15th Century – Renaissance period of Italy and Flanders – notes


  • Renaissance style potentially developed due to Florentine becoming region-state from city state due to threat of invasion from North being removed and Florence looking back to when it was Republic of Rome.
  • Economic & cultural links between Flanders and Italy – both prosperous but both still affected by 15th century economic depression.
  • Economic cost limited types of art including sculpture – cost of gold and moral issues meant many goldsmiths became painters. Cost of sculpture effected rise in madonnieri in stucco as opposed to bronze or marble.
  • Church reforms increased demand for religious works but humanist interests complemented revival of classical forms.
  • Humanists were scholars and thinkers with interest in classical times, optics, science and nature, man and nature – secular – this in turn affected the arts with new styles and developments.
  • Church reforms combined with the humanist effect on paintings directly affected the public as the church realised that paintings and frescoes in churches could be used to teach the illiterate the stories of the bible.
  • Development of printing Venice at end of 15th century changed intellectual life forever.


  • Renaissance period separate artist from craftsman in particularly the architect – Brunelleschi first architect not to do apprenticeship.
  • Only in Italy artists held in high enough esteem to be written about – Jan Van Eyck of Flanders first written about by Bartolommeo Fazio in 1455-6.
  • Leon Battista Alberti wrote changed role of architects and all visual arts through his treatises.
  • Patrons commissioned works of art purely for aesthetic reasons so beauty preserved for eternity – effect of humanism on patrons and the arts.
  • Portraits (painted or carved) by modelling not just restricted to ruling houses and more available to public but images of the Virgin and Child more common – combined with economic changes to the values of materials meant shift towards value of the skill of the artist rather than the value of the materials. Goldsmiths became painters (Botticelli included) – paintings survive due to their low intrinsic value. Value of precious metals meant more painters and potters who specialised in small objects or wood coffers that were finely worked including marriage coffers.
  • Artists paid by the yard by some patrons (such as those employed alongside Cosima Tura, chief artist who worked on the 12 frescoes of the Duke of Ferrera.
  • Albrect Durer obsessed with status but still ranked with other craftsman in Flanders – he believed in the fact that the artists creative gift came from God and although refers to Plato in his writings he believed God gave the power to create.
  • Italian Renaissance revolutionised the arts which went far beyond just the rival of antique forms.
  • Corporate patronage in the form of organisations such as the Scuole Grandi in Venice were acts of piety but also through the artists such as Gentile Bellini and Carpaccio and their ‘eye witness’ narrative paintings were able to show a mercantile idealised state which was the wish of their merchant citizen patrons – the citizens being the middle rank in the lay religious confraternities of Venice (citizens being descended from families long resident in Venice and well to do but with no governmental vote). Explanation of the scuola is on p. 45 of WHA. Scuola were the most active patrons of the arts in Venice.


  • Brunelleschi developed engineering system that did away with the centering system for arches and vaults (i.e. the wooden support system).
  • Brunelleschi invented linear perspective to suggest distance in painting – raised art of painting to scientific level – discovering imposed rational order in paintings.
  • Masaccio discovered how to foreshorten figures and placement that when combined with linear perspective temporal and eternal reality could be seen – the early and spiritual past and present although detached became linked.
  • Florentine theories worked on systematic rules of representation of 3 dimensional spaces – Flemish artist worked out same by trial and error first with linear and then aerial perspective.
  • Flemish artists developed easel or panel painting plus oil painting – oil paints developed due to need and requirement for brighter more luminous colours than achieved by tempera pigments … influenced by illuminated manuscripts. Oil paints were often used over tempera.
  • Jan Van Eyck and his brother mastered perspectival foreshortening so when viewed below the distorted figures were seen realistically – when used with oil paints figures had solidity.
  • Van Eyck rivalled Italian contemporaries with techniques advancing in rendering space.
  • Glazes used on sculpted reliefs of the Virgin and Child – formerly only seen on pottery – when completed roundels looked painted as opposed to sculpted.
  • Compositional patterns developed so when combined with perspective meant 2 or more moments in time were depicted in separate but cohesive works.
  • Colour harmonies and new use of interest in light and optics through work of Piero della Francesca – art became more dependent on theories of mathematics and geometrical diagrams to comprehend ‘unity in the diversity of the universe’ (p. 441 WHA).
  • Art of printing first appeared in Europe mid 15th century – first major work was edition of bible by Johann Gutenberg in 1455 – revolutionised intellectual study forever.
  • Print making developed from combination of carved wood blocks and engraving in silver with improvements in quality of linen-rag paper – Durer perfected it after first developing in Germany and Italy in 15th


  • Renaissance style in Italian architecture saw Gothic style replaced with cubes, ½ cubes and hemispheres – all worked together like the human body. Excessive decoration gone to be replaced by simple spirituality in the geometrical volumes.
  • Figures painted in scale and within unified space due to work with linear perspective.
  • Chiaroscuro technique (manipulation of light and shade) gave illusion of tangibility – Masaccio gave illusion of mass in space by same technique and figures seemed lit from outside rather than within the piece.
  • Jacopa della Quercia – carving had style with poise and controlled naturalism common to Renaissance period – figures immersed within themselves and intense (literally detached from the world).
  • Movement or style conveyed increasing sense of spiritualism as style of naturalism increased – Flemish paintings everything was symbolic.
  • Portrait painting style developed with descriptiveness concentrated through individuality of the person – more realistic style.
  • Italian art more conceptual in style – Italians liked the creative force in nature whilst Flemish the created world in nature.
  • Religious paintings became more austere and simple despite technical developments – physical world therefore became depicted with spirituality and figures seen in the present time rather than spiritual which in turn meant viewer was part of it rather than detached.
  • Classical style revived in architecture but with variations in texture – French style was more opulent in show of wealth and Italian more classically elegant and with decorum.
  • Leon Alberti Battista’s work archaeologically more correct than Brunelleschi but more decorative in style – Battista adapted classical style for walls that were pierced by openings.
  • Architects and artists aspired towards ideals and faith in the future – influenced and learned from the past – Classical style but with lightness and spaciousness with limits of decorum.
  • Donatello narrowed niches for statues so they stood forward and looked free standing.
  • Bronze statuettes and medals revitalised – became independent works of art and classed as rebirth as opposed to revival from antiquity. Medals had allegorical devices on back that could only be read by the learned elite – popular with humanists and a way of spreading personal fame. Statuettes sculpted as refined art and reflected humanist and secular tastes – designed to be viewed from multiple viewpoints so gave style of movement and intensity with possible allegorical significance to their owners (mystical figure of past could become Renaissance man).
  • Division of Christianity and humanist beliefs encouraged works of art to be dignified in depictions of man but beauty of physical world also seen – no conflict between 2 beliefs and sat side by side.
  • Outside of Florence style still illusionistic – Guido Mazzoni sculpted life like figures which enacted scenes from the bible in naturalistic style and thereby started to change the style.
  • Della Francesca’s interest in optics – new style in way landscape or clothing was reflected in water plus light diffused so evening shadows barely visible.
  • Landscapes started to surround the figures as well as the viewers – use of gold as a backdrop replaced by landscape in part for economic reasons and in part moral due to the distaste for obvious extravagance – figures also became to be seen in the present as opposed to the spiritual realms and paintings filled with activity as opposed to still life.
  • Mythological scenes rare but when done given moral as opposed to religious significance – increase in secular style of painting was increasing.
  • Carving of wood and painting of wood evolved in style and was effectively new form of art – seen in the marriage coffers and large chests (cassoni) – few survive but many broken up and survive as panels – mythological scenes plus historical and religious – style was International Gothic and give indication Florentines still took note of medieval ideals of chivalry (feudal) – chests also reminder of marriage due to political or business alliances.
  • Some paintings such as La Primavera by Botticelli may have evolved as consequence of high cost of tapestries – style and size very reminiscent but mythological Classical scenes with no narrative – possibly also done as an education tool and Botticelli believed to be aware of Alberti’s treatise on painting which would have affected the style.
  • Venetian synthesis – Mantegna signed his work in Greek on painting of S Sebastian that summed up the Renaissance style – spatial clarity by means of perspective, naturalism, landscape background, antique architectural and decorative motifs done with precision and idealised human figure which was proportioned harmoniously.
  • Style in Padua still primarily Gothic.
  • Venetian sculpture strongly classically antique due to Venice’s strong ties to Greece.
  • Giovanni Bellini (Mantegna’s brother in law) combined the technical and stylistic innovations of Renaissance art but with a strong self-confidence – influence of Brunelleschi in the architecture he painted in his works.
  • Style of altarpiece called sacra conversazione evolved – saints not separated but stand in unified space conversing with Virgin Mary and child. Striking note on S Giobbe Altarpiece is colour whereby colour harmonies vital as all work together with figures built out of colour – light no longer falls in a ray but glows and Bellini is said to have introduced atmosphere by the way he painted sunlight which was achieved with use of oil painting.
  • Bellini effectively developed new style whereby Flemish and Florentine art combined with a softness unique to Venetian art.
  • Gentile Bellini (elder brother) narrative painting of landscapes started new Venetian style with realism and detail which previously associated with Flemish artists but without the symbolism plus set in rational spaces of Florentine and without the overuse of perspective – concentrated view on the subject – classed as ‘eye-witness style’ … Vittoire Carpaccio of next generation was considered master of this style.
  • Albrect Durer developed northern style of Renaissance – developed style involving prints which has never been surpassed in technical, religious and emotional feeling and supreme mastery of being able to sketch in pen and ink.


  • Classical antiquity including Pliny
  • Flemish artists on Italian and vice versa
  • Humanism
  • Christianity
  • Astrology and astronomy
  • Mathematics and geometry, optics, the study of the human body, nature – humanist studies
  • Printing techniques that influenced humanists in last decade of 15th
  • Classical antiquities influenced Mantegna and his style more strongly Greek and Roman than any other artist.
  • Mantegna’s work influenced by humanist beliefs but the Christian tones overshadowed them and showed the pagan world in ruins in painting of S Sebastian.
  • S Sebastian influenced many painters due to the being the patron saint of the sick at a time of repeated plague outbreaks in Venice.
  • Italian influence eventually moved into Europe with King of Hungary being one of the earliest to have a Renaissance court at Budapest (personal note of interest for me as my daughter-in-law is Hungarian). Renaissance style was brought into northern Europe by illuminated manuscripts of classical texts courtesy of contacts through humanists and little figures called ‘putti’ in the books crossing the divide between the written word and visual language of the Renaissance long before paintings and sculpture arrived in Europe.
  • Ghent Altarpiece inspired by medieval writings and executed in oil paints by Jan and Hubert Van Eyck.


  • Gianzzo Manetti – contemporary of Brunelleschi declared ‘truths of Christian religion are as self-evident of laws of mathematics’ (p. 418 WHA) and architect Antonio Averlino (Filarete) believed Brunelleschi revived ancient classical style of building that was correct.
  • Leonardo Bruni believed after death of Visconti (contemporary of Holy Roman Emperor of Germany) who threatened invasion from the north Florentine people became appreciative of liberty and were enemies of tyrants and therefore their founders were the Roman people and not the Gothic chiefs and therefore Brunelleschi looked to antiquity for influence and significance more than purely aesthetics.
  • Leon Battista Alberti codified and possibly elaborated Brunelleschi’s invention of linear perspective in his treatise on painting.
  • Lorenzo Ghiberti’s ‘Commentaries’ of 1450-55 includes history of art (influenced by Pliny and Vetruvius) plus account of art from Giotto to mid-15th century plus idea of renaissance clearly described as ‘parallel description of the birth and rebirth of painting and sculpture’ (p. 423 WHA) but this is wrong as Italian renaissance is one of numerous parts due to the artists themselves being aware of their own individuality as were their patrons.
  • Bartolommeo Fazio speaks of fact of rediscovery of pigments known to Pliny amongst other authors – also wrote first known account of Jan Van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden (Fazio was humanist scholar) – Flemish painters only written about by Italian scholars and not in their own country at this point. Fazio praises Jan Van Eyck for his achievements in scholarly and scientific realms as well as technical achievements which he attributes to the origin of Pliny.
  • Alberti was moralist, lawyer, poet, playwright, musician, mathematician, scientist, painter, sculptor, architect and aesthetic theorist (p. 431 WHA) – wrote treatises on painting, architecture and sculpture during 15th century and changed the way artists and sculptors were seen – also was first to self-promote himself to rank of professional.
  • Carlo Marsuppini – Classical scholar to first translate Homer into Italian verse.
  • Savonarola – Dominican preacher – renounced the Medici and artists, poets and philosophers in 15th
  • Piero della Francesca – wrote treatise on geometrical bodies as well as perspective plus books on abacas use for merchants and rules for working out the cubic capacity of barrels – studies included abstract, pictorial, practical application of geometry and mathematics – also studied the golden section (mathematical equation) which was apparently key to harmony in heavenly realms but also vital to design work to this day.
  • Georgio Vasari wrote of Mantegna of his perfect idealisation of faith and of his style indebted to antiquity – Vasari was Italian painter, architect, writer and historian and his treatise considered the foundation of art-historical writing (Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects).






















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2 Responses to 15th Century – Renaissance period of Italy and Flanders – notes

  1. susan thomas says:

    i have recently purchased a piece of furniture with 2 shelves and 3 metal bars running parallel with the shelves. On either end of this find/furniture there are the VERY SAME carvings of the man with the military helmet . I am trying to find out more about this item. And would love to talk to Jane M Murdock. my e-mail susanthomas4178@yahoo.com put antique in subject line


    • jane513155 says:

      Hi Susan, thank you for commenting and I will respond using my private email … xxxxxxx.murdock@gmail.com as very curious. Presume you are referring to my blog piece on The Friary with the carvings? Many thanks again as very curious now too. Jane M Murdock


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