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Renaissance Florence

Gardner’s Art History

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The “Rebirth” of Italian Culture

The spread of humanism and the growing interest in classical antiquity contributed significantly to the remarkable growth and expansion of artistic culture in 15th-century Italy. Also important were political and economic changes that contributed to the rise of a new class of wealthy patrons who fostered art and learning on a lavish scale.

A new artistic culture emerged and expanded in Italy in the 15th century.

The Spread of Humanism: Humanism flourished in the 15th century. Emphasis was placed on education and every form of knowledge, the exploration of individual potential and a desire to excel, and a commitment to civic responsibility and moral duty.

Encouraging Individual Achievement: Humanism also fostered a belief in individual potential and encouraged individual achievement.

Good Citizens: Humanism also encouraged citizens to participate in the social, political, and economic life of their communities.

Of Wealth and Power: Shifting power relations among the numerous Italian city-states fostered the rise of princely courts and control of cities by despots. Princely courts emerged as cultural and artistic centers. Their patronage contributed to the formation and character of Renaissance art.

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Sculpture and Civic Pride in the Early Renaissance

The republic of Florentine cultivated civic pride and responsibility in its citizens, which resulted in projects to embellish the city's buildings. The competitive and public nature of these projects, which were usually sponsored by civic or lay-religious organizations, promoted innovation and served to signal official approval of the new, classically inspired style. The emulation of antique models, however, was also supplemented by a growing interest in the anatomical structure of the human body (though often classically idealized) and the desire to show a naturalistic illusion of space (which resulted in the development of linear perspective). Human life and experience was acutely observed by artists such as the sculptor Donatello, who sought to convey through gesture, pose, and facial expression the personality and inner psychological condition of his figures.

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A Father's Emotional Sacrifice: Filippo Brunelleschi's competition panel shows a sturdy and vigorous interpretation of the Sacrifice of Isaac.

FILIPPO BRUNELLESCHI, Sacrifice of Isaac, competition panel for east doors, baptistery of Florence Cathedral, Italy, 1401-1402. Gilded bronze relief, 21" x 17". Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence.

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A Sacrifice in Relief: Lorenzo Ghiberti's competition panel emphasizes grace and smoothness.

LORENZO GHIBERTI, Sacrifice of Isaac, competition panel for east doors, baptistery, Florence Cathedral, Italy, 1401-1402. Gilded bronze relief, 21" x 17". Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence.

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Keeping Perspective: Early Renaissance artists employed linear perspective to make a picture measurable and exact.

A Feast in Perspective: Donatello's bronze relief of the Feast of Herod employs pictorial perspective to create an illusion of space.

DONATELLO, Feast of Herod, from the baptismal font of Siena Cathedral, Italy, ca. 1425. Gilded bronze relief, approx. 23" x 23".

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Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise

Ghiberti's "Gates of Paradise" are comprised of ten gilded bronze relief panels depicting scenes from the Old Testament. In Isaac and His Sons, Ghiberti creates the illusion of space using perspective and sculptural means. Ghiberti also persists in using the medieval narrative method of presenting several episodes within a single frame.

LORENZO GHIBERTI, east doors ("Gates of Paradise"), baptistery, Florence Cathedral, Italy, 1425-1452. Gilded bronze relief, approx. 17' high.

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LORENZO GHIBERTI, Isaac and His Sons (detail of FIG. 21-4 ), east doors, baptistery, Florence Cathedral, Italy, 1425-1452. Gilded bronze relief, approx. 31 1/2" x 31 1/2".

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Donatalleo’s St. George

A Knight in Marble Armor: The armored Saint George by Donatello was the patron of the guild of armorers and swordmakers. The figure stands with bold firmness. The carved relief sculpture at the base of the niche depicts St. George slaying the dragon.

DONATELLO, Saint George, from Or San Michele, Florence, Italy, 1415-1417. Marble (replaced in niche by a bronze copy), approx. 6' 10" high. Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence.

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Nanni di Banco

Four Martyred Sculptors: Nanni di Banco's group, the Quattro Santi Coronati, shows an early attempt to solve the problem of integrating figures and space on a monumental scale. Nanni created a unified spatial composition. The figures also exhibit a psychological unity. Their heads were inspired by Roman portrait busts.

NANNI DI BANCO, Quattro Santi Coronati, Or San Michele, Florence, Italy, ca. 1408-1414. Marble, figures approx. life size.

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Donatello’s St. Mark

Suggesting Motion in Stone: A sense of motion is conveyed in Donatello's Saint Mark by the weight-shifted stance of the figure. The saint's drapery also falls naturally and implies a body underneath.

DONATELLO, Saint Mark, Or San Michele, Florence, Italy, 1411-1413. Marble, approx. 7' 9" high.

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Donatello’s Zuccone

Powerful Bell-Tower Figures: Donatello's unconventional statue of "Zuccone" is powerfully and realistically characterized. His face is individualized and discloses a fierce personality.

DONATELLO, prophet figure (Zuccone), from the campanile of Florence Cathedral, Italy, 1423-1425. Marble, approx. 6' 5" high. Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Florence.

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Masaccio and Chirascuro

Painting, Perspective, and Patronage

The International Style persisted but became increasingly suffused with a variety of naturalistic detail. The painter Masaccio, however, introduced a new monumental style that revolutionized Italian painting. Masaccio's manipulation of light and shade (chiaroscuro) to give an almost tangible sense of three-dimensional substance to his figures and his application of the new linear perspective to create the illusion of spatial depth or distance provided models of innovation and direction for future generations of painters.

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An International Style Altarpiece:

Gentile da Fabriano's Adoration of the Magi is an example of the International Style. It also includes numerous naturalistic details.

GENTILE DA FABRIANO, Adoration of the Magi, altarpiece from Santa Trinità, Florence, Italy, 1423. Tempera on wood, approx. 9' 11" x 9' 3". Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.

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Masaccio’s Brancacci Chapel

Momentous Changes in Pictorial Style:

Masaccio's fresco of the Tribute Money in the Brancacci Chapel of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence shows psychologically and physically credible figures illuminated by a light coming from a specific source outside the picture. The light models the figures to produce an illusion of deep sculptural relief. The main group of figures stand solidly in a semi-circle in the foreground of a spacious landscape. Masaccio also employs linear perspective and aerial perspective to enhance the sense of space and distance.

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Tribute Money

MASACCIO, Tribute Money, Brancacci Chapel, Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence, Italy, ca. 1427. Fresco, 8' 1" x 19' 7".

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Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden

A Picture of Sinners' Anguish: Masaccio's starkly simple fresco of the Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden employs sharply slanted light from an outside source to create deep relief. The figures appear to have substantial bodily weight and move convincingly over the ground.

MASACCIO, Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden, Brancacci Chapel, Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence, Italy, ca. 1425. Fresco, 7' x 2' 11".

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Holy Trinity

A Convincing Vision of the Trinity: Masaccio's Holy Trinity fresco in Santa Maria Novella embodies two principal Renaissance interests: realism based on observation, and perspective.

MASACCIO, Holy Trinity, Santa Maria Novella, Florence, Italy, ca. 1428. Fresco, 21' x 10' 5".

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Early-15th-Century Architecture

The architect Filippo Brunelleschi adopted a classically inspired rational approach to architecture that employed both classical architectural forms (e.g., round arches, columns) and a system of design based on carefully proportioned shapes (e.g., the square, circle) or units fitted together in strict but simple ratios. Also noteworthy is the differentiation in height and surface treatment from one story to the next and the classically inspired open colonnaded court of the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi.

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Florence Cathedral

Enamored by Roman Architecture:

Filippo Brunelleschi studied the ancient monuments in Rome.

A Crowning Achievement:

Brunelleschi's double-shelled dome for Florence Cathedral is original in section and designed around a skeleton of twenty-four ribs, of which eight are visible on the exterior. The structure is anchored at the top with a heavy lantern.


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Pazzi Chapel

A Family Gift with a Central Dome: Brunelleschi's plan for the Pazzi Chapel is one of the first independent Renaissance buildings conceived as a central-plan structure where emphasis is placed on the central dome-covered space. Brunelleschi used a basic unit to construct a balanced, harmonious, and regularly proportioned space.

FILIPPO BRUNELLESCHI, west façade of Pazzi Chapel, Santa Croce, Florence, Italy, begun ca. 1440.