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The History and Development of Renaissance Sculpture

Updated on April 4, 2014

No abrupt transition took place from Gothic to Renaissance sculpture. The new attitudes began to emerge within the context of Italian Gothic and only gradually gained the ascendancy. This happened first in Florence, which became the leading center for Renaissance sculpture during the 15th century, its greatest period being 1400–1450.

An account of Italian Renaissance sculpture cannot deal with the development of a general period style. It must be an account of the work of a number of artists, each with his own individual style. Artists, whose status was formerly that of craftsmen, became accepted in 14th century Florence as the intellectual equals of philosophers, writers, and musicians. They were open to influence from the wave of humanism, which was affecting the intellectual life of the city with its new rational, questioning attitudes, its concern with natural phenomena, its interest in the ideas of the classical world, and its confidence in the mental and physical capacities of man. The nature of patronage changed, too. The church lost its virtual monopoly as powerful commercial guilds and wealthy private patrons began to commission sculpture.

Early Renaissance

One of the two greatest masters of the early 15th century was Ghiberti. In spirit he was primarily a Gothic artist, but in his masterworks, the two pairs of bronze doors with relief panels that he made for the Baptistery in Florence, there is much that is Renaissance in spirit. His use of perspective pictorial space in the later pair of doors is a particularly Renaissance feature.


The other great master, Donatello, is the supreme genius of the period and probably the most inventive and versatile of all sculptors. He affected the whole course of development of sculpture in his own time, and even in the 20th century he influenced such sculptors as Epstein and Manzu. His early marble St. George, for the Church of Orsanmichele, expresses in its alert, youthful confidence something of the spirit of the early Florentine Renaissance. His Gattamelata monument, a portrait statue of Erasmo da Narni in bronze is the first monumental equestrian statue of the modern world. His bronze David is the first large free-standing nude, and his relief panel St. George Slaying the Dragon, which was placed beneath the statue of Saint George, is the first example of the use of the new science of perspective in relief sculpture and of the low-relief technique known as stiacciato. In his old age Donatello reached new heights of expressiveness in his intensely personal bronze pulpits of San Lorenzo, Florence, and his tragic, emaciated Magdalene.

Among other great 15th century figures were Luca della Robbia, a marble carver and maker of glazed terra-cotta sculpture whose work is imbued with a serenity and sweetness quite foreign to the complex character of Donatello, and Jacopo della Quercia, whose powerful, dramatic marble reliefs on the portal of San Petronio in Bologna influenced Michelangelo. Bernardo Rossellino, in his marble tomb of Leonardo Bruni in Florence, set a pattern for sculptured wall tombs that was followed by his younger brother Antonio and by Desiderio da Settignano and many others. Agostino di Duccio developed a personal style of linear low relief, which is at its best in the Tempio Malatestiano in Rimini. The greatest sculptor of the late 15th century was Andrea del Verrocchio, whose best-known works are his David and his equestrian statue of Bartolommeo Colleoni in Venice, both in bronze.


High Renaissance and Mannerist

The High Renaissance period, beginning about 1500, is dominated by the towering personality of Michelangelo. Generally regarded as the most powerful genius in world sculpture, he introduced an entirely new kind of feeling into sculpture—a disturbing sense of frustrated power, with energetic, muscular bodies struggling against the restrictions of their own material being. His most important sculptures, in marble, are those associated with his long, unfinished projects for the tomb of Pope Julius II in Rome and the Medici tombs in Florence and the two unfinished Pietàs of his old age. His youthful Pietà and gigantic David are especially popular.

The tortured poses and complexity of Michelangelo's work contributed to the Mannerist phase of sculpture. The violent movement, affected poses, and unnatural proportions of Mannerism are found in the metalwork of Benvenuto Cellini and the bronzes and marbles of Giovanni da Bologna (Giambologna). An important aspect of Mannerist sculpture is its success, particularly noticeable in Giambologna's marble Rape of the Sabines, in creating compositions that may be viewed all round without any one point of view predominating.

Some of the most notable sculptors outside Italy to be influenced by the Renaissance were Michel Colombe, Francesco Primaticcio, Jean Goujon, and Germain Pilon in France and Peter Vischer the Younger in Germany. Pilon's bronze statue of King Henry II for the royal tomb at St.-Denis is one of the outstanding original works of the century. Alonso Berruguete, a Spaniard who returned to Spain after training in Florence and Rome, produced a number of remarkable works, including a polychrome wooden altarpiece for San Benito el Real, Valladolid, and an alabaster Transfiguration for Toledo cathedral.


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    • erorantes profile image

      Ana Maria Orantes 3 years ago from Miami Florida

      I like your hub. The world had change since this artists create those master pieces. I do not believe that God ask humans to sacrifice their own children. It was probably satan who did it pretending to be God.Because someone wrote the story of sacrifice in the pass. Look how the world rebel against God. This is how the ten commandments started . One of those , it is. Do not sacrifice your brothers. or any human being. You still can defend yourself or your brothers. The artists , they created a good well done piece of art. You did a fantastic job.