artist canvas


In the painting of the Renaissance, Western art reached its absolute zenith. The new intellectual horizons opened up by the natural sciences and the great voyages of discovery, together with the religious tensions of the era and its political and social unrest - all were reflected in painting. The real and the ideal, the secular and the sacred, ecstatic absorption and cool scepticism flourished side by side. It was Leonardo da Vinci who took the decisive step by abandoning the balance which had previously been maintained between colour and line, and choosing instead to modulate his contours by means of colour. Raphael and Michelangelo followed his example and created forms which would set the standard for the whole of Europe. At almost the same time, Giorgione, Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese in Venice were crafting a new artistic vision in which man and nature were combined into a single unity. In Germany, painting saw an unprecedented flowering at the hands of D?rer and Gr?newald, Altdorfer, Holbein and Lucas Cranach. While in the Netherlands the creative genius of Pieter Brueghel outshone all else, the epoch found its final voice in the religious visions of El Greco.

The 16th century: an epoch and its names

The era in European art which we call the age of the Renaissance, namely the two centuries between 1400 and 1600, reached its supreme peak in the decades around 1500. It is this brief period that we may term the High Renaissance. In every branch of art, the many and varied means of expression that had developed over the course of the 15th century were now integrated within a single, unifying concept. In the latter years of his life, Burckhardt sought to define this phenomenon. On 18 December 1895 he wrote to W?lfflin that only at the beginning of the 16th century had there been one glorious moment when "simplification and greater economy" had risen to replace "realistic individualization". One year later he again remarked to the W?lfflin: " will note - perhaps for the one hundredth time - the renunciation of the manifold (even where this was very beautiful) in favour of the monumental and especially the animated." For Burckhardt, the High Renaissance - and in particular the work of Raphael - was the only epoch in recent art on a par with classical Greece. In 1898, his pupil W?lfflin subsequently formulated the term "classic art" to describe the development in Italian art which took place in the years around 1500. And indeed, at no other time before or since has art come so close to classical antiquity. Its aim was thereby not to imitate the past; that would have led not to "classic" art but to "classicism", as in the late 18th and early 19th century. Rather, it strove to reveal the ideal which lay behind the natural model. Typical of the High Renaissance, as of all classic art, is its perfect balancing of contradictory - and hence seemingly mutually exclusive - artistic positions. Real and ideal, secular and sacred, movement and rest, freedom and law, space and plane, line and colour are thereby reconciled in a happy harmony. By its very nature, such a perfect equilibrium of all opposing forces leaves no room for further dramatic development. It can only lead either to stagnation or to its own abolition by the artist. European, and in particular Italian, art took the latter path. It was the very protagonists of the High Renaissance - and above all Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael - who thereby opened the door to new artistic possibilities. In the sense that its elements can almost all be traced back to the High Renaissance, the subsequent phase in art from around 1520 to 1600 may thus aptly be termed the Late Renaissance. It must be said, however, that High Renaissance ideas were employed by the following generations at times in an entirely new context: the vocabulary was adopted, so to speak, but the grammar was new. Against a backdrop of far-reaching cultural changes, "anti-classic" tendencies thereby began to spread which have more recently been described under the heading of Mannerism rather than Late Renaissance. In attempting to identify binding stylistic categories for the art of the 16th century, the question of an appropriate name for the epoch will need to be constantly rethought.

Painting around 1500 in Italy

Florence was undoubtedly the centre of the revival in the arts which took place during the 15th century. It was here, between 1400 and 1450, that the Early Renaissance in the narrower sense of the term first arose, and it was from here after 1450 that decisive stimuli went out to the other art centres of Italy. This should not blind us to the fact that the preliminary steps towards "classic art" were nevertheless taken outside Tuscany. Piero della Francesca (c. 1420-1492), who for all his virtuoso handling of perspective was profoundly convinced of the fundamental importance of the plane, and whose "atmospheric lighting" was at the same time highly significant for the history of colour in European painting, is thereby no less important than his fellow Umbrian Pietro Perugino (c. 1448-1523). Perugino's work was unfairly overshadowed by that of his greatest pupil, Raphael, who nevertheless owed him a very great deal. Perugino's importance lay not in his portrayal of expressive figures, but in his specifically Umbrian tendency towards spaciousness, his emphasis upon landscape, his shift away from line in favour of modulated transitions, and above all his understanding of pictorial and mural surfaces as organic wholes which, although they might not yet achieve the fluency of the works of Raphael, marked a vital stage along the path to ever greater fluidity of movement. In a very similar fashion, albeit with more differentiated means, the Venetian Giovanni Bellini (c. 1430-1516) was treading his own path towards the High Renaissance; in his late works, indeed, he became the only one of the great 15th-century painters to cross the threshold from the Early to the High Renaissance. According to Erich Hubala, Bellini "had been working his way towards the High Renaissance ever since birth... Bellini was born with his compass needle pointing to classicism". It was not by chance that, around 1500, the emphasis in Italian art shifted to Rome and Venice, and Florence had to relinquish its leading role. The reasons for this were undoubtedly rooted first and foremost in political and social changes. The collapse of Medici rule in 1494 and the rise to prominence of Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498), a Dominican monk preaching an eschatological vision, brought an abrupt end to the flowering in the arts that had reached its high point under Lorenzo the Magnificent (1449-1492). After Savonarola was burnt at the stake in 1498, Florence became the political football of rival forces until the return of the Medici from exile in 1512. During the very twenty years in which "classic art" produced its most important works, therefore, Florence was without major patrons of the arts. Venice, on the other hand, passed from the 15th to the 16th century with its feudal ruling class still politically and economically intact, and hence with its market for art uninterrupted. Above all, however, it was the papacy which, having re-consolidated its power over the course of the Early Renaissance, now renewed its efforts to establish Rome as the cultural centre of the Western world. The appointment of Donato Bramante (c. 1444-1514) as architect of the new St Peter's in 1504, the commissioning of Pope Julius II's tomb from Michelangelo in 1505, and Raphael's move to Rome in 1509 set the seal on the city's pre-eminent position in Italian art. We may nevertheless wonder whether, under different historical circumstances, Florence would in fact have proved capable of leading the Renaissance to its climax. However inexhaustible the wealth of new artistic forms which it developed over the centuries, Tuscany lacked the aptitude for classical equilibrium; at the heart of all the supreme achievements of Florentine art lay the dialectic principle of reason and emotion, and hence a constant layer of tension. It was no coincidence that, as "anti-classic" tendencies began to assert themselves, so Tuscany would once more return to the limelight. In the awareness that any attempt at a broad definition inevitably involves simplification and thus approximation, we may say that the High Renaissance in Rome was concerned primarily with form, and in Venice with colour. In the sphere of painting, Leonardo was the only artist who married both at the highest level. At the same time as carrying the realistic tendencies of the 15th century to an extreme degree, he granted the geometry of the two-dimensional plane and the stereometry of three-dimensional space an importance unknown to the previous generation. Leonardo's Last Supper ain the refectory of Santa Maria della Grazie in Milan (ill. p. 161) overwhelms the viewer with its apparent immediacy. In fact, however, the different perspective systems of real and painted space, the ideality informing even the very smallest detail of the composition, and the monumental scale of the figures ensure that we remain distanced from it. In his panel paintings, Leonardo combines these structural features with a revolutionary new use of colour. Going far beyond Piero della Francesca, Perugino and Giovanni Bellini, he increasingly replaces circumscribing, isolating line - i.e. drawing - with colour modulation. The transitions between figures and objects become fluid. Space is no longer established primarily through mathematical perspective, but by a lightening of the palette and a gradual dissolving of outlines. Leonardo was the perfect embodiment of the ideal of the universal artist, active in every branch of art and at the same time educated in every field. Yet neither in Florence nor in Rome was he awarded the recognition he deserved. His departure for Upper Italy, ostensibly explained by his many important commissions for Francesco Sforza (1401-1466), Duke of Milan, may ultimately have been prompted by a different, inner logic: he would both be able to further his own development and influence others in the neighbouring art centre of Venice. When, in the work of Giorgione (c. 1477/78-1510) and the young Titian (c. 1473/90-1576), Venetian painting stepped fully into its very own speciality, colour, it was the culmination of a development which would have been unthinkable without the influence of Leonardo. The other aspect of Leonardo's art, the ideality of form, was taken up in central Italy. In architecture, the centralized building - i.e. one which unfolds regularly on all sides around a static centre - had been increasingly perfected over the course of the 15th century. Its counterparts in painting were symmetrical pictorial formats such as the square and the circle (tondo). The concept of centralized construction dominated not only the architecture of the High Renaissance - the plans by Bramante and Michelangelo for the new St Peter's included pure centralized buildings, possibly in a symbolic allusion to Rome as the centre of Christendom -, but also determined the thinking of painters. Since only a small number of the major building projects of the period around 1500 were actually executed, our knowledge of High Renaissance architecture is largely based on the "background scenery" found in pictures, which we can take as a direct reflection of contemporary building styles. More important still, however, is the fact that centralizing laws of architecture indirectly came to govern the pictorial composition as a whole: sphere and circle and their mutual interpenetration thereby serve to establish an inner kinship between the construction of the painting and that of the centralized building. In this context, the works of Raphael's mature period, and in particular his frescos in the Stanza della Segnatura in the Vatican, represent the pinnacle of High Renaissance painting.

Painting around 1500 north of the Alps

Towards the end of the 15th century, with civic culture flourishing at its peak, painting in Germany rose to heights unseen since the miniatures illuminating the magnificent manuscripts of Ottonian and Salian times. In contrast to the earlier part of the century, when German artists were overshadowed by the ground-breaking achievements of their Early Netherlandish contemporaries, the situation was suddenly and astonishingly reversed in an manner which has yet to be explained either in terms of art or cultural history. Did the creative unrest brewing in Germany in the period leading up to the Reformation release new forces in the country's centres of art? Within this development, the figure of Albrecht D?rer (1471-1528) was of outstanding importance both in artistic and historical terms. D?rer initially remained indebted to the traditions of his teachers, using line as his primary means of expression, and his early work is correspondingly dominated by woodcuts and copper engravings. In 1496 and 1506/07, however, he made two trips to Italy that would decisively influence his art. Like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) three centuries later, D?rer experienced in Italian art the holistic, organic approach to composition which lay at the opposite end of the spectrum to the art north of the Alps, where painting continued to be understood as the additive combination of individual elements. From the Venetians, and above all from Giovanni Bellini, he learned about modulating contours with colour. Finally, too, he recognized the necessity of a sound theoretical approach to the representation of objects which went beyond mere intuition. His Madonna of the Rose Garlands (Prague, N?rodn? Galerie), Adoration of the Trinity (ill. p. 188) - counterpart to Raphael's Disput? in the Vatican Stanze - and his Four Apostles (ill. p. 187) are outstanding examples of the fusion of the German and Italian feeling for form. German painting around 1500 spanned an extraordinary breadth. If D?rer started primarily from line, Matthias Gr?newald (c. 1470/80-1528) focused on composition with colour. His Isenheim Altar (ill. p. 190), begun around 1512, represents German art's most important contribution to the history of colour. The extent to which Gr?newald drew upon the new colour theories of Leonardo and the works of Giorgione is something that deserves closer investigation. Colour modulation was also the starting-point for the painters of the so-called Danube School, and in particular the young Lucas Cranach (1472-1535), Albrecht Altdorfer (c. 1480-1538) and Wolf Huber (c. 1485-1553), at whose hands landscape painting assumed an importance previously unknown north of the Alps. Confronted with the atmospheric landscapes produced by the Danube School, one is tempted to speak of a first phase of "Romanticism" in German art. Independent of direct contact with Italian art, meanwhile, a common tendency towards large, balanced form and towards the integration of the real and the ideal was also making itself felt in Europe, as evidenced in the mature works of the Netherlandish artist Gerard David (c. 1460-1523), for example. David's works do not open up new avenues for the future, however, but look back to Jan van Eyck in their understanding of the human figure as a powerfully modelled volume.

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