A History Of Italian Painting During The High Renaissance, 1500-1600

THE HIGHEST DEVELOPMENT : The word “Renaissance” has a broader meaning than its strict etymology would imply. It was a ” new birth,” but something more than the revival of Greek learning and the study of nature entered into it. It was the grand consummation of Italian intelligence in many departments—the arrival at maturity of the Christian trained mind tempered by the philosophy of Greece, and the knowledge of the actual world. Fully aroused at last, the Italian intellect became inquisitive, inventive, scientific, skeptical—yes, treacherous, immoral, polluted. It questioned all things, doubted where it pleased, saturated itself with crime, corruption, and sensuality, yet bowed at the shrine of the beautiful and knelt at the altar of Christianity. It is an illustration of the contradictions that may exist when the intellectual, the religious, and the moral are brought together, with the intellectual in predominance.

And that keen Renaissance intellect made swift progress. It remodelled the philosophy of Greece, and used its literature as a mould for its own. It developed Roman law and introduced modern science. The world without and the world within were rediscovered. Land and sea, starry sky and planetary system, were fixed upon the chart. Man himself, the animals, the planets, organic and inorganic life, the small things of the earth gave up their secrets. Inventions utilized all classes of products, commerce flourished, free cities were builded, universities arose, learning spread itself on the pages of newly invented books of print, and, perhaps, greatest of all, the arts arose on strong wings of life to the very highest altitude.

For the moral side of the Renaissance intellect it had its tastes and refinements, as shown in its high quality of art ; but it also had its polluting and degrading features, as shown in its political and social life. Religion was visibly weakening though the ecclesiastical still held strong. People were forgetting the faith of the early days, and taking up with the material things about them. They were glorifying the human and exalting the natural. The story of Greece was being repeated in Italy. And out of this new worship came jewels of rarity and beauty, but out of it also came faithlessness, corruption, vice.

Strictly speaking, the Renaissance had been accomplished before the year 1500, but so great was its impetus that, in the arts at least, it extended half-way through the sixteenth century. Then it began to fail through exhaustion.

MOTIVES AND METHODS: The religious subject still held with the painters, but this subject in High-Renaissance days did not carry with it the religious feeling as in Gothic days. Art had grown to be something else than a teacher of the Bible. In the painter’s hands it had come to mean beauty for its own sake—a picture beautiful for its form and color, regardless of its theme. This was the teaching of antique art, and the study of nature but increased the belief. A new love had arisen in the outer and visible world, and when the Church called for altar-pieces the painters painted their new love, christened it with a religious title, and handed it forth in the name of the old. Thus art began to free itself from Church domination and to live as an independent beauty. The general motive, then, of painting during the High Renaissance, though apparently religious from the subject, and in many cases still religious in feeling, was largely to show the beauty of form or color, in which religion, the antique, and the natural came in as modifying elements.

In technical methods, though extensive work was still done in fresco, especially at Florence and Rome, yet the bulk of High-Renaissance painting was in oils upon panel and canvas. At Venice even the decorative wall paintings were upon canvas, afterward inserted in wall or ceiling.

THE FLORENTINES AND ROMANS: There was a severity and austerity about the Florentine art, even at its climax. It was never too sensuous and luxurious, but rather exact and intellectual. The Florentines were fond of lustreless fresco, architectural composition, towering or sweeping lines, rather sharp color as compared with the Venetians, and theological, classical, even literary and allegorical subjects. Probably this was largely due to the classic bias of the painters and the intellectual and social influences of Florence and Rome. Line and composition were means of expressing abstract thought better than color, though some of the Florentines employed both line and color knowingly.

This was the case with Fra Bartolommeo (1475-1517), a monk of San Marco, who was a transition painter from the fifteenth to the sixteenth century. He was a religionist, a follower of Savonarola, and a man of soul who thought to do work of a religious character and feeling ; but he was also a fine painter, excelling in composition, drawing, drapery, color. The painter’s element in his work, its material and earthly beauty, rather detracted from its spiritual significance. He opposed the sensuous and the nude, and yet about the only nude he ever painted—a St. Sebastian for San Marco—had so much of the earthly about it that people forgot the suffering saint in admiring the fine body, and the picture had to be removed from the convent. In such ways religion in art was gradually undermined, not alone by naturalism and classicism but by art itself. Painting brought into life by religion no sooner reached maturity than it led people away from religion by pointing out sensuous beauties in the type rather than religious beauties in the symbol.

Fra Bartolommeo was among the last of the pietists in art. He had no great imagination, but some feeling and a fine color-sense for Florence. Naturally he was influenced somewhat by the great ones about him, learning perspective from Raphael, grandeur from Michael Angelo, and contours from Leonardo da Vinci. He worked in collaboration with Albertinelli (1474-1515), a skilled artist and a fellow-pupil with Bartolommeo in the workshop of Cosimo Rosselli. Their work is so much alike that it is often difficult to distinguish the painters apart. Albertinelli was not so devout as his companion, but he painted the religious subject with feeling, as his Visitation in the Uffizi indicates. Among the followers of Bartolommeo and Albertinelli were Fra Paolino (1490–1547), Bugiardini (1475–1554), Granacci (1477–1543), who showed many influences, and Ridolfo Ghirlandajo (1483–1561).

Andrea del Sarto (1486–1531) was a Florentine pure and simple—a painter for the Church, producing many madonnas and altar-pieces, and yet possessed of little religious feeling or depth. He was a painter more than a pietist, and was called by his townsmen “the faultless painter.” So he was as regards the technical features of his art. He was the best brushman and colorist of the Florentine school. Dealing largely with the material side his craftsmanship was excellent and his pictures exuberant with life and color, but his madonnas and saints were decidedly of the earth—handsome Florentine models garbed as sacred characters—well drawn and easily painted, with little devotional feeling about them. He was influenced by other painters to some extent. Masaccio, Ghirlandajo, and Michael Angelo were his models in drawing ; Leonardo and Bartolommeo in con-tours ; while in warmth of color, brush-work, atmospheric and landscape effects he was quite by himself. He had a large number of pupils and followers, but most of them deserted him later on to follow Michael Angelo. Pontormo (1493-1558) and Franciabigio (1482–1525) were among the best of them.

Michael Angelo (1474–1564) has been called the ” Prophet of the Renaissance,” and perhaps deserves the title, since he was more of the Old Testament than the New—more of the austere and imperious than the loving or the forgiving. There was no sentimental feature about his art. His conception was intellectual, highly imaginative, mysterious, at times disordered and turbulent in its strength. He came the nearest to the sublime of any painter in history through the sole attribute of power. He had no tenderness nor any winning charm. He did not win, but rather commanded. Everything he saw or felt was studied for the strength that was in it. Religion, Old-Testament history, the antique, humanity, all turned in his hands into symbolic forms of power, put forth apparently in the white heat of passion, and at times in defiance of every rule and tradition of art. Personal feeling was very apparent in his work, and in this he was as far removed as possible from the Greeks, and nearer to what one would call to-day a romanticist. There was little of the objective about him. He was not an imitator of facts but a creator of forms and ideas. His art was a reflection of himself—a self-sufficient man, positive, creative, standing alone, a law unto himself.

Technically he was more of a sculptor than a painter. He said so himself when Julius commanded him to paint the Sistine ceiling, and he told the truth. He was a magnificent draughtsman, and drew magnificent sculpturesque figures on the Sistine vault. That was about all his achievement with the brush. In color, light, air, perspective—in all those features peculiar to the painter—he was behind his contemporaries. Composition he knew a great deal about, and in drawing he had the most positive, far-reaching command of line of any painter of any time. It was in drawing that he showed his power. Even this is severe and harsh at times, and then again filled with a grace that is majestic and in scope universal, as witness the Creation of Adam in the Sistine.

He came out of Florence, a pupil of Ghirlandajo, with a school feeling for line, stimulated by the frescos of Masaccio and Signorelli. At an early age he declared himself, and hewed a path of his own through art, sweeping along with him many of the slighter painters of his age. Long – lived he saw his contemporaries die about him and Human-ism end in bloodshed with the coming of the Jesuits; but alone, gloomy, resolute, steadfast to his belief, he held his way, the last great representative of Florentine art, the first great representative of individualism in art. With him and after him came many followers who strove to imitate his “terrible style,” but they did not succeed any too well.

The most of these followers find classification under the Mannerists of the Decadence. Of those who were immediate pupils of Michael Angelo, or carried out his de-signs, Daniele da Volterra (1509–1566) was one of the most satisfactory. His chief work, the Descent from the Cross, was considered by Poussin as one of the three great pictures of the world. It is sometimes said to have been de-signed by Michael Angelo, but that is only a conjecture. It has much action and life in it, but is somewhat affected in pose and gesture, and Volterra’s work generally was deficient in real energy of conception and execution. Mar-cello Venusti (1515–1585 ?) painted directly from Michael Angelo’s designs in a delicate and precise way, probably imbibed from his master, Perino del Vaga, and from association with Venetians like Sebastiano del Piombo (1485-1547). This last-named painter was born in Venice and trained under Bellini and Giorgione, inheriting the color and lightand-shade qualities of the Venetians ; but later on he went to Rome and came under the influence of Michael Angelo and Raphael. He tried, under Michael Angelo’s inspiration it is said, to unite the Florentine grandeur of line with the Venetian coloring, and thus outdo Raphael. It was not wholly successful, though resulting in an excellent quality of art. As a portrait-painter he was above reproach. His early works were rather free in impasto, the late ones smooth and shiny, in imitation of Raphael.

Raphael Sanzio (1483–1520) was more Greek in method than any of the great Renaissance painters. In subject he was not more classic than others of his time ; he painted all subjects. In thought he was not particularly classic ; he was chiefly intellectual, with a leaning toward the sensuous that was half-pagan. It was in method and expression more than elsewhere that he showed the Greek spirit. He aimed at the ideal and the universal, independent, so far as possible, of the individual, and sought by a union of all elements to produce perfect harmony. The Harmonist of the Renaissance is his title. And this harmony extended to a blending of thought, form, and expression, heightening or modifying every element until they ran together with such rhythm that it could not be seen where one left off and another began. He was the very opposite of Michael Angelo. The art of the latter was an expression of individual power and was purely subjective. Raphael’s art was largely a unity of objective beauties, with the personal element as much in abeyance as was possible for his time.

His education was a cultivation of every grace of mind and hand. He assimilated freely whatever he found to be good in the art about him. A pupil of Perugino originally, he levied upon features of excellence in Masaccio, Fra Bartolommeo, Leonardo, Michael Angelo. From the first he got tenderness, from the second drawing, from the third color and composition, from the fourth charm, from the fifth force. Like an eclectic Greek he drew from all sources, and then blended and united these features in a peculiar style of his own and stamped them with his peculiar Raphaelesque stamp.

In subject Raphael was religious and mythological, but he was imbued with neither of these so far as the initial spirit was concerned. He looked at all subjects in a calm, intellectual, artistic way. Even the celebrated Sistine Madonna is more intellectual than pietistic, a Christian Minerva ruling rather than helping to save the world. The same spirit ruled him in classic and theological themes. He did not feel them keenly or execute them passionately—at least there is no indication of it in his work. The doing so would have destroyed unity, symmetry, repose. The theme was ever held in check by a regard for proportion and rhythm. To keep all artistic elements in perfect equilibrium, allowing no one to predominate, seemed the mainspring of his action, and in doing this he created that harmony which his admirers sometimes refer to as pure beauty.

For his period and school he was rather remarkable technically. He excelled in everything except brush-work, which was never brought to maturity in either Florence or Rome. Even in color he was fine for Florence, though not equal to the Venetians. In composition, modelling, line, even in texture painting (see his portraits) he was a man of accomplishment ; while in grace, purity, serenity, loftiness he was the Florentine leader easily first.

The influence of Raphael’s example was largely felt throughout Central Italy, and even at the north, resulting in many imitators and followers, who tried to produce Raphaelesque effects. Their efforts were usually successful in precipitating charm into sweetness and sentiment into sentimentality. Francesco Perini (1488?–1528) seems to have been content to work under Raphael with some ability. Giulio Romano (1492–1546) was the strongest of the pupils, and became the founder and leader of the Roman school, which had considerable influence upon the painters of the Decadence. He adopted the classic subject and tried to adopt Raphael’s style, but he was not completely successful. Raphael’s refinement in Giulio’s hands became exaggerated coarseness. He was a good draughtsman, but rather hot as a colorist, and a composer of violent, restless, and, at times, contorted groups. He was a prolific painter, but his work tended toward the baroque style, and had a bad influence on the succeeding schools.

Primaticcio (1504—1570) was one of his followers, and had much to do with the founding of the school of Fontainebleau in France. Giovanni da Udine (1487—1564), a Venetian trained painter, became a follower of Raphael, his only originality showing in decorative designs. Perino del Vaga (1500—1547) was of the same cast of mind. Andrea Sabbatini (1480 ?—1545) carried Raphael’s types and methods to the south of Italy, and some artists at Bologna, and in Umbria, like Innocenza da Imoli (1494—1550 ?), and Timoteo di Viti (1469—1523), adopted the Raphael type and method to the detriment of what native talent they may have possessed, though about Timoteo there is some doubt whether he adopted Raphael’s type, or Raphael his type.

PRINCIPAL WORKS; FLORENTINES—Fra Bartolommeo, Descent from the Cross Salvator Mundi St. Mark Pitti, Madonnas and Prophets Uffizi, other pictures Florence Acad., Louvre, Vienna Gal.; Albertinelli, Visitation Uffizi, Christ Magdalene Madonna Louvre, Trinity Madonna Florence Acad., Annunciation Munich Gal. ; Fra Paolino, works at San Spirito Sienna, S. Domenico and S. Paolo Pistoia, Madonna Florence Acad.; Bugiardini, Madonna Uffizi, St. Catherine S. M. Novella Florence, Nativity Berlin, St. Catherine Bologna Gal.; Granacci, altar-pieces Uffizi, Pitti, Acad. Florence, Berlin and Munich Gals.; Ridolfo Ghirlandajo, S. Zenobio pictures Uffizi, also Louvre and Berlin Gal.; Andrea del Sarto, many pictures in Uffizi and Pitti, Louvre, Berlin, Dresden, Madrid, Nat. Gal. Lon., frescos S. Annunziata and the Scalzo Florence ; Pontormo, frescos Annunziata Florence, Visitation and Madonna Louvre, portrait Berlin Gal., Supper at Emmaus Florence Acad., other works Uffizi ; Franciabigio, frescos courts of the Servi and Scalzo Florence, Bathsheba Dresden Gal., many portraits in Louvre, Pitti, Berlin Gal.; Michael Angelo, frescos Sistine Rome, Holy Family Uffizi ; Daniele da Volterra, frescos Hist. of Cross Trinity de’ Monti Rome, Innocents Uffizi ; Venusti, frescos Castel San Angelo, S. Spirito .Rome, Annunciation St. John Lateran Rome ; Sebastiano del Piombo, Lazarus Nat. Gal. Lon., Piety Viterbo, Fornarina Uffizi (ascribed to Raphael) Fornarina and Christ Bearing Cross Berlin and Dresden Gals., Agatha Pitti, Visitation Louvre, portrait Doria Gal. Rome ; Raphael, Marriage of Virgin Brera, Madonna and Vision of Knight Nat. Gal. Lon., Madonnas St. Michael and St. George Louvre, many Madonnas and portraits in Uffizi, Pitti, Munich, Vienna, St. Petersburgh, Madrid Gals., Sistine Madonna Dresden, chief frescos Vatican Rome.

ROMANS : Giulio Romano, frescos Sala di Constantino Vatican Rome (with Francesco Penni after Rapbael), Palazzo del Te Mantua, St. Stephen, S Stefano Genoa, Holy Family Dresden Gal., other works in Louvre, Nat. Gal. Lon., Pitti, Uffizi ; Primaticcio, works attributed to him doubtful—Scipio Louvre, Lady at Toilet and Venus Musee de Cluny; Giovanni da Udine, decorations, arabesques and grotesques in Vatican Loggia; Perino del Vaga, Hist. of Joshua and David Vatican (with Raphael), frescos Trinity de’ Monti and Castel S. Angelo Rome, Creation of Eve S. Marcello Rome ; Sabbatini, Adoration Naples Mus., altar-pieces in Naples and Salerno churches ; Innocenza da Imola, works in Bologna, Berlin and Munich Gals.; Timoteo di Viti, Church of the Pace Rome (after Raphael), madonnas and Magdalene Brera, Acad. of St. Luke Rome, Bologna Gal., S. Domenico Urbino, Gubbio Cathedral.