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Famous Italian Renaissance Artists - History of Renaissance Art

Updated on September 19, 2017
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Ancient art and architecture isn't only for historians, but for people like us who’ve always been interested in anything olden and periodic.

Renaissance art emerged in Italy in the late 1300s (14th century). It is a distinct style of artworks of a period of European history known as the Renaissance that includes the decorative arts, painting and sculpture.

This style of art reached its peak in the late 1400s and early 1500s with famous Italian master artists like Michelangelo, Raphael Sanzio, Giotto di Bondone and Leonardo Da Vinci.

These famous artists’ paintings and sculpture themes ran parallel with the developments that occurred in philosophy, literature, music, and science.

Renaissance Painting
Renaissance Painting | Source

Early Renaissance Art

During the middle ages, Italy's wealth was largely derived from trade with the Far East, and one of the objects of high trade were works of art. As the elite and political leaders competed fiercely in expressing their tastes, grandeur, and power, numerous opportunities evolved for the local artists and this was reflected in their works.

Artists, who though were usually attached to particular courts and loyal to specific towns, often wandered through the cities of Italy disseminating both artistic and philosophical ideas. Even the church employed them to paint works that explained its doctrine, views, and history to its people.

For instance, Duccio di Buoninsegna (1255-1319) was the first of the Italian painters to enlarge biblical manuscript sketches and illustrations used as hanging wall decorations. He was hired throughout his life to complete many important works in both government and religious buildings around Italy.

Also, Simone Martini (1284 – 1344) like Duccio, painted in a style similar to that of the Byzantine mosaic works and Gothic illuminated manuscripts. It is suspected (but not proven) that Simone Martini and Duccio di Buoninsegna were both tutored by Byzantine artists who visited Florence around the year 1260.

Many localities developed their own group of artists and had their own minor schools of painting while the major centres were mostly sited in Venice and Florence.

Subjects of the early renaissance artworks portrayed flat symbolic figures painted in bright colours on gold backgrounds while placing more emphasis on the expression of "religious sentiments", than any other subject.

Citizens of each region extolled the relative merits of their own artists who were often accorded diplomatic status.

Famous Renaissance Artists

Raffaello Sanzio (1483 – 1525)

Raffaello Sanzio was a famous Italian Renaissance painter known to most people as Raphael. Known to be highly prolific, he was a painter, a mural decorator, a designer of tapestries, an architect, and an artist of easel pictures. In his youth, he started off as a minor artist who worked as a Majolica pottery painter and 'ornamenter'.

Though he possessed unique capabilities of imagination coupled with a high intellect, many of his paintings seemingly lacked virility and appeared ‘cold’.

His career which eventually made him famous can be said to fall within three clearly distinguishable phases.

  1. His early years in 15th century Umbria
  2. His learning of the artistic traditions of Florence in the very early 16th century which lasted from 1504 to 1508
  3. The last twelve years which he spent in Rome, was a period of prolific creations of his works and triumphant times of fame and popularity. It was at this time that he had the golden opportunity of working for two Popes and their close acquaintances.

Raphael, who died young in 1520 at the age of thirty-seven, was a master of composition who borrowed ideas from a number of painters.

Raffaello Sanzio - Italian Renaissance Artist
Raffaello Sanzio - Italian Renaissance Artist

The earliest art painters of Renaissance Italy include:

  • Duccio (1255 to 1319)
  • Cimabue of Florence (born around 1240)
  • Simone Martini of Siena (1284 – 1344)

He painted many pious spiritual themes with religious subjects at a time when the religious importance and its significance was waning.

He was a famous painter for the Popes of his time and asides being the architect of St. Peter's, he was commissioned to decorate the papal apartments of Julius II and Leo X.

Raphael is credited as the originator of the "birth of portrait painting” because of the style he used whilst painting the portrait of Julius II.

An idol of sorts, he was adored by lovers of the art, so much so that even for the times, he was always "swamped" with many orders for his paintings. And even though he was an Umbrian born in Urbino, the best of his paintings were done in Rome and Florence in the early 1500s.

Famous Works of Raphael

Some of Raphael’s famous works of art include the "Madonna" which he painted during his association with his model and friend, Bella. He is famously known for this painting. His other famous works include:

  • La Belle Jardinière - This is one of Raphael’s famous paintings where The Virgin Mary sits in a meadow with a tender and realistic demeanour, holding two children against her knees.
  • The School of Athens - In this fresco work, which he painted in the Vatican, he successfully summed up the essence of Italian Renaissance paintings.
  • Fire in the Borgo - This is one of Raphael's murals that show his typical style of painting nude - muscular and combatant figures, influenced by Michelangelo’s paintings.
  • The Transfiguration - This thought-provoking painting was done in 1516. It is supposedly his last work. Its theme and subject matter is believed to express a connection between God and man.

Apparently, Raffaello Sanzio left The Transfiguration uncompleted before he died in 1520. The painting is believed to have been finished by his student, Giulio Romano

In his later years of his short life, Raphael painted mostly portrait. In his portraits, he avoided his earlier sublime looks and used more realistic earthly facial expressions and profiles.

Had he lived longer, who knows what his potential production could have been? But even with his untimely death while in his thirties, his reputation has hardly suffered in over five hundred years.

Today at the Vatican Museums, you will still find some of this Renaissance artist’s paintings in the Raphael Rooms, many of which were completed by his students.

Giotto di Bondone (1266 – 1337)

Giotto di Bondone is a famous Renaissance artist famous for his art of naturalism and realism. He was discovered, around the 13th century, by an early renaissance artist Cimabue of Florence, a great man who was given the title 'first of the modern painters'.

According to the history of art, Giotto and Cimabue invented the art of painting and were both pioneers in the paintings that told a story. They also were the earlier Renaissance painters that introduced perspectives into their works. This is what was described as the movement of naturalism in painting.

Born in 1266, Giotto de Bondone was the first naturalistic Italian painter who opened the door to a new world of painting art. He was known for his emphasis on "broad structural forms" with his methods of painting religious themes on wet plaster using tempera colours, a style of decorative arts referred to as fresco. Fresco paintings were portrayed with greater realism than any Byzantine mosaic.

Giotto di Bondone
Giotto di Bondone

Giotto's Naturalism

Giotto's religious frescoes showed a movement toward naturalism, realism and the third dimension. His style was later to become a dominating factor of the Florentine School of painting.

He painted the biblical story of the Virgin Mary, her parents, and Jesus Christ. The fresco narrative is painted in a "comic-strip" set of wood panels, lined in three rows along the walls. Its colours (tempera colours) are composed of water-soluble pigments that are easily absorbed by wet plaster so that when it dries, the painting becomes long-lasting, hard and an integral part of the plaster.

He is the first of the known Italian artists who based their works on observation of events around them. His motto was "follow nature", a dictum he strictly adhered to.

What Influenced Giotto Style?

Giotto's painting style was influenced by St. Francis of Assisi's revolutionary reaction against the tyranny and oppression of a ‘misguided’ church. He thereafter used his art to promote and create a form of movement that awakened in the people an awareness of the doctrines of the saint.

His desire was to help "lead the people back to the simplicity of Christ's teachings".

This famous renaissance artist may have lacked the knowledge of the law of perspectives but the "messages" he intended to deliver was simply to "tell the truth". Many of his frescos were done at the church in Assisi, built in honour of St. Francis.


Giotto’s Main Disciples

His main disciples who are also famous artists:

  • Massacio - a realist painter
  • Uccello - a mathematically inclined painter, famous for his battle scenes

Other Renaissance artists influenced by the religious teachings of St. Francis of Assisi includes:

  • Fra Angelico (Guido di Pietro da Mogello) - a Dominican monk. He interpreted the teachings of St. Francis through his paintings
  • Donatello - a sculptor
  • Vasari - A painter that never allowed himself adopt a secular approach. His paintings were mainly of heavenly bodies, angels and saints who appear as visions of purity, singing the exaltation of Christian philosophies.
  • Botticelli - He was a genius in artistic creativity who turned to pagan mythology. His works depicted humanism, pleasures, and earthly joys.
  • Verrochio - Is claimed to be one of the first artists to paint landscape scenes, air and light.

Leonardo Da Vinci (1452 – 1519)


Leonardo Da Vinci, one of the universal art geniuses that ever lived was far ahead of his time in all his artistic works and activities (he was an expert in so many fields).He was and still is regarded as one of the greatest painters of all time.

He was a pupil of Andrea del Verrocchio who was an Italian painter, sculptor, and goldsmith and was one of the first Italian Renaissance artists to paint, air, light, and landscapes.

Da Vinci was a humble man despite his being multi-talented and during the course of his life, he was an author, a sculptor, painter, philosopher, and a musician. He was also a scientist, a metal worker, an inventor, architect, mathematician, engineer (mechanical and structural), physicist, geologist and a designer of firearms.

Without any doubt, a legendary personality.

Because he had superb drafting abilities, he becomes skilled in the art of anatomy, light, and perspective, discovering ‘secret’ ways of expressions that have revolutionized today’s thoughts and concepts.

He possessed both manual and technical abilities that were so professional for his time that it can be categorically stated that only a few famous artists in history could rival his abilities.

If only we are privileged to read the great number of manuscripts which he wrote but unfortunately, none are known to be published.

Leonardo Da Vinci Famous Renaissance Painter, Sculptor, and Architect
Leonardo Da Vinci Famous Renaissance Painter, Sculptor, and Architect

Famous Paintings of Leonardo Da Vinci

Today, there are about fifteen of his paintings remaining because some of his other paintings were either ruined by his experiments or uncompleted. He was a procrastinator, a cautious character who was precise in his paintings and sketches and was never in a hurry to finish off any work he started. Even with that, his artworks still stand as one of the best in the history of art.

Leonardo’s famous paintings include:

Mona Lisa - “The woman with the mysterious smile”. This painting is Da Vinci’s most popular and widely known superb work of art. Historical sources claim that the Mona Lisa was painted shortly after he and his wife lost a child. In order to take her mind off her grief, change her mournful demeanour and divert her attention, he employed jesters and musicians to help pick up her spirits and put a smile back on her face.

Many art historians claim it’s ironical that such a traumatic experience will produce the slightest hint of a smile. Curiously, this sphinx-like smile has been given many interpretations.

The Last Supper - Painted between 1495 and 1498, it is dubbed the most reproduced religious painting of all time. This oil painting is so popular that it has been endlessly copied through the centuries.

The painting represents Jesus Christ and His twelve disciples and covers a wall at the monastery of Santa Maria Delle Grazie in Milan. It captures that deeply emotional moment when Christ proclaimed "One of you shall betray me". The wounded and stricken look of his disciples reflects their intense agony and pain. The Last Supper depicts a pictorial study in deep and reflective psychology.

Vitruvian Man - Created around 1487, this work is a world-renowned geometrical drawing on paper using pen and ink. It illustrates a man in two superimposed positions within a square and a circle. It represents “man in harmony with creation” and is called the ‘Canon of Proportions’ or ‘Proportions of Man’.

The drawing, named after the architect Vitruvius has writings based on the architect’s work. It is held by the Galleries dell‘Academia in Venice.

Lady with an Ermine - Painted around 1490. Da Vinci’s model for this painting has been identified as Cecilia Gallerani, a mistress of Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan. It is also known as “Portrait of an Unknown Woman”.

This painting is one of the only four Leonardo da Vinci’s female portraits, the others being La Belle Ferronniere, thought to represent Cecilia Gallerani, Mona Lisa, and Ginevra de’ Benci. The painting is displayed in the Czartoryski Museum, Krakow, Poland.

The Madonna of the Rocks - This famous renaissance painting was done in the Louvre and is one of the first paintings that shows the Virgin Mary in a more human form than as a celestial being as was the case with paintings of the Medieval Era.

The beautiful artwork shows the care and tenderness in her eyes as she watches her Child. It depicts realism, especially with the absence of the characteristic halo and other common symbols of divinity.

Portrait of a Man in Red Chalk (Circa 1510) - This is the only self-portrait drawn of himself around 1512 when he was about sixty. The portrait is drawn in red chalk on paper and illustrates the head of an old man with his face turned towards the viewer without being engaging. The long hair and beard which portrays a man of wisdom show a sense of solemnity.

The drawing has been created in fine lines shadowed by hatching and executed with the left hand, as was Leonardo's special ‘signature’. It is held by the Royal Library of Turin, Italy.

Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475 - 1564)

Michelangelo Buonarroti can best be described as a man of many trades. Highly skilled and multi-talented, we can't talk about the history of art without mentioning Michelangelo. Asides being a renowned painter, he was also a sculptor, poet, engineer, and an architect.

His paintings generally reflected his own self-appraisal though he considered himself more of a sculptor than a painter. As a sculptor of the Renaissance era, Michelangelo created colossal human forms that showed heroic, vital, and muscular silhouettes using both male and female figures. And as a painter, his numerous nude figures were sculpted in unusual contortions - they were either incredibly foreshortened or illustrated as profiles floating through the air.

He used his style of painting to express deep and intense thoughts and his art has been likened to Hellenistic sculpture which displays a state of restrained might. One of his most famous works, the Pieta, was commissioned in 1497 by the French Ambassador. He was asked to finish a work that had been in progress for about forty years. This work is called the Statue of David.

Michelangelo is credited with initiating the next major Art Movement of the time, referred to as ‘Mannerism’. He designed the dome for St. Peter's Basilica but was unable to finish the work before he passed away in 1564.

Michelangelo Buonarroti
Michelangelo Buonarroti

Famous Works of Michelangelo

Though Michelangelo was under the instructions of humanist Francesco da Urbino, he seemed to be more interested in copying church paintings and sketches and at the age of thirteen, he was apprenticed to a painter for proper tutoring. His famous renaissance artworks include:

The Sistine Chapel - During the period he spent working on the Pope's tomb (on and off for forty years), Michelangelo took the charge for the painting of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Though many art historians speculate it must have taken him many years to paint, it took the artist just four years to complete. Painting the chapel’s ceiling was no easy feat because the task was performed with his back laid flat on a scaffold, painting on 10,000sq ft. of plaster.

The figures he painted included prophets, sibyls and many other figures from the Old Testament while many of his subjects visibly expressed super-human energies.

The Last Judgement - This fresco work also known as “The Final Judgement” was painted in his old age and is perhaps his most complex work of art It lies on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel and illustrates a "giant-like" Christ, a terror-stricken Mary, and nude combatant giants. The mighty composition painted between 1536 and 1541 was commissioned by Pope Clement VII (1523-1534) shortly before his death.

The original subject of the mural commissioned by Pope Clement was the resurrection of Christ, but after of his demise, his successor Pope Paul III changed the subject to “The Last Judgment”. He probably felt it was a more fitting subject for Rome of the 1530s.

The painting depicts nude figures and portrayed the separation of the blessed and the damned. He did this by showing the saved ascending (to heaven) on the left and the damned descending (to hell) on the right.

David - This famous Renaissance art masterpiece is a larger-than-life nude sculpture that was made between 1501 and 1504. The marble statue stands over five metres (17ft.) tall in a public square outside the Palazzo Della Signoria, Florence. It was later moved to the Galleria dell'Accademia and a replica set in its original spot.

The male statue represents the biblical hero David and was a favoured subject in the art of Florence. It soon came to symbolize the defence of civil liberties with the ‘seeing’ eyes of David, like a warning glare, turned towards the direction of Rome.

Dome of St. Peters Basilica - The architecture of the St Peters Basilica, also called The Papal Basilica of St. Peter (in the Vatican) is a wonder to behold. Its dome rises to a height of over 136 metres (446ft) from the floor of the basilica to the top of the external cross, making it the tallest dome in the world.

St. Peters is one of the four churches of Rome that hold the rank of Major Basilica and is considered the greatest building of its age. This monumental structure has influenced subsequent designs of domes in architectural design. It was still a work in progress when Michelangelo passed away in 1564; only the drum of the dome was constructed.

Pietà - Since its creation in 1499, the Pietà has never ceased to inspire emotions and faith through its elegant depiction of Christ and the Virgin Mary. It is widely regarded as the Vatican's greatest artistic treasure.

Being one of the first of a number of artworks with a similar theme by the artist, the marble structure was made for the French Cardinal Jean de Bilhères who commissioned it for his own funeral monument. This famous statue depicts the body of Christ on Mary’s lap after his Crucifixion.

Michelangelo’s Pietà was moved to its present location, the first chapel on the right when you walk into the Basilica, in the 18th century. It is the only piece of structure that one of the most famous Italian Renaissance artists, Michelangelo, ever signed.

Further Reading:

The Transition from Medieval to Modern

It was the beginning of the Italian Renaissance, their artists, and events that shaped the art and architecture of the modern world. It was a time when a handful of forward-looking thinkers and artists decided that they wanted things done differently, yearned for a rebirth, desiring to live in a new age.

The brutal, uncivilized, and prejudiced dark and medieval times were over, and a new age of art, learning, culture, literature, and enlightenment was achieved. The Renaissance was a rebirth marking the transition between the middle ages and a modern Europe.

© 2012 artsofthetimes

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