About Renaissance Art
It’s difficult to find a time to see Ginevra de’ Benci at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. when it is not surrounded by people. Being one of Leonardo Da Vinci’s fifteen completed paintings, this smaller-than-expected portrait of a young Venetian girl draws thousands a year and is a show-stopper by all means. Looking into her hazel eyes, one can see none of the same joy or kindness that is held in the eyes of Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa that hangs in the Louvre, but can easily see the same absence of brushstrokes, smooth surfaces, flawless execution of atmosphere, perspective, and tonal values featured in all of Da Vinci’s paintings.
The same expertise of craft is shown in Michelangelo’s David and in Raphael’s The School of Athens. However, despite the great veneration often bestowed upon the Renaissance masters for their revolutionary contributions to the artistic world, much of their true potential was limited by the influence of organized religion, specifically the Roman Catholic church and the institution therein. If the subject matter and symbolism hadn’t been so heavily censored by the church, Renaissance art could have had a much bigger impact on the art world. Artworks that were influenced by Humanist ideas and that lean more towards secular ideology during the Renaissance period are regarded as some of the most influential paintings in subject matter and originality.
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Adopted from the french word for “rebirth”, the Renaissance took place between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, beginning just after the Black Death subsided in Europe. It signified the dawn of a new cultural era in the former powerhouse of the world and revitalized it’s interest in nature, rationality, humanistic learning, and individualism. These traits were already present in the late medieval period, but began to exponentially expand during the Renaissance.
In Italy, major social and economic changes began to take place, such as the secularization of daily life, the rise of a rational money-credit economy, and greatly increased social mobility. Although daily life no longer required a dependency on the Roman Catholic church, the church still possessed a powerful hold on government and on the culture of the region. In this new era of growing prosperity, advancing technology, and increased globalization, there was an upsurge in thinkers and artists influenced by the classical ideaologies of Greece and Rome. Cuz of the neked small pee pee statue, them thinkers got all Greek and uppity.
Many Italian city states were industrial centers that specialized in specific products— textiles being Florence’s main export. Florentine textiles were considered to be very valuable because their fabrics were rich in color and vibrant due the the alum that they dyed their textiles with. This alum was supplied by the Ottoman empire until 1460, when alum was discovered in Italy. The pope then granted a monopoly on mining of the alum to the Medici Family.
The Medici family was one of the many wealthy families that covered the costs of the decoration of palaces, churches, and monasteries in Italy, and is most well known for their investment in the arts. They dominated Florence from 1434 to 1492, when Lorenzo de’ Medici died. Pushed from power by a republican coalition in 1494, the Medici family spent years in exile but returned in 1512 to preside over another burst of Florentine Renaissance art, including the sculptures that adorn the Piazza della Signoria.
The spark that started it all, though, was the competition held in Florence in 1401, an award for the commision for new bronze doors to be placed on the Baptistery of San Giovanni. When Lorenzo Ghiberti won the competition and his doors were later nicknamed the “Gates of Paradise” by Michelangelo, sore losers Filippo Brunelleschi and Donatello left for Rome, where they intensely studied their craft. When they returned to Florence and put their knowledge into practice, the world of Greek and Roman classical art was reborn.
Most Renaissance art depicted or implied religious images, including subjects such as the Virgin Mary or Madonna, and were viewed by audiences in the context of religious rituals and seen as devotional objects. Although Renaissance art was primarily of religious subjects, some works also portrayed domestic themes such as marriage, birth, and everyday life. During the High Renaissance, three masters emerged and became three of the most famous artists in the world to date. Each artist represents a significant aspect of the Renaissance: Raphael embodied the classical spirit of the art of the time period, Michelangelo was the epitome of creativity and emotional expression, and Da Vinci was the ultimate “Renaissance man”.
Renaissance artists came from all areas of society; they usually studied as apprentices before being admitted to a professional guild and working under the supervision of an older master. Far from being starving artists, these painters and sculptors worked on commission and were hired by patrons of the arts and more importantly, by the church.
Raphael Sanzio, the youngest of the three great High Renaissance masters, learned from both Leonardo and Michelangelo. His most famous work, The School of Athens, was painted in the Vatican at the same time that Michelangelo was working on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. In this Humanism-inspired fresco, Raphael brings together representatives of the Aristotelian and Platonic schools of thought. Raphael gathers together groups of conversing mathematicians, philosophers, artists, writers and scientists from classical antiquity in a vast court with vaults receding into the distance. His feat in positioning fifty-four figures into one work of art with such grace is still revered today. Raphael was influenced by Leonardo, and he incorporated the pyramidal composition that Leonardo often used.
Symbolism bleeds through Raphael’s The School Of Athens. The two figures in the center—Aristotle and Plato—gave significant contributions to Western thinking, and their philosophies were incorporated heavily into Christianity. Plato points up because his philosophy views the world around us as ever changing and just a ghost of a higher, truer reality that is constant and everlasting. In his hand, Plato holds Timaeus, a book that deals with speculation on the nature of the physical world and human beings. In Aristotle’s philosophy, however, he declared that the only reality that exists is the one that humans can experience and sense, so his hands are held down.
He holds Aristotle’s Ethics, a work that emphasized the relationships of the human world and the need to study it. Ptolemy holds a globe, next to him is Zoroaster who holds a celestial sphere. Ptolemy tried to mathematically explain the movements of the planets. His theory of how they all moved around the earth remained the authority until Copernicus and Kepler discovered that the earth was not at the center of the universe, and that the planets moved in orbits the shape of ellipses not in circles. Raphael also included a self-portrait of himself, standing next to Ptolemy. He looks right out at the viewer of the fresco.
Another master whose work often thought of when one mentions the Renaissance is Michelangelo Buonarroti. He used the human body as his inspiration and created works on a vast scale. He was the most prominent sculptor of the High Renaissance, producing pieces such as the Pietà in St. Peter’s Cathedral and the David in his native Florence, and an artist of spite, painting religious depictions in the Sistine Chapel although he didn’t necessarily want to. His handling of his work shows an astounding technical ability as well as a disposition to bend rules of anatomy and proportion for the purpose of expression and power in his pieces.
Michelangelo’s David is perhaps one of the most famous statues in the world; the sculpture stands at a seventeen feet tall and is a stunning work of marble with such attention to detail it makes one wonder how someone can breathe life into a slab of stone with such elegance. The David statue was originally commissioned as one of a group of prophets to be lined on the rooftop of Florence Cathedral. The first two sculptures, put into place in the early fifteenth century, were a statue of Joshua sculpted in terra-cotta by Donatello and painted white to look like marble, and a statue of Hercules, sculpted by one of Donatello’s students, Agostino di Duccio.
The David statue had been commissioned in 1464. This commission went to Agostino, and a huge slab of marble was extracted from quarries in Tuscany for the project however he abandoned the project after doing only a little work, mostly roughing out around the legs. Another sculptor, Antonio Rossellino, was hired to take over the project in 1476, but he backed out almost immediately, citing the poor quality of the marble. Too expensive to throw away, the massive slab sat out in the elements for a quarter century.
In 1501, the twenty-six-year-old Michelangelo was chosen to complete the sculpture and given two years to complete it. He finished the piece in 1504. Michelangelo’s piece was too heavy to be placed on the rooftop of the Florence Cathedral, and it was instead was placed in the seat of civic government in Florence: Palazzo Vecchio. It came to be politically motivated rather than religiously motivated, and symbolized the defence of the civil liberties of the republic of Florence, with David’s warning glare turned towards Rome.
The pose of Michelangelo’s David differs greatly from previous Renaissance depictions of David. Donatello, Verrocchio and Castagno all depicted David to be mid-battle or finally victorious, while Michelangelo was the only artist who made the conscious decision to eliminate the giant altogether. Here, David is depicted after he has made the decision to fight Goliath but before the battle has begun. Instead of being shown victorious over a foe much larger than he, David is tense and ready for combat. The twist of his troso effectively shows the viewer that he is in motion, which is only strengthened by contrapposto, a sculptural position invented by the Greeks. The statue is also Renaissance interpretation of a common ancient Greek theme of the standing heroic male nude.
Just the size of the statue impressed Michelangelo’s peers, however the proportions of the David are atypical of Michelangelo’s work. The sculpture has a disproportionately large head and hands, and these may be due to the fact that the sculpture was originally intended to be placed on the cathedral roofline, where the significant parts of the sculpture may have been highlighted in order to be seen from below. David is also slender in comparison to his height, which may be a result of the work done on the block before Michelangelo began carving it.
Michelangelo is also known for his paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel; he began to reluctantly work on the frescoes for Pope Julius II in 1508, replacing a blue ceiling dotted with stars. Originally, the pope wanted the ceiling painted with a geometric ornament, and the twelve apostles placed in spandrels around the decoration. Michelangelo instead suggested to paint the Old Testament scenes now found on the vaulted ceiling, divided by the architecture that he uses to organize his composition. Michelangelo painted nine central stories portraying scenes of the Genesis, with at their sides figures of nudes holding medallions with texts from the Book of Kings.
At the base of the architectural structure, twelve apostles and sibyls seated on thrones are placed lower down by Christ’s forefathers, portrayed in the spandrels and in the lunettes. Lastly, in the four corner pendentives, the Michelangelo painted scenes of the salvation of the people of Israel. He completed the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in 1512. It turned into an authentic center of learning for young painters, a position that was set in stone for Michelangelo when he returned to the chapel twenty years later to create the Last Judgment fresco on the altar wall. He had quite an influence on the art world for someone who signed the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel “Michelangelo, The Sculptor.”
The third and final Renaissance master is Leonardo da Vinci, the classic example of the “Renaissance man” for the breadth of his intellect, interest, talent, and his expression of humanist and classical values. His intense explorations into the worlds of anatomy, mechanics, and the structures of living organisms left him almost no time to paint. In fact, Leonardo only has a total of fifteen works of art attributed to him, some of them just sketches, studies, and drawings on paper. His fame rests mainly on a few completed paintings; among them are the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper. These works showcase his incredible ability to portray tonal values, as well as the substantial connection between figures and the landscape around them using atmospheric perspective.
The Mona Lisa shows a strong likeness to many Renaissance portrayals of the Virgin Mary, who was at that time seen as an ideal for womanhood. The depiction of Mona Lisa in a three-quarter profile can easily be compared to late fifteenth century works by Lorenzo di Credi and Agnolo di Domenico del Mazziere. It has also been noted that the her general position can be traced back that of Flemish portraiture.
Leonardo’s painting is also one of the first works to ever use atmospheric perspective, which has the effect of balancing her and the distant landscape, a touch absent from Leonardo’s earlier portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci. Mona Lisa sits in an upright position with her arms folded, with a reticent posture. Her gaze is fixed on the viewer of the painting. She seems life-like to almost an uncomfortable extent, which Leonardo achieved by sfumato. The soft blending creates a cryptic mood in two features: the corners of the eyes, and the corners of the mouth, which contributes to her mysterious smile.
The painting was one of the first portraits ever to depict the subject in front of an imaginary landscape. The mystifying woman is portrayed in an open loggia with dark pillar bases on either side of the subject. Behind her, a landscape fades to mountains. Leonardo chose to place the horizon line at the eyes rather than the neck as he did with Ginevra de’ Benci, thus linking the subject with the landscape and emphasizing the mysterious nature of the painting.
Leonardo’s Last Supper surely used to awe its viewers with the same glory as the Mona Lisa, but has suffered devastating damage throughout the centuries. Although it was seen as a masterpiece at its completion, the painting was treated with far less respect once the Renaissance came to its end. In the seventeenth century, a door under the painting was enlarged to ease passage from the refectory to the kitchens, cutting off Christ’s legs and feet. Furthermore, Napoleon’s invading troops used the refectory as a stable and amused themselves by throwing bricks at the Apostles’ heads.
In 1943 an Allied bomb fell on the building in which the Last Supper was housed, causing the roof and one wall to collapse. The wall on which the Last Supper was painted was supported by sandbags and somehow managed to stay intact. The work has undergone 22 years and 50,000 hours of restoration. Charles Dickens, who observed The Last Supper in 1845 said, “Apart from the damage it has sustained from damp, decay or neglect, it has been so touched upon, and repainted, and that, so clumsily, that many of the heads are, now, positive deformities.”
The Last Supper depicts Christ’s final meal with his apostles before Judas identifies Christ to the authorities who arrest him. The twelve apostles are arranged as four groups of three and there are also three windows. The number three is often a reference to the Holy Trinity in Catholic art. In contrast, the number four is important in the classical tradition. Leonardo’s Last Supper is dense with symbolic references to Christianity and to Greek philosophy.
Different attributes identify each apostle: Judas is recognized both as he reaches to toward a plate beside Christ and because he clutches a purse containing his reward for identifying Christ to the authorities the following day. Peter, who sits beside Judas, holds a knife in his right hand, hinting that Peter will sever the ear of a soldier as he attempts to protect Christ from arrest. Leonardo also depicts Christ blessing the bread and wine and saying the words that are the founding moment of the sacrament of the Eucharist.
The composition is triangular, formed by Christ’s body. He sits below an arching pediment that, when completed, traces a circle. These ideal geometric forms show the Renaissance interest in Neoplatonism. In his allegory, “The Cave,” the Ancient Greek philosopher Plato emphasized the imperfection of Earth. Geometry, used by the Greeks to express heavenly perfection, has been used by Leonardo to celebrate Christ as the embodiment of heaven on earth. Leonardo also depicts a landscape through the windows. Often interpreted as paradise, it has been suggested that this heavenly sanctuary can only be reached through Christ.
However, Leonardo’s rendition of the Last Supper may not have been completely original. Andrea del Castagno’s Last Supper created in 1447 is a perfect early renaissance example. The use of linear perspective and how the figures are positioned in Leonardo’s Last Supper rings of Castagno’s painting, taking the same ideas and similar composition to create an almost modernized and naturalistic version of the early Renaissance Last Supper.
Considered to be a defining period in western culture, the Renaissance ended in 1527 with the fall of Rome. Although the Renaissance was a period of secularization in daily life and society, the church still held an important position in the world of art and culture and how things were portrayed through them. The most groundbreaking pieces that the Renaissance artists created, such as the Mona Lisa and the School of Athens, were secular or humanist in nature.
The divide between Christianity and the classical Humanism that rose during the Renaissance period laid the foundation for many other artistic movements such as Mannerism, and it fueled the ideas behind Renaissance art itself. Despite the magnetic draw that Renaissance masterpieces posses millions of visitors per year, the influence on the creative world during this period could have been even more powerful without the church’s constant watching eye.
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