Florentine School of Art Emerges Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The emergence of the Florentine School of Art established the principal characteristics of Italian Renaissance art through the works of Donatello, Masaccio, and Filippo Brunelleschi.

Summary of Event

Although they built on foundations and developments in early Italian Renaissance art during the early fourteenth century, the work of three artists, Filippo Brunelleschi, Brunelleschi, Filippo Donatello Donatello , and Masaccio Masaccio , converged in the early fifteenth century to define the character of Italian Renaissance art Art;Florence and establish Florence as a leading artistic center. Because their work represented the major art forms—architecture for Brunelleschi, sculpture for Donatello, and painting for Masaccio—collectively, they articulated the principal ideals of Italian Renaissance art. Art;Renaissance [kw]Florentine School of Art Emerges (1410-1440) [kw]Art Emerges, Florentine School of (1410-1440) Florentine School of Art Italy;1410-1440: Florentine School of Art Emerges[3110] Cultural and intellectual history;1410-1440: Florentine School of Art Emerges[3110] Brunelleschi, Filippo Donatello Ghiberti, Lorenzo Masaccio

A famous competition of 1401 for the design of a pair of bronze doors for the baptistery of Florence was important for the emergence of Florentine art. The winner, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Ghiberti, Lorenzo narrowly defeated Filippo Brunelleschi, who then turned to architecture. Ghiberti’s assistant while working on the doors was Donatello. Thus, while Ghiberti’s doors were significant artistic achievements in their own right, they can also be said to have influenced the careers of Brunelleschi and Donatello.

When Brunelleschi lost the competition, he went to Rome to study the ancient architectural monuments. The subsequent architectural Architecture;Italy Italy;architecture projects that Brunelleschi designed in Florence are marked by a consistent application of harmonious geometrical proportions and the use of classically inspired architectural members and ornament.

The most famous of Brunelleschi’s architectural works is the dome of Florence cathedral, which was begun in 1420 and completed around 1436. As the largest dome since Roman times, its octagonal structure was composed of an inner and outer shell. The structural ingenuity combined with the simple, basic shapes point to the ideals that Brunelleschi’s architecture conveyed.

Because it was added to an earlier essentially Gothic structure, Brunelleschi’s dome did not reveal the full extent of his architectural innovations. Several buildings that he designed between 1420 and his death in 1446, however, demonstrate the classicism of his approach to architecture. In the Ospedale degli Innocenti (foundling hospital), an orphanage begun in 1419, the plan and elevation rely on modular proportions based on the geometrical system of the ancient Greek mathematician, Pythagoras, as revealed in the exterior arcade with its rhythmical row of arches supported on slender Corinthian columns. A similar use of proportion as well as nave arcades with rounded arches and Corinthian columns characterize two Florentine churches: San Lorenzo, which was begun sometime around 1425 and completed 1470, and Santo Spirito, which was designed in 1434-1436. In many ways, the most perfect structure that Brunelleschi designed was the Pazzi Chapel, the chapter house of the church of Santa Croce in Florence, begun in 1433. The plan focuses on a central square with the space of half a square to either side covered by a dome. The consistency of the proportional module and the centralized space give this structure a feeling of perfect balance and harmony that became a hallmark of Renaissance culture.

Donatello assisted Ghiberti but soon established himself as a sculptor. Sculpture;Italy Italy;sculpture Whereas Ghiberti’s reliefs were still marked by active diagonals in the compositional lines and sharp drapery folds that had a decorative quality reminiscent of the late Gothic style, Donatello’s early works such as the Saint George for one of the exterior niches of the Florentine guildhall of Orsanmichele portrayed a fully three-dimensional body whose taut form protrudes into the viewer’s space. A low relief of Saint George slaying the dragon just beneath this statue uses architectural forms with the kind of perspective that Brunelleschi constructed with his architecture.

Throughout a long career, Donatello combined several important features that characterized Renaissance art. First, he brought a three-dimensional corporeality to depictions of the human body. Second, his sculptures emanated a powerful psychological persona appropriate to the subject. Third, he revived several classical sculptural types such as the nude body and the equestrian statue. Finally, his technique of low relief utilized perspective to create a believable spatial context.

The three-dimensional reality of the human body combined with the idealistic beauty of the nude figure to produce a bronze sculpture of David David (Donatello) (c. 1450) for Cosimo de’s Medici. The unusual depiction of a nude David posed in classical contrapposto is the first freestanding nude sculpture since antiquity. In Padua, Donatello executed an equestrian statue of a condottiere, or soldier, nicknamed Gattamelata Gattamelata (Donatello) (c. 1445), which revives the Roman equestrian monument. Done in bronze, both horse and rider have a powerful physical presence. The individual personality that emerges from the portrait-quality of the soldier’s face also draws inspiration from Roman portrait sculpture.

Brunelleschi’s Dome in Florence, Italy.

(Digital Stock)

Part of Donatello’s genius was the ability to infuse many of his subjects with psychological insight. His prophets for Florence Cathedral emanate a striking sense of their calling. The large bald head and penetrating eyes of Habbakuk Habbakuk (Donatello) (c. 1430), give this prophet an intense inner character. Most startling is his wooden statue of Mary Magdalene carved in the last decade of his life; her gaunt face and body graphically portray spiritual strength through physical mortification.

Donatello continued to perfect the depiction of space using low relief that he pioneered in the early Saint George and the Dragon Saint George and the Dragon (Donatello) . He created the effects of aerial perspective with landscape elements as in a relief of the Ascension of Christ and the Giving of the Keys to Saint Peter Ascension of Christ and the Giving of the Keys to Saint Peter (Donatello) (c. 1425-1430). He used architectural perspective not only to convey three-dimensional space but also to unify several narrative scenes, for example in the gilt bronze relief of the Feast of Herod Feast of Herod (Donatello) done around 1425 for the font in the baptistery of Siena. Thus, in many forms, Donatello’s work epitomized the new directions in Renaissance art that focused on human qualities within a believable spatial setting.

Of the three artists whose work revolutionized not only Florentine but also Italian Renaissance art in general, Masaccio, the painter, was the youngest. He was born in a small town near Florence in 1401, the year that the competition for the bronze doors of the Florentine baptistery took place. Thus, Masaccio benefited from some of the visual ideas about architectural perspective and the monumentality of the human figure articulated by Brunelleschi and Donatello. Painting;Italy Italy;painting

Masaccio’s life was quite brief; he died before he was thirty years old. In this short time, however, he painted several works that summarized the innovations in form and space with his own artistic creativity and vision. His most famous works are the frescoes of the Lives of Saints Peter and Paul Lives of Saints Peter and Paul (Masaccio) in the Brancacci Chapel of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence (c. 1425-1428) and a fresco of the Trinity in the Florentine church of Santa Maria Novella (c. 1427-1428). These paintings share several characteristics. The figures have a sculptural monumentality achieved by modeling with a consistent light source. They also display an inner awareness of the psychological import and drama of a scene. The Expulsion of Adam and Eve Expulsion of Adam and Eve (Masaccio) in the Brancacci Chapel illustrates these characteristics. The weightiness and corporeal quality of the nude bodies of Adam and Eve accentuate their expression of shame at the realization of their human fallibility.

To create a spatial context, Masaccio combined the unifying force of a single light source with the device of one-point perspective. The spatial recession in The Tribute Money Tribute Money, The (Masaccio) , a fresco from the Brancacci Chapel, gives a convincing pictorial illusion of the depth of the landscape setting while simultaneously unifying several different scenes into a continuous narrative. In the fresco of the Trinity in Santa Maria Novella, a single-point perspective is used to create spatial unity that connects the spectator’s viewpoint with the illusion of architectural space in the painting.


The work of Brunelleschi, Donatello, and Masaccio shared common aesthetic ideas. Although they did not work as a group, they knew each other. Brunelleschi and Donatello studied ancient monuments in Rome together. Masaccio included a portrait of Donatello in one his frescoes that is now lost. Beyond these personal ties are the visual interrelationships that their work displays. Revival of the aesthetic principles of classical architecture and sculpture led to the use of proportion and perspective to articulate space in all media. It also helped to develop portrayal of human figures as substantial, three-dimensional bodies. For Donatello and Masaccio, the expression of inner emotion and character was an integral part of the human condition that they depicted in the sculpture and painting. The convergence of these three great artists in Florence during the first half of the fifteenth century set the direction of Renaissance art that accorded with the new spirit of the age.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ahl, Diane Cole, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Masaccio. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. A comprehensive look at Masaccio and his works as well as fifteenth century art in Florence. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Avery, Charles. Donatello: An Introduction. New York: Icon Editions, 1994. A concise, illustrated survey of the life and work of Donatello, this book provides balanced coverage of Donatello’s sculpture in different media and in different cities of Italy, and discusses his importance and indifference. An ideal introduction, Avery’s book shows how Donatello’s influence helped to create a new humanism that was a hallmark of the Renaissance.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Battisti, Eugenio. Filippo Brunelleschi. London: Phaidon, 2002. A translation and revision from an earlier Italian version, this scholarly study thoroughly examines Brunelleschi’s life and career, including such aspects as his military engineering, theatrical machinery, and verse. Illustrated. Contains index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Donatello. Donatello. Florence: Giunti, 1999. A catalog of Donatello’s sculpture. Contains forty-four leaves of plates, mostly color.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fremantle, Richard. Masaccio. New York: Smithmark, 1998. A catalog of the artist’s works along with criticism and interpretation. Illustrations and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hartt, Frederick, and David G. Wilkins. History of Italian Renaissance Art. 5th ed. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2003. A comprehensive history of Italian Renaissance art with discussions of Brunelleschi, Donatello, and Masaccio and their influence on the development of Renaissance art.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">King, Ross. Brunelleschi’s Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture. New York: Walker, 2000. King focuses on Brunelleschi’s construction of the dome of the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. Illustrations and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Walker, Paul Robert. The Feud that Sparked the Renaissance: How Brunelleschi and Ghiberti Changed the Art World. New York: William Morrow, 2002. Walker examines the interactions of Brunelleschi and Ghiberti, including their competitions. Illustrated with eight pages of plates. Bibliography and index.

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