Civilizations Past And Present
Book: Ancient Times
Author: Robert A. Guisepi
Italian Renaissance Art
North of the Alps during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries there was
a continuation of "Gothic" art - in painting and sculpture, the same emphasis
on realistic detail; in architecture, an elaboration of the Gothic style.
Fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Italy, however, saw innovations that
culminated in the classic High Renaissance art of the early sixteenth century.
All this was the product of a new society centered in rich cities, the
humanist spirit in thought and religion, and a revived interest in Classical
Transitional Period In Painting
The greatest figure in the transitional painting of the fourteenth
century was the Florentine painter Giotto (1266-1336), who, it was said,
"achieved little less than the resurrection of painting from the dead." While
earlier Italian painters had copied the unreal, flat, and rigidly formalized
images of Byzantine paintings and mosaics, Giotto observed from life and
painted a three-dimensional world peopled with believable human beings
dramatically moved by deep emotion. He humanized painting much as Petrarch
humanized thought and St. Francis, whose life was one of his favorite
subjects, humanized religion. Giotto initiated a new epoch in the history of
painting, one that expressed the religious piety of his lay patrons and their
delight in images of everyday life.
Quattrocento Painting, Sculpture, And Architecture
The lull in painting that followed Giotto's death in 1338, during which
his technical innovations were retained but the spirit and compassion that
make him one of the world's great painters were lost, lasted until the
beginning of the quattrocento (Italian for "four hundred," an abbreviation for
the 1400s). In his brief lifetime the Florentine Massaccio (1401-1428)
completed the revolution in technique begun by Giotto. As can be seen in his
few surviving paintings, Masaccio largely mastered the problems of
perspective, anatomical naturalism of flesh and bone, and the modeling of
figures in light and shade (chiaroscuro) rather than by sharp line. Masaccio
was also the first to paint nude figures (Eve, in his Expulsion from Eden),
thus reversing the trend of Christian art, which, since its inception in late
Roman times, had turned its back on the beauty of the human form. Masaccio
died in debt and poor in Rome, having received few commissions in Florence.
Apparently his work was too austere and lacking in elegance to attract many
Inspired by Masaccio's achievement, most quattrocento painters constantly
sought to improve technique. This search for greater realism culminated in
such painters as Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506) and Piero della Francesca (c.
1420-1492). Mantegna's painting of the dead body of Christ lying feet first on
a marble slab well shows the results of his lifelong study of perspective. His
group portrait of the family of his chief patron, the Gonzaga duke of Mantua,
is "done in the grand manner" and reflects the self-assurance of the
Piero della Francesca's approach to painting was scientific and
intellectual. His zeal to reduce perspective to a mathematical science - he
wrote a book on the subject - led him to neglect motion. The figures in his
Discovery and Proving of the True Cross, showing Constantine's mother Helena
discovering the cross used for Christ's crucifixion, are as still as if hewn
out of marble. Piero's restrained, undramatic, unemotional, and mathematically
precise paintings prefigure the abstract painting of our own time. For such
reasons, fashionable taste today has transferred its allegiance from
Botticelli's lyrical exquisiteness to Piero's hushed serenity.
While Masaccio's successors in the last half of the fifteenth century
were intent upon giving their figures a new solidity and resolving the problem
of three-dimensional presentation, the Florentine Sandro Botticelli
(1447-1510) proceeded in a different direction, abandoning the techniques of
straightforward representation of people and objects. Botticelli used a highly
sensitive, even quivering, line to stir the viewer's imagination and emotion
and to create a mood in keeping with his more subtle and sophisticated poetic
vision. This unconventional artist was associated with the Platonic Academy at
Florence, where the Christian faith was fused with pagan mythology. Thus,
although his Birth of Venus depicts the goddess of love rising from the sea,
there is little that is human or material about her ethereal figure. Like the
Virgin Mary, she has become the symbol of a higher kind of love - divine love.
The allegory is reinforced by making the winds that blow Venus onto the shore
look like Christian angels.
In the meantime progress was being made also in sculpture, and it, like
painting, reached stylistic maturity at the beginning of the quattrocento.
Like the humanists, the sculptors found in ancient Rome the models they were
eager to imitate; they, too, saw what seemed related to their own experience
In his second pair of bronze doors for the baptistery in Florence,
Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455) achieved the goal he had set for himself: "I
strove to imitate nature as closely as I could, and with all the perspective I
could produce." These marvels of relief sculpture, which resurrect the form
and spirit of Roman sculpture and architecture and drew from Michelangelo the
declaration that they were worthy to be the gates of paradise, depict
skillfully modeled human figures - including some classically inspired nudes -
which stand out spatially against architectural and landscape backgrounds.
Although Ghiberti was a superb craftsman, he was less of an innovator
than his younger contemporary in Florence, Donatello (1386-1466), who visited
Rome to study the remains of antique sculpture. Divorcing sculpture from the
architectural background it had in the Middle Ages, Donatello produced truly
freestanding statues based on the realization of the human body as a
functional, coordinated mechanism of bones, muscles, and sinews, maintaining
itself against the pull of gravity. His David is the first bronze nude
made since antiquity, and his equestrian statue of the army commander
Gattamelata, clad in Roman armor, is the first of its type done in the
Renaissance. The latter clearly reveals the influence of classical models and
was probably inspired by the equestrian statue of the emperor Marcus Aurelius
More dramatic than either of these equestrian statues is that of the
Venetian general Bartolomeo Colleoni, the creation of Andrea del Verrocchio
(1435-1488). A versatile Florentine artist noteworthy as a sculptor, painter,
and the teacher of Leonardo da Vinci, Verrocchio designed the statue of
Colleoni to permit one of the horse's forelegs to be unsupported - a
considerable achievement. The posture and features of the famous general
convey dramatically the supreme self-confidence and even arrogance of
Renaissance public figures.
Renaissance architecture, which even more than sculpture reflects the
influence of ancient Roman models, glorifies the worldly success of its
patrons. It began with the work of Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446). As a
youth Brunelleschi accompanied Donatello to Rome where he employed measuring
stick and sketchbook to master the principles of classical architecture.
Returning to Florence, Brunelleschi constructed there the uncompleted dome of
the cathedral, the first dome to be built since Roman times. Although strongly
influenced by classical architecture, Brunelleschi's buildings in Florence,
which include churches and palaces, were not just copies of Roman models.
Employing arcades of Roman arches, Roman pediments above the windows, and
Roman columns and other decorative motifs, Brunelleschi recreated the Roman
style in a fresh and original manner. So began the Renaissance style of
architecture that, with many modifications, has lasted to the present time.
The High Renaissance, 1500-1530
By the time of the High Renaissance in Italy, when painting, sculpture,
and architecture reached a peak of perfection, the center of artistic activity
had shifted from Florence to Rome. The popes were lavish patrons, and the
greatest artists of the period worked in the Vatican at one time or another.
It did not seem inconsistent to popes and artists to include representations
of pagan mythological figures in the decorations of the papal palace, and thus
the Vatican was filled with secular as well as religious art.
The great architect of the High Renaissance was Donato Bramante
(1444-1514) from Milan. Bramante's most important commission came in 1506 when
Pope Julius II requested him to replace the old basilica of St. Peter, built
by the emperor Constantine, with a monumental Renaissance structure.
Bramante's plan called for a centralized church in the form of a Greek cross
surmounted by an immense dome. His design for St. Peter's exemplifies the
spirit of High Renaissance architecture - to approach nearer to the
monumentality and grandeur of Roman architecture. In Bramante's own words, he
would place "the Pantheon on top of the Basilica of Maxentius." Bramante died
when the cathedral was barely begun, and it was left to Michelangelo and
others to complete the work. Michelangelo's dome has influenced the design of
most major domes down to the beginning of the present century.
The painters of the High Renaissance inherited the solutions to such
technical problems as perspective space from the quattrocento artists. But
whereas the artists of the earlier period had been concerned with movement,
color, and narrative detail, painters in the High Renaissance strove to
eliminate nonessentials and concentrated on the central theme of a picture and
its basic human implications. By this process of elimination, many High
Renaissance painters achieved a "classic" effect of seriousness and serenity
and endowed their work with idealistic values.
Leonardo Da Vinci, Raphael, And Michelangelo
The great triad of High Renaissance painters consists of Leonardo da
Vinci, Raphael, and Michelangelo. An extraordinary man, Leonardo da Vinci
(1452-1519) was proficient in a variety of fields: engineering, mathematics,
architecture, geology, botany, physiology, anatomy, sculpture, painting,
music, and poetry. He was always experimenting, with the result that few of
the projects he started were ever finished.
A superb draftsman, Leonardo was a master of soft modeling in light and
shade and of creating groups of figures perfectly balanced in a given space.
But in addition to an advanced knowledge of technique, what makes Leonardo one
of the great masters is his deep psychological insight into human nature. As
he himself expressed it, "A good painter has two chief objects to paint, man
and the intention of his soul."
One of Leonardo's most famous paintings is the Mona Lisa, a portrait of a
woman whose enigmatic smile captures an air of tenderness and humility, which,
Freud suggests, the memory of his mother called to his mind. Another is The
Last Supper, a study of the dramatic impact of Christ's announcement to his
disciples, "One of you will betray me." When he painted this picture on the
walls of the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, Leonardo was
experimenting with the use of an oil medium combined with plaster, and,
unfortunately, the experiment was unsuccessful. The painting quickly began to
disintegrate and has had to be repainted several times.
The second of the great triad of High Renaissance painters was Raphael
(1483-1520). By the time he was summoned to Rome in 1508 by Pope Julius II to
aid in the decoration of the Vatican, Raphael had absorbed the styles of
Leonardo and Michelangelo. His Stanze frescoes in the Vatican display a
magnificent blending of classical and Christian subject matter and are the
fruit of careful planning and immense artistic knowledge. Raphael possessed
neither Leonardo's intellectuality nor Michelangelo's power, but an appealing
serenity, particularly evident in his lovely Madonnas, characterizes his work.
Most critics consider him the master of perfect design and balanced
The individualism and idealism of the High Renaissance have no greater
representative than Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564). Stories of this
stormy and temperamental personality have helped shape our ideas of what a
genius is like. Indeed, there is something almost superhuman about both
Michelangelo and his art. His great energy enabled him to complete in four
years the entire work of painting the ceiling of the Vatican's Sistine Chapel
for Julius II, an area of several thousand square yards, and his art embodies
a superhuman ideal. With his unrivaled genius for rendering the human form, he
devised a wealth of expressive positions and attitudes for his figures in
scenes from Genesis. Their physical splendor is pagan, but their spirit is
Christian. The Creation of Adam depicts God, with the unborn Eve under
his left arm, instilling the divine spark of the soul into the body of Adam.
Michelangelo considered himself first and foremost a sculptor, and this
uomo universale ("complete man"), who also excelled as poet, engineer, and
architect, was undoubtedly the greatest sculptor of the Renaissance. The
glorification of the human body, particularly the male nude, was
Michelangelo's great achievement. Fired by the grandeur of such newly
discovered pieces of Hellenistic sculpture as the Laocoon group and strongly
influenced by Platonism with its dualism of body and soul, he expressed in
such works as his David, commissioned in 1501 when he was twenty-six, his
idealized view of human dignity and majesty. Succeeding Bramante as chief
architect of St. Peter's in 1546, Michelangelo designed the great dome and was
still actively creative as a sculptor when he died, almost in his ninetieth
year, in 1564. He had long outlived the High Renaissance.
The Venetian School
Following the sack of Rome in 1527 during the Italian Wars, the rich
trading city of Venice became the center of art. This wealthy, sophisticated
milieu produced a secular rather than a devotional school of painting. Most
Venetian artists were satisfied with the here and now; while they sometimes
painted Madonnas, they more often painted wealthy merchants and proud doges,
attired in rich brocades, jewels, and precious metals. There is a sensuousness
in the Venetian painting of this period, which is evident in the artists' love
of decoration, rich costumes, striking nude figures, and radiant light and
color. It has been said that while earlier painting consisted of drawing plus
coloring, at Venice color and light became paramount ingredients of painting.
The first master of the Venetian High Renaissance was Giorgione
(1477-1510), who, like Botticelli, rejected the quattrocento concern to be
scientific and realistic and substituted a delicate and dreamily poetic
lyricism. Common to all of his paintings is a mood of languor and relaxation
that is called Giorgionesque. The lyrical grace of his Sleeping Venus, for
example, has no erotic overtones. His paintings are fanciful idylls that have
no narrative content - they tell no story. Viewers are left free to extract
their own meaning from them.
The paintings of Titian (1477?-1576), who was probably born in the same
year as his friend Giorgione but outlived him by sixty-five years, are less
subtle and poetic. His Venuses, for example, are buxom Venetian models -
mature, opulent, and sex-conscious. During his long working life he proved
himself the master of every kind of subject ranging from religion to pagan
mythology and including portraits of the self-satisfied upper class, for which
he was most famed among his contemporaries. With his robust sensuousness and
view of all things in terms of light and color, Titian is the type-figure of
the Venetian painter, and his work has influenced many generations of modern
Mannerism: The "Anti-Renaissance" Style
In 1494, the French king Charles VIII crossed into Italy with an army of
40,000 men and inaugurated the Italian Wars that lasted until 1559 and turned
Italy into a battleground for the powerful new monarchies of France and Spain.
While Italians were losing control of their destiny, Machiavelli in The
Prince (1513) lamented his native land as being
more a slave than the Hebrews, more a servant than the Persians,
more scattered than the Athenians; without head, without government;
defeated, plundered, torn asunder, overrun; subject to every sort of
[Footnote 9: Trans. A. H. Gilbert, Machiavelli: The Prince and Other Works
(Chicago: Packard & Co., 1941), p. 177 (Ch. 26).]
In 1527 the unruly army of Charles V, Spanish king and German emperor,
sacked Rome, the major center of High Renaissance patronage and culture, and
its many artists, writers, and scholars fled the city.
Such unsettling developments, including the Protestant and Catholic
Reformations, produced a radical change of outlook on life. The earlier
optimistic emphasis on "the dignity of man" was replaced by a pessimistic
belief in man's evil nature - one of the basic assumptions in Machiavelli's
Prince. Michelangelo, who as we noted had long outlived the High Renaissance,
expressed a similar pessimism in the tortured figures of his late sculptures
and in his painting of the Last Judgment, filled with huddled figures pleading
for mercy before a wrathful God, painted on a wall of the Sistine Chapel in
the 1530s after the sack of Rome and more than forty years after his glorious
Creation of Adam on the ceiling. "Led by long years to my last hours,"
Michelangelo wrote, "too late, O world, I know your joys for what they are.
You promise a peace which is not yours to give."
From about 1530 to the end of the sixteenth century, Italian artists
responded to the stresses of the age in a new style called Mannerism.
Consciously revolting against the classical serenity and poise of High
Renaissance art, Mannerist artists sought to express their own inner vision -
often, like Michelangelo in his later years, their doubts and indecisions - in
a manner that evoked shock in the viewer.
Typical are the paintings of Parmigianino, who returned to his native
Parma from Rome after it was sacked, and the Venetian Tintoretto.
Parmigianino's Madonna with the Long Neck (1535) shows no logic of
structure. One cannot tell whether the distorted figure of the Madonna is
seated or standing. Her cloak billows out in defiance of gravity, and her
Child seems to be slipping off her lap. The prophet in the background,
standing beside a gigantic and purposeless column, is absurdly tiny.
The contemporaries of Tintoretto (1518-1594) had good reason to call him
"the thunderbolt of painting." His Abduction of the Body of St. Mark,
depicting the legend that three Venetians stole the body of their patron saint
from Alexandria during a storm, replaces the harmony, proportion, balance, and
idealized reality of the High Renaissance with dramatic force and movement,
violent contrast in light and color, imbalanced composition, and crowded
figures in uneasy and agitated poses. The upholders of the pure classical
tradition who opposed the innovations of the Mannerists considered
Tintoretto's work to be marred by careless execution and eccentric taste. One
of them wrote that "had he not abandoned the beaten track but rather followed
the beautiful style of his predecessors, he would have become one of the
greatest painters seen in Venice."
The outstanding Mannerist sculptor was the unconscionable braggart,
Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571). Both his sculpture and his famous Autobiography
reflect his violent and corrupt age's rejection of artistic and moral
standards. (He boasts of the number of personal enemies he has killed and
quotes a pope as excusing him on the ground that "men like Benvenuto, unique
in their profession, stand above the law.") His work like the gold cup
decorated with enamel and precious stones now in the Metropolitan Museum of
Art in New York, consists largely of similar elegant, showy trifles, which
Michelangelo described as "snuff-box ornaments."
Mannerist architects developed the Jesuit style, named for the new Jesuit
Order that first sponsored it in its Gesu (Jesus) church in Rome (c.
1575). The classical components of Renaissance architecture were manipulated
to achieve anticlassical effects. Columns and pilasters were paired for
greater richness, curved lines ending in volutes replaced straight lines, and
statues were often fixed to upper stories and roofs. The parts were arranged
to form a climax in the center and fused into one complex pattern.
Tintoretto's Abduction of the Body of St. Mark pictures both the old
architecture and the new. In the left background is a typical Renaissance
building with its repetition of the same pattern; the whole is no greater than
the sum of its parts. To the rear is a Jesuit-style structure whose effect is
much more than the sum of its parts - to leave out any part would destroy its
The Mannerist Jesuit style prefigures the fully developed Baroque
architecture of the seventeenth century, just as the Mannerist style of
Tintoretto - and El Greco (d. 1614) in Spain a generation later - prefigures
Baroque painting (see ch. 17). There is no clear dividing line between the
Mannerism of the sixteenth century and the Baroque of the seventeenth.
In contrast to the simple single-voiced or monophonic music - called
plain song or Gregorian chant - of the early Middle Ages, the late medieval
composers of church music wrote many-voiced or polyphonic music. Polyphony
often involved a shuttling back and forth from one melody to another - musical
counterpoint. By the fifteenth century as many as twenty-four voice parts were
combined into one intricately woven musical pattern. The composers of the High
Renaissance continued to produce complicated polyphonic music, but in a calmer
and grander manner. Compared with the style of his predecessors, that of the
Flemish composer Josquin des Pres (c. 1440-1521), the founder of High
Renaissance music, "is both grander and more simple ... and the rhythms and
forms used are based on strict symmetry and mathematically regular
proportions. Josquin handled all technical problems of complicated
constructions with the same ease and sureness one finds in the drawings of
Leonardo and Raphael." ^10 During the sixteenth century, also, instruments
such as the violin, spinet, and harpsichord developed from more rudimentary
[Footnote 10: F. B. Artz, From the Renaissance to Romanticism: Trends in Style
in Art, Literature, and Music, 1300-1830 (Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 1962), p. 102.]
The Renaissance in Italy stimulated many new forms of secular music,
especially the madrigal, a love lyric set to music. Castiglione in The
Courtier insists that the ability to sing, read music, and play an
instrument was essential for gentlemen and ladies. In addition to the Italian
madrigal, French chansons and German Lieder added to the growing
volume of secular music.