High Renaissance art was the dominant style in Italy during the 16th century. Mannerism also developed during this period. The High Renaissance period is traditionally taken to begin in the 1490s, with Leonardo’s fresco of The Last Supper in Milan, and to end in 1527, with the Sack of Rome by the troops of Charles V. This term was first used in German (“Hochrenaissance”) in the early 19th century. Over the last 20 years, use of the term has been frequently criticized by academic art historians for oversimplifying artistic developments, ignoring historical context, and focusing only on a few iconic works.
High Renaissance art is deemed as “High” because it is seen as the period in which the artistic aims and goals of the Renaissance reached their greatest application. High Renaissance art is characterized by references to classical art and delicate application of developments from the Early Renaissance (such as on-point perspective). Overall, works from the High Renaissance display restrained beauty where all of the parts are subordinate to the cohesive composition of the whole.
Many consider 16th century High Renaissance art to be largely dominated by three individuals: Michelangelo, Raphael, and Leonardo da Vinci. Michelangelo excelled as a painter, architect, and sculptor and demonstrated a mastery of portraying the human figure. His frescoes rank among the greatest works of Renaissance art. Raphael was skilled in creating perspective and in the delicate use of color. Leonardo da Vinci painted two of the most well known works of Renaissance art.
Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519)
Da Vinci was famous in his own time as both one of the greatest painters of his age and as what we would now call a scientist – at the time, he was sought after for his skill at engineering, overseeing the construction of the naval defenses of Venice and swamp drainage projects in Rome at different points. He was hired by a whole swath of the rich and powerful in Italy and France; in his old age he was the official chief painter and engineer of the French king, living in a private chateau provided for him and receiving admiring visits from the king.
Leonardo’s most important “scientific” work at the time had to do with human anatomy. The church banned the dissection of corpses on religious grounds – the fear was that the soul needed a site to return to during the Second Coming of Christ at the end of the world, so human bodies were not to be tampered with. Da Vinci received special dispensation from the church to perform human dissections on the bodies of executed criminals, however, ostensibly to look for the physical organ that contained the soul. In fact, he was just interested in seeing how the body worked, and his anatomical drawings inspired new generations of physicians to learn how the body functioned based on empirical observation.
Da Vinci is famous today thanks as much to his diagrams of things like flying machines as for his art. Ironically, while he was well known as a practical engineer at the time, no one had a clue that he was an inventor in the technological sense: he never built physical models of his ideas, and he never published his concepts, so they remained unknown until well after his death.
While Leonardo da Vinci is admired as a scientist, an academic, and an inventor, he is most famous for his achievements as the painter of several Renaissance masterpieces.
The Last Supper
Da Vinci’s most celebrated painting of the 1490s is The Last Supper, which was painted for the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria della Grazie in Milan. The painting depicts the last meal shared by Jesus and the 12 Apostles where he announces that one of them will betray him. When finished, the painting was acclaimed as a masterpiece of design. This work demonstrates something that da Vinci did very well: taking a very traditional subject matter, such as the Last Supper, and completely re-inventing it.
Prior to this moment in art history, every representation of the Last Supper followed the same visual tradition: Jesus and the Apostles seated at a table. Judas is placed on the opposite side of the table of everyone else and is effortlessly identified by the viewer. When da Vinci painted The Last Supper he placed Judas on the same side of the table as Christ and the Apostles, who are shown reacting to Jesus as he announces that one of them will betray him. They are depicted as alarmed, upset, and trying to determine who will commit the act. The viewer also has to determine which figure is Judas, who will betray Christ. By depicting the scene in this manner, da Vinci has infused psychology into the work.
Unfortunately, this masterpiece of the Renaissance began to deteriorate immediately after da Vinci finished painting, due largely to the painting technique that he had chosen. Instead of using the technique of fresco, da Vinci had used tempera over a ground that was mainly gesso in an attempt to bring the subtle effects of oil paint to fresco. His new technique was not successful, and resulted in a surface that was subject to mold and flaking.
Among the works created by da Vinci in the 16th century is the small portrait known as the Mona Lisa, or La Gioconda, “the laughing one.” In the present era it is arguably the most famous painting in the world. Its fame rests, in particular, on the elusive smile on the woman’s face—its mysterious quality brought about perhaps by the fact that the artist has subtly shadowed the corners of the mouth and eyes so that the exact nature of the smile cannot be determined.
The shadowy quality for which the work is renowned came to be called sfumato, the application of subtle layers of translucent paint so that there is no visible transition between colors, tones, and often objects. Other characteristics found in this work are the unadorned dress, in which the eyes and hands have no competition from other details; the dramatic landscape background, in which the world seems to be in a state of flux; the subdued coloring; and the extremely smooth nature of the painterly technique, employing oils, but applied much like tempera and blended on the surface so that the brushstrokes are indistinguishable. And again, da Vinci is innovating upon a type of painting here. Portraits were very common in the Renaissance. However, portraits of women were always in profile, which was seen as proper and modest. Here, da Vinci present a portrait of a woman who not only faces the viewer but follows them with her eyes.
Virgin and Child with St. Anne
In the painting Virgin and Child with St. Anne, da Vinci’s composition again picks up the theme of figures in a landscape. What makes this painting unusual is that there are two obliquely set figures superimposed. Mary is seated on the knee of her mother, St. Anne. She leans forward to restrain the Christ Child as he plays roughly with a lamb, the sign of his own impending sacrifice. This painting influenced many contemporaries, including Michelangelo, Raphael, and Andrea del Sarto. The trends in its composition were adopted in particular by the Venetian painters Tintoretto and Veronese.
Raffaello Sanzio (“Raphael”): 1483–1520
Raphael was an Italian painter and architect of the High Renaissance. His work is admired for its clarity of form and ease of composition and for its visual achievement of the Neoplatonic ideal of human grandeur. Together with Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael forms the traditional trinity of great masters of that period. He was enormously productive, running an unusually large workshop; despite his death at 30, a large body of his work remains among the most famous of High Renaissance art.
Some of Raphael’s most striking artistic influences come from the paintings of Leonardo da Vinci. In response to da Vinci’s work, in some of Raphael’s earlier compositions he gave his figures more dynamic and complex positions. For example, Raphael’s Saint Catherine of Alexandria (1507) borrows from the contrapposto pose of da Vinci’s Leda and the Swans.
While Raphael was also aware of Michelangelo’s works, he deviates from his style. In his Deposition of Christ, Raphael draws on classical sarcophagi to spread the figures across the front of the picture space in a complex and not wholly successful arrangement.
The Stanze Rooms and the Loggia
In 1511, Raphael began work on the famous Stanze paintings, which made a stunning impact on Roman art, and are generally regarded as his greatest masterpieces. The Stanza della Segnatura contains The School of Athens, Poetry, Disputa, and Law. The School of Athens, depicting Plato and Aristotle, is one of his best known works. These very large and complex compositions have been regarded ever since as among the supreme works of the High Renaissance, and the “classic art” of the post-antique West. They give a highly idealized depiction of the forms represented, and the compositions—though very carefully conceived in drawings—achieve sprezzatura, a term invented by Raphael’s friend Castiglione, who defined it as “a certain nonchalance that conceals all artistry and makes whatever one says or does seem uncontrived and effortless.”
In the later phase of Raphael’s career, he designed and painted the Loggia at the Vatican, a long thin gallery that was open to a courtyard on one side and decorated with Roman style grottesche. He also produced a number of significant altarpieces, including The Ecstasy of St. Cecilia and the Sistine Madonna. His last work, on which he was working until his death, was a large Transfiguration which, together with Il Spasimo, shows the direction his art was taking in his final years, becoming more proto-Baroque than Mannerist.
The Master’s studio
Raphael ran a workshop of over 50 pupils and assistants, many of whom later became significant artists in their own right. This was arguably the largest workshop team assembled under any single old master painter, and much higher than the norm. They included established masters from other parts of Italy, probably working with their own teams as sub-contractors, as well as pupils and journeymen.
In architecture, Raphael’s skills were employed by the papacy and wealthy Roman nobles. For instance, Raphael designed the plans for the Villa Madama, which was to be a lavish hillside retreat for Pope Clement VII (and was never finished). Even incomplete, Raphael’s schematic was the most sophisticated villa design yet seen in Italy, and greatly influenced the later development of the genre. It also appears to be the only modern building in Rome of which Palladio made a measured drawing.
Raphael was one of the finest draftsmen in the history of Western art, and used drawings extensively to plan his compositions. According to a near-contemporary, when beginning to plan a composition, he would lay out a large number of his stock drawings on the floor, and begin to draw “rapidly,” borrowing figures from here and there. Over 40 sketches survive for the Disputa in the Stanze, and there may well have been many more originally (over 400 sheets survived altogether).
As evidenced in his sketches for the Madonna and Child, Raphael used different drawings to refine his poses and compositions, apparently to a greater extent than most other painters. Most of Raphael’s drawings are rather precise—even initial sketches with naked outline figures are carefully drawn, and later drawings often have a high degree of finish, with shading and sometimes highlights in white. They lack the freedom and energy of some of da Vinci’s and Michelangelo’s sketches, but are almost always very satisfying aesthetically.
Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475 – 1564)
Michelangelo was a 16th century Florentine artist renowned for his masterpieces in sculpture, painting, and architectural design. His most well known works are the David, the Last Judgment, and the Basilica of Saint Peter’s in the Vatican.
Michelangelo was the most famous artist of the Renaissance during his own lifetime, patronized by the city council of Florence (run by the Medici) and the pope alike. He created numerous works, most famously the statue of the David and the paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The latter work took him four years of work, during which he argued constantly with the Pope, Julius II, who treated him like an artisan servant rather than the true artistic genius Michelangelo knew himself to be. Michelangelo was already the most famous artist in Europe thanks to his sculptures. By the time he completed the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, he had to be accepted as one of the greatest painters of his age as well, not just the single most famous sculptor of the time.
In the end, a biography of Michelangelo written by a friend helped cement the idea that there was an important distinction between mere artisans and true artists, the latter of whom were temperamental and mercurial but possessed of genius. Thus, the whole idea of the artist as an ingenious social outsider derives in part from Michelangelo’s life.
In 1504, Michelangelo was commissioned to create a colossal marble statue portraying David as a symbol of Florentine freedom. The subsequent masterpiece, David, established the artist’s prominence as a sculptor of extraordinary technical skill and strength of symbolic imagination. David was created out of a single marble block, and stands larger than life, as it was originally intended to adorn the Florence Cathedral. The work differs from previous representations in that the Biblical hero is not depicted with the head of the slain Goliath, as he is in Donatello’s and Verrocchio’s statues; both had represented the hero standing victorious over the head of Goliath. No earlier Florentine artist had omitted the giant altogether. Instead of appearing victorious over a foe, David’s face looks tense and ready for combat. The tendons in his neck stand out tautly, his brow is furrowed, and his eyes seem to focus intently on something in the distance. Veins bulge out of his lowered right hand, but his body is in a relaxed contrapposto pose, and he carries his sling casually thrown over his left shoulder. In the Renaissance, contrapposto poses were thought of as a distinctive feature of antique sculpture.
Painting: The Last Judgement
In painting, Michelangelo is renowned for his work in the Sistine Chapel. He was originally commissioned to paint tromp-l’oeil coffers after the original ceiling developed a crack. Michelangelo lobbied for a different and more complex scheme, representing Creation, the Downfall of Man, the Promise of Salvation through the prophets, and the Genealogy of Christ. The work is part of a larger scheme of decoration within the chapel that represents much of the doctrine of the Catholic Church.
The composition eventually contained over 300 figures, and had at its center nine episodes from the Book of Genesis, divided into three groups: God’s Creation of the Earth, God’s Creation of Humankind, and their fall from God’s grace, and lastly, the state of Humanity as represented by Noah and his family. Twelve men and women who prophesied the coming of the Jesus are painted on the pendentives supporting the ceiling. Among the most famous paintings on the ceiling are The Creation of Adam, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the Great Flood, the Prophet Isaiah and the Cumaean Sibyl. The ancestors of Christ are painted around the windows.
The fresco of The Last Judgment on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel was commissioned by Pope Clement VII, and Michelangelo labored on the project from 1536–1541. The work is located on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel, which is not a traditional placement for the subject. Typically, last judgement scenes were placed on the exit wall of churches as a way to remind the viewer of eternal punishments as they left worship. The Last Judgment is a depiction of the second coming of Christ and the apocalypse; where the souls of humanity rise and are assigned to their various fates, as judged by Christ, surrounded by the Saints. In contrast to the earlier figures Michelangelo painted on the ceiling, the figures in The Last Judgement are heavily muscled and are in much more artificial poses, demonstrating how this work is in the Mannerist style.
In this work Michelangelo has rejected the orderly depiction of the last judgement as established by Medieval tradition in favor of a swirling scene of chaos as each soul is judged. When the painting was revealed it was heavily criticized for its inclusion of classical imagery as well as for the amount of nude figures in somewhat suggestive poses. The ill reception that the work received may be tied to the Counter Reformation and the Council of Trent, which lead to a preference for more conservative religious art devoid of classical references. Although a number of figures were made more modest with the addition of drapery, the changes were not made until after the death of Michelangelo, demonstrating the respect and admiration that was afforded to him during his lifetime.
Architecture: St. Peter’s Basilica
Finally, although other architects were involved, Michelangelo is given credit for designing St. Peter’s Basilica. Michelangelo’s chief contribution was the use of a symmetrical plan of a Greek Cross form and an external masonry of massive proportions, with every corner filled in by a stairwell or small vestry. The effect is of a continuous wall surface that is folded or fractured at different angles, lacking the right angles that usually define change of direction at the corners of a building. This exterior is surrounded by a giant order of Corinthian pilasters all set at slightly different angles to each other, in keeping with the ever-changing angles of the wall’s surface. Above them the huge cornice ripples in a continuous band, giving the appearance of keeping the whole building in a state of compression.
The Venetian Painters of the High Renaissance
Giorgione, Titian, and Veronese were the preeminent painters of the Venetian High Renaissance. All three similarly employed novel techniques of color and composition, which established them as acclaimed artists north of Rome. In particular, Giorgione, Titian, and Veronese follow the Venetian School’s preference of color over disegno.
Giorgio Barbarelli da Castlefranco, known as Giorgione (c. 1477–1510), is an artist who had considerable impact on the Venetian High Renaissance. Unfortunately, art historians do not know much about Giorgione, partly because of his early death at around age 30, and partly because artists in Venice were not as individualistic as artists in Florence. While only six paintings are accredited to him, they demonstrate his importance in the history of art as well as his innovations in painting.
Giorgione was the first to paint with oil on canvas. Previously, people who used oils were painting on panel, not canvas. His works do not contain much under-drawing, demonstrating how he did not adhere to Florentine disegno, and his subject matters remain elusive and mysterious. One of his works that demonstrates all three of these elements is The Tempest (c. 1505–1510). This work is oil on canvas, x-rays show there is very little under drawing, and the subject matter remains one of the most debated issues in art history.
Tiziano Vecelli, or Titian (1490–1576), was arguably the most important member of the 16th century Venetian school, as well as one of the most versatile; he was equally adept with portraits, landscape backgrounds, and mythological and religious subjects. His painting methods, particularly in the application and use of color, would have a profound influence not only on painters of the Italian Renaissance, but on future generations of Western art. Over the course of his long life Titian’s artistic manner changed drastically, but he retained a lifelong interest in color. Although his mature works may not contain the vivid, luminous tints of his early pieces, their loose brushwork and subtlety of polychromatic modulations were without precedent
In 1516, Titian completed his well-known masterpiece, the Assumption of the Virgin, or the Assunta, for the high altar of the church of the Frari. This extraordinary piece of colorism, executed on a grand scale rarely before seen in Italy, created a sensation. The pictorial structure of the Assumption—uniting in the same composition two or three scenes superimposed on different levels, earth and heaven, the temporal and the infinite—was continued in a series of his works, finally reaching a classic formula in the Pesaro Madonna (better known as the Madonna di Ca’ Pesaro). This perhaps is Titian’s most studied work; his patiently developed plan is set forth with supreme display of order and freedom, originality and style. Here, Titian gave a new conception of the traditional groups of donors and holy persons moving in aerial space, the plans and different degrees set in an architectural framework.
Paolo Veronese (1528–1588) was one of the primary Renaissance painters in Venice, well known for paintings such as The Wedding at Cana and The Feast in the House of Levi. Veronese is known as a supreme colorist, and for his illusionistic decorations in both fresco and oil. His most famous works are elaborate narrative cycles, executed in the dramatic and colorful style, full of majestic architectural settings and glittering pageantry.
His large paintings of biblical feasts executed for the refectories of monasteries in Venice and Verona are especially notable. For example, in The Wedding at Cana, which was painted in 1562–1563 in collaboration with Palladio, Veronese arranged the architecture to run mostly parallel to the picture plane, accentuating the processional character of the composition. The artist’s decorative genius was to recognize that dramatic perspective effects would have been tiresome in a living room or chapel, and that the narrative of the picture could best be absorbed as a colorful diversion.
The Wedding at Cana offers little in the representation of emotion: rather, it illustrates the carefully composed movement of its subjects along a primarily horizontal axis. Most of all, it is about the incandescence of light and color. Even as Veronese’s use of color attained greater intensity and luminosity, his attention to narrative, human sentiment, and a more subtle and meaningful physical interplay between his figures became evident.