Beginnings of High Renaissance
The Term Renaissance
It wasn't until 1855 that a French historian named Jules Michelet first coined the word "Renaissance" to refer to the innovative painting, architecture, and sculpture in Italy from 1400-1530. His use of the term was informed by Renaissance historian Giorgio Vasari's mention of "rebirth" to describe the same period in his The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (also known as Lives of the Artists) (1568).
The term was informed by 18th century archeologist and art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann's The History of Ancient Art in Antiquity (also translated as The History of Ancient Art) (1764) characterizing the Classical art of the Greeks as the "High Style." Winckelmann's ground-breaking book launched the study of art history and became foundational to European intellectual life, as well as reaching a popular audience. He felt that the purpose of art was beauty, an ideal obtained by the Greeks and in High Renaissance art, as he wrote, "the Italians alone known how to paint and figure beauty."
By the early 1800's the term Hochenrenaissance, German for High Renaissance, was used to refer to the period, defined as beginning around the time of Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper (1490's) and ending with the Sack of Rome by the army of Emperor Charles V in 1527. In the last thirty years, some contemporary scholars have criticized the term as being an oversimplification.
The Transition from the Early Renaissance
High Renaissance artists were influenced by the linear perspective, shading, and naturalistic figurative treatment launched by Early Renaissance artists like Masaccio and Mantegna. But they mastered those techniques in order to convey a new aesthetic ideal that primarily valued beauty. The human figure was seen as embodying the divine, and new techniques like oil painting were employed to convey human movement and psychological depth in gradations of tone and color. Drawing upon the classical Greek and Roman proportional preciseness in architecture and anatomical correctness in the body, masters like Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael created powerful compositions where the parts of their subjects were illustrated as harmonious and cohesive with the whole.
Leonardo da Vinci
The High Renaissance began with the works of Leonardo da Vinci as his paintings, The Virgin of the Rocks (1483-1485), and, most notably, The Last Supper (1490s), exemplified psychological complexity, the use of perspective for dramatic focus, symbolism, and scientifically accurate detail. However, both works were created in Milan, and it wasn't until 1500 when Leonardo moved back to Florence, the thriving center of art and culture, that his work impacted the city. His study for The Virgin and Child with St. Anne (c. 1499-1500) was displayed at Santissimi Annunziata church where many artists went to study it.
Leonardo's scientific understanding and observation of natural phenomena and his sense of mathematical proportion were also profoundly influential. His seminal ink drawing Vitruvian Man (1490) showed ideal human proportions correlating with ideal architectural proportions advanced by the Roman architect Vitruvius in his De architectura (30-15 BCE). The drawing is occupied by Leonardo's writing that illustrates his deep scientific inquiries into anatomy as, for example, "the length of the outspread arms is equal to the height of a man."
Leonardo was not only a noted painter, but also a polymath who has been called the father of architecture, ichnology, and paleontology, among other fields. He was a noted inventor, cartographer, engineer, and his findings and observations, recorded in his notebooks, found their way into various collections, called the Codex Arundel (1480-1518) and Codex Leicester (1510), among others. To some, these notebooks have become as valued as his artworks.
An Age of Masters and Rivalries
The High Renaissance was dominated by a few celebrated masters and the competitive rivalries that developed between them as they vied, not only for noble patronage, but also for supreme excellence in their art. In Florence, at the same time that crowds gathered to view Leonardo's cartoon for The Virgin and St. Anne (c. 1499-1500), Michelangelo had become a rising star with his creation of the Pietà (1496-1498).
Michelangelo viewed sculpture as the pre-eminent art and, even in painting, sculpted the human form. With the creation of the iconic statue David (1501-1504), his reputation as the sculptor whose works exemplified the High Renaissance was established. David was given a central place in the city of Florence, upholding the city-state's spirit of defending its civil liberties.
A rivalry developed between Michelangelo and Leonardo, beginning in 1504 with their competing frescoes commissioned for opposing walls in the Hall of Five Hundred. As art critic Jonathan Jones wrote of Michelangelo, "He was fiercely competitive and needed to outdo Leonardo. It became a contest not of skill, in which they were both beyond compare, but imagination and originality. Leonardo, the older artist, was already famous not just as a gifted painter but a truly original mind... [Michelangelo] set out his claim to a similar kind of personal, unique vision." That personal vision can be seen in the artist's choice of a battle scene where nude bathers were attacked, thus allowing for a dynamic, and essentially sculptural, treatment of the male nude.
The two frescos, Leonardo's The Battle of Anghiari (1503-1506), and Michelangelo's Battle of Cascina (1504-1506), were unfortunately not completed, as both men were pulled toward other commissions. Nevertheless the works continued to influence other artists, notably Raphael, who would go on to copy the masterpieces in efforts to further their own artistic practices.
Pope Julius II
Rome became the artistic center of the High Renaissance due to the patronage of Pope Julius II, who reigned from 1503-1513. Julius II was a noted art collector, owning the Laocoon (c. 42-20 BCE) and the Apollo Belvedere (c. 120-140), along with other noted classical works, which became the foundation for the Vatican's art museums. He was a formidable personality who made the Papacy into an economic and military force that dominated much of Italy. His goal was to make Rome the cultural center of Europe instead of Florence. To achieve this, he ardently pursued the great artists of the day, persuading Raphael to move to Rome to paint the frescoes of the Vatican's papal apartments. After commissioning Michelangelo to create the papal tomb. he cajoled the reluctant sculptor into painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling (1508-1512). The Pope's ambition to rebuild St. Peter's Basilica and redesign the Vatican led him to recruit Bramante, Michelangelo, and Raphael into roles as architects of his grand plans. After Julius II's death, papal patronage of the arts continued under Pope Leo X, the son of Lorenzo de' Medici, patriarch of the ruling (and art loving) family of Florence.
High Renaissance: Concepts, Styles, and Trends
During the Early Renaissance years, the concepts of Humanism were widely promoted. Whereas the previous Gothic period's art had emphasized the idolization of the secular and the religious, artists in 14th century Florence were more concerned with man's place in the world. High Renaissance artists evolved this inquiry by exploring the concept of "universal man," in other words, an individual of genius, divinely inspired, who could excel in all aspects of art and science. The term "Renaissance man" is still used today to describe a well-rounded and multi-talented person who exhibits mastery in a wide array of intellectual and cultural pursuits.
This ideal, developed from Leon Battista Alberti's "A man can do all things if he will," was exemplified in Leonardo da Vinci, as Vasari in his Lives of the Artists (1568) wrote, "In the normal course of events many men and women are born with remarkable talents; but occasionally, in a way that transcends nature, a single person is marvelously endowed by Heaven with beauty, grace and talent in such abundance that he leaves other men far behind, all his actions seem inspired and indeed everything he does clearly comes from God rather than from human skill. Everyone acknowledged that this was true of Leonardo da Vinci, an artist of outstanding physical beauty, who displayed infinite grace in everything that he did and who cultivated his genius so brilliantly that all problems he studied he solved with ease."
This standard not only dominated the period but subsequent thinking on artistic ability, positioning the artist as a divinely inspired genius, rather than merely a noted craftsman.
Innovations in Painting
While High Renaissance painting continued the tradition of fresco painting in connection with religious scenes, the practice of masters like Raphael, Leonardo, and Michelangelo was informed by innovations of the medium. For example, to paint the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo not only designed a scaffolding system to reach the area but developed a new formula and application for fresco to counter the problem of mold, as well as a wash technique and the use of a variety of brushes, to first apply color then, later, add fine detail, shading, and line. For his Last Supper (1490s), Leonardo experimented by working on dry fresco and used a combination of oil and tempera to achieve an oil painting effect. Raphael, Leonardo, and Michelangelo all employed trompe l'oeil in their frescoes, a technique by which to achieve the illusion of a pictorial space that integrates into its surrounding architectural environment.
At the same time, many masterworks of the High Renaissance were, for the first time, being painted in oil, typically on wood panels but sometimes on canvas. Because oils provided more possibilities in subtle tonal and color gradations, the resulting works were more life-like. As a result, a new body of compelling portraiture of ordinary people emerged. Leonardo's Mona Lisa is undoubtedly the most famous example. Other High Renaissance artists like Andrea del Sarto in his Madonna of the Harpies (1517) and Fra Bartolomeo in his Portrait of Girolamo Savonarola (c. 1497-1498) also created powerful works in oil.
Leonardo's practice of oil painting led him to develop a new technique called Sfumato, meaning "vanished gradually like smoke." It involved using translucent glazes worked by brush to create gradual transitions between tones of light and shadow. The result was, as Leonardo wrote, "without lines or borders, in the matter of smoke," creating a vivid imitation of reality lacking all evidence of the artist's brushstrokes. Other High Renaissance artists like Raphael, Fra Bartolomeo, and Correggio also mastered the style, which later greatly influenced Renaissance painters of The Venetian School like Giorgione, and later, the Mannerist painters.
Quadratura was the term used for the burgeoning ceiling paintings genre of the time, remarkable for the way they unified with the surrounding architecture, and known for their employment of trompe l'oeil. These works not only included the seamless integration between painting and location, but also oftentimes required the creation of fictive architectural features to visually reconfigure the site. The use of quadratura was used often in Catholic churches to produce an awe-inspiring effect, which was in direct opposition to the movement toward Protestantism that would later become the Reformation.
Quadratura required visual-spatial skill and a masterful employment of linear perspective that had first been pioneered by Andrea Mantegna in his Camera degli Sposi (1465-1474) ceiling in the Ducal Palace of Mantua. His work notably influenced Antonio Allegri da Correggio, known simply as Correggio, the leader of the High Renaissance in Parma.
Correggio's ceiling frescos, Vision of St. John the Evangelist on Patmos (1520-1521) and Assumption of the Virgin (1524-30), further developed the illusionary effects of quadratura through his use of new revolutionary techniques like the foreshortening of bodies and objects so that they appeared authentic when seen from below. This method, also known as prospettiva melozziana, or "Melozzo's perspective," was developed by Melozzo da Forlì, an Italian artist and architect.
The leading architect of the High Renaissance was Donato Bramante, most noted for his emphasis on classical harmony, employment of a central plan, and rotational symmetry, as seen in his Tempietto (1502). Rotational symmetry involved the use of octagons, circles, or squares, so that a building retained the same shape from multiple points of view. He also created the first trompe l'oeil effect for architectural purposes at the church of Santa Maria presso San Satiro in Milan. Due to the presence of a road behind the wall of the church, only three feet remained for the choir area, so the architect used linear perspective and painting to create an illusionary sense of expanded space.
Bramante's student Antonio da Sangallo the Younger designed the Palazzo Farnese which was called by Sir Barister Fletcher, "The most imposing Italian palace of the 16th century." The design adhered to classical principles, had a Spartan simplicity, and used rustication, which left the building stone in its textured and unfinished state allowing for natural lines and color. The era, however, was marked by competing designs and personal rivalries. Cardinal Farnese who became Pope Paul III in 1534 was dissatisfied with the cornice design of the Palazzo and held a competition for a new design, which was awarded to Michelangelo. The popular story recounts how Sangallo the Younger died of shame the following year, as Michelangelo completed the building's final touches.
Michelangelo was Bramante's chief rival, as, in later life, he worked as an architect. He designed the Laurentian Library in Florence and created the dome for St. Peter's Basilica, though the building as a whole reflected the work of Bramante, Raphael, and later architects like Bernini. This work, which took place between 1523-1571, was particularly innovative; creating a dynamic sense of movement in the staircase and wall features that was influential upon later architects.
The undoubted master of sculpture during the High Renaissance was Michelangelo whose Pietà, (1498-1499), finished when he was only twenty-four, launched his career. He chose to depict an unusually youthful Virgin Mary holding the dead Christ in her lap. Although the treatment of this scene was popular in France, it was entirely new to Italian art. The work's pyramidal composition and naturalistic figurative treatment created a powerfully classical effect. Yet, the work also showed innovative variations. The monumental scale of the Virgin in comparison to Christ lent a highly emotional maternal aspect to the piece and became a signature method for the artist in his work, this manipulation of high contrast. Unlike Early Renaissance sculptors like Donatello who worked in bronze, Michelangelo single handedly revived the classical use of marble, and injected elements of monumentality into all of his subsequent sculptures, both in the size of the figures, and the scale of the projects.
Leonardo also explored sculpture, notably designing the world's largest bronze equestrian statue. Commissioned by the Duke of Milan in 1482 to honor his father, the project was never completed, as the artist's 24-foot tall clay model was destroyed by the French army invasion of Milan in 1499. Several versions of the horse, based upon the artist's drawings, have been completed in modern times.
Later Developments - After High Renaissance
The ideals and humanism that informed the High Renaissance continued to inspire the world beyond Italy, albeit with notable stylistic and artistic variation. Its influence would reach into the North European Renaissance, exemplified by Albrecht Dürer, Pieter Bruegel, and others, and the Venetian Renaissance and the Venetian School of Painting, led by Giorgione and Titian and the architect Palladio. Meanwhile, Correggio's quadratura works influenced the artists Carlo Cignani, Gaurdenzio Ferrari, Il Pordenone, and had a notable impact on Baroque and Rococo treatments of domes and ceilings.
Leonardo's death in 1519, followed by Raphael's death when he was only 37 years old the following year, marked a lessened vibrancy of the Italian High Renaissance. The sack of Rome by the armies of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in 1527 ended the era. The brutal and terrifying event reduced the population of Rome from 55,000 to 10,000, and left the city in a state of collapse and financial ruin. The ideals of the High Renaissance no longer seemed tenable to many. Michelangelo's Last Judgment (1536-41) a fresco in the Sistine Chapel expressed the darker emotional tenor of the following decades. In sculpture he turned to pietas and depictions of captive slaves such as his The Atlas Slave (1530-34).
Michelangelo later approaches in expression influenced the Mannerists, including Jacopo da Pontormo, Rosso Fiorentino, Giorgio Vasari, and Francesco Salviati. His figurative treatment, particularly of the male nude, influenced countless artists. Later artists of the Baroque period, the Neoclassicists, and the avant-garde movements of the 20th century were also widely influenced by the works of the Renaissance. For instance, Pablo Picasso drew upon Raphael in his Guernica (1937), referencing The Fire in the Borgo (1514), which depicted a woman handing her baby to those below as she leaned out of the burning building.
The works created by the artists of the Italian High Renaissance remain the most recognizable and popular works of art history. The Mona Lisa, The Last Supper, The Creation of Adam, and The Sistine Madonna, have been reproduced on countless consumer items, referenced in popular songs, TV shows, videos, and often used in advertising.
Furthermore, the ideas of the High Renaissance - the artist as genius, the foundational nature of classical art, the individual as center of the universe, the value of science and exploration, the emphasis on Humanism - have all deeply informed the social and cultural values of the world ever since.
- Universally lauded as one of the greatest artists of all time, Leonardo da Vinci is known for his contributions to the Renaissance period in the form of portraits and religious paintings. Da Vinci was the eponymous "Renaissance Man," proficient not only in art, but also in mathematics, science, and technology.
- Michelangelo was the legendary Italian Renaissance artist famous for his sculpters of David and his Pieta, and he is perhaps best known for his large-scale painted frescos in the Sistine Chapel.
- The Italian Renaissance painter and architect Raphael is celebrated for the perfection and grace of his paintings and drawings. Together with Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, he forms the traditional trinity of great masters of that period.
Do Not Miss
- Early in the 15th century, Florentine artists rejuvenated the arts with a more humanistic and individualistic treatment that spawned on of the most creative revolutions in the arts.
- North of the European Alps an artistic, literary, and philosophical movement grew that was influenced by the spread of the Italian Renaissance's art and ideas.
- The Venetian School, or Venetian Renaissance, was a thriving cultural movement with a passion for lush color and a distinctly Venetian adoration of embellishment.
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Nichols
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Nichols
First published on 30 May 2018. Updated and modified regularly