Renaissance vs Baroque Art
Hi everyone and welcome back to Exploring Art. I am Alessandro and today we are going to learn how to distinguish Renaissance works of art from Baroque. We are going to use three main concepts to understand the differences: emotion, composition and lighting. Stay with me until the end of the post, so you will have the tools to identify most of the works of art.

Before starting, if you are new on the blog, remember that whenever you see a blue word  you can find it linked to the glossary where you can read all the definitions you need and learn more thanks to useful examples.

Back to our magic words: Renaissance and Baroque. Before analyzing the differences, let’s start refreshing what they are about.


Renaissance was a cultural movement that started in Italy around 1300, closing the Middle Ages era, and lasted until 1550 after spreading in all Europe. Renaissance means “rebirth”. The purpose was in fact to cut with the Medieval time and have a new start. How? Reviving and surpassing ideas and achievements of classical antiquity and eradicating Medieval superstition with rationality. Artists like Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli, Michelangelo, Raffaello were inspired by classical art, but they pushed it to an unbelievable level, creating a completely new style aligned to the values and taste of their time.
School of Athens


Between the middle and end on the 16th century, a new art style started to spread from Rome to whole Europe: Baroque.

The origins of the name are still a mystery. However, we know that it means complicated, excessive, different. The Baroque style started from architecture when the Catholic Church decided to adopt new doctrines in response to the Protestant Reformation during the Council of Trent in 1545–63.

The first phase of the Counter-Reformation had imposed a severe, academic style on religious architecture which was positively accepted by the intellectuals, but not by the churchgoers.

Guess what happened? Catholic Church saw on that an opportunity so, during the Council, it has been decided to appeal the mass using the arts to communicate a more emotional involvement, often almost theatrical. And, of course, it was also a way to show off their wealth and power.

Baroque Church of Jesus in Rome
Church of Jesus

Renaissance vs Baroque Architecture – Emotion

The first difference I want to start with is exactly the emotion. As we have just learnt, the origins and purposes of the two styles were completely different, as well as how and what they communicate. Renaissance architecture is based on the use of classical elements, wide, clean and rational spaces in which elegance and balanced proportions are the fundamental features. As we can see in the well-known Basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence.
San Lorenzo Basilica - Florence
Church of Jesus

As you can see, the difference with the Church of the Gesù in Rome is evident. Here the goal is to inspire awe with the intense use of gold, vibrant frescoes and decorations that fill any available space. Nothing seems rational, but an attempt of making the viewer astonished, small, powerless in front of such richness.

It’s important to say that completing those huge and complicated buildings was usually taking centuries. As a consequence, in architecture you will often see a blend of Renaissance and Baroque style, and not only.

Renaissance vs Baroque Sculpture – Emotion

In sculpture, instead, the difference is usually more defined. And to prove it I decided to take one the Renaissance symbols: Michelangelo’s David. He perfectly represents the Renaissance values: rationality and intelligence that just defeated the foolish arrogance of the brute, huge, Goliath.

David is almost emotionless because extremely self-confident. However, thanks to Michelangelo’s unique abilities, we can feel his confidence and calmness. He represents one of the best examples of beauty perfection reached, like in architecture, thanks to the ideal use of proportions.

David of Michelangelo, Florence, Renaissance
David - Michelangelo

Let’s now take a look to another masterpiece that we discovered together in one of my last videos few weeks ago: Apollo and Daphne by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (click here if you missed the post). In this Baroque sculpture we can find all the elements that break with the Renaissance tradition.

The first thing we notice is for sure the action, a desperate run that has nothing in common with the static pride of David. Here everything is moving, mutating and we feel that tension like we are inside an action movie. The emotions are clearly more evident, in particular Daphne’s horror in contrasts with Apollo who seems to realize that he is losing her forever.

Apollo and Daphne, Baroque sculpture by Bernini
Apollo and Daphne - Bernini

Renaissance vs Baroque Painting – Emotion

Even in the paintings we can find that different approach. Look for example the Renaissance Wedding of the Virgin painted by 21 years old Raffaello in 1501-1504.

Even in a crowded scene, depicting an important and joyful moment like a wedding, the characters lack on emotions. None a single figure is showing any kind of feeling. Of course, that was a choice: what was important to communicate is the rationality of the men over the instincts.

Wedding of the Virgin - Raffaello
Wedding of the Virgin - Raffaello

Completely different is what we have in Baroque. Here the painter Orazio Gentileschi and his David and Goliath painted one century after Raffaello’s Wedding of the Virgin. It’s clear that the focus here is on the action: the moment when David is using Goliath’s sword to sever his head.

The proportions are clearly not important, as well as the colors since we have just 3 main, but plain, pigments. What matters is the feeling of defeat that we can see in Goliath’s posture and the small David who is going to finish him and win.

David and Goliath - Orazio Gentileschi
David and Goliath - Gentileschi

As you can see, when there are emotions involved, usually the difference between the calmness and balance of Renaissance and the intensity of Baroque is evident.

With Renaissance it seems that the emotions are soften when in Baroque there is a clear attempt of accentuating them, sometimes even exaggerating.

Renaissance vs Baroque Art – Composition

Let’s move now on the second difference: composition.

For this concept I picked another masterpiece: The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci. Painted around 1494 and 1498, it perfectly represents the idea of Renaissance composition since the goal was to achieve balance.

The scene portrays the apostles’ reactions when Jesus said one of them would betray him. Jesus is in the middle with his body making a perfect pyramid shape (we learnt in the past posts how this is an important structure used in many classical and Renaissance works of art).

The pyramid has 3 sides: I know it’s obvious, but it’s an important element if we add that the apostles are in group of 3 and 3 are the openings in the back. 3 is considered a perfect number because it represents the Holy Trinity. Moreover, the perspective, one of the most important Renaissance inventions, here is perfectly applied pushing our point of view exactly where Leonardo wanted.

The Last Supper_Leonardo da Vinci
The Last Supper - Leonardo da Vinci

Baroque approach is completely different. Let’s see it with The Cardsharps, painted by Caravaggio around 1594.

Here the scene is not constrained in any perspective line. There are just a few details and the consequence is that we can focus more on the action. I should say the “actions” since what Caravaggio wanted to emphasize is the psychological tension of the moment when the innocent player is making his move ignoring that he is being duped by the two Cardsharps. All the three of them are protagonists, filling the scene with natural moves. It’s clear how the composition is not a consequence of a specific structure, but it’s just based on the artists’ will and skills.

The Cardsharps - Caravaggio
The Cardsharps - Caravaggio
So, in Renaissance the goal was to create a balanced composition in which every element is meticulously placed to create harmony with the help of math and science. In Baroque the composition doesn’t follow rigid math rules or a scheme and the focus is more on the action and the characters’ feelings.

Renaissance vs Baroque Art – Lightning

Last difference, however still fundamental: lighting. The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli is another iconic Renaissance work of art. It’s a beautiful painting, filled with meanings and metaphors. However, the light is uniform, almost unnaturally soft and perfectly diffused on all the elements of the scene. Although there are examples of paintings where we can see more lights and shadows contrast (Leonardo da Vinci was one of the masters also on this technique, check here to learn more), however, in Renaissance the light was usually filling the whole scene.

The Birth of Venus - Sandro Botticelli
The Birth of Venus - Botticelli

In Baroque instead lighting was used to drive the viewer’s attention on specific details and artists started to play more with it. I take again Caravaggio as example because he was not just using the light, but he gave to lighting the same importance of the characters.

In The Calling of Saint Matthew (click here to read the post) you can understand what I mean. Here the only light source present (how often it happens with Caravaggio) represents the will of God. It illuminates part of Jesus’ face and his right hand and it strikes to the faces of the other characters. Most of the details are actually in the shade, creating an astonishing meaningful and dramatic chiaroscuro effect.

The Calling of St Matthew - Caravaggio - Baroque Painting
The Calling of St Matthew - Caravaggio


So it’s clear how the rationality, elegance, proportions of Renaissance, which purpose was to reach balance and perfection, is antithetical to the intensity of emotions driven by Baroque. However, despite the differences, we need to remember that they are two of the most appreciated art styles, still able to impact on our feelings even after many centuries.

And this is just one of the things they have in common. So don’t miss the next episodes because our journey in art is still full of discoveries. Thanks for watching. Ciao

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