The Early Renaissance in Italy and the North


Piero della Francesca, The Baptism of Christ, c. 1448-50 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By the 15th century, the Renaissance was in full swing. The movement was named by French historian Jules Michelet in 1858, but the idea that these artists and thinkers were returning to glory comes from the 15th and 16th centuries themselves. The conception of the Medieval period as backwards, and the name Gothic, also come from this period. Renaissance Humanism sought to regain contact with the Classical past, and flourished from about 1300 to 1600. This is the period when people again returned to Protagoras’s statement that “Man is the measure of all things,” something fueled by the Humanists’ interest in individual fame. All of this will eventually lead to the establishment of arts academies in lieu of the apprentice system for training artists, and the shift in thinking of artists as craftsmen to thinking of them as geniuses.

It is the writers and philosophers of the early 1400s, or quattrocento as the Italians call it, that must be discussed before the art to understand the impact of Humanism on this period. Writers like Leonardo Bruni, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, and Marsilio Ficino began to discuss things like history, religion, and the nature of man in ways that had not been possible before. Bruni wrote the History of the Florentine People, in which he celebrated the Florentine Republic, and discussed it as the heir to Republican Rome. Pico della Mirandola wrote the Oration on the Dignity of Man, in which he argued that all religions contain some element of the truth of God, but only Christianity contains the whole truth. This was a radical notion in Europe of the 15th century, a Europe dominated by the Christian, as as this was pre-Reformation, Catholic, Church. Ficino can, in many ways, be credited with the rise of Neoplatonism in early 15th century Florence, which would result in the establishment of the Medici’s Neoplatonic Academy. This Neoplatonism sought to establish a link between Plato’s philosophy, and his conception of a One, and Christian religion and its conception of God.

Within the context of this intellectual foment, the art of this period can be understood as coming from artists who were exposed to, aware of, and in step with the changes in thought. Many of these changes, in both art and philosophy can be traced back to ancient Greece and Rome, but some are coming from the growing interest in naturalism at the end of the Medieval period. In 1401, the Wool Refiners’ Guild sponsored a competition for a commission for a new set of doors for the Baptistery of the Cathedral in Florence. These would complement the 14th century doors completed by Andrea Pisano, which had the theme of the History of St.John the Baptist. These would have the theme of the Histories of the Old Testament, although this was changed to the New Testament on the completed doors. All of the people entering the competition were to enter panels with the theme of the Sacrifice of Isaac, a theme that would have played on the Florentine sense of divine deliverance from the Duke of Milan in 1402, and the panels were to match the quatrefoil layout of the Pisano doors. It is known that at least 7 people entered, but only 2 of the panels have survived–that of Lorenzo Ghiberti and of Filippo Brunelleschi. Both of these fit the requirements of the theme, and it is said that the vote was close, but Ghiberti, whose process used less bronze as he did not cast each figure separately, ultimately won. But, in each piece, it is possible to see the return to Greco-Roman art forms in the contrapposto stances, the heroic nudity of Isaac, and the quotes of ancient sculptures, such as the Hellenistic Thorn Puller in Brunelleschi’s piece. The story than says that after the winner was declared, Brunelleschi left in a huff for Rome with his good friend Donatello, where they studied ancient Roman art and architecture, possibly also doing some amateur archaeology, although that is all in dispute. It would seem, though, that Brunelleschi did not create more sculptures after the end of this competition.

Lorenzo Ghiberti, Sacrifice of Isaac, 1401-1402 (photo by Lorenzo Ghiberti [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons) and Filippo Brunelleschi, Sacrifice of Isaac, 1401-1402 (photo By Sailko (Own work) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC BY 2.5 (, via Wikimedia Commons)


Hellenistic, The Thorn Puller, 1st century BCE (photo by See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Brunelleschi became the most important figure in Renaissance architecture after his return (assuming the story of his trip to Rome is true) to Florence. The Florentines had begun rebuilding their Cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore, in the late 13th century. Arnolfo di Cambio was the first capomaestro, or building master, and was responsible for the model, which seems to have been closely followed by successive capomaestros. In 1331, the Wool Manufacturer’s Guild took over the supervision of the construction, which resulted in Giotto being appointed capomaestro. He constructed the campanile, or bell tower. The main issue, and the unfinished portion of the structure in the 15th century, was the dome, which was supposed to cap an opening of 150 feet, too large for the typical method of construction, which involved building scaffolding to cover the opening, and building the dome over that. Brunelleschi, possibly inspired by the dome of the Pantheon in Rome, came up with the idea of building an inner and outer dome of successive courses of herringbone masonry, held together with horizontal wooden and iron chains, with external ribbing containing the outward thrust of the dome. To be sure he did what he said, Ghiberti was appointed co-capomaestro, although Brunelleschi seems to have avoided communication with him for the most part. Brunelleschi even invented the crane-like pulley systems, using reverse screws, that hauled materials up to him dome, and were also mounted on the roof of the cathedral. The dome was completed in 1446, the same year in which Brunelleschi died, and the lantern completed a short time after. This was really an engineering marvel of the time, and still today. It is possible to see the brickwork of the two domes if you take the stairs up to the lantern.

Filippo Brunelleschi, Dome of Florence Cathedral, 1420-1446, (photos by By Marcobonomo – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,, Public Domain,, and By Sailko – Own work, CC BY 3.0,

In many ways, Brunelleschi’s architecture reflected the interests of the period and the people of Florence. They fit within the requirements of his friend, the architect, painter, philosopher, and priest, Leon Battista Alberti’s thoughts on architecture espoused in his book On Architecture. The buildings that were most elaborate were the churches, next were buildings meant for public use, and private homes coming third in terms of elaboration. Alberti also felt that there should be a means to care for and house the poor, which was covered by Brunelleschi in his Oespidale delgi Innocenti, a hospital for orphans, completed in 1446. This structure reflects the emphasis on logic and rational thought of Renaissance philosophy. There are 2 levels to the main façade, the lower made up of an arcade of rounded arches tied to the wall of the structure by groin vaults and held up by Corinthian columns. The two portions are divided by a simple entablature, and the rectangular windows of the upper portion have pediments above. In between the arches are ceramic tondos of infants created by Andrea della Robbia in c. 1490. The writings of Alberti also fits with Brunelleschi’s church architecture, such as the interior of Santo Spirito, where he placed the windows up high so you would look up to heaven rather than at the people passing by, and the Pazzi Chapel, designed as the refectory, or dining hall, of the monks of Santa Croce. In both of these structures, the emphasis is on verticality, as well as geometrical order, simplicity, symmetry, and harmonious proportion.

Filippo Brunelleschi, Oespidale degli Innocenti, finished 1446, (photo By Warburg – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,, Interior, Santo Spirito, planned 1434 (photo By Sailko – Own work, CC BY 2.5, and Interior, Pazzi Chapel, begun c. 1442 (photo By Miguel Hermoso Cuesta – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Alberti’s own architecture also followed his own rules, as well as the geometry of Brunelleschi, and established the ideals of symmetry and geometry for the rest of the Early and High Renaissance. His façade for Santa Maria Novella, built 1456-1470, alternates white and dark marble with sideways volutes and geometric forms in a monumental, yet symmetrical fashion. The Palazzo Rucellai, built for one of the allies of the Medici family, uses engaged pilasters with rusticated blocks and different capitals for the bottom and the top 2 levels, Tuscan for the bottom, Corinthian for the other 2, to add visual interest to an otherwise blocky, geometric structure. It is in his church of Sant’Andrea in Mantua that his theories really shine. The façade of the structure is divided into 3s horizontally and vertically, with a triumphal arch at the center, bringing together both Gothic church architecture and Roman building styles. On the interior, the main nave has a large barrel vault with painted coffering, the real coffers are in the side aisles, creating an elaborate, geometric yet monumental space that encompasses the ideals of symmetric and harmonious proportions.

Leon Battista Alberti, Facade of Santa Maria Novella, 1456-1470 (photo By No machine-readable author provided. JoJan assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY-SA 3.0, and Facade of the Palazzo Rucellai, begun 1453 (photo By Miguel Hermoso Cuesta – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,,

Leon Battista Alberti, Facade of Sant’Andrea, Mantua, 1470-1493 (photo By MarkusMark – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,, and interior (photo By Tango7174 – Own work, GFDL,

Filippo Brunelleschi is also credited with the rediscovery (some people will tell you it’s a new discovery) of linear perspective in the 1420s. The story goes that he painted an image of the Baptistery building if viewed from the doors of the cathedral. He then poked a small hole in the painting, and held it at arm’s length with a mirror behind it. If he moved the mirror back and forth, he could see how well his image matched with the actual view. There is some evidence that this painting may have really existed, and been in the Medici collection, but it was lost after the death of Lorenzo Il Magnifico in 1492. Alberti codified the ideas of linear perspective with his treatise On Painting in 1435. The idea is that the artist draws a horizon line, approximately at eye level of the viewer, and then places a vanishing point directly in the center of this line. After drawing a grid, in which all of the diagonal lines, called orthogonals, recede to this vanishing point, the artist can place his figures, buildings, etc into the scene, varying size according to how near or far they are to the foreground of the picture plane, the 2 dimensional surface of the piece. This revolutionized paintings and relief sculptures, making it possible for artists to create completely naturalistic scenes, as can be seen in Piero della Francesca’s Baptism of Christ pictured at the top of the page. It is obvious that all of the artists working in and around Florence at the time wanted to show their familiarity with this new technique, as Ghiberti used it in his relief of The Meeting of Solomon and Sheba from the so-called Gates of Paradise, the second set of doors he was commissioned to make for the Baptistery in Florence. In this relief, the 2 Old Testament figures meet in the center of a large architectural space, surrounded by other figures. The architecture recedes in proper linear perspective, and this scene also refers to the meeting of the Byzantine Emperor and members of his court with the Pope in the Council of Ferrara-Florence from 1431-1449.  Some of these artists also used this new technique to create sketches that are 3 dimensional models of the forms, such as Paolo Uccello’s perspective drawing of a chalice. Others used it to create radical foreshortening of the forms in their paintings, such as Andrea Mantegna’s Dead Christ, a small private devotional painting. lorenzo_ghiberti2c_porta_del_paradiso2c_1425-522c_10_salomone_e_la_regina_di_saba

Lorenzo Ghiberti, Meeting of Solomon and Sheba, 1425-1452 (photo by By Sailko (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons)

Paolo Uccello, perspective drawing of a chalice, c. 1430-40 (photo by Paolo Uccello [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons) and Andrea Mantegna, Dead Christ, c. 1500 (photo by Andrea Mantegna [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

One of the younger artists who adopted the new style quickly was Tomasso di Giovanni di Simone Cassai, better known as  Masaccio. It is thought that he may have worked with Brunelleschi on his fresco of the Holy Trinity in Santa Maria Novella in Florence, painted in 1427. Here Masaccio establishes 2 vanishing points, one for the main scene of the Crucifixion with God and the Holy Spirit; and another for the sarcophagus with a skeleton. The lower scene is meant to be a memento mori, and the Latin inscription reminds the view that the skeleton was once like them. The main scene has the Crucifixion and Holy Trinity enclosed within a triumphal arch and large barrel vault, with 2 donors kneeling outside. Each scene needs its own vanishing point, as otherwise the perspective would be off. Until his death in 1428, Masaccio also worked on the Brancacci Chapel of Santa Maria del Carmine up with the artist Masolino. His scene of the Tribute Money, one of the stories of Jesus in the New Testament uses both the new linear perspective, and the technique of aerial, or atmospheric perspective, which draws on the natural way our eyes see things in the distance as hazy because of dust and other matter in the air. It is also in this scene that Masaccio’s monumental figures can really be appreciated, as the figures of Jesus and the Apostles are all solid, massive figures. The figure of the tax collector, though, stands out because he is dressed in 15th century clothing; is not as monumental; and is purposefully ugly in stance and form. This was to emphasize his spiritual ugliness through his physical ugliness and unbalanced stance. Masaccio also used this shorthand in his depiction of the Expulsion from the Garden, where both Adam and Eve, painted as if expressing great emotion, are ugly physically and in unbalanced stances. Eve is also a quotation of an ancient Roman sculpture known to be in the Medici collection, the Venus Pudica (Modest Venus). Masaccio,_trinitàMasaccio, Holy Trinity, Santa Maria Novella, Florence, 1427 (photo By Masaccio – book: John T. Spike, Masaccio, Rizzoli libri illustrati, Milano 2002, Public Domain,


Masaccio, Tribute Money, Brancacci Chapel, Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence, c. 1427 (photo By Masaccio –, Public Domain,

Masaccio, Expulsion from the Garden, Brancacci Chapel, Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence, c. 1427 (photo By Masaccio – Original source: 2005-08-25 (original upload date) Original uploader was Grw at cs.wikipediaTransferred from cs.wikipedia; transfered to Commons by User:Sevela.p using CommonsHelper., Public Domain, and Roman, Venus Pudica, 2nd century (photo By After Praxiteles – Own work (BurgererSF), CC0,

Sculpture was also being changed in the 15th century, in large part because of Brunelleschi’s friend Donatello. Donatello apparently kept a collection of both copies of and authentic ancient sculptures in his studio to use as models for his works. He also used to drape wet-plaster covered strips of cloth over a posed wooden model so that he could get a sense of how cloth would drape over a real body. This attention to detail, as well as the influence of Greco-Roman sculptural forms and poses can be seen in his 2 sculptures for the outer niches of the Or San Michele, the church and grain storage structure in central Florence. Each guild had a niche on the outside and the Armorers Guild and Wool Drapers Guild both commissioned Donatello to make sculptures of their patron saints for their niches. St. Mark, commissioned by the Wool Drapers Guild, stands in a strong contrapposto stance, his body clearly defined beneath the drapery. St. George, commissioned by the Armorers Guild, is also in the same stance, but his body is hidden beneath the large shield he carries (his sword has been lost). Both show the influence of ancient forms, although the heroic nude of antiquity would not be appropriate for Christian saints. Donatello was also commissioned to create a free-standing, roughly life-sized statue of David for the courtyard of the Palazzo de’Medici. This is the first free-standing male nude cast in bronze since antiquity, and stands in a contrapposto stance, one foot on the severed head of Goliath, as he holds his sword. The wing of the helmet of Goliath caresses all the way up the leg of David, here a prepubescent boy, a homoerotic image perhaps drawn from Donatello’s personal life. David wears only a heat, which has a laurel wreath on it, another is on the ground encircling the figures. This is both a reference to the ancient symbol of victory and to the Medici family and their crest. David was a symbol of the city of Florence, which saw itself as a David, a small republic which had withstood the conquering Goliaths of Naples and Milan, and so, by the Medici displaying this within their own courtyard, they were claiming the victory, giving themselves political credit for the actions of the Florentines (or more truthfully the diseases which had saved the city both times). This is probably why the work was removed to the Palazzo Vecchio, which served as city hall, after the fall of the Medici in 1494.

Donatello, St. Mark, 1411-1415 (photo by CC BY-SA 3.0, and St. George, c. 1410-1415 (photo By Utente:MM – wikipédia italienne, Public Domain,


Donatello, David, 1428-1432 (photo By original file by Patrick A. Rodgers (File:Florence – David by Donatello.jpg) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons)

Another burgeoning trend in Early Renaissance art was the interest in the individual and the cult of fame. Andrea del Castagno painted a fresco on the loggia of the Villa Carducci at Legnaia outside of Florence in 1450. This fresco detailed famous men and women from history: the men actual historical figures from Florence, the women from myth or the Bible. The male figures, which include both condottieri (sing, condottiere, soldiers for hire) and poets, move outside their frames to interact with one another. They highlight the importance of both professions in 15th century Florence, as well as the growing importance of the individual. There is also a rise in this period of the equestrian portrait, in both paintings and sculptures. These are often honorific monuments in public places to condottieri after they have died, meant to commemorate services to the state. The painted images, such as those honoring Sir John Hawkwood, painted by Paolo Uccello in 1436, and Niccoló da Tolentino, painted by Andrea del Castagno between 1455 & 1456, are meant to seem like sculptured wall reliefs above doors in the cathedral in Florence. Cast bronze sculptures were often placed in public squares, either at the request of the government of the city-state or the will of the condottiere himself. Donatello’s Equestrian Monument of Erasmo da Narni, also called Gattamelata (Honeyed Cat), was placed in the Piazza del Santo in Padua at the request of the government of Venice, which controlled Padua at the time, to recognize services to the state. Donatello placed his figure in classical armor, down to the bust of Medusa on his chest. The horse stands in a close imitation of the Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius (thought to be Constantine still in the 15th century), with one hoof raised as if about to step on something. Donatello even included classical reliefs on the base of the sculpture. Not to be outdone, the condottiere Bartolomeo Colleoni requested in his will a massive equestrian statue to be placed in front of the Basilica San Marco in Venice, but which was eventually placed in front of the Collegio San Marco. This cast bronze, designed by Andrea del Verrocchio and cast by Alessandro Leopardi, stands on a tall base, and is about 13 feet tall itself. This is also modeled on classical examples, but Colleoni is show wearing 15th century armor, and has a fierce, stern look on his face, reflecting his reputation as a ruthless soldier.

Andrea del Castagno, Famous Men and Women, with details of Pippo Spano and Dante, from the Villa Carducci at Legnaia, 1450 (photos By Andrea del Castagno – RAFbNU4KPI2CYw at Google Cultural Institute, zoom level maximum, Public Domain,, By Andrea del Castagno – Web Gallery of Art:   Image  Info about artwork, Public Domain,,)

Paolo Uccello, Equestrian Monument to Sir John Hawkwood, 1436, (photo By Paolo Uccello – The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH., Public Domain, and Andrea del Castagno, Equestrian Monument to Niccolo da Tolentino, 1455-1456 (photo By Sailko – Own work, CC BY 3.0,

Donatello, Equestrian Statue of Erasmo di Narni (Gattamelata), 1444-1453 (photo by Public Domain, and Andrea del Verrocchio, cast by Alessandro Leopardi, Equestrian Monument of Bartolomeo Colleoni, 1481-1496 (photo By G.dallorto – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5 it, and By Stefano Bolognini – Own work, Attribution,

This cult of fame spread beyond artists and condottieri to the leaders of the Italian city-states as well. These often, but not always, showed the ruler in profile, often in front of their land to reinforce their rule. A good example of this is Piero della Francesca’s portrait of Battista Sforza and Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino, where she is in profile on the right because this was probably painted after her death in childbirth. Also, Federico da Montefeltro (no, that’s not Lord Farquaad) had his right eye knocked out in a jousting accident, and was careful never to show that side of his face. Another example of this in his portraiture is in the painting Federico da Montefeltro and His Son Guidobaldo (c. 1475), by Justus van Gent or (and) Pedro Berruguete, where the Duke is shown in profile again, reading, but wearing his armor, as he was a great condottiere as well as the leader of one of the major Humanist courts of the 15th century. Andrea Mantegna painted an entire room, the Camera Picta or Camera delgi Sposi, for the Ducal Palace in Mantua that celebrated the family of the Marquis, Ludovico Gonzaga. There are images of the Marquis and his entire family, as well as a painted oculus in the ceiling, which creates an optical illusion of the sky above with servants, peacocks, putti, and plants.

Piero della Francesca, Battista Sforza and Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino, after 1475 (photo By Piero della Francesca – The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH., Public Domain, and Justus van Gent or (and) Pedro Berruguete, Federico da Montefeltro and His Son Guidobaldo, c. 1475 (photo Pedro Berruguete [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Andrea Mantegna, Camera Picta (Camera delgi Sposi), Ducal Palace, Mantua, 1465-74 (photos Andrea Mantegna [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, Andrea Mantegna [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, and By Andrea Mantegna – The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH., Public Domain,

Another strain in Early Renaissance art is Neoplatonism, influenced by the Platonic Academy in Florence, which in turn was inspired by Plato’s informal school of philosophy. As mentioned above, Neoplatonism was a combination of Plato’s philosophy with Christianity. Many of the artworks of Sandro Botticelli from this period reflect this philosophy and the interests of wealthy patrons in Florence in mythological subject matter with Christian overlays. Two pieces he did, probably to celebrate the wedding of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’Medici, a cousin of Il Magnifico, exemplify this concept. Both The Birth of Venus and La Primavera show Venus, the pagan goddess of love. In The Birth of Venus, she is shown as the modest Venus, being blown to shore by Zephyr, the West Wind, where she will be covered by her handmaid, Ora. In the background are orange trees, which were symbols of the Medici. But, this piece fits into the Neoplatonic conception of the birth of perfect, spiritual beauty, as well as love. La Primavera depicts Venus in her sacred garden, with the 3 Graces dancing at the front; Mercury with his caduceus standing to the side; and the West Wind kidnapping the nymph Chloris, to rape, then marry her, civilizing her through that into Flora, the goddess of flowers. This then becomes the metaphor for Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco’s marriage, and the civilizing nature of it, if one ignores the brutality of rape.

Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, c. 1482 (photo By This file is lacking author information. – The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH., Public Domain, and La Primavera, 1477-1482 (photo By Sandro Botticelli – The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH., Public Domain,

The religious paintings of this period often contrast monumentality of figures with spirituality of ideas. Some artists were entirely taken with the spiritual, and focused on the religious nature of the stories and people, often mixing the Byzantine lack of form with Early Renaissance naturalism and perspective, such as in Fra Angelico’s fresco of the Annunciation from the cloister of San Marco outside of Florence. Piero della Francesca’s frescoes from the Bacci Chapel of the Basilica of San Francesco in Arezzo typify both the monumentality of form as well as the interest of the artists and their patrons in typology, or the mixing of religious stories to draw connections. His image of the Annunciation is directly across the window opening from The Dream of Constantine, and the connections between the stories are clear. In each, the figure is being told something miraculous by an angel, and the columnar form of Mary’s body and the opening of her cloak mirror the form and opening of Constantine’s tent. This draws a connection between the Annunciation and the supposed conversion of Constantine to Christianity before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. Fra Filippo Lippi, perhaps one of the most colorful of these Florentine artists used light, and his mistress (later wife) and son to create a beautiful tondo image of The Virgin and Child with Scenes from the Life of St. Anne. The face of the Virgin is entirely modeled in chiaroscuro, giving her a depth and 3 dimensionality, while highlighting her spiritual nature. This can really be seen in his preparatory drawing for the work. ANGELICO,_Fra_Annunciation,_1437-46_(2236990916)

Fra Angelico, Annunciation, San Marco, Florence, c. 1440-1445? (photo By carulmare – ANGELICO, Fra Annunciation, 1437-46, CC BY 2.0,

Piero della Francesca, Annunciation and Dream of Constantine, Bacci Chapel, Basilica San Francesco, Arezzo, c. 1455 (photo By Miguel Hermoso Cuesta (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons and By Piero della Francesca – Web Gallery of Art:   Image  Info about artwork, Public Domain,

Fra Filippo Lippi. Virgin and Child with Scenes from the Life of St. Anne, 1453 (photo Filippo Lippi [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons) and Drawing of the Head of a Woman, c. 1452 (photo by By Filippo Lippi – Web Gallery of Art:   Image  Info about artwork, Public Domain,

Venice in the 15th century was influenced artistically by Florence, but there were always major differences. Frescoes did not last in Venice as well because of the damp climate, and Venetian artists were heavily influenced by the cosmopolitan nature of what was one of the most important trading cities in Italy. This combination of interests can be seen one of the extant drawings of Jacopo Bellini, the father of a major family of artists in Venice, Christ Before Pilate. Here we see the small figures of the main scene behind a Roman triumphal arch, but in front of a building that looks suspiciously like the Doge’s palace in Venice. The linear perspective here, though, is spot on, proving that Bellini had absorbed the lessons of Brunelleschi and Alberti. One of his sons, Gentile Bellini, would go on to be part of an artistic exchange between Venice and the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Mehmet II who had recently conquered Constantinople in 1453, bringing with him some of his father’s drawings, which speaks to the value of drawings in this period. Gentile Bellini created a portrait of the Sultan in profile, with his crest of 3 crowns and a richly decorated honorific fabric draped over the sill in front of him. In typical Venetian style, Bellini seems to have spent most of his time and effort on the detail of this cloth. Another of his works, painted after his return to Venice, depicts an actual event, and gives a sense of 15th century Venice. This is the painting of the Procession of the Reliquary of the Cross in Piazza San Marco. Here we see the large procession, with many members of the Venetian elite taking part on the Piazza, with the Basilica San Marco in the background. In the foreground, is a miracle taking place: Jacopo de’ Salis, a tradesman from Brescia, knelt before the relic in prayer that his dying son might recover. When he returned home, he discovered that the boy was completely well again. de’Salis is depicted in red, kneeling directly behind the honorific canopy over the reliquary. Gentile’s brother Giovanni was also an artist, and would go on to train some of the most important members of the next generation in Venice. His works combined the Renaissance conceptions of spirituality and light. He is known for painting a number of sacra conversazione, a popular form of sacred image in the Venetian churches. The painting of St. Francis in Ecstasy shows the saint in the wilderness receiving the stigmata, something also painted by Giotto in the Proto-Renaissance. Here, there, the figure interacts within a more believable landscape, and the emphasis is on light, the Light of God, as the essence of the miracle. The San Giobbe Altarpiece exemplifies the sacra conversazione type, with a number of saints and musical angels surrounding the throne of the Virgin and Child, which appears to be placed within the apse of a church. The eggs in the faux-mosaic of the apse represent salvation through resurrection, and the saints, including St. Francis, St. Jerome, St. Stephen, and St. Giobbe, are identifiable by their attributes.jacopo_bellini2c_flagellazione2c_louvre

Jacopo Bellini, Christ Before Pilate, c. 1450 (photo By jJacopo Bellini [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Gentile Bellini, Mehmet II, c. 1480 (photo By Gentile Bellini – The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH., Public Domain, and Procession of the Reliquary of the Cross in Piazza San Marco, 1496 (photo By Gentile Bellini – The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH., Public Domain,

Giovanni Bellini, St. Francis in Ecstasy, c. 1480 (Photo by Giovanni Bellini (circa 1430–1516) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons) and San Giobbe Altarpiece, c. 1487 (photo by Giovanni Bellini (circa 1430–1516) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Fifteenth-Century Painting in the Netherlands reflected both the economic change from feudalism to mercantilism and the commercial ties between Italy and the Netherlands. Many of the Florentine banking families had branches in the major Northern trading cities like Antwerp and Bruges. But, the art of the North was different from that of the South, and linear perspective was not yet a point of emphasis. Artists used a system of perspective in which the orthagonals vanished to an area, not a single point. These artists were far more interested in minute details, as can be seen in works such as Robert Campin’s (The Master of Flémalle) Mérode AltarpieceThis triptych was meant for private devotions in the home, and was commissioned by the Inglebrecht family, whose coat of arms appears in the leaded glass window of the central scene. Here, the donors kneel in an enclosed garden, symbolic of Mary’s virginity, with a figure at the rear by the gate, interpreted as either a patron saint or the prophet Isaiah. In the central scene, the Virgin Mary sits on the floor of a typical Northern middle class 15th century interior, as the Angel Gabriel enters and, in the upper corner by a window a tiny figure of the baby Jesus holding a cross floats in on the light. Everything in the space has meaning, as is typical of the North, including the vase with 3 lilies, 1 unopened, on the table symbolizing the Trinity; the bowl hanging in the niche in the back which symbolizes that this is taking place in a sacred space; and the modest Virgin reading her prayer book on the floor. The third panel contains an image of St. Joseph in his carpentry shop with a miniature image of a Northern city outside the window. St. Joseph is working on a mousetrap, which symbolizes the victory of Jesus over sin.robert_campin_-_mc3a9rode_altarpiece_-_wga14410

Robert Campin (Master of Flémalle), Mérode Altarpiece, c. 1425-1430 (photo by Robert Campin (1375/1379–1444) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

One of the major artists of their period in the North is Jan van Eyck, who was also a diplomat for both John of Bavaria and Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. This meant that he was also independent of the guilds. It is known that he worked on the Ghent Altarpiece, also known as the Altarpiece of the Lamb, with his brother Hubert, although there is debate as to what each brother did on the work. This was a commission for the Cathedral of St. Bavin, then known as the Cathedral of St. John. On the exterior, there are 3 registers of images. At the top on the exterior are images of Old Testament prophets and pagan sibyls said to foretell the coming of Jesus. Below that, is an image of the Annunciation that appears to be taking place in the upper room of a church tower, a space where a priest would prepare for mass. Mary is kneeling on the ground as Gabriel appears and the Holy Spirit hovers over her head. Outside the window, is a miniature version of a 15th century Northern town. The lower register contains images of both St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist painted to look like statues with images of the donors on either side of them. The interior has a central scene of the sacrifice of the lamb, the symbol of the Eucharist of Catholic Mass. Surrounding this scene are groups of saints, including the Apostles and virgin saints, with others arriving in the wings. Behind the altar are small buildings, including the Cathedral. Above this is the Deesis, with the Trinity at the center (Jesus is the lamb on the altarpiece), with the choirs of angels on either side of the Virgin and St. John the Baptist. Adam and Eve, with painted images of the sins of Cain and Abel above them, are on the outermost wings. This was meant to remind the viewer of the Jesus as the new Adam, who removes sin from the world.

Jan and Hubert van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece (Altarpiece of the Lamb), 1432 (photos By Jan van Eyck (circa 1390–1441) – Web Gallery of Art:   Image  Info about artwork, Public Domain, and By Jan van Eyck (circa 1390–1441) – Web Gallery of Art:   Image  Info about artwork, Public Domain,

Jan van Eyck was also known for his portraiture, including the Arnolfini Portrait, long thought to represent a wedding, but now that is in dispute. In this piece, Giovanni Arnolfini, a Florentine banker working in the North, is shown in an interior with a woman thought to be his wife. She is shown in green, possibly pregnant, but certainly fertile, and there is a little dog, the symbol of fidelity at their feet. There are a number of symbols here of her duties within the house, including the open bed curtains and St. Margaret, the patron saint of childbirth on the bedpost. There are also references to Jesus, the single candle in the chandelier and the images of the Stations of the Cross around the convex mirror at the back. There are many other symbols of divinity and religion here as well, including the apples on the windowsill and their gestures. Reflected in the mirror seems to be van Eyck and his assistant, which explains the formal Latin of his signature. This may represent a contract, a legal document, of some sort. The attribution of the figure in the red turban reflected in the mirror as van Eyck comes from a possible self-portrait of the artist, known as Man in the Red Turban. At the top of the frame of this work is the legend “Als Ich Can,” translated as “As I/Eyck Can,” which forms the basis for the idea that this is a self-portrait. This figure, with the assistant also shows up in the background of van Eyck’s Madonna with Chancellor Nicolas Rolin (Virgin of Autun). Although here, they are small and seemingly out of proportion to the rest of the scene. Van Eyck fashioned a convincing background landscape for this work from identifiable features of multiple cities, such as Bruges, Autun, Liège, Maastricht and Geneva. Behind the Virgin are multiple churches, while behind the donor are secular buildings and fields, which would have been an acceptable symbol for this image. The piece is divided symmetrically symbolically and realistically.

Jan van Eyck, Arnolfini Portrait and detail, 1434 (photos By Jan van Eyck (circa 1390–1441) – Web site of National Gallery, London, Public Domain, and By Jan van Eyck (circa 1390–1441) – Web Gallery of Art:   Image  Info about artwork, Public Domain,


Jan van Eyck, Man in a Red Turban (Self-Portrait?), c. 1433 (phot0 By Jan van Eyck (circa 1390–1441) – Selected work 1 from Self Portrait: Renaissance to Contemporary (Anthony Bond, Joanna Woodall, ISBN 978-1855143579)., Public Domain,


Jan van Eyck, Madonna with Chancellor Nicolas Rolin (Virgin of Autun), c. 1435 (photo By Jan van Eyck (circa 1390–1441) – : Home : Info : Pic, Public Domain,

A major Northern painter trained in the studio of Robert Campin was Rogier van der Weyden. In his work can be seen the influence of both van Eyck and Campin. His Descent from the Cross, commissioned by the Crossbow Guild, takes place in a narrow stage setting, with the central figures all expressing grief. The crossbow of the guild can be seen in the corners, as well as in the body positions of both Jesus and the Virgin and the arm position of Mary Magdalen at the side. His Annunciation takes place in a similar setting to the Mérode Altarpiece, with the donor on one wing and the Visitation on the other. The central scene adds the bed of the Arnolfini Portrait to the modest interior of Campin’s scene and switches some places of objects. Another van der Weyden quotation comes in his St. Luke Depicting the Virgin, which again uses van Eyck as a source, this time the Virgin and Chancellor Rolin, but now with van der Weyden playing the part of St. Luke, the patron saint of artists, held by Christian tradition to be the first artist.weyden-descendimiento-prado-ca-1435

Rogier van der Weyden, Descent from the Cross, c. 1435 (photo by Rogier van der Weyden (1399/1400–1464) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)


Rogier van der Weyden, Annunciation Triptych c. 1435 (photo by Rogier van der Weyden (1399/1400–1464) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)


Rogier van der Weyden, St. Luke Depicting the Virgin, c. 1435 (photo By Rogier van der Weyden [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Flemish portraiture of the period shows a high attention to detail, often with the hairs on the faces of the men and reflections in jewelry of the women being painted into the images. These were often devotional images, with the image of the patrons depicted either with or around a central scene of a saint or the Virgin, as can be seen in Hans Memling’s works, Tommaso and Maria Baroncelli Portinari and Madonna and Child with Martin van Nieuwenhove. memling2c_tommaso_portinari_e_la_moglie2c_metropolitan_museum

Hans Memling, Tommaso and Maria Baroncelli Portinari, c. 1470 (photo by Hans Memling (circa 1433–1494) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)


Hans Memling, Madonna and Child with Martin van Nieuwenhove, 1487 (photo by Hans Memling (circa 1433–1494) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

The 15th century was a time of change and upheaval in both Italy and the North in the arts. This reflected the changes happening in thought, as well as in politics, as there was a burgeoning idea of a nation-state in the minds of the people of Europe.


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