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Famous Italian Renaissance Artists And Their Legendary Art

Updated on December 3, 2018
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A Renaissance Art Period Painting
A Renaissance Art Period Painting | Source

Renaissance art began to emerge in Italy in the 13th century (1400 - 1600) as a distinct style of artworks that were created at a period of European history known as the Renaissance Period.

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 were usually attached to courts and loyal to specific towns and 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.

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.

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.

The Renaissance Periods

There were two periods during the renaissance era, namely the:

  1. Early Renaissance
  2. High Renaissance.

While the Early Renaissance period (1400 - 1490) witnessed new discoveries in the techniques of painting, like foreshortening, perspectives, foreshortening, subject-matter, and new ways of using traditional subject matters, the High Renaissance period (1490 - 1530) developed and built upon the earlier discoveries, fine-tuned them, and introduced more subtle techniques of painting them.

This includes all forms of decorative arts, painting, and sculpturing.

The renaissance artists style of art reached its peak between the late 13th-century and early 14th-century with famous Italian master artists like Michelangelo, Raphael Sanzio, Giotto di Bondone and Leonardo Da Vinci whose paintings and sculpture themes ran parallel with the developments that occurred in philosophy, literature, music, and science.

Early Renaissance Period

The early Renaissance which spanned a period between 1400 and 1490 emerged in Florence during the first decade of the 15th century eventually spread throughout Italy but remained centred on Florence and largely patronized by the Medici family.

Early Renaissance artists attempted to achieve greater realism in all their artworks in contrast to the flat, stiff images painted by Byzantine artists. Postures in portraitures became more realistic, faces more life-like, while figures began to express real emotion.

And they tried, with much effort, to create realistic-depth in their paintings, using scientific perspective. Although Giotto made developments in perspective, it wasn't until the arrival of the architects Brunelleschi and Leon Battista Alberti that the technique became formalized as a creative method. The technique soon became a major obsession for many Renaissance painters.

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.

Some famous Early Renaissance artists include:

  1. Tommaso Masaccio, the first Renaissance painter to understand and use linear perspective.
  2. Paolo Uccello, whose works combines International Gothic decoration with the more scientific Renaissance idiom.
  3. Piero Della Francesca an early Renaissance artist who had a passionate interest in mathematics which he used to construct geometrically exact and strictly proportioned spaces.
  4. Fra Filippo Lippi, best known for his frescoes in Prato and Spoleto cathedrals
  5. Domenico Ghirlandaio, an outstanding fresco painter and famous portraitist in Florence towards the end of the Early Renaissance period.
  6. Antonello da Messina, a Sicilian portraitist who learned the methods of Jan Van Eyck’s oil painting and introduced it to the Venetian Renaissance.

By the end of the century, the movement reached its high point notably in the works of Raphael, Titan, Michelangelo, and Leonardo da Vinci.

High Renaissance Period

The High Renaissance spanned a period the four decades from 1490 to roughly 1527 and represents the peak of Renaissance art. By this time, the ideals of classical humanism (when the style of Renaissance art became more emotional and dramatic) were fully implemented in both sculpture and painting. Renaissance artists by now had become skilled at utilizing painting techniques of shading, linear perspective, and other methods of realism.

The High Renaissance, unlike the early Resistance period, was centred around Rome and paid for by the Pontiffs and not the Medici family as it was before.

Six of the most notable artists of the High Renaissance in Rome include:

  1. Leonardo da Vinci, a master of oil painting and sfumato (the technique of oil painting in which colours are blended in a subtle manner without visible transitions, lines or edges).
  2. Michelangelo, the greatest sculptor and fresco painter of the Renaissance era.
  3. Raphael, known as the finest artist of the High Renaissance period.
  4. Correggio, a painter who was famous for his illusionistic art.
  5. Donato Bramante who was the leading architect of the High Renaissance.
  6. Luca Signorelli, a provincial painter whose murals and frescoes are believed to have been an important influence on Michelangelo.

The High Renaissance unfolded against a backdrop of mounting religious and political tension, which affected painters and sculptors, as well as patrons of the arts throughout Italy. After 1527, it was superseded by the more dramatic style of Mannerism.

Famous Italian Renaissance Artists

Some of the famous Renaissance artists include:

  1. Raffaello Sanzio (1483 – 1525)
  2. Giotto di Bondone (1266 – 1337)
  3. Leonardo Da Vinci (1452 – 1519)
  4. Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475 - 1564)
  5. Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi (1386-1466)

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

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 the 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 - One of the famous Renaissance artists.
Giotto di Bondone - One of the famous Renaissance artists.

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's 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 to 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, Da Vinci is 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.


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.

Michelangelo Buonarroti
Michelangelo Buonarroti

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 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.

Donatello (1386-1466)

Donatello (Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi) is an Early Renaissance Florentine artist who is, undeniably, one of the key figures of the Italian Renaissance art, specifically as a sculptor. He was a major force behind the Florentine Renaissance that drove and inspired most of the Early Renaissance art throughout Italy.

He revived a waning naturalism while inspiring and influencing painters who followed him. Donatello’s works combined both tenderness and strength in his works which consisted mainly of records of contemporary Florentine life.

Famous Renaissance Artist, Donatello (Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi)
Famous Renaissance Artist, Donatello (Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi)

Donatello who first trained as a goldsmith in his early life is best known for his relief sculpture (a combination of the two-dimensional pictorial arts and the three-dimensional sculptural arts), he also worked in stone, wood, and bronze.

Donatello’s sculpture art is infused with narratives that combined realism with emotion, full of thought and energy with notable life-like qualities. His art marked a departure from the traditional art of pre-renaissance which was primarily Christian art and more of realism style of nudity and as his reputation soared, so did his commissions.

He became a close friend with Pope John XXIII and when he passed on in 1419, Donatello designed his marble and bronze monumental tomb.

Donatello is regarded as one of the greatest Renaissance art masters and influential sculptor in the history of art. He had a vast influence on his contemporaries who were both painters and sculptors, including several generations of later artists like Michelangelo and Giovanni.


Famous Art Works of Donatello

Donatello is acknowledged as one of the greatest of the Renaissance artists. He was a master of sculpture and one of his famous works of art (if not the most famous) is the amazing bronze statue, a nude David.

His most famous works of art include:

David (1453) - The bronze statue of David is Donatello’s most famous statue. It marked a departure from the typical Christian art that was created by the Christian church, to identify itself. Being one of the first nude sculptures of the Renaissance Period, many were aghast at its shocking reality of both its state of undress and its female-like silhouette.

The statue stands with the head of the Goliath at its feet while its general countenance and pose symbolize an air of nonchalance or seductive arrogance.

Equestrian statue of Gattamelata (1444-53) - Equestrian statues were quite prevalent in Italian Renaissance art but the most outstanding statue, made in bronze is the Equestrian statue of Gattamelata. It stands in the Piazza del Santo in Padua. It is a portrait of the Renaissance mercenary, Erasmo da Narni, also known as "Gattamelata". Donatello was the first Italian sculptor to re-establish the splendour of Classical equestrian portraiture.

Mary Magdalene (1475) – Also called the Penitent Magdalene, Donatello’s amazing sculpture of Mary Magdalene, with its unique realism style, is carved from wood and was possibly commissioned for the Baptistery of Florence. The wood statue was sculpted as Donatello must have believed her to look like in her later years, her once-striking beauty worn by fasting and penitence.

Feast of Herod (1439) – This 60 x 60-centimetre statue is one of Donatello’s early bronze relief sculptures. The Feast of Herod depicts the beheading of John the Baptist with King Herod receiving the head on a platter. “Herodias’ daughter, Salome, had danced so beautifully that Herod had promised to grant her any wish. Prompted by Herodias, Salome asked for the head of John the Baptist. This was Herodias’ revenge for the Baptist’s outspoken criticism of her marriage to Herod”.

His revolutionary use of perspective in this relief sculpture art is outstanding.

Zuccone – This statue was created between the years of 1423 and 1425 and is known for its deviation from most commissioned art at the time through its theme of naturalism and realism (“attempt to represent subject matter truthfully, without artificiality”). This statue is, apparently, Donatello’s favourite piece of work and is known as the Statue of the Prophet Habakkuk by its portrayal of the biblical prophet, Habakkuk.

Zuccone has been described as the most famous and important marble sculpture of the 15th The statue is now in the Museo dell ‘Opera del Duomo in Florence.

Donatello’s other famous Renaissance art are Saint Mark, Judith and Holofernes, and St George Killing the Dragon.


Donatello’s other famous Renaissance artworks are Saint Mark (1411 to 1413), Judith and Holofernes (1455 to 1460), and St George Killing the Dragon (1416 to 1417).

Transition from Renaissance Art to Modern Art

It was the beginning of the Italian Renaissance, the Renaissance artists, and its 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 modern Europe.

© 2012 artsofthetimes

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