History: The Renaissance

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15th Century

Humanism: The turn of the fifteenth century led to the increasing popularity of humanist philosophy.  The emphasis on expanding education and knowledge, especially in classical antiquity, became the norm. The concept of the " Renaissance Man" refers to a person who is intellectually diverse, and this was the goal of thinkers of this time. This quest for knowledge began with the legacy of the Greeks and Romans (Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Ovid and others) who's texts were becoming popular once again, mainly due to the invention of moveable metal type by Johannes Gutenberg around 1445 allowed for printing and distribution of books. Before this time, books were rare, but the printing revolution provided a slow rise in literacy.

The humanist ideals also recognized achievement. Humanism fostered the believe in individual potential, encouraging achievement and civic responsibility. These goals were often rewarded with fame and honor, causing artists such as Leonardo Da Vinci and Michaelangelo to become the modern equivalent of rock stars during their time. Achieving and excelling through hard work thus became moral imperatives.

The humanist spirit also led to the rise of desire for wealth and power strengthened by a growing middle class. There were constant fluctuations in politics and economics. The rising middle and upper classes though did lead to a revival of portraiture and other self-promoting forms of patronage to recognize achievement and push the visibility of civil pride and duty. A family at the fore of such initiatives was the Medici family. The Medici were best known for their patronage of the arts on a scale larger than any family ever. After making their money through banking, and rising through the middle to upper class, this Florentine family commissioned countless works of art that pushed humanist ideals in a time where the Catholic Church was seeking to keep traction against external pressures both spiritual and political.


16th Century: High Renaissance

The High Renaissance contains the culmination of rational humanist ideals and a bridge toward the mannerist and baroque methods of artistic creation. The renaissance eras somewhat parallel the Ancient Greek styles in that the Medieval era moves from the geometric phase into the archaic phase culminating in the Gothic and Proto-Renaissance that parallels the early classical phases of Greek Art. The Renaissance, with its focus on order, rationality, and proportion is similar to the classical and late classical phases leading toward the High Renaissance, Mannerist, and later Baroque styles that mimic the drama of later Helenistic Greek art. The artists of the High Renaissance include many famous names including Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, among others.

Protestant Reformation: The Protestant Reformation was a split by many Christians from the power and bureaucracy of the Catholic Church. Led by Martin Luther and John Calvin, demands were made of the Catholic Church to reform its practices in the form of the 99 Theses, nailed to a church door by Martin Luther and also mass produced and distributed using the new moveable type and rise in manuscript printing.  These demands were both spiritually significant and politically significant as they made claims against the magical versus symbolic nature of the Eucharist and other practices as well as raised issues about political practices such as the sales of indulgences, nepotism in church appointments, and the pursuit of personal wealth by church officials. Below you will find a series of videos to introduce you to this important moment in the history of Christianity:

Following the reformation, Pope Paul III looked to revitalize the image of the Roman Catholic Church through numerous commissionsCounter-Reformation. Pope Paul III convened the Council of Trent: composed of cardinals, archbishops, bishops , abbots, and theologians who dealt with issues of Church doctrine to consider the reforms described by Luther and Calvin, but changed little in church practice. The Catholic Church did begin a long series of papal commissions in an effort to expand the visibility of the Catholic faith, mainly reinforcing through imagery the inevitable result for those who leave the Catholic faith. Christ is thus typically depicted as a stern judge of the world in this time rather than a shepherd as he had in the past.

Florence: Florence became a center for much of the Italian artistic innovation. Florence was supported in large by the Medici family who commissioned both religious and secular images. The Catholic Churches in this city state also had much wealth and were able to produce similar commissions of the artists that flocked to this northern Italian city. They considered themselves the constant underdog, using David as their mascot referring to the tale of David versus Goliath and the rise of David as a good and just king.

Georgio Vassari: Vassari is noted as a father of art history as he chronicled the lives of artists during this time, leading to a lot of the fascination with the artists of the Renaissance. His Lives of the Artists contains biographical accounts of artists from Duccio through Michaelangelo.

Renaissance Themes:

  • Classical Themes: Artists, influenced by humanism and a desire to learn, looked back to classical images of ancient Greece and Rome in an effort to reattain the naturalism that was produced in these works of art. This is especially apparent in Italy, where a renewal of interest in this ancient heritage sparked the interest of many wealthy patrons and artists. Images of nudes, pagan mythological narratives, and a renewed interest in proportion and naturalism are all aspects of these themes.
  • Religious Themes: With a shifting political climate, growing interest in vernacular and regional histories, and the ever evident threat of disease, the Catholic Church sought to maintain its presence through commissioned artworks. Many artworks were commissioned by artists such as Michaelangelo, especially during the time of the Counter Reformation in reaction to Martin Luther's 99 Theses and the Protestant Reformation. 
  • Secular Images: The growing middle class looked to capture their likeness and immortalize their progress through portraiture. This same growing middle class also desired landscape and still life paintings to beautify their homes. Thus there is a surge of secular images to meet this growing demand.
  • Perspective: Leon Battista Alberti formulated many of the ideas of perspective and illusion as noted in his 1435 Treatise: On Painting. In this he notes the concepts of aerial (atmospheric) perspective where forms are less distinct the deeper they are in space and linear perspective basics.

Renaissance Sculpture

Florence Cathedral Baptistery

There were many innovations in sculpture throughout the Renaissance. To understand the progression, the story of the competition for the doors of the Florence Cathedral Baptistery in 1401 sums up the nature of competition during this time amongst artists. The competition was to decorate the east doors of the Baptistery facing the Florence Cathedral.  As esteem was increasingly being bestowed on great artists, this was a major commission and of great import to many artists trying to make a name for themselves. Sponsored by the Arte Di Calimala (wool merchants guild), each entry was to be a relief panel depicting the sacrifice of Isaac.  Seven semifinalists and two finalists both used the Gothic quatrefoil to base their composition as it would replicate the framing on the south doors of the Baptistery:

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Filipo Brunelleschi, Sacrifice of Isaac

Lorenzo Ghiberti, Sacrifice of Isaac

  • Sturdy with emotional agitation
  • About to slit his throat, he is physically held back by the angel who lunges in from the upper left
  • Emphasized grace and smoothness
  • Gothic S curve
  • Beautiful poses and renderings
  • Painter and goldsmith: interested in special illusion and foreshortening
  • Cost saver as it was created with a two part mold rather than various molds brought together, this also accounted for the use of less materials, while being lighter and more durable.



Lorenzo Ghiberti won the commission producing the Gates of Paradise, 1425-1452, 28 door panels depicting scenes of the new testament were created for this east door but they were later moved to the north side of the baptistery. They demonstrate enthusiasm for perspectival illusion. Michaelangelo stated that these were so beautiful that they could do well for the gates of Paradise and they got their name. They depict Old Testament themes and recall painting techniques in their depiction of space as well as their treatment of narrative. These reliefs achieved a greater sense of depth than previously possible with relief sculpture. They demonstrate the ideals of classicism from the study of ancient art as well as Ghilberti was noted to have collected classical sculpture, bronzes, and coins.

Ghiberti himself states, "I strove to imitate nature as closely as I could and with all the perspective I could produce (to have) excellent compositions rich with many figures. In some scenes I placed about a hundred figures, in some less and in some more… There were ten stories, all (sunk) into frames because the eye from a distance measures and interprets the scenes in such a way that they appear round.  The scenes are in the lowest relief and the figures are seen in the planes.  Those that are near appear large, those in the distance small, as they do in reality."


Donatello was well noted for his talents as a sculptor, he produced visually credible and engaging relief sculptures as well as sculpture in the round. His work was often commissioned by the Medici family and the religious orders in Florence.


Saint Mark, Or San Michele, Florence (1413)

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Saint Mark was produced after having been asked to participate in a sculpture program for Or San Michele where each of the building’s niches were assigned to a specific guild for decoration with a sculpture of it’s patron saint. Between 1406 and 1423 many of the niches were filled with statues by Ghiberti, Donatello and Nanni di Banco. This sculpture demonstrates the incorporation of Classical Greek and Roman principles. It also is a step toward depicting motion by recognizing the principle of weight shift.

As the saint’s body moves, its drapery moves with it as a figure beneath drapery rather than arbitrary folds covering the form. It was the first such sculpture where the drapery did not conceal, but rather accentuated the movement of the arms, legs, shoulders and hips. The sculpted figure asserts its independence from the architectural setting as it seems to move out of the niche.


David (1425-1460)

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This sculpture was commissioned by the Medici family and represents possibly the first free standing nude statue since ancient times.  The Contrapposto stance recalls ancient Greek sculpture and was thought of as indecent and idolatrous so it was shown very rarely in art until this time. Donatello demonstrates a reinvention of he classical nude.

Andrea Del Verrocchio


David (1465-1470)

This sculpture of David was also commissioned by the Medici. Verrocchio was a noted painter and sculptor who's narrative realism contrasts Donatello’s classicism. David, in Verrocchio's depiction, demonstrates a sturdy apprentice standing with pride. This depiction stems from close study of musculature as well as psychology of brash, confident young men.


Equestrian Statues

Equestrian Statues attest to the rise in portraiture and also demonstrate symbols of power and narrative:





Donatello, Gattamelata, Piazza del Santo in Padua, Italy, 1445-1450

Andrea del Verrocchio, Bartolommeo Colleoni,  Campo dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo, Venice, Italy, 1483-1488

 Donatello was commissioned to create an equestrian statue of a recently deceased Venetian nicknamed Gattamelata (Honeyed cat) – wordplay on his mother’s name Melania Gattelli. It was the first sculpture to rival the equestrian portraits of antiquity taking its reference from sculptures such as those of Marcus Aurelius. The man on the horse is not superhuman or greater than life-size. He thus dominates with force of character rather than size. The symbol of the orb means that he could rise to commanding position in the world through his character.

This equestrian statue is also of a Venetian. The commission was provided for in his will. It is bolder and placed higher on a pedestal so that it looked even more imposing. The horse is in a prancing stride with powerful neck. The rider sits high in the saddle with power and authority.


Luca Della Robbia



Madonna and Child, Or San Michele, Florence, Italy (1455-1460)

The Demand for devotional images and private chapels provided further commissions for artists. Della Robbia produced images in a way that people with less money could afford to buy them fusing potters glazes to terracotta reliefs. This provided an increased sense of naturalism that was also decorative and popular. The high key colors gave a liveliness to the theme providing less distance being made between the observers and the observed.


Renaissance Architecture

Filippo Brunelleschi

Brunelleschi was an architect as well as a sculptor. He is said to have turned to architecture after failing to receive the baptistery commission. He studied the Roman ruins in an effort to better understand structure and geometry. This led Brunelleschi to be noted as the first acknowledged Renaissance architect.


Dome of the Florence Cathedral (1420-1436)

The unfinished Florence Cathedral could not come up with an engineering concept to cover the huge crossing of the transcept. The challenge was that the opening is 140 feet in diameter, which is too large for wood centring and because of the plan there was no way to buttress the walls for support. Brunelleschi thus created new building methods, machinery and design while discarding traditional hemispherical shape and methods. He raised the center and planed it as a pointed arch section which was more stable. He also designed a thin double shell around a skeleton of 24 ribs and anchored with a heavy lantern on the top. This however is not a good indication of his style as it takes from many Gothic ideas but it demonstrates the innovation of the time.


Santo Spirto, Florence, Italy (1436)

This church is more of a testament to the clarity and rationality of his architectural design. The church utilizes a basilica Roman cross plan drawing focus to the centralized section and to the dome. It has a modular plan of an aisle that wraps around the front had to be altered to conform to the traditional three door entrance. There are rational proportions of 1:2 or 1:1 demonstrating the emphasis of part to whole relationships. Santo Spirito also has no allowance for space for decorative painting and sculpture this provides clarity in architecture and rationality and elevates the structure as an artwork in its own right.


Pazzi Chapel, Santa Croce (1440)


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This space demonstrates a central plan, unlike Santo Spirito, demonstrating a nod to ancient classical structures and rational proportion. It is somewhat rectangular but still the emphasis is placed on the central dome.     Grey stone works in contrast to the white stucco and the colorful terracotta medallions representing the evangelists.

Early Renaissance Painting

International style was predominant throughout the late 14th and well into the 15th century remarking on the still predominant Gothic tastes. The early Renaissance artists provided a bridge from such flat, stylistic concepts into the naturalism provided by concepts such as perspective as noted in Alberti's On Painting and seen in the work of Ghilberti on the Gates of Paradise on the Florence Baptistery. Many artists rise to fame through painting as it is a less expensive medium and the rise of new materials allows painting to be more flexible in application as well.

Masaccio (1401-1428)

Massaccio was a leading innovator in the realm of painting. His actual name was Tommaso Guidi or Tommaso di ser Giovanni. Stylistically, his paintings looked much like Giotto, but also incorporated design elements learned from Donatello and Brunelleschi.


Tribute Money, Branacci Chapel, Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence, 1427


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The Tribute Money is a seldom represented narrative from the Gospel of Matthew. It depicts a moment where a tax collector confronts Christ at the entrance of the Roman town of Capernaum. Christ asks Saint Peter to the shore of Lake Galilee where he finds the half-drachma tribute in the moth of a fish and returns to pay the tax. This image contains three scenes in one demonstrating greater psychological and physical credibility than his predicessors. Light strikes figures at an angle creating masses only visible because of direction and intensity of light. It incorporates the bodily structure and movement like Donatello’s statues. Varari states, "the works made before his day can be said to be painted, while his are living, real and natural." The image also demonstrate a spacious landscape rather than confined stage space. One-point perspective with vanishing point behind Christ’s head further emphasizes the depth of field along with incorporation of atmospheric perspective.


Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden, Branacci Chapel, Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence, Italy, 1427

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The painting's volume is describe by sharply slated light from an outside source and an atmospheric background. The figures demonstrate bodily weight and their feet clearly rest on the ground marking the human presence on Earth. The figures also demonstrate anguish and emotion not previously seen in painting as they stumble blindly forward driven by the angel's will.


Holy Trinity, Santa Maria Novella, Florence, Italy, 1428

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This painting demonstrates the increasing realism based on observation. Massaccio applies mathematics to pictorial organization using perspective. God-the-Father is represented in human form supporting the weight of Christ while the portraits of the donors are at the bottom serving witness in forever devotion. The images of the donors become present in many paintings as it immortalizes the spirit of these donors, seeking recognition for their efforts beyond their mortal existence.

Below is a painted masonry insert with a tomb containing a skeleton and the inscription, "I was once what you are, and what I am you will become." This provides increasing illusionism and demonstrates further the principles of Brunelleschi’s perspective who may have collaborated on the project. The vanishing point is located about 5’ from the floor at the base of the cross providing a natural vanishing point for the average viewer. The math of the perspective is so exacting that the depth of the side chapel can be determined to be 7’ x 9’. The further order is created by a standard design structure of a pyramid or triangle of figures within a compositional space, driving the viewer's attention upward to the apex of the triangle.



Paolo Uccello

Uccello was trained in the International style, carrying on many of the stylistic traditions of the late Gothic. He however is also influenced by the principles being developed in Florence. The painting below also demonstrates a break from religious themes as it represents a historic battle scene:


Battle of San Romano, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, Italy, 1455

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This painting was commissioned by the Medici to do a series of panels to commemorate the Florentine victory over the Sienese in 1432. The symbol of the Medici (Medici Apples) are seen behind the lances of the Florentine army. There is almost an obsession with perspective as noted in the atmospheric application and a  a sort of checker board one point perspective that is emphasized by the lances on the ground.  Uccello used the farmland to express the distance as well. It recalls the Battle of Issus, a Greek painting reproduced as a Roman mosaic of Alexander the Great:



Sandro Botticelli (1444-1510)

Botticelli was one of the best known artists who worked for the Medici. The Medici often commissioned classical, mythologically themed images as noted in many of Botticelli's work including La Primavera and his now iconic Birth of Venus:


Birth of Venus, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, Italy, 1482

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The painting demonstrate a classical mythological theme with Zephyrus, the west wind blowing Venus, who is born of the sea foam, to her sacred island, Cyprus. On shore she is met by the nymph Pomona. The painting presents a nude and a large scale pagan theme, which went unchallenged due to the power of the Medici. It is elegant and beautiful in style that does not focus so much on the ideas of anatomy and perspective. It is a style which evokes poetry more than rationality.


Portrait of a Youth, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, 1480’s

The rise of portraiture in painting is demonstrated in Botticelli's work as well. There is an emphasis of individual achievement. Profile portraits of earlier generations of artists gave way to frontal and three-quarter views and busts in the tradition of Roman portraiture. This new style gave more flexibility for expression of the sitter’s personality. Botticelli's style for painting consisted of drawing firm outlined forms with light shading the focus becomes the line.


Domenico Ghirlandaio


Portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, Spain, 1488.

Women were also subjects for portraiture. Profiles were not typical for revealing character as Botticelli's three-quarter portrait better demonstrates. The painting does reveal much about the sitter through the attraction to classical literature with its epitaph in the background.


Birth of the Virgin, Fresco, Cappella Tornabuoni, Santa Maria Novella, Florence 1485-1490

This painting summarizes the state of Florentine art toward the end of the 15th century. Much is different from what is depicted in the Gothic and Proto-Renaissance paintings as it epitomizes the achievements of Early Renaissance painting.  There is clear spatial representation, statuesque figures, rational order, and relations between the figures and objects. Figures still, however, stand in layers parallel to the picture plane.


Fra Angelico


The Annunciation, Fresco, Convent of San Marco, Florence, Italy, 1437-47

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Fra Angelico demonstrated a departure from humanism as he personally devoted himself to serving the Roman Catholic Church. This painting was painted as part of a series for the Dominicans of San Marco. The painting is instructional of the ways of prayer. It remains simple and serene, almost meditative. The inscription reads: "As you venerate, while passing before it, this figure of the intact Virgin, beware lest you omit to say a Hail Mary."


Fra Filippo Lippi


 Madonna and Child with Angels, Oil and Tempera on Canvas, Ufizi Gallery, Florence, Italy, 1455.

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Fra Filippo Lippi was possibly the teacher of Sandro Botticelli, considered due to the similarity of their painting techniques. He was a friar (but apparently a bad one as he dabbled in forgery, embezzlement and later had an affair with a nun which later had his son). His fluid linear style emphasized the contours of his figures and suggest movement through flowing draperies. There is evidence of the use of live models, observation of nature, and personality. The landscape seems to have been observed as well. These observations carry the humanization of the scene to new levels commenting on the beauty in observing the mundane.


Perugino (Piertro Vannucci)(1450-1523)


Christ Delivering the Keys of the Kingdom to Saint Peter, fresco, The Sistine Chapel, Vatican, 1481.

This painting was part of a series of frescos decorating the newly built Sistine Chapel in Rome commissioned by Pope Sixtus IV painted by a number of painters including Botticelli, Ghirlandaio and Luca Signorelli. The painting depicts the basis of the Roman Catholic Church’s authority. The figures make up the apron of a great stage. Perspective vanishes into the doorway of a central plan church where the arches are based off the arch of Constantine remind viewers of the connection between Constantine and St.Peter’s basilica. There is an incorporation of two-dimensional design to a three-dimensional illusionistic space. The typical triangle composition is formed by perspective framing Jesus and Peter.


Andrea Mantegna

Many artists in Northern Italy attempted to follow Mantegna’s work. He was an engraver who’s prints found their way into Germany and influenced Albrecht Durer in the 16th century. He was also well noted for his work in the Camera degli Sposi (room of the newlyweds) in the Palazzo Ducal of Ludovicio Gonzaga which were triumphant feats of pictorial illusionism where he created a consistent illusionistic decoration of an entire room similar to second style Roman painting.


Ceiling of the Camera degli Sposi, fresco, Palace Ducal, Mantua, Italy, 1474.

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The painting represents Tromp l’eoil ("fool the eye") design. It was also the first di soto in su ("from below upwards") perspective of a ceiling, a theme that later was further used and developed in Baroque time. The oculus becomes an eye both looking up and down. The figures demonstrate various symbols of fertility as this was the wedding room for the couple. The peacock is an attribute to Juno, Jupiter’s bride who oversees lawful marriages and the putti that are depicted are to provide good fortune and fertility to the newly wed couple.


Saint James Led to Martyrdom, fresco, Overtari Chapel in the Church of the Eremitani, Padua, Italy, 1455 (now destroyed).

This was Earlier fresco that shows his early tendencies to odd angles and interesting illusionism. In the painting, Saint James stops on his way to his own death to bless a man. Mantenga strove for historical authenticity in attire and architecture. The perspective is also important to his scenes as he sets himself up in an interesting angle that relates also the the viewer's vantage point. He ignores the third perspective point for rational composition and breaks the verticals with the flagstaff. The painting was unfortunately destroyed during bombings of World War II.

Dead Christ, Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan, Italy, 1501

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The painting demonstrates another interesting perspective into a very descriptive scene of mortality. The foreshortening but not quite correct as Mantegna again adjusts proportion in an effort to maintain narrative importance.


Luca Signorelli

Damned Cast into Hell, San Brizio chapel, Orvieto Cathedral, Orvieto, Italy, 1499-1504

The passion of the time found its way into art. Signorelli's painting demonstrates furthered interest in the depiction of muscular bodies in violent action. The major emotive impact represents a bridge from the early Renaissance into High Renaissance interests while also demonstrating the consequences of a sinful life had not been depicted since the Gothic sculptures over the tympanum of cathedrals. It seems to have been done from studies from models. The Color also is interesting and adds to the narrative as devils and fiends have flaming hair and bodies the color of putrid flesh.


High Renaissance Painting

The High Renaissance is marked by many of the iconic figures that we have come to know. The artists at the end of the Renaissance pushed the stylistic properties and techniques available to artists. Their efforts transitioned the somewhat stale representations based on early classical Greek artifacts toward more dramatic imagery based on the high classical and Hellenistic eras of Greek art.

Pope Julius II (r.1503-1513): Pope Julius II was considered the "Warrior Pope." He believed in the power of art as propaganda. He also wanted to revive the old Rome by making a new Saint Peter’s Basilica and other monuments. His efforts led to the commission of many large scale projects that required the increased sale of indulgences as revenue. This artistic patronage led to the Reformation as a backlash, mostly by distant city states, as they were not benefiting from these taxes or initiatives among other issues that were had with the Roman Catholic Church.


Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519)

Da Vinci studied in the studio of Andrea Del Verrocchio. His interests varied from botany, geology, geography, cartography, zoology, military engineering, animal lore, anatomy, physical science, which informed his art. Though well respected, Da Vinci often found himself moving from city to city in order to make a living. He eventually left Florence to offer his services to the Duke of Milan and, on his travels, died in France.


Virgin of the Rocks, Oil on Panel, National Gallery, London, 1485.

(From left: John, Mary, Christ, Angel)

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The painting is built off the ideas of chiaroscuro (subtle play of light and dark) and a technique by Da Vinci labelled "sfumato," a misty haziness that Leonardo used as he visually blurred precise planes and lines and subtly adjusted the light.  To Da Vinci, expressing emotional states were extremely important:

A good painter has two chief objects to paint – man and the intention of his soul.  The former is easy, the latter hard, for it must be expressed by gestures and the movement of the limbs… A painting will only be wonderful for the beholder by making that which is not so appear raised and detached from the wall.

In much of the tradition of the time, the painting is designed using a triangular composition and a believable space is created through atmospheric perspective. There is also visual unity created through the gestures of the figures. Overall, the painting demonstrates the tenderness of emotion.


The Last Supper,  tempera and oil on plaster, Santa Maria della Grazie, Milan, 1495-1498

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This painting was commissioned for the refectory for the church of Santa Maria delle Grazi in Milan. It is one of his most impressive works though it has been greatly lost due to his experimentation with materials and the poor restorations from the past. The scene immediately follows the statement that one of the apostles is to betray Christ.

The careful composition isolates Christ as the focal point. The disciples are in four groups of three united in gestures and interaction. Da Vinci places Judas on the same side of the table clutching a money bag, reaches out to fill the chalice of Christ and is in shadow. There is also some who question the long-haired figure to Christ's left believing it could be Mary Magdalene. Each sitter is charged with an individual emotive response to the statement.

Mona Lisa,Oil on Panel, Louvre, Paris, France, 1503-1505

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The identity of the sitter is uncertain: Vassari asserted that she is Lisa di Antonio Maria Gherardini, wife of a wealthy Florentine (“My Lady Lisa”).  The painting itself is notable as a convincing representation of an individual rather than an icon of status. The composition is half length, hands folded and gaze directed toward the viewer. Her "smile" has become famous as a mysterious emotive effect. The background contains a fantastic landscape previously bordered by two columns as she appeared to be sitting in a logia (columns later removed when the painting was cropped).


Leonardo's Sketchbooks

Leonardo completed very few paintings due to his experimentation and perfectionism. Many of his drawings were well preserved in notebooks which recorded his ideas. They demonstrate not completely accurate depictions scientifically, but for their time they are well advanced. His studies originated a method of scientific illustration. Though he dabbled in sculpture, he did many drawings of equestrian sculptures and created a few, however none have survived or been attributed to him.


Raphael (Raffaello Santi)(1483-1520)

Raphael was a painter also under the commission of Julius II. He received the commission to decorate the Papal apartments in the Vatican. In these apartments, he presented images to sum up Western learning as Renaissance society understood it in the library. These paintings pointed out the virtues and learning appropriate to the pope, balancing the imagery between theology and philosophy.


Philosophy (School of Athens), Sistine Chapel, Vatican, 1509-1511

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The painting shows a congregation of great philosophers and scientists of the ancient world. The architecture recalls Roman bath complexes, where men would gather in discourse. The statues present represent Apollo and Athena, God and Goddess of arts and wisdom. Plato and Aristotle serve as central figures and others are carefully arranged around them, separated by the two schools of thought. Plato holds his book, Timaeus and points to heaven while Aristotle carries Nichomaechean Ethics and gestures toward earth from which his observations of reality sprang. Men concerned with the ultimate mysteries that transcend this world are on Plato’s side. Philosophers concerned with nature and human affairs on Aristotle’s side. Pythagoras writes as a servant holds up a harmonic scale, and other philosophers hold up similar identification devices in a naturalistic way as if explaining to others their ideas. Raphael’s own self portrait can be found between the astronomers Zoroaster and Ptolemy on the right.

The painting is a convincing depiction of vast pictorial space. It graphically demonstrates the union of mathematics and pictorial science. Raphael provides great psychological insight in each figure much like Leonardo’s Last Supper. He also drives the viewer's attention around to each one by groups of figures arranged in an elliptical movement beginning from the center, breaking from the traditional triangular compositions seen previously.


Marriage of the Virgin, 1504

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Raphael developed an individual style that depicts the ideals of High Renaissance. He assimilated the ideas from all other artists around him. This painting depicts a rare story according to the Golden Legend, (13th century collection of stories about the lives of the saints). Int he story, Joseph competed with other suitors for Mary’s hand.  The high priest was to give the Virgin to whichever suitor presented to him a rod that had miraculously bloomed. In the painting, unsuccessful suitors stand to the right and virgins to the left. Many of the aspects of perspective and design seen throughout Renaissance painting are again presented in this composition.


Alba Madonna, National Gallery of Art, DC, 1510.

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There are many similarities to Leonardo’s compositional depiction, however, Raphael chooses a brighter palette based off paintings by Perugino. He preferred clarity to obscurity and was not fascinated with mystery as Leonardo was.


Early 16th Century Venetian

Venice was a major Mediterranean coastal port and gateway to the Orient. It was a city state that remained independent from France or Spain during their conquests. They had a semi-democratic structure that involved an election of their duke, called a Doge. The city state witnessed a later decline from constant threat from the Turks and other powers.


Giovanni Bellini (1430-1516)

The effects of Venice’s soft light was of much interest to artists. Evocative use of color and what became known as "Venetian style." Bellini trained in the International Style by his father Jacopo, a student of Gentile da Fabriano. He also was highly influenced by Mantegna and a Sicilian painter, Antonello da Messina. Bellini is most noted for beginning the use of mixed oil rather than Tempera or fresco. This practice of oil painting was important for Venice where the climate did not allow for fresco to remain on the walls. Bellini and other artists of Venice often created paintings of the Virgin in sacra conversazione (holy conversation). 


San Zaccaria Altarpiece, San Zaccaria, Venice, 1505

Bellini Refined many of the compositional elements of previous altarpieces. He uses physical or symbolic attributes help to identify all the saints except Lucy (usually depicted holding her eyes). There is a sense of calm serenity. Though this is a sacra conversazione piece, there is little or no interaction takes place between the figures. The painting does demonstrate the balance of color and light typical of Venetian Style paintings where, as a product of the oil painting process, line is not the main element, rather light, color, and shadow.


The Feast of the Gods, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, 1529

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This painting was commissioned by the Duke of Ferrara, Alfonso d’Este for a room in his Palazzo Ducale. As it was a secular location, the mythological theme was of private interest to the Duke. The composition draws from standard Greco-Roman poses and figures. The gods look almost like peasants enjoying a picnic, but the source is from Ovid’s Fasti which describes a banquet of the gods. Nymphs and Satyrs attend to the gods who enjoy their party.

The painting was originally a scene circled by trees, but later Titian (student of Bellini), re-painted much of the background to meet with his neighboring painting. The Venetian painting became a contrast of colorito (colored or painted) vs. disegno (Drawing or design) between Venice and the Florentine/Roman artists. The subject also focuses on the lyrical and poetic that were common themes in Venice.


Giorgione Da Castelfanco (1477-1510)

Pastoral Concert, Oil, Louvre, Paris, France, 1508

This painting is possibly an early work by Titian. It is also a great example of the Poetic paintings of the Venetians. The figures emerge out of dense shadow. The nude women are their muses, and are not actually physically present in this scene, representing an allegorical message. The one woman dips into the Well of Inspiration while the other pays loving attention to the two men who talk as if the women are not present. Voluptuous women become a standard of beauty for Venetian art.

The Tempest, Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice, 1510

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This painting demonstrates similar poetic qualities. The landscape is threatened by stormy skies. It is uncertain if there is any particular narrative as it seems like it is a visual poem.


Titian (Tiziano Vecelli)(1490-1576)

Titian was trained by both Bellini and Giogione. Upon Bellini’s death, Titian became Venice’s official painter. He was the most prolific and considered the greatest of the Venetian painters and a supreme colorist. He fully adopted oil on canvas as the preferred media.

Assumption of the Virgin, Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice, 1516-1518

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This composition was painted for the main altar of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari. It depicts the ascent of the Virgin’s body to Heaven. Golden clouds seem to glow and radiate light and the vibrant color allows him to bring forth an image with drama and intensity.


Madonna of the Pesaro Family, Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice, 1519-1526

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This private commission is also located in the church of the Frari. It depicts a sunlit setting, the Madonna receives the commander Pesaro who kneels at the foot of her throne. The painting is characterized by massing of monumental figures within weighty and majestic architecture, but Titian does not compose a horizontal and symmetrical arrangement, rather on a diagonal. This diagonal composition creates a more dynamic composition than those found in the High Renaissance.

Meeting of Bacchus and Ariadne, National Gallery, London, England, 1522-1523

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Another of the series commissioned by Alfonso d’Este, the duke of Ferrara. He had also commissioned a Bacchanalian scene from Titian as well as several other artists, but others had died before completing their commissions. Titian fulfilled the other artists commissions as well as altered his teacher Bellini’s painting to fit with his own. Bacchus here is accompanied by a noisy group as they arrive to save Ariadne who was abandoned by Theseus on the island of Naxos. Bright, rich colors make Alfonso’s "pleasure chamber" a very desirable place to relax.

Venus of Urbino, Ufizi Museum, Florence, Italy, 1538

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The title elevates the status of classical mythology when the painting was most likely of a courtesan in her bedchamber, and there is no evidence that there was any mythological meaning. The painting represents the connection of Renaissance art to Classical themes. The figure allows for viewers to connect with the painting in a formal sense rather than it’s most probable intention of a genre / pornographic image. The composition is balanced through a dividion of spaces and utilizes color as a major compositional element.


Antonio Allegri da Correggio (1489-1534)

Correggio is an artist from Parma.  His unique personal style cannot really be classified. He pulled together many stylistic trends living between the Florentines and the Venetians.

Assumption of the Virgin, Parma Cathedral, Parma, Italy, 1526-1530.

Correggio painted on the domed ceiling of the Parma Cathedral. The composition is similar to Mantegna’s Camera de la Sposi. He depicts an audience in the sky with concentric rings of clouds with hundreds of figures dancing in celebration as the Virgin ascends through the middle. Baroque painters later look to Correggio for inspiration.


Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564)

Michelangelo was the favorite of Pope Julius II. He thought of himself as a sculptor first stating that the skill should be valued above painting as it takes a divine power to "make man." Artwork is the physical representation of an idea thet becomes the reality that the artist must bring forth. Ideas come from nature and is therefore linked to divine beauty. Michelangelo thus mistrusted the application of mathematical methods as guarantees of beauty in proportion believing instead in measure of beauty by the eyes. As the hands work, the eye judges, therefore the artist’s inspiration could be best judgement of proportion and beauty. This emphasized the artist's right to self-expression and artistic judgement. Michelangelo was also known for his elf-imposed isolation, creative furies, proud independence and daring innovations. 


Pieta, Marble, Saint Peters Basilica, Vatican 1498-1500.

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The Pieta demonstrates Michelangelo's prowess with sculpting marble. His care to anatomy, the lifelike poses and the emotion is without compare. He captures an overly young Virgin Mary holding a limp Christ after the decent from the cross. This composition has been copied by many artists making it iconic in its symbolism and expression.

David, The Academy, Florence, Italy, 1501-1504

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This sculpture is an early work revealing the fascination with the human form. The formal reference is to classical antiquity and the Doryphoros. Like earlier David sculptures that were commissioned in Florence during times of upheaval, this is representative of the city and its struggles against its rivals. In Michelangelo's depiction, he shows David before victory awaiting his foe, rather than after victory, standing over the head of Goliath. The pose and expression demonstrate tension and readiness and at the same time a relaxed poise. His large hands and head to bring emphasis to the narrative focal points. This emotive force connects the piece more to the Hellenistic Greek tradition of showing pent-up emotion rather than focusing on calm, ideal beauty. The sculpture also maintains an immense physical presence as it stands over thirteen feet tall(13’5”).

Moses, San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome, 1513-1515

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Moses is one of the sculptures for the tomb of Julius II which was commissioned during his lifetime but never completed to the extent of Julius II ‘s wishes.  It was meant to be seen from below and balanced with seven other figures related to it so it does not have it’s intended impact. The tablets of law are under his arm as he gathers his beard in his hands. He is also depicted with horns, which were a sculptural convention in Christian art to identify Moses due to a miss translation regarding the rays of light that emanated from his head in the text. Moses' muscles also bulge, his veins swell, and he seems to look as if he is ready to stand.  There seems to be a lot of pent up energy that would explode out if he were to stand up.


Bound Slaves, 1513-1516

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The bound slaves were intended for around 20 sculptures of slaves to also appear on the tomb of Julius II, though many think that the sculptures might not have even been intended for the tomb. They embody powerful emotional states associated with oppression. They could have been personal expressions in sculpture rather than commissioned works.


Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Sistine Chapel, Vatican, 1508-1512

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One of the most iconic of Michelangelo's works, it was also commissioned by Julius II to a reluctant Michelangelo. He faced many problems in working on the ceiling. He was inexperienced with fresco, the size (5,800 square feet) and height (70 ft from the ground) posed challenges, and the curved vaulting in the architecture caused perspective problems. He settled on mostly representing themes of the Creation, Fall and Redemption of Humanity. The architectural framework does not construct "picture windows", rather the viewer focuses on each figure sharply outlined against the neutral tones in the background. He also still concentrated on the beauty of the natural form of the body as the body was the symbolic vehicle for the soul. He thus painted with a sculptor’s eye.

Creation of Adam (Detail)

One of the central panels of the ceiling is a panel depicting the creation of Adam. Life is given to Adam through the tension of communication between the hands. Almost like a spark of static electricity. God looks like a Olympian Zeus and a female figure resides behind God’s left arm looking on with curiosity who could be Eve or she could be the Virgin with the Christ child at her knee representing Adam’s original sin as it led to Christ’s redemption.  The off-center focal point with curves and diagonals makes up the composition rather than measured horizontal and verticals.

Last Judgement, Altar wall of the Sistine Chapel, Vatican, 1534-1541

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The painting depicts a crowded space where figures below are being damned and the just rising into the heavens. It is a terrifying vision of the fate that awaits sinners. It is also said that Saint Bartholomew, who was skinned alive, holds a skin and a flaying knife that is possibly the self portrait of Michelangelo.




Saint Peter’s Basilica, Vatican, 1546-1564


Michelangelo was also an architect, producing great buildings throughout Italy. He was commissioned by Pope Paul III to redesign the new St. Peter's Basilica. The Church believed that the building of the new Saint Peter’s Basilica would bring back the supremacy of the Church. An original plan was developed by Bramante and subsequent architects who devoted much time with little return. Michelangelo maintained much of the original ideas of Bamante’s original plan, but Simplified the plan into a more cohesive unity. The exterior reveals his interest in creating a unified and cohesive design. Later additions to the front of the church including an extension of the nave make the Apse end the preferred view for Michelangelo’s original intent. Verticals unite the base to the summit.



Michelangelo's concept was one of proportional unity relating a large structure proportionally to the natural human scale and form. Architecture is one with the beauty of human form. He decided against the ovaginal dome like the Florence cathedral at the last minute in decision of a hemispherical dome, though that also was changed in the construction due to the impossibility of supporting a hemispherical dome at the time. The ovaginal dome would also break from the strict verticality and bring a balance between the dynamic and static elements. Giacomo Della Porta executed the dome after Michelangelo’s death and restored the earlier high design ignoring the later version possibly for many of the same reasons as Brunelleschi for stability and ease of construction. Michelangelo’s style still provided the foundation of art production for centuries in most all visual disciplines.





This module was produced by Professor Josh Yavelberg utilizing a mixture of open educational resources and notes from:

Kleiner, Fred. Gardner's Art through the Ages: The Western Perspective,|. Vol. 2. Cengage Learning, 2013.


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2017-06-10 17:18 SCantor
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