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The achievements of the Italian Renaissance are viewed by many as the high point of art history. Beginning in the early 1400s and lasting until the mid-1600s, the Italian Renaissance was not just an artistic movement, but a philosophical one as well that put renewed emphasis on humanism and classicism. While the movement had its root in Florence, Italian Renaissance art soon spread throughout the country and most of Europe. A thorough examination of Italian Renaissance art reveals its major themes and how it still captivates the public to this day.


Focus on Humanism and Classicism

While the artists of the medieval era mostly worked in the confines of church-sponsored scholasticism, Renaissance artists embraced humanist philosophies. In this way of thinking, human intellect took center stage. Rather than relying on religion for inspiration, Renaissance artists looked to science and critical thinking for their works.

Part and parcel of the Renaissance embrace of humanism was its adoption of classicism from Greek and Roman artists. While still revering their Christian faith, Renaissance artists such as Raphael nevertheless commended the artists of ancient Greece and Rome for perfecting the artistic method. Raphael paid tribute to these Greek and Roman influences in his 1509 fresco The School of Athens, which features the philosophers Plato and Aristotle at the forefront of his conception of education and enlightenment.


The Renaissance and Naturalism

In keeping with the renewed focus on scientific inquiry, Renaissance artists sought to depict the human body in as realistic a form as possible, a style known as naturalism. To master this natural form, artists studied anatomy by drawing from real-life models in the nude. Some even went so far as to participate in autopsies of cadavers of the recently deceased to examine the bone and sinew that lie just below the skin.

The result was ultra-realistic pieces that highlighted the anatomical features of their subjects. Like their Greek and Roman forbears, Renaissance artists most favored drawing and sculpting nude male subjects that put special emphasis on muscles. One of the most famous examples of this is David by Michelangelo, a 17-foot marble sculpture that depicts the Biblical king in the nude with a heavy emphasis on the subject’s anatomy and facial features.

Italian Renaissance art opened a new door for artistic inquiry. The movement inspired generations of artists to look to the classics of Greece and Rome for inspiration. At the same time, Renaissance artists were the first of the modern era to strive for accurate depictions of their subjects, creating realistic depictions of the human form.