Most art historians agree that the Italian Renaissance began in Florence, where the religious orders’ desire
to teach people through life-like images and the humanists’ interests in ancient Roman culture led to more
realistic sculpture and painting. However, in trying to create very realistic figures, artists of the
sometimes seem to be trying too hard; their work can seem too sharply defined or too dainty and their use
of perspective can be a little too obvious.
Artists of the High Renaissance—Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael—went beyond this precise
realism, to create work that was more graceful or more powerful, without being too bound by rules. The
goal was to create figures that seemed truly alive. High Renaissance art seems to maintain a perfect balance
between idealism and naturalism. Architects like Donato Bramante, went beyond applying the classical
orders to the columns and wall moldings, and instead tried to recapture the grandeur and the enormous
spaces of Roman architecture.
For convenience we generally say the High Renaissance began around 1500 and ended with the death of
Raphael in 1520. But a new style, mannerism, was developing naturally from High Renaissance ideals as
early as 1516. Mannerism was a popular style, but its exaggerated idealism began to draw criticism by the
middle of the sixteenth century, and some artists responded by developing simpler, more emotionally
appealing works of art. Although the late sixteenth century is not considered a particularly fertile moment
in the history of art, it set the stage for the grandeur and energy of the baroque style.
Venetian art of the sixteenth century shares the ease and monumentality of the High Renaissance style,
although it also can be considered a separate tradition (the Republic of Venice was actually a separate
political state, which was often at odds with the Papal States). The intellectual complexities of mannerism
never really appealed to Venetians; instead, a lyrical sensuality is seen in most Venetian works throughout
the century.
Leonardo da Vinci was first to move beyond the clarity and accuracy of the early Renaissance. A
contemporary of Botticelli, Leonardo was genuinely ahead of his time because he was already painting in a
High Renaissance style by the 1480s. Leonardo learned to paint in Florence, but he then became a court
artist and worked in Milan for much of his life; later, he went to France where he worked for the king.
Leonardo is famous for his many talents and interests: he studied everything from birds to plumbing
systems, and he was an accomplished musician, scientist, and military engineer, as well as an artist. He also
designed sculptural monuments and buildings that were not carried out in his lifetime. Of his paintings,
several were left incomplete, and others are in bad condition because Leonardo sometimes used
experimental techniques that did not work well.
Leonardo’s Last Supper, painted at the end of the fifteenth century in the dining room of a convent in Milan,
is a good example of his experimental techniques. Rather than using true fresco, Leonardo wanted to get
more of the intensity of oil paint, so he tried to apply an oil or gum-based paint to the dry plaster wall (the
precise technique that he used is still unknown). The painting began to deteriorate in Leonardo’s own time,
and recent attempts to restore it have been only partially successful.
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