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Important Ideas that Changed Art Forever – The Proto Renaissance

Proto Renaissance

Important Artists: Giotto, Duccio

When we look at a painting, one of the most fascinating aspects about the work is its connection with the grand historical tradition of painting. The act of painting has been a continuous evolution that has stretches back throughout human history, and each canvas is bound together by invisible ties to all others. Many times, painters have tried to break away from the traditions of the past, and have worked in opposition and rebellion against the prevailing norms of their day. This results in relevant and original work, but it does not break free from the ‘progress’ of painting, because what they do will always stand in relation to those painters that came before them.

For example, the wild and imaginative canvases, brushwork and subject matter of the Romanticists evolved from a position of opposition against the strict, regimented style and concepts of Neo-Classicism, the movement that came before them. Although different in many ways, when viewed over a long enough historical timeline, it becomes clear that through their opposition, they also form and constitute by each other.

The qualities and values of one are held as markers of the height of bad taste and poor skill by the successive generation of painters. Viewing the history of painting in this way, as different movements reacting against the art of the past, gives a unique perspective from which to see and understand a painting.

The ideas that were developed during the Proto-Renaissance affected the course of Painting within the Western World even today. It was a time that introduced three-dimensional space into the field of painting. The High Renaissance was a period when European culture flourished in a way that has arguably never been matched in the history of humankind. Without the developments that occurred during the Proto Renaissance, this would never have been possible.

Duccio "Maesta"

Historical Background

The Proto-Renaissance started in the middle of the 1100s and ended at the beginning of the 1400s in northern Italy. Art always reflects the world and ideas around it, and as the Proto-Renaissance developed into the High Renaissance itself, the background to its views and motivations are important to understand.

The country of Italy did not unify until 1861. Before then, regions such as Florence, Venice and Milan had their own political and social structures. Between these bordering regions there was an unusually high amount of trade and productivity. Trades were on the rise, supporting a strengthening economy. By the end of the 1300s, Papal power was on the decline. No longer did the cities in Italy rely on the Vatican. Therefore they focused their attention towards a new independence instead.

The Black Death

Unfortunately, not everything was as optimistic as it seemed. Around the time of the Proto-Renaissance, Europe fell victim to the bubonic plague, also known as the Black Death. This was catastrophic. By the time the plague subsided, an estimated 30 to 60 percent of the European’s population had died. The death toll is estimated to have possibly reached up to 100 million people.

Religious Changes

Europe also underwent many religious changes at this time. Francis of Assisi had spoken against “radical” religious views. He stated that people should express their religion by how they feel individually, rather than through conservative rituals. Of course it is easy for people today to understand these more liberal ideas, but during these times, the realities were much different, and Christians were expected to abide by exceptionally strict religious rules. These developments allowed people to start to view the world around them very differently.

The beginning of 3 Dimensional Space in Painting

Art advanced with the times. Starting in the Proto-Renaissance, artists such as Giotto worked on new ways to representing three-dimensional spaces in his artwork. In the previous Medieval and Byzantine art, bodies remained on a flat surface and perspective, as we know it today, did not exist.

The artistic themes of the Proto-Renaissance also moved away from the traditional religious icons and stories of the Middle Ages. After the plague subsided, paintings of death instead focused on themes of penance. The horrors of the Black Death reminded people of the fact that death could strike at anytime. It became a strong reason for people to try and avoid an afterlife in hell.

The Proto-Renaissance was the predecessor to one of the greatest art movements of all time, the Italian Renaissance. This movement would produce famous artists such as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, and would, in turn respectively create the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and the portrait of the Mona Lisa. It opened up the illusion of space as an element of painting and that is why it altered the course of Art forever.

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