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From Humanism to the Age of the Enlightenment

The historic periods during which the great masters of type were active, when the typographic and layout systems that we still use today, even when we design electronic material such as e-books were developed, start from the Renaissance in the 15th century, continue throughout the Baroque period in the 17th century to the Age of the Enlightenment in the 18th century.

The Renaissance


Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475 – 1564) "The creation of Adam". Sistine Chapel.

The Renaissance was a cultural movement that profoundly affected European intellectual life in the early modern period. Beginning in Italy, and spreading to the rest of Europe by the 16th century, its influence was felt in literature, philosophy, art, music, politics, science, religion, and other aspects of intellectual inquiry. Renaissance scholars employed the humanist method in study, and searched for realism and human emotion in art.

The ideas characterizing the Renaissance had their origin in late 13th-century Florence, in particular with the writings of Dante Alighieri (1265–1321) and Petrarch (1304–1374), as well as the paintings of Giotto di Bondone (1267–1337). Some writers date the Renaissance quite precisely; one proposed starting point is 1401, when the rival geniuses Lorenzo Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi competed for the contract to build the bronze doors for the Baptistery of the Florence Cathedral. Others see more general competition between artists and polymaths such as Brunelleschi, Ghiberti, Donatello, and Masaccio for artistic commissions as sparking the creativity of the Renaissance.

Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475 – 1564) exerted an unparalleled influence on the development of Western art. Considered to be the greatest living artist during his lifetime, he has since been described as one of the greatest artists of all time, as the archetypal Renaissance man, together with his arch-rival Leonardo da Vinci. Michelangelo's relationship with his most important client, the Medici family of Florentine bankers, carried great complexities, surviving over many strifes. This affiliation is a very good example to the connection between money and art during the Renaissance.

During the Renaissance, money and art went hand in hand. Artists depended entirely on patrons while the patrons needed money to foster artistic talent. Wealth was brought to Italy in the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries by expanding trade into Asia and Europe. Silver mining in Tyrol increased the flow of money. Luxuries from the Eastern world, brought home during the Crusades, increased the prosperity of Genoa and Venice, while Florence gained prominence as a city of bankers through the Medici family. And, of course, Rome as the seat of the Vatican, also had control over vast monetary resources.


Giotto di Bondone (1266/7 – 1337), known as Giotto, was an Italian painter and architect from Florence in the late Middle Ages. He is generally considered the first in a line of great artists who contributed to the Renaissance.



Humanism is a philosophical stance that emphasizes the individual and social potential, and agency of human beings, whom it considers the starting point for serious moral and philosophical inquiry.

The meaning of the term "humanism" has changed according to successive intellectual movements that have identified with it. During the Italian Renaissance, ancient works inspired Italian scholars, giving rise to the Renaissance humanism movement. During the Age of Enlightenment, humanistic values were re-enforced by advances in science and technology, giving confidence to humans in their exploration of the world.

During the intellectual movement later known as Renaissance humanism first appeared in Italy and has greatly influenced both contemporaneous and modern Western culture. Renaissance humanism emerged in Italy alongside a renewed interest in literature and the arts in 13th-century Italy. Italian scholars discovered Ancient Greek thought, particularly that of Aristotle, through Arabic translations from Africa and Spain. Other centers were Verona, Naples, and Avignon. Petrarch, who is often referred to as the father of humanism, is a significant figure.


Portrait of Petrarch painted by Altichiero in 1376

Throughout the Middle Ages, religion was a strong, pervasive force in society. Most individuals were more concerned with God and the possibility of the afterlife than they were with current human affairs. By the time the Renaissance occurred, this social attitude was beginning to change. Although the church still continued to exert a great deal of influence, nevertheless individuals began to be more focused on secular or humanist values, alongside spirituality. Human affairs were no longer viewed as distasteful or inferior to the otherworldly possibility of Heaven, meaning that people began to appreciate their own humanity far more than ever before. A great cultural obsession began with human accomplishment and people began to feel more optimistic about their own short lives on earth, rather than their future eternal lives in Heaven.

With the advent of Humanism, secular subjects became increasingly prevalent in Renaissance art. Depictions of mythological scenes were especially sought after.

Nudity became accepted, especially through these mythological paintings, a favorite subject for which was the Goddess Venus.

Nastagio degli Onesti, a nobleman from Ravenna, is the protagonist in one of the 100 short stories included in The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio, specifically, the eighth story of the fifth day. The story narrates the unrequited love of the nobleman Nastagio for a girl who will eventually be induced to accept his affection after witnessing the infernal punishment of another woman guilty of the same sin of ingratitude towards her lover. Botticelli made a series of four panels illustrating many episodes of this story, a commission believed to been made by Lorenzo the Magnificent in 1483 as a gift to Giannozzo Pucci at his marriage to Lucrezia Bini that same year.


A Humanist Way of Life


Having your portrait painted was very much the fashionable thing to do. What I find particularly charming in these early Renaissance portraits from Italy is that they still have a shadow of the formality of the late Gothic period hanging about them.

Merrymakers and Musicians

Renaissance living spaces - be they homes or churches - were far more spacious, and far more suited to conviviality than their medieval forerunners.


The Ideal City looked very different to Humanist architects than it did to their medieval ancestors. The aim was to replace the organic development of streets and alleys that had come about over many centuries with a spacious, well planned magnificence, theorized upon by the famous architect of the time Leon Battista Alberti. 

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Although they too give us a sense of this aspiration towards an ideal architecture, Vittore Carpaccio's paintings that depict biblical scenes mostly on the outskirts, but sometimes also inside, of his native city Venice may give us a better idea as to what an affluent Renaissance city looked like.


Philosophers and Scientists

While sixteenth century philosophy was a synthesis of several philosophical frameworks including Scholasticism, Humanism, Aristotelianism, and Stoicism; The Age of Enlightenment was the dominant intellectual and philosophical movement that occurred in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, with global influences and effects. The Enlightenment included a range of ideas centered on the value of human happiness, the pursuit of knowledge obtained by means of reason and the evidence of the senses, and ideals such as natural law, liberty, progress, toleration, fraternity, constitutional government, and separation of church and state.

The Enlightenment was preceded by the Scientific Revolution and the work of Francis Bacon, John Locke, among others. Some date the beginning of the Enlightenment to the publication of René Descartes' Discourse on the Method in 1637, featuring his famous dictum, Cogito, ergo sum ("I think, therefore I am"). Others cite the publication of Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica (1687) as the culmination of the Scientific Revolution and the beginning of the Enlightenment. 

The Scientific Revolution was a series of events that marked the emergence of modern science during the early modern period, when developments in mathematics, physics, astronomy, biology (including human anatomy) and chemistry transformed the views of society about nature. The Scientific Revolution took place in Europe starting towards the second half of the Renaissance period, with the 1543 Nicolaus Copernicus publication De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) often cited as its beginning.


The Baroque

The Baroque is a style of art, architecture and many other creative fields which can best be described as "theatrically exuberant" that flourished in Europe from the early 17th century until the mid 18th century. It followed Renaissance art and Mannerism and preceded the Rococo (in the past often referred to as "late Baroque") and Neoclassical styles. 

bernini, ludovica, 1674.jpg

The Baroque style used contrast, movement, detail, deep colour, grandeur, and surprise to achieve a sense of awe. The style began at the start of the 17th century in Rome, then spread rapidly to France, northern Italy, Spain, and Portugal, then to Austria, southern Germany, and Poland. By the 1730s, it had evolved into an even more flamboyant style, called rocaille or Rococo, which appeared in France and Central Europe until the mid to late 18th century.

In the decorative arts, the style employs plentiful and intricate ornamentation. The departure from Renaissance classicism has its own ways in each country. But a general feature is that everywhere the starting point are the ornamental elements introduced by the Renaissance.

Baroque Painting and Sculpture


Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598 – 1680) was an Italian sculptor and architect. While a major figure in the world of architecture, he was more prominently the leading sculptor of his age, credited with creating the Baroque style of sculpture. As one scholar has said, "What Shakespeare is to drama, Bernini may be to sculpture: the first pan-European sculptor whose name is instantaneously identifiable with a particular manner and vision, and whose influence was inordinately powerful ..."

Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez(1599 – 1660) was a Spanish painter, the leading artist in the court of King Philip IV of Spain and Portugal, and of the Spanish Golden Age. He was an individualistic artist of the Baroque period, who in addition to numerous renditions of scenes of historical and cultural significance, he painted scores of portraits of the Spanish royal family and commoners, culminating in his masterpiece Las Meninas (1656).

Vanitas is a genre of still-life painting that flourished in the Netherlands in the early to mid 17th century. A vanitas painting contains collections of objects symbolic of the inevitability of death and the transience and vanity of earthly achievements and pleasures.

Although a few vanitas pictures include figures, the vast majority are pure still lifes, containing certain standard elements: symbols of arts and sciences, wealth and power, and earthly pleasures ; symbols of death or transience ; and, sometimes, symbols of resurrection and eternal life. 

The Dutch Golden Age

The Dutch Golden Age was a period in the history of the Netherlands roughly spanning the era from 1588, when the Dutch Republic was established, to 1672, when the Rampjaar occurred, in which Dutch trade, science, art and colonization were among the most prominent in Europe. 

Dutch culture, including art and scientific developments experienced a renaissance during this period as well. Dutch Golden Age painting followed many of the tendencies that dominated Baroque art in other parts of Europe, but was the leader in developing the subjects of still life, landscape, and genre painting. Church art was virtually non-existent, and little sculpture of any kind was produced.

The best-known painters of the Dutch Golden Age are the period's most dominant figure Rembrandt, the Delft master of genre Johannes Vermeer, the innovative landscape painter Jacob van Ruisdael, and Frans Hals, who infused new life into portraiture.

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606 - 1669), was a Dutch Golden Age painter, printmaker and draughtsman. An innovative and prolific master in three media, he is generally considered one of the greatest visual artists in the history of art and the most important in Dutch art history. It is estimated Rembrandt produced a total of about three hundred paintings, three hundred etchings and two thousand drawings.

Unlike most Dutch masters of the 17th century, Rembrandt's works depict a wide range of styles and subject matter, from portraits and self-portraits to landscapes, genre scenes, allegorical and historical scenes, biblical and mythological themes and animal studies. His contributions to art came in a period of great wealth and cultural achievement that historians call the Dutch Golden Age, when Dutch art, whilst antithetical to the Baroque style that dominated Europe, was prolific and innovative.

Jan Vermeer (1632 – 1675), was a Dutch Baroque Period painter who specialized in domestic interior scenes of middle-class life. He is acknowledged as one of the greatest painters of the Dutch Golden Age. Vermeer began his career in the early 1650s by painting large-scale biblical and mythological scenes, but most of his later paintings—the ones for which he is most famous—depict scenes of daily life in interior settings. These works are remarkable for their purity of light and form, qualities that convey a serene, timeless sense of dignity. 

Still Life Paintings

As the prosperity of Dutch society increased, the general public became more engrossed with the amusements of everyday life, including education, commerce, and material goods. These changes had enormous repercussions on the art market, and it’s no coincidence that the still life arose as an independent genre in Europe parallel to the birth of early market capitalism and the world’s first consumer society. Read more here >>>


Architecture and Gardens


Baroque architecture is a highly decorative and theatrical style which appeared in Italy in the early 17th century and gradually spread across Europe. It was originally introduced by the Catholic Church, particularly by the Jesuits, as a means to combat the Reformation and the Protestant church with a new architecture that inspired surprise and awe.

Baroque architecture was characterized by vaulted cupolas held up by colonnades, walls and doorways made of both rough stones and smooth stucco, and interior design denoted by luxuriant fabrics and furniture. The word “baroque” likely derives from the Italian barocco or Portuguese barroco. This architecture was often adorned with the frescoes of baroque artists—the expressive, chiaroscuro portraits of baroque painters like Caravaggio, Nicolas Poussin, Peter Paul Rubens, Diego Velázquez, and Rembrandt furnished the stucco walls.

The style featured prominently in history alongside the baroque music of the times—composers Johann Sebastian Bach and George Friedrich Handel echoed this architectural era’s emphasis on precise form and rigidity complemented by a drive toward creative transcendence.


The Baroque garden was a style of garden based upon symmetry and the principle of imposing order on nature. The style originated in the late-16th century in Italy, in the gardens of the Vatican and the Villa Borghese gardens in Rome and in the gardens of the Villa d'Este in Tivoli, and then spread to France, where it became known as the jardin à la française or French formal garden. The grandest example is found in the Gardens of Versailles designed during the 17th century by the landscape architect André Le Nôtre for Louis XIV. In the 18th century, in imitation of Versailles, very ornate Baroque gardens were built in other parts of Europe, including Germany, Austria, Spain, and in Saint-Petersburg, Russia. In the mid-18th century the style was replaced by the less geometric and more natural English landscape garden.


Decorative Arts

A defining characteristic of the Baroque style was the way in which the visual arts of painting, sculpture and architecture were brought together, into a complete whole, to convey a single message or meaning. The opulence of the Baroque period also opened up significant spheres of work for the decorative arts. Baroque design addressed the viewer's senses directly, appealing to the emotions as well as the intellect. It reflected the hierarchical and patriarchal society of the time, with a fascination for physical materials that was central to the Baroque style.

The birth of modern science and the opening up of the world beyond Europe brought an increasingly serious interest in the nature and meaning of exotic materials. Rarities such as porcelain and lacquer from East Asia became fashionable and were imitated in Europe. New techniques, such as marquetry (the laying of veneers of differently colored woods onto the surface of furniture), developed by French and Dutch cabinet-makers and learned from them elsewhere, were also developed.

Representations of the natural world, as well as motifs derived from human and animal forms, were popular decorative features. The most widespread form of Baroque floral decoration was a running scroll, often combined with acanthus – a stylized version of a real plant of the same name. Read more here >>>


Thomas Gainsborough (1727 – 1788) was an English portrait and landscape painter, and his portraits of gentry give us a very good idea of the clothing of the era.

Clothing underwent radical changes, beginning in the geometric, sculptural style of the Renaissance and gradually shifting to much softer styles and silhouettes with flowing skirts and draped bodices and sleeves. A  considerable change was the elimination of the hoop-skirts in favour of padding. Consequently, the skirts fell softer and the whole silhouette appeared less geometric and more flowing. Ladies wore a mass of underskirts, made of as fine fabrics as could be afforded. 


Baroque Music

Baroque music refers to the period or dominant style of Western classical music composed from about 1600 to 1750. The works of George Frideric Handel, Antonio Vivaldi and Johann Sebastian Bach are considered the pinnacle of the Baroque period.

During the Baroque era, professional musicians were expected to be accomplished improvisers of both solo melodic lines and accompaniment parts. Baroque concerts were typically accompanied by a basso continuo group (comprising chord-playing instrumentalists such as harpsichordists and lute players improvising chords from a figured bass part) while a group of bass instruments—viol, cello, double bass—played the bassline. 

During the period composers experimented with finding a fuller sound for each instrumental part (thus creating the orchestra). Baroque music expanded the size, range, and complexity of instrumental performance, and also established the mixed vocal/instrumental forms of opera, cantata and oratorio and the instrumental forms of the solo concerto and sonata as musical genres. Dense, complex polyphonic music, in which multiple independent melody lines were performed simultaneously (a popular example of this is the fugue), was an important part of many Baroque choral and instrumental works. Overall, Baroque music was a tool for expression and communication.



Embodying the freedom and curiosity of the French Enlightenment, Jean Honoré Fragonard (1732–1806) had an exuberant style of painting. His work constitutes a further elaboration of the Rococo idiom , a manner perfectly suited to his subjects, which favored the playful, the erotic, and the joys of domesticity.

The Rococo era lasted roughly from the 1730s to the mid 1780s and is often described as the final expression of the Baroque movement. It is an exceptionally ornamental and dramatic style of architecture, art and decoration which combines asymmetry, scrolling curves, gilding, white and pastel colours, sculpted moulding, and trompe-l'œil frescoes to create surprise and the illusion of motion and drama.

The beginning of the end for Rococo came in the early 1760s as figures like Voltaire and Jacques-François Blondel began to voice their criticism of the superficiality and degeneracy of the art. Blondel decried the "ridiculous jumble of shells, dragons, reeds, palm-trees and plants" in contemporary interiors. By 1785, Rococo had passed out of fashion in France, replaced by the order and seriousness of Neoclassical artists like Jacques-Louis David. 


The Age of Revolutions


The American Revolution was an ideological and political revolution based on the principles of the American Enlightenment that occurred in British America between 1765 and 1783. It created the environment for the American Revolutionary War, which lasted from 1775 to 1783, whereby the Thirteen Colonies secured their independence from the British Crown and consequently established the United States as the first sovereign nation state founded on Enlightenment principles of the consent of the governed, constitutionalism and liberal democracy.

Eugène Delacroix (1798 – 1863) was a French Romantic artist regarded from the outset of his career as the leader of the French Romantic school. Probably Delacroix's best-known painting, Liberty Leading the People is an unforgettable image of Parisians, having taken up arms, marching forward under the banner of the tricolour representing liberty, equality, and fraternity.

In the mid-18th century, Paris became the center of philosophic and scientific activity challenging traditional doctrines and dogmas. The philosophical movement was led by Voltaire and Rousseau, who argued for a society based upon reason as in ancient Greece rather than faith and Catholic doctrine, for a new civil order based on natural law, and for science based on experiments and observation. The political philosopher Montesquieu introduced the idea of a separation of powers in a government, a concept which was enthusiastically adopted by the authors of the United States Constitution. The philosophes of the French Enlightenment played an important part in undermining the legitimacy of the Old Regime and shaping the French Revolution.

Liberty, Equality, Fraternity

The French Revolution was a period of radical political and societal change in France that began with the Estates General of 1789 and ended with the formation of the French Consulate in November 1799. Many of its ideas are considered fundamental principles of liberal democracy.

The French Revolution had a major impact on western history, by ending feudalism in France and creating a path for advances in individual freedoms throughout Europe. The revolution represented the most significant challenge to political absolutism up to that point in history and spread democratic ideals throughout Europe and ultimately the world. Its impact on nationalism was profound, stimulating nationalist movements throughout Europe. Some modern historians argue the concept of the nation state was a direct consequence of the revolution. As such, the revolution is often seen as the dividing point between the early modern and late modern periods of western history.


By 1785, Rococo had passed out of fashion in France, replaced by the order and seriousness of Neoclassical artists like Jacques-Louis David. Neoclassicism was a Western cultural movement in the decorative and visual arts, literature, theatre, music, and architecture that drew inspiration from the art and culture of classical antiquity. 

Jacques-Louis David (1748 – 1825) was a French painter in the Neoclassical style, considered to be the preeminent painter of the era. In the 1780s, his cerebral brand of history painting marked a change in taste away from Rococo frivolity toward classical austerity and severity and heightened feeling, harmonizing with the moral climate of the final years of the Ancien Régime.

David later became an active supporter of the French Revolution and friend of Maximilien Robespierre (1758–1794), and was effectively a dictator of the arts under the French Republic. Imprisoned after Robespierre's fall from power, he aligned himself with yet another political regime upon his release: that of Napoleon, the First Consul of France. 

Fashion in the period 1795–1820 in European countries saw the final triumph of undress or informal styles over the brocades, lace, periwigs and powder of the earlier 18th century. In the aftermath of the French Revolution, no one wanted to appear to be a member of the French aristocracy, and people began using clothing more as a form of individual expression of the true self than as a pure indication of social status. As a result, the shifts that occurred in fashion at the turn of the 19th century granted the opportunity to present new public identities that also provided insights into their private selves. Katherine Aaslestad indicates how "fashion, embodying new social values, emerged as a key site of confrontation between tradition and change."

The Empire Style

The Empire Style is most often given the dates of Napoleon’s reign, 1804-15, but its features developed in the earlier Directoire and Consulat periods (1795-1803). It was born from the merger of art and personal aspiration: France’s Emperor wanted a new look: the resultant innovative designs were clean and severe and bear the stamp of Napoleon’s preference for masculine and military effects.

Furniture was generally rectangular and symmetrical, and bronze doré appliqué, burnished gold, and jewel-like inlay finishes became hallmarks of the new style. The Empire Style also popularized specific furniture forms: the table de toilette, consoles, tented beds, and camp stools. Ornament, drawn from antique sources, fit well with the concept of imperial dynasty and conquest, and details featuring eagles, bees, Napoleon’s initials, and laurel wreathes took pride of place on cabinetry and metalware. Artistic metalwork flourished in an outpouring of pendulum clocks, gold and silver table pieces, and decorative candelabra. Silk and velvet fabrics were draped, swagged, or suspended from ceilings to achieve an elegant yet martial effect.

After Napoleon lost power, the Empire style continued to be in favor for many decades, with minor adaptations. There was a revival of the style in the last half of the nineteenth century in France, again at the beginning of the twentieth century, and again in the 1980s.

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