Journey to Italy: Renaissance Transitions

The transition towards representing human emotions in artwork that occurred during the Renaissance, such as that seen in forms of Madonna and David, displays the crucial importance of the individual in this art period, not only that of individualized artistic styles but also that of the idea that individuals could personally relate to a piece of art.

The differences between Gothic and Renaissance representations of human emotion in depictions of the Madonna are juxtaposed in a single room of the Uffizi Gallery, apparent in the Maesta of Cimabue and Giotto. Cimabue’s Maesta highlights prominent aspects of a Gothic style, emphasizing gold detailing and surface patterns, while remaining dimensionally flat. The Madonna herself seems very rigid, unhappy, and unwelcoming for such a motherly figure. Her facial structure and expression is nearly replicated in the six identical angels surrounding her. This Gothic Maesta was religiously commissioned and, thus, not intended to communicate personally with the viewer, but to enshrine the image of the Madonna, elevating the spiritual world to a level unreachable by a commoner. Giotto’s Maesta of 1311 depicts a drastically different, more human side to the Madonna. This Renaissance figure possesses a much softer, more feminine facial expression, as well as swollen breasts, realistic traits for a character meant to convey maternalism. Madonna’s sweet, archaic smile reveals buck teeth, exposing her flawed, human nature underneath a high spiritual level.

In addition to seeming overall welcoming, Giotto’s Madonna is further brought down to a relatable level through the style of naturalism. The perspective of her chair is 3-dimensional and the cloth over her knees seems to fall naturally, while the older Maesta is flat, unlike the natural world. The many figures around the Madonna look at her with varying expressions, just as individuals in a true setting would not have identical faces. The use of naturalism sets the individual style of Giotto apart from that of Cimabue, while also presenting the Madonna in a more life-like, and thus, more relatable setting, allowing a commoner to find more than just symbolic meaning in the artwork.

Although Donatello is of the Renaissance period, the progressions throughout the era of individualized artistic style and human connection to art are distinguishable in the comparison between the Davids by Donatello and Michelangelo. Donatello’s David of 1440 is seen in the moments after the battle with Goliath, as represented by David‘s confident foot resting atop the giant’s severed head. David looks young, with a supple, nearly feminine, S-curve figure, suggesting that God played the largest role in orchestrating his victory. He is in the nude, but wearing fancy sandals and flamboyant helmet, portraying a sense of vanity and boastful triumph, rather than the expected relief at the conclusion of such a difficult battle. Conversely, Michelangelo’s David depicts the warrior before the battle commences and, consequently, a starkly different, more relatable image. Finished in 1504, this David, though classically-inspired, reveals his human side through visible emotions. His furrowed brow, clenched buttock, and turning away in his contrapposto position, suggest a self-consciousness and apprehension about his undetermined fate. The commoners of Florence, identifying themselves as underdogs, would have related to this David‘s messages of perseverance, wariness, and hard-earned victory. Michelangelo’s cognizance of human anatomy, accurately represented in detail and altered only to emphasize a specific quality or emotion, effectively revealed his figures’ souls within, making his art both unique and also relatable.

The period of the Renaissance shifted art from the world of symbolism to naturalism, in which figures and scenery were depicted realistically. Perspective was shown 3-dimensionally, vulnerable human emotions were emphasized, and the human body was shown more accurately. Depicting scenes from the spiritual world on a more basic level, on which the characters revealed flaws and souls, art throughout this period progressed the notion of the individual. Not only did artists have more freedom to develop individual artistic styles, but the commoner could relate to art on a personal level.

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