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Italian Renaissance Art Essay Topics

On the Paper
Basic Perimeters and Some Suggestions
Some Preliminary Ideas
Online Resources
Footnotes, Endnotes, Books and Articles: Why and How
Due Dates, etc
Student Paper Topics
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Basic Perimeters

Each student enrolled in the course will complete a paper. This course is given with Writing Credit and the majority of that credit will be earned by writing a well-composed semi-research paper of 10-15 pages using the standard writing and technical formats.

Suggested topics:

One basic idea would be to take a particular work of art, such as Donatello's David(s) or one of Piero della Francesca's paintings and trace its history and critical fortune. Questions to answer would include: How much to we really know about this object? What is its factual history? What problems does it seem to pose, or answer? What is the critical history of the object? How have (selected) art historians considered and evaluated the object? What do art historians think is significant about the object in terms of the larger history of art and of Florence? This kind of topic and approach would probably be appropriate for most 410 students, and could be adequately explored in a paper of about ten pages.

Some Preliminary Ideas:

General Fifteenth-century Topics

  • A particular work of art.
  • On an artist: some aspect of the career or style. (See below)
  • The Villa (pick one or two; most of the Medici villas are very well-published)
  • The Humanist tomb
  • Sculptors of the "sweet style" (probably best to look at two or maybe three; lots of the more specialized work here is in Italian or German)
  • Portraiture (too big on its own; isolate one subtopic, such as women; men; portraits in paintings by Botticelli; others...)
  • Patronage; the great example is Lorenzo de'Medici

Topics Specific to a Particular City

  • Urban design in Florence
  • Palace design: The Medici Palace or another in Florence
  • Brunelleschi as an architect in Florence
  • Palace design in Florence
  • The Palazzo Ducale in Urbino
  • Church design (pick one and relate it to other work by the architect, etc)
  • A Notable Chapel; such as (some aspect of the) Old Sacristy of San Lorenzo
  • Medici tomb monuments


  • Masaccio (some aspect of his style or explore one of his works)
  • Michelozzo and Cosimo de'Medici
  • The Della Robbia
  • The Cantoria for the Duomo of Florence
  • Donatello (some aspect of his style or explore one of his works)
  • Donatello and Michelozzo : artistic collaboration in Florence
  • Verrocchio as sculptor or painter
  • Piero della Francesca
  • Alberti as architect

Online Resources

  • Vasari's Lives of the Artists. This is an online version of the most nearly complete English translation of Vasari. It is not finished, but most of the major 15th-century artists are available here. Each Life comes with a brief bibliography, usually of titles related to the Vasari life.
  • Bibliography of the History of Art A source for books and articles; especially useful for our period. Note that the records of RAA and RILA were added to the records of this title several years ago.
  • Grove Dictionary of Art "a research database containing 45,000 original articles written by art scholars and specialists on every aspect of the visual arts." A good first stop in putting together your sources. Contains bibliographies on each subject as well. The authors are usually top authorities on their subjects; the Donatello entry was written by Charles Avery, for example.
  • The Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz. Entryway to a speedily- updated searchable list of books and journal articles. If you want the latest on Botticelli or Donatello, take a look here. To get there from here: click "Bibliothek" on upper right, then on the next page click "Kataloge" under "Allgemeines", then, on the next page, click "lokaler OPAC." Unless you wish to search in German, click the British flag to retrieve the English-language version of the site. The big plusses for this is that it is constantly being updated and that its contents go back to the nineteenth century, or earlier.
  • Metropolitan Museum of Art NYC
  • National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
  • JSTOR An online collection of citations and articles that you can read here or print out. As there are several people in the course with an interest in topics such as humanism, Medici patronage, and domestic life, this would be a good place to look. Don't forget to ask for the book reviews, too. [N.B.: a search for "Lorenzo de'Medici" turned up over 200 items.]

Footnotes, Endnotes, Books and Articles: Why and How

Why Footnotes or Endnotes? You will be using research and other sources from a number of authors. You must truthfully and accurately acknowledge the source of this information in a manner that will enable your reader to look up the source to get more information or even just to double-check what you have written. You also want to let the reader know which parts of your paper have their sources in other scholars' publications and which parts are your own descriptions, theories, and conclusions. To not do so is to commit plagiarism, which is considered a very serious offense in the university world.

Here is a link to Indiana University's Plagiarism: What It is and How to Recognize and Avoid It

Here is a link to UM's collection of resources : Student Writing Resources / Avoiding Plagiarism.

Footnotes or Endnotes? I don't care which you use, just don't use in-text citations.

How to cite books in footnotes or endnotes is gone over in the "How to Please the Prof" handout. If you don't have one, let me know. [This information is also reprinted below *]

To cite a book in the annotated bibliography: Last Name, First Name of Author, Title, Place of Publication, Date. If no place of publication, put "n.p"; if no date of publication, put "n.d.". Remember to look also on the last page of the book for this information; some publishers, esp. European ones, put that info. there.

Cane, Harry. "Some expensive art in Miami." Journal of Expensive Things. [underline the title], vol. 6, no. 3 (March, 1999), 23-46.

How to cite articles in footnotes or endnotes: An article is listed on the bibliography as:

Harry Cane. "Some expensive art in Miami." Journal of Expensive Things. [Quotation marks for the title of the article; underline the title of the journal], vol. 6, no. 3 (March, 1999), 23-46.
*If you are citing this in a footnote or endnote, put the author's first name first, then the last name (ie, Harry Cane.) Also, if you will be referring to a specific part of the article in your footnote or endnote, instead of using the page numbers that refer to the entire article (as above), cite only those that are the ones you are using (ie, "32-34") For the first such citation, write it like this:
Harry Cane. "Some expensive art in Miami." Journal of Expensive Things. vol. 6, no. 3 (March, 1999), 23-46; 32-34.
For the second and later citations of the article, just do like this:
Cane, 41-43.

Due Dates for Each Part of the Paper

There will be four parts to each paper:

  1. A preliminary description of the subject to be explored (5% of final grade) Due: September 13;
  2. An annotated bibliography of the most relevant sources (10% of final grade) Due: September 27;
    Wait (you say) what's an annotated bibliography?
    Well, you find books and articles that look to be useful for your project. You read them over thoroughly enough to see if you will likely use them. Please find 8-10 titles. You write them up with identifying information and an explanatory sentence or two to indicate how you will use each title. Example:
    Brown, Patricia Fortini. Art and Life in Renaissance Venice. New York, 1997. [note name of publisher is not needed.] This is a short overview of Venice in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, organized by topic. The book comes with a timeline and surprisingly detailed bibliography. For my topic on portraiture, it seems that the chapter "Caste, Class, and Gender" will be helpful at least in creating an overview of the subject.
  3. A full first draft (10% of final grade) Due: Nov. 6 ;
  4. The completed paper (75% of final grade) Due: Nov. 27

Each part has its own due date. Each part must be handed in on time and fully completed to receive full credit.

Student Paper Topics

Amy The Equestrian Monument: Donatello and Verrocchio Andrea Competitions in the Renaissance Ashley D. Brunelleschi's Dome Ashley G. Donatello's Davids Blythe Brunelleschi: Ospedale degli Innocenti Danielle Donatello's Davids Diane Masaccio: one work Erin The Humanist Tomb Jessalyn David in the Renaissance Jonathan The Patronage of Isabella d'Este Lauren Masaccio: The Trinity Lynn Melinda Verrocchio: Christ and St. Thomas Melissa Ghibert's Gates of Paradise Nicole Piero della Francesca Patrick Michelozzo and the Medici Palace Robyn Susan Donatello's Zuccone

Every student who takes art history courses will sooner or later be assigned the task of writing a research paper. Sometimes your professor may assigned the specific topic you write on, but at other times you are responsible for formulating your own research idea. Developing this idea can make or break your entire paper; a bad idea can lead to nights of frustration and a weak thesis, and a great idea can lead to an exciting paper which not only motivates you to study the topic now, but also in future classes, and perhaps even into graduate school. So how does one go about developing a research idea in art history? Here are a few ways to begin a hypothetical 10-page paper:

The book report

Pick a single topic (work of art, building, artist, patron, etc.) that you are not terribly familiar with, and write five pages about it, answering basic questions about historical, artistic, and/or social context. Because you are not starting out with any unusual theory or compelling argument, this approach may seem unexciting or even bland. However, by the time you finish writing the first several pages on this topic, you will likely have gained new insights into the topic that you would not have learned had you simply skimmed the material on the topic. In the remaining 5+ pages on the topic you still need to write, expound upon some interesting aspect that you discovered and wrote about in the first five pages. The strength of this approach is that it requires you to master a single topic before you comment intelligently on it, thereby making your overall paper all the more convincing.

Comparing two or more topics in the same paper

This is similar to the book report, except the purpose is to compare and contrast at least two works/buildings/artists and draw conclusions from them. For example, you could compare Andrea del Castagno’s painting of the Last Supper (c. 1447) with Leonardo da Vinci’s painting (1495-98) of the same subject. How did the interpretation of this scene change over fifty years? How did it remained the same? Or, you could compare three different state-built churches in a particular city within a particular time period. How did each reflect the attitudes of the government of its time? The possibilities for this kind of paper can be endless.

The unknown answer

Pose a question that is out of the ordinary and that you do not know the answer to, and attempt to answer it. For example – “How did Leonardo da Vinci treat food in his art?” Or, “How did Italian artists develop painted shadows during the fifteenth century?” Or, “Was Michelangelo influenced more by Roman or Greek art?” The trick is to formulate a distinct question that leads your investigation. Make sure that your question is open-ended enough that the answer isn’t overly-simple, but narrow enough that you are tackling a topic that can be addressed in a paper of this size. If you find the answer is too simple, consider researching the development of the issue. If you find the answer is impossible to discover without writing a dissertation, write a paper explaining the limits of our knowledge, and potential ways to find answers.

The ready-made topic

If you cannot come up with your own topic, ask your professor or instructor for some ideas. Any decent professor will make time available for students, and particularly for students who need help generating topic ideas. To make the most of your time, approach him or her with some preferences in mind. For example, would you like to write your paper on painting, sculpture, or architecture? Are you interested in the works from a particular time period (e.g. late 1300s, early 1500s, etc.) or a particular region (e.g. Florence, Venice, Siena, etc.)? Do you have an artist or subject matter in mind on which you would like to focus? If you have some preliminary preparation before meeting with your professor, he or she will likely be better able to help you and will appreciate the work that you have already undertaken. After deciding on a topic, make sure to ask for the titles of a few key books or articles you should consult to help you get started.

Note: be careful about writing a paper on the same topic as your professor’s dissertation or other primary area of focus. Not only might your paper prove to be inadequate by your professor’s understandably high standards, but you could be given an overabundance of ideas, issues, or resources to deal with when you simply want to write a manageable paper.

Preparing for success

A research paper can be a nightmare, but it really doesn’t have to be.  By planning out a good topic in advance, you set yourself up for less stress, better grades, and overall success.