This was the Golden Age of Florence. Its most powerful family, the Medici (bankers and benevolent dictators), lavishly spent endless funds for the glory and beautification of their Republic. Artists flocked in for a share of the largess, built, sculpted, painted and began actively questioning "rules" of art. Art, in turn, became noticeably more individualized.
All of the recognized masterpieces from the lump term "Renaissance" were created during these years. Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael and company made such surpassing masterpieces, in fact, that nearly every artist, forever after, didn't even try to paint in this style. The good news was that, because of these Renaissance Greats, being an artist was now considered acceptable.
Here we have another first: an abstract term for an artistic era. Renaissance artists, after the death of Raphael, continued to refine painting and sculpture but they did not seek a new style of their own. Instead, they created in the technical manner of their predecessors.
It did occur, but not in clearly defined steps as was the case in Italy. Countries and kingdoms were busy jockeying for prominence (fighting), and there was that notable break with the Catholic Church. Art took a back seat to these other happenings, and styles moved from Gothic to Renaissance to Baroque in sort of a non-cohesive, artist-by-artist basis.
1600-1750 - Baroque Art
Humanism, the Renaissance and the Reformation (among other factors) worked together to leave the Middle Ages forever behind, and art became accepted by the masses. Artists of the Baroque period introduced human emotions, passion and new scientific understanding to their works - many of which retained religious themes, regardless of which Church the artists held dear.
1700-1750 - The Rococo
In what some would deem an ill-advised move, Rococo took Baroque art from "feast for the eyes" to outright visual gluttony. If art or architecture could be gilded, embellished or otherwise taken over the "top", Rococo ferociously added these elements. As a period, it was (mercifully) brief.
1750-1880 - Neo-classicism vs. Romanticism
Things had loosened up enough, by this era, that two different styles could compete for the same market. Neo-classicism was characterized by faithful study (and copy) of the classics, combined with the use of elements brought to light by the new science of archaeology. Romanticism, on the other hand, defied easy characterization. It was more of an attitude, one made acceptable by the Enlightenment and dawning of social consciousness. Of the two, Romanticism had far more impact on the course of art from this time forward.
1830s-1870 - Realism
Oblivious to the above two movements, the Realists emerged (first quietly, then quite loudly) with the conviction that history had no meaning and artists shouldn't render anything that they hadn't, personally, experienced. In an effort to experience "things" they became involved in social causes and, not surprisingly, often found themselves on the wrong side of Authority. Realistic art increasingly detached itself from form, and embraced light and color.
1860s-1880 - Impressionism
Where Realism moved away from form, Impressionism threw form out the window. The Impressionists lived up to their name (which they themselves certainly hadn't coined): Art was impression, and as such could be rendered wholly through light and color. The world was first outraged by their effrontery, then accepting. With acceptance came the end of Impressionism as a movement. Mission accomplished, art was free to spread out now in any way it chose.
Next: Modern Art