Already in the 1340s, the Italian poet Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374) described previous centuries as the “dark ages” and expressed hope for a brighter future inspired by Classical antiquity. Renaissance means rebirth, more specifically the rebirth of antiquity. Strictly speaking, the term is not a stylistic concept akin to Gothic or Neoclassical, but broadly understood as the name of a period in European cultural history, like the Baroque or the Enlightenment. Within art history specifically, it refers to a roughly 200-year period from about 1400-1600.
Lucas Cranach d.Æ.
Madonna and Child with the Young St John the Baptist, after 1537
A new world image
Although the perception of the age prior to the Renaissance has changed greatly since Petrarch and other like-minded thinkers predicted and contributed to the projection of a new, lighter age, certain claims still hold true. Among other things, the fact that in almost all fields, artistic, philosophical and scientific alike, enormous progress was made. With the discovery of America and the sea route to India, the fundament was established for an entirely new worldview and human perception. On the one hand, a new focus arose on the individual, as well as an increased interest in singular and unique. On the other hand, the idolisation of the ideal, exalted human being became the standard. Meanwhile, the invention of the printing press around 1450 led to a veritable revolution of communication, e.g. via the copying of manuscripts and the translation and dissemination of ancient Greek texts. Moreover, one of the characteristic features of the Renaissance was the development of the secular state, which means the separation of politics and religion. Within the visual arts, the Renaissance is generally divided into three periods: Early Renaissance, from c. 1415-1500, High Renaissance, between c. 1500-1540, and Late Renaissance, also known as Mannerism, which spans from c. 1540-1600. There was no uniform course of development in Europe. Besides a common rejection of previous set ideals regarding the nature of beautiful painting and for how space and figures should be represented, the new movement had a very different character north of the Alps than it did in Florence. This was also the case within Italy’s own borders, where the Florentine school differed significantly from e.g. the Venetian or Roman.
Some of the themes that particularly occupied the artists were related to the burgeoning interest in antiquity’s veneration of the heroic human body and its focus on the individual, as well as the changing societal and global view. Moreover, they were increasingly interested in the spatial relationships of the visible world. Since 1300, with Sienese painter Simone Martini (1280-1344) as one of the most significant pioneers, there had been intuitive attempts to move away from compositions based on the surface-based perspective techniques of the late Gothic. But it was not until the Florentine architect Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446) and his discovery of the mathematical formula for perspective in the 1400s that artists were given a practical instrument for the reproduction of three-dimensional space.
The individual in the center and the changing status of the artist
The culture of the period we call the Renaissance was first and foremost a product created in the cities by the bourgeoisie – a new resourceful social class. They engaged in the classical sciences and became a significant new patron group. With the rise of individualism, the perception of art changed, becoming a distinctly valuable and elevated mode of expression. The social status of artists equally changed. They were distinguished from the artisan class and increasingly celebrated as creative and visionary individuals. Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Michelangelo, Titian and Cranach consorted as equals with the princes of day. These developments also altered the market structure. A work of art could now be sold and valued based on its artistic qualities alone, regardless of iconographic content, and genuine art collectors arose for the first time in history. At Nivaagaards Malerisamling, the Renaissance period in painting is represented through works by several of the most prominent artists. With the bourgeoisie as a new self-conscious social class, the portrait genre was revived and is exemplified at Nivaagaard in some of the finest examples from the northern Italian schools. Giovanni Bellini’s small portrait on a sky-blue background, Lorenzo Lotto’s portrait of a man with a rosary and Sofonisba Anguissola’s large group portrait. From the Florentine school, the museum has a small painting with a religious subject by Giuliano Bugiardini, and from Germany, where the idolisation of the heroic human figure and the highly plastic representation never broke through as it did in Italy, the museum has a wonderful work by Lucas Cranach the Elder.