by Gerald Boerner
Today we will continue our consideration of the artists who worked during the Renaissance period in Europe outside of Florence and Rome. During this time, art was either commissioned or done for the church, which essentially meant the same thing: the churches, monasteries, and other religious organizations gathered together a store of art that reflected the emotions and reality of people.
We are focusing on the latter Italian Renaissance today and the principle artists involved during that period and look at some of their best works. In general, the renaissance represented a transition from highly stylized art of only religious subjects to art that incorporated the sense of light and color available in the new media available. In addition, innovations in the use of perspective gave these artworks a greater sense of reality.
We hope that this will provide you with food for thought regarding the Holy Week celebrations on which we are also focusing this week. GLB
“Destroying rainforest for economic gain is like burning a Renaissance painting to cook a meal.”
— E. O. Wilson
“Every renaissance comes to the world with a cry, the cry of the human spirit to be free.”
— Anne Sullivan Macy
“In essence the Renaissance was simply the green end of one of civilization’s hardest winters.”
— John Fowles
“Actually I like the idea of being a Renaissance hack. If tombstones were still in style, I would want to have the two words chiseled right under my name.”
— Dennis Flanagan
“Great effort is required to arrest decay and restore vigor. One must exercise proper deliberation, plan carefully before making a move, and be alert in guarding against relapse following a renaissance.”
“No account of the Renaissance can be complete without some notice of the attempt made by certain Italian scholars of the fifteenth century to reconcile Christianity with the religion of ancient Greece.”
— Walter Pater
“In the West there has always been the attempt to try make the religious building, whether it’s a Medieval or Renaissance church, an eternal object for the celebration of God. The material chosen, such as stone, brick, or concrete, is meant to eternally preserve what is inside.”
— Tadao Ando
“New needs need new techniques. And the modern artists have found new ways and new means of making their statements… the modern painter cannot express this age, the airplane, the atom bomb, the radio, in the old forms of the Renaissance or of any other past culture.”
— Jackson Pollock
This posting is intended for the educational use of photographers and photography students and complies with the “educational fair use” provisions of copyright law. For readers who might wish to reuse some of these images should check out their compliance with copyright limitations that might apply to that use.
The Renaissance: Renaissance Painting
Italian Renaissance painting is the painting of the period from the early 15th to mid 16th centuries occurring within the area of present-day Italy, which was at that time divided into many political areas. The painters of Renaissance Italy, although often attached to particular courts and with loyalties to particular towns, nonetheless wandered the length and breadth of Italy, often occupying a diplomatic status and disseminating both artistic and philosophical ideas.
The city that is renowned as the birthplace of the Renaissance and in particular, Renaissance painting, is Florence. A detailed background is given in the companion articles Renaissance and Renaissance architecture.
Italian Renaissance painting can be divided into four periods:
- Proto-Renaissance, 1290–1400.
- Early Renaissance, 1400–1475.
- High Renaissance, 1475–1525.
- Mannerism, 1525–1600.
The Proto-Renaissance begins with the professional life of the painter Giotto and includes Taddeo Gaddi, Orcagna and Altichiero. The Early Renaissance was marked by the work of Masaccio, Fra Angelico, Uccello, Piero della Francesca and Verrocchio. The High Renaissance period was that of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael. The Mannerist period included Andrea del Sarto, Pontormo and Tintoretto. Mannerism is dealt with in a separate article.
This installment will focus on the Renaissance Paintings from outside of Florence or Rome. We will deal with each of the three main periods.
Mortality and redemption
A common theme in the decoration of Medieval churches was the Last Judgement, which frequently occupies a sculptural space above the west door, or, as in the case of the Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel, is painted on the inner west wall. The Black Death of 1348 caused its survivors to focus on the need to approach death in a state of penitence and absolution. The inevitability of death, the rewards for the penitent and the penalties of sin were emphasised in a number of frescoes, remarkable for their grim depictions of suffering and their surreal images of the torments of Hell.
These include the Triumph of Death by Giotto’s pupil Orcagna, now in a fragmentary state at the Museum of Santa Croce, and the Triumph of Death in the Camposanto Monumentale at Pisa by an unknown painter, perhaps Francesco Traini or Buonamico Buffalmacco who worked on the other three of a series of frescoes on the subject of Salvation. It is unknown exactly when these frescoes were begun but it is generally presumed they post-date 1348.
Two important fresco painters were active in Padua in the late 14th century, Altichiero and Giusto de’ Menabuoi. Giusto’s masterpiece, the decoration of the Cathedral’s Baptistery, follows the theme of humanity’s Creation, Downfall and Salvation, also having a rare Apocalypse cycle in the small chancel. While the whole work is exceptional for its breadth, quality and intact state, the treatment of human emotion is conservative by comparison with that of Altichiero’s Crucifixion at the Basilica of Sant’Antonio, also in Padua. Giusto’s work relies on formalised gestures, where Altichiero relates the incidents surrounding Christ’s death with great human drama and intensity.
In Florence, at the Spanish Chapel of Santa Maria Novella, Andrea Bonaiuti was commissioned to emphasise the role of the Church in the redemptive process, and that of the Dominican Order in particular. His fresco Allegory of the Active and Triumphant Church is remarkable for its depiction of Florence Cathedral, complete with the dome which was not built until the following century.
During the later 14th century, International Gothic was the style that dominated Tuscan painting. It can be seen to an extent in the work of Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzetti which is marked by a formalized sweetness and grace in the figures, and Late Gothic gracefulness in the draperies. The style is fully developed in the works of Simone Martini and Gentile da Fabriano which have an elegance and a richness of detail, and an idealised quality not compatible with the starker realities of Giotto’s paintings.
In the early 15th century, bridging the gap between International Gothic and the Renaissance are the paintings of Fra Angelico, many of which, being altarpieces in tempera, show the Gothic love of elaboration, gold leaf and brilliant colour. It is in his frescoes at his convent of Sant’ Marco that Fra Angelico shows himself the artistic disciple of Giotto. These devotional paintings, which adorn the cells and corridors inhabited by the friars, represent episodes from the life of Jesus, many of them being scenes of the Crucifixion. They are starkly simple, restrained in colour and intense in mood as the artist sought to make spiritual revelations a visual reality.
Early Renaissance Painting
Andrea Mantegna in Mantua
One of the most influential painters of northern Italy was Andrea Mantegna of Padua, who had the good fortune to be in his teen years at the time in which the great Florentine sculptor Donatello was working there. Donatello created the enormous equestrian bronze, the first since the Roman Empire, of the condotiero Gattemelata, still visible on its plinth in the square outside the Basilica of Sant’Antonio. He also worked on the high altar and created a series of bronze panels in which he achieved a remarkable illusion of depth, with perspective in the architectural settings and apparent roundness of the human form all in very shallow relief.
At only 17 years old, Mantegna accepting his first commission, fresco cycles of the Lives of Saints James and Christopher for the Eremitani Chapel, near the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. Unfortunately the building was mostly destroyed during World War II, and they are only known from photographs which reveal an already highly developed sense of perspective and a knowledge of antiquity, for which the ancient University of Padua had become well known, early in the 15th century.
Mantegna’s most famous work is the interior decoration of the Camera degli Sposi for the Gonzaga family in Mantua, dated about 1470. The walls are frescoed with scenes of the life of the Gonzaga family, talking, greeting a younger son and his tutor on their return from Rome, preparing for a hunt and other such scenes which make no obvious reference to matters historic, literary, philosophic or religious. They are remarkable for simply being about family life. The one concession is the scattering of jolly winged cherubs who hold up plaques and garlands and clamber on the illusionistic pierced balustrade that surrounds a trompe l’oeil view of the sky that decks the ceiling of the chamber.
Cosmè Tura in Ferrara
While Mantegna was working for the Gonzagas in Mantua, a very different painter was being employed to design an even more ambitious scheme for the Este family of Ferrara. Cosmè Tura’s painting is highly distinctive, both strangely Gothic yet Classicising at the same time. Tura poses Classical figures as if they were saints, surrounds them with luminous symbolic motifs of surreal perfection and clothes them in garments that appear to be crafted out of intricately folded and enamelled copper.
Borso d’Este’s family had constructed a large banquetting hall and suite known as the Palazzo Schifanoia. Borso, according to Tura’s personal records, employed him in 1470 to design the decorative scheme for the banquetting hall, to be executed by Francesco del Cossa and Ercole de’ Roberti.
The scheme is both symbolically complex and elaborate in execution. The overriding theme is the Cycle of the Year as represented by the signs of the zodiac accompanied by the mysterious Deans each ruling ten days of the month. Above them, seated in a spectacular array of chariots drawn by lions, eagles, unicorns and other such beasts, are twelve Roman deities with their various attributes. In the lower tiers, as in the Camera degli Sposi, are shown the life of the family. For the month of March, for example, the figure of Minerva, Goddess of Wisdom, is represented and in the panel beneath Borso d’Este is administering justice, while in the distance workers are pruning vines. Although areas of the frescoes are very badly damaged to the extent that the subject can no longer be identified, and although there are several different hands apparent in the works, there appears to be a consistency in the design of every remaining scene that shows the overriding eccentric style of Cosmè Tura.
Antonello da Messina
In 1442 Alfonso V of Aragon became ruler of Naples, bringing with him a collection of Flemish paintings and setting up a Humanist Academy. The painter Antonello da Messina seems to have had access to the King’s collection, which may have included the works of Jan van Eyck. He seems to have been exposed to Flemish painting at a date earlier than the Florentines, to have quickly seen the potential of oils as a medium and then painted in nothing else. He carried the technique north to Venice with him, where it was soon adopted by Giovanni Bellini and became the favoured medium of the maritime republic where the art of fresco had never been a great success.
Antonello da Messina painted mostly small meticulous portraits in glowing colours. But one of his most famous works also demonstrates his superior ability at handling linear perspective and light. This is the small painting of St. Jerome in His Study, in which the composition is framed by a late Gothic arch, through which is viewed an interior, domestic on one side and ecclesiastic on the other, in the centre of which the saint sits in a wooden corral surrounded by his possessions while his lion prowls in the shadows on the tiled floor. The way that the light streams in through every door and window casting both natural light and reflected light across the architecture and all the objects would have excited Piero della Francesca. His work influenced both Gentile Bellini, who did a series of paintings of Miracles of Venice for the Scuola di Santa Croce, and his more famous brother, Giovanni, one of the most significant painters of the High Renaissance in Northern Italy.
From about 1450, with the arrival in Italy of the Flemish painter Rogier van der Weyden and possibly earlier, artists were introduced to the medium of oil paint. Whereas both tempera and fresco lent themselves to the depiction of pattern, neither presented a successful way to represent natural textures realistically. The highly flexibly medium of oils, which could be made opaque or transparent, and allowed alteration and additions for days after it had been laid down, opened a new world of possibility to Italian artists.
In 1475 a huge altarpiece of the Adoration of the Shepherds arrived in Florence. Painted by Hugo van der Goes at the behest of the Portinari family, it was shipped out from Bruges for the Chapel of Sant’ Egidio at the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova. The altarpiece glows with intense reds and greens, contrasting with the glossy black velvet robes of the Portinari donors. In the foreground is a still life of flowers in contrasting containers, one of glazed pottery and the other of glass. The glass vase alone was enough to excite attention. But the most influential aspect of the triptych was the extremely natural and lifelike quality of the three shepherds with stubbly beards, workworn hands and expressions ranging from adoration to wonder to incomprehension. The Florentine artist, Ghirlandaio, promptly painted his own version, with a beautiful Italian Madonna in place of the long-faced Flemish one, and himself, gesturing theatrically, as one of the shepherds.
Giovanni Bellini was the exact contemporary of his brother Gentile, his brother-in-law Mantegna and Antonello da Messina. Working most of his life in the studio of his brother, and strongly influenced by the crisp style of Mantegna, he does not appear to have produced an independently signed painting until he was in his late 50s. During the last 30 years of his life he was both extraordinarily productive and influential, having the guidance of both Giorgione and Titian.
Bellini, like his much younger contemporary, Raphael, produced numerous small Madonnas in rich glowing colour, usually of more intense tonality than his Florentine counterpart. These Madonnas multiplied prolifically as they were reproduced by other members of the large Bellini studio, one tiny picture, the Circumcision of Christ existing in four or five almost identical versions.
Traditionally, in the painting of altarpieces of the Madonna and Child, the enthroned figure of the Virgin is accompanied by saints, who stand in defined spaces, separated physically in the form of a polytych or defined by painted architectural boundaries. Piero della Francesca used the Classical niche as a setting for his enthroned Madonnas, as Masaccio had used it as the setting for his Holy Trinity at Santa Maria Novella. Piero grouped saints around the throne, in the architectural space.
Bellini used this same form, known as Sacred conversations, in several of his later altarpieces such as that for the Venetian church of San Zaccaria. It is a masterful composition which extends the real architecture of the building into the illusionistic architecture of the painting, making the niche a sort of loggia opened up to the landscape and to daylight which streams across the figures of the Virgin and Child, the two female saints and the little angel who plays a viola making them brighter than the two elderly male saints who stand to the fore in the picture, Peter deep in thought and Jerome immersed in a book.
Giorgione and Titian
Whilst the style of Giorgione’s painting clearly relates to that of his presumed master, Giovanni Bellini, his subject matter makes him one of the most original and abstruse artists of the Renaissance. One of his paintings, of a landscape known as the Tempest, with a semi-naked woman feeding a baby, a clothed man, some classical columns and a flash of lightning, perhaps represents Adam and Eve in their post-Eden days, or perhaps it doesn’t. Another painting, called the Philosophers may represent the Magi planning their journey in search of the infant Christ, but this is not certain either. One thing that appears to be certain is that Giorgione painted a female nude, the very first female nude that stands, or rather, lies, as a subject to be portrayed and admired for beauty alone.
There are no need for Classical references in this painting, although in later nudes Titian, Velazquez, Veronese, Rembrandt, Rubens and even Manet saw fit to add some. They are the artistic heirs of Giorgione’s nude.
On his premature death, Titian completed the painting and went on to paint a great more naked women, most frequently, as Botticelli did, disguising them as goddesses and surrounding them with sylvan woods and starry skies to make perfect decoration for the walls of rich clientele. But it was as a painter of portraits that Titian excelled, his longevity allowing him to achieve far more, both in the way of production and in stylistic development than either Giorgione or his Florentine contemporary Raphael were able to. Titian gave the world images of Pietro Aretino and Pope Paul III and many other people of his day, perhaps his most powerful portrait being that of Doge Andrea Gritti, ruler of Venice, who looms large in the picture space, one huge hand clasping his heavily-buttoned robe in a dynamic Expressionistic gesture. Titian is also renowned for his religious painting, his last work being a turbulent and abstracted Pieta.
Influence of Italian Renaissance painting
Michelangelo and Titian both lived into the second half of the 16th century. Both saw their styles and those of Leonardo, Mantegna, Giovanni Bellini, Antonello da Messina and Raphael adapted by later painters to form a disparate style known as Mannerism, and move steadily towards the great outpouring of imagination and painterly virtuosity of the Baroque period.
The artist who most extended the trends in Titian’s large figurative compositions is Tintoretto, although his personal manner was such that he only lasted nine days as Titian’s apprentice. Rembrandt’s knowledge of the works of both Titian and Raphael is apparent in his portraits. The direct influences of Leonardo and Raphael upon their own pupils was to effect generations of artists including Poussin and schools of Classical painters of the 18th and 19th centuries. Antonello da Messina’s work had a direct influence on Albrecht Dürer and Martin Schongauer and through the latter’s engravings, countless artists including the German, Dutch and English schools of stained glass makers extending into the early 20th century.
Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling and later The Last Judgment had direct influence on the figurative compositions firstly of Raphael and his pupils and then almost every subsequent 16th century painter who looked for new and interesting ways to depict the human form. It is possible to trace his style of figurative composition through Andrea del Sarto, Pontormo, Bronzino, Parmigianino, Veronese, to el Greco, Carracci, Caravaggio, Rubens, Poussin and Tiepolo to both the Classical and the Romantic painters of the 19th century such as Jacques Louis David and Delacroix.
Under the influence of the Italian Renaissance painting, many modern academies of art, such as the Royal Academy, were founded, and it was specifically to collect the works of the Italian Renaissance that some of the world’s best known art collections, such as the National Gallery, London, were formed.
Background and biographical information is from Wikipedia articles on:
Wikipedia: Italian Renaissance Painting…
Web Sites and Blogs:
Brainy Quote: Renaissance Quotes…