The Italian Renaissance style was not just made up of allusions and illusions; it was also built upon a specific set of terms – a language used by artists and patrons to describe procedures, methods, and effects. These terms have been handed down to us, largely unchanged and we can sometimes encounter unfamiliar terms or phrases. Understanding this specialized vocabulary can greatly enhance our comprehension of the lexicon and the artworks themselves, as the techniques used and the resulting works are often interlinked.
This article serves more as an illustrated, abridged encyclopedia than a mere glossary. It aims to clarify some of the key terms that have shaped the art of the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
Fresco painting, also known as a fresco from its etymological roots, is a mural technique that applies pigments ground in water onto a layer of wet plaster. As the plaster meets the air, it dries and hardens, encapsulating the colors within a durable and cohesive surface. The term fresco also refers to artworks created using this method, like those by Beato Angelico on the walls of the Monastero in Florence, now the Museo di San Marco, which was his home for the majority of his life.
An ancient technique, evidenced by numerous examples in Pompei and Ercolano, fresco painting demanded swift execution with wide, overlapping color applications.
The Middle Ages brought refined practices for more precise drawings and realistic volume depictions, later structured into a formalized approach. This approach segmented work based on time rather than space, meaning the plaster prepared for pigment application was measured by the day’s work, not by the area covered. This allowed painters to focus on completing specific sections each day, enhancing precision.
Surface preparation was crucial, reflecting the intricate and sensitive nature of the technique’s evolution. The wall of choice was initially coated with a base plaster layer, known as arriccio, a blend of two parts sand to one part lime, enhancing paint adherence.
From the mid-14th century, the spolvero technique emerged, involving preliminary sketches on perforated cardboard. Pressed against the wall and dusted with charcoal, it left a dotted outline for the artist to follow, which could be reused across different sections of the fresco or across multiple works.
Giotto stands as a seminal figure in the a fresco technique, with stunning examples of his work still viewable throughout Italy, including the Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi and the Cappella Scrovegni in Padua.
During the Renaissance, light emerged as a pivotal element in defining the form and essence of both living beings and objects, transforming into an essential means of artistic expression. The dimensionality of subjects, animate or inanimate, was captured through light. Renowned masters such as Raffaello Sanzio, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo Buonarroti, and particularly Michelangelo Merisi, better known as Caravaggio, embraced chiaroscuro to achieve this effect.
Chiaroscuro, true to its name, is the interplay of light and shadow to mimic the impact of light on a subject, independent of the actual colors used.
One can observe a sublime example of subtle chiaroscuro in the Madonna del Granduca by Raffaello, currently displayed at the Galleria Palatina in Palazzo Pitti. This piece is celebrated for its delicate interplay of light and dark, which skillfully outlines the contours of the figures, lending them a lifelike roundness.
Chiasmus or contrapposto
The term chiasmus, derived from the Greek for cross, refers to a cross-like arrangement that was a hallmark of classical sculpture and became more pronounced during the Renaissance and Mannerist periods. It involves positioning the human body in a counterpoise of alternating tense and relaxed limbs. For instance, a stretched right arm might be paired with a left leg in motion, while the left arm and right leg remain static, or the reverse. This method injects the figures with dynamism and a robust expressive quality. It is seen in measured elegance in the David by Donatello currently on view at the Museo Nazionale del Bargello, and in the grandeur of Michelangelo‘s version at the Galleria dell’Accademia. Michelangelo particularly embraced and amplified contrapposto, exemplified by his Notte sculpture in the Sagrestia Nuova in San Lorenzo in Florence, where the chiasmus imbues the form with a compelling energy, further accentuated by the play of light.
Giorgio Vasari, in his Vite describes grotesques as whimsical and ludicrous paintings created by the ancients to embellish spaces suited only for the fantastical. They fashioned an array of oddities inspired by the peculiarities of nature and the artists’ own flights of fancy, unconstrained by any rules. In these works, absurdities abound, such as a horse with leafy legs or a man with the legs of a crane, along with a plethora of playful trivialities and birds. The more bizarrely one could envision these scenes, the more acclaim they received.
Vasari’s description helps to pinpoint some of the typical features of this decorative motif that was cherished during the Renaissance and later in Baroque art.
The term ‘grotesque’ itself has a historical lineage, originating from the word grotte which was used by 16th century artists to refer to semi-subterranean ruins of classical antiquity in Rome and Naples. The rediscovery of the Domus Aurea and similar domus revealed wall decorations in stucco or fresco that featured plant life, fantastical creatures, and odd vignettes in a style that was intricate, animated, and somewhat pretentious.
These motifs, evident since the 14th century, were increasingly applied in sculpture across the following centuries, marked by lively and sophisticated designs. Raffaello Sanzio was instrumental in the resurgence of this style, and Vasari himself was both a keen proponent and a creator of grotesques.
For a contemporary exploration and appreciation of Renaissance grotesques, a visit to the Uffizi is indispensable. Within the corridoio del Levante linking the Galleria degli Uffizi and Palazzo Vecchio, one can still see 46 of the 98 spans that Grand Duke Francesco I de’ Medici commissioned in 1581 to be adorned with grotesque style frescoes by the workshops of Antonio Tempesta and Alessandro Allori. This extensive and complex allegorical ornamentation is a testament to the gallery’s status as one of the museum’s most remarkable features.
Linear perspective, a concept we might now consider elementary, was a groundbreaking Renaissance discovery. Credited largely to Filippo Brunelleschi and elaborated by Leon Battista Alberti in his 1436 treatise De Pictura, this method marked a pivotal turn in art history. Rooted in meticulous mathematical calculations, it enabled painters to convincingly depict three-dimensional space on a flat surface.
Brunelleschi’s key innovation was the establishment of a vanishing point, a singular perspective that anchors the viewer’s gaze. During the planning stages of a painting, artists would draw orthogonal lines from this point to map out the scene’s composition. To achieve a credible illusion of depth, the size of objects and characters would be scaled based on their proximity to this focal point, with closer elements appearing smaller and those further away, larger.
This technique transformed the creative landscape of the Renaissance, giving artists a new way to express depth and dimension.
Masaccio was among the first to embrace Brunelleschi’s approach, applying it to his renowned Trinità fresco in Florence’s Santa Maria Novella church. Paolo Uccello‘s dynamic compositions, like the Battaglia di San Romano at the Uffizi, and Piero della Francesca‘s precise geometries soon followed suit.Andrea Mantegna, meanwhile, took linear perspective into the realm of the illusionistic, masterfully blending the painted environment with the real space to such a degree that it challenges the viewer to discern where one ends and the other begins.
Sfumato, a technique that softens transitions on a painted surface using a finger or cloth, is another remarkable contribution to art by Leonardo da Vinci. Like many of his revolutionary techniques, sfumato stemmed from Leonardo’s detailed, scientific study of the natural world, which lacks the sharp outlines often seen in the art of his time.
Leonardo avoided distinct lines that artificially defined features, opting instead for a subtle veil created by unfinished sketches and gentle blending with his fingers. This approach preserved the tangible essence of forms and the realism of shadows, rendering figures with a softness and realism that were truer to life.
Leonardo’s pursuit of realism also led him to develop aerial perspective, recognizing that the atmosphere isn’t perfectly clear but has a color that shifts with humidity and distance. This is evident in the mountainous backgrounds of his paintings, most famously in the Monna Lisa, where the mountains appear sharper and browner up close and fade into misty blue with distance. This technique of atmospheric perspective is also masterfully displayed in the Annunciazione by Leonardo, now housed in the Galleria degli Uffizi.
Stiacciato or flattened relief
The interplay between painting and sculpture has historically been fluid, often leading to sculptures that lean towards the painterly, flattening into what can be described as a near-pictorial effect.
In this dance of art forms, bas-relief sculpture is sometimes so subtly rendered that it nearly vanishes into the background. The Renaissance coined a specific term for this nuanced effect is “stiacciato,” meaning flattened. Artists using this technique aimed to incorporate Brunelleschi’s innovations in perspective into their sculptural work, creating figures set against an incredibly thin backdrop.
Donatello pioneered this method with his marble predella of San Giorgio, commissioned by the Arte di Calimala for the church of Orsanmichele in Florence. There, he crafted a bas-relief of such fine detail that the figures seem to be defined more by light than by marble – a testament to the artist’s skill and creativity, and a sight best appreciated in person at the Museo del Bargello in Florence.
Interestingly, our journey through Renaissance art terminology concludes with the letter ‘S’, a letter that has long defined the representation of the human form in Gothic and medieval art. Yet, as the 15th and 16th centuries progressed, this representation evolved, marking a shift in artistic spirit and style.
This evolution is a discovery to be made among the Italian, and particularly in Florence, museum collections, where the spirit of Renaissance innovation continues to resonate.