The Renaissance time period is perhaps one of the most famous epochs of Western history and has shaped our perception of art more than any other stylistic movement. Every year, millions of visitors flock to Rome and Florence to get a glimpse of Michelangelo's David or his frescoes in the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. So, how is it that art created over 500 years ago is still popular today and consistently featured in Pop Culture?

What was the Renaissance?

The Renaissance was an incredible period in European history that started around 1400 and ended in 1620. Following the Middle Ages, considered 'dark' times when the intellectual and cultural achievements of antiquity had been lost, the Renaissance period was a time of profound cultural change strongly connected to the ancient past of Europe.

Already in the sixteenth century, the artist and art critic Giorgio Vasari referred to his own time as 'Rinascita,' Italian for 'rebirth.' The French term, which is commonly used today, was only applied to the period retrospectively by French historians in the nineteenth century. It refers to the rebirth of the ideals of classical antiquity: its art, philosophy, culture, statesmanship, and science were rediscovered and used.


Humanism was one of the core concepts of the Renaissance time period. Derived from the Latin word 'humanitas', this philosophical concept is concerned with exploring the essence of human beings and their meaning in the world. It is a worldview that puts the interests, values, and dignity of each individual human being at its center. This concept was prevalent throughout the Renaissance; it equipped the individual with a new self-confidence to redefine his position in the world and its relation to God. 

Traditional forces such as religion or rule are questioned and not uncritically adopted. The modern human being, with its gifts and creative abilities, was emphasized. For humanists, human beings were capable of understanding themselves and their world on their initiative, critically questioning them, and developing them further.

These new capabilities of men were further fostered by an education that focused on studying the classical humanities such as rhetoric, languages, grammar, logic, literature like poetry, and philosophy.

Classical Antiquity


Besides humanism, the rediscovery of the ideals of classical antiquity informed the drastic intellectual changes in the Renaissance time period. Rediscovering what the ancient Greeks and Romans had achieved in all areas of art and culture, this time period highly influenced the Renaissance. 

As Italy was still full of remains from classical antiquity, it is not surprising that the Renaissance originated there. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, famous lost ancient sculptures, such as the Laocoon, were found in the ground. 

As people knew those sculptures only through written records, such findings were a sensation, and artists, among them the famous Michelangelo, rushed to the digging site to get the first glimpse of this lost wonder.

The Medici Family

The Medici family's patronage of arts and science was crucial in kicking off the Renaissance in the Tuscan city of Florence. Florence was ruled by this immensely wealthy family of bankers during the fifteenth century, starting with the famous Cosimo de Medici. 

The largest bank in Europe belonged to this family, which guaranteed their wealth and influence. Commissioning artworks was one of their main ways to display their power and wealth. Over the decades, they also amassed one of the most stunning art collections of all time.

Characteristics of Renaissance Art

Some characteristics will give away almost every painting from the Renaissance time period:

1. Naturalism

When looking at a painting from the Renaissance time period, one often gets struck by how life-like everything that has been depicted looks. Bodies are rendered anatomically correct and often in complicated postures. 

Flowers have been studied so closely in nature that their painted counterparts look like they could be picked from the canvas. Exploring nature closely was one of the many fundamental changes in Renaissance art. At oil painting reproduction stores, such as 1st Art Gallery, you can learn more about it. This went hand in hand with an interest in the make-up of the human body. To understand its functions and to be able to render its musculature correctly, artists started to dissect corpses.

2. Contrapposto

When looking at sculptures of standing figures in Renaissance drawings, one often encounters them shown in a particular pose. They seem to be standing and moving simultaneously, and this contrast of moved stillness encapsulates what is called contrapposto. 

Renaissance artists lent this from their colleagues from classical antiquity, where the contrapposto was considered the ideal way of proportioning the human body, emphasizing its beauty.

3. Perspective

Dome of the Cathedral

Since artists had set out to capture their reality, they have struggled with the correct way of depicting spatial relations. Finally, the Florentine architect Filippo Brunelleschi set an end to their quest. He figured out a way to mathematically construct the proper perspective by using vanishing points at the beginning of the fifteenth century. 

All objects closer to the beholder are depicted as larger than objects in the background and further away from the beholder. He found out that all parallel lines seem to converge to a point on the horizon, called the vanishing point.

4.Aerial perspective

Another way of naturalistically rendering perspective in a landscape was using the so-called aerial perspective: invented by Leonardo da Vinci, who noticed that mountains or hills that were far in the distance were always bluer than the ones closer. This observation was used frequently in paintings from the Renaissance time period.

The Chronology of Renaissance Art

Renaissance art, spanning from the 14th to the 17th century, marked a period of great artistic achievement. It began in Florence with artists such as Giotto and Masaccio, who pioneered the use of perspective. The High Renaissance saw the emergence of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael. The Late Renaissance introduced Mannerism, with exaggerated poses and complex compositions. Renaissance art transformed the art world and had a profound impact on Western culture.

Proto-Renaissance (1280-1400)

Even though the Renaissance began 'officially' in the early 1400s, there are some artists that are considered to have paved the way for the artistic advances of Renaissance art to take place. These artists worked in the tradition of the middle ages and the Byzantine two-dimensional style. The most influential artists of this time are Cimabué, who was mainly working in the Tuscan city of Siena, and his pupil Giotto, who was soon to surpass his master.

The Renaissance time period itself can be subdivided into three main phases:

Early Renaissance (1400-1495)

Particularly, the work of Giotto in the Arena Chapel in Padua, with its naturalism and an attempt to capture spatial relations in different scenes, was a milestone on the way to the full-fledged development of Renaissance period art in Italy. 

However, the Renaissance art proper kicked off in Florence, which was a republic and had, therefore, unparalleled freedom of expression. Artists like Brunelleschi, Masaccio, and Donatello, studied the works of the masters from classical antiquity and started to use correct perspective and anatomically correct rendering of the human body, focussing not only on biblical topics but were also more and more interested in mythological or secular themes.

High Renaissance (1495-1520)

The Holy Family with a Lamb 1507

The center of the High Renaissance moved away from Florence to Rome (Florence remained important, but not as much as Rome), where the Catholic Church and the papacy heavily invested in turning Rome into a magnificent Renaissance city. 

The most famous masters of the High Renaissance were Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and Michelangelo. They took what the previous generations of artists had achieved and reached a whole new level of artistic expression. The High Renaissance is said to have ended with Raphael's death.

Mannerism/Late Renaissance (1520-1600)

In general, Mannerism is characterized by a departure from the balanced, geometrically calculated compositions of the High Renaissance. Harmonious forms were replaced by a capricious and tense style, often enriched with enigmatic allegories that were only understood by initiated connoisseurs in aristocratic circles. 

The depiction of the human body in strong, twisting poses, known as figura serpentinata, is a characteristic of Mannerism in painting and sculpture. Thus Mannerist works of art are characterized by increased expressivity and three-dimensionality.

Northern Renaissance (1450-1600)

While Renaissance period art was flourishing in Italy, it took a little while to reach the part of Europe that lay north of the Alps, such as the Lower Countries and the area of the Holy Roman Empire. 

The Northern Renaissance did not rediscover the figurative language of classical antiquity; artists instead took the newly discovered naturalism and applied it to the Gothic tradition of art. They were particularly interested in rendering the surface structures of the skin, fur, and fabric as naturalistic as possible. The Flemish painters Jan and Hubert van Eyck discovered oil painting which was a milestone in the development of painting.

Renaissance Artists

Due to the work of the artist and writer Giorgio Vasari, the artists of the Renaissance period are documented very well. Vasari is known by many as the father of art history as he described the lives and works of numerous Italian painters, sculptors, and architects. He collected and published these biographies as "Le vite de' più eccellenti pittori, scultori, e architettori" ("The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects") in two editions, first in 1550 and then in 1568.

Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael feature most prominently in Vasari's work, and until today these three artists are considered the greatest masters of all time. Let's have a closer look at the masters:  

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)

Mona Lisa

Leonardo is the oldest of the three and was born in the small village of Vinci. His talent in art and other areas was discovered at a very young age, and he was trained in Verrocchio's workshop, whom he soon surpassed. 

Even though Leonardo da Vinci had a very long life, he did not complete many paintings; the most famous portrait that came down to us is the Mona Lisa, on display at the Louvre in Paris. Leonardo developed the so-called sfumato technique, making his 'smokey' Renaissance drawings easily recognizable.

While being a prolific painter, Leonardo was not content, only focussing on painting: he studied nature extensively. He left hundreds of anatomical and technical drawings showing his interest in the workings of the human body and mechanical inventions.

Michelangelo (1475 -1554)

Last Judgment

While Leonardo had worked all over Italy and later France, Michelangelo's centers of work were Florence and Rome, where he worked for the Medici family and the pope, respectively. He had an astonishing artistic output in Renaissance drawings, sculpture, and architecture. Among his most notable works are the frescoes of the Creation and the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican and his gigantic sculpture of David, the first colossal statue since antiquity.

Raphael (1483-1520)

The School of Athens

Even though Raphael had a tragically short life, he had a vast artistic output due to a well-run workshop. Loved by the popes in Rome, Raphael supplied them with frescoes for their residences and delicate Madonnas. Perhaps one of his most known artworks is the School of Athens, where he gathered all influential ancient philosophers into one composition.


The Renaissance time period is one of the most enticing epochs of Western history where the foundation of our modern society was laid. By briefly diving into this time period, it becomes apparent very quickly that it is a very multi-faceted period. Hopefully, this was a great starting point from where you can go out and discover much more about the Renaissance and its breathtaking art!