Italian Renaissance Art (1400–1600)
First Things First...
The term Renaissance means rebirth and generally refers to this period’s revival of an interest in classical antiquity, ancient literature, humanistic principles, and classical artistic styles. Many textbooks contrast the interest in naturalism and humanism found in Renaissance art with the more abstract style and otherworldly focus of medieval art.
At this point in the semester it is helpful to remind students where they have been thus far—especially if you are doing the whole survey in one semester. A nice opening activity might be to show students a partially completed timeline such as the one found below and ask them to insert where additional works belong on the timeline.
- Donatello, David, mid-fifteenth century
- Brunelleschi, Dome for Florence Cathedral, 1420–35
- Brunelleschi, San Lorenzo, mid-fifteenth century
- Masaccio, Trinity, c. 1425
- Masaccio, Tribute Money, c. 1427
- Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa, c. 1505
- Leonardo da Vinci, Last Supper, c. 1495
- Raphael, School of Athens, c. 1510
- Raphael, Madonna of the Meadows, c. 1505
- Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel Ceiling and Creation of Adam, c. 1510
- Michelangelo, David, 1501–4
- Titian, Venus of Urbino, 1538
- Parmigianino, Madonna of the Long Neck, 1534-1540
- Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel Last Judgment, 1537-1541
- Sofonisba Anguissola, Self-Portrait at the Easel, 1556
- Sofonisba Anguissola, Portrait of the Artist’s Sisters, 1555
- Annibale Carracci, The Beaneater, 1584-1585
- Annibale Carracci, Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine, 1585-1587
The Renaissance section sometimes presents difficulties for a couple reasons. Oftentimes we find ourselves a little (or a lot) behind by this point in the semester and it is hard to quickly move through the Renaissance section because it is usually covered in great detail in traditional survey texts, sometimes two to three chapters are devoted to it! Furthermore, students may recognize these works and want to spend a good amount of time on them. With these challenges in mind, what follows offers a way to navigate some of the most famous works of this period in an efficient manner. This lecture material combines Italian art of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in one lecture, with suggested opportunities to expand on the material should you find you have more time.
Renaissance: meaning “rebirth,” the Renaissance refers to the art of Europe made between 1300–1600.
- Proto-Renaissance: 1300s.
- Early Renaissance: 1400s.
- High Renaissance: 1500s.
Otherwise known as the:
- Trecento: “300s” in Italian, referring to the 1300s.
- Quattrocento: “400s” in Italian, referring to the 1400s.
- Cinquecento: “500s” in Italian or 1500s.
Affetti- human passion and feelings conveyed through physical gesture and the movements of the body.
Continuous narrative- the method for telling multiple episodes of a story within a single work of art.
Counter Reformation– the response of Roman church to the Protestant Reformation wherein beliefs were clarified, reaffirmed, and justified.
Foreshortening- the illusion created on a flat surface in which figures and objects appear to recede or project sharply into space.
One-point linear perspective- a method of creating the illusion of three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional surface (created by delineating a horizon line and multiple orthogonal lines, which recede to meet the vanishing point).
Orthogonal- any line running back into the represented space of a picture perpendicular to the imagined picture plane.
Mannerism- roughly 1515-1600, a style marked by a departure from High Renaissance classicism.
Protestant Reformation- a movement that began with criticism of the Pope and the Church and resulted in the development a new branch of Christianity.
A few main themes that can guide your discussion of all the major Italian Renaissance works include: The revival of classical styles and ideas (specifically humanism), return to the naturalistic style (3D objects and space), and the rising status of the individual (both artist and patron).
Donatello’s David serves as a nice introduction to the Renaissance, because it signals the growing interest in the medium, style, and subject of classical art but adapts this vocabulary to Christian themes, as this religion was now the dominant one in Europe. It also shows artists developing signature styles and, in Donatello’s case, pushing social boundaries.
This sculpture contrasts nicely with Romanesque and Gothic relief sculpture, which typically decorated the portals of large cathedrals and of which there are a number of good examples such as the jamb sculptures of Chartres Cathedral or Gislebertus’s Last Judgment over the door of Saint Lazare Cathedral at Atun, France. An important point of contrast here is the fact that earlier large-scale sculpture decorated architecture. As such, there was less danger of it generating idol worship and violating the third commandment forbidding graven images. One rarely finds life-sized, naturalistic sculpture in early Christian art or early medieval art. It was not until the Renaissance, when Europe was firmly Christian and comfortably distanced from pagan idols that naturalistic sculpture in the round made a large-scale comeback.
The homoerotic nature of this work—demonstrated most obviously by the way the feather from the helmet of Goliath runs along David’s entire leg to his upper rear thigh—is always sure to start a lively class discussion. I find this a good time to make (or reiterate) the point that societies construct different ideas about gender, social roles, ideals of beauty, etc., and that these aspects of a culture are in constant flux and we cannot apply our modern sensibilities to our analysis of other cultures.
Donatello was intentionally pushing social boundaries here with his provocative pose and his use of nudity—that is, his combination of a lack of clothing and the presence of boots and a hat—in order to challenge his viewers. The fact that he revived the lost-wax bronze technique was also very innovative for the time and enhances the sensuality of his surface texture. Donatello was able to be so experimental, because he had the support and protection of the Medici family, a wealthy and influential banking family that operated as the de facto rulers of Florence and who saw themselves as great patrons of the arts.
Legend has it (Giorgio Vasari’s legend that is) that Brunelleschi and Donatello made a trip down to Rome together, and each came back inspired by the art of classical antiquity. It is evident that the Pantheon, discussed in a previous lecture on ancient Rome, directly inspired Brunelleschi’s dome for the Cathedral of Florence; however, because Italian Renaissance artists did not have the same recipe for concrete, Brunelleschi needed to develop several key innovative architectural techniques, such as: a double shell for the dome, a unique way of laying the bricks so that they supported the following level of bricks, and a system of rings holding the dome together. (For more specific descriptions of these see the above mentioned resource from National Geographic.)
By comparing Brunelleschi’s Dome with Chartres Cathedral or another Gothic cathedral, students can see the difference between Gothic architecture’s ethereal, diaphanous, and vertical nature and the architecture of the Renaissance, which was inspired by an ancient Roman example and expresses the ideas of an architecture that is firmly grounded in the earthly world by responding to gravity and the need for solid support. Other references to classical architecture include the use of columns, minimal decoration, symmetry, and rationalized proportions. This work is also illustrative of the rising status of the artist, because Brunelleschi had to win the commission through a competition. His ideas were his own—he kept them secret until he was awarded the victory—and his victory brought with it fame and celebrity.
- If you have extra time: Brunelleschi’s San Lorenzo (or Santo Spirito) can show a more realized version of his architectural style. For the cathedral dome, Brunelleschi had to make certain concessions. He had to design it slightly pointed—a lesson he learned from Gothic architecture—in order for it to successfully stand on the preexisting drum of the church’s crossing. At San Lorenzo and Santo Spirito, Brunelleschi had more of an opportunity to embrace rounded arches and execute a comprehensive plan based on classical ideals such as symmetry and harmonious proportions. The clarity of his architectural style is evident through his approach to materials. When an element is structural, Brunelleschi tended to signal this by using the local grey stone, pietra serena. Also, by showing an interior view of one of his churches, you can set yourself up nicely for a comparison between Brunelleschi’s architecture and the fictive architecture of Masaccio’s Trinity, discussed below.
In his attempt to learn the secrets of the Pantheon’s dome, Brunelleschi is said to have made many accurate sketches of the ancient pagan temple. It is thought that these attempts to precisely translate a three-dimensional building into a two-dimensional rendering inspired Brunelleschi’s rediscovery of one-point linear perspective. Although Brunelleschi’s two demonstration panels (see here for more on these) were the first paintings to showcase this technique, these paintings do not survive, and—therefore—Masaccio’s Trinity gets the credit. Vasari claimed that Brunelleschi and Masaccio were friends, and that the former taught the latter the technique of perspective. Evidence suggesting this collaboration is found when comparing Brunelleschi’s architecture to the Trinity fresco. Masaccio’s painting clearly incorporates the style of Brunelleschi, identified by his color-coding of structural components and use of classical vocabulary.
After describing the key elements of the subject (God, Christ, Holy Spirit, Mary & John, and the donor portraits) and the tools used to make linear perspective (vanishing point, orthogonals, horizon line), I find it helpful to ask students to take out a sheet of paper and draw a basic perspectival rendering of the classroom as I model this on the board. Such an activity demonstrates how one can make a 3-D space by simply making the orthogonals (lines perpendicular to the picture plane) converge at the vanishing point.
To contextualize Masaccio’s Trinity, ask the students why the patrons would want such a painting. This will help them realize that Trinity is effectively a real altarpiece depicting a fictive chapel that allowed one to occupy sacred real estate inside the church and prepare for their afterlife through artistic patronage. When seen from the church’s nave, Masaccio’s Trinity appeared to be a real chapel. The artist conveyed a painted world that aligned with the viewer’s actual world.
As was the case with Medici sponsorship of Donatello, patronage was also an important issue here. The donor portraits provide an opportunity to talk about the rise of portraiture, its commemorative aspect, and the fact that the donors hoped later visitors would pray on their behalf to help them in the afterlife. At this point, I show the bottom portion of the fresco with the depiction of the skeleton, which is a reminder of everyone’s mortality. Through the inscription, which can be seen as something akin to a speech bubble, the skeleton proclaims that what you now are (alive), I once was and what I am now (dead), you will one day become. I like to test the students’ understanding of linear perspective by asking if they can identify the orthogonals in this bottom portion of the fresco. Sometimes students struggle with this because the foreshortened edges of the sarcophagus and the capitals are very small and they converge upwards towards the same vanishing point, that is, they converge in an opposite manner than those in the upper portion of the fresco.
- If you have extra time: Masaccio’s Tribute Money allows for a discussion of atmospheric perspective and important issues related to narrative art. Many of the Christian narratives found in the churches wanted to bring the biblical stories “to life” for the viewer. Subsequently, one can observe a general tendency to appeal to the viewer through naturalistic settings and figures, vernacular details, and displays of psychological tension or drama. Linear perspective provided artists with more space and, consequently, the opportunity to convey more detailed stories. Another artistic convention that fostered greater narrative capabilities was continuous narrative seen here. Masaccio showed three events from one story in a single frame, rather than dividing the scenes as Giotto did. (This same analysis can apply to Ghiberti’s first set of baptistery doors versus his second set, if you want to discuss this concept there instead.) The story was told out of order because the artist wanted to highlight Christ’s role, and, therefore, his scene is shown in the middle. The artist was not necessarily educating the viewer about this story. The odds were that the viewer already knew it, and so Masaccio could take artistic license. Christ’s importance is also highlighted by the fact that the vanishing point of the perspectival system falls near his head. In addition to linear perspective, this fresco uses atmospheric perspective to show depth in a natural setting by making objects that are further away smaller, more bluish, and less sharply defined. The artist also used the lighting to draw the viewer into the story and make the scene more believable and relatable. The illusionistic lighting within the painting enters from the right and casts shadows that fall towards left. As such, the lighting within the painting would have matched the actual lighting in the chapel, as there was originally a widow on the wall to the right of the painting.
Leonardo’s Mona Lisa connects nicely with Masaccio’s works, because it shows his approach to atmospheric perspective, achieved by using the painting techniques of sfumato and chiaroscuro and also by demonstrating the rise of an interest in portraiture of patrons. By comparing Leonardo’s portrait to earlier portraits of women, it is easy to see that many important aspects of female portraiture and painting in general were changing (oil paint, frontal view, greater interest in subject’s psychology) in the direction of humanism, naturalism, and individualism.
Leonardo’s Last Supper allows for a continued examination of linear perspective and naturalism. Here, not only did the artist use orthogonals to create a sense of depth, but again the scene’s lighting (falling from the left and casting shadow to the right) aligns with the actual windows in the room. This would have made the viewers feel as if the painted reality was an extension of their own, an aspect of the work which is reinforced when one considers how people actually used this room. This space functioned as the monks’ dining room but the arrangement of the chairs would have been very different from a typical modern cafeteria. Seats were not arranged at large tables in the center of the room. Rather, it was common practice in monastic settings to arrange seats in a single row with their backs to the wall and the table running in front of them. Such an arrangement prevented conversations during mealtime and fostered a more meditative, prayerful experience for the monks. When seated in this way, the monks could contemplate the scene of the Last Supper before them, imagining how they might have reacted if they were there. Leonardo’s composition, linear perspective, and lighting scheme would have aided such a meditation because the apostles’ table would have appeared as a continuation of the monks’ table, albeit on a higher plane.
There are important points to make about technique and the artist as innovator here. Leonardo felt restricted by the fast-drying tempera paint used in the traditional fresco technique. At this point, he had become interested in capitalizing on the qualities of oil paint and tried to incorporate this medium into his fresco. The results were disastrous and the painting required its first of many restorations during Leonardo’s lifetime.
This work is also characteristic of Renaissance humanism because it explores the psychological state of those depicted. Every apostle reacts differently to the news that Christ will be betrayed, turned over to authorities, and crucified. Leonardo tried to capture each person’s reaction and personality through their outward actions (affetti). The chaos of the various reactions is countered by Christ’s calm, centered, position. He anchors the composition with his pyramidal pose and the viewer is drawn to him because the vanishing point directs one toward him.
Another way this work is characteristic of Renaissance naturalism is the fact that the artist did not depict the holy figures with bright, gold disks to symbolize halos. Christ’s head is framed instead by the sky visible in the landscape out of the window. This approach to a halo makes for an instructive comparison with either Masaccio’s halos in the Tribute Money, which he foreshortens almost like hats, and with Giotto’s halos in his Madonna and Child, which are represented as large gold disks that surround the faces of the saints. Although Giotto was interested in developing naturalistic figures and space, his depiction of the halos led him to overlap some of the faces, effectively obscuring his depictions of the adjacent holy figures. Leonardo resolved this tension with his move away from symbolic elements and embraced a more naturalistic scene.
Raphael’s School of Athens is a fresco similar to Leonardo’s Last Supper in that it uses linear perspective to create a large setting for a multi-figure scene. Unlike Leonardo’s work, Raphael’s depicts scholars, philosophers, mathematicians, and thinkers of the past rather than biblical characters. It was also made in Rome for Pope Julius II. These aspects of the work are characteristic of the High Renaissance, because they signal a shift towards a more humanistic subject matter and indicate that the artistic center has moved to Rome, where the Pope was the most sought-after patron of the arts. Working for the Pope at the Vatican was the most prestigious commission an artist could obtain at that time and provided them with an international stage for their works.
This artistic program spans the four walls of the Pope’s private chamber and demonstrates the fact that the Christian church is now integrating knowledge from many different sources (even pagan and Muslim thinkers such as Aristotle, Plato, and Averroes). Such a notion is visually represented in the fact that the architecture of the space in which the thinkers gather was similar to the contemporaneous view of the new St. Peter’s Basilica, then under construction.
To be sure, the Renaissance outlook is one of revival, but not solely in order to pay homage to the past. The greatest artists and thinkers of Renaissance Italy aimed to surpass their cultural ancestors. This aspect of the work is seen through the lens of portraiture. Raphael based the figure of Aristotle on Leonardo, the figure of Heraclitus on Michelangelo (who was working on the Sistine Ceiling a short walk away while Raphael painted this), and Raphael painted his own self-portrait looking out at the viewer from the far right.
- If you have more time: discuss Raphael’s Madonna and Child and then ask students to compare it with Giotto’s Madonna and Child in order to demonstrate the key differences between the Proto-Renaissance and the High Renaissance.
Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling with a detail of the Creation of Adam was painted in the Pope’s chapel just steps away from Raphael’s School of Athens at about the same time, again showing students the importance of papal patronage for the development of the High Renaissance. However, because Michelangelo viewed himself as sculptor first and painter second, he was not pleased with this commission. He did not want to paint the chapel ceiling and even wrote a poem about unpleasant this work was (see PowerPoint slides for more on this).
Despite his reluctance, this commission demonstrates the rising status of the artist, not through self-portraiture but rather through the idea of artistic license. Michelangelo depicted scenes from the biblical account of the creation of the world down the center of the chapel’s ceiling. When depicting The Creation of Adam, Michelangelo significantly modified the biblical story to suit his own artistic and ideological position. After giving Adam a body, God prepares to give him a soul. The biblical account says that God breathed into Adam’s nostrils, but Michelangelo changed this to reflect God bestowing the soul through the use of his hands, as an artist who creates his own masterpieces with his hands might do.
Details of Adam and God illustrate Michelangelo’s hard contour lines and crisp modeling, a style that is very sculptural and further alludes to his privileged view of sculpture over painting. To get a sense of Michelangelo as a sculptor, we turn to one of his most famous works, the David.
Michelangelo’s David was originally intended for the top of the cathedral of Florence, and, therefore, the size of the hands and the protrusion of the hairline were exaggerated so as to be visible from the street. Another aspect of the project that limited Michelangelo’s work was that he was assigned a block of marble that had been started by another artist. Michelangelo was very selective with his blocks of marble, believing that the spirit of the sculpture resided within the stone and his artistic intuition was necessary for selecting the right portion of marble from the quarry. That he was still able to achieve his ideal form is evident when one compares the male nude of Adam from the Sistine Ceiling and his sculpture of David. These forms clearly convey a sense of Michelangelo’s idealized heroic nude, which was clearly inspired by examples from classical antiquity.
As in the Sistine Ceiling, Michelangelo took artistic license here. Rather than follow the story as closely as Donatello did with his David, Michelangelo did not represent David as a youthful, weak figure. Michelangelo gave David a strong, confident pose and a physique that could challenge the strength of the mighty Goliath. Whereas Donatello made it clear that David owed his victory to God’s divine intervention, Michelangelo gave us a sculpture of a man who is powerful, heroic, and even intellectual or strategic (in the sense that his expression suggests he may be planning his attack). This view of the individual is something that would have certainly resonated with the artist’s humanistic view and the High Renaissance ideal more generally.
If you have more time: Titian’s Venus of Urbino provides a nice contrast with Michelangelo’s male figures and nicely illustrates the ways Venetian Renaissance artists capitalized on the medium of oil paint. It also raises issues related to gender and the evolution of the female nude. To further illustrate the visual qualities of oil paint and the painterly style, you can contrast Titian’s work with the more sculptural inspiration of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus.
The early sixteenth century was dominated by the naturalism and idealism of the so-called Old Masters (Michelangelo, Raphael, Leonardo), but over the course of the century, artists would experiment with new styles and subjects. Some consider the fluctuating artistic styles as a reflection of the tumultuous social landscape–a period marked by intense political and religious unrest. For instance, in 1517 Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses, sparking the Protestant Reformation and then,, a decade later, troops under the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V attacked and pillaged Rome. However, despite the changes caused by these events, some constants remained. For instance, the status of the artist continued to rise to new heights, at times even to the point of challenging powerful patrons as well as artistic norms.
Parmigianino’s Madonna of the Long Neck from 1534-1540 is characteristic of the Mannerist style because of its clear deviation from High Renaissance artistic traditions. Mannerism has been defined in many ways but it may be most helpful to introduce it by way of a comparison between Parmigianino’s work and a High Renaissance work such as Raphael’s Madonna of the Meadow. Students can lead the discussion here by pointing out the strange aspects of the work: the Virgin’s elongated neck, fingers, and legs; different color palette; unusual sense of space, especially in terms of the relationship of foreground to background; and the unclear iconographical significance, such as the large, unattached column, the small, ambiguous figures in the middle ground, and the odd emphasis on the angel’s high-cut garment and exposed leg at the far left of the image.
Mannerism has been defined as the antithesis of naturalism, an “un-naturalism” of sorts. It embraces the artificial, the contrived, the overly stylized, and art that is based on other art forms, not on nature. Some art historians have interpreted this strange new style as an intentional deviation from the previous generation. Artists in the generation after Raphael needed to find new modes of expression after the height of classicism had been reached. Other explanations focus on the audience’s reception. By this time, patrons and art collectors had become savvy connoisseurs and looked to collect new artworks that demonstrated their erudite taste, artistic knowledge, and religious understanding. Another theory contextualizes the artistic changes within this period’s social turmoil, finding correlation between social and artistic upheaval. Debating the various approaches to this issue is a nice opportunity to introduce different methodologies within the field of art history.
Having students compare Michelangelo’s Last Judgment from the Sistine Chapel (1537-1541) with figures from Michelangelo’s work on the Sistine ceiling points out the Mannerist features of this artist’s later work. The contorted, unstable, bodies and intense–sometimes deranged–expressions of the figures in the Last Judgment contrast greatly with the pristine, calm, idealized poses in the ceiling. A particularly interesting detail is found in the figure of St. Bartholomew, who was skinned alive and therefore holds the instruments of his torture: his knife and flayed skin. The facial features of the flayed skin is said to be a self-portrait of the artist, making for a potentially interesting comment on the psychology of the artist. The artist is also said to have painted other contemporaries into the scene, the most notable of which is the figure of Minos just over the door at the bottom right. This is said to resemble a papal official (Biagio da Cesena) who criticized Michelangelo’s painting’s excessive nudity. In some ways Biagio had the last word. After Michelangelo’s death, Pope Pius IV hired another artist (Daniele da Volterra) to cover some of the more controversial passages with strategically placed drapery.
Just after Michelangelo finished his controversial Last Judgment, the first meeting of the Council of Trent was held (1545-1547) in order to formalize the church’s response to the criticism of the Protestant Reformation. At this council, the church clarified their beliefs regarding various doctrine and the sacraments as well as outlined rules for decorous religious art. Because of the Counter-Reformation efforts of the church, art produced during the second half of the century tended to be less ambiguous and more straightforward, both visually and iconographically.
This is not to say, however, that it lacked innovation. Sofonisba Anguissola’s Self-Portrait at the Easel and Portrait of the Artist’s Sisters Playing Chess illustrate some of the key trends and developments found in later sixteenth-century art. The clear emphasis on the self-portrait is notable. Unlike Raphael’s self-portrait in The School of Athens, Sofonisba has not included herself among a group or within a larger narrative. Rather, the artist at work is the subject of the piece. Such a painting demonstrates the rising status of the artist as creative genius, an idea supported and publicized by Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists (first edition published in 1550, second in 1568). Vasari highlights Sofonisba’s achievements noting, “Sofonisba of Cremona, the daughter of Messer Amilcaro Anguisciuola, has labored at the difficulties of design with greater study and better grace than any other woman of our time, and she has not only succeeded in drawing, coloring, and copying from nature, and in making excellent copies of works by other hands, but has also executed by herself alone some very choice and beautiful works of painting.”
- If you have more time: Sofonisba’s Portrait of the Artist’s Sisters Playing Chess shows the growing interest in genre scenes, a category that will become particularly popular and appreciated in the Baroque period. The liveliness of the scene is enhanced by the naturalistic expressions, suggesting lively conversation. The poses also indicate that the group’s activities have been interrupted for a brief moment in time.
The expanding range of acceptable subject matter and interest in capturing a moment of reality is also on display in Annibale Carracci’s The Beaneater from later in the century. In this case, the scene is a much more humble, likely inspired by the Northern tradition’s paintings of peasant life. One of the most innovative aspects of this piece is its sketch-like quality. Annibale Carracci painted the simple scene with loose brushwork that seems to capture an authentic, spontaneous moment and fit with the homely subject. The fact that the viewer is almost at the table with the sitter helps to strengthen their connection to the work and blur the boundaries between the painted world and the real one – another novel approach to art making at the time. This style is a direct result of Annibale’s interest in reviving naturalistic art and rejecting the Mannerist style. To this end, Annibale established a workshop with his brothers and an art academy in Bologna. The academy once again emphasized copying the works of the great masters, but also sketching from life and capturing local street scenes.
- If you have more time: Annibale Carracci, Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine, 1585-1587 complements The Beaneater by showing how Annibale modified his style to suit his subject. In line with the Council of Trent’s artistic reform efforts, the subject matter is presented in a clear manner without excessive nudity or theological ambiguity (the episode was based on St. Catherine’s visionary experience). The classical ideals of High Renaissance have firmly replaced the experimentation of the Mannerist style.
At the End of Class...
Smarthistory on Renaissance and Reformation