The Italian Renaissance began in the 14th century in Italy, and lasted for more than 300 years. Renaissance is from the word Rinascimento, meaning 'rebirth'. It represented a rebirth of Classical ideas in the pursuit of 'true' reality.
The 'Early Renaissance' basically spans the 15th century. That's when artists, such as Fra Angelico and Botticelli, began to experiment with realism.
Following the Early Renaissance, the 'High Renaissance' lasted from about 1490 to 1527. That's when well-known Italian artists, like Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael, produced many of the celebrated works of art the world cherishes today.
In the early part of the 14th century, Italian merchants and ruling classes saw fewer investment opportunities. This prompted wealthy individuals to, instead, fund the arts. This new interest in the arts continued for many years, and had a profound influence on Italian painting, sculpture, music, and architecture.
During the Dark Ages, Italian art had focused primarily on religious themes. By the time of the Renaissance, however, Italian artists had begun to adopt a more humanistic approach to the arts, resulting in more realistic depictions of people. For example, Leonardo Da Vinci’s iconic Mona Lisa employed a new technique called sfumato, where the artist forgoes bold outlines for soft, blurred edges. Da Vinci further employs realistic shadows and aerial perspective. Thus, unlike Medieval paintings—which often convey figures “floating” against ethereal backdrops—Renaissance scenes usually feature realistic, earthly backgrounds.
In addition to traditional works on canvas, Renaissance artists popularized another type of painting: the fresco.
Frescos are valued for their richness of colour, and long-lasting nature. As in Raphael’s 'School of Athens', Michelangelo’s ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, or the walls of the Vatican’s papal apartments, they often adorn quite large surfaces. To this day, Italian Renaissance art is considered to be the pinnacle of the world's great artworks. And it continues to have a major influence on today's contemporary art.