Essential Reading: 15th Century in Europe

Notes from WHA in prep for assignment 3:

1 Political, economic or social factors

At the start of the 15th century, ally to the Holy Roman Emperor in Germany, Giangaleazzo Visconti (from Milan) threatened the independence of the Florentine republic. His death in 1402 meant that the Florentines could expand towards the coast, transforming from citystate to region state. They embraced their Roman republican history with a Classical revival in art & architecture (rejecting the Northern associated Gothic style).

The Humanist movement spread during the 15th century, interest in man, science, nature, antiquity, a which had an effect on the styles and types of art & architecture produced. They gazed inwards and outwards but not generally upwards. “Medals became increasingly popular in humanist circles as vehicles for transmitting personal fame with delicately contrived devices, often ingeniously abstruse….Intended to inspire philosophical thought, just as religious images inspire devotion.” WHA p435. Humanists also favoured ornamental statuettes. Mythological stories from the classical era came back into vogue but were often used as allegories for Christian concepts for example Hercules as a Christian knight, a symbol of ‘Renaissance Man’, the mortal who achieves immortality by his own efforts. “There  is a dichotomy rather than a conflict in Renaissance thought between Christianity and the humanism which encouraged the enhanced view of the dignity of man and the beauty of the physical world implicit in such works of art.” WHA p435/6. The university in Padua was one of the main centers for humanist study in Europe. The world economies were starting to slowly recover from the major depression of the dark ages. “merchants and bankers, who found trade stagnant and agriculture unremunerative, sometimes turned to investment in culture, which, thanks to the humanists, had acquired prestige value.” WHA p444 Large scale oil paintings became popular because they were often conceived as an inexpensive substitute for tapestries. Italy & Flanders were the two most densely urbanized areas of Europe and two great centres of art. Flemish art was exported to all parts of Europe. This was a period of reform movements for the church, famous religious images were created (much of them as frescos) by Fra Angelico and Paolo Uccello in Florence in the 15th century. Italian devotional paintings, previously popular gold backgrounds gave way to landscapes. Gold was expensive and there was a shortage but also, there was a hostility towards the conspicuous display of wealth.

2 Changes to status or training of artists

Renaissance attitudes draw a distinction between architect and builder, artist and craftsmen. Although only in Italy were artists worthy enough to appear in collections of writings about famous men (so the inventors of oil painting in Flanders were never recorded). Dutchman Jan van Eyck made it into writings from the court of the king of Naples. Albert Dürer was obsessed with his status but still ranked with other mere craftsmen in Germany. The shift in attention from the value of materials to the skill of the artists coincide with a shortage of gold and silver (which would have been used in gilding). Prominent goldsmiths turned to painting such as Antonio del Pollaiuolo, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Verrocchio, Botticelli and even Dürer. “Ironically, their work as painters has been preserved partly because painting materials had little intrinsic value.” WHA p444 Most goldsmiths work would have been melted down by now. Patrons commissioned arts for aesthetic reasons. Public art competitions funded by the guilds promoted art and culture.

Donatello Badi (c 1386-1466) started off as Ghiberti’s assistant for the first bronze doors on the Baptistery but established himself as an independent artist who revitalized every form of sculpture. His pupil & assistant, Bertoldo di Giovanni (c1420-91) later became master of Michelangelo. In architecture, Filippo Brunelleschi was the first of a new type of architect, one who had not served apprenticeship at a masonic lodge and created a ‘master’ piece.

3 Development of materials and processes

The 15th Century saw a blend or the arts and sciences. Many artists were fascinated with mathematics and geometry such as Uccello and Piero della Francesca. Interested in the ‘golden section’, which would supposedly provide the key to the harmony of the heavens. New interest in light and optics, and colour harmonies. Brunelleschi is credited with the invention of linear perspective producing a scientific method of working out how to render relative distances. The key to his system is the idea of a central vanishing point on a series of orthogonal lines and that any objects along these lines would be subject to the laws of geometry. This concept “raised the art of painting to a science” and imposed a rational order on the visible world. Taken up by Masaccio, who also revitalized the human figure, he created convincing illusions of mass in his frescos in Brancacci Chapel, Florence. At the same time, the Flemish discovered linear perspective by trial and error. Oil painting was developed to obtain a an effect more bright & luminous than tempera. Those using oil could build up a picture of shimmering tones slowly, allowing for more precise detail than before.   Religious works also benefited from new processes so that art could reach the masses, cheaper materials such as glazed terracotta (previously only used for plates and such like) were used by Florentine sculptures to keep up with the demand for reliefs of Virgin & Child. Paintings of the two were so popular that painters of these had a special name, madonnieri. The famous Ghent altarpiece by Hubert & Jan van Eyck was painted in Oils and “succeeded in translating abstruse theological discourse into a pellucid visual language.” WHA p427 Watercolour on paper technique developed before 16th pigments mixed with gum that dissolved in water, required the same quick dexterity as fresco (but on a smaller scale).   Demand for wooden marriage cassoni and chests effectively started a new artform of carved and painted wood. The revolutionary art of printing developed mid-15th century in Venice, started with woodcut printing techniques, then engravings in metal.

4 Styles and movements

The Italian Renaissance in architecture began in Florence, the first Renaissance building is usually cited as the Foundling Hospital (designed by Brunelleschi in 1419). The Pazzi Chapel, 1440, is also ascribed to Brunelleschi. Main features are geometric forms and purity of mathematical proportions rejecting fanciful Gothic design and embracing the Roman column, the round arch and the rectangular window. Some thought that Renaissance churches are unspiritual, “No mysterious depths or soaring heights, no sense of the beyond.” WHA p417 The local style in Padua remained mostly Gothic despite being a center for humanist thought. “No previous movement in Western art had been so self-conscious” WHA p416.   In painting, the new style was all about naturalism and realistic 3D illusion. Van Eyck was one of the first great descriptive painters of portraits and Rogier van der Weyden with less attention to detail. 15th c Flemish artists preferred the three-quarter view which introduces a sense of movement as the sitter has to turn, advancing from the pictorial spaces and establishing a rapport with the viewer. p429 Italians of the same period favoured pure profiles, reminiscent of heads on antique coins and dissociating the sitter from the viewer. “The Flemish were preoccupied largely with natura naturata (the created world), the Italians with natura naturans (the creative force behind it).” p430 this mainly affected painting. The Flemish paintings were full of spiritual significance and symbols even though they were of contemporary landscapes. Everyday household items meant something specific, eg roses, lilies and a candlestick can all symbolise the Virgin. Botticelli painted mythological scenes (eg :La Primavera) which were painted on a scale previously reserved for religious works. Venetian synthesis was its own style, Bellini blended Flemish and Florentine realism with softness and uniquely narrative style of his own, the ‘eye-witness style’ was much imitated. Sculpture in Venice was primarily classical. Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) developed northern style of Renaissance art.

5 Inside and outside influences

The Ancient Romans influenced many artists of the Renaissance, for example medals and portrait busts appeared again in the 15th century, Pisanello made them an art form and Desiderio da Settignano is one of the first to have carved portrait busts since the Romans. Brunelleschi and Lorenzo Ghiberti’s design for the dome of the Florence Cathedral was perhaps inspired by the great domes of mosques in Persia but Brunelleschi is said to have visited Rome to study the ancient monuments and buildings (perhaps the first since ancient times). He was also influenced by Tuscan Romanesque architecture.

Flemish and Italian artists influenced each other during 15th and 16th century. For example the Domenico Ghirlandaio decoration and frescos in the Sassetti Chapel, Florence, where the altarpiece is an oil painting (a Flemish technique at the time) and two of the figures derive from a Flemish artist Hugo van der Goes. St Sebastian was an influence at a time of plague and sickness being patron saint of the sick.

6 Critics, thinkers and historians

Many of the great thinkers, and historians of the 15th & 16th Century were Humanist scholars. Leonardo Bruni (c 1370-1444), humanist and historian, reflecting on Florence said: “Other peoples were founded by fugitives or exiles or peasants or obscure strangers, but your founder is the Roman people, conqueror and lord of all the world” (Laudatio Florentinae urbis, c 1403-4). p419. Bartolommeo Fazio was a mid-15th c humanist scholar employed in the court of King Alfonso V of Aragon at Naples. He wrote about Jan van Eyck (called Jan of Gaul) and Rogier van der Weyden in his book of famous men in 1456. The only other painters he discussed were Gentile da Fabriano and Pisanello. He praised van Eyck’s technically and scientific accomplishment (ascribing their origin to Pliny), the “leading painter of our time”. P430. Carlo Marsuppini was a classical scholar who first translated Homer into Italian verse. Georgio Vasari, Italian painter, architect and historian (his treatise Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, 1550,  is considered the foundation of art-history) wrote of Venetian Mantegna that his idealisation of faith and style was deeply indebted to antiquity. Lorenzo Ghiberti’s commentaries define the idea of Renaissance and include a history of art plus account of art from mid-15th Century. Piero della Francesca published many works including a treatise on geometrical bodies and perspective and a book on abacus for merchants. In architecture, Gianozzo Manetti (1396-1459), declared, the truths of the Christian religion are as self evident as the laws of mathematics. p418 and Antonio Filarete (1400-49), architect and theorist, blessed Brunelleschi for reviving in Florence the ancient style of building in such a way that today in churches and private buildings no other style is used. Architect Leon Battista Alberti wrote treaty of painting, architecture and sculpture.



My assignment 2 feedback for note taking was as follows:

Reading notes It was good to see you using the suggested headings to help you, but rather than producing two sets of notes for each chapter, try to condense your material into one set of comments per section. I would encourage you to concentrate on producing only one set of reading notes of the length you submitted as part of the assignment.  This material was comprehensive but concise.  If you find making an extra set of more extensive notes on your blog helps you this is fine, but I don’t want you to feel that you are getting bogged down in the chapters! (tutor report)

So here I’ve kept it brief, I tried to moderate how many notes I took re this feedback. I’ve written in paragraph style so I can lift it straight into the assignment notes (so no wasted time) but I think I’ve written too much again, it depends on how large the next two chapters will be. I’ll have to scalp it to the bare bones of information to make them all fit perhaps.


Honour, H & Fleming, J. (2009) A World History of Art. (7th Ed), London, Laurence King Publishing


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