only if we are in an analytical frame of mind. But then, pictorial illusion of any sort is always an imaginary experience. No matter how eager we are to believe in a picture, we never mistake it for reality itself, just as we are hardly in danger of confusing a statue with a living thing.



Left wall of Brancacci Chapel, with frescoes by Masaccio.
Sta. Maria del Carmine, Florence





Right wall of Brancacci Chapel, with frescoes by Masaccio and Filippo Lippi.
Sta. Maria del Carmine, Florence





Masaccio. The Tribute Money, с 1427. Fresco.
Brancacci Chapel, Sta. Maria del Carmine, Florence

 

If we could see The Tribute Money from the top of a suitable ladder, the painted surface would be more visible, of course, but the illusion of reality would not improve markedly. This illusion depends to only a minor degree on Brunelleschian perspective. Masaccio's weapons here are exactly those employed by the Master of Flemalle and the Van Eycks. He controls the flow of light (which comes from the right, where the window of the chapel is actually located), and he uses atmospheric perspective in the subtly changing tones of the landscape. We now recall Donatello's preview of such a setting, a decade earlier, in his small relief of St. George.

The figures in The Tribute Money, even more than those in the Trinity fresco, display Masaccio's ability to merge the weight and volume of Giotto's figures with the new functional view of body and drapery. All stand in beautifully balanced contrapposto, and close inspection reveals fine vertical lines scratched in the plaster by the artist, establishing the gravitational axis of each figure from the head to the heel of the engaged leg. In accord with this dignified approach, the figures seem rather static. The narrative is conveyed to us by intense glances and a few emphatic gestures, rather than by physical movement. But in another fresco of the Brancacci Chapel, The Expulsion from Paradise, Masaccio proves decisively his ability to display the human body in motion. The tall, narrow format leaves little room for a spatial setting. The gate of Paradise is only indicated, and in the background are a few shadowy, barren slopes. Yet the soft, atmospheric modeling, and especially the forward-moving angel, boldly foreshortened, suffice to convey a free, unlimited space. In conception this scene is clearly akin to Jacopo della Quercia's Bolognese reliefs. Masaccio's grief-stricken Adam and Eve, though less dependent on ancient models, are equally striking exemplars of the beauty and power of the nude human form.

Masaccio divided the work on the Brancacci Chapel with a much older artist, Masolino (documented 1423-died 1440), who had been decisively influenced by Gentile da Fabriano. Remarkably enough, the two cooperated well and even collaborated on several frescoes (the head of Christ in The Tribute Money is by Masolino, for instance), although the difference in their styles was great. Masaccio's impact notwithstanding, Masolino retained an allegiance to the International Style. Thus the figures in the upper tier of the right wall are simply larger versions of those in the Limbourg brothers' January and Pietro Lorenzetti's Birth of the Virgin. The setting, too, remains Gothic in character, despite the scientific perspective. Masolino constructs a self-consciously theatrical space that remains separate from his figures, whereas Masaccio's are fully integrated into their surroundings, both visually and dramatically. Nowhere is the sharp contrast between their styles more striking than in The Temptation by Masolino, which forms an enchanting companion to the unprecedented anguish in Masaccio's Expulsion from Paradise. Regardless of their contrapposto, the figures of Adam and Eve. Indeed, they may well derive from a similar source, for Masolino was utterly incapable of treating the nude in convincing organic terms. The comparison is telling: Masaccio's contribution, like Donatel-lo's, was to recapture the substance of antiquity without relying on external forms. Masaccio left for Rome before he could finish the Brancacci Chapel, and Masolino's work, too, was interrupted for several years. It was finally completed toward the end of the century by Filippino Lippi (1457/8-1504), who was responsible for the lower tier to either side.

While he had a mural painter's temperament, Masaccio was skilled in panel painting. His large polyptych, made in 1426 for the Carmelite church in Pisa, has since been dispersed among various collections. Its center panel is a more fully developed restatement of his earliest known work. The Madonna 'Enthroned is of the monumental Florentine type introduced by Cimabue and reshaped by Giotto. The usual components, including the gold ground, are still present: a large, high-backed throne dominates the composition and on either side are adoring angels (here only two). Despite these traditional elements, the painting is revolutionary in several respects. The kneeling angels in Giotto's Madonna have become lute players, seated on the lowest step of the throne, and the Christ Child is no longer blessing us but eating a bunch of grapes, a symbolic act that alludes to the Passion. (The grapes refer to wine, which represents the Saviour's blood in the sacrament of the Eucharist.) Above all, the figures have powerful proportions which make them infinitely more concrete and impressive than any that had preceded them, even Giotto's, although they are hardly beautiful by the elegant standards of the International Style.

It is no surprise, in light of the Trinity fresco, that Masaccio replaces Giotto's ornate but frail Gothic throne with a solid and austere stone seat in the style of Brunelleschi, or that he uses perspective expertly. (Note especially the two lutes.) We are perhaps less prepared by the murals to find such delicacy and precision in painting the light on the surfaces. Within the picture, sunlight enters from the leftnot the brilliant glare of noontime but the softer glow of the setting sun. (Some of the shadows on the throne permit us to determine its exact angle.) There are consequently no harsh contrasts between light and shade. Subtle half-shadows intervene, producing a rich scale of transitional hues. The light retains its full descriptive function, while acting as an independent force that imposes a common tonality, as well as a common mood, on all the forms it touches. Clearly, Masaccio's awareness of natural light as a pictorial factor matches that of his Flemish contemporaries, but he lacked their technical means to explore it so fully.
 


Masaccio. The Expulsion from Paradise, с. 1427. Fresco. Brancacci Chapel, Sta. Maria del Carmine, Florence


Masaccio. Madonna Enthroned. 1426.
Oil on panel,
56 x 29" (142 x 73.6 cm).
The National Gallery, London.

Fra Filippo Lippi
 

Masaccio's early death left a gap that was not filled for some time. Among his younger contemporaries only Fra Filippo Lippi (c. 1406-1469) seems to have had close contact with him. Fra Filippo's earliest dated work, the Madonna Enthroned of 1437, evokes Masaccio's earlier Madonna in several important ways: the lighting, the heavy throne, the massive three-dimensional figures, the drapery folds over the Virgin's legs. Nevertheless, the picture lacks Masaccio's monumentality and severity. In fact, it seems decidedly cluttered by comparison, for Lippi reduces the divine to the mundane. The background is a domestic interior (note the Virgin's bed on the right), and the vividly patterned marble throne displays a prayer book and a scroll inscribed with the date. Such a quantity of realistic detail, as well as the rather undisciplined perspective, indicates an artistic temperament very different from Masaccio's. It also suggests that Fra Filippo must have seen Flemish paintings (perhaps during his visit to northeastern Italy in the mid-1430s).

Finally, we note the painter's interest in movement, which is evident in the figures and, even more strikingly, in parts of the drapery. The curly, fluid edge of the Virgin's headdress and the curved folds of her mantle streaming to the left, which accentuate her own turn to the right, show an interest in graceful decorative effects that will later become an end in itself. Such effects are found earlier in the relief sculpture of Donatello and Ghiberti: compare the dancing Salome in The Feast of Herod and the maidens in the lower left-hand corner of The Story of Jacob and Esau. It is not surprising that these two artists should have so strongly affected Florentine painting in the decade after Masaccio's death. Age, experience, and prestige gave them authority unmatched by any painter then active in the city. Their influence, and that of the Flemish masters, in modifying Fra Filippo's early Masacciesque outlook was particularly significant, because he lived until 1469 and played a decisive role in setting the course of Florentine painting during the second half of the century.



Fra Filippo Lippi. Madonna Enthroned. 1437.
Oil on panel, 45 x 25 W (114.7 x 64.8 cm). Galleria
Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Rome




Fra Angelico

Fra Filippo's slightly older contemporary, Fra Angelico (c.
1400-1455), was also a friar ("fra" means "brother"), but, unlike Fra Filippo, he took his vows seriously and rose to a responsible position within his order. We sense this immediately in the large Deposition, which was painted in all likelihood for the same chapel as Gentile da Fab-riano's Adoration of the Magi. Fra Angelico took over the commission from Gentile's Florentine contemporary, Lorenzo Monaco, who was responsible for the Gothic shape of the frame and the triangular pinnacles but who died before he could complete the altar. It has been dated about 1435 by some scholars, to the early 1440s by others. Either date is plausible, for this artist, like Ghiberti, developed slowly, and his conservative style underwent no decisive changes upon reaching maturity. We are clearly in a different world from Fra Filippo's. This Deposition is an object of devotion. Fra Angelico preserves the very aspects of Masaccio that Fra Filippo had rejected: his dignity, directness, and spatial order. Thus Fra Angelico's dead Christ is the true heir of the monumental figure in Masaccio's Trinity.

Fra Angelico's art is something of a paradox. The deeply reverential attitude presents an admixture of traditional Gothic piety and Renaissance grandeur bestilled by contemplative calm. Its nearest relative, we realize, is Rogi-er van der Weyden's Descent from the Cross, not simply in subject and date but mood, though it is less agitated. The principal difference is the elaborate setting which spreads behind the figures like a tapestry. The landscape, with the town in the distance, harks back to the Allegory of Good Government by Ambrogio Lorenzetti. Our artist also shows a clear awareness of the achievements of Northerners such as the Limbourg brothers, for he evokes a brilliant sunlit day with striking success. Yet the scene does not strike us as Gothic in the least. It has the same quality of natural light that produces softly modeled, sculptural forms in Masaccio's Madonna Enthroned. This light suffuses the entire landscape with a sense of wonderment before God's creation that is wholly Renaissance in spirit. We shall meet it again in the work of Giovanni Bellini. At the same time, the bright, enamellike hues, although remnants of the International Style, look forward to the colorism of Domenico Veneziano.
 



Fra Angelico. Deposition. Probably early 1440s.
Oil on panel, 275 x 285 cm. Museo di S. Marco, Florence






Domenico Veneziano


In
1439 a gifted painter from Venice, Domenico Veneziano, settled in Florence. We can only guess at his age (he was probably born about 1410 and he died in 1461), training, and previous work. He must, however, have been in sympathy with the spirit of Early Renaissance art, for he quickly became a thoroughgoing Florentine-by-choice and a master of great importance in his new home. His Madonna and Child with Saints,is one of the earliest examples of a new kind of altar panel that was to prove popular from the mid-fifteenth century on, the so-called sacra conversazione ("sacred conversation"). The type includes an enthroned Madonna framed by architecture and flanked by saints, who may converse with her, with the beholder, or among themselves.



Domenico Veneziano.
Madonna and Child with Saints, с 1455.
Oil on panel,
82 x 84" (208.2 x 213.3
cm). Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence
 

Looking at Domenico's panel, we can understand the wide appeal of the sacra conversazione. The architecture and the space it defines are supremely clear and tangible, yet elevated above the everyday world. The figures, while echoing the formal solemnity of their setting, are linked with each other and with us by a thoroughly human awareness. We are admitted to their presence, but they do not invite us to join them. Like spectators in a theater, we are not allowed "on stage." In Flemish painting, by way of contrast, the picture space seems a direct extension of the viewer's everyday environment.

The basic elements of our panel were already present in Masaccio's Holy Trinity fresco. Domenico must have studied it carefully, for his St. John looks at us while pointing toward the Madonna, repeating the glance and gesture of Masaccio's Virgin. Domenico's perspective setting is worthy of the earlier master, although the slender proportions and colored inlays of his architecture are less severely Brunelleschian. His figures, too, are balanced and dignified like Masaccio's, but without the same weight and bulk. The slim, sinewy bodies of the male saints, with their highly individualized, expressive faces, show Donatello's influence.

In his use of color, however, Domenico Veneziano owes nothing to Masaccio. Unlike the great Florentine master, he treats color as an integral part of his work, and the sacra conversazione is as remarkable for its color scheme as for its composition. The blond tonality, its harmony of pink, light green, and white set off by strategically placed spots of red, blue, and yellow, reconciles the decorative brightness of Gothic panel painting with the demands of perspective space and natural light. Ordinarily, a sacra conversazione is an indoor scene, but this one takes place in a kind of loggia (a covered open-air arcade) flooded with sunlight streaming in from the right, as we can tell from the cast shadow behind the Madonna. The surfaces of the architecture reflect the light so strongly that even the shadowed areas glow with color.

Masaccio had achieved a similar quality of light in his Madonna of 1426, which Domenico surely knew. In this sacra conversazione, the discovery has been applied to a far more complex set of forms and integrated with Domenico's exquisite color sense. The influence of its distinctive tonality can be felt throughout Florentine painting of the second half of the century.




Piero della Francesca

When Domenico Veneziano settled in Florence, he had a young assistant from southeastern Tuscany named Piero della Francesca (c.
1420-1492), who became his most important disciple and one of the truly great artists of the Early Renaissance. Surprisingly, however, Piero left Florence after a few years, never to return. The Florentines seem to have regarded his work as somewhat provincial and old-fashioned, and from their point of view they were right. Piero's style, even more strongly than Domenico's, reflected the aims of Masaccio. He retained this allegiance to the founder of Italian Renaissance painting throughout his long career, whereas Florentine taste developed in a different direction after 1450.

Piero's most impressive achievement is the fresco cycle in the choir of S. Francesco in Arezzo, which he painted from about 1452 to 1459. Its many scenes represent the legend of the True Cross (that is, the story of the Cross used for Christ's crucifixion). On the left, they are being lifted out of the ground, and on the right, the True Cross is identified by its power to bring a dead youth back to life.

Piero's link with Domenico Veneziano is readily apparent from his colors. The tonality of this fresco, although less luminous than in Domenico's sacra conversazione, is similarly blond, evoking early morning sunlight in much the same way. Since the light enters the scene at a low angle, in a direction almost parallel to the picture plane, it serves both to define the three-dimensional character of every shape and to lend drama to the narrative. But Piero's figures have a harsh grandeur that recalls Masaccio, or even Giotto, more than Domenico. These men and women seem to belong to a lost heroic race, beautiful and strongand silent. Their inner life is conveyed by glances and gestures, not by facial expressions. They have a gravity, both physical and emotional, that makes them seem kin to Greek sculpture of the Severe style.

How did Piero della Francesca arrive at these memorable images? Using his own testimony, we may say that they were born of his passion for perspective. More than any other artist of his day, Piero believed in scientific perspective as the basis of painting. In a rigorous mathematical treatise, the first of its kind, he demonstrated how it applied to stereometric bodies and architectural shapes, and to the human form. This mathematical outlook permeates all his work. When he drew a head, an arm, or a piece of drapery, he saw them as variations or compounds of spheres, cylinders, cones, cubes, and pyramids, thus endowing the visible world with some of the impersonal clarity and permanence of stereometric bodies. The medieval artist, in contrast, had used the opposite procedure, building natural forms on geometric scaffoldings. We may regard Piero as the earliest ancestor of the abstract artists of our own time, for they, too, work with systematic simplifications of natural forms. It is not surprising that Piero's fame is greater today than ever before.
 


View into main chapel, with frescoes by Piero della Francesca. S. Francesco, Arezzo
Piero della Francesca. The Discovery and Proving of the True Cross. с 1455. Fresco. S. Francesco, Arezzo




Paolo Uccello


In mid-fifteenth-century Florence there was only one painter who shared, and may have helped to inspire, Piero's devotion to perspective: Paolo Uccello
(1397-1475),whose Battle of San Romano perhaps influenced the battle scenes in Piero's frescoes at Arezzo. Uccello's design shows an extreme preoccupation with stereometric shapes. The ground is covered with a gridlike design of discarded weapons and pieces of armor, forming a display of perspective studies neatly arranged to include one fallen soldier. The landscape, too, has been subjected to a process of stereometric abstraction, matching the foreground. Despite these strenuous efforts, however, the panel has none of the crystalline order and clarity of Piero della Francesca's work. In the hands of Uccello, perspective produces strangely disquieting, fantastic effects. What unites his picture is not its spatial construction but its surface pattern, decoratively reinforced by spots of brilliant color and the lavish use of gold.

Paolo Uccello had been trained in the Gothic International Style of painting. It was only in the 1430s that he was converted to the Early Renaissance outlook by the new science of perspective. This he superimposed on his earlier style like a straitjacket. The result is a fascinating and highly unstable mixture. As we study this panel we realize that surface and space are more at war than the mounted soldiers, who get entangled with each other in all sorts of implausible ways.
 


Paolo Uccello. Battle of San Romano, с 1455.
Tempera and silver foil on wood panel, 1.8 x 3.2 m. The National Gallery, London.




Andrea del Castagno


The third dimension held no difficulties for Andrea del Castagno (c.
1423-1457), the most gifted Florentine painter of Piero della Francesca's own generation. Less subtle but more forceful than Domenico Veneziano, Castagno recaptures something of Masaccio's monumentality in his Last Supper, one of the frescoes he painted in the refectory of the convent of S. Apollonia. The event is set in a richly paneled alcove designed as an extension of the real space of the refectory. As in medieval representations of the subject, ludas sits in isolation opposite Christ on the near side of the table. The rigid symmetry of the architecture, emphasized by the colorful inlays, enforces a similar order among the figures and threatens to imprison them. There is so little communication among the apostlesonly a glance here, a gesture there that a brooding silence hovers over the scene.


Andrea del Castagno. The Last Supper, c. 1445-50. Fresco. S. Apollonia, Florence

 

Castagno, too, must have felt confined by a scheme imposed on him by the rigid demands of both tradition and perspective, for he used a daringly original device to break the symmetry and focus the drama of the scene. Five of the six panels on the wall behind the table are filled with subdued varieties of colored marble, but above the heads of St. Peter, Judas, and Christ, the marble panel has a veining so garish and explosive that a bolt of lightning seems to descend on Judas' head. When Giotto revived the ancient technique of illusionistic marble textures, he hardly anticipated that it could hold such expressive significance.
 

Some five years after The Last Supper, between 1450 and 1457 (the year of his death), Castagno produced the remarkable David. It is painted on a leather shield that was to be used for display, not protection. Its owner probably wanted to convey an analogy between himself and the biblical hero, since David is here defiant as well as victorious.

This figure differs fundamentally from the apostles of The Last Supper. Solid volume and statuesque immobility have given way to graceful movement, conveyed by both the pose and the windblown hair and drapery. The modeling of the earlier figures has been minimized and the forms are now defined mainly by their outlines, so that the David seems to be in relief rather than in the round. This dynamic linear style has important virtues, but it is far removed from Masaccio's. During the 1450s, the artistic climate of Florence changed greatly. Castagno's David is early evidence of the outlook that was to dominate the second half of the century.





ANDREA DHL CASTAGNO.
David,
с
1450-57.
Leather, surface curved, height 45 V2" (115.8 cm).
The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Widener Collection

 
 

 
 
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