When Was the Renaissance in Art?

The Renaissance was one of the most significant eras in the development of art history, spanning the 14th to the 17th centuries.

Aug 14, 2023By Rosie Lesso, MA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine Art


The Renaissance was a great flourishing period for the arts, when classical ideas were revived and updated for a new era. Spanning roughly the 14th to the 17th centuries, the Renaissance began in Italy, before spreading throughout much of Europe. In order to make sense of this vast period in history, the Renaissance is often divided into several key areas of study. These allow us to find structure and gain greater understanding of how the movement evolved and changed. We take a look at some of the key periods and dates surrounding the development of this monumental period in human history. 


The Early Renaissance: 1400-1490

Giotto di Bondone Scrovegni Chapel Italy 1305
Giotto di Bondone, Scrovegni Chapel, Italy, 1305


The early Renaissance era began in Florence, at a time when artists, writers and thinkers began reviving ancient, classical ideas. Artists moved beyond the stylized, flattened art of the Middle Ages, instead looking back to the naturalism and realism of the classical period. Similarly, philosophers and writers also looked back to the work of classical intellectuals, which placed a greater emphasis on humanism and a desire to connect with nature.


As well as looking back to the ideas of the past, these great creatives also sought to revive, or ‘rebirth’ classical ideas for a new era, investing them with an even greater understanding of the world. Key artists from the early Renaissance period include Fra Angelico, Piero della Francesca and Masaccio. Meanwhile the most prominent writers of the era were Dante Alighieri, Francesco Petrarch, Machiavelli, and Ariosto. 


The High Renaissance: 1490-1520/7

famous artworks da vinci mona lisa painting
‘Mona Lisa’ by Leonardo Da Vinci, via The Louvre, Paris


By the time of the High Renaissance, the capital of European culture had shifted from Florence to Rome. It was during this time that Renaissance ideas had truly taken hold, giving rise to many of the most renowned artists of the Renaissance including Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael. Artists during this era had mastered the art of naturalism and aimed high for levels of realism and storytelling. They demonstrated an incredible virtuoso flair that continues to fascinate audiences today.

Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter


From linear perspective to sfumato and chiaroscuro, artists revealed bold new understandings in human anatomy and the invocation depth and space. In doing so, they created startlingly lifelike stories telling Biblical narratives. Art and architecture was designed around the principles of order, harmony and balance, in keeping with classical models. Humanism as a school of thought had taken hold by now across much of Italy, with many intellectuals looking back to classical Greek and Roman philosophies which placed man at the center of the universe. 


The Late Renaissance: 1520-1600

titian diana actaeon renaissance painting
Diana and Actaeon by Titian, 1556 – 1559, via National Galleries Scotland, Edinburgh


The time period known as the Late Renaissance, or Mannerism, demonstrates shifting ways of thinking about the world, and how to convey man’s place within it through art and literature. Breaking away from the naturalism of earlier centuries, artists throughout Italy and beyond moved towards more creative interpretations of the real world. They toyed with elongated, serpentine bodies, dramatic foreshortening, and elements of asymmetry and discord. Key artists of the era included Parmigianino, El Greco, Giuseppe Arcimboldo and Titian


The Northern Renaissance: 1450-1550

madonna chancellor rolin eyck louvre
The Madonna of Chancellor Rolin by Jan van Eyck, 1435


While we often think of the Renaissance as occurring predominantly in Italy, as the movement progressed ideas spread throughout much of Europe. Each nation interpreted ideas according to their own set of cultural circumstances. In contrast with the Italian Renaissance, Northern Renaissance artists emphasized stark, crisp realism and precise detail. They often interlaced their art with elements of symbolism and psychological tension.


Rather than looking exclusively to ancient classical art, many artists also studied traditions for woodblock printing and illuminated manuscripts. These came to inform the stylization of much Northern Renaissance art. Leading artists of the Northern Renaissance include Jan van Eyck, Albrecht Durer, Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Breughel the Elder.

Author Image

By Rosie LessoMA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine ArtRosie is a contributing writer and artist based in Scotland. She has produced writing for a wide range of arts organizations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly, and Scottish Art News, with a focus on modern and contemporary art. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can really enrich our experience of art.