Art Styles: Proto-Renaissance

Cimabue, The Flagellation of Christ proto-Renaissance paintingThe term Proto-Renaissance, first coined by the Swiss art historian Jacob Burckhardt, denotes the period in northern Italian art from (roughly) 1150-1400. Artistic developments in this area, during these years, weren't quite Romanesque, or Gothic, but have come to be classified as precursors to the Renaissance itself. Proto-Renaissance, in Italy was a time of great social and artistic change. During the 13th and 14th centuries, Italy saw a tremendous growth of cities, the expansion of trade, a rise in the numbers and power of the middle class, and increasing humanization of religion.

The Franciscan sect, particularly, had a profound impact on artists of the time because of its emphasis on the beauty of observable nature and the concept that knowledge could be obtained through direct observation. The proximity of Rome and the Church's influence on all aspects of Italian culture, meant that Italian art was dominated by religious painting and architecture.

Not surprisingly therefore, two churches form the gateway into the Renaissance art period. The first was the convent church of St Francis at Assisi. In the last decades of the 13th century, it was decorated entirely in fresco, by Cimabue, also referred to as Cenni di Peppi, (artwork shown above) one of the most famous artists of the day. His young assistant was a man called Giotto di Bondone (artwork shown below).

The fresco scenes of the life of St Francis were portrayed with much greater realism than any Byzantine mosaic. The second church was the Scrovegni Chapel (also called the Arena Chapel) built in the 1300s by Enrico degli Scrovegni, in Padua. This too was decorated with fresco murals, only this time they were wholly created by Giotto. He painted the entire biblical story of three generations of the Holy Family: the Virgin's parents, the Virgin herself and Jesus. The narrative is depicted with great drama in a comic-strip set of wooden panels, in three rows along the walls. People had time, money and relative political stability. Combining these factors with shifts in human cognition led to creative changes in art.

Kis of Judas scrovegni Giotto Painting during the proto-renaissance art periodThe first noticeable differences emerged in sculpture. Human figures, as seen in Church architectural elements, became slightly less stylized and more deeply relieved. Painting soon followed suit and, almost imperceptibly, began to shake the Medieval style in which compositions followed a rigid format. While most paintings were for religious purposes and painters still stuck halos around nearly every painted head, it's evident that things were loosening up a bit, composition-wise.

At times, it even seems that figures might, given the right circumstances, be capable of movement. This was a small but radical change. If it seems a little timid to us now, bear in mind that there were some fairly horrible penalties involved if one angered the Church through heretical acts.

Giotto de Bondone (1266-1337) opened the door to a whole new world of painting, as Vasari was the first to recognize in his Lives of the Artists, when he credited Giotto with reviving the true art of painting, introducing the drawing of nature, and restoring Italian art to its ancient greatness and prestige. As a result, he designated the artist as the "Father of Painting". Under Giotto, Italian painting became the leading European style of art until well into the 17th century
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