The Italian Renaissance

THE BEGINNING OF THE RENAISSANCE in Italy took place between the late 1300s and the early 1400s due to different triggers in social, political and artistic circumstances. As Florence started to grow, the intellectual leadership of its people and its independence from the duke of Milan (a powerful political figure who tried to conquer all the adjacent territories) became key factors to become an admirable and flourishing city, proclaimed as ”the new Athens”. Additionally, important artistic figures such as Giotto (1267-1337) and Duccio (1255-1319) started to create art influenced by the Byzantine and Gothic periods, with the vision of changing the stiffness and lifeless approach of art seen in the Middle Ages. Later on,  Filippo Bruneleschi (1377-1446), Donatello (1386-1466) and Masaccio (1401-1428), encountered the same task: “to reconcile Classical form with Christian content in creating a new style”  (H.W Janson, Anthony F. Janson. History of art, 409), each one solving the problem in their own distinctive way.

The early Renaissance established standards and commonalities that endured until the end of its period. The ones I’ve identified studying the period are listed below:

  1. The subject matter was initially Christian and biblical scenes, but later on, ancient mythology and personifications, literature and even remarkable characters of history until that time (such as Plato) were represented through painting and sculpture.
  2. The human figure in painting is usually depicted entirely, with the exception of portrait commissions.
  3. A constant use of the idealised classical figure. Even so, each artist had a distinctive way of portraying it.
  4. The most used techniques for graphic arts were tempera and oils, with an impressive and beautiful domain of drawing.

Let’s move on to analyse and study a couple of art pieces, corresponding to the Early and High Italian Renaissance:

Sandro Botticelli. Primavera. Tempera on wood panel. 80 in × 124 in, c. 1482, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

This complex art piece is composed by 9 human figures (slightly smaller than real size, since the painting is 3.14m high). Venus is in the center, accompanied by her son Cupid. To our left, the Three Graces (known in Greek mythology as charm, creativity and beauty). To our far left there’s Mercury, messenger of the gods usually identified by his winged boots. The three figures to our right correspond to Zephyrus, the god of the west wind, who is following and sexually possessing the nymph Chloris, turning into Flora, the goddess of Spring. So the female figure in this part of the picture is actually one, but in a different state of mind. The background is set in an orange grove filled with flowers, which some scholars relate it to a Medici family’s symbol, while others stick to the mythological approach: Hera’s garden of Hesperides.

Screen Shot 2013-11-07 at 11.04.23 PMEvery character in the picture has visible under drawing, mostly notable in the skin areas such as the hands, feet and in some facial features. Lines in drapery are slightly disguised by the saturation of color seen on Venus’s clothing.

Mostly notable in the characters clothing, the texture is achieved by the creation of detailed patterns in the fabric. Mercury (to our far left), Venus (middle) and Spring (beside Venus, wearing a crown of flowers and long dress) have patterns fluidly moving within their drapery, which matches the volume and depth of the clothes moving with the wind. When it comes to the background, the trees also have their own texture just as the ground, filled with flowers representing fertility.

Botticelli used a traditional technique for this piece. Egg tempera consists on mixing egg yolk with pigment, which allowed him to work with transparency clearly seen in the drapery of the Three Graces. It also revealed the amount of lineart behind the painting, which is only covered by layers and layers of pigment. Mostly a pale coloured painting, since the characters are 80% of the picture plane. The focal point (Venus, center), besides established by composition, it is aided by the color variation of red tones placed on Venus’s tunic, the most saturated element of all. Beige, dark green, brown, blue, gray, pink, orange and violet are constantly interacting in the picture plane on different saturations, which are carefully laid down to add a slight sense of depth.


Raphael. The School of Athens. 1510-11. Fresco. Stanza della Segnatura, Vatican Palace, Rome.

Raphael. The School of Athens. 1510-11. Fresco. Stanza della Segnatura, Vatican Palace, Rome.

This fresco is the culmination of Renaissance thinking, both in technique and concept. Based on a one point perspective grid, this composition is a representation of all the great minds of the classical era: mathematicians, philosophers and scientists that changed the ideal of mankind throughout their work. All the characters lived in different periods of time, but now they’ve been gathered on the same room sharing their knowledge. The two characters in the center, Plato (left) and his student Aristotle (right) are framed by the farthest round arch in the picture plane. Plato is pointing up, referring to his philosophy of an otherworldly reality, truer to the one that we live in where all good things prevail: beauty, justice, wisdom. Aristotle holds his hand down, alluding to the earthly reality that we can experience directly through our senses. Consequently, the thinkers depicted on the picture are separated (left and right side) by these two philosophies. Even the sculptures in the background (Apollo on the left and Athena on the right) have been positioned on these spots to reinforce the philosophical subtext of the pictorial message.

The architecture frames the entire composition, decorating the interior of the building with classical sculptures and round arches vanishing into the horizon with one point perspective and atmosphere through washed and lighter colours in the background; beautifully done but period inaccurate, since this is supposed to be set in classical Athens, where they didn’t have round arches or unpainted sculptures. This of course does not takes value off the painting and Raphael’s achievement.

Slightly to our left and in the bottom we see Heraclitus, Greek philosopher that studied time and constant change in the universe. Some scholars say that this figure is actually a portrait of Michelangelo, asked by Raphael to pose for him since he had no reference at all for the original character. Pythagoras (lower left) is teaching and explaining mathematical theories to a group of people, while Ptolemy ( lower right), holding a sphere of the earth, stands beside Zaroaster (holding a celestial sphere, discussing about the movement of planets. Raphael did a self portrait, staring directly at us (he’s at the left of Zaroaster).

Lines are barely visible. Instead, they’ve been covered by the volumes of clothing, muscle and textures. They are slightly visible in the architecture pieces such as floor, blocks and columns, but everything else is completely rendered, leaving no trace of line work.

Besides the different materials seen in the elements of the picture, there are other type of textures created by repetition of geometrical figures, such as the hexagons in the round arches. Interlaced patterns in the arch that’s nearer to us definitely relates to the usually used decorative shapes by the Greeks in their pottery and architecture.

A very used technique at the time, tempera, was the medium used by Raphael to create this fresco.  The colours found in the image vary in each character, playing with saturation, value and symbolism.  For example we have Plato wearing red, symbolising fire; and gray, which according to Greek culture, it was the color of ether, the non-tangible elements. Aristotle has more earthly colours, blue and green, referring to water and earth. The four elements are represented combining the color palettes.

An interesting video developed by the Columbia University is a good source to understand even better this amazing painting:


What better way to study the formal breakdowns than to do a picture yourself. I’ve compiled on this illustration different elements that caught my attention from different artists throughout the Italian Renaissance. References and a explanatory diagram of my artistic decisions are shown below.

"Portrait of Francesco  l'orfano". Francisco Guerrero. digital painting, 2013.

“Portrait of Francesco l’orfano”. Francisco Guerrero. digital painting, 2013.



Born in 1460, Francesco has been living in Florence’s city limits his whole life. His mother died when giving birth, event that marked his life and directed him to work since childhood in his master’s farm. He’s a peasant who has been developing merchant skills when visiting Florence to sell harvested goods.

Hope you enjoyed the post!



  • Janson, H. W., Anthony F. Janson, and Samuel Cauman. History of art for young people. 5th ed. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1997. Print.

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