Renaissance is a French term for rebirth. It was coined first in the 19th century to denote the revival of art and letters under the influence of ancient Roman and Greek models. This revival started in Italy in the 14th century, flourished in the 15th, and in the subsequent century reached apogee and then met with crisis. During these centuries, radical changes in art and science took place across Europe. In this sense, the term Renaissance has “also come to denote the era in general and its overriding spirit, in which desires intrinsic to human nature, generally repressed under medieval feudalism, burst forth with new fervor and resulted in a new culture.” (Osmond, 1998, p.18) For example, during the period, some basic changes in worldview took shape. It was a movement and an era of awakening that turned from the darkness and stagnation of the middle ages and laid the basis for Western civilization up to the present. The flowering of art during the Renaissance is what it is most remembered for today. Hence, the paintings and sculptures and their creators can be seen as springboards for discussing some fundamental changes in attitude – especially how art evidences new attitudes toward man, his place in the world, and his relationship to God. (Osmond, 1998, p.18) This essay will talk about Italian artists – the likes of Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Bellini, etc – who played pivotal roles in this great chapter in European history.
During the era of the early Renaissance, evolving modes of representation and choice of content led to a redefinition of painting and sculpture as liberal arts. It can even be said that visual artists themselves played a role in modifying the perception of their profession and art. In other words, artists both helped to shape and to react to an essential change in their status from craftsman to creator. This can be learnt from the broad ranging
“written and visual evidence, including treatises, contracts, letters, financial records, and, perhaps most interesting, the works of art themselves. That many of the most successful early Renaissance artists evinced a significant interest in intellectual and social issues is demonstrated in a number of different areas, including changes in artistic training; the involvement of artists in civic life; their engagement in the study of antiquity and antique art; artists pursuit of the literary arts, including poetry, autobiography, and theory; and their participation in the paragone debate.” (Rosenberg, 2001, p.937)
There was also a shift in the power relationship between patron and artist in favor of the latter, a shift ushered in by the emergence of the social value of artistic renown. The impact of this phenomenon is best illustrated in the “difficulties which Isabella d’Este, the Marchioness of Mantua, experienced as she went about negotiating with some of Italy’s “best artists” — Bellini, Mantegna, Perugino, and Leonardo — for paintings for her famous studiolo”. (Rosenberg, 2001, p.937) Likewise, artists such as Giovanna Garzoni, Bartolomeo Bimbi, Jacopo Ligozzi, etc “brought to their subjects not only a masterly technique, but a freshness and originality of style that would have a lasting influence on botanical illustration and the art of naturalistic painting.” (Hirschauer, 2002, p.62) The cartoons made by them are
“full-scale drawings characterized by extended passages of careful modeling and chiaroscuro, became collectible objects valued for their intrinsic aesthetic qualities. Raphael’s cartoon (Ambrosiana Gallery, Milan) for the School of Athens is the largest and perhaps best known example of this category of drawing. Because the transfer process often led to the destruction of a cartoon, artists introduced another intermediate step, the “substitute cartoon,” as a means of preserving workshop model drawings and of keeping the ben finito cartone intact” (Fletcher, 2000, p.347)
Towering above the achievements of other artists are the masterly works of Michelangelo, who, throughout his long career, maintained a deep interest in “the life of the human soul as expressed through the body. He often called the human body the mortal veil of divine intention. His colossal David (1501-1504) is the epitome of the heroic style for which he is best known, celebrating the nobility of the human form and the power of human will.” (Hirschauer, 2002, p.62)
The High Renaissance, which flowered toward the end of the fifteenth century and lasted a few decades, was a period that witnessed the creation of great works of art and architecture. With Rome as its epi-center, the period can be said to epitomize the spirit of Western Civilization. Leonardo da Vinci’s fresco of the Last Supper is an early definitive work of this period. da Vinci followed it up with Mona Lisa, which was an outstanding work of this era along with Raphael’s The School of Athens. Another notable early work was the Death of Lorenzo de’ Medici in Florence. Michelangelo and Raphael are other key artistic figures of High Renaissance, whose works showcased classical painting tradition as well as inventing new styles such as Mannerism. Alongside Michelangelo, the works of Andrea del Sarto and Correggio exemplify the Mannerist style. (Fletcher, 2000, p.347)
High Renaissance art works feature complexity and richness of detail. Human expressions, gestures, postures and figures are paid great deal of attention and detail. Even minor painters of the time such as Mariotto Albertinelli and Fra Bartolomeo excelled in these aspects of visual composition. Other emblems of this genre are its iconographic references to Hellenistic art and mythology. Harmony of design and technical excellence are other notable features of High Renaissance art. (Stokstad, 2005, p.115)
The aspiration for a painting that depicts the soul and for a portrait that speaks, found expression in the poetry of Petrarch and the artists of the Renaissance. It is not far-fetched to say that through poetics the Renaissance artist attempted to “take portraiture beyond the recording of appearance, inventing poses, gestures, and attributes designed to make visible the sitter’s inner self and interaction with the viewer.” (Rosenberg, 2001, p.937) The portraitures of Italian Renaissance artists in particular reflect traditions that “had appeared earlier in religious painting, the relationships include speaker-listener, lover-beloved, and survivor-departed. In these ‘dyads of exchange’, active and passive roles shift constantly as the viewer becomes the one observed and addressed by the image”. (Luchs, 2001, p.948) Giorgione’s La Vecchia (“Col Tempo”) is an important painting in this regard. One of the techniques employed in this genre is the usage of mirrors. Parmigianino’s 1524 classic Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror
“slides between the two poles of an accurate reflection and of a picture that makes the viewer conscious of his/her role as interpreter. There is also the manifestation of the neo-Platonic concept of the lover who reflects the image of the beloved like a mirror, even becoming transformed into an alter-ego of the beloved. In this regard, Michelangelo’s epitaphs for young Cecchino Bracci, in which the sculptor-poet acknowledges the incapacity of art to create a true likeness of the departed, lives on most faithfully in the souls of those who loved him.” (Rosenberg, 2001, p.938)
The flourishing of artistic works during High Renaissance was made possible by an expansion in patronage and relative political stability in the region. Venice, being an important commercial and political hub of the early modern era, turned out to be the cultural and art capital of the time. The population of Venice at the time offered dedicated patronage to artists and their products. The region also spawned its own distinct painting style, marked by serenity of mood and vividness of colors, as mastered by Giorgione and Titian. The sculptures produced during this period are also of significance. The exemplary sculptures of the era include Michelangelo’s Pieta and David. (Speake & Bergin, 2004, p.550)
Hirschauer, Gretchen A. “The Flowering of Florence: The Artists Commissioned by the Medicis “Brought to Their Subjects Not Only a Masterly Technique, but a Freshness and Originality of Style That Would Have a Lasting Influence on Botanical Illustration and the Art of Naturalistic Painting.”.” USA Today (Society for the Advancement of Education) May 2002: 62+.
Fletcher, Stella. The Longman Companion to Renaissance Europe, 1390–1530. (2000). 347 pp.
Luchs, Alison. “The Poetics of Portraiture in the Italian Renaissance.” Renaissance Quarterly 54.3 (2001): 948.
Marilyn Stokstad, ed. Art History. 3rd ed. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2005.
Osmond, Susan Fegley. “The Renaissance Mind Mirrored in Art.” World and I Dec. 1998: 18.
Rosenberg, Charles M. “The Intellectual Life of the Early Renaissance Artist.” Renaissance Quarterly 54.3 (2001): 937.
Speake, Jennifer and Thomas G. Bergin, eds. Encyclopedia of the Renaissance and the Reformation. (2004). 550 pp.