Mimenta for Visual Arts


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Page 4 Art HistoryRenaissance

Finally artists had all the tools available and a new freedom to experiment meant art was reborn anew. We call this period in Art History , "The Renaissance"; a French term meaning "reborn anew".

Artists, freed of the restrictive rigid format of Byzantine art, returned to the Greek ideals of portraying the human form as perfection but now they were able to add the perfect surroundings with realistic depth, using Albrecht Durer's formulas.

Paintings appear of real people; Mona Lisa and del Sarto's wife
Pictures of 'non-famous' real people appear. Mouse over to Change
from Leonardo da Vinci's "Mona Lisa" to Andrea del Sarto's "Portrait of the Artist's wife"
(A larger image can be seen on the Web Gallery of Art - click on the picture to go to the site)

The strict rules of the Church governing subject material were ignored. Society was stable and a new wealthy upper class could afford to patronise an artist. Now the church was no longer the only employer. Subjects turned from only religious scenes, to every day people in everyday life. Naked flesh in a painting was no longer sinful if the subject warranted it. We see paintings of people who were not famous, long since forgotten but immortalised on canvas, like Leonardo a Vinci's Mona Lisa, Andrea de Santo's wife.

The hub of the Renaissance movement was Florence in Italy. As a centre of trade with many wealthy families, Florence had many artists earning a living without the aid of the church. These artists could encourage each other, often through competition. Florence drew innovative artists, like bees to a honey pot. If you were religious, you made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land; if you were an Artist, you travelled to Florence.

Andrea del Sarto - The Triumph of Ceasar

As wealthy merchant families built their own palatial mansions, they employed the best artists of the time to design and decorate them with scenes that were not from the bible, as shown above in the "Triumph of Caesar" by Andrea del Sarto (above) in the Villa Midici (House of the Midici family). A larger image can be seen on the Web Gallery of Art - click on the picture to go to the site.

Gone are the stilted poses and one subject compositions - the artist has tried to capture the organised chaos of triumph after battle. There are many events happening all at once as the various tributes are brought to Caesar. Unlike the Gothic and Byzantine styles, with their simple message, this is a painting to get you thinking - painted for an intelligent audience, not the ignorant masses dictated to by the church. Art is now painted for appreciation, to get you thinking, not just telling a simple story. Statues of Roman Gods, not saints, attest that this is definitely not a work sanctioned by the Church - if this was displayed 200 years earlier, the artist and the owner would have been in front of the Inquisitor!

Notice this picture has no full picture frame; it is a Fresco, formed as part of the wall - pigment is mixed directly with the plaster and applied directly to the wall: a very difficult way to paint because the plaster dulls all your colours as it dries. The artist has to mix each colour twice as bright as the final shade because as the plaster dries the hue will lose its much of it's colour intensity due to the wet plaster turning whiter as it dries. Because plaster is slightly alkaline, the colours are less prone to fading over time.

The church was still a major employer of artists and accepted the new styles readily. People came from far and wide to see a new fresco or painting in a church. On one such visit a young apprentice artist heard a monk speaking and was so swayed, that he joined the order, choosing the name Bartolomeo. Quick to realise the young Friar's talents, the order promoted his work, much of which remains today. As a tribute to his benefactor, Girolamo Savonarola, he painted his portrait, shown below.


Look at the lifelike rendition: this could be a photograph! Not the most handsome of men either and painted in full profile to accentuate it, Girolamo Savonarola was to expel the Medici family from Florence, burn books, condemn art, criticize the excesses of the Pope and set up a gloomy theocracy in Florence. For the next 4 years, many major art works came to a halt and artists fled to other autonomous cities. With his excommunication by Pope Alexander IV he was captured and along with two devout followers, bound in chains and roasted alive over a large fire. Several times their charred remains were broken up and recommitted to the inferno to make sure that there were no relics to be revered by his followers. How ironic that the very art he condemned, has immortalised him.

While the church accepted the new style on the renaissance, it's retained the gestures of the Byzantine era, as shown below in Bartolomeo's "The Holy Family with St. John the Baptist.

Bartolomeo - The Holy Family with St. John the Baptist

St John's hand posture for blessing is the same gesture used in the Byzantine icons but no-one has a halo any more. The church finally recognises that people might be smart enough to work it out for themselves. The broken arch, city wall and pillar are deliberately positioned to accentuate the depth in the picture.

Artists studied anatomy to get the perfect likeness. Michelangelo was known to frequent the morgues and in return for carving a wooden crucifix for the high altar of the hospital of Sto Spirito was allowed to study anatomy there. When Savaronola expelled the Medici family, Michelangelo, a close friend of the Medici family, fled to Bologna then Rome.

Freed of the boundaries of Byzantine art, artists experimented with new techniques. Chiaroscuro was one such technique that accentuates the lighter foreground or focal image by use of dark backgrounds. The emphasis was beginning to move from the artists recording a whole scene; to the artist portraying the message with the least distractions.

Raphael - Portrait of a Man

Here Raphael has concentrated solely on the facial features and a hint of background but left the fabric folds completely out of the picture; something the classical artists would never do. The Chiaroscuro effect shoots the image out of the picture at you. This technique became very popular with the master painters in the Baroque period that followed as they sought to dramatise their work.

The renaissance was not just the result of a series of innovations and social changes but it created one more massive shift in the way artists were regarded.

There were two undisputed supreme artists of this period - Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo. Both were undisputed geniuses, recognised as outstanding leaders in their own time in various fields; not just painting. As well as brilliant artists they were also accomplished architects and engineers.

At this time being an artist was a trade, artists were regarded like an electrician or panel beater today. Painters belonged to the guild of the Doctors and Apothecaries ("Arte dei Medici e Speziali") as they bought their pigments from the apothecaries, while sculptors were members of the Masters of Stone and Wood ("Maestri di Pietri e Legname). Later Artists had a guild of their own, called "The Guild of St. Luke" after the disciple saint who was identified by John of Damascus as painting a picture of the Madonna. Guilds were empowered by the city to control trade and set conditions of membership that maintained a high standard of work. If you did not belong to a guild, you could not sell your work or buy materials.

A Master Craftsman ran a workshop of several apprentices at various stages of training. Apprentices were trained in the various tasks involved in creating, sculpture, painting and architecture. They were all considered as part of the same trade. Works of art were planned by the master of the workshop and completed by the apprentices, with finishing touches from the Master who then signed the finished work. Today this sounds like plagiarism but that's because we regard an artist as a person. In those times, an artist was a workshop of people and the work was a product of a director, much like films and television programs are made today.

Michelangelo despised this idea. At the age of 16, he was already recognised as an outstanding workman in the workshop and it must have rankled him when his master signed his work with his own name. Michelangelo sought to be recognised in his own right as a great artists. He wanted to produce works alone that would prove to the world how creative he was; not works that could be partly attributed to other talented apprentices. He went on to create various works and attracted several commissions from the Medici family, the wealthiest family in Florence. Finally while commissioned to make a series of sculptures for the tomb of Popes Julius II, Michael was asked to paint the roof of the Sistine Chapel.

The transformation of the Sistine Chapel
It was previously decorated in stars with scenes on the walls.
Mouse over the picture to see the transformation Michelangelo created.

Michelangelo saw the opportunity to demonstrate his true genius. When his assistants work was not to his liking, he stopped all his other work and decided to do the entire chapel alone. For several years he worked tirelessly atop a scaffold bent at an odd angle so he could paint the ceiling above him.


Michelangelo emphasised the existing vaults in the ceiling, and by extending them with illusions of columns right across the ceiling, he subdivided the long ceiling into a series of strips or panels. To separate each panel from its neighbour, he painted a figure on the fake columns, in a different proportion and perspective to the scene in the panels. The result is, rather than looking at a backdrop through a grid of panels, you are instantly aware that each section is a separate scene in the past and the figure on the column is introducing it to you.

Above the Altar of the Sistine Chapel

When you view this, keep in mind this is the work of one man in fresco - pigment mixed with plaster, that dries much paler than the wet mixed paint. Michelangelo would have to have painted this at least a shade richer in each colour. This would be an amazing work if done in oils but in Fresco it is miraculous!

Above the entry to the Sistine Chapel

This work was so revered that Michelangelo was hailed as a living genius and reviewed twice in his lifetime. He went on to design magnificent buildings for the Vatican, fortifications for the city of Florence and undoubtedly many more designs that have been lost in time. The last great art development was a direct result of Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci - the Artist was now recognised as a single person for their creative talent, rather than a competent tradesman who was the product of their master. The artist could enjoy the status of genius.

Click here for a virtual tour of the Sistine Chapel.

The  dome of St. Peters Basilica in the Vatican

The Basilica of Saint Peter, portrayed by Viviano Codazzi in a 1630 painting.
The two bell towers were later removed. Mouse over to see Michelangelo's plans.

St Peters Basilica today

The cupola or dome was designed by Michelangelo as half a sphere. The "drum set" or the base of the dome was completed before his death in 1564. The dome proper was redesigned and vaulted by the architect Giacomo della Porta, with the assistance of Domenico Fontana, who was probably the best engineer of the day and altered to a parabola or egg shape for more downward stress and less outward pressure at the base. It is still the major feature on Rome's skyline today.

This genius status afforded the great artists a certain immunity from the Church in some aspects. Whilst they wouldn't refuse a commission from the church, they would often defer the work or stall it to do some other works that were more appealing.

In these times, the Roman Catholic Church was still the ultimate authority. The English King Henry the VIII had been the only ruler to thumb his nose at the church, when he formed the Church of England (later referred to as the Anglican Church). Throughout the remainder of Europe, the church's word was equivalent to law. This was especially true for artists and there was a cautious and cynical subculture that regarded the church as corrupt tyrants. Leonardo Da Vinci was one of those cynics. Today we see him as a great artist, but in his day he was also revered as an engineering genius who was also a great artist. Across Europe, he was known for his amazing works of art. But his incredible machines were viewed as powerful magical devices that dissuaded any power hungry ruler from taking the city.

33 Barrel infantry canonCanon with adjustable elevation

Above are some of his sketches and working models built from his drawings, in this case, modifications to a canon. The 33 barrel canon is to cut a swather through infantry lines. The adjustable elevation canon meant that artillery would not have to be located on a rise, where they are exposed to musket fire.

Leonardo was a genius rebel. If there was a rule; it was there to be tested and possibly broken by Leonardo. We have all seen Leonardo Da Vinci's Mona Lisa; but have you really looked at it?

Put your mouse over the image of the Mona Lisa to see a few of the anomalies that Leonardo Da Vinci built into this painting.

The Real Mona Lisa

Like most people, you look at a scene and see an object with a continuous single background behind it - to most of us this is a rule in painting : one continuous background.
What if the object was so important, could it over-ride the background rule?
Here Leonardo proves that the rule can be broken; You have two totally separate backgrounds in the Mona Lisa:

On the left side, you are elevated and looking down on a road winding between mountains to a river, bordered by a row of mountains that get smaller in the distance, forming a vanishing point that is hidden behind the head of the Mona Lisa. This is a barren desolate landscape, devoid of trees, grass or any signs of life.

On the right hand side, the scenery is of a river, spanned by Roman aqueduct almost at eye level, weaving between a cutting in some eroded hills, towards a forest. Behind the forest is a bay with a headland or the end of a mountain range. The horizon is a straight line with no vanishing point. This scene is fertile with trees, grass and the aqueduct is evidence of the presence of mankind.

It is impossible to join the left and right backgrounds into one scene - they are two totally separate pictures and Leonardo has deliberately made them this way, this is the work of a master artist and is no mistake. There are many theories that the actual face of the Mona Lisa is really Leonardo Da Vinci in drag. (This is quite possible because he was homosexual but I think that there are enough contradictions just in the background to prove the man's genius, without delving into his personal life).

There is not enough room here to delve into Leonardo Da Vinci's art, but almost all his works contain an anomaly that either takes a swipe at the church or breaks the rules somewhere. It is almost as if we are looking at a genius who chose to paint not to produce pleasing pictures or record a scene but to leave behind a wakeup call to get us thinking.

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There was a later movement called the Mannerists, at the end of the renaissance. Personally this is a minor shift in style. The figures were more accentuated, often elongated and gestures were enhanced to exaggerate the story in the picture. Artists used allegories to tell stories, often with more lascivious undertones as they explored their new freedoms with the decline in influence of the church.

Tow examples of Mannerist style painting

Mouse over the Jocopo da Pontormo's (a student of Leonardo Da Vinci) "Supper at Emmaus" to see Correggio's "Leda and the Swans"; two paintings with features typical of the Mannerist period. A strong emphasis on gestures and the use of bold colours to dramatise the scene is typical of this period.

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