Italian Renaissance art is defined by a reappraisal of subject matter that coincides with its etymology: renaissance denotes a “rebirth.” (Spielvogel, 40) Accordingly, Renaissance artists looked to a past beyond the Middle Ages, and were thus drawn into an encounter with Ancient Greek and Roman Art. In these forms of arts, it is arguably the human body that becomes the most important subject: Italian Renaissance art is thus characterized by a return to the human form as opposed to the ideal form. Classical examples of Renaissance art, such as Michelangelo’s David, attribute a power to the human form that was absent in the Middle Ages’ theological venerations of God. The artist of the Renaissance is above all dedicated to exalting the human body as opposed to some divine transcendent world. This concentration on depicting forms of the body influenced by pagan ideals of beauty clearly marks a distinctive break with the previous period.
However, at the same time, Renaissance art can also be conferred an idealistic spirit of its own. For example, “according to Burckhardt, the harmony of realism and idealism was the defining characteristic of the art and life of Renaissance Italy.” (Hinde, 261) This statement makes sense when we consider the types of human bodies portrayed in Renaissance art: they are ultimately idealized and perfect forms of the human body. Renaissance art is not interested in portraying human forms in their realism, but instead intends to realize the human body in a certain perfected state. Certainly, this can be considered to be an influence of the Middle Ages, with its emphasis on God and thus by definition perfection: however, the source of this inspiration is more likely the ancient Greek and Roman works of art which clearly also avoided realism in favor of idealized depictions of the human body, most prominently displayed in terms of their heroic sculpture.
In this same regard, perhaps another aspect of Renaissance art can be characterized in terms of this humanism, although in a different form: Renaissance art is investigating the potentialities of the human body. These artists are not overtly concerned with actual states of the human body, but wish to unlock its secret potential. This is the sense of humanism: it is not only an emphasis on the human being as subject matter, but also an emphasis on what are the utmost forms the human body can take. This is what differentiates Renaissance art’s humanism from the humanism of realism for example: it is a consideration of the potential versus the actual.
In this regard, the characteristics of Italian Renaissance art cannot be defined apart from its historical context. Exalting the human instead of God appears to be a key feature of this movement. But at the same time, this exaltation of the human does not mean a full-blown realism: following Burckhardt, it recalls an idealism of its own. Works of art dedicated to the idealized beauty of the human thus characterizes the Renaissance’s turn away from the religious idealism of the Middle Ages, yet without any sacrifice of realism itself.
Hinde, John R. Jacob Burckhardt and the Crisis of Modernity. Montreal: McGill-Queens Press, 2000.
Spielvogel, Jackson J. Western Civilization: To 1715. Belmont, CA: Cengage.