Characteristics of Italian Renaissance Art

By Pamela Mortimer
Leonardo da Vinci idealized the human body in the

The Italian Renaissance period overlapped the end of the Middle Ages, beginning in the 14th century in central Italy and lasting until the 16th century; it celebrated the birth of a new era in art and humanities. In Italy, artists such as Leonardo da Vinci and Sandro Botticelli strayed away from solely religious works to embrace the importance of the individual, as well as light, movement and perspective in their art.

Themes in Renaissance Art

The Renaissance introduced realism to the arts. Most art prior to the Renaissance focused primarily on religious themes. Many of the images in the art were two dimensional, such as the icons used in churches. While the Renaissance artists painted religious scenes, they shifted their art toward more humanistic themes and the power and importance of the individual. Renaissance paintings, sculptures and frescoes depicted mythical figures more realistically, many of whom are in the midst of activity or movement.

Common elements of Italian Renaissance Art include:

  • Non-secular themes
  • Three-dimensional realism
  • Masterful use of light, shadows and darkness
  • Enhanced linear perspectives
  • Anatomically correct human forms

Anatomically Correct Bodies

Italian Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci set the standard for drawing and painting anatomically correct bodies. To more thoroughly understand the human body, he performed 20 autopsies, drawing what he found and incorporating what he learned of bone structures, musculature and organ placement in the bodies he drew or painted. Italian Renaissance artists integrated figures into complex scenes that permitted a broader perspective and a glimpse into the lives of the wealthy or rich. Both light, shadow and perspective were used effectively to draw attention to figures in paintings.

Using these techniques, the art world was forever changed by classic works such as da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Michelangelo’s David and the frescoes he painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino's -- known as Raphael -- series of Madonnas and Botticelli’s Birth of Venus.

Renaissance Highlights

The Renaissance represented a cultural rebirth that sprang from the rediscovery of humanitarian ideals in ancient Roman and Grecian texts. Italian Renaissance artists were usually multidisciplined in several art mediums being painters, inventors, sculptors and architects or more, which gave them a broader view of the world. These artists added linear perspective, realism, subtle plays of natural light and shadows along with idealized human forms to their paintings; they looked to nature and landscapes for many of their settings or backdrops.

For example, a painting from before the Renaissance may feature a two-dimensional religious figure praying, lit by a single, stable source: a lamp. A Renaissance artist may have taken that same painting and recreated it, adding a three-dimensional quality to the figure by displaying him reaching up to the heavens. Instead of stabilized light, the figure would be illuminated by the changing rays of the sun. In lieu of a church setting, the figure would be seated upon a rock in a wooded or pastoral setting.

Northern vs. Italian Renaissance Art

From Italy, the Renaissance traveled throughout Europe, which became known as the Northern Renaissance. Both movements shared many similarities, but there are distinct differences between Northern and Italian Renaissance art. Subject matter in Italian art generally focused on classical mythology and religious scenes or the richness and lifestyles of the wealthy. Northern Renaissance art featured more domestic interiors and portraits or portrayed the lives of peasants performing daily tasks.

Italian artists used tempera and oil paints, as well as creating frescoes, while Northern artists also applied oil paints to wood panels, often creating triptychs -- one painting on three separate panels. One example of Italian Renaissance art is Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam from the Sistine Chapel; an example of Northern Renaissance art is Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Wedding Portrait.

About the Author

Pamela Mortimer has been a professional writer for more than 20 years with expertise in many areas including arts, culture, business and the printing trade. She is also a novelist, seasoned editor and graphic designer.