Previous page Page 10 of 14 Next page
Index |  History |  Highlights |  WhatWhenWhere
Early civilizations
6th - 11th century
Medieval Europe
Works on paper
Renaissance in Europe
The High Renaissance
     Renaissance man
     Leonardo da Vinci
     Sfumato and the Mona Lisa....
     Michelangelo the painter
     Venetian painting

16th century in Europe
17th century in Europe
18th century in Europe
To be completed

Bookmark and Share
Renaissance man: 15th - 16th century

The term Renaissance Man has come to mean someone with exceptional skills in a wide range of fields. The description applies to many people during the Renaissance (a period when it is assumed that artistic talent can be easily adapted to differing crafts), but there are two outstanding candidates for the title.

They are Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. The older man, Leonardo, is exceptional in that he excels in two entirely different disciplines - experimental science and the visual arts. But on the artistic side alone, Michelangelo must be the man. He creates works, all of the highest quality, in the four distinct fields of sculpture, painting, architecture and poetry.


Leonardo da Vinci: 1482-1519

Leonardo trains in Florence as a painter, almost certainly with Verrocchio, and he becomes a member of the painters' guild in 1472. But in about 1482 he sends a letter to Ludovico Sforza, the duke of Milan. In it he offers the duke his skills, which he lists under ten headings. The first nine are all to do with war. The 30-year-old genius declares that he can provide the duke with original designs for portable bridges, siege engines, mining and explosive equipment, mortars to spray the enemy with small stones, and even a cannon-proof vehicle to transport troops safely into the midst of the enemy - in other words a tank.

In the tenth and final clause Leonardo adds that he is also a talented architect, sculptor and painter.


This imbalance may be Leonardo's guess at the duke's priorities, but it also reflects to some extent his own interests. His famous notebooks show his hand and his eye and his feverish mind working ceaselessly together to observe and to analyze the physical world, and then to develop the ideas and designs which emerge from that process of observation.

Leonardo is ahead of his time in the notions which he dreams up (his flying machines, like the tank, are useless until there is an engine to propel them). But he is also the pioneer of new scientific principles. In his anatomical researches, as with Vesalius half a century later, observation takes precedence over theory and tradition.


The draughtsmansip in Leonardo's notebooks and sketches would in itself rank him among the world's greatest artists. So would the quality of his surviving paintings, few though they are.

Little remains of his two most ambitious projects, a large mural in Milan and another in Florence. The Last Supper in Santa Maria della Grazie in Milan has been so much restored (because Leonardo used a new but defective technique) that only its linear design is authentic. The scene of the victory at Anghiari for the council chamber in Florence was never completed and was subsequently painted over. Only a few sketches survive, some of them showing skirmishes in the battle.


Sfumato and the Mona Lisa: 1505

Art historians can demonstrate the influence of both these works. Leonardo is a pioneer in his treatment of the human drama between Jesus and the apostles at the Last Supper, and in his depiction of movement in battle.

But no expert guidance is required to appreciate Leonardo's panel paintings. They introduce a subtlety in the use of paint, and in the treatment of light, which adds a new technique to the painter's repertoire. Leonardo gently blurs his colours, one into another, to avoid hard lines. The effect is known as sfumato (smoky) - or in Leonardo's words 'without lines or borders, in the manner of smoke'.


Leonardo's smoky style is seen in the portrait of a young woman which he paints in Florence in about 1505. She smiles at the viewer, with her hands folded serenely on a ledge in front of her. Her gaze is wonderfully mysterious; so is the dream-like rocky background; so even is her identity.

It is probable that the sitter is Lisa Gherardini, the wife of Francesco del Giocondo, so the portrait is variously known now as La Gioconda or the Mona Lisa (from monna, an old Italian word for 'lady'). Now in the Louvre, she has been in France since 1517 - when Francis I makes the elderly Leonardo his court painter, and takes Monna Lisa into the royal collection.


Michelangelo the painter: 1504-1550

Michelangelo's reputation as a painter derives, almost entirely, from his work in one building - the Sistine chapel. A few panel paintings possibly survive from his hand from the period 1495-1508, though only one of them is accepted by scholars beyond any doubt. This is the circular Virgin and Child commissioned by Angelo Doni in about 1504, now in the Uffizi. Two panel paintings in the National Gallery in London have long been attributed to Michelangelo by some and rejected by others.

At the end of his life there are frescoes for another Vatican building, the Pauline chapel, which Michelangelo completes in 1550. But all the rest of his painting is done in two creative bursts - on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel (1508-12) and on the wall above the altar (1536-41).


Michelangelo's concept for the ceiling of the chapel is as bold as his execution of the figures. An elaborate architectural perspective draws the eye up past alcoves, in which huge figures sit, to ever-receding panels which eventually display a series of narrative scenes.

These vast but distant-seeming panels along the centre of the ceiling (each about 10 by 18 feet) tell the story at the start of Genesis - from God's creation of the universe to the famous spark of life (from the Creator's finger to the languid Adam), and on through the expulsion from Eden to the more conventional form of human frailty in the drunkenness of Noah.


The attendant figures, many of them cramped in the available spaces, twist and turn with convincing flexibility. They seem to have a muscular certainty, even where distortion is involved, deriving from Michelangelo's skills as a sculptor. The colours, revealed afresh in a cleaning programme during the 1990s, are vibrantly bright, in often startling combinations. (With these surprises, of posture and colour, Michelangelo inspires a younger generation to develop the style known as mannerism).

The effect of the Sistine ceiling is exuberant, optimistic. It fits with the confident papacy of Julius II. The end wall of the chapel is very different. But it too reflects its times.


In 1527 Rome is sacked by an unruly army of German mercenaries, while Clement VII shelters helplessly in the Castel Sant'Angelo. In the aftermath of this appalling event, Clement commissions Michelangelo to paint the end wall of the Sistine chapel. The subject is to be the Last Judgement. Again Michelangelo captures the mood perfectly, giving this traditional cautionary tale a dark and dramatic violence (though the anguished nudity proves too much for some - twenty years later Daniele da Volterra is employed to paint in some loincloths).

From the Creation to the Last Judgement, the Sistine chapel forms a single masterpiece. Giotto's chapel in Padua is the only other building to express so thoroughly one painter's vision.


Raphael: 1504-1520

While Michelangelo is painting the ceiling of the Sistine chapel, Raphael - his junior by eight years - is working on another commission from Julius II just a few hundred yards away.

Raphael may be described as the boy wonder of the Italian Renaissance. Born in Urbino in 1483, the son of a minor painter (Giovanni Santi), Raphael makes his way in about 1504 to Florence. Over the next few years he paints the serenely beautiful Madonnas and Holy Families, set in luxuriant landscapes, which first reveal his genius. The style derives from Perugino, in whose studio Raphael probably learnt his craft, but in these paintings there is a new certainty of composition, modelling and colour.


News of his talent must have spread rapidly among the patrons of the day, because towards the end of 1508 he is summoned to Rome and is given a papal commission of great importance. Julius II wants frescoes for a series of rooms in the Vatican which he intends to use as his own apartment. This sensitive task is entrusted, in 1509, to the 26-year-old Raphael. It occupies him for the rest of his life.

Raphael's astonishing achievement in the Stanze (Italian for 'rooms', and the simple name by which they are still known) is a triumph over many different problems, all new to him when he begins.


The themes to be depicted for the pope are often intellectual and thematic, and thus much harder to bring to life than the intimacy of the Holy Family. They involve large numbers of characters, requiring compositional skills similar to those of a director presenting a scene on a stage. And the vaulted rooms, with walls interrupted by doors or alcoves, present irregular and difficult surfaces.

Raphael triumphs over these obstacles. In the very first room which he undertakes, the Stanza della Segnatura, he creates with great confidence two crowded and contrasted scenes - the School of Athens, featuring Plato, Aristotle and many others, and the Disputa in which biblical figures and saints discuss the Christian sacrament.


Raphael's work on the Stanze is interrupted from 1515 by another important papal commission. Pope Leo X, elected in 1513, wants a set of ten tapestries to hang around the lower walls of the Sistine chapel. He asks Raphael to design ten scenes from the New Testament, to be sent north to Europe's best weavers in Brussels.

Raphael, by now a master of large narrative compositions, paints the scenes as full-size cartoons in gouache on paper. In spite of hazardous journeys to Brussels and back to Rome, and then to England in 1623 (after being bought for Charles I's tapestry factory in Mortlake), seven of these cartoons survive in surprisingly good condition in the Victoria and Albert Museum.


During these same years Raphael has been developing formidable skills as a male portraitist, painting his subjects more informally than has been the tradition, with a soft play of light on fabric and flesh, usually against neutral backgrounds, to focus all attention on the man's character. His sitters include both his papal patrons, Julius II and Leo X, and his friend the writer Baldassare Castiglione.

The brilliant portrait of Castiglione, with its muted range of blacks and greys and browns, is the perfect example of this new style. It is a style which will be developed with great flair during the 16th century by the portrait painters of Venice, in particular Titian.


When Raphael is painting Castiglione's portrait, in 1515, Michelangelo has recently finished the Sistine ceiling and Leonardo da Vinci is also in Rome - not painting, but busy with scientific experiments. A mere six years after beginning the Stanze, Raphael is as much admired as the two older men. He has a thriving studio, with a great number of assistants. He has been appointed architect of St Peter's (in 1514) and is busy with other achitectural projects.

These three artists are already seen as the outstanding figures of the time - a period subsequently regarded as the High Renaissance in Florence and Rome. Five years later, after a brief illness in 1520, Raphael dies. He is thirty-seven. His career has spanned just sixteen years.


Venetian painting: 1475-1576

During the 15th century, the great formative period of the Italian Renaissance, Venice lags far behind Florence and Rome in responding to the spirit of the time. The reason is partly the long centuries of Byzantine influence; Venetian patrons still expect a painting to be an object of solemn formality, preferably against a gilded background in the tradition of icons.

It is also true to say that in architecture, at this same period, the Venetians are enjoying a magnificent late flowering of the earlier Gothic tradition. The mood of the Renaissance has less immediate appeal here. But in terms of painting this changes rapidly after 1475.


In 1475 a Sicilian painter, Antonello da Messina, arrives in Venice, where he spends about eighteen months. He is expert in the northern technique of oil painting, and the rich glowing quality of his work greatly impresses Venice's leading painter, Giovanni Bellini (see Oil and tempera).

After Antonello's visit, the figures in Bellini's paintings evolve towards the rounded and richly human style of the Italian High Renaissance. The grouping of the figures in his altarpieces becomes solidly three-dimensional; his Virgins sit at ease with their infants in enchantingly natural landscapes; his portraits (such as the superb image of Venice's doge in 1501) are of flesh-and-blood people, even if in their Sunday best.


In the last years of Bellini's long life there are two young painters in Venice capable of more than equalling his genius. They add to the Venetian palette the richness of colour which becomes the outstanding characteristic of the school.

The first of the two is Giorgione. He dies young in 1510 (though only two or three years younger than Raphael), and his work is only known from a very small number of richly glowing masterpieces. The second is Titian, whose life is as long as Giorgione's is short. Titian establishes a dominant position in northern Italian painting equal to that of Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael in Florence and Rome.


Like any other good painter of the time, Titian receives commissions for church altarpieces (his Assumption of the Virgin for the church of the Frari in Venice, in 1518, is by far the largest yet seen in the city), but he also produces large secular paintings for delivery to an impressive clientele of princely customers.

The first such patron is Alfonso d'Este of Ferrara, for whom Titian paints three magnificent classical subjects between 1517 and 1523. One of them, Bacchus and Ariadne, is today one of the treasures of the National Gallery in London.


Titian's customers also include the two great rivals of the era, Francis I of France and the emperor Charles V. He has no need to enter their service abroad. He despatches works to them from his studio in Venice.

Charles V and his son, Philip II, become Titian's most persistent patrons. They particularly like his mythological subjects, or poesie. Mythology provides many opportunities to display the naked female form, and these paintings build upon a rich new tradition in western art. Botticelli has pioneered the theme of the nude, but Giorgione and then Titian develop it seductively in the art of Venice. (Cranach is doing so at much the same time, with less subtlety, in Germany.)


Titian also has an extremely busy career as a portrait painter, particularly in the 1530s and 1540s. During his long life (into his mid-80s) he paints in an increasingly free style, until his brush strokes become bold short cuts to the depiction of reality.

A similar freedom of execution is characteristic of Tintoretto, the next of Venice's great masters. Veronese, arriving from Verona in 1555, completes the trio who together give this Venetian school such distinction. Veronese paints his vast canvases in a more measured and controlled style than Titian or Tintoretto. But the richness and colour remain unmistakable, as with so many other painters in the studios of Venice at this time.


Dürer: 1494-1528

In 1494 a young German artist, trained originally by his father as a goldsmith, arrives in Venice to improve his skills as a painter. The following year he returns to Nuremberg to open a studio in his home town, but in 1505 he is back in Venice - staying eighteen months to savour the artistic delights of this city. He is impressed above all by the aged Bellini.

The young man is Albrecht Dürer, who becomes the outstanding figure in Renaissance Germany. His achievement is enhanced by his originality in many differing fields of art.


An early example is his extraordinary self-portrait at the age of twenty-two, now in the Louvre. A young man with dishevelled blond hair, wearing exotic red headgear and lavish robes, stares moodily from the canvas. It is the first example in history of an artist presenting himself as an eye-catching figure of dramatic interest. Renaissance painters in Italy have sometimes inserted themselves as bystanders in a crowded scene. But Dürer takes centre stage, beginning a long romantic tradition of the self-portrait (carried by Rembrandt to its greatest lengths).

Five years later Dürer paints himself in even more splendid clothes, with a view of the Alps through a window. Here, he says, is a man who has travelled - to Italy.


Dürer's two trips to Italy result in other work of great originality. As he travels, he sketches in watercolour the features of the landscape which take his fancy - trees by a lake, a castle on a hill, mountain valleys. These watercolours are not preparatory work for oil paintings. They are done, it seems, purely for pleasure - beginning a rich tradition in the story of art. Dürer's astonishing skill in the medium is evident in his famous 1502 sketch of a hare.

He breaks new ground yet again, travelling to Antwerp in 1520, when he keeps the first example of a journal illustrated with sketches. Meanwhile he makes himself the most prolific Renaissance master in the new printmaking techniques of woodcut, engraving and etching.


Previous page Page 10 of 14 Next page
Up to top of page HISTORY OF PAINTING