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The distinctions between one artistic period and another are always blurred and perhaps never more so than with the Renaissance (c.1400-1600). A combination of humanistic curiosity and economic well-being led to rulers of Florence to be more daring in their artistic tastes. More than ever before, artists could approach lay as well as religious patrons, and so whole new thematic fields could be explored at the same time as techniques were revolutionised.

One of the links between the more static Gothic painters and sculptors and the new wave was Giotto di Bobdone (1266-1337). The innovative Giotto cast aside the two-dimensional restrictions of painting and creased an illusion of depth, He represented gesture and emotion in a completely new way and was the first artist to come to terms fully with foreshortening, modelling and the effects of light and shade. This is evident in his frescoes in the Capella degli Scrovegni in Padua (painted 1305). In Florence, Giotto's followers included Taddeo and Agnolo Gaddi.

Experimentation with optics and perspective was a feature of the early Renaissance. This is evident in the work of Masaccio (1401-28), who achieved a prefect sense of depth and perspective in his Trinity fresco in the Basilica di Santa Maria Novella in Florence and in his fresco cycle in Santa Maria del Carmine (also in Florence), which uses a single light source and realistic shadows. Also in Florence, the Dominican friar Fra Angelica (c.1400-55) created ethereal and beautifully coloured religious works while his pupil, Benozzo Gozzoli (c.1421-97), painted startling decorative frescoes in the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi.

 Classical mythology was of great interest to the Florentine painters, none more so than Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510), whose Allegoria della Primavera (Joy of Spring) and Nascita di Venere (Birth of Venus) in the Uffizi remain enigmatic to this day. 

Artistic activity elsewhere in Italy came nowhere near the rich style of Florence, although Piero della Francesca (c.1410-92) did produce magnificent fresco cycles in the Chiesa di San Francesco in Arezzo and Urbino, and Luca Signorelli (c.1441-1523) drew on a deep understanding of anatomy for his frescoes in the Orvieto cathedral. In northern Italy, Andrea Mantegna (c.1431-1506) was outstanding. His Cristo Morto  (Dead Christ) in the Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan, took foreshortening and perspective to a new level, In Venice, the various members of the Bellini family achieved lasting influence, especially Giovanni (c.1430-1516), who employed a uniquely soft mix of colour and an innovative us of picture planes, one behind the other, to create depth and recession.

The architects in no way lagged behind the painters. The first major architectural achievement of the early Renaissance was Filippo Brunelleschi's (1377-1446) bold experiment in 1436 to span Florence's cathedral with a double-skinned, segmented dome. It was followed by other domes: the Tempietto (built c.1504-10) of Donato Bramante beside San Pietro in Montori (Rome); on the Gianicolo (Rome); and the large, centrally planned Santa Maria della Consolazione (near Todi). The latter was begun in 1508 when Bramante was designing St Peter's Basilica in Rome; originally conceived as centrally planned and domed, the basilica was finally built in the form of a long Latin cross, with a 42m-diamater dome designed by Michelangelo Buonarotti (1475-1564).

A palazzo in the city was a visible sign of a family's success. In Florence, Michelozzo di Bartolomeo (1396-1472) designed influential urban buildings, including the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, which features severe facades and rusticated stonework. Leon Battista Alberti (1404-72) wrote treatises on architecture, the harmony of classical forms and the ratio of measurements. He employed his theories in church facades such as Santa Maria Novella in Florence, Sant'Andrea and San Sebastiano in Mantua and the Tempio Malatestiao in Rimini, as well as in the Palazzo Rucellai in Florence. Giuliano da Sangallo (1445-1516) chimed in with the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, the most ambitious mansion of the century.

Florence was also the heart of sculptural activity during the early Renaissance, with the limelight falling on sculptors such as Lorenzo Ghiberti (1398-1455), responsible for the magnificent cast bronze baptistery doors of the cathedral, and the prolific Dontatello (Donato Bardi;1386-1466), many of whose works are now in the Museo del Bargello in Florence. Donatello's large equestrian stature, the Gattamelata (built 1453), in front of the Basilica del Santo in Padua, is considered the first great bronze on the Italian Renaissance.

Three generations of the Della Robbia family produced (from the 15th to the mid-16th centuries) distinctive terracotta sculpture using blue and white enamel glazes, sometimes with the addition of yellow and green.

Michelangelo already had an established reputation as a sculptor when he arrived in Rome from Florence at the end of the 15th century. He was only 25 when he sculpted the staggeringly beautiful Pieta', now in St Peter's Basilica. Pope Julius II put him to work immediately on the massive project of creating a tomb, involving 40 sculptures, for the pope. The tomb occupied the artist for his entire career but was never completed.


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