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Hochrenaissance - Kunstgeschichte Informationen

High Renaissance

Patronage and Humanism
In Florence, in the latter 15th century, most works of art, even those that were done as decoration for churches, were generally commissioned and paid for by private patrons. Much of the patronage came from the Medici family, or those who were closely associated with or related to them, such as the Sassetti, the Ruccellai and the Tornabuoni.

In the 1460s Cosimo de' Medici the Elder had established Marsilio Ficino as his resident Humanist philosopher, and facilitated his translation of Plato and his teaching of Platonic philosophy, which focussed on humanity as the centre of the natural universe, on each person's personal relationship with God, and on fraternal or "platonic" love as being the closest that a person could get to emulating or understanding the love of God.

In the Medieval period, everything related to the Classical period was perceived as associated with paganism. In the Renaissance it came increasingly to be associated with enlightenment. The figures of Classical mythology began to take on a new symbolic role in Christian art and in particular, the Goddess Venus took on a new discretion. Born fully formed, by a sort of miracle, she was the new Eve, symbol of innocent love, or even, by extension, a symbol of the Virgin Mary herself. We see Venus in both these roles in the two famous tempera paintings that Botticelli did in the 1480s for Cosimo's nephew, Pierfrancesco Medici, the Primavera and the Birth of Venus.

Meanwhile, Ghirlandaio, a meticulous and accurate draughtsman and one of the finest portrait painters of his age, executed two cycles of frescoes for Medici associates in two of Florence's larger churches, the Sassetti Chapel at Santa Trinita and the Tornabuoni Chapel at Santa Maria Novella. In these cycles of the Life of St Francis and the Life of the Virgin Mary and Life of John the Baptist there was room for portraits of patrons and of the patrons' patrons. Thanks to Sassetti's patronage, there is a portrait of the man himself, with his employer, Lorenzo il Magnifico, and Lorenzo's three sons with their tutor, the Humanist poet and philosopher, Agnolo Poliziano. In the Tornabuoni Chapel is another portrait of Poliziano, accompanied by the other influential members of the Platonic Academy including Marsilio Ficino.

Netherlandish influence
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 their family chapel in the church of Sant' Egidio. 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.

The Papal commission
In 1477 Pope Sixtus IV replaced the derelict old chapel at the Vatican in which many of the Papal services were held. The interior of the new chapel, named the Sistine chapel in his honour, appears to have been planned from the start to have a series of 16 large frescoes between its pilasters on the middle level, with a series of painted portraits of popes above them.

In 1479, a group of artists from Florence were commissioned with the work: Botticelli, Perugino, Ghirlandaio and Cosimo Rosselli. This fresco cycle was to depict the Life of Moses on one side of the chapel and the Life of Christ on the other with the frescoes complimenting each other in theme. The Nativity of Jesus and the Finding of Moses were adjacent on the wall behind the altar, with an altarpiece of the Assumption if the Virgin by Perugino between them. The four paintings on the end walls were unfortunately destroyed.

The remaining 12 pictures indicate the virtuosity that these artists had attained, and the obvious cooperation between individuals who normally employed very different styles and who had very different skills. The paintings gave full range to their capabilities as they included a great number of figures of men, women and children and characters ranging from guiding angels to enraged Pharaohs and the devil himself. Each painting required a landscape. Because of the scale of the figures that the artists agreed upon, in each picture, the landscape and sky take up the whole upper half of the scene. Sometimes, as in Botticelli's scene of the Purification of the Leper, there are additional small narratives taking place in the landscape, in this case the Temptation of Christ.

Of the paintings, one stands out. It is Perugino's scene of Christ giving the Keys to St. Peter. This picture is remarkable for the clarity and simplicity of its composition, the beauty of the figurative painting, which includes a selfportrait among the onlookers, and especially the perspective cityscape which includes reference to Peter's ministry to Rome by the presence of two triumphal arches, and centrally placed an octagonal building which might be a Christian baptistry or a Roman Mausoleum.

Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo, because of the scope of his interests and the extraordinary degree of talent that he demonstrated in so many diverse areas, is regarded as the archetypal "Renaissance man". But it was first and foremost as a painter that he was admired within his own time, and as a painter, he drew on the knowledge that he gained from all his other interests.

Leonardo was a scientific observer. He learned by looking at things. He studied and drew the flowers of the fields, the eddies of the river, the form of the rocks and mountains, the way light reflected from foliage and sparkled in a jewel. In particular, he studied the human form, dissecting thirty or more unclaimed cadavers from a hospital in order to understand muscles and sinews.

More than any other artist, he advanced the study of "atmosphere". In his paintings such as the Mona Lisa and Virgin of the Rocks, he used light and shade with such subtlety that, for want of a better word, it became known as Leonardo's "sfumato" or "smoke".

Simultaneous to inviting the viewer into a mysterious world of shifting shadows, chaotic mountains and whirling torrents, Leonardo achieved a degree of realism in the expression of human emotion, prefigured by Giotto but unknown since Masaccio's Adam and Eve. Leonardo's Last Supper, painted in the refectory of a monastery in Milan, became the benchmark for religious narrative painting for the next half millennium. Many other Renaissance artists painted versions of the Last Supper, but only Leonardo's was destined to to be reproduced countless times in wood, alabaster, plaster, lithograph, tapestry, crochet and table-carpets.

Apart from the direct impact of the works themselves, Leonardo's studies of light, anatomy, landscape, and human expression were disseminated in part through his generosity to a retinue of students

Michelangelo
In 1508 Pope Julius II succeeded in getting the sculptor Michelangelo to agree to continue the decorative scheme of the Sistine Chapel. The Sistine Chapel ceiling was constructed in such a way that there were twelve sloping pendentives supporting the vault that formed ideal surfaces on which to paint the Twelve Apostles. Michelangelo, who had yielded to the Pope's demands with little grace, soon devised an entirely different scheme, far more complex both in design and in iconography. The scale of the work, which he executed single handed except for manual assistance, was titanic and took nearly five years to complete.

The Pope's plan for the Apostles would thematically have formed a pictorial link between the Old Testament and New Testament narratives on the walls, and the popes in the gallery of portraits. It is the twelve apostles, and their leader Peter as first Bishop of Rome, that make that bridge. But Michelangelo's scheme went the opposite direction. The theme of Michelangelo's ceiling is not God's grand plan for humanity's salvation. The theme is about humanity's disgrace. It is about why humanity needed, and in the terms of the faith, needs Jesus.

Superficially, the ceiling is a Humanist construction. The figures are of superhuman dimension and, in the case of Adam, of such beauty that according to the biographer Vasari, it really looks as if God himself had designed the figure, rather than Michelangelo. But despite the beauty of the individual figures, Michelangelo has not glorified the human state, and he certainly has not presented the Humanist ideal of platonic love. In fact, the ancestors of Christ, which he painted around the upper section of the wall, demonstrate all the worst aspects of family relationships, displaying disfunction in as many different forms as there are families.

Vasari praised Michelangelo's seemingly infinite powers of invention in creating postures for the figures. Raphael, who was given a preview by Bramante after Michelangelo had downed his brush and stormed off to Bologna in a temper, painted at least two figures in imitation of Michelangelo's prophets, one at the church of Sant' Agostino and the other in the Vatican, his portrait of Michelangelo himself in The School of Athens.

Raphael
With Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, Raphael's name is synonymous with the High Renaissance. However, he was younger than Michelangelo by 18 years and Leonardo by nearly 30. It cannot be said of him that he greatly advanced the state of painting as his two famous contemporaries did. Rather, his work was the culmination of all the developments of the High Renaissance.

Raphael had the good luck to be born the son of a painter, so his career path, unlike that of Michelangelo who was the son of minor nobility, was decided without a quarrel. Some years after his father's death he worked in the Umbrian workshop of Perugino, an excellent painter and a superb technician. His first signed and dated painting, executed at the age of 21, is the Betrothal of the Virgin, which immediately reveals its origins in Perugino's Christ giving the Keys to Peter.

Raphael was a carefree character who unashamedly drew on the skills of the renowned painters whose lifespans encompassed his. In his works the individual qualities of numerous different painters are drawn together. The rounded forms and luminous colours of Perugino, the lifelike portraiture of Ghirlandaio, the realism and lighting of Leonardo and the powerful draughtsmanship of Michelangelo became unified in the paintings of Raphael. In his short life he executed a number of large altarpieces, an impressive Classical fresco of the sea nymph, Galatea, outstanding portraits with two popes and a famous writer among them, and, while Michelangelo was painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling, a series of wall frescoes in the Vatican chambers nearby, of which the School of Athens is uniquely significant.

This fresco depicts a meeting of all the most learned ancient Athenians, gathered in a grand classical setting around the central figure of Plato, whom Raphael has famously modelled upon Leonardo da Vinci. The brooding figure of Heraclitus who sits by a large block of stone, is a portrait of Michelangelo, and is an obvious reference to the latter's painting of the Prophet Jeremiah in the Sistine Chapel. His own portrait is to the right, beside his teacher, Perugino.

But the main source of Raphael's popularity was not his major works, but his little Florentine pictures of the Madonna and Christ Child. Over and over he painted the same plump calm-faced blonde woman and her succession of chubby babies, the most famous probably being La Belle Jardiniere, ("The Madonna of the Beautiful Garden") now in the Louvre. His larger work, the Sistine Madonna, used as a design for countless stained glass windows, has come, in the 21st century, to provide the iconic image of two small cherubs which have been reproduced on everything from paper table napkins to umbrellas.

High Renaissance painting in Venice

Giovanni Bellini
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 obstruse 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 Scourging of Christ.

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 Durer 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 Last Judgement 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 were founded and it was specifically to collect the works of the Italian Renaissance that some of the world's best known art collections were formed.