These are the greatest artists of the Renaissance

by Rick Roberts
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The Renaissance was a cultural movement from the 14th to the 17th century that was triggered by the rediscovery of classical philosophy and principles and nurtured by advances in science, technology and economics. Humanism, the belief in the importance of man’s abilities, mind, values, and achievements was the intellectual foundation of the Renaissance which marked a sharp break from the medieval age which was dominated by theological debates and religious questions and answers. Humanism allowed art, architecture, literature, politics, and science to flourish during the Renaissance.

Giotto di Bondone

Although he is not as well known and appreciated as some of the major artists of the Renaissance, Giotto played a critical role in the development of art. Giotto, who was active during the 13th and 14th century, abandoned the stiff, decorative style of painting that dominated the Medieval era and embraced a more realistic approach that emphasized the human form and emotional qualities of his subjects. Giotto opened the door to humanism. His work influenced Masaccio, Michelangelo and Raphael and Donatello.

Giotto is known for his frescos in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua and the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi. Figures in those frescos are depicted as real people occupying real space. Giotto paid close attention to the gestures and expressions of his subjects to add to the authenticity of his work. He used foreshortening to give his work a three-dimensional quality. Architectural elements and realistic landscapes are used to draw the viewer into the paintings. He arranged figures in a way to allow viewers to feel as if they were part of the scene.

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Giotto opened the door to humanism. His work influenced Masaccio, Michelangelo and Raphael and Donatello.

Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci is generally considered the greatest artist of the high Renaissance. A painter, sculptor, architect, and engineer Leonardo embodied the principles of renaissance humanism. His knowledge of anatomy, geometry, light, and geology are evident in his most well known paintings, the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper. Leonardo’s paintings capture the complexity of human emotions through expressions, poses and gestures and made them more life-like. He pushed the field of painting forward with the techniques of smufato, the gradual blending of color and tones, and chiaroscuro, contrasting light and shadows, to define forms.

With the Mona Lisa, or La Gioconda, Leonardo portrayed the subject’s facial features and hands with soft transitions of color that gave the portrait a hazy and realistic quality of a real figure set in real space. She is seated in a loggia which opens on an imaginary landscape, the lower part depicting a road and a bridge, the more distant scenery showing a hazy blue, ethereal mountain scene. That background and the subject’s ambiguous facial expression give the painting an air of mystery overlaying an otherwise calm balance.
In the Last Supper, a large painting on the wall of the former dining hall at the convent of Santa Maria Delle Grazie in Milan, Leonardo depicts an emotionally charged scene within a staid and solid background. He continues to focus on defining three-dimensional space with the walls and ceiling of the room which draw the viewer’s eye to the vanishing point at Christ’s head. The painting is said to capture Christ’s revelation to the apostles that one of them will betray him. Leonardo expresses the drama of the moment through the gestures and expressions of the apostles who are seated in groups of three on both sides of Christ. The Last Supper was common theme of the time, but Leonardo innovated and for the first time, depicted the phycological and emotional currents of the story.

Leonardo is a major Renaissance figure not just for what he produced but also how he lived. He had a deep respect for learning, knowledge, invention, and innovation.

Michelangelo Buonarroti

Michelangelo is usually described in superlatives: The greatest sculptor of the Renaissance, the greatest artist of all time, the ultimate Renaissance man. He is probably best known for his sculptures of David and for his frescos in the Sistine Chapel.

The statue of David shows Michelangelo’s complete understanding of human anatomy. The pose, the details of veins and muscles are part of a simple piece of a naked warrior. Unlike over depictions of David, which show him after the battle with the severed head of Goliath, Michelangelo chose to portray his subject moments before the battle. His face shows an expression of concentration and concern but not fear. David is the symbol of man’s confidence, determination and intelligence, an underdog destined for victory because of his humanity.

In his frescos on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo successfully blends biblical symbolism with humanist principles. The frescos show the Renaissance techniques used to depict human subjects as real and natural beings with complicated emotions and thoughts. The emphasis on redemption rather than the fall from grace also shows the spirit of humanism and the belief that man can overcome all obstacles.


Donatello was the most celebrated sculptor of the 15th century. His work showed a deep appreciation of classical sculpture and a mastery of human anatomy. His early work depicted subjects in graceful balanced poses which reflected the balance and harmony of classical ideals. In his later work, Donatello became more interested in depicting the emotions and psychology of his subjects. He is credited with changing the course of religious sculpture by reproducing human experience as he saw and understood it.

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