Raffaello Sanzio (known simply as Raphael to most) was born in Urbino to Giovanni Santi, a painter in the town’s court. The young Raphael likely began his training there, where he was exposed to works by great artists such as Andrea Mantegna and Piero della Francesca. Raphael was also a pupil of Pietro Perugino, and his early works reflect the influence of his teacher, a Renaissance master in his own right. Between 1500 and 1508 Raphael worked in central Italy and became well-known for his Madonnas and portrait paintings. In 1508, Pope Julius II called on him to decorate the papal rooms in the Vatican, where he executed some of his best works, such as The School of Athens.
Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci is often considered to be the embodiment of Renaissance humanist ideals. Though Leonardo was a master of many different forms of art, he is celebrated mainly for his paintings. Born out of wedlock to a notary and a peasant woman in the Republic of Florence, Leonardo spent his formative years learning in the workshop of Florentine painter Andrea del Verrocchio. Only about 15 of his paintings have survived through the years, among which are the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, two of the most recognizable and parodied works of all time.
Like his contemporary, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo was a master of many artistic trades, painting chief among them. In the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel, he painted two of the most impressive frescoes in the history of Western art: the scenes from Genesis on the ceiling and the The Last Judgment on the altar wall. Michelangelo completed the magnificent frescoes on the chapel’s ceiling in about four years. The composition spans more than 500 square meters and includes at least 300 figures; it is without a doubt an unprecedented work of art that influenced many Baroque ceiling painters for years to come.
Another artist belonging to the prominent Florentine School on our list is Sandro Botticelli. Though details about his early life are rather scarce, it is commonly accepted that he apprenticed under Fra Filippo Lippi and was also influenced by Masaccio’s monumental paintings. An Early Renaissance master, Botticelli’s elegant paintings of the Madonna and child, as well as his altarpieces and life-size paintings were incredibly popular during his lifetime. He is perhaps best known for two paintings that depict mythological scenes – The Birth of Venus and Primavera – both of which are housed in Florence’s Uffizi Gallery.
Tiziano Vecellio, also known as Titian, was the greatest Venetian artist of the 16th century. Titian is known primarily for mastering the use of color and his versatility – he was equally adept at painting portraits, landscapes and mythological and religious subjects. As a teenager, he worked with prominent Venetian artists such as Giorgione and Giovanni Bellini before going out on his own. He was soon painting for royalty from all over Europe, including King Philip II of Spain. Titian painted portraits of many leading figures over his career, from Pope Paul III to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.
Jacopo Comin, more commonly known by his nickname Tintoretto (his father was a dyer, or tintore in Italian), is another Venice-based artist on our list of top Italian Renaissance painters. He was greatly influenced by fellow Venetian Titian’s use of color, as well as the energetic forms created by Michelangelo. His works – typically large-scale narratives such as his rendering of the Last Supper – are characterized by their inventiveness, dramatic lighting and use of gestures. For the fury with which he seemed to paint, Tintoretto earned yet another nickname: Il Furioso.
Though he lived only a short life – he died at age 26 – Masaccio left an indelible mark on the world of painting. Born in 1401, he made an extremely important contribution to painting thanks to his skill at recreating lifelike figures and movements, as well as his scientific approach to perspective. In fact, he is considered by many to be the first great painter of the Italian Renaissance and the inaugurator of the modern era of painting. Masaccio was influenced by the sculptor Donatello and the architect Brunelleschi. Unfortunately, just four works that were unquestionably done by him survive today, although others have been attributed in whole or in part to him.
Domenico Ghirlandaio was the head of a large and efficient workshop in Florence, which also included his two brothers. Many apprentices spent time in his workshop, the most famous being Michelangelo. The Early Renaissance painter became known for his detailed narratives that often included leading citizens of the time – in this way, he chronicled contemporary Florentine society. One of his most significant commissions came from Pope Sixtus IV, who summoned him to Rome to paint a fresco in the Sistine Chapel.
Andrea del Verocchio
Perhaps you’ve noticed that Andrea del Verrocchio has already been mentioned on this list: He had an immense impact on successive painters of the Italian Renaissance. Among his many apprentices were the aforementioned Botticelli, Ghirlandaio and even Leonardo da Vinci. His patrons included the powerful Medici family, the Venetian state and the city council of Pistoia. A versatile artist who also produced numerous sculptures, there is only one known painting signed by Verrocchio: an altarpiece in the Cathedral of Pistoia. Many other paintings have been attributed to his workshop, however.
Born into a family of artists, including his father Jacopo and brother Gentile, Giovanni Bellini revolutionized painting in the Venetian region. By using clear, slow-drying oil paints, Bellini was able to create rich hues and detailed shading. These innovations in color had a profound influence on other painters, such as Titian. Bellini also added disguised symbolism to many of his works, something that was more commonly incorporated in Northern Renaissance art.