In keeping with the spirit of humanism, artists of the early Renaissance strove to portray lifelike human forms with correct proportions and realistic clothing and expressions. Artists developed new techniques to give paintings a more three-dimensional, life-like quality, and commonly studied human and animal anatomy in efforts to better understand their subjects.
The first important painter of the Renaissance was Giotto di Bondone. Giotto painted during the turn of the fourteenth century, breaking away from the Gothic and Byzantine artistic traditions. He deeply studied nature in an effort to infuse his paintings with reality, an effort most notable in his especially realistic facial expressions. In 1334, Giotto was appointed chief architect in Florence, where he remained until his death in 1337. Giotto's innovations made in the portrayal of perspective were improved upon by a later painter, Tommaso Guidi, known as Masaccio (Messy Tom) because of his disheveled appearance. Masaccio is credited with mastering perspective, and was the first Renaissance artist to paint models in the nude, often using light and shadow to define the shape of his models rather than clear lines. Masaccio's best known work is a scene from the Bible called The Tribute Money. Furthering the accomplishments of his predecessors, Sandro Botticelli emerges as a dominant artist during the early Renaissance. One of a circle of artists and scholars sponsored by the Medici in Florence, Botticelli's most famous work, The Birth of Venus, shows the goddess rising from the sea on a conch shell. During the late fifteenth century Botticelli became a follower of the Girolamo Savonarola, and burned many of his paintings with pagan themes.
The Merchants and city officials whose patronage supported the Renaissance artists were frequently more interested in architecture than they were in painting. Therefore, as the city-states of Italy began to develop great wealth during the early fifteenth century, architects and sculptors rose to fame and power. In 1401, Florence held a competition to choose the artist to design and sculpt a pair of bronze doors for the Baptistry, a church honoring St. Paul the Baptist. The winner of the contest, Lorenzo Ghiberti, spent 28 years completing the doors, which, decorated with scenes from the Bible, remain one of the greatest treasures of the Renaissance. Ghiberti developed the techniques of three-dimensional sculpture, and greatly influenced all Italian sculpture of the Renaissance.
The loser of the contest, Filippo Brunelleschi, traveled to Rome, where he studied Roman ruins and developed mathematical formulas to be used in architecture. In 1417 he again competed against Ghiberti for the right to design the dome of the cathedral of Florence. He won the competition. The dome he designed, combining the modern trends in architecture and the style of ancient Rome, still dominates the Florentine skyline, and is considered one of the great architectural masterpieces of all time. In terms of sculpture, the acknowledged master of the early Renaissance was Donato di Niccolo di Betto Bardi, better known as Donatello. Donatello studied under both Ghiberti and Brunelleschi, and went on to create several masterpieces for Cosimo de Medici in Florence. His most important work is the David, which depicts the Hebrew king in the classical style of a Greek god, and was the first freestanding nude figure sculpted since the Roman era. Donatello went on to create the first bronze statue of the Renaissance, showing an incredibly realistic soldier on horseback.
During the Renaissance, artists benefited from the patronage of rich merchants and rulers, and were well known during their own times, unlike the anonymous artists who had produced works in guilds during the middle ages. Great fame and influence was conferred upon the great artists of the day, and they were celebrated wherever they traveled. This fame convinced many artists that they deserved special privileges and consideration, which they were often granted.
The artists of the early Renaissance were both liberated by the patronage of the wealthy and constricted in their choice of subject matter. Despite the changes wrought by humanism, the Italian population remained, more than anything else, highly religious. Wealthy patrons most often commissioned works of art that were in some way related to the Catholic Church, to which the wealthy often donated grand cathedrals. Altarpieces and religious murals were common among the works created during the early Renaissance, and artists were often confined to the Bible in choosing their own subject matter. Nevertheless, artists experienced great freedom to develop new techniques and work with new materials, as can be seen by the groundbreaking work of Giotto and Ghiberti.
Botticelli's experience was indicative of the tension all Renaissance artists felt between traditional values, represented by the Church, and the progressive (and simultaneously antiquarian) nature of Renaissance art. Botticelli was fascinated by the ideology of Neoplatonism, which sought to blend the teachings and traditions of Plato with the teachings of Christianity. Art historians claim that The Birth of Venus is a clear example of applied Neoplatonism. It has been described as "an allegory of the innocence and truth of the human soul naked to the winds of passion and about to be clothed in the robe of reason." Like Botticelli, the artistic community often attempted to align its ideals of learning, reason, and self-expression with religious dogma. Yet as can be seen in the example of Botticelli, the alignment was not easy: the two ways of thought often seemed antithetical and irreconcilable. The constant desire to conform to the doctrines of the Church, along with the persistence of religious themes in Renaissance art, is a testament to the continuing importance of the Church in Renaissance culture.
Despite the similarities to medieval art surrounding subject matter, there can be no doubt that that Renaissance artists broke the static mold of medieval art. What is most remarkable about the art of the Renaissance is the constant evolution of techniques and materials, with each generation of artists building upon the accomplishments of the last. While technique, style, and materials stayed relatively constant throughout much of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance was a period of rapid change and development. Giotto was the first Renaissance artist to dabble in the techniques of perspective. His methods and ideas changed the face of art significantly, but no sooner had they been studied and absorbed by the artistic community than Masaccio and others built upon and improved the techniques. Similarly, Ghiberti and Brunelleschi pushed each other through competition to new artistic heights. Donatello studied under each of the older masters and incorporated the developments they contributed to the art form with his own talents and ideas, producing the most admired works of the era. This rapid evolution and the continuing advance of artistic techniques and talent was one of the primary characteristics of the Renaissance.