The Visual Arts of the Italian Renaissance


   In the popular imagination, the Renaissance is about visual arts. Indeed, the technical, symbolic, and visual changes in visual art between the high middle ages and the Renaissance is spectacular to say the least. There are four distinct developments in the visual character of painting that are traditionally understood as the Renaissance revolution in art: 1.) the development of linear perspective to give the illusion of three dimensions on a two dimensional surface; 2.) the development of chiaroscuro, or "light-dark" painting, which was the use of light and dark pigmens in close proximity to give high contrast to edges and surfaces in a painting; 3) the development of mathematical models of proportion to exactly match the proportions of an object with the relative proportions of its representation; 4) the development of a highly symbolic pictorial language much of which was based on Neoplatonic philosophy. In the area of sculpture, the primary departure from the middle ages was the rediscovered interest in free-standing sculpture, as had been done in classical Rome and Greece, while sculpture in the middle ages was primarily attached to architecture.

Duccio di Buoninsegna, MadonnaAnonymous, Madonna with Child

   Both images above depict more or less the same scene, the Virgin Mary or Madonna with the infant Jesus. The first is painted by the late medieval Italian artist, Duccio di Buoninsegna. Lighting is relatively even throughout the painting and there is little background. Proportions do not correspond to life-like proportions, particularly the relationship between Mary and the infant. The second painting, an anonymous painting from the High Renaissance, shows a much greater interest in the background which, following the experience of visual perspective, is smaller and more desaturated in color than the foreground. Proportions are in strictly mathematical terms more accurate (but not completely accurate). Notice also that the lighting is not uniform; there are extreme lights and extreme darks. Some of these extremes are right next to one another, as in the Madonna's dress, producing dramatic high contrast.

   There are some misconcepions about the revolution in pictorial arts in the Renaissance, much of which has to do with our own modern sensbilities than with the experience of the time. First, it would seem that Renaissance arts are more realistic than the arts which preceded. In this view, medieval artists were essentially bad artists who couldn't master simple things such as perspective (people being painted larger than buildings, for instance) or proportion (people with large heads and small bodies). Defenders of the medieval tradition argue that the art is more symbolic, representing the nature of humanity in relation to the material and spiritual worlds more than representing reality. However, the literature on medieval art betrays this point of view; medievals are constantly praising art work that they're seeing as being true to life. The most common compliment a medieval writer would make about an artist would be to swear that he could almost see the figures move and breathe because they were drawn so realistically! So it seems that all that medieval art which we regard as distressingly unrealistic was in fact seen as realistic. This leads us to a disturbing question: if art that we regard as unrealistic and amateurish, including stick figures, is viewed by another culture as being completely realistic, this means that our concept of "realistic" is not universally applicable. In other words, "realism" is the way we understand our visual arts.

   The painters and writers of the Renaissance never used the term "realistic," but most commonly described what they were doing as "imitating nature." This meant in particular a heightened attention to the way light worked in the natural world: color, contrast, perspectival fading of color, and so on. However, imitating nature also meant something higher: imitating the creative process of nature. In this view, the artist was a kind of microcosm who in his creativity expressed the nature of the divine, just like nature in its creativity manifested the nature of the divine.


Cimabue and Giotto

   Since there is no clear demarcation between medieval and Renaissance art, it's perhaps best to understand the transition in the same way it was understood in the Renaissance. Most Renaissance writers on art tended to point to two medieval Italian artists as the foundation of the new visual arts: Cimabue (1240-1302) and Giotto (1266-1337), both Florentine artists. While both painted in the standard repetoire of medieval visual arts, they both stressed psychological reactions over other things in their characters. This emphasis on psychology and reaction was seen as new in their day and is why the Renaissance artists and writers saw them as originary figures. This emphasis on psychology and reaction would form the basic visual language of representing human figures and it was accomplished by modifying figure positions and by painting detailed facial expressions.


Brunelleschi

   The artist that is credited with discovering the principles of linear perspective was the Florentine painter Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446). According to the legend, his first perspective painting was a street scene which he asked people view through a special hole. His viewers were so astonished by the illusion that people lined up for days to view this new device.

   There is something very revealing about this anecdote which deserves our momentary attention. The reason that Brunelleschi demanded that his viewers look at the painting through a hole is that he believed that the perspective illusion would not occur unless his viewer was in the same position relative to the painting as Brunelleschi, the painter, was relative to the scene he painted. In other words, the advent of linear perspective meant that the viewer was essentially seeing the scene precisely as the artist had seen it . From the Renaissance onwards, the visual illusion of painting is that you are viewing the scene through the artist's eyes. This new viewer perspective made the artist's perspective very important. It isn't a quirk that the Renaissance invented the idea of the artist as artist , that is, as important as the work that he created.


Masaccio

   It was, however, Masaccio (1401-1428), a painter of San Giovanni di Valdarno, that provided the model for Renaissance visual arts through much of the fifteenth century. He developed and employed linear perspective and brought the chiarascuro technique to its fullest in the early Renaissance. He was particuarly well-known throughout the fifteenth century in his dramatic rendition of human psychology. When writers praised his ability to imitate nature, they invariably pointed to his ability to present human emotion. To do this, he posed his figures dramatically with often contorted faces; to depict strong emotion, such as the shame felt by Adam and Eve on being expelled from the Garden, he employed high contrast chiaroscuro to emphasize the suffering written all over their faces and bodies.


Sandro Botticelli

   The most famous imitator of Masaccio was the Florentine painter, Sandro Botticelli (1444-1510), who combined the perspective and psychological emphasis of Masaccio with allegorical and Neoplatonic ideas. While he painted both Christian and classical themes, his introduction of philosophical ideas into the visual language of painting completely reoriented the practice of visual arts. Painting in Botticelli's hands now expressed high ideas and had the same virtue of persuasion as rhetoric. While the humanists were stressing the marriage of philosophy and rhetoric, Botticelli and his followers were applying that emphasis to the visual arts. While modern critics stress the realism of Renaissance art, at the time, the art was experienced as philosophical, metaphorical, and symbolic.

Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus
Sandro Botticelli
The Birth of Venus

Italian Renaissance
Neoplatonism

   The Birth of Venus exemplifies how Botticelli turned a standard classical theme into a philosophical representation. The painting is a Neoplatonic allegory concerning the nature of Love and its relationship to the real world. Since this is the birth of Venus, the nude figure of Venus represents Love before it is corrupted and covered by the world.

Sandro Botticelli, Nativity
Sandro Botticelli
Nativity

   The Neoplatonic stress on the intellect eventually led Botticelli to an extreme Christian spiritualism under the influence of Savonarola. Paintings such as the Nativity above expressed a renuncation of the world and the strong spiritual bonds that humans have to God. While Botticelli was enormously popular in his youth and middle age, in his old age, in the first decades of the high Renaissance, he fell into obscurity and died in complete poverty.


The High Renaissance

   The High Renaissance in art is typically dated from the life of Leonardo da Vinci. The High Renaissance saw a deepening of the trends begun in the fifteenth century, especially the development of chiaroscuro painting. There was correspondingly more emphasis paid on psychology and pscyhological reactions so that High Renaissance painting and sculpture emphasizes dramatic and even melodramatic figures in often impossible positions. Art historians emphasize this aspect of High Renaissance art with its visual repetoire of the movement and contortion of the body. While there is figure movement in the paintings of Masaccio and Botticelli, there is still a formality and serenity to this movement. The artwork of the High Renaissance, however, is often about bodies in motion and begins to emphasize the anatomical mechanisms of motion, such as musculature and vasulature, to illustrate that motion and its relationship to psychology and reaction.


Renaissance Gallery
Giorgione
Titian
   While the fifteenth century was largely dominated by Florentine painters, the High Renaissance saw the birth of the Venetian school whose most representative artists were Giovanni Bellini (1426/8-1516), Giorgione (1478-1510), and Titian (1477-1576). The Venetian school departed from High Renaissance motifs in two principal ways: they de-emphasized philosophy and they developed a new visual language of strong, dramatic, and saturated colors. As did the Florentines, the Venetians emphasized movement, but they also included an element of tranquility or satisfaction in their figures. In the painting below by Titian, of the Holy Family, all of these elements: the stress on pictorial quality over philosophy, the use of rich and saturated colors, and the combination of dramatic movement with psychological tranquility, are evident in the figures of Joseph and Mary:

   Giorgione had an enormous influence on later High Renaissance artists and indeed over European painting traditions well into the nineteenth century. Besides the dubious distinction of being the inventor of the reclining nude painting, Giorgione reconceived the relationship between figures and the background environment that they were in. In Giorgione, human figures become dwarfed by their surrounding environment and can only respond passively to it. While we think of the High Renaissance as producing a heroic view of humanity and human potential, early in the High Renaissance Giorgione was exploring how human beings are subject to the environment around them, an anxiety that was to dominate European art from the late sixteenth century well into the twentieth.

Titian, The Holy Family
Titian
The Holy Family

Raphael

   The High Renaissance represents the period of the highest creativity and accomplishment in Italian art and sculpture of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries; the most creative period of the High Renaissance was the first fifty years of the sixteenth century. Besides Leonardo da Vinci, the period was dominated by Raphael (1483-1520) and Michelangelo Buonarotti (1475-1564).

   Raphael was one of those immensely talented people that pursued his art as if it were the simplest thing in the world, adopting techniques and styles rapidly and easily and producing visual solutions and paintings with ease. He apprenticed and set up his own shop at the age of seventeen in Perugia. In 1504, at the age of twenty-one, he moved to Florence and began to thrive. By the death of Leonardo, there were two distinct painting traditions in the Renaissance. The Florentine style, following Leonardo, emphasized motion; the style popular in smaller Italian cities emphasized geometry and spatial placement of figures and objects. Raphael in his early years clearly adopted the latter style; his figures are very serene and static and his paintings are among the most sophisticated in pictorial effects.

   In 1508, however, he went to Rome and began a series of wall paintings, called frescoes, for Pope Julius II. The most famous of these frescoes are the paintings in the Stanza della Segnatura which are pictorial representations of Theology, Poetry, and Philosophy. In one painting, the School of Athens, he represents Plato and Aristotle debating one another. In these paintings, Raphael combined the two dominant Italian traditions; this combination of both motion and geometry deeply influenced later painting. Raphael also began to experiment with placing the central action in the background of the painting. In The School of Athens , Plato and Aristotle debate towards the back of the painting rather than in the foreground. This focus on placing important action in the background would become a staple of Raphael's visual language. In his later years, Raphael essentially headed a large industry cranking out artwork.


Michelangelo Buonarotti

   Like Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo Buonarotti (1475-1564) seems to sum up the whole of the Renaissance: as a sculptor, painter, architect, poet, and Neoplatonic philosopher, he embodied most of the revolutionary changes in the High Renaissance. For all that, he came very close to never becoming an artist. His parents had visions of social climbing, so they kept him in school rather than allowing him to apprentice for a trade. He was thirteen when he became an apprentice to Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449-1494), who was famous for painting fresco cycles. But Michelangelo seems to have hated painting and was far more interested in the sculpture of Donatello and in the old, excavated sculptures from classical Rome in the private collection of the Medici family. His interest in sculpture gained him the friendship of the Medicis at the tender age of sixteen, where he participated in the literary, philosophical, musical, and artistic conversations in the Medici household.

   The fall of the Medicis and the rise in power of the puritanical Savonarola in the Florentine Republic convinced Michelangelo to skip town and move to Rome. The only art that Savonarola approved of was religious art and Michelangelo wanted to imitate classical art on profane and pagan subjects. There, in his late teens and early twenties, he carved his first large statues, a statue of Bacchus and the Pietà, a representation of Mary and the dead Christ which was a popular subject in Renaissance painting but never a subject for sculpture. These statues are carved in the tradition of static figures—geometry and spatial placement over motion.

   He returned to Florence in 1501 and began several projects for the city itself, including a colossal statue of David. He was soon lured to Rome to work on the tomb of Julius II; Michelangelo planned out no fewer than forty statues for the pope's tomb! Julius, however, soon lost interest in his tomb and set Michelangelo to work on painting frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo was deeply insulted by this commission; even though the Sistine Chapel is the most important chapel in the Vatican, ceiling paintings were considered less important than wall paintings. Michelangelo had gotten the least important painting job in the chapel, and he hated to paint. These paintings, however, are perhaps the most famous of High Renaissance paintings. They depict nine scenes from Genesis : three of the Creation, three of Adam and Eve, and three from the story of Noah. Around the edges are paintings of the seven biblical prophets and the five Greek sybils (prophets) of classical antiquity that had predicted the birth and life of Christ.

   When the Medicis reassumed power in Firenze in 1512, Michelangelo began working for the two Medici popes, Leo X and Clement VII, for whom he designed and executed the Medici tombs in San Lorenzo. After 1534, at the death of Clement VII, Michelangelo lived entirely in Rome and only had popes for patrons. By this point, the Reformation was going full force in northern Europe and Pope Paul III was busy reforming the Catholic Church. Although Michelangelo concentrated almost entirely on architectural projects in these last years, he was commissioned by Paul III to paint the wall of the Sistine Chapel. This final frescoe, The Last Judgement, painted between 1536 and 1541, represents all the issues circulating about the reform of the church.

Michelangelo, Christ as Judge
Michelangelo
Christ as Judge, The Final Judgement

   At the center of this massive painting, Christ is judging the souls of the dead; the saved rise to one side and the damned fall to the other. The painting is a mass of confusion, one of the most eloquent visual representations of the consternation invoked by the Reformation.


Renaissance Reader
Michelangelo, Selected Poetry
   While Michelangelo was primarily known in his time as a sculptor, painter, and architect, he was also famous for his literary and philosphical projects, including a sonnet cycle. He was very much a Neoplatonist and many of his sonnets reflect both his Neoplatonism and his application of that philosophy to the purpose and nature of art. Some of these sonnets are standard love poems, but many are very important for finding a literary language to express homosexual desire. The language that Michelangelo was a combination of standard courtly love language mixed with Neoplatonism. With the language of love articulated by the Neoplatonists, Michelangelo and others were finding a public language for homosexuality; in some respects, many of his drawings and sculptures were part of that effort. While it has been a standard rule in European art history since the nineteenth century to desexualize the "nude," the visual language of the nude in the Renaissance was highly charged with sexuality and the efforts of Michelangelo and others to construct a visual language of the naked human body was also a struggle to develop a public language of sexuality as well.

Michelangelo, Study of a Nude
Michelangelo
Study of a Nude

Mannerism

   In the earliest years of the High Renaissance, artists stressed how they were "imitating" nature in their works, which they believed to be the highest source of imitation. Yet Renaissance art was highly imitative, particularly of classical models. These models steadily increased in number, not only as more classical art was discovered, but also as the number of Italian artists with various styles increased. Not only that, the artist was increasingly seen as an inventor and a creator and some artists, such as Leonardo and Michelangelo, enjoyed what amounts to the Renaissance equivalent of celebrity stardom.

   As the importance of the artist increased and the awareness of how artists drew on former models, Renaissance art increasingly began to foreground the technical skills involved in its production and to make explicity what styles and models, sometimes several at a time, were being imitated. This type of art stressing technique and stylistic borrowings more than "imitating" nature has been called mannerism by European art historians. Mannerism often led to significant distortions in figures, in color, and in perspective, such as in Michelangelo's Last Judgement , or else rich and highly visually allusive paintings, such as those of the Venetian painters Jacopo Tintoreto (1518-1594) or Paolo Veronese (1528-1588).

Veronese, The Finding of Moses
Paolo Veronese
The Finding of Moses

   There are many theories why Renaissance art suddenly developed a Mannerist vocabulary, including the cultural shock of the Reformation and its aftermath in the Catholic church as a new age of uncertainty, violence, and confusion erupted onto the world stage. One should also consider that Renaissance painting, because of its celebrity status, would naturally start focussing more on itself and on the circumstances of its production than on its subject matter. Mannerism also presupposes a very sophisticated audience that can identify and appreciate the distortions, borrowings, and technical skill being foregrounded in the works.

   Perhaps the greatest mannerist artists was one of the last in the tradition, a non-Italian named Domenikos Theotokopoulos, or El Greco (1541-1614), who is a transitional figure between the Renaissance and the seventeenth century. Born and raised on Crete, El Greco came to Venice and worked under Titian. His art is full of glowing and unusual color, with figures with long and thin limbs and appendages. He was caught up in the pious fervor of the Counter-Reformation, especially when he began to work in Rome, and he put all the mannerist techniques he had learned into expressing this new, other-worldly and self-denying spirituality.

El Greco, Mater Dolorosa
El Greco
Mater Dolorosa

Sculpture

   The fifteenth century saw a dramatic fascination with antiquity and the objects of antiquity. Much of the architecture and artwork of the ancient world was rediscovered, including immense amounts of statuary. This was indeed an exciting time to live in; while the Italians had always been surrounded by the architecture and some ancient sculpture, every day in the fifteenth century saw a new discovery. The largest collection of rediscovered statuary belonged to the Medicis and many Renaissance artists learned their craft from these ancient statues.

   The great revolution in Renaissance sculpture was the revival of free-standing sculpture. Throughout the European middle ages, sculpture was always relief sculpture, that is, attached to some other object such as a wall, a ceiling or a pillar. The recovery of classical free-standing statuary revived interest in this art form—the only aspect of Renaissance art that is clearly and unambiguously modelled after classical models is free-standing sculpture.

   The earliest masters of free-standing sculpture were Nanni di Banco (1405-1421) and Donatello (1386-1466). Nanni di Banco invented a sculptural language in which the figures were active, the sculptures also have deep lines so that there is high contrast between light and dark areas. Donatello eventually developed a sculpture heavily indebted to classical models; this would constitute the main language of sculpture until the nineteenth century. In particular, Donatello reintroduced an aspect of classical sculpture: the visual expression of the relationship of the core to the surface of the sculpture. The surface manifests itself in clothing, drapery, and other accoutrements; below that surface, however, is a body that the sculpture has to somehow express as beneath the clothing, drapery, or whatever. This sculptural problem is perhaps the single most common aspect of Renaissance sculpture after Donatello.

   During Michelangelo's lifetime, few sculptors could really make a go of it. Part of this was due to the immense talent of Michelangelo, but part of it was due to the fact that Michelangelo was always making great plans but never executing them. The most famous of these competitors was Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571), who was primarily a goldsmith. Like the older Michelangelo, he is a master of Mannerist sculpture, and his bronze Perseus , commissioned for the city square of Firenze, is considered one of the great works of mannerism. He is more famous today, though, for his Autobiography , in which he creates a mythology of the artist and his freedom. This Autobiography , full of self-praise on every page, completes a process begun over a century earlier in constructing the artist as a special visionary and as occupying an important in society as an inventor and creator.


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1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 9-28-97