As the Black Death ravaged throughout Europe in the 14th century and gave rise to key works of literature such as Dante’s “Divine Comedy”, a new world was about to be born. Or as the poet Petrarch (1304-1374) famously put it: “When the darkness breaks, the generations to come may contrive to find their way back to the clear splendour of the ancient past.” While the great patron Cosimo de’Medici ruled Florence in 1434-1464, Gutenberg printed the first book in Europe in 1445. Cosimo’s rule would also see other key moments in European history such as the start of the Habsburg rule of the Holy Roman Empire in 1452, and both the end of the Hundred Years’ War and the fall of Constantinople one year later. In the dying decade of the century, Columbus landed in the West Indies while Vasco da Gama sailed to India. The world truly opened to Europe.
Italy – a new take on perspective
Following Giotto’s innovation in painting, it is perhaps hardly surprising that the cradle of the Renaissance stood in Italy although other countries would also contribute significantly in the “Quattrocento”.
All this new knowledge gathered across the century and from lands far-away came with new perspectives and voyages of discoveries with new riches and sources of inspiration. One new perspective was literally that: perspective – a tricky issue that had puzzled painters a long time. However, help was at hand by Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446), a young architect, who had found plenty of inspiration in Gothic vaulted ceilings to come up with a more mathematical approach to the vexed question. One of his keenest followers was Masaccio (1401-1428) who stunned the world with his clever use of perspective in the fresco of the Holy Trinity (1425) in S Maria Novella church in Florence. The “Expulsion from Eden” (1427) is a further well-known work of Masaccio as is “Tribute Money” (1427), which see him as well-versed in the use of chiaroscuro, using light and dark to animate the painted figures.
“Numero Uno” sculptor of the day was Donato di Nicolo di Betto Bardi, better known under the mercifully-short name of “Donatello” (1386-1466). Instead of the rather austere-looking figures found in Gothic cathedral, Donatello breathed new life into the sculpting of figures, infusing them with energy. Somewhat earlier, Lorenzi Ghiberti (1378-1455) also infused his work with a dramatic narrative and a more robust naturalism than earlier sculptors as evidenced by his “Porta del Paradiso” (1424-52), the portal doors to the Florentine Baptistery.
And Italy had further talent in waiting. Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506) was one of the first in Italy to get to grips with the new take on perspective in his studio in Padua. Unfortunately, his keen use of egg yolk as a medium meant his paintings did not survive very well although the bombing of Padua in the Second World War did not help either! However, one survivor was “St Sebastian” (1460), a small painting that shows the love for the perspective, architecture and the idealised human being.
St Sebastian was also the subject, along with Job, in the S Giobbe altarpiece painted at around 1485 by Mantegna’s brother-in-law, Giovanni Bellini (1430-1516) – another great in Italy’s Renaissance painting and part of the Venetian art scene. His older brother, Gentile Bellini (1429-1509) was equally accomplished. He liked to paint historical works and was not afraid to take on large canvases, filled with many figures, such as the “Procession in the Piazza San Marco” (1496).
Piero della Francesca (1416-1492) was another leading light in the period. Like Mantegna, he favoured the use of perspective but combined it with a skilful use of light, giving his paintings extra depth and vigour. His interest in geometry came to the fore in works such as “Baptism of Christ” (1455), which also show his unique colour harmonies.
However, arguably the best-known Italian Renaissance painter was Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) who favoured painting works with plenty of angels, Madonnas, or going in for a bit fun along with his mates, more than the odd one or two scarcily-clad women. “La Primavera” (1478) is one of his earlier works and then there is of course, “The Birth of Venus”, much loved and reproduced on a range of products from bathroom shower curtains to tea cups to storage boxes.
The Netherlands – inventing the oil painting
But things were happening in northern Europe too as Jan van Eyck (1390-1441) put The Netherlands on the art map. His talent was both technical and aesthetical. He single-handedly invented oil painting as he moved away from using the then-current practice of using egg yolk as a painting medium to replace it by oil, affording him time to create additional gradations of tone or hue as oil dried much slower than the egg yolk washes. But his paintings also made a different impact: his ability to capture reality almost shocked his contemporaries. One of his key works, “The Marriage of Arnolfini”, can possibly be considered as the world’s first “snapshot”.
In the “Madonna of Chancellor Rolin” (1433-1434) Van Eyck shows his mastery of space by including triple arches, which give a view onto the landscape beyond. But like his Flemish contemporaries his rendering of space and people was not only true to nature, it was also infused with symbolism as shown in the tryptich “Lamb of God”, which he completed with his brother Hubert van Eyck in 1432.
Rogier van der Weyden (1399-1464) of The Netherlands proved himself to be the “missing link” between outdated medieval painting and the new renaissance style.
Perhaps one of his best-known works is “Portrait of a Lady”, painted around 1455, which shows a delicate rendering of an unknown young lady. Together with Van Eyck, Van der Weyden set the standards for north European painting until the first decades of the 16th century and were rarely excelled by their immediate successors in the Low Countries despite the latter’s great ability.
Germany – one final surprise
As the century drew to a close, it was Germany that had one more surprise and it came in the guise of Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528). His training was varied as he began in his father’s goldsmith workshop and then completed his apprenticeship with a Nuremberg painter who was also a maker of woodcuts. In the humanist circles around him, he encountered engravings, which he sought to copy with pen and ink and thus develop his own style with “St Eustace” (1501) as a particularly-fine example that shows his sharp eye.
Although best-known for his masterful engravings and prints from metal plates, he was also an accomplished painter. His “Self-Portrait” of 1500 shows his sense of colour and detail as well as his sense of self and artistic individuality as he firmly looks at the viewer.