Italian Renaissance Art: Understanding its Meaning

Viragi Gunasekara

Art 335

Book Review

Italian Renaissance Art: Understanding its Meaning. By Christiane L. Joost-Gaugier.                                 (West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013. 252 pp.).

The Renaissance was one of the most significant cultural movements in European history. It began in Italy and lasted from 14th to 17th century. This movement brought about a renewed spirit regarding life and a great revival of art and literature. The Renaissance was so important because it marked the transitional period between the middle ages and modern history. In her book Italian Renaissance Art: Understanding its Meaning, Christiane L. Joost-Gaugier does an excellent job of describing pivotal works and figures in the Italian Renaissance and analyzing it: what it was, what it means, and why we should study it. She discusses the development of art and architectural design throughout the Italian peninsula. By focusing her attention on just Italy rather than the entire continent of Europe, the author is able to give more in depth analyses of arguably the most important works of Renaissance art.

The author discusses many famous Italian Renaissance artists including painters, sculptors and architects. Their works are shown with colored illustrations, descriptions and formal analyses. One of the most significant Renaissance architects was Filippo Brunelleschi. During the 1430’s, Brunelleschi built the Ospedale degli Innocenti, which was an orphanage for foundling children. He introduced new structural arrangements by building arches that were supported by columns which were re-combined to create new forms. Brunelleschi created the Church of Santo Spirito during the 1440’s. The author compares the architecture of this building to the Palazzo Spada built by Giulio Mazzoni. The author describes the architecture of Church of Santo Spirito as “…white walls and grey arches and columns clearly articulated as white plaster and grey edges that define with absolute clarity not only the geometric surfaces but also the spaces they create. Here the difference between wall and space is very clear” (p.31). Then she compares it with the Palazzo Spada, stating that “the walls of the Palazzo Spada, built in Rome during the 1540’s with stucco decorations by Giulio Mazzoni, have almost disappeared. They are covered with lavish stuccowork that confuses the spectator, who is unclear whether it should be viewed from close up or from a distance” (p.31). There is a clear distinction between the two buildings because of the open concept of the front of the Church of Santo Spirito and the more closed-off walls in front of the Palazzo Spada. Even though both of these were built during the Italian Renaissance, there are still differences in style and technique.

One of the most iconic works of art associated with the Italian Renaissance is the statue of David by Michelangelo. Created in 1504, the main theme of this statue was the human body being seen in a heroic manner. From the strong, angry expression on David’s face to his frozen movement gives it a very intense and dramatic mood. Michelangelo had many followers at the time, among which was Florentine sculptor Baccio Bandinelli. Bandinelli’s sculpture Hercules and Cacus (1534) exemplified the influence of Michelangelo’s style. Since Bandinelli did not understand the depth or the poetry of Michelangelo’s creations, his works bore only a superficial resemblance to those of Michelangelo. The author states that “Compared to the depth and intensity of this symbol of civic virtue, Bandinelli’s figures seem like more colossal giants – graceless, expressionless planks that belong not to the history of art but to the history of imitation” (p.181). By analyzing the details and characteristics of these works, the author does a very successful job of explaining how even though their styles in sculpture are very similar, Michelangelo’s work is more profound and of higher quality than that of Bandinelli.

There are many books written about the very intriguing and prosperous period of time which was the Renaissance. Many of the art history books on the Renaissance simply describe artists and their works during this time. What makes Joost-Gaugier’s book stand out from the rest is that it helps the reader understand the meaning and the feel of the Renaissance as a lifestyle rather than just focusing on specific artists or works of art. When the author analyzes different works of art, she relates them back to the idea of the Renaissance and explains how this idea influenced those works. The title of this book Italian Renaissance Art: Understanding its Meaning is a very direct reflection of what the book is about because the intent of the author is clearly to help the reader understand the art movement that was the Italian Renaissance. This is a fantastic book for art students, teachers and anyone who is interested in learning about Italian Renaissance art.


Pablo Picasso

Pablo Picasso

Pablo Picasso was a painter, sculptor, printmaker, ceramicist and stage designer born in Malaga, Spain in 1881. He is known as the most influential figure in 20th century art. He is also known for being a co-creator of Cubism alongside Georges Braque. Unlike most artists, Picasso found fame and fortune during his lifetime.

In the early 20th century, Picasso moved to Paris to open his own art studio. The first period of his career lasted from 1901 to 1904 and was called the “Blue Period”. This name was given because of the color blue that dominated his paintings during these years. During the Blue Period, a deeply depressed Picasso painted scenes of poverty, isolation and anguish. One of Picasso’s most famous paintings from the Blue Period is the “Blue Nude” (Figure 1) completed in 1903. The back perspective to the figure in the painting evokes a feeling of disengagement and rejection. This painting shows Picasso’s talent for evoking the deepest emotions using just one color.

The second period of his career lasted from 1904 to 1906 when his career was more prosperous and he had a more optimistic outlook on life. This was called the “Rose Period” because of the warmer colors, including beiges, pinks and reds found in his paintings. One of the most famous paintings from the Rose Period is “Gertrude Stein” (Figure 2) created in 1905-06. This was a portrait of Gertrude Stein, who was a patron of Picasso at the time. In this portrait, he reduces her body into parts, which could be a foreshadowing to his adoption of Cubism in later years. (“Gertrude Stein”).

In 1907, Picasso painted “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (Figure 3) which was “a chilling depiction of five nude prostitutes, abstracted and distorted with sharp geometric features and stark blotches of blues, greens and grays” (“Pablo Picasso Biography”). Today, this painting is considered to be the sole inspiration of Cubism. The distorted forms in these women’s bodies challenge the idealized representation of female beauty in the fine arts (“Les Demoiselles D’Avignon”).


Figure 1 “Blue Nude”


Figure 2 “Gertrude Stein”


Figure 3 “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”


“Gertrude Stein.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, n.d. Web. 20 Oct. 2016.

“Les Demoiselles D’Avignon.” Yale University, 2010. Web. 20 Oct. 2016.

“Pablo Picasso Biography.” Ed. Editors. A&E Television Networks, 10 Dec. 2015. Web. 20 Oct. 2016.



William Morris and the Kelmscott Press

The Arts and Crafts Movement initially began in England during the mid 19th century. This movement challenged the aesthetics of the Victoria Era and showed a newfound appreciation for the decorative arts (“Arts and Crafts Movement”). William Morris was an English reformer and textile designer who played a major role in the Arts and Crafts Movement. Morris, among other designers felt that the mass production of goods in factories caused by the industrial revolution was taking away the artistic and creative aspect of everyday objects. In 1861, Morris founded an interior decorating firm dedicated to bringing design back to the quality of medieval craftsmanship. This firm manufactured handcrafted designs for wallpaper, textiles, jewelry, metalwork, furniture, and books.  William Morris later became known for founding the Kelmscott Press.

The Kelmscott Press, founded in 1891, revolutionized private press during the late 19th century. Morris created his own printing press because he wanted to print books with beautiful and quality designs that would capture the reader’s eyes. He was inspired by the type created by Nicholas Jensen in the 1470s. Morris copied the shapes of these letters and combined them with his own designs and printed books on handmade paper. His hand crafted books were of excellent quality and were limited editions (“Kelmscott Chaucer”).

One of the finest books created by the Kelmscott Press is its edition of Works of Geoffrey Chaucer (Figure 1&2). This series of books, originally published in 1896, were designed by William Morris and were illustrated by his fellow artist, Edward Burne-Jones. There were only 425 copies of this book printed on paper. With 87 woodcut illustrations to accompany Chauser’s tales, this was the most exquisite book of its time.  It eventually became the most famous of all private press books. Next to the “Gutenberg Bible”, it is considered one of the  most outstanding typographic achievements of all times. (“Collecting Kelmscott”).


Figure 1


Figure 2


“Arts and Crafts Movement.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 28 Sept. 2016.

“Kelmscott Chaucer – The British Library Shop.” The British Library. The British Library, 2014. Web. 28 Sept. 2016.

“Collecting Kelmscott: William Morris & His Quest for Fine Books.” AbeBooks:. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Sept. 2016.