As mentioned in Art History 101: The Renaissance, we can trace the very beginnings of the Renaissance period back to around 1150 in northern Italy. Some texts, most notably Gardner's Art Through the Ages, refer to the years from 1200 to the early 15th century as the "Proto-Renaissance", while others lump this time frame in with the term "Early Renaissance." The first term seems more sensible, so we're borrowing its use here. Differentiations should be noted. The "Early" Renaissance - let alone the "Renaissance" on the whole - could not have occurred where and when it did without these first years of increasingly bold explorations in art.
When studying this period, three important factors should be considered: Where this happened, what people were thinking and how art started to change.
The Pre- or Proto-Renaissance occurred in northern Italy.
Where it happened is crucial. Northern Italy, in the 12th century, enjoyed a relatively stable social and political structure. Mind you, this region wasn't "Italy" back then. It was a collection of adjoining Republics (as was the case with Florence, Venice, Genoa and Siena) and Duchies (Milan and Savoy). Here, unlike anywhere else in Europe, feudalism was either gone or well on the way out. There were also well-defined territorial boundaries that were, for the most part, not under constant threat of invasion or attack.
Trade flourished throughout the region and, as you probably know, a thriving economy makes for a more contented populace. Additionally, the various merchant families and Dukes who "ruled" these Republics and Duchies were keen on outdoing each other and impressing foreigners with whom they traded.
If this sounds idyllic, please know that it wasn't. During this same period, the Black Death swept through Europe with devastating results. The Church underwent a crisis which saw, at one point, three simultaneous Popes excommunicate one another. The thriving economy led to the formation of merchant Guilds that, often cruelly, fought for control.
As far as art history is concerned, though, the time and place lent themselves nicely as an incubator for new artistic explorations. Perhaps Those in Charge didn't care, aesthetically, about art. They may have merely needed it to impress their neighbors and future business partners. Regardless of their motives, they had the money to sponsor art's creation, a situation guaranteed to create artists.
People began to change the ways they thought.
Not in a physiological way; neurons were firing just like they do (or don't) now. The changes took place in how people viewed (a) the world and (b) their respective roles in it. Again, the climate of this region, in this time, was such that matters beyond basic sustenance could be pondered.
For example, Francis of Assisi (ca. 1180-1226) (later to be Sainted, and not coincidentally from the Umbria region of northern Italy) proposed that religion could be employed on a human and individual basis. This sounds fundamental now but, at the time, represented a very radical shift in thought. Petrarch (1304-1374) was another Italian who espoused a humanistic approach to thought. His writings, along with those of St. Francis and other emerging scholars, crept into the collective consciousness of the "common man." As art is created by thinking persons, these new ways of thinking naturally began to be reflected in works of art.
Slowly, subtly, but importantly, art began to change, too.
We're given a scenario, then, where people had time, money and relative political stability. Combining these factors with shifts in human cognition led to creative changes in art.
The first noticeable differences emerged in sculpture. Human figures, as seen in Church architectural elements, became slightly less stylized and more deeply relieved (though they were still not "in the round"). In both cases, humans in sculpture looked more realistic.
Painting soon followed suit and, almost imperceptibly, began to shake the Medieval style in which compositions followed a rigid format. Yes, most paintings were for religious purposes and yes, painters still stuck halos around nearly every painted head, but - if one looks closely, it's evident that things were loosening up a bit, composition-wise. At times, it even seems that figures might - given the right circumstances - be capable of movement. This was a small but radical change indeed. If it seems a little timid to us now, bear in mind that there were some fairly horrible penalties involved if one angered the Church through heretical acts.
In sum, the Proto-Renaissance:
- Occurred in Northern Italy, over the course of two to three centuries, because of several converging factors.
- Was comprised of a number of small, but vital, artistic changes which represented a gradual break from Medieval art.
- Paved the way for the "Early" Renaissance that took place in 15th century Italy.