Development of Illusionism from Giotto to Mantegna

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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 development and use of illusionism in Renaissance art across the late 14th and 15th centuries. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Masters of Illusion

Today, we are going to go see a magic show. Now, the thing about stage magic is that you always know it's not real. It's an illusion. But the illusion is so convincing that you are willing to accept it, willing to let it blow your mind. Where did that rabbit come from? How did he know my card? Holy cow, did he just cut that girl in half and put her back together? How did he do that?

Well, if illusion is magic, then the artists of the Italian Renaissance were some of the greatest magicians in history. From the 14th through 15th centuries, Renaissance artists developed techniques to master the illusion of 3-dimensional space on a 2-dimensional surface, which is called perspective. So if you really want to see the greatest show on earth, look no further. The Renaissance painters were the true masters of illusion.

Illusionistic Art of the 14th Century

For our first show, we're stopping by 14th-century Italy. Now, Italian painters had been experimenting with more realistic artwork since the late 13th century, but it first really came together with the work of this man.

Title cover for Giotto de Bondone

Giotto di Bondone was a Florentine painter who reintroduced realistic styles to painting in the early 14th century. This is a work of Giotto's. This is a painting by his teacher, Cimabue. What's the first notable difference you see? The background, right? Giotto not only reintroduced realistic settings, but also made them a fundamental part of his compositions and designed his subjects to interact with their environments.

Side-by-side paintings by Bondone and Cimabue

The crowning moment in Giotto's career as an illusionist is often considered to be the Arena Chapel, a series of frescos completed around 1305. This is starkly different from anything Europe had seen before. Check out the Lamentation scene of the series. See how the angels twist and turn? The proportioning of objects or bodies to reflect depth is called foreshortening; it means that the parts that are further away appear smaller than the parts that are closer.

Lamentation scene from Arena Chapel frescos

Artists throughout the 14th century picked up on Giotto's illusionism and developed their own styles. One of the notable illusionists was Pietro Lorenzetti, an artist from Siena. Lorenzetti is one of the first artists to have mastered a new illusion called linear perspective, which is the illusion of depth by converging all lines onto a single point. Let's see this in action with his Birth of the Virgin, painted in 1342. Look at the lines on the bed, the patterns on the floor, and even the corners of the ceiling. All of the lines recede in the same direction, drawing the eye in to the painting and creating a realistic sense of depth.

Birth of the Virgin, by Pietro Lorenzetti

Art and Illusion in the 15th Century

Well, that was a fun introduction, but now we get into the real show. The 15th century is when the Renaissance really took off and artists devoted themselves to the illusions of art. The first illusionist we're going to see here is actually a sculptor by the name of Lorenzo Ghiberti. His gilded reliefs for the East Doors of the Florence Cathedral Baptistery show a new level of realistic illusionism with linear perspective. In fact, some people call these doors the start of the Renaissance.

Door panels by Ghiberti

Ghiberti was good, but the real master of perspective was his rival, Filippo Brunelleschi. Through a series of experiments using mirrors to paint images, Brunelleschi officially codified linear perspective, using exact, geometric formulas to define the relationship between lines to create a uniform illusion of depth. This was the creation of true perspective; unfortunately, his paintings that first demonstrated this have not survived.

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