Some of the greatest artists in history come from quite a short period. From 1450 to 1600, Europe saw a cultural boom, allowing artists to experiment with form and content.
Some would use their pay to follow other interests – Durer wrote theoretical texts on geometry and anatomy while Da Vinci designed engineering marvels that would not be constructed for four hundred years.
Other great artists were far more flippant with their money, with Caravaggio mainly known for his fondness for alcohol and a fight.
The great artists of the Renaissance could practice their trade thanks to wealthy patrons, such as the Medicis and the Roman Catholic Church.
For this reason, many of the subjects of art were Christian iconography or depictions of Greek myths. It is also why many of the great artists worked in Florence and Rome, for that was where their benefactors resided.
Here are ten famous artists and painters from the Renaissance.
1. Da Vinci
Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci was born outside of Florence in 1452 and, by the age of 14, was working under Andrea del Verrocchio. Verrochio was the leading artist of Florence at the time, and Da Vinci’s work was so good that by the time he was 20, he had his own workshop.
Over the next forty-seven years, Da Vinci was to produce hundreds of paintings, sketches, and murals. By his death in 1519, Da Vinci had also written and kept over 13,000 notes and drawings on everything from detailed anatomical studies, investigations into how birds fly, and designs for inventions such as an early parachute and a “mechanical knight.”
Leonardo Da Vinci’s most famous work is also one with a little mystery. The “Mona Lisa,” or “Gioconda,” was a small portrait of Lisa Gherardini, the wife of Francesco del Giocondo, an official of the Florentine government at the time. Da Vinci spent many years finishing the work and died before he gave it to Giocondo.
The painting ended up in the hands of Francis I of France, would come to sit over the bed of Napolean and was stolen from the Louvre, and is now one of the most visited artworks in the world. Fifteen thousand visitors go to see the mysterious smile of the Mona Lisa every single day.
Da Vinci painted many other great works, including “The Last Supper,” “The Adoration of the Magi,” and “St Jerome in the Wilderness.” Da Vinci’s work, “Salvator Mundi,” currently holds the record for the most expensive painting ever sold after it was auctioned in 2017 for $450.3 Million.
Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni was a young man working in Florence at the same time as Da Vinci. When Lorenzo de Medici, ruler of Florence, requested the best student painters to work for him, the famed fresco artist, Domenico Ghirlandaio, sent only two boys. One of them was Michelangelo. He was fourteen at the time.
At 24, Michelangelo began working on the most famous of his sculptures today. David, commissioned for the Florence Cathedral, took five years of careful work to make. The statue, which is 17ft in height, weighs over six-ton and was therefore deemed unsuitable for placing on the cathedral’s roof as initially planned.
However, the work was so celebrated by Florentine society that a committee (which included Da Vinci and Botticelli) was created to decide where it should stand. It took four days and careful labor to move it from the workshop to outside the Palazzo Vecchio, where it stood until 1910.
Michelangelo is also known for the Sistine Chapel’s incredible ceiling, Pope Julius II’s tomb, and “The Last Judgment.” He was appointed architect of the restoration of St. Peter’s Basilica but unfortunately passed away before seeing his designs come to full fruition.
Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi was one of the first painters in the era now known as the Renaissance. Botticelli was initially trained as a goldsmith but eventually became an apprentice to the painter Fra Filippo Lippi.
When Lippi died in 1469, Botticelli took over most of his customers in wealthy Florence. By 1474, the reputation of the young painter was so great that the city of Piza commissioned him to help create murals for the commune of Camposanto. By 1841, he was painting frescos in the Sistine Chapel.
Unlike many Renaissance painters, Botticelli had the opportunity to paint many subjects outside Christianity and became known as the painter of choice for depicting Greek myths.
His most famous work, “The Birth of Venus”, was one of many commissioned by the Medici family, who believed in the philosophy of Neoplatonism, often represented by the idea of “divine love.”
Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino died at the early age of 37 but had left behind such a large body of respected works that he is often considered part of “the trinity of masters” with Da Vinci and Michelangelo.
Raphael’s father was the court painter for the Duke of Urbino, and his connections to high society helped Raphael receive the attention he deserved.
He was eighteen when he completed his first significant work, and by the age of 26, he was living in Rome, working on large murals for the many churches in the city. Here, he painted “The School of Athens,” his most famous work, for the residences of the Pope.
The giant fresco remains preserved on the “Raphael Rooms.”
Raphael was also a sort-after architect, and the church commissioned him to design the new St Peter’s Cathedral. However, the project was handed to Michelangelo after his death, and only a few rough drawings remained.
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was born in 1571, making him one of the last artists to be mentioned as part of the Renaissance era. While he lived in Rome for most of his life, the painter spent his final years in Naples, Malta, and Sicily.
Caravaggio was a hot-headed young man who had to escape his hometown after wounding a police officer. In Rome, he took any work he could, and it was in 1600 that he began receiving recognition.
“The Calling of St Matthew,” one of his most famous works, received great praise for how the artist used contrasts between light and darkness – this technique, known as “tenebrism,” is now closely associated with Caravaggio, who is said to have perfected it with later works such as “Salome with the Head of John the Baptist” and “Saint Jerome Writing.”
Caravaggio had to flee Rome after killing a man in a duel and was attacked multiple times while in exile. He died of a fever at age 38, leaving a legacy as much remembered for a dark life as it was for dark artworks.
Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi was born in 1386, making him one of the first of the great Florentine artists of the Renaissance. Exclusively a sculptor, Donatello’s bronze “David” is considered the first free-standing sculpture of a nude male since ancient times.
Donatello’s primary backer was the banker and powerbroker Cosimo de Medici. When Medici was exiled from Florence, Donatello moved to Rome, where he created the “Ciborium” at St Peter’s Basilica and the tomb of Giovanni Crivelli.
Donatello’s work was to be the driving influence of almost all sculptors after him, and the artist is often referred to as “the father of the renaissance.” Unfortunately, unlike many artists on this list, his only personal connection to the other Florentines was his friendship with Filippo Brunelleschi.
Tiziano Vecellio was an apprentice painter in Venice in the 1490s when he was allowed to work under the Bellini brothers. While learning, he formed a group with other young painters, including Lorenzo Lotto, Sebastiano Luciani, and Giorgio da Castelfranco.
Titian’s older brother, Francesco, was also part of this group and was their most successful for some time. This “Venetian School” is an essential style of painting to come out of the Renaissance and continues influencing works to this day.
Titian’s most famous work would be the “Assumption of the Virgin,” a large altarpiece with three distinct sections leading from the earth to the heavens. It took more than two years for Titian to complete the painting, and it cemented the artist’s name in the public consciousness.
While his date of birth is unknown, Titian lived well into his nineties, spending his final years painting portraits and a series of scenes from Ovid for Philip II. He eventually died in 1576 during one of the many outbreaks of Plague that ravaged the city of Venice.
8. Hieronymus Bosch
Born Jheronimus van Aken, Bosch was born in 1450, and little is known of his personal life before his marriage to Aleyt Goyaerts van den Meerveen. Few examples of his early works exist; in total, only seven triptychs and 25 paintings have remained, which art historians can confirm to have been painted by the artist.
Despite the Dutch artist’s low output and mysterious life, Bosch has become an important name in Renaissance art. Two of his works, “The Last Judgement” and “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” are celebrated for their complexity of detail and near-absurdist symbolism. For example, in the latter painting, there is an image of a man carrying a giant mussel shell, in which a couple engages in sexual activity.
Bosch was of little interest to contemporaries or even art critics up to the 20th century. However, he became an important influence on modern surrealists such as Dali and Magritte, and today’s scholars have been fascinated by what meaning he attempted to place on many of the scenes within his works.
As a theorist, printmaker, and painter, Albrecht Durer embodies similar elements of “the Renaissance man” held by Da Vinci. Durer studied as a printmaker in Germany, working under his godfather, a successful publisher named Anton Koberger. However, European art lovers soon recognized Durer’s talent; by age 15, he was already creating professional works in silverpoint.
Durer traveled to Italy and the Netherlands, making friends with many artists of the Renaissance. According to his autobiography, he met or wrote with Da Vinci, Raphael, and Bellini. Returning home, he soon garnered the attention of Emperor Maximilian I, who became his patron. For the emperor, he created a prayer book that became famous for its illustrations.
As well as an artist, Durer worked on illustrations for court astronomer Johannes Stabius, creating the first “world globe” and several celestial charts. He also wrote four books on geometry, anatomy, engineering, and swordsmanship.
Few artists could match Durer in his medium, and no major artist has been able to match his ability to create large-scale woodcuts. For both contemporaries and artists today, Durer stands out as a singular genius in his field.
10. Van Eyk
Jan van Eyck is one of the first painters to be a part of the Renaissance movement, becoming the court painter of Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, in 1425. His work in oils was so revered that a myth grew for a short time that Van Eyk invented the very concept of oil painting.
Van Eky’s most famous work, the Ghent Altarpiece, took twelve years to complete. The first confirmed oil painting that used multiple panels around an altar, had twelve separate pieces, eight of which were painted on both sides.
Unfortunately, during the early 20th century, panels were sold off, stolen, or damaged during war. An eight-year restoration that ended in 2020 has seen the altarpiece restored to its former glory and returned to St Bavo’s Cathedral.
Van Eyk also worked as an unofficial ambassador and diplomat for Philip the Good and was responsible for meeting the Duke’s betrothed, Isabella of Portugal. Van Eyk was to paint the bride and give the Duke an impression of the woman he was to marry.
At his death, Philip provided the widow the remaining funds Van Eyk would have earned as a court painter.
Some Renaissance artists were mysterious figures, producing only a few unique paintings and nothing more. Others were prolific masters whose notes and diaries have become as sought after as their works.
Each great artist brought a new perspective, from the complexity of content in a large Bosch triptych to the foreboding chiaroscuro favored by Caravaggio, the lessons taught by those masters are still being put into practice today.
There might have been many other great artists we are not fortunate enough to remember. Those known today are so because of their wealthy patrons, the workshops they had the privilege to run, and the notes they left behind.
It may be that there were just as many great artists in London as in Florence but that they never had the chance to be noticed, and remembered.
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