Robin Urton: dimensional paintings on glass


Key Innovations and Artists of the Italian Renaissance

I have superimposed perspective lines illustrating the use of 1-point linear perspective in "View of an Ideal City", a painting by Piero della Francesca. The point of convergence is called the vanishing point.

The Italian Renaissance is considered by historians the beginning of the modern age. The name itself literally means "rebirth", an accurate description of this period of innovation in both the sciences and the arts. The literary arts were also given much attention, as Renaissance thinkers turned to the lost texts of the ancient world for new understanding. This renewed interest in history, literature, and the arts was the birth of a whole new way of thinking, one which centered on the world of mankind as much as a concern for the hereafter (which was the sole concern of medieval man). This new way of thinking is called humanism, tracing back to the Greek concept of "man as the measure of all things". With the invention of movable type during the Renaissance, new ideas and ancient scholarship spread faster than ever before.

The general dates given for the Renaissance period are 1400-1550, and its birth-place was unmistakably Florence, a prosperous merchant town in Italy . It was necessary that the cultivation of great ideas and art would begin in a center of great wealth... for it required such prosperity to fund the building of great cathedrals which were elaborately decorated by the best artists that the region had to offer. Wealthy citizens often donated their money for specific art commissions, for both religious and secular projects. The greatest art patrons in Florence were the Medici family, who decorated their city with sculptures brought from Greece and Rome, commissioned artists and architects to create, and who also funded the first universities.

The most obvious changes during Renaissance times are seen in the paintings and sculptures. Though they continued the medieval tradition of using religious subjects, illustrating stories from the Bible, they combined this interest with classical ideals of the human figure and an increased interest in depicting nature. Secular works were also popular, often inspired from Greek and Roman mythology. Artists began to experiment for the first time with oil-based paints, mixing powdered pigments with linseed oil (gradually abandoning the Medieval technique of egg tempera). The paints dried slowly, and remained workable for a few months. The fresco technique was employed on plaster walls (reaching perfection with artists such as Michelangelo). Sculpture began to be conceived "in the round", instead of as relief decorations on cathedrals. Perspective and light were also introduced into art, perfecting the sense of three-dimensional reality. The artists of the Renaissance made such a dramatic impact in their concept of space and form that they have changed the way we look at the world for all time.

The Early Renaissance: Innovations in Linear Perspective and Human Anatomy

Giotto (1267-1337) is considered the "Father of the Renaissance". Characterized as a Proto-Renaissance painter, his work is a transition from the late medieval (Gothic). His innovations were the use of approximate perspective, increased volume of figures, and a depth of emotion which suggests human feeling instead of static and passive icons.

Lamentation of the Death of Christ

Cleansing of the Temple

See more Giotto frescos from the Arena Chapel

Filippo Brunelleschi (1337-1446) was a Florentine architect and engineer; the first to carry out a series of optical experiments that led to a mathematical theory of perspective. Brunelleschi devised the method of perspective for architectural purposes, but once the method of perspective was published in 1435 (by Alberti), it would have a dramatic impact on the depiction of 3-dimensional space in the arts. See perspective illustration at top of page.

Masaccio (1401- 1428) was the one of the first artists to apply the new method of linear perspective in his fresco of the Holy Trinity. The barrel vaulted ceiling imitates with precision the actual appearance of the architectural space as it would appear from the viewer's point of view. His figures are accurate in their description of human anatomy, influenced by the artist's study of sculpture.

In this painting, the vanishing point resides below the feet of Jesus. The illusion of the architecture is so real that one feels as if the wall has been opened up to reveal the scene. Jesus, the Father, and the Holy Ghost (symbolized by the dove) are joined by Mary and St.John the Evangelist. Flanked on the sides are the donors (whose tomb was discovered beneath the mural). A painted skeleton lies on an illusionary sarcophagus below the inscription: "What you are, I once was; what I am, you will become".




The Holy Trinity, fresco
(see enlarged image)

Masaccio includes three different moments a the story in the same scene (a technique known as "continuous narrative"): At center, Peter asks Jesus why he should have to pay the tax collector's since his allegiance is only to God and not the Romans. Jesus's response is to "give to the Romans what is due to them and to the Lord what is due to Him. He intructs Peter to find the money by going fishing (at the left, Peter extracts a coin from the fish's mouth); and, to the right, Peter hands the tribute money to the tax collector in front of his house.

Piero della Francesca (1416-1492) was another early Renaissance artist who expressed an obsession with perspective. His work is characterized by carefully analyzed architectural spaces, a sensitivity to geometric purity of shapes, and a sculptural understanding of the figure. He was so obsessed with perspective and geometry, that he wrote several treatises on the subject.

Piero della Francesca,
The Discovery and Proving of the True Cross, fresco, 1452-59
(Web Gallery of Art:

This is just one of several murals within a "cycle" depicting the legend of the "true cross". The cross is discovered with the two crosses (of thieves who died beside Jesus). The true cross is identified by its power to bring a dead youth back to life.

Donatello (1386-1466) brought a new sense of naturalism to sculpture. His were some of the earliest pieces to come off of the walls of cathedrals, occupying three-dimensional space. His figures use the classical contrapposto stance (relaxed and not rigid). His David is also believed to be the very first full-scale nude sculpture since ancient times.David is the biblical youth who conquers the giant, Goliath. Though difficult to see in this photograph, David stands with his left foot on top of Goliath's head. It is interesting to compare this sculpture with Michelangelo's later version.David, cast bronze (158 cm.), 1444-46

Andrea Mantegna (1430-1506) created unusual vantage points in his paintings, often looking at figures from below or, in Lamentation Of the Dead Christ, from the feet of the subject, requiring deep foreshortening. The position was very effective in placing the viewer at the scene, adding to one's sense of empathy.

Lamentation of the Dead Christ, tempera on canvas, 1466


Click to View Larger Image of Venus

Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) was the first artist to paint a full-length female nude in his Birth of Venus. The figure actually recalls the exact pose of a Greek sculpture (the Venus de Medici, which he had access to under their patronage), though he has added flowing hair and elongated limbs. The figure occupies the center of the canvas, traditionally reserved only for the subject of the Virgin. Referring to classical mythology, this is perhaps the most pagan image of the entire Renaissance. Primavera (Spring) is another painting of classical subject commissioned for the Medici family.

The Birth of Venus, tempera on canvas,1485

See Evolution of the Image of the Virgin

to Northern Renaissance