Sunday, May 6, 2007



The word 'renaissance' often conjures up images of fine Italian paintings, colourful frescoes and beautiful sculptures and buildings. This is not surprising when one considers the amount of art, displaying completely new styles and techniques, which emerged from Europe and in particular Italy, during this phase of its history. Renaissance architecture also reflected a large shift in style, although it was very much inspired by classical Greek and Roman styles. The paintings, sculptures, frescoes and buildings that date back to the Renaissance together reflect the desire of their creators to see European society and culture returned to its former glory.

Changes in artistic style

Renaissance art differed considerably to artwork which emerged from Europe before the 14th century, in terms of both subject matter and technique. During the earlier and middle years of the medieval period, the dominant trend in art was the gothic style. Paintings dealt overwhelmingly with religious themes and artists used sharp, definite lines to depict humans.

Light and shadow

During the Renaissance, however, artists started using light and shadow to depict their human subjects more realistically. This technique is called chiaroscuro (which means 'light-dark' in Italian) and it was used to remove sharp outlines around objects. People and things appeared from the light and/or shadows in a picture, which made them seem much more life-like. The use of more vibrant colours was also used to create this realism.

Sometimes when Renaissance artists were painting a scene, they also drew their human subjects naked first, perfectly sketching their muscles and bones, and then added their clothing afterwards. This was done to ensure that people were painted accurately, in the most natural and true-to-life positions possible.

Perspective and depth

For the first time in history, art also began to show perspective. This meant that different objects were shown in correct proportion to one another and people were placed in true-to-life situations. Whereas art of the earlier Middle Ages was highly symbolic and generally did not often show people outside or in busy settings, Renaissance artworks recreated the more complex environments of everyday life.

In the field of visual arts, there are different methods artists use to give their paintings perspective. Renaissance artists created an illusion of distance and space in two dimensional pictures by including a visible horizon, which was usually positioned at the viewer's eye level. Artists also created perspective by making objects in the background smaller and less clear, just as they are in real life. By using these techniques to give their work perspective, artists added depth to their paintings.

Another technique that emerged during the Renaissance is called sfumato (which means 'smoky' in Italian). Sfuamto was used when artists wanted to give their painting a soft, hazy finish. They achieved this look by covering their paintings in thin layers of paint after they finished it.
New materials

Much of what made Renaissance art stand out so much from earlier art was the availability of new materials. Until the 15th century, paints were usually made by combining egg yolk with different colour pigments. This form of paint, known as tempera, did not, however, give artists much liberty in terms of time and use of colour. This is because the egg yolk dried very quickly and it was therefore difficult to mix new colours.

When artists began using various types of oils as a binding substance instead of egg yolk, they had more time to complete paintings and were able to experiment with their colours. This is because oil-based paints (made from substances such as sunflower and linseed oil) dried much slower, meaning that artists could create a variety of different colours on their canvas while they were painting their picture.


Another artistic trend which became very popular during the Renaissance was the use of frescoes, which are paintings that cover the surface of a wall or ceiling. The two main styles of fresco are buon fresco (when the painting is completed on wet plaster) and a secco (when the painting is completed on dry plaster).

Painting on wet plaster was much more common during the Renaissance and was a style used extensively in Italy to decorate the walls and ceilings of churches. Buon frescoes were very difficult to paint, as artists only had about 10-12 hours to complete their work before the plaster dried.

Renaissance architecture

Renaissance architects were very much inspired by classical Roman designs, remnants of which were visible in their everyday surroundings. In contrast to the darker, more chaotic styles of the earlier Middle Ages, buildings designed during the 14-16th centuries were 'softer' and almost always symmetrical. Many architects closely followed the rules of geometry to ensure that their buildings were mathematically perfect.

Unlike the asymmetrical fa├žades (front coverings) of earlier, gothic-style architecture, the surfaces of Renaissance buildings were often rounded. The use of semi-circular arches - common in ancient Roman architecture - was also revived during the Renaissance. The large dome of the cathedral in Florence is a good example of Renaissance architecture that was inspired by a classical Roman style; it was modelled on the Roman Pantheon.

A famous person - Giotto di Bondone

Often referred to as the 'grandfather' of Italian art, Giotto di Bondone is thought to be the pioneer artist and architect of the Renaissance period. Born in a small village outside of Florence in 1267, he was the first artist to revert to the classical Greek and Roman styles, and also the first artist to adopt a naturalist (or life-like) style.

Although most of Giotto's artworks still dealt with religious themes, he used new techniques, such as light and shadow, to bring his human subjects to life. Appointed as the chief architect of Florence in 1334, Giotto designed the city's famous campanile (bell tower), which is located in the central Piazza del Duomo (Dome Plaza).

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