Important Works of Fifteenth-Century Italian Artists

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  • 0:01 The Italian Renaissance
  • 0:35 Sculpture in the 15th Century
  • 2:50 Painting in the 15th Century
  • 5:20 Lesson Summary
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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 some of the major works of Italian art from the 15th century and discover what characteristics they share. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

The Italian Renaissance

How do you get to know a century? That's a big period of time; a lot can happen in a century. Well, one way to understand a century is through its art. And there are few centuries that are better understood through their art than Italy in the 15th century. During the 1400s, Italy was entering into a new era of immense artistic production known as the Renaissance. Art ended up defining the 15th century, as artists strove to perfect new styles and techniques. In fact, you can pretty much understand the entire century just by exploring their art.

Sculpture in the 15th Century

The Italian Renaissance was really kicked off right at the beginning of the 15th century, when the city of Florence sponsored a competition for sculptors to design the gilded east doors of the baptistery of the Florence cathedral. The winner was Lorenzo Ghiberti, whose depiction of the 'Sacrifice of Isaac' reintroduced a graceful sense of posing that was unheard of since the Classical civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome.

A decade later, another project was announced, this time for Florence's public building the 'Orsanmichele.' Several sculptors contributed to filling the niches of the building with statues, but one stands out above the rest. This is Saint Mark by Donatello, completed around 1413.

Saint Mark sculpture

This life-sized marble statue, like Ghiberti's doors, relied on Classical styles, particularly the realistic weight shift onto one leg called the contrapposto stance. Donatello's statue set a new level of achievement for 15th century sculpture, which strove to emulate Classical styles. Donatello took this one step further with his David, commissioned for Florence sometime between 1440 and 1460. Not only is this one of the first full-sized freestanding bronzes in centuries, it also reintroduced the male nude, which had disappeared with the fall of Rome. Donatello's David is graceful, youthful and idealized, more closely resembling a Greek god than Hebrew teenager.

Sculpture took off in the early 15th century, and it wasn't about to slow down. By 1425, Ghiberti was back at work designing another set of doors for the Baptistery of the Florence Cathedral. In fact, his first doors were moved so that this new masterpiece could grace the prestigious east doors.


Look at these panels - see that realistic illusion of spatial depth, despite the low level of relief? Donatello had practiced with applying this to reliefs before, but Ghiberti's doors are the first pieces to truly master it. This was a uniquely Renaissance style, never fully perfected by the Romans, that showed the 15th century obsession with perfection. There was a right way, a perfect way, to depict ideal figures and spaces, and the Renaissance artists were going to find it.

Painting in the 15th Century

Renaissance Italians loved art, and that did not stop at sculpture. Painting was a huge part of the 15th century as well. Italian painters, like sculptors, began creating more realistic figures and spaces, using illusions like perspective, the uniform appearance of objects receding into the distance. The artist Masaccio was one of the early masters of this. Around 1427, he completed a series of commissions in the Brancacci Chapel in Florence. This one, Tribute Money, displays his skills.

Tribute Money

The lighting, color and use of lines create a well-organized, narrative scene with realistic figures and space. Italian painters became obsessed with perfecting the illusion of perspective. This is Annunciation, painted by Fra Angelico around 1447.


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