Most people today recognize the term ‘Renaissance’ as meaning a specific time period in Western European culture. If they’re fairly decent with dates, they’ll remember it as a period that began around 1400 and ended in the 1600s, appearing earlier in the Italian city-states. The word actually means “rebirth” and refers to the tremendous artistic renewal of this period that happened as people rediscovered the skill and knowledge of the ancient worlds of Greece and Rome. These early empires represented to the 14th through the 16th-century citizens a golden age of shared culture, reason, and creativity. However, the artistic focus of the Renaissance took a different approach to expression from that of their predecessors.
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The “Classical Revolution” of the fifth century BC in Greece represents the end of the “Conceptual” view of the world that had been seen in earlier cultures. These changes from the strongly Egyptian influenced archaic to the more natural influence of the classical can be traced through the various changes in vase decorations and in sculptures dating from this century. On an amphora depicting Hephaestus, created around 500-450 BC by the Dutuit Painter, the figures seem to be in that transition period from the still, stylistic forms of the earlier period toward the more humanistic, flowing forms of the Classical period. Body motion retains the stiff aspect of the flattened Egyptian forms, but garments are painted with more flowing grace and voluminous aspect, and faces are painted with more attention to what is actually seen from a given perspective (Lefkowitz, 2003, p. 75). A red-figure bell krater painted around 470 BC by the Pan Painter depicts even more lifelike movements in the depiction of Artemis as she points her bow at Actaeon as he is being attacked by hounds. The bodies betray a more natural curvature instance and expression and more fluidity is expressed in the motion of the clothing draping them even though the dogs retain a sense of the earlier stiffness.
Artists in Florence were able to quickly link the mathematical knowledge of the ancient Greeks and Romans to the proportional focus of their own world. Painters used their foundational knowledge in geometry to create familiar elements in their paintings that would convey their intentions to the greatest possible audience. By melding mathematics and artistic expression, artists discovered how to provide their figures with a new impression of weight and volume that had not been previously achieved. This new ability to provide realism in a painting led to even greater explorations into how the world around them manifested itself in visual awareness. This attention to the science of representation eventually led to a systematic development of ever more realistic methods of portraying an image such as the development of dimension, perspective rules, atmospheric interpretation, and textural impression.
In architecture, the classical ideals expressed through the ancient remnants of Greece and Rome were given a modern twist with the resurgence of interest in Renaissance Italy to the mathematical precision of the ancients. The houses built in this time are marked by a certain commonsense simplicity, but they are also marked with attention to beautiful details that serve to hide the bulk of the structure itself (“Renaissance Art”, 2004). The particular characteristics of Renaissance architecture include attention given to the regularity and clarity of the various parts, the inclusion of specific yet simple mathematical proportions, and a deliberate emphasis on renewal of old Roman architectural styles in the form of columns, hemispherical domes, geometrically flawless designs, and symmetry. As the Renaissance grew older, fascination with the old styles began to change, melding the various artistic theories and approaches together with other media to become a new movement entirely that would later be called Baroque.
Beginning with sculpture and architecture, the idea of a return to the classical ideals and mathematical knowledge regarding naturalism and mathematical inclusion in creating more realistic images and representations, Greece led the way for the ancient world to approach more realistic representations just as Italy led the way for the rest of the world during the Renaissance. The painters of the Italian states introduced naturalism, proportion, perspective, and ways of dealing with light that revolutionized the industry in a period of only a few hundred years as compared to the almost static developments occurring during the many centuries intervening between the classical Greeks and Romans and the Renaissance.
Lefkowitz, Mary. Greek Gods, Human Lives. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2003, p. 75.
“Renaissance Art and Architecture.” The Columbia Encyclopedia. Sixth Ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.
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