Chapter 9: Early Italian Renaissance

Whereas the Renaissance is generally a period of cultural and stylistic rebirth of Ancient Classical cultures and styles, the artworks of the Early Italian Renaissance demonstrate a significant departure from some of the guiding principles of artworks throughout the Middle Ages. Artists and artisans developed and perfected the Gothic nascent interest in naturalistic representations of forms and places. They went to great lengths to understand how the human eye perceived the material world in order to replicate it in their works through the use of perspective, chiaroscuro, and human anatomy. In addition, this is a period of significant financial growth in some regions, resulting in hotspots of artistic activity, such as in Florence. Let's explore this period a little more in depth. 

Video Transcript

The term Renaissance is French for “rebirth” and refers to the rediscovery and revival of interest in the art, architecture and cultures of ancient Greece and Rome. The Renaissance style exhibits simplicity, balance and order and revived the classical use of perspective, modeling and interest in anatomical detail with the objective of creating art that was “a window on the world.” Italian Renaissance art addressed the theme of reconciling the sacred with the secular—Christianity with the culture and traditions of polytheistic ancient Greece and Rome. The Early Italian Renaissance was centered in Florence, Italy. Florence was a republic, where individual thought was respected, creating an ideal environment for the exchange of ideas. It was also a center of trade and the home of the Medici, a wealthy and powerful banking family. The Medici took a special interest in the arts and antiquity; they sponsored promising artists like Michelangelo and Botticelli, and held gatherings in their home of scholars, intellectuals and artists, who came to study their collections of ancient art and exchange ideas. Renaissance Humanism placed a focus on the dignity of the individual, which was reflected in the way the human body was depicted in art. Humanists like Pico della Mirandola celebrated man’s potential and believed mankind could achieve godliness through the use of free will and reason. The Renaissance was also the period when an interest in art history and theory begins. Artists were distinguished from other craftsmen and celebrated as intellectuals.

Leon Battista Alberti's influential work, De Pictura (On Painting, 1435), was the first of its kind. A practical guide for artists, the book identified three necessary features for successful painting. They are: 

  1. Convincing three-dimensional space
  2. Light and shadow to create bodies that look three-dimentional
  3. Figures in varied poses to create a compelling narrative.

Alberti essentially describes the features that become evermore paramount in painting throughout the period. Consider, for example, Piero della Francesca's portrait of the Duchess of Urbino below. While the subject itself continues in profile, a style that dates back to Ancient Rome, the artist goes to great extents to create the illusion of expansive space in the background through techniques like atmospheric perspective. Perhaps more than any other element, the continuing interest in naturalism characterizes this period. 

Figure 9.1 Piero della Francesca, Portrait of the Duchess of Urbino (Federico da Montefeltro and Battista Sforza), 1467-72, tempera on panel, 47 x 33 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence)

Paying the Tribute, Masaccio

CAPTION
Masaccio's Paying the Tribute, is excellent example of a work that includes nearly all of these important features of the Early Italian Renaissance. The work is a fresco (a painting realized in wet plaster directly on the wall of a building) that tells the Biblical story found in Matthew 17:27. The work contains a combination of three distinct scenes that recounts this narrative to the viewer. Let's explore this work closely. 
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Video Transcript

We’re in the Brancacci Chapel in the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence. Hence our hushed voices and we’re in the chapel decorated with frescoes by two artists in the early 15th century, Masaccio and Masolino. 

And this is such a tour de force of the early Renaissance. These frescoes tell the story of the life of Saint Peter. Peter was one of Christ’s apostles, but he also has the important distinction of being understood as the first Pope. There are two especially important frescoes on the upper register on the left side of the chapel. Let’s look first at the fresco, The Tribute Money. 

Here we see a scene from the New Testament, from the Gospel of Matthew where Christ and the apostles have entered the town of Capernaum. They’re being asked to pay the temple tax. Jesus seems to suggest that he doesn’t need to pay the tax but in order to avoid controversy, they will. The problem is they don’t have any money and so Christ instructs Peter to go to the Sea of Galilee and open the mouth of the first fish he catches. There, he’ll find a coin to pay the tax collector. 

So here we see in the center the tax being demanded of Christ and the apostles, the tax collector with his arms outstretched, sort of demanding the payment of those taxes, and Christ instructing Peter to get the money miraculously to pay the tax collector. We see Saint Peter doing that on the far left and the on the far right we see Peter paying the tax collector. So Peter appears three times here. The tax collector appears twice. So the whole story is unfolding within this one scene. This is called the continuous narrative.

What’s remarkable is the way that Masaccio has composed this. Christ is in the center of the composition. Even though Peter appears three times, our attention goes to Christ because all the apostles surround him in a semicircle because the tax collector confronts him, and because the linear perspective in the painting draws our eye to Christ’s face. 

The orthogonals are visible in the architecture to the right, and if we were to follow those, we would end at a vanishing point at the head of Christ. So Masaccio is using Brunelleschi’s linear perspective not only to create an illusion of recessionary space, but also to help draw our eye to the most important figure in the composition. And not only do we have linear perspective, we also have atmospheric perspective. 

Look, for example at the mountains. The mountain that is closest to us, we can see some greenery, it’s darker, and they fade as we go back, mimicking the way in which as we look through more atmosphere, forms become paler and less distinct. And so Masaccio is using every means he can to create a convincing earthly setting for these figures. And Masaccio is not only creating this space for the apostles to occupy, but he’s making the figures themselves occupy space. He’s using modelling, in other words, chiaroscuro, light and dark, to create figures who have mass and volume. 

Look at the way the feet seem squarely planted on the earth. The feet are wonderful not only because of that sense of weightiness that it gives to the figures, but also it draws our attention to the remarkable shadows that Masaccio painted. So we have sense of the light coming from the right, the same direction as the real light would have entered the chapel and the figures cast shadows to the left. And we have a sense of the way that the figures block the light, the way the light comes through between the figures, and that alternation of light and dark also helps us read an illusion of space. 

My favorite part might be the tax collector because the tax collector stands with his back to us in lovely contrapposto. This is a tour de force by Masaccio, this figure that suggests movement contrapposto coming from ancient Greek and Roman art. Artists of the Renaissance looking back to classical antiquity, back to Ancient Greece and Rome as a way of representing human figures, naturally moving through space.  And we see that contrapposto not once, but twice. If you look at the second rendering of the tax collector, you see that his weight is now being born on his other leg. And so Masaccio seems to be showing off. My favorite part though, is the left foot of the tax collector, which is firmly planted on the ground. And you can see his toes are in the sunlight, but the left side on his ankle is in shadow. 

There’s also real attention to the emotions of the figures. Christ’s face is placid. He’s calm in the center, but just to his left, Peter looks put out, he looks upset at being accosted by the tax collector. And his knit brow is in such contrast to Saint John the Evangelist, whose face is placid like Christ’s. And so Masaccio was playing off these two apostles. 

We sense a range of emotions. Some are concerned, some are watching what will unfold, but you’re right. We have this calm center in the figure of Christ. This may be one of the first paintings in the history of Western art to have such unified source of light that is so consistent and convincing. So the painting is convincing because of a number of issues. It’s chiaroscuro, it’s understanding of the body, its contrapposto, its atmospheric perspective, the linear perspective, the shadows, the expressions, but it’s also another technique that we call foreshortening. And you see that in the face of Saint Peter, as he’s pulling the coin out of the fish’s mouth. We’re looking across his face from his forehead towards his chin. And even the halos are shown as ellipses, even though the intention is that they’re round. And so many of the feet, too, are foreshortened. And it’s those foreshortened feet that convince us that the figures are actually standing on the ground and their feet also exist in space. 

So we have this biblical story, but it was a biblical story that was relevant in 15th century Florence. This was a period when the city of Florence was engaged in a long running battle with the city of Milan. And this cost the city a lot of money. As a result, the city had imposed a property tax. The Pope in Rome insisted that the churches should be exempt. And this seems to mirror the conflict that this scene represents. A conflict between state authority and religious authority. Ultimately, a compromise was reached, just like in the scene that is before us. 

So we should also remember that we’re standing in the burial chapel owned by the Brancacci family. Brancacci was a very devout man who gave the church money to endow this chapel and the have prayer said for his family so that his family would have a benefit of those prayers and perhaps sooner release from purgatory and a sooner arrival in heaven. 

Just to the left of The Tribute Money is expulsion from Eden. We see Adam and Eve naked, and we see an angel armed with a sword who seems to be chasing them out of Eden, out of paradise. It seems clear that Masaccio had access to an ancient Venus, what is known as Venus podia, that is a modest Venus. So Masaccio had transformed a pagan figure of Venus into the figure of Eve. And look, too, how the shadows function very much the same way that they did in The Tribute Money. The light is coming from the right, the figures cast shadows to the left, but we could ask what would the scene of the expulsion from paradise be doing in a chapel that’s otherwise entirely about Saint Peter.

It’s Adam and Eve’s sin that causes the need for Christ’s sacrifice. Christ’s sacrifice makes possible mankind’s salvation. Peter is the instrument, the church through which that happens. And so, in a way, it all begins with that original sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. So we have a foreshortened angel, an illusion of space created through that foreshortening. The angel comes toward us and we have a sense of the terrible agony of Adam and Eve being forced to leave paradise. And the consequence of this is humanity’s fall from grace, illness, death, violence.

But look at the differences with the two figures have been painted. Eve covers her body. She’s ashamed of her nakedness. Adam covers his face. He seems to have an internal guilt. But look at the muscles in Adam’s abdomen and legs. This new interest in the Renaissance in human anatomy. These frescoes will be tremendously influential. Well, Michelangelo will come here and sketch Masaccio’s work in the Brancacci chapel. 

Questions to Consider

  1. What features of this work reflect the new Renaissance sensibilities? 
  2. What is the significance of Masaccio's choice of clothing and the appearance of the figures in this work? How does that relate to the work's other features?

Christ Giving the Keys of the Kingdom to St. Peter, Perugino

Pietro Perugino’s Christ Giving the Keys of the Kingdom to St. Peter is another exemplar of Italian Renaissance painting. 

View of the north wall of the Sistine Chapel with Perugino’s Christ Giving the Keys of the Kingdom to St. Peter outlined in red, 1481-83, fresco, 10' 10" x 18' (Vatican, Rome) (photo: Clayton Tang, CC BY-SA 3.0)
Figure 9.2 View of the north wall of the Sistine Chapel with Perugino’s Christ Giving the Keys of the Kingdom to St. Peter outlined in red, 1481-83, fresco, 10′ 10″ x 18′ (Vatican, Rome) (photo: Clayton Tang, CC BY-SA 3.0)


Perugino, Christ Giving the Keys of the Kingdom to St. Peter, Sistine Chapel, 1481-83, fresco, 10 feet 10 inches x 18 feet (Vatican, Rome) (view large public domain image)
Figure 9.3 Perugino, Christ Giving the Keys of the Kingdom to St. Peter, Sistine Chapel, 1481-83, fresco, 10 feet 10 inches x 18 feet (Vatican, Rome) (view large public domain image)

The painting shows the moment when Christ, standing in the center dressed in purple and blue garments, gives the keys of the heavenly kingdom to the kneeling St. Peter. This episode comes from the Gospel of Matthew (16:18-19) as Christ said to Peter: “And I tell you that you are Peter (Petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church… I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven….” The pair of gold and silver keys became Saint Peter’s attribute (an attribute, in this sense, is an object associated with a saint that aids the viewer in identifying the saint). 


The Renaissance ideal

The figures

Perugino pulled out every pictorial device in his painter’s arsenal to construct an image that is reflective of Renaissance ideals: figures, balance, harmony, and three-dimensional space. To begin with, see that the pictorial field has been clearly delineated into three distinct planes: foreground, middle-ground and background. In the foreground, on either side of Christ and St. Peter—are the other eleven Apostles. 

You can identify them easily since they are the figures dressed in classicizing tunics and robes. Each has been carefully rendered as a distinct individual. Perugino harmonizes the figures through repeating colors and postures. Notice how blue, yellow, and green are repeated throughout the group in a way that draws the viewer’s eye back and forth across the foreground.

Let’s also look at the postures of our Apostles. At the left and right edge of the Apostolic group is a figure with his back to the viewer, looking toward the central action. This effectively draws our eye to the center as well. The next figure over on both sides, faces out towards us, and their poses are mirror reflections of one another. Perugino’s harmoniously balanced grouping of historical figures provides visual interest for the viewer.

Right side (detail), Perugino, <em>Christ Giving the Keys of the Kingdom to St. Peter</em>, Sistine Chapel, 1481-83, fresco, 10 feet 10 inches x 18 feet (Vatican, Rome)
Figure 9.4 Right side (detail), Perugino, Christ Giving the Keys of the Kingdom to St. Peter, Sistine Chapel, 1481-83, fresco, 10 feet 10 inches x 18 feet (Vatican, Rome)
However, there is one element that is incongruous with the rest, which is the addition of contemporary Roman and Florentine men at the far edges of the groups on either side of Peter and Christ. These figures are clearly not part of the biblical figures based on their dress— and there is even a portrait of the artist himself, who looks directly out to the viewer on the right hand side (the fifth figure from the right edge—see the image above)! The inclusion of the artist and/or contemporary people associated with the project was common during the Italian Renaissance, and in this case, Perugino’s presence acts as his visual signature to his work.

Left side (detail), Perugino, Christ Giving the Keys of the Kingdom to St. Peter, Sistine Chapel, 1481-83, fresco, 10 feet 10 inches x 18 feet (Vatican, Rome)
Figure 9.5 Left side (detail), Perugino, Christ Giving the Keys of the Kingdom to St. Peter, Sistine Chapel, 1481-83, fresco, 10 feet 10 inches x 18 feet (Vatican, Rome)
In the middle-ground, the figures are much smaller than those in the foreground, suggestive of their spatial distance. Not merely passersby, these figures are part of two additional stories from the life of Christ. On the left is the Tribute Money from the Gospel of Matthew (17:24-27) where the Roman tax collector demands Christ pay the Emperor’s tax. (This scene was famously represented by Masaccio in the Brancacci Chapel in Florence, above). On the right is the Stoning of Christ from the Gospel of John (8:48-59). The addition of these two scenes creates a pictorial device known as a continuous narrative, where two or more related events are shown occurring simultaneously in one composition.

The space

The background is comprised of three architectural structures at the edge of the open piazza (plaza), with an ideal landscape extending far into the distance behind. In order to create such a believable sense of three-dimensional space, Perugino utilized two types of perspective.

Perspective diagram, Perugino, Christ Giving the Keys of the Kingdom to St. Peter, Sistine Chapel, 1481-83, fresco, 10 feet 10 inches x 18 feet (Vatican, Rome)
Figure 9.6 Perspective diagram, Perugino, Christ Giving the Keys of the Kingdom to St. Peter, Sistine Chapel, 1481-83, fresco, 10 feet 10 inches x 18 feet (Vatican, Rome)
The first, one-point linear perspective, creates a believable three-dimensional space using a system of orthogonals (diagonal lines seen on the pavement—in red in the diagram above) that recede into space, converging at one point known as the “vanishing point” (which in this case is in the doorway of the central building).” The vanishing point is located along a horizontal line, the “horizon line,” which establishes the boundary between land and sky (the blue line in the diagram above). Notice how all of the figures maintain a proportional relationship to each other as they recede into this space.

The second type of perspective Perugino used is atmospheric perspective, which is literally the effect of the atmosphere on objects observed in the distance, causing them to diminish in appearance through a bluish-gray haze, as seen in the mountains in this case.

Tier 2: Context—Christ Giving the Keys to the Kingdom

Like all artwork, the context of this work helps us to know how to understand the work in its own time. As you consider this work, refer to the elements of art listed in Tier 2: Context.

In this work, several contexts illuminate various aspects of the work, such as aesthetics and logistics. One of the defining characteristics of the Italian Renaissance was the interest in all aspects of classical antiquity (ancient Greece and Rome), especially its aesthetics of art and architecture. That interest in manifested in Perugino’s fresco in two different ways. One is his use of contrapposto (Italian meaning “counter-pose”) for some of the foreground figures. This pose (seen in several of the figures in the work) was known in the Renaissance through copies of ancient Greek sculpture. When standing in contrapposto, one leg bears all of the person’s weight while remains relaxed at the knee, producing a very natural stance.

The second nod to antiquity is in the architecture. The central “temple” in the background of Perugino’s fresco is based on the Florence Baptistery, which was believed at the time to have been an ancient Roman temple. And at either side of the piazza are representations of the Arch of Constantine (in Rome). The arch commemorates Constantine the Great, the Roman emperor who legalized Christianity in 314 CE. Famously converting to Christianity on his deathbed in 336 CE, he effectively became the first Christian Roman emperor. Moreover, Constantine founded St. Peter’s Basilica, the site of Peter’s burial and the location of Perugino’s fresco. Thus, the inclusion of the Arch of Constantine was an important reference to the history of Rome, and St. Peter and the basilica.

In terms of logistics, the work was part of a large decorative program commissioned by Pope Sixtus IV in 1481 for the walls of the Sistine Chapel (the name “Sistine” being derived from Sixtus’ own name), which was then, as it is today, the pope’s private chapel in the Vatican, in Rome. This large scale fresco, measuring 10’10” x 18’, is part of the New Testament narrative cycle depicting events from the life of Christ on the north wall of the chapel (the south wall illustrates the Old Testament life of Moses). The narrative and style employed not only recount an important Biblical story, but position the Pope as an heir to Classical learning and ideals. 


Humanism

While much of the distinction between the art of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance has to do with a focus on naturalismsuch as through greater emphasis on the human form or the application of visual perspective—there are more factors at work than might be detectable to the uninformed viewer. Indeed, the very reason that Renaissance artists and artisans became so fascinated with naturalism has much to do with growing interest in history and attempts at reconciling Christianity with earlier pagan philosophies. This interest, identified as humanism by later historians, characterizes much of the artistic and aesthetic choices of many influential figures from this period. 

Beginning in the thirteenth century, Italian buildings, sculptures, and paintings began to look increasingly like they did in the ancient Greco-Roman world, even if the subject matter, contexts, and functions were vastly different. Eager to serve the interests of their classically inclined patrons and to demonstrate their own ingenuity, visual artists explored new approaches to form inspired by surviving art and architecture from antiquity as well as ancient authors’ discussions of them.

While it is helpful for a broad overview such as this, to use a blanket term like “Antique” to designate cultural production of the ancient Greek and Roman worlds is misleading as it suggests there was a single artistic tradition, passed from Greece to Rome, that constituted art before the Christian era. In fact, what we designate as “ancient art” includes a vast range of subjects and styles. Renaissance artists responded to different facets of ancient art at different times, often due to their own or their patron’s interests or to broader stylistic trends. Donatello, for example, drew upon Etruscan, Early Christian, Neo-Attic, as well as ancient Greek and Roman art forms from various periods throughout his career. Scholars note that artists gravitated to those ancient art forms that best aligned with their personal or regional worldview. 

One way this is particularly evident, is the preference for some artists to engage with figures of Ancient Greek and Roman mythology in their paintings. Sandro Botticelli is one such artist. Let's explore his enigmatic "La Primavera."

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Video Transcript

We're at the Uffizi, and we're looking at one of the great Sandro Botticellis, and also one of the most enigmatic. The "Primavera" which means spring.

In the center, we see Venus in her sacred grove, looking directly out at us. The figures in the foreground are parted to allow Venus an unobstructed view of us and for us to look back at her, and perhaps even to enter into this space. And if you look, there's a way that the trees around her part to show us the sky, so there's almost a sense of a halo around her.

Actually, I read that half circle as almost architectural, almost as an apse. And it reminds us that usually what we would find in a space like this from the Renaissance would be the Virgin Mary in an ecclesiastic environment. But here we have Venus, and we have a natural or mythic environment.

Right, I mean, here we are. We're in the Renaissance. One definition of the Renaissance is that it's a rebirth of ancient Greek and Roman culture. And here we have an artist in the 15th century in Italy who's embracing a pagan subject, the subject of Venus. And also other elements from ancient Greek and Roman mythology.

Actually, yeah. Lots of ancient Greek and Roman figures. We have the three Graces on the left. This is a subject that was very popular in Roman statuary. And it was an opportunity that allowed for a sculptor to show the human body from three sides simultaneously. So that is, you multiply the figure, and you just turn them slightly each time, so that you really see a figure in the round.

And then on the far left, we have Mercury, the messenger god. He is at peace in her garden. Who wouldn't be at peace in her garden? Look at it. It's fabulous. And we're not sure exactly what he's doing. He's got a stick in his hand. He may be pushing away the clouds that appear to be coming in from the left. Only a sunny day in paradise.

And then on the right, we have three more figures. Zephyr, a god of the wind who is abducting the figure of Chloris, who you can see has a branch with leaves coming out of her mouth that elides with the figure next her, who is the figure of Flora. So they may be one and the same person.

In other words, the actual abduction of Chloris might actually result in Flora. And what Flora is doing here is she's reaching into her satchel, which is full of blossoms, which she seems to be strewing or sewing on this sort of carpet of foliage below. This is after all, primavera. This is spring. Spring. And so there's a sense of the fertility of nature.

There's one other figure which is Venus's son just above her, blindfolded. This is, of course, Cupid, who's about to unleash his arrow on one of the unwitting Graces. And he doesn't know who he going to hit, but we can sort of figure it out. Typical of Botticelli, we have figures who are elongated, weightless, who stand in rather impossible positions. Things that we don't normally expect from Renaissance art. So this really is at odds with many of the traditions that we learn about when it comes to the 15th century. This is not a painting that's about linear perspective. There's a little bit of atmospheric perspective that can be seen in the traces of landscape between the trees. But beyond that, this is a very frontal painting. 

It's very much a freeze, and it is referencing what we think be a literary set of ideas. Art historians really don't know what this painting is about, and we've been looking for texts that it might refer to. And in a way, it doesn't really matter to the throngs of people who come to see it, and to me, because it's incredibly beautiful. And it may be that because it has no specific meaning, it's easier for us in the 21st century. There are lots of passages here that are just, I think, glorious. If you look at the diaphanous quality of the drape that protect the Graces and the tassels there, they're just beautiful. I'm especially taken where the hands of the Graces come together in those three places, creating wonderful complexity and beauty, and visual invention that is playful, and an expression of a complex notion of beauty. 

One of the ways in which this painting is understood is possibly as a sort of Neoplatonic treatise or a kind of meditation on different kinds of beauty. Venus herself is astoundingly beautiful. She tilts her head to one side, and pulls up her drapery, and motions with her hand, and looks directly at us. And in a way it's impossible not to want to join her in the garden.


Previous Citation(s)
On Masaccio: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, "Masaccio, The Tribute Money and Expulsion in the Brancacci Chapel," in Smarthistory, August 9, 2015, accessed June 7, 2023, https://smarthistory.org/masaccio-the-tribute-money-in-the-brancacci-chapel/. On Perugino: Dr. Shannon Pritchard, "Perugino, Christ Giving the Keys of the Kingdom to St. Peter," in Smarthistory, November 11, 2015, accessed June 7, 2023, https://smarthistory.org/perugino-christ-giving-the-keys-of-the-kingdom-to-st-peter/. On Humanism: Dr. Heather Graham, "Humanism in Italian renaissance art," in Smarthistory, August 1, 2021, accessed July 12, 2023, https://smarthistory.org/humanism-italian-renaissance-art/. On La Primavera: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Sandro Botticelli, La Primavera (Spring)," in Smarthistory, November 28, 2015, accessed July 12, 2023, https://smarthistory.org/sandro-botticelli-la-primavera-spring/.

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