early renaissance

Art: Early Renaissance

The Italian low Renaissance marks a pivotal time in art history when Italy shifted from the Gothic style of the Middle Ages to the Renaissance style that the world is now familiar with. The change in technique was well received by the new ruling class. As Italy began to recover from the economic chaos of the Middle Ages wealthy, independent, city-states became fiercely competitive in their attempts to draw the best and brightest artists and thinkers to their local. A new class of wealthy merchant-rulers developed and in their pursuits to obtain the finest of goods and services they devoured art. With interest and funding, art was free to grow past portraiture and religious commissions into an expression of skill and mastery. A renewed interest in the sciences lead to further developments in art and women became frequent subjects in painting and sculpture. Among one of the greatest changes were the development of a more naturalistic style, one point (or linear) prospective, and removal of the flat halo from around the heads of religious figures. A new concern for the correct proportioning of the human form lead to a revolution in sculpture and portraiture that would serve as the basis for all modern art. The art of Humanist inspired Donatello, Ghiberti, and Brunelleschi served as the blueprints for the world recognized art of artists like Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci.

Filippo Brunelleschi

Filippo Brunelleschi, in a sculpture kept at Florence Duomo
Filippo Brunelleschi, in a sculpture kept at Florence Duomo (richardfabi/wikimedia)

Filippo Brunelleschi was born in Florence, Italy in 1377. His father Brunellesco Di Lippo was a notary. His mother was Giuliana Spini. He had two other brothers, one younger and one older, but neither had Filippo’s flair for the arts. Early on his father noticed Filippo’s skills and instructed him to write and use the abacus. In 1392 he took an apprenticeship as a goldsmith at a Florence workshop to learn design. During this time he met Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli, a merchant and medical doctor who was interested in mathematics and science. He taught Brunelleschi about geometry and other mathematical principles. It was this that would lead to Brunelleschi developing a mathematical formula for one point perspective that could be used to determine the size an object in a painting should be in comparison to how far away it is. He rediscovered linear perspective and incorporated it into his works. The idea quickly spread and many other artists began using linear perspective in their works.

His interest in mathematics further developed into an interest in architecture and machinery. In 1401 he participated in a competition to design the new Baptistery doors for the Florence Cathedral. Other participants in this contest included Donatello and Ghiberti. Upon review of the door panels both Donatello and Brunelleschi agreed that Ghiberti had produced the better work and petitioned the judges to this fact. He lost this competition to Lorenzo Ghiberti, but because Brunelleschi’s panels were equal in technique and style, Brunelleschi was asked to be Ghiberti’s assistant on the project. He refused, saying that he preferred to be the best in some other venture. This began a fierce, but friendly, competition between the two and they often found themselves vying for the same positions and commissions. Brunelleschi involved himself in few sculpture competitions after his loss, turning more to his love of architecture. He still did do sculpture from time to time, which was well received by his fellow artists, and evidence of his artistic style can be seen in his architectural designs.

Brunelleschi's masterpiece, the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence
Brunelleschi’s masterpiece, the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence  (Thomas Nemeskeri/Flickr)

He traveled to Rome to study with a young Donatello. They worked hand in hand together for five years and influenced each other extensively. They were fast friends and barely separated during their time together. In 1418 Brunelleschi entered a competition devoted to finding the best method of constructing a domed structure. He developed several machines specifically for the purpose which won him the right to finish the Gothic Cathedral of Florence.

The beauty of Brunelleschi’s design was that the exterior of his dome was as aesthetically pleasing as the interior; a revolution in technique brought by his mechanical genius. Brunelleschi also worked on the Medici Church of San Lorenzo, the Ospedale degli Innocenti, the Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, the Basilica of Santo Spirito, and the Pazzi Chapel. His designs and techniques can be seen in many buildings throughout Italy. In 1421 Brunelleschi acquired an industrial patent on a barge with hoisting gear; becoming the first person in history to hold such a patent. In 1446, after a long and distinguished career, Brunelleschi passed away, and was buried in the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore.

By Jamie Sue Austin

Click here for Early Renaissance II: Ghilberti and Donatello

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