The Ideal of the Circle in Renaissance Art

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  • 0:01 The Renaissance Circle
  • 1:02 The Circle in Architecture
  • 2:24 The Circle in Art
  • 3:44 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 how the circle was idealized as the perfect shape by Renaissance artists and discover how it was incorporated into their art and architecture. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

The Renaissance Circle

Draw a circle. There you go. You have mastered Renaissance art. Ok, it's not quite that simple.

The Renaissance was a period of incredible artistic production from the late 14th century to the early 16th century, centered mainly in Italy. Renaissance art was defined by a series of characteristics, but one of the major ones was a reinvigoration of Classical forms, meaning the artistic styles of ancient Greece and Rome.

One of the fundamental beliefs of ancient Greek and Roman artists was that beauty was derived from ideal, geometric ratios and proportions. This meant that Classical art and architecture were often built around ideal geometric shapes, an idea that Renaissance artists heavily picked up on. The most basic of these shapes, and in many ways the most important, is the circle.

The Circle in Architecture

The circle was very important in Renaissance architecture, especially Ecclesiastic architecture, meaning church-related. The Renaissance was a time of intense religious fervor, so many new churches were built, and to create a sense of harmony, balance, and logic, architects looked to the circle. Not only is a circle perfectly balanced and symmetrical from any position, it was also seen as a representation of perfection. Think about it. With no corners, no weak points, and complete symmetry, the circle is a perfect shape. Perfection equals holiness, so the circle was almost divine to Renaissance architects.

Pazzi Chapel of the Basilica di Santa Croce in Florence plans
Circle in Architecture

A great example of this is in the Pazzi Chapel of the Basilica di Santa Croce in Florence. Designed by architect Filippo Brunelleschi in the mid 15th century, this chapel reflects ideal geometric symmetry in nearly every way. Check out the plans for this chapel, above. Any shapes jump out at you? The Pazzi Chapel is designed around the square and the circle, creating a balanced, logical, and calmly rational space. The center of the chapel is a circle, and every other part is designed in relationship to that.

The Circle in Art

The circle as an ideal shape was also applied to art. Like architecture, human figures were considered to have ideal proportions, and those proportions were represented through geometrical ratios. The circle once again appeared as a way to create perfect balance and symmetry in both the figures and the overall composition.

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