The renaissance saw art develop from the style of the International Gothic, with lots of gold leaf, uniform facial expressions, 2D representation and hierarchical subject size, to the High Renaissance of da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael. Here we will look at two of the most important artists of this period of development and two of its most significant paintings.
Gentile da Fabriano painted his International Gothic Adoration of the Magi in 1423, da Vinci was commissioned for his High Renaissance Madonna of the Rocks in 1483. The intervening 60 years saw the complete transformation of Western Art, creating the methods and styles that would inform most art produced since then. Our artists Paolo Uccello and Piero della Francesca were key players. Other artists who contributed at this time include Fillipo Lippi, Fra Angelico, Botticelli, Vecchietta, Giovanni Bellini, Messina and Mantegna.
The architect Filippo Brunelleschi rediscovered mathematical perspective (the ancient Greeks used it) in 1413. This was taken up by artists as a means to mathematically create a believable 3D space, filled with solid, realistic objects. In 1435 Alberti wrote a book, De Pictura, which was a manual for artists and which built upon Brunelleschi’s work.
Many consider the first “breakthrough” renaissance artist to be Masaccio, not only did he use perspective, he also painted identifiable people showing emotions and relating to one another. His Brancacci Chapel frescoes of 1425, with The Tribute Money and the Expulsion, being studied and used for reference by succeeding generations of artists.
Our first painting for consideration is the Battle of San Romano (National Gallery) created by Paolo Uccello in the 1450s. Commissioned by the Bartolini-Salimbeni family as one of three large pictures with an aggrandised depiction of a skirmish between the mercenary forces of Florence and Siena, it is very unusual for its time for having a secular subject.
From 1412 to 1416 Uccello had been apprenticed to Lorenzo Ghiberti, who had a very large and busy workshop that was working on the Baptistery doors and he met and became close friends with the sculptor Donatello. All his known works, from first becoming an independent artist show very strict use of mathematical perspective. Mathematics was one of the Liberal Arts which were crucial to the whole humanist philosophy of the renaissance. His friendship with the mathematician Giovanni Manetti contributing to this. Vasari, in his lives of the artists, says that Uccello was obsessive: “Paulo stayed at his desk all night, searching for the vanishing points of perspective”. His mastery of this technique can be seen in the 1436 Sir John Hawkwood fresco in Basilica di Santa Maria de Fiore. Here he has used two point perspective, you look up at the pedestal and can see the underside of the lintel, yet the horse and rider are square on to the viewer, otherwise you would be looking up the rider’s nose.
The Battle of San Romano is a large painting (182 X 320 cm) painted in egg tempera on planks of poplar wood (still very traditional, oil paint had still not taken over, though some walnut oil is used as tempera grassa in some of the greens). There is a lot of gold leaf still visible today, originally there was a lot of silver leaf for the armour, which must have looked spectacular, today these have oxidised to a very dark tone. The composition is an amalgam of medieval tapestry and the latest Renaissance thinking. The hero Niccolo da Tolenteno dominates the centre, theatrically leading the charge on a white horse, with tight groups of knights to the left and right. Each person depicted is a definite individual with a wide range of expressions and emotions (where helmets aren’t worn). An occupied, believable 3D space is achieved by overlapping lances, pikes and legs, by foreshortening, by decreasing figure height, by modelling the solids with light and by using broken lances to create linear perspective.
One anomaly is the foreshortening used on the dead knight lying on the ground in a line to the vanishing point. This is obviously out of perspective, just compare it with Andrea Mantegna’s The Dead Christ. There is no way a master like Uccello did this accidentally, so why did he?
Whilst tone has been used to render objects, especially the horses, as solid, there is no sense of the direction of light or of shadows, even though we know this picture depicted the commencement of battle in the morning.
The three pictures were so spectacular and famous in Florence that the Medici family tried to buy them and eventually sent a gang of thugs round to steal them from the Bartolini-Salimbeni family. However they were too tall to fit their new home so they underwent surgery, the lunettes at the top of the pictures which contained the sky and hill tops were cut away and the top corners were built up by another artist. This explains the slightly awkward letter box shape of the picture.
Our second painting is The Resurrection by Piero della Francesca. Pierro had studied maths as a boy and a long term close friend of his was the mathematician Luca Pacioli. Both of them born in Sansepolcro and they both wrote books on maths. Pierro, in De Divinia Proportione, created a different method of creating perspective to that in Alberti’s book. Albrecht Durer, who learned both methods, said that he preferred Piero’s.
Piero della Francesca was born in Sansepolcro in about 1416, early in his career he travelled to Florence were he studied Massacio’s work and learned all the latest techniques. He then travelled and worked extensively around Italy. His most famous works are probably his Legend of the True Cross frescoes in Arezzo, his most mathematically precise perhaps his Flagellation of Christ in Urbino, but it is The Resurrection in Sansepolcro that was described by Aldous Huxley in his 1925 book Along the Road as “The Best Picture in the World”.
The Resurrection was not painted often because there was little narrative for it in the Bible. But Sansepolcro was different, it had been founded by two pilgrims who had brought stone from the Holy Sepulchre back to Italy with them from the Holy Land and who then named the town after this relic. The town already had a Resurrection painting in the cathedral, by Niccolo di Segna from the 1300s, but they commissioned a son of their own town, Pierro della Francesca to paint this one, for their civic offices, in about 1463.
The picture is a fresco (so again a very traditional technique) 225 X 200cm (so 4.5 M2 compared to the San Romano at 5.82 M2). Piero della Francesca was a very slow worker and had invented a technique using wet cloths to allow him to work on the same area on consecutive days. The composition is a powerful pyramid and the expression on Christ’s face is amazing, serene and divine yet in command and authoritative, he looks like he has risen from the dead to save mankind. The pose alludes to medieval Salvator Mundi (saviour of the world) and Veil of Veronica (Volto Santo) pictures. An allegory of the resurrection is the background scenery, winter on the left, spring on the right. The early morning light comes from the left, casting long shadows and bathing the scene in a soft light that allows fine textural modelling of flesh, cloth, hair and stone.
Two point perspective is used to powerful effect. We look up at the four soldiers and the tomb, yet we look straight at Christ, this creates a visual discord, which combined with his foot on the top of the tomb, makes him appear to be leaving the picture space to enter the viewers’ space.
Tradition has it that the soldier facing us, in brown, is a self portrait. Also most people don’t notice that, for compositional reasons, Piero della Francesca has amputated the legs of the soldier with the red cloak.
Overall the picture is a mixture of realistic and unrealistic elements. The soldiers seem natural enough, but people generally don’t wear halos and don’t rise from the dead in front of an over simplified countryside enjoying two seasons. Piero della Francesca knows all this, he is trying to make the impossible believable, so he puts power and aesthetics ahead of realism so as to create the emotional response he is looking for. As San Romano adds mathematical rigour to the tradition of tapestry so Resurrection adds it to the tradition of icons.
The Quattrocento was the age when art was dominated by the ruler, the compass and mathematical calculation. We have seen with the two pictures above that, though the artists were easily capable, pure realism was not their ideal, their work still carried the cultural baggage of earlier times. Whether this was because of the artists themselves, their clients or their audience we will never know. This is the differentiator that marks the High Renaissance that was to follow, when art became totally naturalistic and realistic.