Perceptions of beauty in Renaissance art
By Neil Haughton
Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, Vol.3 (2004)
Abstract: The Renaissance was a cultural revolution that spread from Florence, in 1400, throughout Italy and into the rest of Europe. Its impetus was the philosophy of Humanism, which strove to resurrect and emulate the literature and art of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Artists had previously been limited to formulaic religious iconography. They now began to reproduce descriptions of classical paintings and copy the antique statues that were being newly rediscovered.
The Renaissance artist’s perception of beauty was therefore determined by his philosophical environment, his visual experience (the ‘period eye’), the demands of his patrons and by attempts to enhance his professional status in society to equal that of poets and architects. The image of Venus portrayed by Botticelli as the idealization of beauty in Renaissance Florence is significantly different from the Venus portrayed by the German artist, Lucas Cranach. The northern European Venus is much less voluptuous than her Italian counterpart but is still inspired by humanist principals and retains considerable sexuality. Raphael’s paintings epitomise the idealization of female beauty of this period but, by his own admission they were rarely based on real models. Often the same facial type was repeated in many different paintings. Indeed Renaissance portrait artists tended to avoid realistic interpretation, emphasizing instead the positive attributes of their subjects, both physical and political. Thus, Bronzino’s Portrait of a Young Man not only depicts his subject’s idealized appearance but also his scholarship, background and potential.
The depiction of beauty in Renaissance art is shown to be more complex than a mere photograph-like representation of sexuality or of a person’s physical appearance. Instead, Renaissance art created physically perfect images resulting from scholarly expectation, the artist’s ambitions and his developing skills.
The setting is Florence in the closing years of the 15th century. Many would easily recognize the proud streets and piazzas, which have changed little in 500 years. Since around 1400 however, the cultural climate of Florence had changed with global consequences, as the new learning of the Renaissance spread like a tidal wave across Europe and beyond. Italy was rising out of the Dark Ages and into a new Roman Empire, where the arts and philosophy of the classical world were actively studied and incorporated into modern life. This inspired a new breed of progressive and innovative artists, who constantly strove to improve their art and to emulate the ancients. Brunelleschi (1377–1446) had crowned their cathedral with the largest dome since ancient times in 1436, and Donatello (1386–1466) had rediscovered the art of bronze and marble sculpture. Masaccio (1401–28) finally mastered the science of perspective, and Alberti (1404–72) had set down the principles of Renaissance art and architecture in his groundbreaking works, On Painting (1435) and On Architecture (1450). The philosophy of Humanism was based on the reinterpretation of pagan classical literature and philosophy to comply with contemporary Catholic beliefs, and the depiction of classical mythology provided a more ambitious vehicle for the artist than purely devotional subjects. Obviously, such an atmosphere of innovation and creation required money, and immensely rich banking families like the Medici were keen to ensure their influence and immortality by patronizing the greatest artists of the day. Against this background, the young Michelangelo (1475–1564) and Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) were apprenticed and their artistic prowess developed.