I hope you are enjoying my series highlighting the history of design and architecture. If you missed any parts or would like a handout of the entire series along with illustrations, send me an email. I last ended with the Gothic period and told you that big things were about to come. Let me set the stage.
The Late Middle Ages (1300-1500) saw much grind to a halt. People faced the Great Famine, the Black Plague, and the Hundred Years War. The climate had cooled to the point that crops were hard to grow, and if they did, heavy rains destroyed them. Survival took precedent over art and architecture.
But, from tragedy good things followed, including a warmer climate. People realized that there was much learning to be done and improvements to be made. Europe needed to be rebuilt.
This turning point led to the Renaissance or “rebirth.” It lasted from the 14th to the 17th centuries and was a cultural bridge between the Middle Ages and modern times. By the way, the Middle Ages occurred between Classical Antiquity and the modern era — in the middle and thus its name. Another note: think of Middle Ages as a noun and “medieval” as its adjective.
There was a return to Greek and Roman schools of thought, philosophy, innovation, art, and architecture — hurray! Patrons, particularly popes, kings and lords, began to pay for creative works. During medieval times, craftsmen had been members of trade guilds and never individually recognized. This practice changed and names like Michelangelo, da Vinci, Rafael, Botticelli, Titian, Bramante, Brunelleschi, Ghiberti, Palladio, van Eyck, van der Weyden, and Durer emerged.
There is a consensus that the Renaissance began in Florence, mainly because the city’s dominant family, the Medici, were strong patrons of artists and architects, most of whom were born in Tuscany.
There was also a migration of Greek scholars and texts into Florence following the fall of Constantinople (in an earlier column). Other Renaissance centers were Genoa, Milan, Bologna, Rome and Venice. Venice not only produced fine glass, but was the gateway to trade with the East. By the 16th century, the Renaissance was felt in the rest of Europe and Britain.
In an effort to produce more realistic paintings, artists developed techniques such as linear perspectives, vanishing points and horizon lines. They also studied light and shadows, and in the case of Leonardo da Vinci, the human anatomy. In fact, da Vinci tried to draw the perfectly proportion man based on the specifications written by architect, Vitruvius (1st century BC).
Filippo Brunelleschi, perhaps the most inventive and gifted designer of all time, also studied Vitruvius as well as the remains of ancient classical buildings. His major feat of engineering is the dome of the Cathedral of Florence.
In 1401, sculptor, Lorenzo Ghiberti, won a major competition to design a new set of bronze doors for the Baptistery of the Cathedral of Florence, beating out Brunelleschi and Donatello. Michelangelo dubbed these doors “the Gates of Paradise.” I dub them “a must see.”
The outstanding architectural work of the Renaissance was the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica, which combined the skills of Bramante, Michelangiolo, Raphael, Sangallo and Maderno.
Concurrently, the Netherlands was developing its own vibrant artistic culture with a sense of naturalism in mind. Hugo van der Goes and Jan van Eyck were notable artists whose works were technically influenced by the introduction of oil paint and canvas.
Coming up next, all those French kings named Louis.