The Achievements of the Florentine Renaissance

Rosina Hawkins, Dickson College, 2011

This essay was submitted as part of the Renaissance unit at Dickson College, Semester 1, 2011. It was written in response to the following question: “Florence is widely considered as the birthplace of the Renaissance. In what ways did Florentine artists and scholars contribute to the development of painting during the period?”

The Renaissance is associated with important developments in all aspects of society and culture, and especially in the arts. In Florence, three generations of painters developed the style, purpose and technique of painting, thus raising the status of the painter from tradesman to intellectual. The first generation, led by Giotto (1266-1377) and influenced by humanism, imbued their subjects with emotion and realism. This was entirely removed from the unrealistic and highly symbolic art of the Middle Ages. The study of the classics by the second generation during the fifteenth century led to revived interest in science, and its potential in art. The discovery of perspective by Brunelleschi (1377-1446), further development of chiaroscuro and realism by Masaccio (1401-1428), and the later study of anatomy, revolutionised the technical aspects of painting. Though Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Botticelli and Michelangelo (1475-1564) were capable of copying nature exactly, it was their intellectual initiative that characterised the third generation of painters. During the sixteenth century ‘High Renaissance’ they depicted ideal human beauty and proportion, and redefined the artist’s role. Over two hundred years, painting was revolutionised by the Florentine masters.

Cimabue's 'Crucifixion' (circa 1280). Giotto (below) copies the composition and subject matter of this painting but introduces important stylistic innovations.

By modern standards, the paintings of Giotto di Bondone are simplistic in their attempt to accurately depict people and landscape. However, his idea of portraying his subjects with realistic emotions and individual characteristics was unprecedented, and influenced both his contemporaries and artists born two hundred years later. Previously, medieval artists believed that a painting need only successfully convey a concept, such as ‘man’ or ‘Christ’. Similarly, during the Middle Ages, the purpose of painting and sculpture was merely to adorn ecclesiastical architecture. Though these arts would eventually be acceptable both inside and outside the church, during the entire Renaissance period religious representations provided subject matter which was reinterpreted by each artist, and scenes which were widely popular to viewers. For example, Giotto’s Crucifixion (c.1310) exactly copies the composition and subject matter[1] of the same painting by his predecessor Cimabue, but develops the facial expressions and stance of his subjects, providing depth of emotion to the artwork. The positions of the Virgin Mary, leaning on her neighbours for support, and Mary Magdalene, who kneels at the feet of Christ, portray drama and emotions in recognisable human expressions. All human figures, including Christ, are a similar size, contrary to the medieval custom of enlarging subjects of greater importance according to the hieratic scale.[2] As the Florentine chronicler, Fillipo Villani, wrote of Giotto:

... [Giotto was] not only the equal of ancient painters but in artistry and skill their superior. This man restored painting to its ancient dignity and great name... (Webster & Green 1969, p.103)

The ‘ancient dignity’ of painting refers to the rediscovery of classical art and literature, which were central to the evolution of the human intellect during the Renaissance and crucial to the development of the Humanist movement. During his career Giotto determined the course of Renaissance art, by returning its focus to the expression of humankind.

Giotto's 'Crucifixion' (circa 1310). While borrowing the subject matter and composition of Cimabue's painting (above), Giotto uses physicality and facial expressions to convey recognisable human emotions.

Fifteenth century artists in Florence developed the new concepts of perspective and chiaroscuro, thus altering pictorial composition. Earlier paintings, even those of Giotto, lacked the pictorial depth later enabled by Brunelleschi’s invention of mechanical perspective. This technique placed subjects of a painting on firm ground in a proportionate setting, rather than floating them in air. Based both on Brunelleschi’s theories and on the works of Aristotle, church architect Leon Battista Alberti devised the first complex scientific formula for depicting imaginary spaces, in his book On Painting in 1435. However, it is thought that many techniques described in the book were already being employed by painters at the time of its publication. This is illustrated in The Tribute Money (c.1427) by the painter Masaccio in the Brancaccio Chapel. In the foreground, Christ and the twelve apostles (one of which is a self-portrait of Masaccio) establish the human subjects as the basis from which a central vanishing point was calculated. Most importantly, the distance of the mountains in the background is apparent, clearly demonstrating the heightened realism perspective enabled. The development of chiaroscuro by Masaccio contributed to this new phenomenon, with the contrast of light and shade adding further depth to his paintings, and increasing the three-dimensional appearance of his subjects. In contrast to the paintings of the Middle Ages, where subjects were lit by an indiscernible light and cast no shadows, Masaccio’s subjects blended with their surroundings through his mastery of light:

...He painted his works with exquisite harmony and softness, matching the flesh colours of the heads... with the colours of their garments...with a few simple folds, as they appear in life... (Vasari et al. 1998, p.101)

The perfection of light and shade in the folds of the garments, and in the harmonious choice of colour, gave Masaccio’s works a previously impossible realism. The study of anatomy provided artists with the final tool for perfecting their representations of the human form. Though the study and dissection of cadavers was more widely allowed during the sixteenth century, Florentine artists and scholars in the preceding century almost certainly furthered their knowledge of human anatomy by this means. Andrea del Verrocchio, insisted that all his apprentices study the inner workings of the body in intense detail. They clearly appreciated the value of this education, as shown by his student Leonardo da Vinci’s later studies of anatomy. Verrocchio’s own work The Baptism of Christ (c.1475), hints at the artist’s level of knowledge of bone and muscle structure underneath the skin in the limbs and torso of Christ. The fifteenth century was the time for painters to consolidate their knowledge of form, perspective and lighting techniques, and their discoveries did much to further the development of painting.

Massacio's 'The Tribute Money' (circa 1427). This painting demonstrates the use of perspective and light and shadow to achieve enhanced realism.

Sixteenth century Florentine painters had mastered the technical aspects, and the humanistic inclination towards naturalism had survived for almost two hundred years:

‘...painting is nothing other than the art of imitating all the living things of Nature with their simple colours and design just as nature produced them, so that anyone who fully follows Nature should be considered a splendid artisan...’ (Vasari op.cit. 1998, p.100)

Leonardo da Vinci was a strong advocate of this view, but may have inadvertently contributed to its demise in his Treatise on Painting, where he argued that painting should be included in the liberal arts (Kreis, 2009). When painters were no longer obliged to hold membership of a guild, their elevated status, greater intellectual prowess, and consequently heightened sense of self-importance moved their focus from copying nature to idealising human beauty and form. Patronage further assisted in redefining the status of the Renaissance painter, allowing artists to work alone or manage their own workshops and apprentices. Unfortunately, the necessity of pleasing the tastes of a patron limited a painter’s freedom to choose his own subject matter. Often, paintings were confined to portraits of patrons alongside prominent religious figures, better serving the reputation and status of the patron than the artistic temperament of his painter.

Verrocchio’s 'The Baptism of Christ' (circa 1475) hints at the artist’s level of knowledge of bone and muscle structure gleaned from the study of cadavers.

For Botticelli, Raphael and Michelangelo, the patronage of the ruling family of Florence, the Medici, allowed for slightly more freedom, due to the family’s humanist philosophies. In Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus (1482) the face and body of Venus, instead of copying that of a sitter, shows the artist’s personal ideal of human beauty, an idealisation which came to define the High Renaissance painters. It is highly likely that Michelangelo was among the majority in considering his artistic vision more important than pleasing his patron. Later, Vasari wrote of Michelangelo’s trust in his own judgement in the pursuit of the ideal beauty:

... [He] used to make figures nine, ten, even twelve heads high, simply to increase their grace. He would say that the artist must have his measuring tools in the eye, rather than in the hand, as it is the eye that judges...’ (Hale 1969, p. 97)

As a result of their humanist sympathies, the sixteenth century painters had an extensive knowledge of classical art and literature as well as that of the Bible. By this time their position as intellectuals was guaranteed, and began to manifest itself in paintings filled with complex symbolism. In previous centuries, well known religious symbols had been included in painting, but artists like Michelangelo and Vasari required viewers of their works to equal them in their understanding of literature in order to fully appreciate the symbolism. These new ambitions of artists would soon lead to the development of Mannerism which, with its idealised yet disproportionate subjects and bright, unrealistic colours, heralded the end of Renaissance painting in Florence.

Botticelli’s 'The Birth of Venus' (1482). The face and body of Venus does not replicate that of a sitter's but is, rather, Botticelli's personal ideal of human beauty.

The vision of Giotto was the catalyst for an artistic revolution in Florence. Over the duration of the Renaissance, painting was transformed from church ornamentation to a form of individual human expression. Giotto’s works were the first humanist paintings, demonstrating the humanist belief that ‘man is the measure of all things.’ His innovations in the portrayal of his subjects inspired Florentine artists in the following century to develop the technical aspects of painting, with their reference to the classics advancing the humanist cause. The third and final generation of painters in Florence developed Renaissance ideals in painting to their full potential, and in doing so gave painting a new direction. Nevertheless, the art of the Renaissance has had a continuing influence on painting, and the work of the Florentine masters played a vital role in the development of painting during the period.


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Books: Primary Sources

Giorgio Vasari et al. 1998, The Lives of the Artists, Oxford University Press, United Kingdom.

Leonardo da Vinci 2005, A Treatise on Painting (With a Life of Leonardo and an Account of His Works by John William Brown), Elibron Classics.

Books: Secondary Sources

Argan, G.C. 1969, The Renaissance, Thames & Hudson, London.

Hale, John R. 1969, Great Ages of Man: Renaissance. Time Inc, the Netherlands.

Hale, John R. 1993, The Civilisation of Europe in the Renaissance, Harper Collins, London.

Hartt, Frederick 1970, A History of Italian Renaissance Art, Thames & Hudson, London.

Huyghe, René (ed.) 1964 (3rd edition), Larousse Encyclopedia of Renaissance and Baroque Art, Paul Hamlyn Ltd., London.

Jannella, Cecilia et al. 2003, The Great Italian Painters From the Gothic to the Renaissance, Scala Group, Florence.

Martindale, Andrew 1966, Man and the Renaissance, Paul Hamlyn Ltd., London.

Mates, J & Cantelupe, E 1966, Renaissance Culture: A New Sense of Order, George Braziller Inc., New York.

Penguin Books (No Author) 1978, How to Recognize Renaissance Art, Penguin Books, New York.

Richardson, Carol M et al. 2007, Renaissance art reconsidered: an anthology of primary sources, Wiley-Blackwell.

Webster, D & Green, L (eds.) 1969, Documents in Renaissance & Reformation History, Cassel, Australia.

Journal articles

Haughton, Neil 2004, 'Perceptions of Beauty in Renaissance Art', Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, November issue, no.3, pp. 229–233

Internet sites

Kreis, Steven 2009, Leonardo da Vinci, 1452-1519. Viewed 5 June 2011,

Pied Piper Child 2009, Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus – Blog 1, viewed 5 June 2011,

The Renaissance Connection 2000, Patron of the Arts and The Artist’s Life, viewed 5 June 2011,

Zucker, Steven and Harris, Beth, No Date, Masaccio’s The Tribute Money in the Brancacci Chapel, viewed 5 June 2011,


  1. ^ The Crucifixion was a popular and widely used subject in Gothic Art, which directly preceded the era of Giotto.
  2. ^ Under the hieratic scale, the sizes of figures were represented according to their importance, rather than how they would appear in the real world.