The word 'Renaissance' is a French term first coined in the 19th century to describe the intellectual and artistic revival, inspired by a renewed study of Classical literature and art, which began in Italy in the early 14th century and reached its culmination in the early 16th century, having spread in the meantime to other parts of Europe. The equivalent Italian term is Rinascimento. The concept enshrined in the word 'Renaissance' is actually one of rebirth rather than revival and carries with it the loaded, and absolutely discredited, argument that the Middle Ages was a dead period intellectually and artistically. Such a view effectively renders Byzantine, Romanesque and Gothic art as being without aesthetic value. Though this position is untenable, the term 'Renaissance' is useful in so far as it denotes a view that was held by contemporary, especially Italian, thinkers and because the period covered by the term, in the leading artistic centres of Italy, exhibits a growing preoccupation with a coherent set of values based on antique Classical models.
It was Petrarch (1304-74) who first evoked the complementary images of the prevailing darkness of the Middle Ages, when the intellectual achievements of the Classical world had been forgotten, and the subsequent illumination of his own period following their rediscovery by scholars such as himself. Thus, the renewal of interest in the antique was first and foremost an intellectual and literary revival. The importance of Classical texts to the development of the visual arts was their inherent view of a world with man at the centre. Also, references to the arts in the antique world revealed that artists were valued for their ability to represent nature with great fidelity and that, furthermore, they enjoyed a higher status than their medieval counterparts. Thus, the beginnings of Renaissance art in Italy should be recognizable by seeking out not only those artists who adopted motifs or borrowed models from antiquity, but also those who sought to represent the human figure and the material world more naturalistically than had their predecessors.
Until the 20th century the generally accepted model for the development of the artistic Renaissance was that constructed by Vasari, writing in 1550. He gave to Giotto the credit for the rebirth of art after centuries of barbarism and structured his chronological model like the ages of man, with Giotto and his immediate heirs as representing the infancy of art; Masaccio, Brunelleschi, Donatello and Ghiberti as the experimental youth; and Leonardo, Raphael and Michelangelo as the perfected maturity. Although notions of rebirth (and the previous death the term implies) and artistic progress are now rejected, and although it is recognized that Vasari was above all a Florentine writer structuring history in Florentine terms in order to set the scene for his friend and idol, the Florentine all-round artist, Michelangelo, Vasari's account is useful in that it does reflect what is a perceptible movement away from an art based on conventionalized representations of a supernatural reality towards an increasing technical expertise (in which Florence mostly led the way) in the representation of a visually convincing and rationally ordered natural world. The subject matter was still preponderantly sacred, but Christ and the saints were now conceived with more corporeality, and increasingly not in an ethereal Heaven, but at the centre of the physical world.
If we accept Vasari's implication that Giotto was a Renaissance artist we should also be aware that he was in fact preceded by a non-Florentine, the sculptor, Nicola Pisano. Both artists imbue the human figure with a new power, dignity and gravity; and, furthermore, Pisano quotes directly from antique Roman sarcophagi, thus fulfilling the second requirement for a true Renaissance artist. Unfortunately, the following century does not present an ordered development from the achievements of these two figures and it is more usual today to agree with Alberti (writing in 1435) that the artistic Renaissance of Italy actually began in Florence in the early 15th century. The strength of this model is that what follows in Florence and in all those centres affected by Florentine art, presents a largely coherent artistic development throughout the century.
Brunelleschi, placed by Alberti in the vanguard of the new art, was the first architect to go beyond the arbitrary usage of the vocabulary (i.e. the recognizable motifs) of Classical buildings towards a perception of the underlying grammar (the order and harmony created by the rational proportional relationships of part to part and part to whole). Brunelleschi also seems to have made the earliest experiments in single point linear perspective and may have advised Masaccio in its possibilities for constructing a rationally ordered picture space. Certainly the fictive architecture in Masaccio's Trinity (c. 1428, Florence, Sta Maria Novella) is Brunelleschian. The earliest surviving use of linear perspective, however, is in Donatello's St. George and the Dragon relief (c. 1417, Florence, Or San Michele). Of the sculptors that looked towards Classical models, Donatello, like Brunelleschi with his architecture, was the one that most clearly understood the underlying spirit of Classicism. Throughout the 15th century (today usually designated the 'Early Renaissance'), Florentine artists were at the forefront of investigations into the representation of the natural world. To some, one particular area of investigation or another might take precedence: to Uccello it was the underlying geometry of form and the organizational possibilities of perspective and to Antonio Pollaiuolo, anatomy. Another hallmark of the Renaissance is that although the overwhelming majority of commissions were still sacred there was also, as the century progressed, a growth in lay patronage requiring portraits and other secular images, particularly those dealing with themes from Classical mythology.
The first quarter of the 16th century is generally termed the 'High Renaissance'. It is the period when the leading artists had sufficient technical expertise to achieve virtually any naturalistic effect they wished, coupled with a controlling, Classically-based intelligence which imposed visual harmony and compositional balance while eliminating gratuitous detail. Although most of the leading protagonists were Florentine - Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael - the centre of production had shifted to Rome (where these three men worked) and to Venice, where Bellini, Giorgione and Titian were creating their own High Renaissance style. The most important architect of the High Renaissance, whose buildings were the first to be considered as having fully recaptured the grandeur of ancient Rome, was Bramante.
It was not until this period that Italian Renaissance ideals began to spread in a significant way north of the Alps, Durer being the first northern artist to fully assimilate the ideals of the Renaissance into his work. Increasingly, from the 16th century onwards, northern artists would finish their artistic education by visiting Italy. Foreign rulers and states also sought to buy in Italian artists, but from the 1520s Mannerism had supplanted the High Renaissance style and thus in France, for example, direct Italian influence in the 16th century is essentially Mannerist (e.g. Francis I's School of Fontainebleau). Nevertheless, Mannerist art is inconceivable without the Classical ideals of the Renaissance (whether to flout deliberately or to exaggerate) and those ideals continued to exert a powerful influence on artists, alongside the art of Classical antiquity, as the supreme exemplar up until the second half of the 19th century and the advent of Realism and Impressionism.