Scholars have debated what the Renaissance was and when it began. However, most accept that it began in Italy about 1300 and lasted for about three centuries. The outpouring of intellectual and artistic energy was not only marked by a revival of interest in classical Greek and Roman values but also owed a debt to medieval Christian civilization.
Indoors, Renaissance buildings reflected the improving standard of life among the affluent. Smaller rooms were easier to heat than the vast drafty halls of the Middle Ages, and items of furniture began to multiply beyond the medieval complement of built-in beds, benches, cupboards, and tables. Although chairs were still largely reserved for the master of the house and important guests, benches or stools were becoming more common.
In 1546, at the age of seventy, Michelangelo agreed to become the chief architect of St. Peter’s in Rome. St. Peter’s exemplifies many of the features that distinguish Renaissance architecture from Gothic. Gothic cathedrals were topped by great spires and towers; Sc. Peter’s was crowned by Michelangelo’s massive dome, which rises 435 feet above the floor. Gothic buildings, with their great windows, pointed arches, and high-flung vaults, create an impression of aspiration and grace, of scarcely being earthbound; St.
Renaissance sculpture and painting were closely related, and Italian pictures owed some of their three-dimensional quality to the artists’ study of sculpture. The first Renaissance sculptor was Donatello (1386-1466), whose statue of the condottiere Gattamelata in Padua was even then a landmark in the history of art.
In northern Europe the masters of the fifteenth century were influenced by their Gothic traditions as well as by Titian and other Italians. The ranking northern painters included two Germans, Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) and Hans Holbein (c. 1496-1543), and two from the Low Countries, Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450-1516) and Pieter Brueghel (c. 1525-1569).
Even more than the writers and preachers of the Renaissance, its artists displayed an extraordinary range of originality in their interests and talents. They found patrons both among the princes of the church and among merchant princes, condottieri, and secular rulers. They took as subjects their own patrons and the pagan gods and heroes of antiquity, as well as Christ, the Virgin, and the saints. Although their income was often meager, they enjoyed increasing status both as technicians and as creative personalities.