Accessible Art History
Art of the High Renaissance
Welcome back to the Accessible Art History blog! For this week’s post, I am continuing my short series on the Italian Renaissance. (If you haven’t read part one on the Early Renaissance, click here to open a new tab. It lays the groundwork for today's post!)
Next up is the High Renaissance. It lasted from around 1495 to the Sack of Rome in 1527. This is one of the most popular eras in art history because it contains some of the most recognizable pieces and names. Artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael all lived and worked during this period! Despite its relatively short time period, the High Renaissance had a huge impact on art for generations to come. So, to learn more, keep on reading!
There was a lot of social and political change during this period in history. As I discussed in the previous post, there was a new middle class forming made up of wealthy merchants and traders. This allowed for a wider pool of patrons as well as new systems of government to develop. The main center of this was the city of Florence. It was ruled as a republic with power in the hands of a few noble families, most famously the Medicis.
Rome was the other center of power in Renaissance Italy. It was ruled by the Pope, who was obviously a major patron of religious art. The city was also filled with ruins from the Roman Empire, which artists flocked to to study. This made Rome a major center for artistic production. In addition, the papacy had only recently moved back to the city from Avignon. In their absence, the city had fallen into disrepair. So, it became important that the Popes became patrons of art to beautify the city once again.
Another major historical event that happened during the High Renaissance was the beginning of the Reformation. On October 31, 1517, a German Monk named Martin Luther nailed
95 theses to the door of a church. These were things that he questioned about the all powerful Catholic Church. For example, he wondered if people needed intercession with God and advocated for Bibles to be printed in vernacular languages. The Church had stood for 1500 years and this was a huge shake up.
The High Renaissance is characterized by a continued experimentation of what art could be. The use of linear perspective was expanded and built upon and new techniques such as sfumato (haziness) and chiaroscuro (the use of light and dark) were developed. It was an exciting time to be an artist because it was as if a whole new world was opened up!
The Last Supper - Leonardo da Vinci
One of the greatest innovators of the High Renaissance was Leonardo da Vinci. He wasn’t afraid to experiment in art and science and is still considered a genius today. One of his most recognizable works is The Last Supper. It was painted in 1498 for the church/convent Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, Italy. This painting depicts the moment that Jesus reveals to his disciples that one of them would betray him. The figures have a range of emotions at this revelation, a fairly new concept in art at this time.
In line with other Renaissance works, Leonardo employed a balanced composition and linear perspective. All the disciples are spaced out evenly around Jesus and all the lines of the work converge above his head. However, in true Leonardo fashion, there was some experimentation with this work! Typically, in a fresco, the pigment is applied while the plaster is still wet. This allows the color to bind to the wall. But, Leonardo applied the pigment to dry plaster. Unfortunately, this didn’t work out so well. The work started to disintegrate within Leonardo’s own lifetime. Conservators have had to work hard over the centuries to make sure we are all able to enjoy the piece.
David by Michelangelo
Another iconic work of the Italian Renaissance is David by Michelangelo. It was sculpted between 1501-1504 and was originally meant to adorne the Florence Cathedral. But, it ended up being so large and so beloved, that the work was given a place of honor in the Piazza della Signoria in the center of the city. David stood their proudly until the 19th century when it was moved to the Galleria dell'Accademia di Firenze to protect it against the weather. A replica stands in its place.
As the name would suggest, this statue is a representation of the biblical hero David. He is preparing to fight Goliath, a giant Philistine, in order to save the people of Israel from having to go to a costly war. David is calm, cool, and collected. He carefully surveys the scene before him as he grips a rock for his slingshot in his hand. Michelangelo chose to sculpt David in the nude. This combined with his contrapposto pose creates David into the idealized, heroic, male nude of Classical antiquity.
One fun fact about this work is that David was often considered to be a symbol of the city of Florence. Its residents saw themselves as the underdogs of the Italian peninsula. When David was outside in the piazza, he was positioned to face Florence’s major enemy, the “Goliath” of Rome.
The School of Athens by Raphael
The last name of the “Big Three” of the High Renaissance is Raphael. The majority of his career was spent in Rome working for the Papacy. One of his most famous works is this piece, called the School of Athens. He painted it between 1509-1511 as a decoration for Pope Julius II. In this work, Raphael painted portraits of some of the greatest thinkers of the classical past. It might seem an unusual choice for a room for the head of the Catholic Church, but it shows just how prevalent Renaissance thought was throughout the Italian peninsula.
Raphael painted these thinkers inside a classical, Roman style building. He used linear perspective to create three dimensionality, with the vanishing point situated above the center two mens’ heads. They are the two most famous thinkers of the classical era: Aristotle and Plato. Their theories influenced philosophical thought for centuries. Surrounding them is a balanced composition, each person has a place and purpose within the work. It is the ideal of Renaissance rationale.
In a nod to his fellow artists, Raphael used Leonardo as inspiration for Plato and Michelangelo as Heraclitus.
The High Renaissance, despite its relatively short time frame, had a huge impact on the history of art. It shows how artists weren’t afraid to experiment and looked to the classical past for inspiration. Make sure to keep an eye out for the final post in this series, the Late Renaissance. It will be coming to the blog soon!