The artistic Renaissance is inseparable from the humanist philosophy. Artists want to break with the Middle Ages and renew art at the sources of Antiquity. They are therefore inspired by the masters of Greco-Roman antiquity, whom they try to equal and soon surpass.
Artists are passionate about the ancient ruins which abound in their basement and which are being rediscovered thanks to more and more excavations. Architects, like Palladio, rediscovered the columns, domes and pediments of ancient buildings.
Sculptors and painters are inspired by ancient statues and want to match their realism. They draw their subjects from Greco-Roman mythology. If most of the subjects remain religious, the antique decor is omnipresent.
Mantegna’s San Sebastian is tortured on a column, in the middle of ancient ruins. The reference to Antiquity is sometimes more direct, as in The School of Athens, a fresco by Raphael where the great philosophers of Antiquity are represented (in the centre, stand Plato and Aristotle).
In the Middle Ages, the main subjects of inspiration were religious. During the Renaissance, they remained numerous but were treated differently, with in particular greater attention given to the bodies. Artists rely on progress in anatomy to represent man in an ever more realistic way.
Purely profane subjects multiplied: interior scenes, nature, portraits of living people, etc. Flemish painting is very attached to the portrait. Jan van Eyck, in the first half of the 15th century is the first to represent a couple.
The princes, like the wealthy merchants, had themselves represented in portraits to affirm their rank.
On the other hand, the artist gradually becomes a creator in his own right. In the Middle Ages, artists were essentially considered as artisans, who mastered a technique. The artist becomes aware of his particular role, he realizes that he is creating a work in its own right. He appends his signature to it. The practice of patronage sometimes gives artists the role of staging the power of princes. The princes recognize a special place for them: this is the case of Charles Quint and Titian.
Patron: Powerful and wealthy person who protects and finances one or more artists.
Renaissance artists developed new techniques. Often passionate about mathematics, they rediscover the golden ratio and seek the perfect proportions.
In medieval painting, the arrangement and representation of figures was determined by social hierarchy. During the Renaissance, the desire to represent reality led to the discovery of perspective, a technique that gives an illusion of depth, thanks to guiding lines that converge towards a central point of the painting, the vanishing point.
The Flemish painters developed oil painting: in the Middle Ages, egg white was used to bind the colored pigments, but the colors remained quite dark and this technique did not allow precise work on the colours.
During the Renaissance, linseed oil was used, which allowed retouching and better work on the details. Thus, Leonardo da Vinci, thanks to oil painting, uses a technique of his own: sfumato. He blurs the contours of characters and objects to give light and chiaroscuro effects.
2. The different hearths of the Renaissance
The artistic renaissance, like humanism, was born in Italy. Italy was then a mosaic of small independent and rival states, particularly rich thanks to maritime trade, banking or industry.
The various princes clash on the military ground, but they also do it on the artistic ground: they understood that art is a very good means of propagating their image and their prestige outside their State. They have the financial means to be generous patrons.
The combination of these means and these rivalries, between Sforza, Medici, etc. and of the Popes, is at the origin of Italian artistic fecundity.
Three cities stand out and are great artistic centers which dominate in turn: Florence, Rome and then Venice.
b. The spread of the Renaissance
Renaissance art spread outside Italy thanks to the travels of merchants, artists and princes.
The Italian Wars also played a big role, giving the kings of France who wanted to conquer the duchies of Naples and Milan a passion for this new art form.
The Château de Chambord, a great achievement by François I, expresses the ambiguities of the reception of Italian novelties: it is in fact a synthesis of medieval elements (corner towers, surrounding wall, dungeon) and Renaissance (windows , Italian lanterns). The Italian influence is therefore mixed with the national medieval traditions.