In the Florence Cathedral, Florence, Italy, there is a cathedral church whose octagonal dome, built without the aid of scaffolding, was considered the greatest engineering feat of the early Renaissance. Dedicated to Santa Maria del Fiore, Our Lady of the Flower, it is also known as the Duomo, after the Italian word for cathedral. Created by many great Early Modern artists, this piece of architecture is a perfect example the Renaissance style. We can come to a better understanding of why this is so by exploring what the characteristics of the Renaissance “style”.
To understand the properties of the Florence Cathedral that fit the Early Modern style, I will begin with a description and its history. The cathedral’s architectural style, although greatly influenced by French Gothic elements remained distinctively Florentine, especially the geometric patterns of red, green, and white marble on the building’s exterior. Construction of the cathedral began in 1294 on the site of a Christian church founded in the 6th or 7th century and continued until 1436. Several celebrated Italian architects were involved in the project, including Giotto, Arnolfo di Cambio, Andrea Orcagna, and, most notably, Filippo Brunelleschi, who was responsible for designing and building the dome. The cathedral’s exterior is ornamented with sculpture and mosaics by Italian artists Donatello, Nanni di Banco, and Domenico Ghirlandaio, among others. The building’s stained-glass windows are the work of the Italian architect and artist Lorenzo Ghiberti, and the interior is decorated with sculpture and fresco paintings by several Renaissance masters.
Construction of the campanile (bell tower), situated to the right of the entrance to the Duomo, was begun by Giotto and completed according to his plans in 1359, after his death. Nearly 278 ft high, the campanile is embellished with red, green, and white marble panels of relief sculpture by Italian artists Andrea Pisano and Luca della Robbia, and niches with sculpted figures by Donatello and other masters. Facing the cathedral and campanile is a smaller, octagonal structure, the Baptistery of San Giovanni, noted for its gilt-bronze doors, elaborately worked in high relief by Andrea Pisano and Lorenzo Ghiberti.
With that background information about the cathedral, one question comes to mind: what is it that makes the Renaissance style distinct? Renaissance Art is painting, sculpture, and architecture produced in Europe in the historical period that has been called the Early Modern period. Though the piece I selected is a piece of architecture it has all the aforementioned forms of art, and the elements of the Renaissance style encompasses all these forms. The three main components of Renaissance style are the following: a revival of the classical style originally developed by the ancient Greeks and Romans, an intensified concern with non-religious life, and an interest in humanism and emphasis on the importance of the individual. The Renaissance period in art history corresponds to the beginning of the great Western age of discovery and exploration, when a general desire developed to examine all aspects of nature and the world. This greatly influenced the art that was produced during this period.
During the Renaissance, artists were no longer regarded as mere artisans, as they had been in the medieval past, but for the first time emerged as independent personalities, comparable to poets and writers. When he was discussing architecture in his book Lives of the Artists, Giorgio Vasari writes, “…some idea of form and some approximation of the good ancient rules were rediscovered by the better architects, who have left examples of their style throughout Italy in the oldest as distinct from the antique churches” (Vasari, 39). They sought new solutions to formal and visual problems, and many of them were also devoted to scientific experimentation. In this context, mathematical or linear perspective was developed, a system in which all objects in a painting or in low-relief sculpture are related both proportionally and rationally. As a result, the painted surface was regarded as a window on the natural world, and it became the task of painters to portray this world in their art. Consequently, painters began to devote themselves more rigorously to the rendition of landscape—the careful depiction of trees, flowers, plants, distant mountains, and cloud-filled skies. Artists studied the effect of light out-of-doors and how the eye perceives all the diverse elements in nature. They developed aerial perspective, in which objects become increasingly less distinct and less sharply colored as they recede from the eye of the viewer.
Although the portrait also developed as a specific genre in the mid-15th century Renaissance painters achieved the greatest notoriety with the history, or narrative, picture, in which figures located within a landscape or an architectural environment act out a specific story, taken either from classical mythology or Judeo-Christian tradition. Within such a context, the painter was able to show men, women, and children in a full range of postures and poses, as well as the subjects’ diverse emotional reactions and states.
The Renaissance of the arts coincided with the development of humanism, in which scholars studied and translated philosophical texts. The use of classical Latin was revived and often favored at this time. The Renaissance was also a period of avid exploration; sea captains began to be more daring in seeking new routes to Asia, which resulted in the discovery and eventual colonization of North and South America. Painters, sculptors, and architects exhibited a similar sense of adventure and the desire for greater knowledge and new solutions; Leonardo da Vinci, like Christopher Columbus, discovered whole new worlds. With a new emphasis on the science, people like Philippo Brunelleschi were accomplishing great feats of artistic and architectural design. The new Renaissance “style” that emerged during this period called upon the classical roots of ancient Greece and Rome but new scientific understanding and a stronger emphasis on the individual also influenced the works created during this period.
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