National Gallery of Art - THE COLLECTION

Tour: The Early Renaissance in Florence

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In fifteenth-century Florence, many people believed themselves to be living in a new age. The term "Renaissance," already coined by the sixteenth century, describes the "rebirth" from the dark ages of intellectual decline that followed the brilliance of ancient civilization. In Italy, especially, the Renaissance was spurred by a revival of Greek and Roman learning. Works by classical authors, lost to the West for centuries, were rediscovered, and with them a new, humanistic outlook that placed man and human achievement at the center of all things.

Brunelleschi, Donatello, and Masaccio

Humanists in Florence styled their city a "new Athens." It was a fiercely mercantile state, struggling to remain independent and committed to republican virtues though controlled in practice by the powerful Medici family. No single factor can explain the unrivaled artistic flowering it experienced in the early 1400s, but the contributions of Brunelleschi in architecture, Donatello in sculpture, and Masaccio in painting changed Western art forever. Brunelleschi measured ancient buildings in Rome to understand the harmony of classical proportions and reintroduced such elements of classical architecture as the columned arcade. He applied engineering genius to design the huge dome for the cathedral of Florence and invented the system of one-point perspective (see below). Donatello, who accompanied Brunelleschi to Rome, carved some of the first large-scale, freestanding statues since antiquity. Like those ancient figures, his were sometimes nude. In Florence's Brancacci chapel, Masaccio painted a series of innovative frescoes that used light, coming strongly and consistently from a single direction, to model figures with shadow and give them robust three-dimensionality. He put into practice Brunelleschi's theories about how to project depth beyond a flat painted surface, employing the lines of painted architecture to create a convincing illusion of space.


Artists and audiences have always perceived pictorial space in ways that suit their worldview -- their way, literally, of "looking at the world." In religious painting of the late Middle Ages, for example, space seems to open out from the picture plane. It encompasses the viewer to make him part of the sacred events depicted, bringing him into the same sphere with the holy figures of Jesus, Mary, and the saints.

During the early Renaissance, however, as humanism focused attention on man and human perception, the viewer assumes the active role. Now, instead of projecting outward, space recedes -- with measured regularity -- from the viewer's eye into the picture plane. Because the viewer himself is the point of reference, the illusion of space is more realistic than was ever before achieved. Brunelleschi is credited with the "invention" of one-point perspective, but it was given systematic form a generation later in Leon Battista Alberti's treatise on painting, De pictura, published in 1435. In one-point, also called linear, perspective, all lines converge to a single point in the distance -- the vanishing point. Often it is possible to see where the artist has scored these perspective lines into the surface of the painting to serve as guides.

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