Art of the Florentine Renaissance

After its medieval struggles, Europe rediscovered the art of the ancients, led by booming Florence. We revel in the bold spirit of the Cathedral's lofty dome and Botticelli's sweet Venus. Leonardo da Vinci gives us the iconic Last Supper and enigmatic Mona Lisa. And Michelangelo — sculptor of David, painter of the Sistine, and architect of St. Peter's — takes the Florentine Renaissance to new heights.


[1] Hi, I'm Rick Steves, back with more of the best of Europe. This time, rather than a particular place, we're going thematic and traveling anywhere that theme takes us. This time, it's the art of the Florentine Renaissance — with a star-studded cast, from art-loving princes and popes to Mona Lisa to Michelangelo's David. Thanks for joining us!

[3] After centuries of medieval struggles, Europe enjoyed a reawakening to the enlightened ways of ancient Greece and Rome. For two centuries — roughly 1400 to 1600 — there was an explosion of art, learning, and culture. This rebirth was known as the Renaissance.

[4 Montage] We'll focus on Florence, the birthplace and epicenter of that cultural big bang. We'll see the dramatic revolution in art, revel in the bold spirit of the times, and meet the artistic geniuses who made it possible. Celebrating the art of the Early Renaissance, we'll admire the works of Ghiberti — who merged art and mathematics to show the illusion of depth; Brunelleschi — who built the greatest dome yet; and Donatello — who gave his statues emotion and life. Then we'll meet the three greats of the High Renaissance: Leonardo. the quintessential Renaissance genius; Raphael, the master of grace who decorated the Vatican with pre-Christian and very Renaissance themes; and Michelangelo, with his beloved art — statues and paintings that inspire to this day.

[5, Piazza della Santissima Annunziata, Florence] Though best known for its art, the Renaissance would change Europe in every way — from politics to economics to religion.

[6] Most of all, it was a whole new attitude toward life, a new optimism and confidence: it was Humanism. Humanism focused not on our sinfulness — as dominated the Middle Ages — but in our essential goodness.

[7, fresco series by Ghirlandaio in Tornabuoni Chapel in Santa Maria Novella church, Florence] People worked hard, making money was respectable, and excellence was rewarded. Real-life people — not just saints and kings — were worthy…worthy of being portrayed realistically in all their human glory…humanism.

[8, Piazza della Signoria, Florence] In politics, the Renaissance meant budding democracy — people power not kings. This was the city hall. In economics, merchants were developing modern capitalism — like banking and loans.

[9, The Annunciation with St. Emidius, 1486, Crivelli, National Gallery, London; Piazza Annunciation, Florence] Scientists were delving into nature. Artists were employing new techniques to show depth and to portray things more realistically. And architects were going forward by going back to ancient Greek-style columns and Roman-style arches.

[10, Uffizi Gallery, Florence] If the Renaissance was a foundation of our modern world, a foundation of the Renaissance was Classical art. Sculptors, painters, and poets alike turned to ancient work for inspiration.

[11, Three Graces by Botticelli, Birth of Venus by Botticelli, Madonna of the Goldfinch by Raphael, School of Athens by Raphael, St. Peter's Basilica dome is essentially ancient Roman Pantheon atop ancient Roman Basilica of Maxentius] For example, this Renaissance portrayal of the Three Graces was inspired by ancient versions from 1,500 years earlier. This Renaissance goddess? Clearly modeled on works done in ancient times. And this holy Virgin Mary looks suspiciously like this very pagan ancient goddess of love. The great pre-Christian thinkers, like Plato and Aristotle, were back in vogue. And, in architecture, the ultimate Renaissance-designed church was essentially this ancient dome placed upon this ancient basilica.

[12, viewpoint from Piazzale Michelangelo, Florence] The city of Florence was the epicenter of the Renaissance and, in so many ways, the birthplace of our modern Western world. And for good reason. This was where capitalism was replacing feudalism. The city had money and it knew what to do with it.

[13, Ponte Vecchio on Arno River, Florence, view from top of Brunelleschi's dome, Florence] Florence was a prosperous city — a producer of wool and fancy clothes, well-located along a busy river. Trade brought bankers who brought money. And wealthy businessmen showed their civic pride by investing in their city — commissioning splendid art from talented artists, artists who were now respected and well paid. With all this going for it, Florence of the early 1400s unleashed a cultural explosion.

[14, baptistery and duomo, Florence] Three works by pioneering geniuses helped launch the Renaissance: The towering dome of its cathedral, the groundbreaking statues that decorated it, and the doors of its baptistery. Excitement over these bold projects — by three greats of the early Renaissance: Brunelleschi, Donatello, and Ghiberti — sparked a city-wide boom in art and creativity.

[15, Elena Fulceri, Florence guide] To better appreciate the ground-breaking art of the early Renaissance, we're joined by my friend and fellow tour guide Elena Fulceri.

[16] Elena: Some say that the Renaissance truly started here in 1401 when the city arranged a competition to select an artist for the bronze casting of the new door of the baptistry. The winning panel was made by a brilliant goldsmith named Lorenzo Ghiberti.

Ghiberti, this is a self-portrait, won the competition with this panel. He then completed the north doors of the baptistry with additional panels like this.

Rick: So, the competition doors were on the north side.

Elena: Exactly. And later on, Ghiberti was in charge of another wonderful project. He cast in bronze the eastern door of the baptistry which ended up being so revolutionary and so spectacular that it was nick-named the Gate of Paradise. And as you can see here, Ghiberti was able to use also the rules of prospettiva, perspective — mathematical laws that helped define the three-dimensionality and you can see that there is a foreground, middle ground, and background.

By doing this, Ghiberti creates a vanishing point that gives the illusion of depth — a believable 3-D scene on a 2-D surface.

Elena: They were considered revolutionary for the three-dimensionality that they offered.

Rick: It's like now the viewer is involved in the art.

Elena: Exactly. We feel part of the artwork. It's three-dimensional. It goes way beyond the shape of the panel. And it's achieved by mathematical laws. And the next great Renaissance achievement was the construction of the dome for the cathedral. It was a huge medieval church that, after 120 years, was left incomplete…with a huge hole. So, the city really needed the proper technology and the right genius. And this genius was Filippo Brunelleschi. With his innovative eight-sided design, Brunelleschi was able to finish the largest dome in a thousand years. And this is the essence of the Renaissance. You can see how art and science can create great beauty.

[17, Duomo (Florence's cathedral), dome by Brunelleschi] The Cathedral and its soaring bell tower were landmark accomplishments in architecture…and they were to be decorated inside and out with wonderful statues. For this, Florence turned to Brunelleschi's good friend and Ghiberti's assistant — the sculptor Donatello. An eccentric, innovative, workaholic master, Donatello lit up his statues with an inner soul, giving his subjects unprecedented realism and emotion.

[18, Cantoria, 1433, Donatello, Museo del Duomo, Florence] This balcony from where the choir sang, captures the exuberance of the Renaissance. Dancing and swirling in a real space, unconstrained by the columns, Donatello's happy angels celebrate the freedom and spirit of this new age.

[19, Mary Magdalene, 1455, Donatello] His Mary Magdalene — carved out of wood — is provocative…shockingly realistic. Rather than a saint in glory, Donatello portrays a real person, whose entire being is about the spiritual rather than the physical. Hands folded in prayer and emaciated from fasting, she's repentant. While her neglected physical body seems fragile, she exudes strength in spirit…with a faith that salvation will be hers.

[20] Before the Renaissance, church architecture — because it was the house of God — was the most noble art form. Other arts — like statues, paintings, and stained glass — were especially worthwhile if they ornamented the church.

[21, David, c. 1440, Donatello, Bargello Museum, Florence] With his bronze David, Donatello helped revolutionize sculpture. "Renaissance man" now stands on his own. This is one of the first freestanding nudes sculpted in Europe in a thousand years. While the formal subject is still biblical — David slaying the giant — truth be told, it's a classical nude…a celebration of the human body. Driven in part by artists, society was changing. A generation before, this would have been shocking — but with the Renaissance, it's art for art's sake, adorning not a church but a noble family's courtyard.

[22] By the late-1400s, the Florentine Renaissance was in full bloom, and that exuberant spirit is best found in the big, colorful paintings of Sandro Botticelli. As a member of the Medici circle — he was even a friend of Lorenzo the Magnificent — he studied their collection of ancient statues.

[23, Sandro Botticelli, 1445–1510; Venus and Mars, 1483, National Gallery, London] Botticelli found inspiration in the balanced compositions, the naked beauty, and secular, humanistic outlook. As he painted, he created visions of pure beauty that captured the optimistic springtime — or primavera — of the Renaissance.

[24, The Birth of Venus, c. 1485, Botticelli, Uffizi Gallery, Florence] The epitome of Early Renaissance beauty may be Botticelli's Birth of Venus — the first large-scale depiction of a naked woman in a thousand years. Born from the foam of a wave, Venus is just waking up. The world itself seems fresh and newly born. The god of the wind sets the whole scene in motion. Floating ashore on her scallop shell, Venus takes center stage. Botticelli creates an ideal world — perfectly lit. The bodies curve harmoniously, the faces are idealized, and their gestures exude grace. Naked as a newborn, Venus symbolized the optimism of the Renaissance.

[25, Boboli Gardens, Florence] By the year 1500, what had begun in Florence a century earlier was coming to a peak: an exciting time known as the High Renaissance. Italy was thriving, with a huge appetite for art. Artists who in earlier times had toiled as anonymous craftsmen were now famous and well-paid. Three towering artists — all with Florence connections — brought the Renaissance to its culmination and then helped spread it throughout Italy and beyond: Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael.

[26, Leonardo da Vinci, 1452–1519] Leonardo da Vinci was the ultimate well-rounded Renaissance Man: inventor, engineer, sculptor, and painter. Always asking why and how, he filled up entire notebooks with sketches and ideas.

[27, angel by Leonardo in Verrocchio's Baptism of Christ, Uffizi Gallery, Florence] When he was an apprentice — just a boy — Leonardo painted this beautiful angel, with curly hair, rosy cheeks, and innocent gaze.

[28, Portrait of Ginevra Benci; Madonna of the Carnation, 1475] Welcomed as a part of the elite and enlightened Medici circle, young Leonardo was already developing the elements of his signature style: meditative Madonnas, a playful baby Jesus, amid a hazy, mysterious backdrop.

[29, Last Supper fresco, 1498, Leonardo da Vinci, Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan] One of Leonardo's greatest masterpieces decorates a dining hall in a Milan monastery. The Last Supper. It's Jesus' last meal with his disciples, just before he'd be crucified. Leonardo packs the scene with psychological tension. He captures the moment Jesus says, "One of you will betray me," and the apostles huddling in stressed-out groups of three, wonder, "Lord, is it I?" In this agitated atmosphere, only the traitor Judas — clutching his 30 pieces of silver — is not shocked.

[30] Leonardo's use of linear perspective gives the scene an extra punch. He makes the painted room an extension of the actual room, with shadows as if lit by the real room's windows. All the lines of perspective converge toward the center, sub-consciously drawing you to the powerful emotional focal point — Jesus. His calm expression makes it clear that he knows the painful sacrifice ahead — and accepts it.

[31, Virgin of the Rocks, Leonardo da Vinci, National Galley, London] Constantly evolving, Leonardo perfected his signature sfumato, or "hazy," technique — the soft outlines of the faces…the mysterious mountains fading in the mist. Using what's called "atmospheric perspective," he showed depth by understanding how colors become muted when more distant. He managed to create scenes that looked perfectly natural…but had an underlying geometry that reflected the order seen in nature.

[32, Mona Lisa, 1506, Leonardo da Vinci, The Louvre, Paris] And with his Mona Lisa, all these techniques came together marvelously.

[33] Lisa, a woman from Florence, rests easily, as if sitting in a window looking out. Remarkably realistic and relaxed, her body is a solid pyramid, turned slightly at an angle, so we can appreciate its mass. With its hazy background emphasizing the depth, the overall mood is one of serenity and harmony, but with an element of mystery. Especially the enigmatic smile. Leonardo's hazy sfumato blurs the edges. That's why, try as we might, we can never quite see the corners of her mouth. Is she happy? Or sad? Everyone sees her differently.

[34] For me, this painting sums up the Renaissance: balance, confidence, and humanism — the age when the common individual — Mona Lisa — becomes art-worthy.

[35] In his long career, Leonardo da Vinci — by combining art and science — revolutionized our notion of art. He was the epitome of perhaps the highest compliment an artist can receive — a true Renaissance genius.

[36] Leonardo strongly influenced another talented young artist — Raphael. By combining the grace of Leonardo, the power of Florentine sculpture, and the humanist spirit of the age, Raphael became the master of High Renaissance painting.

[37, Raphael, 1483–1520; self-portrait, Doni portraits, Uffizi Gallery, Florence] A true prodigy, young Raphael quickly mastered realism. In these portraits, he captured the proud faces, rich clothing, and fine jewelry of this cloth merchant and his noble wife. He gave them Leonardo's Mona Lisa treatment: turned at a three-quarter pose, arms and hands resting comfortably.

[38, Madonna of the Goldfinch, 1506, Raphael, Uffizi Gallery, Florence] This Madonna also pays homage to Leonardo. Mary presides in a beautiful earthly setting, with a young Jesus and curly haired little Johnny the Baptist, washed in warm sfumato and a golden glow…and posed like a pyramid. While natural, it's thoughtfully planned: symmetrical — a baby to the left, baby to the right…flanked by trees and framed with clouds…all reinforcing the atmosphere of serenity, order, and maternal love.

[39] Raphael soon became the most sought-after painter of his day. The pope in Rome actually hired him to decorate his palace — now the Vatican Museum — with his paintings.

[40, Laocoön and Belvedere Torso, Vatican Museums, Rome] The classical decor and ancient treasures that line the halls of the Vatican palace show how Popes of this age actually embraced that Renaissance respect for pre-Christian thinking.

[41, School of Athens, 1511, Raphael, Vatican Museums, Rome] Raphael's School of Athens merges the ancient and Christian worlds. Here in the pope's study — the heart of Christian Europe — he painted not only Christian saints but…so radical, so shocking for the age…pagan philosophers: Plato, Aristotle. Again, in good Renaissance style, Raphael balances everything symmetrically, with all the lines of perspective leading your eye to dead center — two secular saints framed with a Renaissance arch as their halo. This is humanism: the geometrically perfect world…created by a Christian God.

[42] The ancient philosopher Plato is none other than Raphael's idol, Leonardo da Vinci. And the guy in the black cap, young Raphael himself. Finally, there's this brooding figure — the man who would take the High Renaissance to the greatest heights of all…Michelangelo Buonarroti.

[43] More than any previous artist, Michelangelo pioneered the idea that art was not just a job, but a unique personal statement, an expression of his inner passion. Even as he worked for the Church and wealthy patrons, his vision was always his own.

[44, Michelangelo, 1475–1564] As a multi-talented "Renaissance man," Michelangelo made his mark as a world class sculptor…painter…and architect.

[45, Medici Chapel and tombs, Michelangelo, Florence] As an architect, he designed and created this memorial chapel for his patrons, the Medici — a harmonious ensemble of innovative architecture, tombs, and sculpture.

[46, Prisoners, Accademia Gallery, Florence] As a sculptor, Michelangelo believed his figures were already divinely created within the stone… he was simply chiseling away the excess. These rough and unfinished statues seem to be struggling, like prisoners, to free themselves from the marble. They show the Renaissance love of the body as, with his chisel, Michelangelo reveals these compelling figures.

[47, Pietà, Michelangelo, St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City] Barely 25 years old, Michelangelo established his genius by sculpting this Pietà, adored by centuries of pilgrims. With powerful realism, Michelangelo made it clear to the faithful: Jesus is dead. The theological point of this work: He gave his life for our salvation. Mary's crumpled robe accentuates Christ's smooth body — helping make hard stone look soft as skin. Great art that delivers an emotional punch, is no accident…that's its purpose and it does so by design.

[48, David, 1504, Michelangelo, Accademia Gallery, Florence] Next, Michelangelo took on the epic-scale statue of David — displayed today as if the high altar in a temple to Humanism. The young shepherd who slew the giant turned down the armor of the day, arming himself only with stones. He throws his sling over his shoulder and goes out to face the giant. Michelangelo catches David at the exact moment when he's sizing up the enemy, and thinks to himself, "I can take this guy."

[49] This statue has come to symbolize that, with the Renaissance, humankind could slay the giant of medieval ignorance and superstition. David's over-sized right hand was no accident — it represented how this shepherd boy, empowered by God, could slay the giant…and how Florence could rise above its rival city states. When you look at David, you're looking at Renaissance man.

[50] Artists now made their point using realism. They did this by merging art and science. For instance, Michelangelo actually dissected human corpses to better understand anatomy. This humanism was not anti-religion. Now, people realized that the best way to glorify God was not to bow down in church all day long, but to recognize their talents and to use them.

[51, Dying Slave, Michelangelo, The Louvre, Paris] Michelangelo established himself as Europe's greatest sculptor. And he was a pretty darn good painter as well.

[52, Holy Family (or Doni Tondo), 1506, Michelangelo, Uffizi Gallery, Florence] This Holy Family — Michelangelo's only surviving easel painting — offers a closer look at his mastery as a painter. The solid, statuesque people posed in a sculptural group show why many call Michelangelo "a sculptor with a paint brush."

[53] He created perhaps his greatest work in the pope's Sistine chapel. Michelangelo depicted no less than the entire history of the Christian world, from the Creation…to the first people…and, much later, to the final event in history, the awe-inspiring Last Judgment. Michelangelo painted God busy creating from every conceivable angle. And the centerpiece: the central act of creation…God passing the divine spark of life to his greatest masterpiece — you and me.

[54] But Michelangelo saved his most majestic work for last. Now, as a master architect, he designed the dome of the greatest church in Christendom, St. Peter's in Rome. The dome rises up from the church's heart, the tomb of St. Peter — taller than a football field on end. Enjoying the commanding view from the top, is a reminder of how the cultural explosion of the Italian Renaissance was destined to reverberate far and wide.

[55] That great awakening called the Renaissance — the movement that had begun in Florence — would spread to Rome…from Italy to Spain to the north…eventually infusing all Europe with an invigorating spirit of humanism and a can-do optimism.

[56] Europe offers a lifetime of artistic treasures. And the more you understand its art, the more you'll appreciate the society that created it. I hope you've enjoyed our sweep through the highlights of the Florentine Renaissance. And, from this Italian springboard, this cultural explosion spread throughout Europe. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin'!