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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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The 15th century was awash with innovation in the art world, most notably in Italy and Northern Europe. The early techniques of oil painting would bring a more detailed, polished finish to religious portraits, whilst printmaking would also make considerable advancements.

Perspective within the visual arts would mirror reality much more closely, and several new painting methods such as chiaroscuro, and sfumato would bring a greater complexity and lifelike quality to European art.

International Gothic Style

A number of royal courts across Europe made use of a shared batch of artists which led to the merging of styles to form the International Gothic movement. It would later spread deeper into society to cover commissions from lower nobility and the preference for marriage across ruling families also encouraged the take up of this approach.

The main centers for its evolution would be in northern France, the Netherlands, the Duchy of Burgundy, the Imperial court in Prague, and Italy. The inherent features of the International Gothic approach included a rich color palette, and a more sophisticated style of figurative art. There was also a more accurate handling of perspective, an aspect which continued to evolve throughout the Renaissance.

Proto-Renaissance in Northern Italy

14th century Italy is sometimes known as the Proto-Renaissance, or Pre-Renaissance. Many of the advancements made in the country during this era would lead into the Early Renaissance period, having started some of these early stylistic evolutions (trecento leading into quattrocento). The main mediums of this period were fresco murals and tempera panel painting, some years before the influence of the Northern Renaissance would persuade Italian artists to use oils instead.

Giotto de Bondon (circa 1266-1337) is seen as the most significant contributor to the Proto-Renaissance, with his cycle of frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel helping to bring a more natural, lifelike quality to facial depictions within italian art. Duccio de Buoninsegna and Simone Martini from the Sienese School were also highly influential.

There were many similarities between the Proto-Renaissance and the International Gothic style, with the two then leading into the earliest phases of the Renaissance era.

Early Italian Renaissance

In the early 15th century we would see the emergence of Masaccio (1401-1428) and Masolino, with the former being heavily influenced by the work of Giotto di Bondone in the Proto Renaissance. He was close friends with Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446), who himself would become a key Early Renaissance architect.

He used perspective and a natural style which moved against the International Gothic movement and evolved some of Giotto’s own innovations. Florence was becoming a hub for this new movement, which was spreading into sculpture, painting and architecture but it would take several more phases before we arrived at the most famous contributions, such as the work of Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Michelangelo (1475-1564) and Raphael (1483-1520).

There would also be a spread of ideas across Italy, with art schools appearing in other provinces, though Florence retained its position as the central artistic hub.

Flemish Primitives

Flemish Primitives is a term to describe Early Netherlandish painting, covering the Northern Renaissance in the 15th and 16th century. The earliest signs of innovation came from Jan van Eyck (1390-1441) and Robert Campin (circa 1378-1444) in around the 1420s, including an early use of oils within the painting medium. This significant era ran all the way through to Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-1569), with many other great names appearing along the way.

The rise of Netherlandish art also coincided with the advancements in Italy and over time the two would feed into each other, with the use of oils eventually becoming dominant in Italy as well. Some of these artists were also grouped amongst the Late or International Gothic movement as well.

The Flemish Primitives focused on religious content and constructed a number of multi-paneled artworks which could be displayed in religious buildings all across the region. Workshops were prevalent at this time, allowing large commissions to be taken on, and for many of the technical skills to be passed on from one generation to the next.

The main stylistic aspect of Early Netherlandish painting was to replicate humans more accurately, both in their facial features and also their anatomical details. They would also work hard to master perspective, which had previously been delivered in a flat, unrealistic manner which was the norm all across Europe.

One of the necessary transitions in order to produce these more lifelike qualities within their art, was for artists to move from the use of egg tempera to oils, which happened in around the 1430s. Italian Renaissance artists would eventually do similar, after witnessing some of the majestic work found in Northern Europe.

Transition towards the High Renaissance

The second half of the 15th century laid the foundations for the High Renaissance which occurred in Italy around 1495-1520. This era coincided with the rise of Leonardo da Vinci and the appearance of the equally respected Michelangelo and Raphael. The period of 1450-1495 continued the evolution of painting techniques brought in by Giotto and Masaccio, bringing a greater refinement of these ideas, with perspective and lighting continuing to differentiate Italian art from the earlier styles of the medieval.

Sfumato would join the existing technique of chiaroscuro to deliver lifelike qualities which allowed a more human edge to fill Florentine art. Besides the three great masters there were also important contributions from the likes of Giovanni Bellini (1430-1516), Giorgione (1477-1510) and Titian (circa 1488/90-1576) who each brought advancements in the use of color.

Many of these great names would travel around the country in order to fulfill private commissions, which allowed many of these ideas to be shared and combined. Their collective input would bring about the later Mannerist movement, which would then evolve in the Baroque which spread across the European continent.

Up until the turn of the century, Leonardo da Vinci would advance his portraiture with a portrait of Ginevra de' Benci from 1474–1478 followed by Lady with an Ermine from 1489 and The Last Supper (circa 1492–1498). He used a seemingly infinite amount of layers of paint to produce near photo-realistic qualities to the facial features of his subjects, readying him for his masterpiece of the Mona Lisa (circa 1503–1506) which followed in the next century.

The artist spent his time in Florence (1472-circa 1482) followed by Milan (circa 1482–1499) which enabled him to attract a variety of commissions, though he also left a number of these unfinished. Leonardo’s innovations with Sfumato brought incredible subtleties of shading which had not been seen before in European art, with his Mona Lisa representing decades of perfecting this technique.

It also represented the technical opportunities now afforded to Italian portrait painters after their switch from egg tempera to oils, under the influence of Flemish painters.

Manuscript Illumination

The art of manuscript illumination would transition in style from the influences of the Gothic period to the Renaissance era across the span of the 15th century. Flemish illuminators in Bruges were amongst the most skilled, and also incorporated brighter color palettes for the first time. Sadly, having reached the heights of this art form, demand would soon fall away after the rise of the printing press, leading to these techniques becoming more of a niche interest.

Many of the skills could be transferred to the designing stages of other new forms of art, though, with designs being translated into cheaper copies that could be distributed all across the continent relatively easily. The more labor-intensive nature of manuscript illustration became only for the rich who could afford customized, personal copies of secular and religious publications.

Engraving and Printmaking

Woodcut prints would emerge in Germany in the early 15th century and were used initially for the production of paper playing cards before Johannes Gutenberg helped to revolutionize the printing press technology, which had far-reaching consequences all across Europe. The new opportunities that this brought to art were used by Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) to produce highly complex designs.

He would spread his inventiveness across many art forms, including woodcuts, etchings, drypoints, and metal engravings. This would become a key element of the Northern Renaissance and encouraged the spread of art down into the lower levels of society who could now afford copies of their work.

Gothic and Renaissance Architecture

Across the 15th century Renaissance architecture would start to replace the medieval Gothic approach which had previously dominated. The earliest sign of this transition would perhaps be Lorenzo Ghiberti’s work in Florence, with the 21-year-old sculptor beating Brunelleschi in a competition to design what would become known as The Gates of Paradise.

The final work made the artist something of a celebrity within Florence and brought many of the finest commissions to his door. The doors were decorated with scenes from the life of Christ, in a similar manner to Giotto’s frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, many years earlier. Some considered Ghiberti’s creation, which took two decades to complete, to be the finest masterpiece in Italian art, before later being superseded by the work of the three great Renaissance masters.