15th-Century Italian Art: Greek, Roman & Classical Influences

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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore the influences of ancient Greek and Roman art on Renaissance artists and architects. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Influences

So, by this point, I think we all know that peer pressure is bad. But that doesn't mean that we don't have things that influence us. This is very true in art, as well. The artists of the Renaissance in 15th-century Italy were particularly influenced by the civilizations of ancient Rome and Greece, called the Classical civilizations.

15th-century Italians saw the classical civilizations as the foundation of all European heritage and tried to emulate their political systems, knowledge and arts. But there's a fine line between 'Hey Donatello, use Classical art as a source of inspiration' and 'Well, Donatello, if the ancient Greeks and Romans jumped off a bridge, would you do it too?' Fifteenth-century Italian artists used Classical styles and knowledge, but used it to create a unique tradition of art that was all their own.

Classical & Renaissance Figures

As Italian artists began reading the works of the Classical masters and studying their art, their sculpture was one of the first areas to be influenced. Donato di Niccolo Bardi, more commonly known as Donatello, was one of the key figures in reintroducing Greco-Roman themes to carved figures. Check out this statue by Donatello of Saint Mark. Notice the bend of the leg and hip, resting weight on one side? In art, that's called contrapposto, and it was one of the most important styles developed by the Ancient Greeks, used to create figures with realistic balance. The continual focus on creating realistic figures throughout the 15th century influenced both sculpture and painting, as each strove to perfect the human form.

Artists during the Renaissance used the contrapposto stance to create more realistic figures
Saint Mark, by Donatello

Donatello wasn't finished with his statue of St. Mark. Between 1440 and 1460, he also created this image of David. This was a major moment in Renaissance art. Not only is this the first full-sized free-standing bronze statue made in centuries, Donatello also reintroduced the use of the male nude. Since the fall of Rome, the human body had become seen as idolatrous in art, so this is a major change that revitalized the Classical admiration in the human form. By the end of the 15th century, idealized nude figures were common in painting and sculpture.

David, a bronze by Donatello
Bronze David, by Donatello

Classical & Renaissance Architecture

Just as painting and sculpture were reinvigorated with the use of Classical styles and forms, so was architecture. Renaissance architects studied the buildings of ancient Greece and Rome, and read the Classical treatises on the subject. Leon Battista Alberti published a series of books in the 15th century that discussed the modern use of Classical architectural forms, including the use of basic geometric shapes and ideal ratios to create balanced, harmonious structures.

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