Main Renaissance Page


Italy Part One


Italy Part Two


Northern Renaissance


Civilizations Past And Present

Book:        Ancient Times

Author:      Robert A. Guisepi

Date:        2004

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

Renaissance elite.


     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

and aspirations.


     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

in Rome.


     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

     disaster. ^9


[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

essential unity.


     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.


Renaissance Music


     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.


International History Project