Early Italian Renaissance Painting
 It was Masaccio who really got painting kick-started about 30 years after the sculptors generated so much excitement with scientific perspective, analytical geometry and free-standing sculptures. And here's another amazing fact: Masaccio produced all of his work by the age of 27, which was also the year he died. As we can see in The Tribute Money (c. 1427), Masaccio expands upon Giotto's bold figures by relaxing their stances (notice how all the figures are standing in the classic contrapposto stance) and creating believable 3D modeling. But what is truly revolutionary is Masaccio's correct use of one-point perspective. The lines going back into space converge one a single vanishing point, which just happened to be on Christ's head. (Coincidence?....no way........Masaccio uses Brunelleschian planning and proportion to create an orderly and balanced composition.) Notice how the lined, as illustrated below, force the eye to Christ's head. Even one of the mountain slopes angles to the vanishing point.
If you remember your Biblical studies, St. Peter (far left) is instructed to take a coin out of the mouth of a fish to pay the tax collector, which, by the way, we actually see him doing to the far right of the painting. This sort of running narrative was common to Gothic works (remember the Bayeux Tapestry). What is truly Renaissance, however, is Masaccio's sparse landscape that fades away as it goes back into space. This technique is called atmospheric perspective (you'll see it being used a lot from now on).

 To the left are two more works by Masaccio that deserve our attention. In Masaccio's Expulsion from Paradise (c. 1427), far left, we see his ability to render figures in movement. Once again, the background is almost void of scenery, with only a portion of the gate showing. The emphasis is on the agony of the two human figures of Adam and Eve, as they're given the boot by the angel above. There is no doubt about Masaccio's ability to render the figure realistically and with excellent 3D modeling. This fresco, along with the Tribute Money, are a part of the amazing Brancacci Chapel in Florence, which is well worth a visit when you're in the neighborhood.

Masaccio's Holy Trinity (c. 1425), near left, shows his amazing ability to use scientific perspective and to balance the composition in a logical and orderly way. (I sort of felt like Jim Madden when I was drawing those lines in......but it helps you see the complex composition.) One last thing: The skeleton resting on the coffin has a warning painted in Italian that reads, "What you are, I once was; what I am , you will become." (What a bummer of a message.)

Mantegna: Master of Foreshortening

After Masaccio, most scholars consider Andrea Mantegna the second most important early Italian Renaissance painter. (Actually, Mantegna is one of my top 5 fave painters of all time...........I mean, this guy is truly awesome.) If you've ever had the opportunity to sketch the human form, you know how difficult it is to show a foreshortened structure, that is, showing something as if it's pointing out toward you. In Mantegna's The Dead Christ (my favorite painting by Mantegna), the body zooms out at the viewer at such a severe angle, it takes most everyone by surprise. Even Christ's face is expertly foreshortened! And look at the drapery............never has painted cloth looked so real. Even the nail wounds look as if you could touch your finger inside them. The overall effect of this painting is one of shock and total remorse. . . . . . the viewer can not leave this painting without a strong emotional reaction. What a work!!!
Another work by Mantegna that shows his love of foreshortening is a domed ceiling in the  Ducal Palace in Mantua, Italy (shown below). Completed in 1474, it ingeniously gives the illusion of a dome that is sliced off, exposing the space to the blue sky above. Faces peer down from above, while birds and fat, little cherubs balance themselves on the edges of the molding as not to fall. Once again, Mantegna uses the foreshortening with the cherubs to give the illusion of space thrusting upward to the sky. (Mantegna shows a great sense of humor with this painting........and knowing how infant children sometimes have difficulty controlling their bodily functions, it might even make one a bit nervous standing below, if you know what I mean.)

 The next work by Mantegna (and also considered his most important) is shown in black and white because no color photos exist of it. You see, this amazing fresco, St. James Led to His Execution (c. 1455) was grievously destroyed by a bomb during WWII. (Actually, the Italians used the Ovetari Chapel in Padua (where the fresco was painted) as an ammunition dump........(DUH!!!!!) Anyway, it doesn't exist anymore, except for showing up almost every year on AP art history tests. It must have been an amazing work in color, because it's pretty darn good in black and white. The first thing we notice is that we're looking at it from a "worm's eye view." The linear perspective draws our eye to the vanishing point, which is on the bottom of the painting somewhere on the right side. The interior of the architecture should have reminded you of the Holy Trinity, by Masaccio....... only this is much more impressive. The huge emphasis placed on Classical architecture is a defining trait of Mantegna; and we'll see it again in some of his other paintings.


Here's a treat for those of you into body piercing:

 The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian, a common subject in Renaissance painting, is painted here by two different artists. The question is: which one did Mantegna paint? Looking at them, we can tell they're both Renaissance works: the painting on the left has a classic triangular composition, while the painting on the right emphasizes Classical architecture. Both works show St. Sebastian in the ever-present contrapposo stance. Having just been educated to Mantegna's style, look for the clues that will reveal the answer! (One of the works is by Antonio Pollaiuolo (c. 1475)

Sandro Botticelli: At last, someone whose work you recognize.

 With Botticelli's Birth of Venus (c. 1480), above, and Primavera (c. 1482), below, we see something entirely new to Renaissance painting. First, Botticelli's figures look nothing like anything we've seen so far..........they're flattened, airy, in low relief and almost void of modulation. The canvases are shallow......depth is not an issue here. In fact, it's almost as if everything we've learned about Renaissance painting has been totally disregarded with these two works. Second, the use of pagan mythology is blatant......not as subtle as Pisano's Hercules 100 years earlier. So what's up with Botticelli? The answer is rather complex, so pay attention: First, Botticelli painted these two works for Lorenzo de Medici's country villa just outside Florence, so it wasn't intended for public view. The painting acts as an allegory for rebirth.......just as Venus, the symbol of heavenly beauty, emerged from the depths of the sea, Florence emerged from the Medieval brine to take her place as the shining epitome of Renaissance grandeur. So, Venus isn't really Venus...........she's actually Florence. Therefore, the painting isn't really pagan, is it? Actually, this type of reasoning saved the painting from being burned by early Christian conservatives in 1490. (It even survived a slashing by some psycho-freak in the early 1970's, not to mention a television commercial by Martha Stewart a couple years ago........so our Venus must be doing something right.)

 Botticelli's justification for using pagan imagery is even more complicated in Primavera ( pictured above), also commissioned for Lorenzo's country estate. This painting, based on a poem about the birth of love in spring, shows Venus in the center of the work.........almost as if she were the virgin Mary, with Cupid floating up above. My favorite interpretation of this painting is that the work symbolizes the different forms love can take: platonic love, in the form of the three graces (to the left of Venus); subductive love in the form of Flora (the goddess of earthly beauty and passion); Godly love, as symbolized by Mercury (to the far left) as he points to the heavens; and immoral love (actually, lust would be a better word) symbolized by Zephyr whom forcefully abducts a young maiden for his own pleasures. So here, Venus stands in the middle, almost as in a last judgment, with the good guys of love on the left, and the bad guys of love on the right. What Botticelli has done is to merge Classical mythology with quasi-Christian values, which may have satisfied the religious community, but almost certainly made members of the Medici family salivate at the sight of all those beautiful, young bodies frolicking half-clothed in the woods.

Some other Paintings you should know:

(if you're going to take the AP art history test):

 Click on the images below to view and learn about some other semi-important early Renaissance artists:

To the Late Italian Renaissance

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