Renaissance Europe 1300-1600: Visual Arts

Arts and Humanities Through the Eras. Editor: Edward I Bleiberg, et al. Volume 4. Detroit: Gale, 2005.

The Early Renaissance in Italy


It was in Italy that the artistic values we associate with the Renaissance first began to appear. These values included a new emphasis on naturalistic depiction, on human proportions and human scale in art, and on the rational presentation of observed spaces. During the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries artists in Northern Italy, particularly in Tuscany, devoted themselves to problems of perspective. Eventually, they mastered techniques that allowed them to reproduce spaces that appeared to have real depth on two-dimensional surfaces. This innovation, known as linear perspective, was not to be perfected until the mid-fifteenth century in the paintings of the Florentine artist Masaccio. Thereafter the humanistically trained artist Leon Battista Alberti codified the methods that Masaccio had used and circulated them in his theoretical treatise On Painting, which he wrote during the 1430s. The breakthroughs that fifteenth-century Italian artists made in the depiction of space built upon the work of several generations of artists and sculptors who had gone before. Another vital feature of the Renaissance in the visual arts was a renewed attention to the style and conventions of ancient art. As the homeland of the ancient Roman Empire in Western Europe, Italy possessed many venerable ancient monuments, and traditions of classicizing art and architecture had persisted in the region during the Middle Ages. Fifteenth-century artists, however, began to study more systematically and rigorously the works of classical Antiquity, and they self-consciously tried to revive its harmonious and balanced proportions. Renaissance painters may never have been wedded to classical styles and idioms to the same degree as humanists and literary figures, but the example of antique painting and sculpture provided potent examples of a human-centered art that shaped their stylistic values. As in many other areas of Renaissance cultural achievement, it was Florence that served as the incubator for many of these innovations, although other cities throughout Tuscany—including Siena, Pisa, Perugia, and Arezzo—produced artists whose works both shaped and reflected the styles of the period.


Renaissance art, however, was not created for an open market, but for wealthy and powerful patrons and religious institutions that commissioned it. In the later Middle Ages and the Renaissance most artists were members of guilds in the cities in which they worked and were considered craftsmen. Throughout Italy the precise guilds to which painters and sculptors belonged differed, but these trade associations limited the supply of master craftsmen and thereby indirectly supported the prices artists could charge for their commissions. In Florence, craftsmen artists satisfied the demands of the town’s churches, monasteries, confraternities, as well as its large class of wealthy bankers, merchants, and patricians. Thus the taste of patrons often determined matters of artistic style and content. Histories of art have long stressed Italy’s importance as the artistic center of Renaissance Europe. Great art and sculpture were produced everywhere in the period, but Italian artists vastly outproduced artists elsewhere in Europe. As the wealthiest region during most of the Renaissance, Italy’s merchants, nobles, and church institutions commissioned an enormous amount of art during the Renaissance. Many forces helped to produce this burgeoning market, including the desire of Italy’s princes, local governments, and wealthy citizens to display their wealth and power. Patrons relied upon painting and sculpture to express political ideals, to indulge their tastes for fine craftsmanship, and to immortalize themselves and their families. The deepening piety of the era, too, stimulated the production of much religious art.

Importance of Images

In a world of widespread illiteracy, images took on a special importance. For the illiterate, religious images served as a vital textbook that instructed in the teachings and history of Christianity and the church. For both the learned and unlearned, images conveyed political and religious ideas, and were often tools of propaganda. To express these political positions or religious truths, artists relied upon iconography—a system of symbols that conveyed certain commonly accepted meanings. During the Renaissance the language of iconography expanded greatly, in large part because of the revival of knowledge about ancient religions, philosophy, and mythology. Iconography became an increasingly complex way of communicating meaning, since artists could employ symbols drawn from Christian, Roman, and Greek past as well as from other more obscure traditions. Not every observer understood the sometimes-obscure meanings that artists included in their works. Most contemporaries, though, had some familiarity with the depictions of prominent religious subjects as well as the meanings behind certain artistic conventions and symbols that artists used in their paintings. In the cities preachers often treated the famous historical events of the Bible and the history of the church, recalling to their audience visual images of these incidents. These sermons show us that the visual senses of the inhabitants of a Renaissance city were highly sophisticated. While a large proportion of the population could not read, their knowledge of iconographical symbols was quite broad. The Renaissance painter was expected, then, to visualize the stories that he depicted in ways that fit with people’s visual assumptions. Certain conventions of depiction governed the artists’ rendition of biblical themes, incidents from the history of the church, or the lives of the saints. Painters did not traverse this sea of artistic creation without guides, however, for there were many iconographical handbooks that prescribed how certain religious themes and subjects should be depicted. For ancient mythological themes, for example, one of the most important guides was Giovanni Boccaccio’s Genealogy of the Pagan Gods, a multi-volume work used throughout the Renaissance by artists interested in painting mythological themes. Boccaccio’s Genealogy presents us with a vital example of how the new humanistic culture of the Renaissance shaped the visual arts. Fueled by the insights that humanist writers made in their study of pagan Antiquity, artists gave a visual shape to the concerns of Renaissance humanists. More generally, though, most painting in the fifteenth-century Italian world remained Christian in nature, and when rendering religious themes, an artist was expected to convey his subject in a way that was appealing to viewers and which did not distort the subject being portrayed.


Artists undertook very little painting or sculpture without firm contracts from their patrons. The most successful of Renaissance artists ran studios in which they trained young assistants. They assigned their young apprentices to decorate furniture, paint devotional icons, and undertake other smaller projects. Artists’ workshops often sold these creations in much the same way as modern art galleries deal in paintings or sculptures. For the most part, though, artists completed a painting or a sculpture for a client or patron who contracted for a specific work. Hundreds of contracts survive from Renaissance Italy and these show us that the era’s wealthy consumers of art were sophisticated consumers who were actively involved in determining the appearance of these creations. Contracts often stipulated that artists use specific pigments in executing their work, and sometimes these stipulations were quite specific as to the precise amount of the painting’s surface that various colors should cover. To satisfy their clients, artists usually presented mockup sketches of the proposed finished product. Painters of recognized skill commanded higher prices for their compositions and certain kinds of painting were more expensive than others. Landscape backgrounds, for instance, resulted in extra charges, and the inclusion of these backgrounds was usually stipulated in the original contract commissioning the work. The vast majority of Renaissance painting and sculpture was undertaken to satisfy the demands of patrons who contracted for specific works, although some princes employed resident artists who received monthly salaries and moved from project to project at their employer’s will.

Stylistic Development

The great flowering of Renaissance art that occurred in fifteenth-century Florence and other Italian centers built upon late-medieval traditions. During the early fourteenth century Italian artists had grown increasingly innovative. These changes had occurred within a tradition of painting that had long been influenced by the example of Byzantium, the Eastern Mediterranean survivor of the ancient Roman Empire. The painting of religious icons—devotional images of the Virgin Mary and saints—were important foci of popular piety within the Eastern Orthodox Church. The icon painter depicted his subject using hierarchical proportions: Mary and the saints were presented larger than the other figures that surrounded them. The conventions of Byzantine art were also highly stylized and symbolic as well. During the thirteenth century changes in the teachings and practice of the Roman Church had favored the development of new kinds of art. At this time church law required that the priest stand in front of the altar while celebrating the Eucharist during Mass. This opened up the possibility of decorating the area behind the altar with large panel paintings. In Italy, panel paintings became common during the second half of the thirteenth century, and while they were first produced in the prevailing Byzantine style, artists soon experimented with new ways of conveying their subjects. Among the many unidentifiable and shadowy artists of the time, Cenni di Pepi or Cimabue (c. 1240-c. 1302) was considered the greatest master. Although trained in the Byzantine style, Cimabue endowed his figures with greater weight and solidity than the Greek tradition allowed. He also painted using an intuitive perspective and he was the first Italian artist to develop a technique for rendering chiaroscuro, that is, light and dark shading. In the coming decades several Italian artists developed these techniques even further.


Although Cimabue experimented, he remained a master in the Byzantine tradition. The first painter who definitively broke with that tradition was the Florentine Giotto di Bondone (c. 1267-1337). Giotto earned recognition for his originality and achievement even in his own times. In his Divine Comedy, completed around 1321, the poet Dante celebrated Giotto for surpassing the art of Cimabue. And in his chronicles completed around 1338 the Florentine historian Giovanni Villani listed Giotto as one of the great citizens of the town. Although Giotto remained tied to medieval styles of painting in many ways, there can be little doubt about the innovative elements of his style. When his works are compared against the greatest artists of his own period, Giotto’s unique contribution becomes evident. In his Madonna and Child Enthroned, which he completed around 1310 for the Church of All Saints in Florence, Giotto gave his figures weight and solidity. The work is a panel painting that uses the tempera method favored by central Italian artists throughout the Renaissance. In this medium pigments are suspended in egg yolks, showcasing brilliant colors and a paint capable of producing fine distinctions of line. Giotto used the tempera method to introduce light and dark spaces in his work so that the figures in the composition appeared to be three-dimensional. At the same time, however, Giotto continued to place his subjects within architectural spaces and design motifs that were medieval in nature. His work presented the Virgin and Child sitting on a throne framed with Gothic trefoil arches, and his use of proportion still relied upon scales that were medieval in nature. He painted the Virgin much larger than the angels and saints that surrounded them. His composition, in other words, was hardly naturalistic, since he relied upon proportions that expressed qualitative judgments and that were not naturalistic.


While the greatest of Giotto’s altarpiece paintings contained elements that both harked backward and looked forward, it was in his frescoes that the artist developed a more complete naturalism. The most famous of several fresco cycles Giotto completed was in the Arena Chapel in the northern Italian town of Padua. The subject for this cycle was the lives of the Virgin and Christ, and Giotto painted these frescoes around 1305. Fresco was a technique that had flourished in Italy since ancient times. At the outset of a project the artist prepared the wall with a layer of rough plaster upon which he sketched a mockup of the final composition. Then each day the artist added a finish coat of plaster to a section of the wall and painted that portion of the composition while the surface was still wet. In this way the colors were permanently fused into the wall. In the Arena Chapel frescoes Giotto demonstrated his love of nature and human emotions. Instead of the Byzantine-styled compositional techniques that were popular at the time, Giotto infused his subjects with movement. His hand gestures tell the stories from the New Testament in a way that is lively and true to life. Often within the same panel Giotto tells several parts of a story, giving his work a narrative completeness not found in other paintings of the time. His characters, too, are unique for the level of emotional depth they express. In his painting of the Lamentation the disciples and female followers of Christ express their suffering over the death of Christ through gestural language and facial expressions in a way that is intended to elicit a response from viewers. Even the angels who fly above the dead Christ display their profound suffering.

Painting after the Black Death

In his great fresco cycles Giotto painted with psychological insight, endowing his figures with emotions and depth. He abandoned as well the traditions of Byzantine stylization and instead tried to capture nature more faithfully. Some of his contemporaries imitated his example, while others who remained faithful to Byzantine traditions rejected it. In Siena, the brothers Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzetti developed a naturalism similar to Giotto’s, helping to establish Sienese painting as a leading artistic force throughout mid-fourteenth-century Europe. In an enormous fresco completed for the interior of the town hall of Siena entitled Allegory of Good Government, Ambrogio Lorenzetti catalogued the life of his city with intricate detail and a faithful attention to nature. The Black Death, though, cut short the naturalistic explorations of the Lorenzetti brothers. Both brothers died in 1348 as the plague struck their city. As a result of that catastrophe, painting in Florence, Siena, and other Italian cities seems to have grown more conservative, finding in the traditions of stylized art a vehicle for displaying intense religious emotions. The style that flourished at this time is often called International Gothic, because it was common throughout much of Europe at the time. In Italy, confraternities and religious institutions commissioned many works in this manner during the second half of the fourteenth century. Intricate lines, rhythmically folded draperies, and an intense emotionalism characterized the works of International Gothic artists. In Central Italy, the most famous of these artists were Andrea di Cione, known as Orcagna (1308-1368); Francesco Traini (active 1321-1363); and Giovanni da Milano (active from 1346-1366). The last of these figures created the first Pietà, an image of the dead Christ, which was designed to elicit an observer’s devotion and compassion. The work inspired many artists’ subsequent efforts, including the famous Pietà of Michelangelo Buonarroti. New developments in fifteenth-century Italy, however, soon superseded the emotionalism and fervent religiosity typical of the International Gothic style.


During the first half of the fifteenth century Florence was a great center of artistic innovation in Central Italy. Among the many remarkable artists who practiced there during this period of intense activity, Tommaso di Giovanni (1401-1428), better known as Masaccio, was among the most important. Despite his short life Masaccio exerted a profound influence on Florentine painting, in large part through a series of frescoes he painted during 1425 in the Brancacci family chapel in the Church of Sta. Maria del Carmine. Their subject—the life and works of St. Peter—is told in several scenes, the most famous being The Tribute Money. The subject for this painting is taken from Matthew 17:24-27, the story of a miracle Christ worked in paying tribute to the Romans. In that fresco the apostles are gathered around Christ, who directs Peter to retrieve coins from the mouth of a fish and present them to the Roman tax collector. Like Giotto before him, Masaccio endows the subjects he paints in this fresco with volume and weight, but his mastery of the skills of linear perspective and lighting is now more secure. Masaccio illuminates his frescoes with light that comes from a single source, throwing the actors in these dramas into light and dark so that they appear to inhabit real space. The naturalism of Masaccio’s portrayal, the volume and weight with which he endowed his subjects, as well as his use of perspective had many imitators in other Renaissance artists, including Michelangelo and Raphael who both studied and copied his Brancacci frescoes in the fifteenth century.


At roughly the same time as Masaccio was completing his frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel, the art of sculpture was also undergoing a profound transformation in Florence. Throughout Tuscany, sculpture had had a long and venerable medieval tradition, having grown up in close connection with the building of the region’s major churches and cathedrals. Around 1400, a number of sculptors of distinction were at work throughout the region, including Niccolo and Giovanni Pisano and Jacopo della Quercia. The first sculptor to develop a uniquely Renaissance style, though, was Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455). In 1401, Ghiberti won Florence’s competition for new bronze doors for its Cathedral baptistery, a competition that had drawn entries from the city’s most distinguished artists. Ghiberti spent much of the remainder of his life designing and executing these doors. He completed his first set of doors in 1424, and immediately received the commission to complete a second set for the Baptistery’s eastern portal. He worked on these panels for another two decades. When finished, these eastern doors depicted ten scenes from the Old Testament and they were heavily influenced by the revival of classical Antiquity that was underway in Florence at the time. The doors themselves were more than eighteen feet tall, and in the bronzes Ghiberti created for them he relied upon the shallow technique of bas-relief. He depicted these scenes in a lively way, making use of the classical proportions and architectural details that had recently become important markers of Renaissance style. In addition, Ghiberti relied upon the painterly techniques of linear perspective to give these scenes depth. Even at the time of their creation, the doors gained recognition as a supreme sculptural achievement, and in the sixteenth century the sculptor Michelangelo gave the doors the name by which they have been known ever since. He remarked that Ghiberti’s creation was suitable to guard the gates of heaven, thus dubbing them “The Gates of Paradise.”


Two other remarkable sculptors practiced in early and mid-fifteenth-century Florence: Donatello (1386-1466) and Luca della Robbia (1399-1482). Donatello had been trained in the workshop of Lorenzo Ghiberti, where he mastered the art of carving narrative reliefs. As a master sculptor, however, Donatello’s prime achievements were in the creation of freestanding statues, which he carved in stone or cast in bronze, although he did not limit himself to practicing a single kind of art. Like his close friend, Brunelleschi, Donatello indulged a passion for the arts of Antiquity, and together the two figures explored the classical monuments of Rome and Central Italy. He measured these works’ proportions and applied this knowledge to his own work, thus creating statues notable for their harmonious balance. Until the time of Michelangelo, no other Italian sculptor created such noble sculptures as Donatello’s St. George, his David or his massive equestrian figure, Gattamelata. A similar classicism is to be found in the best works of Luca della Robbia, especially in the Cantoria or “Musicians’ gallery” he created for the Cathedral of Florence during the 1430s. In that work della Robbia relied upon his knowledge of ancient Roman sarcophagi to create a masterpiece of classicism. During the remainder of his life, though, della Robbia’s reputation rested on his creation of terra-cotta reliefs, which he glazed and fired according to a secret process. These reliefs proved particularly suitable as decorations for the classically styled palaces and churches that were being constructed throughout fifteenth-century Florence.


The arts of sculpture and painting were also affected by the studies of Leon Battista Alberti (1405-1472), one of the great universal geniuses of the Renaissance. Alberti was the illegitimate son of a merchant who had been exiled from Florence. He received a humanist education, although his father died as he came to maturity, and Alberti’s relatives laid claim to his inheritance. Forced to work for a living, Alberti entered the papal chancery at Rome, before returning to Florence once the exile pronounced against his family had been lifted. In Florence, Alberti became associated with the humanist circle that had grown up in the town, as well as with the city’s growing circle of artists. Even before coming to Florence, the humanist had already befriended Masaccio and Brunelleschi, and once in the town, he extended this circle of friends. A painter, sculptor, musician, poet, philosopher, mathematician, and architect, Alberti also set himself the task of codifying theoretical knowledge about the various arts. His On the Art of Painting, first completed in Latin in 1435 and translated into Italian a year later, codified the problem of linear perspective in a way that was easy for later artists to master. In addition, his treatise On Sculpture informed sculptors about the proportions of antique art and, like his other works on architecture and painting, set out a general theory behind the practice of this art. In this way Alberti’s work began the process of raising the status of the artist beyond the realm of the craftsman. Since he knew both humanist scholars and artists, Alberti brought together the various artistic and intellectual circles of Florence. His treatises also attempted to establish a scientific basis for the study of the arts, even as they revived classical knowledge about their practice. In this way Alberti’s works were essential to later artists who argued that the techniques they practiced in their trade were both ancient and difficult to master.

Painting in Mid-Fifteenth-Century Florence

In the first half of the fifteenth century the insights of Masaccio, Brunelleschi, and Alberti provided artists with techniques to present their compositions with depth, solidity, and harmonious proportion. In Florence and elsewhere in Central Italy, artists quickly learned these lessons. In the generation following Masaccio’s death, many artists appeared in Florence to serve the city’s religious institutions and wealthy patrons. These included Fra Angelico (c. 1400-1455), Fra Filippo Lippi (c. 1406-1469), Paolo Uccello (1397-1475), Domenico Veneziano (1410-1461), and Andrea Castagno (c. 1417-1457). Of these, Fra Angelico was among the most prolific. Although he had been trained as a painter, he entered the Dominican Order when still a young man. Eventually, he rose to become the prior of Florence’s Monastery of San Marco, although throughout his life he continued to produce both panel paintings and frescoes throughout the city. These included a series of frescoes he painted in the cells of his own monastery. While some critics denigrated him as a conservative painter, Fra Angelico was, in truth, a considerable innovator, who had assimilated the legacy of Masaccio and Giotto and used their work as a vehicle for developing an art of great religious intensity. His landscapes were among the most sophisticated of the time, and throughout his works he relied on color and light to create paintings that were models of serene beauty. The art of Fra Filippo Lippi (c. 1406-1469), another Florentine monk, shows a similar grace and refinement. In contrast to the saintly Fra Angelico, Lippi was a more restless figure who was eventually defrocked because of his sexual escapades. Like most Florentine painters working in the wake of Masaccio, Lippi was fascinated by perspective, but he also relied on elegant flowing lines in his paintings. His envisioning of the Christ child, too, as a chubby cherub has long endeared viewers to his art. Lippi became the favorite painter of the Medici family, and his pupil, Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510), kept alive this tradition of elegance and delicacy in the second half of the fifteenth century. A different direction is discernible in the works of Paolo Uccello, an artist who originally served as an apprentice to the great sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti, before developing an intense fascination with perspective in painting. During the 1430s and 1440s Uccello painted a number of frescoes and panel paintings that presented imaginative solutions to problems of depth in his paintings. Among these, his Deluge and Battle of San Romano are arranged so completely according to the laws of linear perspective that viewers often find them disturbing. Two other accomplished painters, Andrea Castagno and Domenico Veneziano, were long thought to have nourished a violent enmity toward each other. According to a legend retold in the works of the biographer Giorgio Vasari, Castagno was to have murdered Veneziano. Subsequent research has shown that Veneziano outlived Castagno by four years. Whether the two were enemies cannot be established with certainty, although both presented Florence’s mid-century artistic culture with different, yet strikingly new artistic insights. In his paintings Veneziano relied on brilliant sunlike lighting and intense colors to present human figures that appeared much like polished marble. Castagno, by contrast, populated his compositions with earthy, muscled characters and endowed these figures with greater movement. His art reveals a more restless temperament than that usually seen in the works of the more serene masters of mid-fifteenth-century Florence.

Painting Outside Florence

Florence may have been the primary center of artistic innovation during much of the fifteenth century, but great artists were active everywhere in Italy. One of the most accomplished figures of the period was Piero della Francesca (1420-1492), who lived largely in isolation in provincial centers for most of his life. It has not been until modern times that Piero’s achievement has been truly appreciated. During 1439 Piero served as an assistant to Domenico Veneziano in Florence, where he observed the advances that had occurred in depiction by figures like Masaccio, Castagno, Fra Angelico, and Veneziano. Returning to his native town, Borgo San Sepolcro, Piero spent the rest of his life undertaking commissions there and in Arezzo and Urbino. Piero integrated his Florentine lessons to create compositions that made use of the solid forms typical of the paintings of Masaccio and Castagno, while at the same time building upon the experiments in color and light typical of the works of Fra Angelico, Lippi, and Veneziano. His style is best exemplified in a series of frescoes he completed for the Church of St. Francis in Arezzo or in his Resurrection fresco completed for the town hall of Borgo San Sepolcro. In both paintings a calm and motionless air suffuses the composition, which Piero envisions with geometric regularity and simplicity. Throughout he relies upon colors that are cool and luminous, making the effect of these compositions all the more grand. Piero endowed his subjects with a monumental character, but the artist Pietro Perugino from Perugia in the region known as Umbria was, by contrast, a painter of definite grace and charm. Perugino gave his subjects a gentle majesty and he was among the best fifteenth-century masters of the atmospheric painting technique known as sfumato. In his Christ Giving the Keys to St. Peter, a fresco painted for the Sistine Chapel in Rome, Perugino presented the scene of Christ granting power over the church to St. Peter before a symbolic landscape—a domed church that suggests the Cathedral of Florence and Roman triumphal arches. While Peter kneels to accept the keys in the foreground, the background of the painting opens into an immense courtyard with enveloping hills in the distance, all of which is seen through the filmy atmosphere.

Northern Italy

Piero della Francesca and Perugino worked in regions that were relatively close to Florence. Further afield in Northern Italy artists proved more reluctant to abandon native styles in favor of Renaissance naturalism. A few notable exceptions were Andrea Mantegna, Antonello da Messina, and Giovanni Bellini. Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506) worked at Padua and for the Gonzaga family in Mantua. In his student days in Padua Mantegna had been affected by the great Florentine sculptor Donatello who had been undertaking a commission in the city. In a series of frescoes he completed during the 1450s for the Eremites in Padua, Mantegna showed his mastery of Florentine perspective. His painting Saint James Led to Execution relied on illusionistic devices so that the bottom portions of the fresco appeared to disappear as onlookers approached the work. In his later career as a court painter for the Gonzaga lords at Mantua, Mantegna painted a series of frescoes for the Camera degli Sposi or “Bridal Chamber” of the family’s palace. While Mantegna’s early paintings were often noted for their marble-like aloofness, here the artist shows a more playful streak. Besides including a number of scenes that include portraits of members of the family and local dignitaries, the Bridal Chamber’s ceiling includes a trick painting in which members of the local court and cherubs appear to be looking down upon the room. Another innovator, Antonello da Messina (c. 1430-1479), was a Sicilian who had worked in the Netherlands before taking up residence in Venice. There Messina introduced the technique of oil painting to the conservative and somewhat old-fashioned circle of Venetian artists, helping to set the stage for the great age of Venetian oil painting that dawned in the sixteenth century. At the end of the fifteenth century Venice began to shed its reputation as an artistic backwater by providing a home to an increasingly large number of artists. Among these figures, the most accomplished certainly was Giovanni Bellini (1430-1516). In his Transfiguration of Christ Bellini relied on the newly imported technique of oil painting to envision the New Testament scene. He set his composition in a lush landscape of alpine foothills that was unprecedented in Italian art to this time. The painting’s completion when the artist was around 50 years old shows that Bellini continued to retain his lead as one of the most innovative of fifteenth-century North Italian painters.

Secular Themes

More than eighty percent of all fifteenth-century artistic commissions were religious in nature. The prominence of the church, religious institutions, and private families as commissioners of religious art meant that all artists needed to be fully versed in the stories of the Old and New Testaments and in the lives of the saints—the most prominent themes treated in religious art. Still as the fifteenth century progressed secular themes became more popular among patrons. In Florence and other Italian centers, the prominence of the intellectual movement of humanism helped to stimulate a taste for subjects drawn from Roman and Greek mythology. Sandro Botticelli ranks among the greatest of artists to paint secular themes in the fifteenth century. Two of his works—the Birth of Spring and the Birth of Venus—illustrate the growing importance of secular themes among the cultivated elite of a Renaissance city like Florence. Members of the Medici family commissioned both works, and the philosophical movement known as Neoplatonism that was then popular among Florence’s intellectuals influenced their subject matter. The first, the Birth of Spring, is an allegory that may symbolize the return of learning to Florence under Medicean patronage, although disputes about its precise meaning have continued until modern times. The second, the Birth of Venus, has also been variously interpreted. The graceful Venus may actually represent the figure Humanitas, a patron of learning and the arts. Or as some have argued, she may have been conceived as a kind of talisman that could bring Venus’s favorable influence to the spot where the image was placed, a belief that Neoplatonism helped to encourage among later fifteenth-century intellectuals.


Another kind of secular art—the portrait—also grew in importance throughout the fifteenth century. The first portraits appeared in religious paintings, as prominent patrons often paid artists to insert themselves into the religious subjects they painted. This practice persisted throughout the Renaissance. The late fifteenth-century Florentine painter Botticelli, for example, used it in his famous painting of the Adoration of the Magi. Here he painted the images of prominent members of the Medici family and citizens of Florence into the story of the wisemen’s worship of the infant Christ. Even as this custom persisted, Renaissance patrons demanded independent pictures and sculptures of themselves from the era’s artists. The earliest independent portrait paintings, commissioned in the mid-fifteenth century, were often stiff and bore resemblance to antique portrait busts. Usually painters showed their subjects in profile view. Family members sometimes commissioned these portraits to commemorate a family member who was already dead, or who was of considerable age at the time. One of the oldest surviving portraits from the early fifteenth century—a picture of the Florentine gentleman Matteo Olivieri—depicted the subject as a young man, even though he was at the time of very advanced years. Portrait paintings like these were intended to preserve a positive memory of the subject after death. Over time, portraiture grew more imaginative and portraits fulfilled a broader variety of functions. Around 1480, the successful Florentine artist Domenico Ghirlandaio painted a more realistic portrait known as An Old Man and a Young Boy (now in the Louvre, Paris). The painting shows the elderly man, probably the boy’s grandfather, sick and diseased with a growth on his forehead. Nevertheless, the senior stares tenderly into the eyes of the youth. Like earlier portraits, this picture may have been based upon a deathbed drawing of the old man, but Ghirlandaio and his patrons no longer found it necessary to give the old man eternal youth. Instead the artist depicted the man as he really was in his final days, while endowing the man with an inner strength and gentleness that makes the viewer look past his deformity. In the background a river landscape adds visual interest to the picture, a symbol suggesting the passage of time. Landscape backgrounds like these were becoming increasingly important in portraits at the time. Around 1500 Leonardo da Vinci developed the use of landscape to a high degree of sophistication. At the same time da Vinci perfected the portrait as a vehicle that expressed something about the subject’s own individual nature. The artist worked in an environment in which portraits were coming to play ever more roles in elite society. These paintings were now important tools of noble and princely matchmaking. Ambassadors charged with conducting marriage negotiations usually carried with them small portraits or painted miniatures of the princes and princesses on whose behalf they acted.

Rising Status of the Artist

During the course of the fifteenth century the innovations that occurred in painting and sculpture in the Italian Renaissance city-states helped to confer a greater status upon artists than previously. While still considered mostly craftsmen throughout Europe, the presence of a humanist-sponsored artistic culture in Florence and other Italian Renaissance cities endowed artists with a new, more vital position in urban society. Humanist-trained intellectuals like Leon Battista Alberti mingled with artists, practiced architecture, sculpture, and painting themselves, and wrote theoretical treatises about the arts that helped elevate their status. Artists, too, mixed in the circles that surrounded great patron families like the Medici. By the end of the fifteenth century artists were not yet considered the equals of scholars and poets, but their position had risen in society. At this time Leonardo da Vinci stressed in his Notebooks the superiority of his knowledge as a painter because it came from experience rather than books. These claims were unthinkable without the steady rise in the artist’s status that had occurred during the fifteenth century. During the sixteenth century this trend in Italy continued, particularly as a result of the careers of towering figures like Leonardo, Michelangelo Buonarroti, and Raphael Sanzio.

The Early Renaissance in Northern Europe

Dynastic Connections

In Northern Europe, the Renaissance, with its emphasis on literary studies and the revival of classical Antiquity, made few inroads before the late fifteenth century. Although the literary works of Petrarch, Boccaccio, and other humanists penetrated beyond Italy’s borders, there were only few and scattered attempts to imitate the urbane Latin style championed by the early Renaissance humanists in Northern Europe. In the world of architecture Northern Europeans similarly continued to build on the medieval Gothic style during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, only hastily adopting the classicism typical of Italian Renaissance architecture in the sixteenth century. The history of the visual arts, by contrast, presents a different picture than other areas of cultural achievement. Although there were few attempts to adopt the classical proportions and ancient trappings that became important in Italian Renaissance painting and sculpture, a new naturalism nevertheless became evident in the art of fourteenth-century Northern Europe. This naturalism first found expression in the art of the French painter Jean Pucelle (active between 1320 and 1350) and the circle that surrounded him in Paris, before spreading to other parts of Northern Europe. It was in the opulent court of the Duchy of Burgundy that naturalism took root to produce its greatest artistic achievements. This curious state had been formed over the previous centuries through a series of marriage alliances, inheritances, and gifts. In 1363, the Duchy’s ruling family died out, and because of feudal claims, the territory became the possession of the king of France, who bestowed it upon his youngest son, Philip the Bold. Within a short time Philip succeeded in extending Burgundy’s territories to include all of Flanders (modern Belgium), most of Holland, and large parts of eastern France. By 1400, his territory rivaled and now threatened France. Philip chose Dijon to become the center of his state, and the duke called many artists there to create rich trappings for his court. At the same time Philip the Bold’s brother, John of Berry, established a similarly opulent court in central France. Both Philip the Bold and John of Berry found their artistic masters not in France but in the Low Countries (modern Belgium and Holland), as leadership in innovation in the visual arts passed to this region in the late fourteenth century. During the following century Philip the Bold’s grandson, Philip the Good, continued the tradition of Burgundian artistic patronage. He reigned in Burgundy from 1419 until 1467, and in 1430, transferred the capital of his domain to Brussels. The city now became home to the most luxurious court in Europe. The development of the Low Countries’ wealthy trading cities—Bruges, Ghent, and Antwerp—supported the brilliant spectacle of Burgundian court life. In these cities, too, a rich market in art, comparable to that which was developing in Renaissance Italy, also appeared under the patronage of nobles and wealthy merchants. In painting, a vivid realism and the use of rich oil colors were two distinctive attributes of the early Renaissance in the Low Countries. But while painting matured in the Burgundian Low Countries, the fate of the Duchy of Burgundy itself darkened. In 1477 the death of Philip the Good’s son and successor Charles the Bold in battle against France resulted in the carving up of the once great duchy, its possessions within France reverting to the French crown while those in the Low Countries became the property of the Hapsburg dynasty. In the Netherlands, however, the artistic marketplace that had developed during the fifteenth century survived into the sixteenth century, and Low Countries masters continued to rival their Italian counterparts in productivity and inventiveness.

Jean Pucelle

Among the first artists in Northern Europe to be aware of the artistic innovations occurring in Italy was Jean Pucelle, who was active between the 1320s and around 1350. Little is known about Pucelle’s life, although for a time his large studio dominated artistic life in and around the city of Paris. Pucelle was a manuscript illuminator who enjoyed the patronage of the French crown. As a result, he commanded high prices for his works. The illustrations that he created for manuscripts show that he had probably traveled extensively when still young in Italy and the Low Countries. In the works he completed between 1320 and about 1350, Pucelle joined the spatial sense of Italian painters like Giotto and Duccio to the rich colorism that was typical of the art of the Netherlands. He moved to enclose his human subjects within a stage-like frame, in the same manner as Giotto and Duccio had done before him. In this way he suggested the three-dimensionality of space in his works. At the same time many conservative elements persisted in the works of Pucelle and his studio, and painters in Paris were not quick to imitate Pucelle’s colorism or his naturalism in the second half of the fourteenth century. The dominant style, often referred to as the International Style, remained popular in France and in many Northern European courts as well. In contrast to the naturalism and spatial experiments of figures like Pucelle, International Style artists produced works in a stylized and elegant fashion, with flowing movements of drapery and a rich symbolic imagery. Contacts between France and Italy continued throughout the second half of the fourteenth century, though, as Italian masters visited French cathedrals and witnessed the majesty of the country’s Gothic architecture firsthand. Italian artists, too, worked at the papal court in Avignon. The truly revolutionary developments in Northern Renaissance art, however, did not come from imitation of Italian examples, but from native developments in style that were occurring among artists in the Low Countries.

Claus Sluter

One of these revolutionary figures was the sculptor Claus Sluter, who was active between 1380 and about 1405. Sluter was from the Netherlands, a native of the Dutch city Haarlem near Amsterdam. Around 1385, Sluter immigrated to Dijon, capital of the rich Duchy of Burgundy, where he became an assistant sculptor at a monastery that Philip the Bold was constructing outside the city. Another Netherlandish sculptor, Jean de Marville, had already planned many of the sculptural works at this site, the Chartreuse de Champmol, and Sluter merely executed those plans. Between 1395 and 1403, Sluter carved his own masterpiece The Well of Moses, a large sculptural fountain that originally culminated in a gigantic crucifix. In comparison to the sculptural conventions common in Northern Europe at the time, Sluter’s Wellwas a truly revolutionary work. In it, the artist gave primacy to the human form, and carved the figures that adorned the well in a dramatic, natural style. Sluter dispensed with the Gothic canopies that had long been used to encase Northern European sculptures, and instead presented his creations as lifelike individuals projecting out from the sculptural plane on which he carved them. His work also showed that he was a thoughtful and observant student both of human nature and the effects of time. His figures display a variety of psychological states, even as Sluter carved into their faces the wrinkles produced by time.


In the years that Claus Sluter was at work at Dijon’s Chartreuse de Champmol, the city emerged as one of the great centers of Northern European art. In 1384, Duke Philip the Bold had expanded his Burgundian territories to include wealthy Flanders (most of modern Belgium) and then used his increased revenues from the large and prosperous towns of this region to decorate his new capital at Dijon. The monastery Chartreuse de Champmol was a chief beneficiary of Philip’s largesse, as the duke used the site to display his new wealth. One of the undeniable masterpieces created at the Chartreuse at this time was the altarpiece of the Annunciation and Visitation by Melchior Broederlam. The artist was a native of Ypres (now in modern Belgium) and he painted the work around 1400. Like other Flemish artists of the period, Broederlam favored a realistic attitude toward nature, rather than the stylized grace that was common among French artists at the time. His work on the altarpiece of the Annunciation and Visitation also displays influences from fourteenth-century Italian art, particularly in its use of the craggy rock shapes that dot the landscape backgrounds. These seem to be drawn from firsthand knowledge of Giotto and his follower Duccio. Other works by Broederlam have never come to light, and his masterpiece did not produce any immediate change in the patterns of painting at Dijon or elsewhere in France. A decade or so after its completion, several works seemed to draw influences from Broederlam’s famous altarpiece, but the artist’s work represents largely a dead end in the history of Northern European art.

The Limbourg Brothers

The creative impulses that were at work in the Burgundian court of Philip the Bold around 1400 were soon to be matched in the court of Philip’s brother, John, the Duke of Berry. Around 1400, the duke engaged the services of the Limbourg brothers, Paul, Herman, and John. Natives of the city of Nijmegen in modern Holland, all three brothers died before they were barely thirty years old. In their short lives they managed to complete some of the most brilliant manuscript illuminations in European history. One of the earliest works that survive from the brothers’ hand is a Bible from around 1410. In this work the Limbourg brothers sketched their illustrations and then used washes of color to define the characters in these drawings. Over the next few years, however, their technique was perfected, while their style and sense of color deepened. The late perfection of their work can be seen in the Très Riches Heures or Very Rich Hours manuscript undertaken for the Duke of Berry after 1413. The Very Rich Hours was a book of hours, a collection of prayers prescribed to be said at certain times of the day and throughout the year. During the fifteenth century the popularity of praying the hours, a custom originally adopted from monks and nuns, became increasingly widespread among lay people. A great range in quality of books of hours existed at the time, but those created for the nobility often included rich ornamentation and evocative visual images meant to enhance their user’s piety and enjoyment. The Duke of Berry’s Very Rich Hours ranks among the most beautiful of all the works of this kind that survive. In it, the Limbourg brothers gave a primary place to the monthly calendars that outlined the prayers. The illustrations the Limbourg brothers completed for these calendars richly catalogued the life of the Duke of Berry’s court and of peasants on his estates. Like other Netherlandish painters the Limbourgs relied upon the realism that was the trademark of their countrymen’s art as well as a brilliant sense of color. While these works influenced other masters at work in and around the Duke of Berry’s court, they did not produce a complete shift in the patterns of painting favored in France. The taste for stylized elegance and iconographical symbols that had long been favored by French painters persisted after these artists’ untimely deaths, which may have occurred in the same epidemic that killed their patron, the Duke of Berry, in 1416. The Very Rich Hours was left tragically unfinished and was never used by the Duke of Berry who had commissioned it.

Panel Painting

Illuminated manuscripts like the Very Rich Hours were consumed only by aristocratic patrons and those with whom their owners shared a glimpse of their rich works. By contrast, altarpiece paintings were public monuments, displayed in the open spaces of churches where people of all ages and social classes could view them. The fifteenth-century Netherlands witnessed a dramatic increase in the production of altarpieces. Their numbers grew from the 1420s, so that by the end of the century thousands of churches throughout the region possessed panel paintings treating religious themes. Many of these works were of middling quality, but some rose to the level of high art. During the fifteenth century the Netherlands produced several generations of artists who painted altarpiece paintings of rare quality. These works were executed using the new technique of oil painting, a medium that Netherlandish artists did not create, but perfected for novel use in their altarpieces. Most everywhere else in fifteenth-century Europe, artists relied on tempera painting. In this medium pigments were suspended in a mixture of egg yolk and water. Since the pigments could be easily dissolved with water, artists relied on varnishes to protect their colors from moisture. But in order for tempera colors to stand up to the effect of these varnishes, artists had to use brilliant, gem-like tones. Oil painting, by contrast, offered artists a greater range and depth of color. To create oil colors, artists in the Netherlands perfected a technique that suspended their pigments in hard resins that were then diluted with oil. On the panels he painted, the artist first applied a rough coat of gesso, a plaster-like substance, over which he drew a sketch of the work to be painted. Then he applied oil paints over this sketch. To enhance the paintings, the artist painted glazes over the work. These glazes were a mixture of oil, turpentine, and colors and they gave the painting a luminous effect. Finally, the artist also applied varnishes that were mixed again with colors to protect the work. In this way the painted surface took on an almost magical ability to refract light, thus conveying a broader range and depth of color than possible in the tempera medium.


Mystery often shrouds the lives and careers of the earliest panel painters from the Low Countries (modern Holland and Belgium). Such is the case with Robert Campin (c. 1378-1444), a figure who is believed to have taught the accomplished Flemish artist Rogier van der Weyden, and who is now often credited with having painted many works long attributed to the so-called “Master of Flémalle.” Great disagreement rages over the precise works that Campin painted, and some scholars have even attributed many of these to the young Rogier van der Weyden. Still documentary evidence establishes Campin’s existence and further proves that this artist enjoyed a reputation in the early fifteenth century as the most accomplished master of the city of Tournai (now in Belgium). Other details about the painter’s life are sketchy. From what can be established, it is obvious that Campin’s works made a definitive break with the traditional style of International Gothic painting favored throughout Europe around 1400. International Gothic was particularly popular in the courts of Northern Europe. It was decorative and elegant, with its intricate visual rhythms gently shaped by the flowing and folding lines of the draperies, clothing, and other matter that artists placed in their compositions. By contrast, Robert Campin and his followers broke from these traditions to create a native kind of Netherlandish painting. In place of the stylized elegance favored by International Gothic artists, Campin, Rogier van der Weyden, and Jan van Eyck forged a style notable both for its realism and its use of veiled symbols. This new trend can be seen in a small Nativity Robert Campin painted for a monastery near Dijon, possibly the famous Chartreuse de Champmol. It is also to be seen in the famous Mérode altarpiece long attributed to the Master of Flémalle, but now increasingly thought by experts to be Campin’s work. The Mérode altarpiece is now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum in New York. In this work the artist faithfully catalogued a host of details that appeared to be drawn from everyday life, but which were in reality iconographical signs with religious meaning. One panel of the altarpiece treats the subject of the Annunciation and shows the Virgin sitting before a table on which a vase of lilies are present, a sign of her purity. A smoking candle, a sign of the Incarnation of Christ, lies beside this vase. To the left of the central panel, the donors of the altar-piece kneel in an enclosed garden, a sign of Mary’s virginity. In ways like these Campin packed his works with symbols taken from the realities of everyday life.

Van Eyck

The greatest master of the new Flemish realism was Jan van Eyck (c. 1385-1441). Like Campin, many of the details about van Eyck’s life are sketchy, and many of his works, particularly those completed early in his career, are disputed. According to a sixteenth-century tradition, the painter was born in Maaseyck in northeast modern Belgium. Documentary evidence establishes that he entered the service of John of Bavaria, a count of Holland, sometime after 1422, and that he decorated the count’s palace at The Hague. With the death of John of Bavaria in 1425, he took an honorary appointment in the court of Philip the Good of Burgundy, a position he retained until his death. He traveled to Italy where he most likely observed the revolutionary paintings of Masaccio in Florence and by 1430 he had settled in Bruges where he started to sign and date his works. Van Eyck carried Flemish realism to its highest point of development in both religious and secular paintings. The human subjects and objects that he catalogued appear to be actually real, his observation and recreation of nature being flawless. Like Campin, van Eyck also wed a copious use of veiled symbols to his paintings, as can be seen in one of van Eyck’s most famous works, the Arnolfini Wedding. As a sacrament of the medieval church, the marriage ritual was fraught with religious meaning. Marriage was at the same time the only legitimate avenue for bearing and raising children. In his Arnolfini Wedding van Eyck aimed to present an accurate vision of the real world, even as he included a number of symbols drawn from everyday life to convey both the religious and sexual meanings behind marriage. The painting depicts the union of Giovanni Arnolfini and Jeanne Cenami, both Italians living in Bruges at the time. To signify that this is a wedding portrait, van Eyck shows the couple clasping hands, a traditional symbol of betrothal, while Giovanni Arnolfini raises his right hand, as if making an oath. In the foreground of the picture van Eyck places a scampering dog, the animal a traditional symbol of fidelity, while the off-cast shoes show that the wedding chamber is a holy site. At the windows fruit is ripening, a sign of fertility, while in the chandelier a single candle burns, signifying the nuptial candle that was traditionally the last to be extinguished on a couple’s wedding night. Behind the couple a carved image of St. Margaret, patron saint of childbearing, decorates the back of a chair. The mirror, which van Eyck inserted at the rear of the room, had long been used as a symbol of the Virgin Mary, and around its circular frame the artist painted ten scenes from the passion of Christ. Van Eyck’s mastery of realistic detail is remarkable. In the mirror’s reflection can be seen the backs of the wedding couple and a man who stands before them, a figure that may be Jan van Eyck himself. Van Eyck brought this same realism to other portraits as the genre became more important in the Netherlands during the fifteenth century. His Man in a Red Turban, painted around 1433 and now in the National Gallery in London, was the first painting in which the subject is presented in a frontal pose, that is, looking at the observer. Van Eyck painted his subject, which may be the artist himself, with a calm and controlled gaze, a gaze that nevertheless suggests something of the subject’s individual personality. In this way van Eyck’s portraits anticipate the great achievements that Flemish artists like Rembrandt made in portraiture during the seventeenth century.

Rogier van der Weyden

Painting continued to flourish in the Low Countries after van Eyck’s death in 1441. While no artist matched the brilliance of his realistic mastery of nature, painters of indisputable genius flourished in the region throughout the fifteenth century. Rogier van der Weyden (c. 1400-1464) was the greatest artist of the generation that followed in van Eyck’s footsteps. In place of the earlier artist’s placid emphasis on light and color, van der Weyden’s religious panel paintings were altogether more emotional and tempestuous. In his early career the artist abandoned the realistic landscapes and surroundings popular with other Netherlandish artists. At the same time he nevertheless continued to paint his human subjects realistically. Van der Weyden lit his works with a brilliant, sometimes harsh light that threw his subjects’ wrinkles and flaws into greater relief. The artist’s tendency to develop a dramatic and intense art increased throughout his career, and his works grew more monumental following a visit to Italy during the Jubilee year of 1450. From the Italians, too, van der Weyden drew inspiration for the lyrical landscapes he used in his later works. In these paintings, the human form seems to dominate the landscape in the same way that was common among Italian artists of the time.

Second Generation

A spirit gentler than Rogier’s pervades the art of the two greatest Netherlandish painters, Dirc Bouts (c. 1415-1475) and Hugo van der Goes (c. 1440-1482) of the second half of the fifteenth century. Both artists continued in the traditions of Flemish realism established by Campin, van Eyck, and van der Weyden. Bouts achieved great notoriety as a portrait painter in the city of Louvain near Brussels. While he painted his early religious works very much in the style of Rogier van der Weyden, Bouts eventually developed his own idiom. This style was less dramatic and more emotionally impassive than Rogier. It has been described as almost primitively naïve. After his death, his sons carried on his workshop, keeping alive his style until the end of the century. Hugo van der Goes, who settled in Ghent, has often been described as the greatest Netherlandish painter of the second half of the century. Little is known about the artist’s early life. At 27 he became a member of Ghent’s painters’ guild, eventually rising to become an official in that organization. The number of van der Goes’ works is comparatively small—owing, it seems, to the artist’s periodic bouts with depression and his short life. In addition, van der Goes did not sign his works and so it has often been difficult to establish the authenticity of many paintings long attributed to him. One undisputed masterpiece which can be securely fixed as Hugo’s own is the famous Portinari Altarpiece, now in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Tomasso Portinari, an Italian merchant, commissioned this painting for the Church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. The painting exercised an important influence among Italian artists, who were inspired by the artist’s subtle mastery of the oil painting technique. In the Portinari Altarpiece, van der Goes also handled the painting’s subject, the adoration of the shepherds at the birth of Christ, with a fine discrimination of psychological detail.


In the second half of the fifteenth century the once great port of Bruges in Flanders entered a period of economic decline. Once the greatest trading center of the Low Countries, the town’s river, the Zwin, began to silt up the city’s excellent harbor. Few signs of the decline that eventually gripped Bruges, however, are evident in the sumptuous art of Hans Memlinc, the city’s greatest late fifteenth-century painter. Memlinc combined influences from all the great Flemish painters of the century, including the compositional style of Jan van Eyck and the luxurious details typical of the works of Hugo van der Goes and Dirc Bouts. The greatest influence upon Memlinc, however, seems to have been Rogier van der Weyden, as he modeled many of his human figures and compositions on those of this earlier accomplished artist. Memlinc had a prolific career, painting mostly for Bruges’ wealthy religious houses. His many works, which still can be seen in the city today, exhibit a narrative charm and beauty that few artists of the period achieved. Also a superb technical craftsman, Memlinc completed a reliquary in 1489, the Shrine of St. Ursula, that was less than three-feet high. Despite this diminutive scale, the artist decorated this casket with a series of paintings that are noteworthy for their astonishing detail, successful decoration, and narrative unity.

Hieronymus Bosch

The fifteenth century was an age of extraordinary achievement in Netherlandish painting. Fueled by the commercial wealth of the region’s cities, the artists of Flanders explored issues of light, space, and color to depict the human form and the landscape in ways that were strikingly realistic. They developed a keen sense of iconography, subtly veiling the use of symbols in their works. A craftsman’s precision also characterized the many altarpieces, religious paintings, and portraits they produced. While this lineage of distinguished artists learned from each other, they each displayed an individual temperament in their works that differed subtly from one another. As the fifteenth century came to a close in the Netherlands, Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450-1516) painted a series of fantastic works that were noteworthy both for their striking originality and individuality of expression. Little is known about this mysterious figure, and tracking the course of his development as an artist is difficult because, of the many works attributed to him, only seven are signed. Bosch was apparently born and worked mostly in the southern Dutch town of ‘s-Hertogenbosch. Both his father and grandfather appeared to have been painters. If the chronologies that have been constructed of Bosch’s works are correct, his earliest paintings were awkward in design and execution. Over time, however, he showed a growing certainty of technique and an increasingly complex iconography. As Bosch’s career developed, he created works that gave expression to his own inexhaustible imagination.

Garden of Earthly Delights

This fertile personal vision is most evident in the artist’s mature paintings like the triptych, The Garden of Delights, apparently completed sometime between 1505 and 1510. The subject of this three-fold panel painting is a moralistic sermon on the Garden of Eden and the Fall of Man. In the first panel on the left, God appears to Adam and Eve to present them with the garden, a place which the artist populates with a broad array of animal life, some of it only dimly known to Europeans around 1500. He includes images of giraffes, elephants, and countless species of unusual birds. Not all is bliss in this paradise, however, as Bosch suggests the forces that will render the Fall inevitable: a serpent winds itself around a tree, while a cat captures a mouse for its dinner. In the center panel, Bosch depicts the state of humankind after the expulsion from Eden’s paradise. In it, the human race has come to follow Satan, who will lead them to the perdition that waits in the final panel, a vivid pictorial description of Hell. In both works, Bosch presents the human form as pale and weak, that is, as incapable of stemming the tide of lust to which it has fallen prey. The singularity of the artist’s imagery still manages to amaze viewers five centuries after its creation. In the center panel treating the state of fallen humankind, Bosch sets the images in a landscape with rocky outcroppings and a lake. In the center of the lake a huge egg-like structure appears as a kind of monster from which dolphin-like creatures appear to sprout. Throughout the rest of the panel Bosch presents thinly veiled erotic imagery. His humans frolic, ride livestock, emerge from egg-like structures, and caress strawberries and other fruits, each activity a play on phrases used in many European languages to connote sexual intercourse. In the final panel, Bosch concludes this sermon on the consequences of erotic attraction: his inferno is a place of mechanical precision lit only by the firelight that serves to punish humankind. The artist does not include a traditional picture of Satan as a beguiling or fearsome demon, but instead shows him as a monstrous being, his body again a broken egg out of which and into human beings crawl like wretched rats. Bosch may have intended the Garden of Delights to condemn human sexuality, eroticism, and luxury as the vices that brought damnation. His audiences over the past centuries, however, have more often come to enjoy, and even be titillated by the fertility and seductiveness of his imagination. In the final years of the artist’s life, Bosch’s development as an artist continued. In place of distanced erotic visions set in meadows or hellish visions set in dimly lit infernos, the artist presented his human figures in close-up position, as in his Christ Carrying the Cross, a work completed shortly before Bosch’s death in 1516. Still here Bosch returned to the same themes he had moralized about throughout his career: the battle between good and evil. He presented Christ as the archetype of good, surrounded by tightly packed human figures with ghoulish faces.

Painting in Early Fifteenth-Century Germany

The realism developed by Netherlandish artists affected painting produced elsewhere in Europe in the fifteenth century. While artists of great individuality were common in the Netherlands throughout the entire fifteenth century, the early fifteenth century in Germany produced few masters with such fertile imagination and pictorial skill. There were, however, several exceptions. At Cologne, Stefan Lochner (c. 1415-c. 1451) produced a number of charming works, which, although they adopted some of the compositional innovations of Netherlandish art, remained wedded to many medieval conventions. Lochner had learned these techniques, apparently firsthand from Robert Campin. In his Presentation in the Temple, completed around 1447, the artist relied on the perspective techniques perfected by Netherlandish artists. But while he set his work within a seemingly three-dimensional space signified by the work’s floor, he did not make use of the interior spaces or landscapes common to the Netherlandish art of the time. Instead Lochner painted the background of his work in goldleaf, a medieval technique meant to suggest the glories of Heaven. He also adopted the medieval practice of relying upon several different sets of proportions in his work so that its most important figures appeared far larger than less important ones. Lochner was an artist of great charm. The Presentation includes a small procession of choir boys who are arranged according to their size and who are led by the youngest and seemingly most endearing figure of the artist’s imagination. By contrast, Konrad Witz (c. 1400-c. 1445) was born in the German southwest but eventually moved to Basel in Switzerland, and probably died there after a relatively short, but prosperous career as a painter in the city. Witz dealt with perspectival problems in his paintings, developing techniques for rendering both interior and exterior spaces so that they appeared to be real. In this regard he was not always successful, but his attempts show the curiosity common among fifteenth-century artists with mastering space and the depiction of the natural world. One of the artist’s most successful works, the Miraculous Draught of Fish, is a painting that relates a fishing miracle performed by Christ and recorded in the Gospel of Luke. Witz set this narrative within a glorious subalpine landscape and played the red tones of Christ and the apostles’ robes off against rich greens in the surrounding landscape. Despite his short life, Witz seems to have had a prolific career. Unfortunately, sixteenth-century Protestants destroyed many of his works in their staged attacks of iconoclasm on Basel’s churches during the Reformation.

Later Fifteenth-Century Germany

A greater freedom from Netherlandish models began to appear in certain German centers in the second half of the fifteenth century. The artist Michael Pacher (c. 1435-1498), a native of Bruneck in Tyrol (then, as now, in Austria), was one figure who exemplified this new originality in German art. Pacher was a wood sculptor who carved in the notoriously difficult medium of limewood. Limewood was a species of the linden tree known for its great hardness. His limewood altarpieces were similar in many respects to those of the great German late Gothic sculptors Tilman Riemenschneider (c. 1455-1531) and Veit Stoss (c. 1455-1533). All three men carved numerous wood altarpieces across southern Germany and Central Europe in the late fifteenth century, and Riemenschneider and Stoss continued this tradition after Pacher’s death. The figures in a typical limewood altarpiece were carved as separate sculptures and then were placed within a kind of stage-like box. Perhaps because of his background in this kind of sculpture, Michael Pacher experimented with problems of perspective in his paintings. While he continued to make use of northern techniques of realism, Pacher traveled to Italy, visiting Padua and Venice. In Italy, he became a close associate of Andrea Mantegna, an artist who was also interested in problems of perspective. He applied the lessons that he learned in Italy in his subsequent works, but perhaps nowhere more brilliantly than in his Pope Sixtus II Taking Leave of Saint Lawrence, a panel from an altarpiece painted in the 1460s. In this work, Pacher’s perspective, solid human forms, and even the flows of drapery seem to be very much influenced by his Italian associate Mantegna. At the same time he handles the play of light and color in his works in much the same way as other Northern European artists influenced by Netherlandish examples.


Copper engraving was one area in which German artists excelled in the second half of the fifteenth century. Artists elsewhere in Europe practiced engraving at this time, but it was in Germany that this particular art form reached its high point of development during the Renaissance. In the second half of the fifteenth century Martin Schongauer (c. 1450-1491) helped to lay the foundations for these later achievements. Schongauer developed techniques upon which sixteenth-century engravers like Albrecht Dürer relied. The artist was born and practiced in Colmar in Alsace (a predominantly German-speaking region now in France). He was an accomplished painter whose works were within the traditions of Netherlandish realism and were heavily influenced by Rogier van der Weyden. As an engraver, however, Schongauer excelled. He relied on hatching, stippling, and all sorts of techniques to produce a subtle range of coloration and detailing in his printed works.

Painting in France

The first half of the fifteenth century was a time of crisis in France, as the Hundred Years’ War moved to its conclusion. The French monarchy, badly bruised by these conflicts, also faced challenges to the east from its powerful cousins, the Dukes of Burgundy. Since much art was produced in Northern Europe within the confines of royal and noble courts, France’s international problems had a dampening effect on artistic patronage in the first half of the fifteenth century. Nevertheless, the country still produced artists of sensitivity and some sophistication, but styles of painting differed enormously throughout the country. The International Gothic, with its stylized, swaying draperies, continued to be popular in many parts of France throughout the fifteenth century, while in the north of the country the examples of Flemish and Dutch artists created a preference for the realism and coloristic techniques of Netherlandish artists. Elsewhere other native traditions flourished. If France did not experience the kind of artistic Renaissance that the Low Countries did during the fifteenth century, the country still produced a number of artists of merit. The greatest of the country’s fifteenth-century painters was Jean Fouquet (c. 1420-c. 1481), a native of the central French city of Tours. Fouquet worked for Charles VII, the king whose throne had been saved by the visionary Joan of Arc. While undertaking commissions for religious panel paintings, Fouquet also continued to practice the art of manuscript illumination, a medium that had been abandoned by the foremost painters of Italy and the Netherlands by this time. During the 1450s he completed a set of sixty brilliant miniatures for a Book of Hours for the king’s finance minister, Etienne Chevalier, a patron whom he had already immortalized in a portrait included in a panel painting now known as the Melun Diptych. Fouquet was unusual among French artists because he had traveled to Italy, where he likely derived some inspiration from Fra Angelico and other Florentine artists. In general, though, his painting remained true to native French traditions. Late in life, the French monarchy awarded Fouquet the title of “Royal Painter,” but the evidence suggests that he had long been the leading painter at court before the conferring of this title. In the southern French region of Provence, Duke René of Anjou supported a brilliant court in the city of Aix that produced several accomplished artists. These included the unknown master who painted the Annunciation of Aix sometime around 1445. This “Master of the Annunciation of Aix,” as he has come to be known, drew inspiration from the works of Jan van Eyck, although his realism and his use of color and of light and shade are not as sophisticated as that of contemporary Netherlandish artists. At the same time his works show a great simplicity and forcefulness of expression. The greatest panel painter at work in southern France in the fifteenth century was Enguerrand Quarton or Charonton (c. 1410-1466). This artist worked in and around the city of Avignon, producing a celebrated Pietà around 1460 that is noteworthy for its somber and haunting qualities. At the same time Quarton could also be an exuberant artist, as in the Coronation of the Virginhe completed for a hospital in Avignon. The stipulations of this work’s contracts survive and show that the prior of the hospital heavily defined its appearance. He required Quarton to use a number of medieval stylistic traits, including a gold background and differing scales for the various subjects depicted in the work. The resulting project, though, rises to the level of great art because of its stunning detail and use of color.

Toward the Future

The chief development in Northern European art in the fifteenth century had been centered in the cities of Flanders. These had begun with the attempts of Robert Campin and his followers to represent the world realistically. In the art of Jan van Eyck and his followers a Flemish tradition of painting developed that rejected the stylized grace and overt iconographical symbols once common among the Gothic painters of the fourteenth century. In place of these older artistic canons, Flemish artists advocated a use of veiled symbols, so that the deeper religious icons of their paintings appeared as the objects of everyday life. These insights had imitators in many places in Northern Europe, although in some centers the traditions of the International Gothic survived throughout the century. By 1500, new artists and new artistic centers challenged the dominance of the Netherlandish style, and made way for a more widespread Renaissance in Northern European art.

The High Renaissance in Italy


At the end of the fifteenth century most of the goals toward which Italian painters and sculptors had long been striving had been achieved. As a result, Italian artists produced works that represented nature and the human form more faithfully than in previous centuries. In painting, the lineage of accomplishments from the time of Cimabue and Giotto to Masaccio had established techniques for rendering space in ways that appeared three-dimensional. And in Florence and elsewhere throughout Italy fifteenth-century artists had continued to master the techniques of chiaroscuro (the painting of light and shade that gave solidity and weight to pictures) and sfumato (the rendering of atmosphere). In sculpture, the fifteenth century had been one of undeniable achievement, from Ghiberti’s doors of the Baptistery at Florence to the bronze and stone carvings of Donatello, Lucca della Robbia, and others. The early Renaissance had also witnessed a revival of knowledge about the art of classical Antiquity, as Brunelleschi, Alberti, and others had studied and begun to apply the proportions and conventions of ancient Roman art. Now at the end of the fifteenth century the results of this research and of the techniques generations of artists had perfected gave rise to a great flowering of art known as the High Renaissance. This period, which lasted until about 1520, was a brief, but undeniably profound period of artistic achievement. Three great artistic geniuses dominated the style of the High Renaissance: Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo Buonarroti, and Raphael Sanzio. Each earned recognition during his lifetime as an enormously gifted creator, whose works were sought after by kings, princes, and popes. As a result of the achievements of the period, the status of the artist continued to rise in Italian society, and the ability to create art came to be seen among intellectuals as a divinely inspired attribute. The High Renaissance in art coincided with the popularity of Neoplatonic philosophy in Florence, Rome, and the other humanist centers throughout Italy. Neoplatonism taught that creativity was a sign of humankind’s creation in God’s likeness. The Neoplatonic philosophers Marsilio Ficino and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola originally identified this spark of divine creativity with literary achievements, particularly with poetry. But the artists of the High Renaissance came to be influenced by these ideas. Michelangelo, a student of Neoplatonism in his youth, was particularly quick to point to his achievements in sculpture and painting as the products of divine inspiration. Many patrons agreed, and the notion of the artist as a figure filled with an almost superhuman ability to create became one of the underlying themes of the age.

Political Disunity

The High Renaissance, the period of Italy’s greatest artistic achievement and productivity, coincided with tensions on the peninsula’s political scene. During the course of the fifteenth century despots dominated many of Italy’s small states, while the larger powers in the peninsula conquered many smaller territories. By 1500, five great powers—Milan, Florence, the papacy, Venice, and Naples—overshadowed the smaller territories throughout Italy. Constantly shifting alliances and treacherous diplomatic dealings became the rule between these great states, none of which was powerful enough to subdue the others. This lack of political unity, as well as diplomatic treachery, left open the door for outside invasion. In 1494, France became the first major European power to seek conquests in Italy, and this French invasion touched off a long series of conflicts that became known as the Italian Wars (1494-1530). Eventually every major European power became involved in these wars, as European dynasties tried to press ancient feudal claims to rule parts of Italy. Thus Italy’s period of greatest cultural achievement occurred simultaneously with a dismal period of warfare.

Leonardo da Vinci

Born the earliest of the three giants, Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was a remarkable and unusual man. Unlike other artists of the time, da Vinci completely rejected ancient Roman models for his art and instead painted in a natural style. He was born the son of a notary and a peasant woman. Eventually, his father built a prosperous career, and in his youth da Vinci became an apprentice to the Florentine artist Verrocchio. He earned early recognition as a painter, but da Vinci’s restless genius led him to practice sculpture, architecture, in addition to his studies in mechanics and design. While none of the artist’s buildings was ever constructed, he was widely recognized as a master of invention and problem solving. The lifelong Notebooks that he kept included designs for an amazing number of machines, including an early vision of the helicopter. At times da Vinci worked as a military engineer, designing battlements and siege machines for his clients, which included the despot Cesare Borgia, the dukes of Milan, and the Republic of Florence. Although he was a man of little formal schooling, da Vinci embodied the Renaissance concept of the “universal man.” Besides these many achievements, the artist also wrote music, experimented in physics, and was a student of botany, geography, optics, anatomy, and geology.

Early Works

After completing his training in Florence, da Vinci’s first independent commission seems to have been the Adoration of the Magi, a composition undertaken for a monastery for Florence. This work, like many of Leonardo’s, was left unfinished when the artist left for Milan two years later, but it shows a highly adventurous use of organizational techniques. In the foreground of the panel the Virgin and three kings worship the Christ child, while around them a great circular group of onlookers forms an arch in the background. In this, the first of his mature masterpieces, Leonardo displays his fascination with facial expressions and with balance and harmony. In 1483, the artist traveled to Milan to paint his Virgin of the Rocks for a local confraternity, a work long admired for the sweetness of expression on its subjects’ faces. It shows the Virgin Mary raising her hand to protect the Christ child, who confers a blessing on the kneeling figure of the infant John the Baptist. An angel, otherworldly in its extreme beauty, points to John the Baptist. The entire drama appears before a mysterious crag-filled landscape that is illuminated by two different sources of light, one in the distance and another that throws an ethereal glimmer upon the faces of the subjects in the foreground. While at work in Milan, Leonardo offered his services to Lodovico Sforza, a despot who had recently seized control of the Duchy of Milan. Sforza sat at the head of a cultivated court, and da Vinci fulfilled many roles within the ducal household. He decorated the Sforza apartments, provided stage sets and costumes for many theatrical productions, and painted portraits of members of the court. During this period the artist completed a number of his most famous portraits, including the Portrait of a Lady with an Ermine, the Portrait of a Musician, and the Portrait of a Woman in Profile. The largest and most important project of these years in Milan, though, was his Last Supper, a commission undertaken for the refectory or dining hall of the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie. Leonardo da Vinci’s plan for the picture was innovative. He divided the group of twelve disciples into four groups of three and through the eyes of these characters and their subtle gestures and facial expressions he endowed these actors with a kind of superhuman grandeur. Through a skillful use of perspective, too, the artist expanded the space of the refectory illusionistically so that the room appeared to be much larger. Da Vinci’s Last Supper set a new idealized standard for artists hoping to visualize religious themes. Sadly, the artist also experimented with the use of a new technique of painting and the work began to decay almost as soon as it was finished. Over the centuries it has been badly treated as well at the hands of restorers. Still some of the work’s grace and beauty has survived over the years. The invasion of Milan at the hands of the French and the expulsion of Lodovico Sforza, however, cut Leonardo’s time in the city short, and in 1499 the artist fled first to Venice and later returned to Florence.

Florence and Later Years

Upon his return to the city where he had been trained, da Vinci was offered a number of commissions, although at first he completed only studies for these projects. In 1502, the notorious general and despot Cesare Borgia, illegitimate son of Pope Alexander VI, offered Leonardo employment as an architect and engineer. At the request of his patron da Vinci traveled through central Italy, making plans for siege engines, model cities, and battlements. He returned to Florence in 1503, and received a commission to paint a fresco for the Chamber of the Republic, a meeting room in Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio or town hall. The subject was the Battle of Anghiara, a fifteenth-century Florentine military triumph. Again Leonardo relied on experimental methods, and the commission had to be abandoned prior to its completion. Around this time the artist also painted his most famous work, the Mona Lisa, a portrait of the wife of a wealthy Florentine. As a portraitist, da Vinci produced notable works. In contrast to the rigid profile portraits of many fifteenth-century artists, da Vinci painted his subjects in relaxed positions. The Mona Lisa sits calmly before a rich and mysterious landscape, one in which the artist has made great use of the technique of sfumato or atmospheric painting. The Mona Lisa is one of the only surviving later works from da Vinci’s hand. He did not complete most of the painting projects he began in the years after 1508. Two notable exceptions were the artist’s Saint John the Baptist, which da Vinci completed during his second residency in Milan between 1508 and 1513, and his Virgin and Child with Saint Anne, a work begun in 1508, but not finished until many years later when the artist was in Rome. In these later years Leonardo devoted himself to scientific studies rather than to painting, the record of which are to be found in his voluminous Notebooks. In 1516, King Francis I invited him to France to work at the French court. He received a country château and a wide range of projects to complete, including set designs for courtly theatrical productions and plans for a new royal palace. But like so many of the projects he undertook, this last project was never completed.


Da Vinci was never satisfied with being merely an artistic craftsman. In contrast to the artists of the fifteenth century he presented himself as an individual on an intensely personal quest for self-expression in his art. Even art, though, was an insufficient taskmaster for Leonardo, who followed many professions simultaneously. This is evident in his Notebooks. Leonardo considered himself a painter, and he argued that painting was a science because it proceeded from empirical observation and was based upon the mathematical laws of perspective. At the same time he worked as an engineer, a designer, a writer, a draftsman, builder, anatomist, and contemplative theologian. He was particularly well versed in the arts of war (including the construction of siege machines, defensive battlements, and so forth), and he earned far more from these skills than he did from his art. In his Notebooks Leonardo frequently argues that he is not a learned man in the ways of the humanists or scholastics, but that his experience makes him superior to those who have much book learning. His statements often attack the pretentiousness of scholars. Instead he argues that painters practice skills that are superior to other crafts because they rely upon their eyes and are masters of observation. This aspect of Leonardo’s thought—the value of empirical observation—always shows through in his paintings. He realized that the eyes took in images through a haze produced by dust and humidity in the air, and he relied on sfumato (the painting of filmy atmosphere) to demonstrate this in his work. Da Vinci also painted the horizons in his pictures so that they sloped—recognition that the earth was round. Leonardo often remarked in his writings that mortal beauty was ephemeral. While it faded and disappeared, the artist’s contribution was to make beauty eternal: “A beautiful object that is mortal passes away, but not so with art.” Further, art is a window on the human soul that stirs the senses and provides human beings with a vision of eternal beauty. In contrast to the devotion that scholars evidenced to texts in the Renaissance, da Vinci’s emphasis on observation and experimentation was an innovation. While contemporary humanists advocated literary studies and rhetoric as the best way to establish truth, da Vinci insisted instead that the eyes were the most important arbiters of proof. His attitude was forward looking. It had more in common with the Empiricism of seventeenth-century scientists like Descartes, Bacon, and Newton, than it did with the textual attitudes toward truth that were embraced by fifteenth-century intellectuals.

Michelangelo Buonarroti

The second undisputed genius of the High Renaissance in Italy was Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564). Like Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo also strove to develop himself as a “universal man” of the Renaissance. He was interested in a vast array of fields and became an expert on human anatomy and engineering, besides practicing the arts of painting, sculpture, and architecture. Michelangelo also became a poet whose sonnets are notable for their intensity and beauty of expression. His personality, though, differed strikingly from Leonardo da Vinci. Where Leonardo was passionately interested in nature and rarely discussed God or religious issues in his writings, Michelangelo was intensely religious and received inspiration from a deep sense of his own personal unworthiness and of his sinful nature. In his art Michelangelo often sought to give expression to his search for divine love. Both men left many of their compositions unfinished at their deaths. For Leonardo, his reluctance to finish projects was a by-product of his perfectionism and his realization that his completed compositions rarely matched the ideal beauty of his internal vision. Michelangelo, on the other hand, was driven by a powerful desire to create, and he often neglected his own health and appetites to devote more time to work on his commissions. His patrons frequently moved him from project to project, which prevented him from finishing works he had already begun.

Early Life

Michelangelo was born the son of a minor Florentine official who was stationed at Caprese, a small Tuscan town subject to Florence. When he was only a few months old, Michelangelo returned to Florence with his family following the completion of his father’s term of office. They settled in the small suburb of Settignano, just outside the city, and here Michelangelo learned his first lessons in stone carving when he was just a boy. When he was thirteen, he became an apprentice to the Florentine artist Domenico Ghirlandaio, who ran a large and successful studio. Later he studied sculpture with Bertoldo di Giovanni, a local sculptor who had been a student of the great artist Donatello. Michelangelo never completed the terms of his apprenticeship, but thanks to his father’s good offices he gained entrance to the Medici family circle, where he studied the family’s large collection of ancient sculptures. Within the Medici circle he also became associated with Marsilio Ficino, Angelo Poliziano, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, and other Florentine humanists. At this time Neoplatonism was the intellectual vogue of the city, and during the two years that Michelangelo spent as a member of the Medici household between 1490 and 1492, he received the foundations of a humanist training. Although he never became fluent in Latin, his time with the Medici familiarized him with the major intellectual disputes and issues of the age. He also acquired his love for the verse of Dante and Petrarch, and throughout his life, Michelangelo continued to write sonnets and other verse, despite his punishing load of artistic commissions. The desire for social status and distinction also motivated Michelangelo. Throughout his life he was convinced that his family was descended from an ancient line of Italian nobility. Michelangelo adopted the dress and behavior of a nobleman, and through his artistic successes he tried to enhance his family’s social position.


The artist’s first stunning successes came in the field of sculpture, and throughout his life, Michelangelo felt most at home in this medium. His first masterpiece was the Pietà, an image of the dead Christ resting upon the lap of his mother. Michelangelo created the statue for the French cardinal Jean Villiers during his first period of residence in Rome (1496-1501). Michelangelo carved the Pietà from a single block of marble, and the work was immediately recognized for its extreme delicacy and accomplished technique. In his subsequent sculptures Michelangelo adopted a more powerful and heroic style, as for example in his famous David completed in 1504. For almost a century the Old Testament figure of David had been a symbol of the Republic of Florence. The imagery of the biblical story of the tiny David victorious against Goliath had been seen as a metaphor of Italian politics. Florence, a small state, had flourished in an Italy dominated by Goliaths. Many Florentine artists had created works that immortalized the youthful figure as a symbol of their city. Michelangelo’s work, too, had its own fascinating history. The marble out of which it was crafted had been quarried in the 1460s for the sculptor Donatello and had been partially worked. Following Donatello’s death, though, it had lain unused for more than forty years. Most sculptors insisted that the block of stone had a flaw that rendered it unusable. After examining it Michelangelo devised a plan for carving a figure from the stone. In comparison with the serene and youthful David that Donatello had cast in bronze in the first half of the fifteenth century, Michelangelo’s biblical colossus is no longer a child, but a youthful, heavily muscled adolescent with oversized hands and feet. He stands assured, yet alert with every sinew and muscle in his body ready to do battle. A close examination of the statue shows that it is the product of the artist’s studies of anatomy since the muscles and veins of the work are closely modeled upon human models. The work was originally intended for a prominent position atop the Palazzo Vecchio, the town hall, in Florence and was accordingly more than fourteen feet high. It was immediately hailed as a masterpiece, the greatest freestanding sculpture completed since Antiquity. As a consequence Florence’s town fathers gave it a position of honor in front of the town hall so that it could be admired more closely. In the nineteenth century the city placed a copy there and moved the original indoors to the Galleria dell’ Accademia, a museum of Tuscan sculpture.

Julius II

Both the Pietà and the David established Michelangelo’s reputation as an artistic genius, and from this point until his death he received numerous commissions, both in Florence and Rome, the two developing centers of High Renaissance style. In 1505, Pope Julius II (r. 1503-1513) called Michelangelo to Rome to undertake a massive project, the building of an enormous tomb. This project consumed the artist’s attention off and on for over forty years and was complicated by the complex relationship between pope and artist, both of whom were extremely strong-minded personalities. As it was originally conceived in 1505, the tomb was to include more than 40 statues, although when finished four decades later, only three statues were completed. In 1505, Michelangelo set to work on the project immediately. He left Rome to supervise personally the quarrying of the marble for the project. Soon after his departure, Julius’ ardor for the tomb cooled, and when Michelangelo returned some months later, the pope had turned to his plans to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, a building that was at the time more than a thousand years old. Displeased with the pope’s plans to abandon the tomb project, Michelangelo left Rome for Bologna; the two reconciled months later, after the artist asked the pope’s forgiveness. Julius lured him back to Rome, and in 1508, he gave Michelangelo the contract for perhaps his most famous work: the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Until this point, most of the artist’s most important commissions had been sculptures. The Sistine ceiling was a project to which the artist was by training and inclination ill-suited. But like so many other projects that Michelangelo undertook, he rose to the occasion once he had set his mind to the task.

Sistine Chapel

The Sistine Chapel, named after Pope Sixtus IV who had it built between 1473-1484, was the private chapel of the popes, and has long been the place in which the College of Cardinals elects new popes. Soon after its completion the artists Domenico Ghirlandaio, Cosimo Roselli, Perugino, and Sandro Botticelli decorated the chapel’s sidewalls. In the early sixteenth century the ceiling, which was more than 60 feet high, was still bare plaster. To undertake this project, Michelangelo planned a grand design that mixed decorative elements from Antiquity and the Bible. The major scenes in the center of the ceiling are from Genesis and are framed with alternating images of the ancient Cumaean sibyls and the Old Testament prophets. The narrative Michelangelo created begins with the Creation of the World and of Man and Woman and progresses through the events in the Garden of Eden. The program culminates with the story of the Flood. Michelangelo painted these scenes in reverse order, and after completing the first two scenes he adjusted the scale on which he painted them to take account of the enormous size of the room. As he progressed, his compositions grew simpler and more monumental so that they could be viewed more easily from the floor. The artist also filled the later images with dramatic and swirling elements to suggest movement. Painted over a span of less than four years, the result was one of the wonders of the age, a creation that since the sixteenth century has never ceased to instill admiration in its observers. In Michelangelo’s time his Sistine Chapel frescoes were a perennial source of inspiration for other artists, who relied upon the work for elements of design in similar decorative cycles and who tried to imitate the heroic and idealized forms that he created on the ceiling. A long-term campaign of restoration undertaken during the 1980s returned the paintings to their sixteenth-century brilliance and allowed observers to view the works minus centuries of accumulated dirt and soot. This restoration also revealed that Michelangelo used a vibrant, and sometimes even garish color palette to create the frescoes. These dramatic colors were yet another feature that Michelangelo’s imitators focused on when trying to imitate the style of this great sixteenth-century master.


In the wake of the Sistine Chapel ceiling Michelangelo returned for a time to his first love, sculpture. In 1515 he completed the grand Moses, a work in his ongoing tomb project for the now deceased Pope Julius II. Here, as in the Sistine frescoes, Michelangelo presented a higher vision of reality, an image of the biblical prophet that is distinguished by his fiercesome power and the statue’s vigorous and piercing gaze. Like Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo’s High Renaissance style presented an idealized and higher vision of reality. Yet unlike the often placid and cerebral quality of da Vinci’s art, Michelangelo’s works suggested movement, heroism, and dramatic intensity, qualities that his contemporaries widely emulated. The longest-lived of all the great High Renaissance masters, Michelangelo experimented with new styles in the years after 1520. His later art, significantly different from his early sixteenth-century works, helped to supplant the idealized artistic synthesis of the High Renaissance, and to give rise to yet a new creative artistic movement known as Mannerism.

Raphael Sanzio

In place of the serenity of da Vinci or the intense heroism of Michelangelo, the third great master of the High Renaissance, Raffaelo Sanzio (1483-1520) (or Raphael, as he is known in English) gave expression to a harmonious and balanced vision in the High Renaissance. Raphael was born in the northern Italian town of Urbino, the son of a painter. Initially trained by his father, the young Raphael became a member of the studio of the Central Italian artist Perugino at Perugia. Always able to adapt and learn from other artists, Raphael soon mastered Perugino’s sweet and lyrical style with such excellence that contemporaries were frequently unable to distinguish whether a work from Perugino’s studio came from the hand of the master or of his student. As his reputation grew, he received commissions from the duke of his native Urbino before moving on to Florence around 1504. There Raphael studied the High Renaissance style of Leonardo and Michelangelo, who were both in Florence at the time. Both these elder artists were now highly successful figures who served the city of Florence and other princely patrons. The price of their commissions had outstripped the means of most wealthy Florentines. Raphael soon filled a gap in the local art market by producing works in the High Renaissance style for the town’s merchants and noble families. During his three years in Florence the artist successfully executed a large number of commissions, including his famous Madonna of the Meadows. That work shows the influence that Raphael derived from Leonardo. Its composition is dominated by a pyramidal grouping of Madonna, Christ child, and John the Baptist in a way similar to Leonardo’s Madonna and St. Anne. At the same time Raphael’s work has none of the mysterious chiaroscuro of Leonardo’s. It shines with brilliant, gemlike colors. Nor does Raphael reveal much interest here in anatomical studies, a chief concern of both Leonardo and Michelangelo. Instead the artist demonstrates a love of harmony and balance through his counter-poising of oval and circular shapes throughout the picture.


In 1508 Raphael traveled to Rome to work for Pope Julius II. The artist remained there for the rest of his life, painting commissions for the popes and members of the church’s government. The first project that the artist undertook in Rome was a series of frescoes for the papal apartments, which happened to coincide with Michelangelo’s work on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. As Raphael worked on his frescoes in the nearby apartments, his compositions acquired a more monumental scale suitable to the grand environment in which he was working. The School of Athens is typical of the refinement and monumental character of these works. In this work Raphael depicts the ancient Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle as well as members of the intellectual elite of Greece. To link the past and present he depicted many of these figures as contemporary members on the Roman scene, so that his Plato is a portrait of Leonardo da Vinci and his ancient Heraclitus of Michelangelo. The entire composition is set, too, before an architectural backdrop that bears resemblance to the plans for the new St. Peter’s Basilica that was just beginning to take shape around the time that Raphael painted his work. For the recognized successes that he achieved in frescoing the papal apartments Raphael was richly rewarded with other commissions. During the five years before his premature death in 1520, the artist served as architect on a number of projects under construction in Rome at the time, including the new St. Peter’s Basilica. He also served Pope Leo X, a member of the Medici family, as a supervisor of Roman antiquities. He completed a major decorative cycle for the Villa Farnesina, a palace that overhung the Tiber River in Rome and which was being built by Agostino Chigi, then the pope’s banker. For this project Raphael and his assistants painted a large number of rooms in a style that imitated classical Roman frescoes. The subject matter of the Farnesina frescoes was entirely drawn from pagan Antiquity, and unlike many earlier uses of pagan mythology, they were devoid of Christian moralizing. One of the most famous paintings that Raphael completed for this project was the Galatea, in which the ancient pagan figure rides on the waves atop a scallop shell, while cupids try to stir her passion for the Cyclops by shooting love arrows at her. In this painting Raphael shows the influences that he derived from observing the art of Michelangelo. The figures in the fresco writhe with a greater heroic tension and movement than in the more placid works of just a few years before. They are now heavily muscled, and their bodies resemble the marble-like creations of Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling frescoes. In these and other works in the Villa Farnesina Raphael brought the synthesis between classical Antiquity and High Renaissance style to its highest level of achievement. In one of his last great masterpieces of painting, the Transfiguration, (1517) Raphael adapted his mixture of classical grace and harmony to a Christian theme. Contemporaries seem to have admired this late work above the many that the artist produced in Rome. At Raphael’s funeral in 1520, it was displayed alongside the funeral bier.


Although his life was short, Raphael continued to cast a long influence over Italian art in the later sixteenth century. During his brief time in Rome the artist had maintained a large studio, in which he had trained a number of painters who were to keep his style alive throughout the peninsula in the decades following his death. In the seventeenth century, too, European academies lauded Raphael’s art as the most appropriate style for study and emulation, particularly in France. Raphael’s subsequent influence on “academic” art was one cause for the decline of the artist’s reputation in the nineteenth and twentieth century. Raphael became connected in the mind of many artistic connoisseurs with the dull repetition and monotony that was frequently the fate of art produced in the early-modern and modern academies. In truth, Raphael’s creations were never repetitive and he evidenced a highly innovative approach to his compositions throughout his career. If his compositions sometimes lack the emotional intensity or intellectual depth of Michelangelo or da Vinci, it must be remembered that the artist died before even reaching the age of forty.

The High and Later Renaissance in Venice


In Venice and Northern Italy a High Renaissance style developed that was notably different from that of Florence and Rome. Venice, an artistic backwater for most of the fifteenth century, gradually took a leading position in producing artists of merit during the sixteenth century. A fundamental difference of technique separated Venetian artists from those of Central Italy. In the latter region, the principle of designo or “design” dominated the style of painting. In their compositions artists sketched their subjects with the precision of a draftsman before adding colors to their panels. The results produced artistic creations with sinuous lines and clear compositional logic. By contrast, Venetian artists from the time of Bellini developed a painterly tradition in which they built their compositions up through the use of color. In place of the precision and dominant lines of Central Italian style, the impression produced by much Venetian art was filmy and indistinct since its compositional logic arose from the juxtaposition of contrasting colors, rather than from the fine lines of a draftsman’s design. Venice’s painters also became masters of the medium of oil painting, a method originally imported toward the end of the fifteenth century from Northern Europe. Venetian masters perfected new resins that allowed them to paint on canvas rather than panels, an innovation that gave their coloristic techniques greater depth and luminosity. This great flowering of painterly technique developed at a time of political stress in the Venetian Republic. In the early sixteenth century the city faced a crisis. Forces from throughout Italy and Europe massed against the state and temporarily cut the city off from its possessions on the Italian mainland. Venice’s political problems persisted, and by the 1520s, its influence in Italy and the Mediterranean was in decline. Economically, Venice remained rich, a great trading center strategically positioned between the east and west. Still, during the course of the sixteenth century her economic and strategic importance diminished in the face of the rise of the great northern European trading centers in the Low Countries (modern Belgium and Holland). Despite these stresses, however, the sixteenth century was a Golden Age for the city. In literature, art, and architecture, Venice’s greatest figures produced works that influenced European styles over the coming centuries.


Giorgione da Castelfranco (1475-1510) was among the first Venetian painters to develop a distinctly High Renaissance style. Little is known about Giorgione’s career, and few surviving documents exist to date his compositions. These works show influences from the great fifteenth-century Venetian painter Bellini, but Giorgione introduced a greater monumentality into his paintings, and, like High Renaissance artists elsewhere in Italy, he strove to present his subjects on a higher idealized plane. Giorgione, too, developed the painting of landscape in his works to a point where it acquired independent interest. He set both his religious and secular works against seemingly magical appearing backgrounds, and the artist’s most famous work, The Tempest, has long been credited with granting landscape paintings independence from religious or mythological themes. Here Giorgione made landscape the subject of the picture itself. In the foreground the artist presents a soldier who looks upon a mostly nude woman who is nursing a child. The real interest at work in the picture is the force of nature. In the background an approaching storm makes the landscape come alive, casting patches of light and dark on the stream and cityscape that stretch toward the horizon. Again the beauty of the Tempest presents us with evidence of that discovery of the natural world that was common to the visual artists of the Renaissance. Through this work Giorgione granted a new independent importance to the observation of nature since the human figures do little more than establish proportion for the fascinating vision of the natural world that he presents in the rest of the picture.


The greatest painter of sixteenth-century Venice was Tiziano Vecellio (c. 1490-1576), who has long been known in English as Titian. The artist came to Venice from the remote Alpine town of Pieve di Cadore, where he had been born to an important aristocratic family. Legend long taught that Titian had lived to be 100 years old, but more recent research has now fixed his birth date much later than originally presumed. While the artist lived to a venerable age, he likely died at some point between 85 and 90 years of age. Trained originally in the studios of several Venetian painters, Titian’s major influences were his teacher Giovanni Bellini and later his close associate Giorgione. When the latter artist died around 1510, Titian undertook to complete a number of his compositions. Giorgione’s lyrical influence upon Titian’s style can be seen in one of the artist’s first masterpieces, Sacred and Profane Love, completed sometime around 1516. Like Giorgione’s The Tempest, the actual subject matter of this piece has never been identified, although it may be an allegory that symbolizes the passage of a woman from maiden virginity into a life of erotic love. Two women, appearing to be twins, sit on an ancient sarcophagus, which is in reality a fountain. One of the figures is clothed and gloved and touches a black bowl with her left hand, while holding a bunch of roses in the other. To her right an almost completely nude figure holds up a lamp, while between the two women, a cupid stirs the water of the fountain, and water pours from a golden bowl perched on the sarcophagus to fall upon a white rose bush. The background mirrors the difference between the two women. Behind the clothed figure the landscape rises and is crowned by a fortress set in a dark landscape. On the other side of the painting in the space behind the naked figure the view opens into a vast panorama bathed in light and dominated by a hunter’s pursuit of a hare and a village crowned with a church spire. Sacred and Profane Love was the first in a distinguished line of masterworks produced by the artist during the 1510s and 1520s. These works were portraits or they treated mythological and religious themes. One of the most undeniably important works of this period was the artist’s Assumption of the Virgin, a massive work completed for the Church of Santa Maria dei Frari in Venice around 1518. In that work the Virgin rises from a group of writhing apostles and is supported upon her path to God the Father by groups of struggling child angels. Titian heightened the drama of the work through the use of strong dramatic colors set against a neutral background, as well as by the enormous size of the panel. The work towers more than 22 feet high above the central altar of the Church of the Frari.

Middle and Later Years

In 1530 Titian lost his wife, and a change in his artistic vision became evident. During the 1530s his use of color grew more restrained. In place of the dramatic juxtaposing of colors that had dominated many of his early works, Titian now drew his palette from related, rather than contrasting colors. This change can be seen in the famous Venus of Urbino which the artist completed around 1538. This work is the most famous of several Venuses that Titian painted in these years. In it, the ample form of a woman lies reclining on her bed, while a servant rummages through a chest in the background. An inlaid marble floor and wall hangings grant the scene an atmosphere of cultivated ease, which is further reinforced by the use of rich golds, greens, and brownish reds. Works like these were widely admired by the Italian nobility of the period, and helped to grant the artist a great renown throughout Italy and Europe in these years. He became court painter to the emperor Charles V, and his portraits of popes, kings, princes, and other nobles served to catalogue the lives of the most important figures of the day. In 1545 Titian left Venice on his only journey to the city of Rome, then the acknowledged artistic center of Europe. The monumental works of Michelangelo, including his Sistine Chapel frescoes and Last Judgment with their heavily muscled figures, greatly influenced Titian as did the works of Antiquity that had come to light in the previous decades. In the artist’s later years he strove to develop a more dramatic and expressive style characterized by broad brushstrokes and a brilliant use of colors. Among the most outstanding of many images painted in this period are the Rape of Europa (1562) and the Crowning with Thorns (c. 1570). In the Rape of Europa Titian brought dramatic swirling brushstrokes to bear on the subject, a rape performed by the god Jupiter in the disguise of a white bull. Throughout the canvas the impression that he produced was filmy and indistinct and did not recur until the eighteenth-century landscapes of the French painter Watteau. In a similar vein the Crowning of Thorns suggested the dramatic, intense suffering of Christ through its use of thick masses of paint and torrents of broad strokes. Here, however, the overall effect was of a somber and dramatic composition, rather than of the fanciful spirit of the Rape of Europa. Through works like this Titian dominated the development of a distinctive sixteenth-century Venetian tradition of painting. Together with his close friends—the architect Jacopo Sansovino and the poet Pietro Aretino—Titian influenced the artistic and cultural life of his adopted city. The three figures became known as the “Triumvirate” and were admired as arbiters of local tastes and fashion. Titian also maintained a large studio in the city where he trained a number of pupils and supervised works produced under his direction. Through these enormous efforts the artist grew wealthy and became a princely figure among the many painters of northern Italy at the time.


Although Titian remained the dominant force in developing a distinctly Venetian Renaissance style in the first half of the sixteenth century, he faced competition after 1550 from two other great masters, Tintoretto (1518-1594) and Veronese (1528-1588). Each of these artists developed unique styles that differed greatly from each other and from Titian. Tintoretto, whose given name was actually Jacopo Robusti, has long been known by his nickname, which means literally “little dyer,” a reference to his origins as the son of a cloth dyer. Of all the great Venetian artists of the sixteenth century, Tintoretto was the only painter who was actually a native of Venice. Although he occasionally painted works for patrons and projects outside Venice, most of his paintings today are to be found in the churches and public buildings of his hometown. Little reliable information exists about his early training. A legend has long alleged that Tintoretto studied with Titian, but was expelled from his studio when the elder artist grew jealous of his talent. His early style, however, suggests that the artist was not Titian’s student, but received his training in the workshops of other minor and more conservative Venetian artists. By 1539, Titian is noted in the records of the city as an independent master, and in 1548, the artist completed his first acknowledged masterpiece, a canvas painting of Saint Mark Freeing a Christian Slave. Tintoretto undertook the work for a confraternity dedicated to St. Mark. The subject of the painting arose from a legend about a Christian slave who fled his home in France to travel to Alexandria to see the relics of St. Mark. Upon his return, his master condemned him to have his eyes plucked out and his legs broken. St. Mark, however, miraculously appeared from Heaven to free the captive. Tintoretto executed this story with great drama by placing a dramatically foreshortened figure of St. Mark suspended in mid-air about to break the captive’s bonds. The saint’s body projects out from the picture plane so that his feet attract the eyes of the viewer. Elsewhere throughout the canvas the swirling motions of the figures create a dramatic sense of movement, a sense that is reinforced by Tintoretto’s quick brushstrokes and bold use of color. Many of the characters, including the figure of St. Mark, are merely suggested through the use of rapid brushstrokes set against the priming colors of the work’s background. In this way Tintoretto astutely used light and dark to suggest his figures and to bring great energy to his canvases.

Later Career

Tintoretto was by temperament dramatically different from Titian. Titian had established himself as a kind of prince among the artists of the city, eventually leading a life of financial ease and refinement. Tintoretto, on the other hand, was enormously prolific but less desirous of worldly position. He was also religiously devout and painted many of his religious subjects for the local confraternities of the city, often accepting payment only for the costs of his paint and canvas. One of these projects, the walls of the Scuola di San Rocco, eventually consumed an enormous amount of his time. This organization was a religious confraternity dedicated to St. Roch, a patron against the plague, which performed charitable works throughout the city. For 25 years, Tintoretto labored to finish more than fifty paintings to decorate the organization’s meeting rooms in the city. Eventually the artist accepted only a small salary for completing the works, and when finished they ranked among one of the great artistic projects of the Renaissance. The works formed an artistic monument as important in Venice as Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes were in Rome. These works allow us to trace Tintoretto’s artistic development over a course of more than two decades. Among the more famous of these images is the artist’s Crucifixion, a gigantic work more than 40 feet long. Here Tintoretto relied on light and dark spaces to create a gripping rendering of the tortures of Christ. In it, the onlookers at the scene on Calvary seem to be caught up in an event that they can scarcely comprehend, and which they certainly cannot control. Through his rendering of the religious immediacy of the moment, Tintoretto helped to pave a way in his Crucifixion and his later works for the development of a distinctly Counter-Reformation style of art. This Counter-Reformation style was intended to be clearly intelligible to its observers. It aimed, in addition, to harness the power of the observer’s emotions in order to deepen his or her own piety.


Although Tintoretto died impoverished the large studio that he had built in Venice continued as a family workshop run by his son Domenico. In a city dominated by a guild structure of production, Tintoretto’s workshop lived on after his death to influence artistic styles in the city. It was the artist’s bold and defining brushwork, though, that attracted imitations from many later artists. Tintoretto had promoted his own painting as a union between the forces of Michelangelo’s strong design and the coloristic tradition of Venice and Titian. Subsequent generations, though, have not always been charitable to Tintoretto’s art. In the nineteenth century the great English art historian and critic John Ruskin pronounced that Tintoretto had painted his works with a broom. Like Titian and other Venetian artists, Tintoretto ran a large studio that supplied Venice with many religious paintings, and not all the works produced in this workshop were of the same high quality. Yet in paintings like the Crucifixion or St. Mark Freeing a Christian Slave Tintoretto’s artistic vision rises to a level comparable to the greatest works of the High and Later Renaissance.


The third genius of sixteenth-century Venetian painting was Paolo Caliari (1528-1588), who was known as Veronese because he was a native of the mainland Italian city of Verona. Veronese’s paintings were more outrightly opulent than Tintoretto’s, filled as they were with signs of luxury. They were also marked by a controlled brushwork and a brilliant compositional presentation. Today Veronese’s reputation results chiefly from his painting of gorgeous banqueting scenes like the Wedding Feast at Cana, a canvas painting that he completed for the refectory or dining room of the Monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore at Venice. The son of a family involved in the stonecutting trade, Veronese apparently discovered the canons of classical architecture through his acquaintanceship with the architect Michele Sammicheli. His lush banqueting scenes are set against the background of the opulent classically styled architecture that was then becoming popular in and around Venice. The elegant works of the painter Parmigianino also influenced these presentations. While Tintoretto’s work gave expression to the growing spiritual forces of the Counter Reformation, Veronese fell under suspicion from Venice’s Inquisition. One of his most famous paintings, a Last Supper painted for the refectory of the Dominican monastery of Saints John and Paul in Venice during 1573, resulted in the painter’s summons to appear before the Inquisition. Besides filling the canvas with the Apostles and Christ, Veronese had included jesters, German soldiers, dwarfs, and dogs. The emerging Counter Reformation spirit bred distaste among the clergy for such artistic license, and the Inquisition commanded Veronese to paint over these ahistorical figures. The artist responded, however, by merely changing the name of his work to the Feast in the House of Levi, a biblical subject more in keeping with the work’s luxury. Besides his painting of banqueting scenes, Veronese executed commissions for Venice’s city government. Among his most important compositions was a ceiling for the Library of St. Mark, for which he won a citywide competition in 1557. The judges, Titian and the architect Jacopo Sansovino, chose Veronese’s work—an allegorical depiction of Music—over the submissions of seven other talented Venetian painters. In his later life the artist also decorated the Halls of the College and the Grand Council, two important meeting rooms in the city’s ducal palace. Veronese maintained a large studio staffed by members of his family, including his brother and two of his sons. Upon the artist’s death in 1588, this family workshop continued to produce art for the city’s wealthy patrons. Scholarly opinion long dismissed Veronese’s work as merely luxurious and opulent. More recently, however, judgments of the artist’s achievement have taken a more positive turn, stressing the artist’s skill in the use of color, his deepening use of light and dark coloration in his later years, and his iconographical sophistication.
The Venetian tradition of painting in the High Renaissance demonstrated a different path from the design-dominated schools of Central Italian and Roman art at the same time. The use of oils and the rich colorism that they helped Venetian artists create fostered a luxuriant and sensual art different from the intellectual, sinuous forms of artists to the south. In contrast to the achievements of the High Renaissance in Rome, Venice’s sixteenth-century painting has sometimes been dismissed as mere pictorial opulence. Closer study has shown, though, that a depth of compositional and iconographical sophistication is to be found among Venice’s great artists similar to that shown in other Italian Renaissance traditions of painting.

Late Renaissance and Mannerist Painting in Italy


While the High Renaissance was a time of brilliant artistic achievement, the idealized and harmonious style that it bred soon fell into disfavor, particularly in Central Italy and Rome. After 1520, artists began experimenting with new conventions. This new style, often referred to as Mannerism, found its origins in the works of the late Raphael and of Michelangelo’s middle and old age. The term “Mannerism” was coined in the seventeenth century to describe those who followed in the patterns established by these two artistic geniuses. By that time scholars used the word Mannerism as a criticism of the artificiality and distortion they observed in the art of the later sixteenth century. These unfavorable assessments of Mannerism persisted even into the twentieth century as critics considered the movement to be an artistic crisis that destroyed the beauty of the High Renaissance synthesis. That synthesis had emphasized classical proportions, ideal beauty, harmony, and serenity. By contrast, critics charged Mannerist art with being artificial, overly emotional, vividly coloristic, effetely elegant, and contorted. Newer artistic tastes in the twentieth century, however, have led to a positive reassessment of late Renaissance Mannerism. Scholars have shown that the word maniera, upon which later critics based their critical term “Mannerism,” merely meant “stylish” in the sixteenth century. Thus Mannerism has more recently been treated as a “stylish style,” which prized the very same values that later critics found distasteful. Sixteenth-century Mannerism, an artistic movement that influenced art in Rome, Florence, and much of Central Italy, has now been shown to derive from certain assumptions about elegance and beauty that differed from those of the High Renaissance. In place of older assessments of the period as one of artistic decline, Mannerism has now come to be positively assessed as a rich era of creative individual artistic expression.


Many of the stylistic tendencies of the later Mannerist artists derived from the works of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes and the late Raphael, particularly his “Fire in the Borgo” frescoes for the Vatican apartments (painted between 1514 and 1517). In these compositions Michelangelo and Raphael artfully arranged their human figures, placing them in positions that were elegant, beautiful, and which demonstrated the physical possibilities of the human form. They painted these figures heavily muscled and set within spaces defined by vivid colors. In these ways they helped extend the boundaries of artistic style. A second source of Mannerist inspiration derived from the works that Michelangelo completed during his residency in the city of Florence between 1516 and 1534. During these years Michelangelo’s art grew more turbulent and willful, as he became ever more involved in the construction of the Medici family tombs and the Laurentian Library. Like most of Michelangelo’s projects, the Medici tombs were never completely finished in the way in which they had initially been planned. For this commission Michelangelo relied upon the traditional language of Brunelleschi’s architecture to form a backdrop to the tombs. The sculptures that Michelangelo carved for the tombs departed from the harmonious classicism he had used in his earlier works. The nudes that adorn the tomb were heavily muscled, artificially elongated, and arranged in contorted positions. Michelangelo also completed two statues of the Medici family sons, Lorenzo and Giuliano, for the tombs. Although these figures were seated, the artist carved them, too, in a highly idealized, elongated, and elegant style in an effort, he admitted, to immortalize them. The project for the Medici family tomb consumed much of Michelangelo’s time during this period in Florence. It required the artist to hire and supervise the work of more than 300 workers and demonstrated Michelangelo’s keen organizational skills. The Medici family fortunes, however, waxed and waned in Florence during the 1520s, and between 1527 and 1530, the family was expelled from the town. During this period work ceased on the tomb and the library. When the family returned to power in 1530, Michelangelo continued with these projects, but with less enthusiasm than before. Gradually, he began to spend more of his time in Rome, and by 1534, he had abandoned Florence completely in favor of the church’s capital.

Last Judgment

The Rome of the 1530s was a very different place than it had been during the High Renaissance. In 1527, imperial forces of the army of Charles V had sacked the town, and the city’s economy and cultural life had fallen into decline. The election of Paul III, a reform-minded pope, however, signaled the beginning of a renewal. Paul commissioned Michelangelo to complete a number of projects in the city, the first and perhaps most important being the Last Judgment fresco for the Sistine Chapel. To paint this massive fresco, which lies on the end wall of the chapel behind the High Altar, Michelangelo had to destroy part of his ceiling frescoes completed just twenty years before. The resulting composition bears little resemblance to those earlier frescoes. In place of the serene and idealized figures of the ceiling, the Last Judgment on the end wall appears as a swirling mass of human figures that circulates around the central Christ figure. Everything is set against a blue background and the earth is only suggested as the scene of this drama at the very bottom of the composition. None of the traditional trappings of a Last Judgment scene are to be found in Michelangelo’s vision. Christ does not sit on a throne doling out rewards and punishment to the righteous and impious, but instead hovers at the top of this swirling humanity with his right arm extended in condemnation. He is a gigantic, commanding figure, whose scale is greater than any other actor on the wall. Throughout the painting Michelangelo also relied upon an interesting scale. The figures arising from their graves at the bottom of the painting are about one-half the size of the saints and blessed that surround Christ himself, while at the top of the painting the angels who carry Christ’s cross and column heavenward are again portrayed in the smaller scale used at the bottom of the wall. In this way the entire work takes upon the appearance of several swirling circles, filled with fascinating figures that cannot be comprehended in a single viewing. Originally, Michelangelo painted all the male figures in the work nude, but the developing religious senses of the Counter Reformation eventually prompted the church to summon one of the artist’s students to paint draperies over the figures. Even these did little to diminish the sheer power of the human forms Michelangelo created.

Later Works of Michelangelo

Shortly after completing the Last Judgment, the artist set to work on two other large frescoes, this time for the Pauline Chapel in the Vatican. Since the chapel has long been a private place of worship used by the popes and their entourage, Michelangelo’s paintings there are far less familiar. The subject for these frescoes, The Conversion of Paul and the Crucifixion of St. Peter are treated in ways that are an outgrowth of the Last Judgment. Here Michelangelo used similarly elongated human forms and turbulent compositions placed before the sparest of backgrounds. Yet in contrast to the Last Judgment, a quiet, meditative strain runs through both paintings, one which is reflective of the deeply religious impulses that Michelangelo embraced late in his life. Concerns with his approaching death and his ultimate salvation are also reflected in the late unfinished work, the Rondanini Pietà, a sculpture Michelangelo worked on between 1554 and his death in 1564. Like the earlier, more famous Pietà, this late work projects a quiet beauty, even in its incomplete state. Instead of supporting the dead Christ across his mother’s lap, as in the earlier composition, Michelangelo planned to have the Virgin Mary support the body of her son while standing. During these last years of his life, though, Michelangelo’s work as supervisor of the construction of the new St. Peter’s Basilica and his poor health frequently stalled his progress on the statue. His execution of the Rondanini Pietà dissatisfied him and at several points he destroyed the composition so that he could begin key parts again. Sadly, there may not have been enough marble left to complete the sculpture, but even unfinished, the work suggests the religious intensity and depth of feeling of the aged artist.

Painting in Florence and Central Italy

In Florence and Central Italy a number of artists of genius practiced throughout the sixteenth century. Some of these kept alive High Renaissance traditions of idealized beauty and serenity. Others experimented with the new aesthetic concerns of Mannerism, with its emphasis on elegance, individual creativity, and distortion, and its preference as well for difficult and sometimes incomprehensible themes and iconography. Andrea del Sarto (1486-1530) was one of the most prominent of artists in the first of these two groups. His Madonna of the Harpies, painted in 1517, is typical of his style. Here he idealized the faces of his subjects and suffused his composition with the calm imperturbable beauty typical of Raphael and da Vinci at the height of their powers. By contrast, one of del Sarto’s most accomplished pupils, Jacopo Pontormo (1494-1557), experimented with the more willful and personal dimensions of Mannerism. In 1518, Pontormo painted his Joseph in Egypt, a work that relied upon new compositional techniques. In this work he painted three scenes from the life of Joseph on a single canvas, an innovation that abolished the unity and ready comprehensibility preferred by High Renaissance artists. Through the use of a staircase, a raised dais, and other architectural props Pontormo divided the painting into three spaces, which nevertheless appear strangely linked together as an artistic, rather than a narrative unity. The scenes that are retold—Pharaoh’s dream, the rediscovery of Pharaoh’s cup in Benjamin’s sack of grain, and the reconciliation of Joseph with his brothers—are relegated to various parts of the canvas, while statues that appear to be living gesture to the observer to take note of the important events the artist is narrating. Throughout the work the dramatic use of light and dark, too, creates a mood very different from the works of Pontormo’s teacher, Andrea del Sarto. Pontormo’s painting continued to be influenced by his friend Michelangelo, as seen in his somewhat later Entombment, painted for the Church of Santa Maria Felicità in Florence between 1525 and 1528. Like Michelangelo’s later work on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, the artist only suggests the earth as the stage for his drama; his attention falls instead on the variety of human forms that accompany the dead Christ to be placed in his tomb. The languid body of the corpse harkens back to the dead Christ of Michelangelo’s Pietà, while the twisted web of figures that accompany this cortége face inward, outward, and sideways. In this way the artist dissolved the typical stage-like setting long used by Renaissance artists and instead provided his observers with a scene captured in the moment. His dramatic use of color, which relied upon electric oranges, pinks, and even chartreuse, similarly departed from the gemlike conventions of the time. And finally, his use of elongated human forms was also typical among Mannerist artists as well.

Rosso Fiorentino

Pontormo’s paintings pointed to a new willful creativity that helped to dissolve the conventions prized by artists in the first decades of the century. Another Florentine artist, Rosso Fiorentino (1495-1540) created works that were even more personally expressive. Among contemporaries, Rosso earned wide recognition for his emotionalism and individuality. In his early works, the artist combined influences from Michelangelo with insights he had gained from studying Northern European engravings to create a number of highly sophisticated paintings. One of the masterpieces of this early phase of Rosso’s career, his Descent from the Cross, is a work whose dramatic colors are lit as if by a bolt of lightning. No landscape interest distracts from the central event that Rosso retells, but instead the artist places his actors before a slate blue sky. In place of the pyramidal compositional structures often favored by Renaissance and High Renaissance artists, he creates a gigantic figure eight out of the characters in his panel. The men who remove Christ from the cross struggle with the corpse’s dead weight, a body the artist renders in a sickening green. Below, a woman looks out at those who observe the scene, as if to implicate all onlookers in the guilt for the crime that has just been committed. On the other side of the panel a grief-stricken apostle tears at his hair, while between these two figures, a woman struggles to support one of the ladders on which the men above are working. Charged with a brilliant emotional intensity, Rosso Fiorentino’s Descent from the Cross provides its observers with a catalogue of the effects of grief upon the human psyche. As he shows, the sense of personal loss produces variety of psychological states ranging from anguish, to quiet suffering, and even to the nervous and uncomfortable leer that Rosso paints upon the face of Joseph of Arimathea.

Rome and France

In 1523, Rosso left Florence for Rome, where he fell under the influence to an even greater degree of the art of Michelangelo, particularly the Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes. Under the great artist’s influence, Rosso developed a more elegant and reserved style, with less of the emotionalism typical of his earlier Descent from the Cross. In 1527, the sack of Rome forced him to flee the city, and he worked in several Central Italian towns until 1530, when he accepted the invitation of King Francis I to paint in France. Among the more important works he completed there was the Galerie of François I in the Palace of Fontainebleau. In this chamber Rosso worked with the Italian artist Primaticcio to create a highly ornamental and decorative style that influenced other Northern European designers.
A more whimsical side of the Mannerist movement can be seen in the work of Giulio Romano (1499-1546), an artist who served the Gonzaga lords in Mantua. Trained by Raphael in Rome, Romano entered the service of the Gonzaga lords in 1524 and remained there for the rest of his life. Among his most unusual Mannerist works was the Palace of the Te, a country villa set in an idyllic meadow on the outskirts of the city of Mantua. In the massive facade of this work Romano violated classical canons of design and proportion. The villa’s rustic appearance, though, soon fades as the observer moves inside. In the palace Romano designed a series of opulent rooms that were fit to entertain the Hapsburg emperor Charles V and other dignitaries. Romano decorated the rooms of the Te with illusionistic frescoes, their allegorical subjects drawn from ancient mythology. In one of the most famous of these salons, Romano depicted the story of the Fall of the Giants. Here the artist demonstrated his mastery of perspective and foreshortening so that the toppling columns he painted on the chamber’s walls appear to be moving. Indeed the room’s walls seem about to crash in upon those inside the space. Admired by the Gonzaga lords, Romano took on many decorative projects until his untimely death in 1546.


The Florentine artist who was to carry the style of his teacher, Jacopo Pontormo, and of Rosso Fiorentino, into the second half of the sixteenth century was Agnolo Tori, who was known as Bronzino (1503-1572). Like Fiorentino and Pontormo, Bronzino developed the Mannerist tendency to disperse his figures to the edge of the surfaces he painted, rather than to arrange them in High Renaissance fashion symmetrically in the center. This trait can be seen in the panel he painted entitled An Allegory with Venus and Cupid, a work which is made up of an interlacing of its characters. In the right rear background of the painting, the figure of Father Time, lifts back a drapery from before the couple to expose Cupid’s sensuous fondling of Venus. Bronzino made use of the heavily muscled figures that Michelangelo had introduced into sixteenth-century Italian art. The foreground figures of Venus, Cupid, and a little boy who is pelting the couple with roses appear as if they were polished marble. Masks litter the foreground, as do Venus’s doves. Behind the lovers, an ugly woman, Envy tears her hair, while a beautiful girl offers a honeycomb to the couple with her left hand which is curiously attached to her right arm. Following the lines of this charming figure’s body we find that her form ends with a lion’s legs and a griffin’s tail. Bronzino’s allegory, complex and some might even say contrived, provided a kind of intellectual enjoyment to his sophisticated Renaissance audience, which gloried in complex iconographical themes. In the sixteenth century the Renaissance writer Baldasar Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier had recommended books of emblems for the enjoyment of the cultivated urbane figures who worked and lived in Italian courts. Emblems were a kind of reverse jigsaw puzzle in which men and women tried to decode a message by reading the iconographical clues. Bronzino’s Allegory arose from a similar set of sensibilities and a similar sense of fun. From the time of its completion around 1546, the work has continued to confound its admirers with its use of complex and obscure symbols. Bronzino was also a portrait painter of merit, who applied the same brilliance of finished surfaces, cool detachment, and rich colorism to the mostly aristocratic figures he painted. Among the most famous of his portraits, that of Eleonore of Toledo, now in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, ranks among his most accomplished creations. In it, Eleonore is shown against a brilliant blue background with the complex luxury of her gown competing for visual interest against the human subject herself.

High Renaissance and Mannerism in Parma

In the city of Parma in Northern Italy an important school of painting developed after 1500. It was led at first by the High Renaissance master Antonio Allegri (1494-1534), who was known as Correggio after the place of his birth. During his short life the artist became one of the most important masters in Northern Italy, developing a flowing style characterized by movement and a skillful use of light. Although the artist lived past the date at which Mannerism began to make inroads into Northern Italy, Correggio never made use of the raw emotional intensity of painters like Rosso Fiorentino or Jacopo Pontormo. Instead his works are characterized by a warmth and tenderness of expression. Correggio’s best frescoes, including those completed for the interior of the dome of the Cathedral of Parma, make use of movement and drama in a way similar to later Baroque artists of the seventeenth century. With the artist’s premature death in 1534, leadership of Parma’s school of painters passed to his younger contemporary Francesco Mazzola (1503-1540), who was known as Parmigianino. Unlike Correggio, Parmigianino traveled to Rome to absorb High Renaissance principles firsthand. There he also became familiar with the tenets of the developing Mannerist style. In 1524, Parmigianino painted his Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror, a work which shows the artist’s taste for the stylish distortion favored by Mannerist artists. His most famous work The Madonna of the Long Neck, painted between 1534 and 1540, demonstrates a similar tendency to elongate and attenuate the human form. In this elegant painting, the artist depicts the Virgin Mary as if she were an earthly queen, complete with an aristocratic long neck. Bejeweled and holding a languid Christ child on her lap, she appears as the very picture of refinement and taste. The Christ child himself is shown with the body of a four-or five-year old, the long lines of his form mirror the attenuated shape of the Virgin. To the left, a group of idealized children gather around the mother and child, while the most forward of these presents an amphora to the Virgin. To the right in the background a prophet appears unrolling a scroll. Although he is near to the central figures of the painting, Parmigianino has painted the prophet to look as if he is far away. Over the years the Madonna of the Long Neck came under a great deal of critical scrutiny as to the meaning of the iconographical details the artist included. No satisfactory explanation has ever been discovered for these, leading many to conclude that perhaps Parmigianino, like other Mannerist artists, intended his work to be curious and enigmatic.


The Mannerist movement dominated Florence, Rome, and much of Central Italy by the mid-sixteenth century. Mannerist painters moved to dissolve the harmonious, symmetrical, and serene beauty that had been prized by artists of the High Renaissance. In its place they developed an art that was often emotionally expressive, contorted, and characterized by an intricacy of compositional arrangements. Some Mannerist artists like Parmigianino and Bronzino favored elegance and abstruse and difficult iconographical constructions in their works. Others like Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino favored a style that was more emotionally expressive, and which demonstrated their artistic willfulness and individuality. By the end of the sixteenth century a new set of stylistic tastes, prompted in part by the religious changes of the Counter Reformation, began to outlaw the Mannerist taste for luxury and for subjects that were difficult to understand. By 1600 the rise of this new dramatic style of painting, which eventually became known as the Baroque, expressed a different set of values. In place of the Mannerist taste for an elegant art, the practitioners of the Baroque favored monumentality, idealization, dramatic movement, and clear intelligibility.

The Arts in Sixteenth-Century Northern Europe


During the fifteenth century Netherlandish artists had dominated Northern European painting. A distinguished lineage of painters, particularly in the wealthy city of Flanders, had perfected the medium of oil painting, developed a highly realistic art, and produced scores of altarpieces, religious panel paintings, and portraits. Netherlandish art had often affected painters in regions far from Flanders and Holland, and a lineage of fine painters continued the tradition of achievement in the sixteenth century. After 1500, though, artistic leadership in Northern Europe passed to Germany, a region that had been somewhat of an artistic backwater in the previous century. This great flowering of German art occurred at roughly the same time that the High Renaissance was shaping artistic values in Italy. The German artists of the first half of the sixteenth century learned both from Netherlandish and Italian examples, while developing their own native traditions. Although they were expert in practicing the new medium of oil painting, German artists did not rely on the kind of free and dramatic brushwork that was typical of many Venetian and Italian artists at the time. Their work, moreover, never concentrated on the beauty of the human body in the same way that Italian artists did. The nude human form, in particular, often looks somewhat uncomfortable in the works of sixteenth-century German artists. And while these German painters studied the traditions of classical Antiquity, they did not usually fill their works with the trappings of ancient Greece or Rome, as Italian masters at the same time did. German painting and engraving relied instead on finely drawn and sinuous lines to create great dramatic effect. This great flowering of artistic activity in Germany developed suddenly after 1500, and faded just as quickly after 1550. In the first half of the sixteenth century the High Renaissance in Germany produced a number of masters, including Albrecht Dürer, Albrecht Altdorfer, Matthias Grünewald, Lucas Cranach, and Hans Holbein. By 1550, however, great figures like these ceased to appear, and the achievement of the German Renaissance drew to a close rather quickly. Even as it faded, new centers of artistic innovation appeared in other Northern European centers, making the sixteenth century an era of undeniable achievement in the visual arts throughout the continent.

Albrecht Dürer

The greatest artist of the High Renaissance in Northern Europe was Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), a native of the central German city of Nuremberg. Like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonarroti, Dürer kept journals that provide a glimpse of his ideas about art. These writings show that Dürer had a high sense of his calling as a creator and an artistic innovator. He was the first Northern European artist to write about art as something more than a mere craft, and his writings reveal that he had a unique sense of his own individuality. The artist was the son of a local goldsmith, and his father had emigrated from Hungary to Nuremberg. Even before the young Albrecht had been apprenticed he displayed a natural artistic ability. This ability can be seen in the Self-Portrait, a drawing Dürer completed when he was only 13. The artist followed this first Self-Portrait with a series of other such works completed before he was thirty. Even at this tender age, Dürer already shows an astonishing clarity of observation, technical finesse, and individuality of expression, all of which reveal him to have been a natural prodigy. Dürer perfected these gifts, first in the workshop of the Nuremberg engraver, Michael Wolgemut, and then in several years spent traveling after 1490. He returned to Nuremberg in 1494, but soon left on a journey to Italy. On those travels, he visited Mantua and Padua before settling in for a longer time in Venice. Ten years later, Dürer returned to Venice and for a time his art emulated the painterly style of the Venetian artists Giorgione and Bellini. By temperament and training Dürer was always an engraver, and since the art of engraving placed a high premium on the skills of drawing, the artist came in his maturity to develop his use of line, rather than the painterly deployment of color.


While Dürer was an accomplished painter, his greatest works are engravings and woodcuts. This latter medium required artists to draw their designs onto blocks of wood and then to cut away everything but the lines of their drawing. It was a time-consuming method that required a steady hand. Up until this time, most woodcuts had fairly simple designs with the drawing merely providing the outward lines of the forms and objects that the artist was portraying. Dürer developed the technique so that he included lines for shading and rendering patches of light and dark. These new refinements can be seen in his woodcuts of the Apocalypse, a series of fifteen works based upon the biblical book of Revelation. Dürer completed these prints during 1498 and sold the works together as a set. The works display the artist’s powerful hand and his subtle sense of shading. Dürer continued to develop his skills as a printer throughout his life, mastering new techniques to enhance the process of copper engraving. As a result, he extended the boundaries of what was achievable in this medium beyond those that had already been established by Martin Schongauer in the late fifteenth century. Dürer made full use of the possibilities of the medium, applying straight and curved hatching, stippling, and cross-hatching to create forms within his engravings that appeared sculptural. He lit his works with a light that seems inspired by fifteenth-century Netherlandish traditions. At the same time he applied the techniques of perspective common to the Italian art of the period. During 1514, the artist produced three prints generally accepted as the highest expression of his achievement in the graphic arts. These include his St. Jerome in His Study; his Melancolia I, a work that muses about the solitary pursuits of the artist; and The Knight. The grandeur of these prints helped to found a great tradition of graphic arts that was practiced by many accomplished German artists in the following decades and centuries.


Dürer’s achievements in woodcuts and copper engravings marked him as an artist of the highest order. In painting, he rarely achieved the level of finesse common to his graphic art, although Dürer was immensely prolific, and in some cases he succeeded in endowing his paintings with the same depth and finesse typical of his prints. One of these works is the artist’s Adoration of the Trinity, completed in 1511 for a chapel in Dürer’s hometown of Nuremberg. The painting shows a vision of heaven in which God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the dove of the Holy Spirit are worshipped by a throng of onlookers, including popes, kings, princes, and ranks of human admirers. Rich colors—reds, greens, blues, and yellows—combine here with Dürer’s typically florid use of line and his expert compositional skills. The work presents a traditionally medieval conception of the communion of saints and the Augustinian notion of the City of God. About a decade following its completion, though, Dürer became one of the first Northern European artists to accept the premises of the Protestant Reformation. In his writings the artist paid homage to Luther as the “Christian man” who had helped relieve him of “many anxieties.” Ironically, it was the Protestant Reformation that ultimately moved to confine greatly the role of the visual arts in Northern European religious life. The Reformation, in other words, served to dampen the great artistic flowering the Renaissance had created in Germany. Dürer, though, accepted the doctrines of the new movement. In 1526, one year after Nuremberg had adopted the new religious teachings, the artist presented his famous panel paintings of the Four Apostles to the Nuremberg city council. While there was nothing explicitly Protestant about the style of the work, the choice of the four apostles—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—highlighted the artist’s new faith in the scriptures. Dürer seems as well to have intended his gift to encourage the city’s rulers to remain steadfast in their commitment to the Reformation.


Another area in which the artist excelled was in the production of portraits of German notables and wealthy patrons. The artist completed several portraits of important princes and dignitaries as engravings, and these were widely circulated at the time. At home in Nuremberg he also painted a number of portraits for the town’s wealthy burghers. Dürer and Hans Holbein were the two greatest portraitists at work in Northern Europe at the time. A Holbein portrait was usually a dramatic tour de force, filled with opulent trappings that lent majesty to the noble and princely figures he immortalized.
Dürer, on the other hand, strove to present an accurate image of his subjects while at the same time providing his viewers with some deeper psychological insight about the person’s internal character. Dürer practiced portraiture increasingly in his final years, perhaps because of the poor state of his health, which seems to have been damaged by a malarial fever he contracted while visiting the Netherlands in 1520-1521. In these years he also wrote theoretical treatises on art, battle fortifications, and human proportions. The artist’s fame continued to grow after his death, and his prints had many collectors throughout Germany. During the years between 1570 and 1620, the artist’s style inspired a “Dürer Renaissance” among engravers who imitated the artist’s dramatic engravings. In subsequent centuries Dürer continued to be celebrated as Germany’s greatest artist, and this reputation sometimes prevented a realistic assessment of the other great figures that contributed to the German Renaissance. More recently, these artists’ reputations have been reassessed, while Albrecht Dürer’s role in the country’s artistic flowering has not diminished.

Matthias Grünewald

Little is known about the training and early work of Matthias Grünewald (c. 1475-1528), a German painter who was likely born in the city of Würzburg on the Main River in central Germany. In 1510 he joined the archbishop of Mainz’s court at Aschaffenburg, where he served as a painter and superintendent of public works. Soon after that appointment Grünewald won a commission to paint an altarpiece for the monastery church of St. Anthony at Isenheim in Alsace (now in eastern France). This great work is one of the strangest and most macabre pieces produced during the German Renaissance. Grünewald created the Isenheim altarpiece as a carved work that had two sets of wings and which could consequently be displayed with three different views. Although the work has long since been disassembled, when it was originally closed the altarpiece showed a gruesome Crucifixion, in which rigormortis has already set in on the body of the dead Christ. The Savior’s flesh is a mass of pockmarks and on his legs are visible the scourge marks from his recent tortures. The Isenheim monastery ran a hospital that cared for those suffering from leprosy and the plague, a fact that helps to explain Grünewald’s gruesome depictions of Christ’s skin. Below, Mary Magdalene, John the Beloved, the Virgin Mary, and John the Baptist witness the harrowing tortures of the Savior, while a Paschal lamb accompanies the figure of the Baptist, a symbol that recalls both Christ’s divine and human natures. The entire scene is set before a dark landscape, the nighttime sky lit only by patches of a deep greenish color. When the first set of the altarpiece’s wings were opened, this gruesome horror of the Crucifixion is transformed into scenes of joy that recount the Annunciation, the early life of Christ, and his Resurrection. In place of the somber and often disturbing colors of the closed altarpiece, Grünewald here adopts a palette of vivid reds, golds, and blues. The culmination of these three scenes, the Resurrection, is an awe-inspiring work in which Christ seems to have surged dramatically from the tomb and now floats above the soldiers stationed there to guard his dead body. In this panel the wounds of Christ’s skin have been transformed into rubies while his hair and beard are now pure gold. The ascending Christ appears before a vivid halo of red, gold, and green. With the altarpiece in its third position, the work revealed a sculptural central panel in which a seated St. Anthony was flanked by Saints Augustine and Jerome. On each side Grünewald painted scenes from the life of St. Anthony, the patron of the Isenheim Church. One theme that ran throughout the work was of disease and suffering, and the possibility of both medical and spiritual intervention to overcome these earthly trials. St. Anthony, long a patron of the sick, is presented in the final Isenheim setting as a refuge against the otherwise unstoppable forces of disease. The artist’s grim vision of illness coupled with his reassurances of the possibility of either an earthly or a heavenly cure were intended as consolation for those being treated at Isenheim.

Other Works

The Isenheim altarpiece was Matthias Grünewald’s indisputable masterpiece. Relatively few of the artist’s other works survive, but these show a similarly dramatic temperament. In 1526, Grünewald left his post in Catholic Aschaffenburg, perhaps because of his sympathies for the developing Lutheran movement. Shortly after Grünewald’s death, Luther’s close associate, Philip Melanchthon, listed the artist just behind Albrecht Dürer in a ranking he compiled of major German painters, one measure of the enthusiasm with which the sixteenth-century audience received the artist’s tempestuous vision. In the intervening centuries, though, the memory of Grünewald’s works faded, and the artist was left largely to twentieth-century connoisseurs to rediscover.

The Danube School

At the same time as Dürer and Grünewald were active in Central Germany, a prolific school of artists was coalescing to the southeast along the Danube River. The Danube School of painters flourished in Germany between 1500 and 1530 in the towns and cities that lay between the city of Regensburg and Vienna along this major river artery. In this region a number of venerable and wealthy monasteries commissioned many lavish altarpieces from these masters. Among the greatest practitioners of the Danube school was Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553), who came to the region from the neighboring German province of Franconia in 1500. Cranach took up residence in the city of Vienna where he began to acquire skills as a notable portrait painter. In 1505, he left the Danube region for Saxony, where he became court painter to the elector Friedrich the Wise, who later protected the Reformer Martin Luther. In Cranach’s maturity he was won over to the Protestant cause, became a friend of Luther, and used his art to propagandize for the Reformation. The artist ran a notable studio in which he trained a number of pupils, including his two sons. Of the many artists associated with his workshop, though, only his son Lucas Cranach the Younger was to have a notable career. Another great figure of the Danube School was Albrecht Altdorfer (c. 1480-1538). Altdorfer was a native of the Danubian city of Regensburg and he worked there throughout his life. The influence of Cranach and Dürer is detectible in Altdorfer’s early work, but over time he acquired an altogether more personal and dramatic style. He also evidenced an interest, early among Northern European artists, in the painting of landscape. In works like his Battle of Alexander and Darius on the Issis Altdorfer relied on dramatic lighting effects to bring alive the lakes, mountains, and rivers in which he set this famous battle from Antiquity. Similarly, in his many religious paintings Altdorfer achieved a great harmony between his human subjects and their surrounding natural environment. Other artists who were active in the Danube School included Jorg Breu and Wolf Huber, who shared Altdorfer’s and Cranach’s fascination with landscape. Both figures set many of their works within the dramatic vistas that were a common feature of this river valley region.

Hans Holbein

The final great figure of German Renaissance painting was Hans Holbein the Younger (c. 1497-1543), one of the greatest portraitists ever in the European tradition. The artist was born in Augsburg and his father, brother, and uncle were all painters. Like Dürer, Holbein traveled widely as a young man, arriving in Basel in Switzerland in 1515. There he met and became friends with the great Dutch humanist Erasmus, who asked the young Holbein to illustrate his satirical farce,The Praise of Folly. Throughout his career the artist also made illustrations for other famous books, including Luther’s translation of the Bible. One of his most successful sets of prints was a series of 41 illustrations retelling the story of the Dance of Death. Holbein stayed in Basel for almost a decade, but in 1524 he left the town for France in search of work. At this time Basel had become riddled with factional strife resulting from the Reformation, and the market for religious art was quickly drying up. In France he worked for John, the Duke of Berry, but soon returned to Basel. In the meantime the situation had grown increasingly worse there, and so in 1526, Holbein left the city again, this time to travel to the Netherlands and England. In England, he presented a letter of introduction from Erasmus to Sir Thomas More, a close associate of the Dutch humanist. Holbein painted More’s family, and a portrait of the humanist and More opened doors for the artist among the prominent patrons of the island. Richly rewarded for his portraits, Holbein returned to Basel, where he set up his shop again, this time staying until 1532 when he returned permanently to England. Eventually, Holbein became court painter, undertaking more than 100 full-size and miniature portraits for the English crown and nobility. These works display the hallmarks of Holbein’s mature style: a sure and certain use of line and brilliant, gemlike colors. Among the many English portraits the artist created, his Portrait of Henry VIII from around 1540 is one of the most accomplished and famous. One of a series of portraits the painter completed of the king, the work shows the notorious monarch in a fully frontal pose in which Holbein enhances the visual interest of the monarch through his intricate rendering of the king’s dress. Though this impressive garment provides a suitably royal frame, Holbein still manages to endow the king’s visage with a steely will and frightening intensity. The artist’s linear skill and his ability to render infinite detail is also to be seen in his famous portrait of two French ambassadors. Surrounded by curiosities and the attributes of cultivated court life, the artist paints each item in the room using a perfect and minutely rendered perspective.

Painting in the Sixteenth-Century Netherlands

During the sixteenth century the Netherlands continued to produce a number of accomplished painters. At first these figures followed in the tradition laid out by Jan van Eyck and other fifteenth-century masters. But over the course of the sixteenth century Netherlandish painting was to be reinvigorated by the journeys of Low Country artists to Italy and by a shift in the centers of artistic productions. The city of Antwerp, long a site with only a negligible circle of artists, gradually became the leading center in pioneering new forms in the visual arts. The town benefited from the decline of nearby Bruges as its harbor silted up and traders moved east to Antwerp. Among the accomplished artists who worked there in the sixteenth century were Quentin Metsys (also spelled Massys) (c. 1465-1530), Jan Gossart (c. 1478-1532), and Joachim Patinir (active 1515-1524). Metsys settled in Antwerp in 1491, where he painted a number of portraits and religious works. Deeply pious sentiments and the use of finely drawn lines characterized his religious paintings, while over time Metsys developed the portrait as a vehicle for great individuality of expression. By contrast, Joachim Patinir created wild and fanciful landscapes to serve as the backgrounds of his religious paintings. He filled these with jagged rocks, perfectly conceived villages, and other details that showed that these were not real, but imaginary realms drawn from the artist’s own conception of what constituted the glory of Creation. The final figure, Jan Gossart, brought the lessons that he learned on a journey to Italy back to Antwerp, and over the next decades he worked to integrate Italian techniques and attitudes into his works. At first his allegiances remained firmly tied to Netherlandish traditions. Over time, however, he painted more as a “Romanist,” adopting the proportions and classical iconography typical of Italian Renaissance art. Gossart won the praise of the famous Italian art historian and biographer, Giorgio Vasari, who noted that he was the first Northerner to paint the nude body with the beauty of the Italian style.


The greatest Netherlandish painter of the sixteenth century was Pieter Bruegel (c. 1525-1569). Although Bruegel’s life is shrouded in obscurity, he did sign and date his paintings, a fact that permits the reconstruction of the development of his art. These show a transformation from early landscapes which were conceived and executed according to the traditions of Flemish realism to later works which were more Italian in character. Bruegel traveled in Italy between 1551 and 1555, and while on the way there, he kept a visual record of his journeys. His drawings of the Alps rank as some of the best landscapes ever sketched by a European artist. While in Italy, the beauty of the southern Italian landscape inspired his Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, a work that retold the story of the ancient figure who flew too close to the sun. The story traditionally had been used to condemn pride and too great ambition. In Bruegel’s hands, however, he elevated the story into a moralizing sermon that instead exulted the toil of earth-bound peasants. In the foreground one such figure plows the soil, while behind him a shepherd tends his sheep. Neither takes notice of Icarus himself, who is barely visible, a floundering form upon the sea. In this work the typically harmonious balance the artist struck between the more monumental traditions of Italian art and the landscape conventions of the Netherlands became visible. Upon Bruegel’s return to the Netherlands he settled in Antwerp where he often worked for a local printer, Hieronymous Cock, the town’s most distinguished engraver. Bruegel produced designs for Cock, even as he also painted a number of works in the tradition of Hieronymus Bosch, an artist who was undergoing a surge of popularity at the time. The artist increasingly painted landscapes, particularly after his move to Brussels in 1563. Bruegel elevated landscape painting into moral sermons, reflecting the long Flemish tradition of seeing religious and moral significance in simple everyday things. Such is the case in Bruegel’s Harvesters, a work that celebrates the simple toil of peasants and the human tie to the soil as a consoling inevitability. In these late landscape creations the artist endowed his peasants with a deep humanity while placing them within a grand landscape. No Netherlandish artist who followed Bruegel ever again achieved this great harmony.

Painting in Sixteenth-Century France

In comparison to the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the sixteenth century produced few great native artists in France. For much of the 1500s the French court imported its artists from Italy. Leonardo da Vinci spent the last years of his life working in France; somewhat later the Italian mannerist Rosso Fiorentino and Francesco Primaticcio popularized their style in the country through their work in royal palaces. Native artists, though, did flourish as portraitists. The French artists Jean Clouet (c. 1485-1541) and his son François Clouet (1510-1572) served the crown for many years in this capacity. The origins of this family of painters lay originally in Flanders and they infused their works with the conventions of Netherlandish realism. Holbein probably saw the portraits that Jean Clouet had completed for the king of France while visiting the country on one of his European journeys since something of their stiff formalism and opulent grandeur also appear in his portraits of the English royal family. By contrast, Jean’s son, François was more affected by Italian examples than his father; his works seem to be influenced by the contemporary portraits of the Florentine Mannerist Bronzino. If great native painters were relatively few in sixteenth-century France, the country did produce two sculptors of merit, Jean Goujon (c. 1510-1568) and Germain Pilon (c. 1535-1590). Goujon completed most of his sculptures within the contexts of architectural projects, the five surviving reliefs he created for the Fountain of the Innocents in Paris being among his masterpieces. These works show a dramatic adoption of Italian Mannerism, with its elongated forms, supple drapery, and elegant refinement. At the same time the grace of these figures points forward to trends that French artists developed later during the Rococo period of the eighteenth century. By contrast, Germain Pilon’s sculptures were altogether more powerful. While originally influenced by Italian mannerism, Pilon developed a style that was more realistic and natural. The artist excelled in both bronze and marble and was a particular favorite of the French kings. He worked on the tombs of several French kings and completed sculptures for the royal palaces of the Louvre and Fontainebleau.


Despite its great colonial empire and wealth, Spain produced few painters and sculptors during the sixteenth century. The country imported most of its artists from abroad. The greatest of these figures was the brilliant El Greco (1541-1614), which means literally, “the Greek.” The artist, whose real name was Domenikos Theotokopoulos, was a native of the island of Crete in the Eastern Mediterranean, which at that time was a colony of Venice. When he was about 20, El Greco settled in Venice, where he had an active career painting works for the local Greek community. The dramatic and fluid brushwork of the Venetian artist Tintoretto strongly influenced the development of El Greco’s style, as did a visit to Rome somewhat later during 1570. There he admired the sculptural forms of Michelangelo, an influence which is evident in his painting of the Pietà, completed soon after his arrival in Rome. There he came into contact with a group of Spaniards who encouraged him to immigrate to Toledo in 1577. In Spain he developed his own inimitable style, characterized by extremely elon-gated human forms, wildly vivid, even garish colors, and unusual compositional groupings. These tendencies grew more pronounced as El Greco matured, and late in life, the artist developed an intensely mystical and personal style. One of the first masterpieces of El Greco’s Spanish maturity was The Burial of the Count of Orgaz, which he completed in 1586. The subject of the painting was the interment of a saintly medieval nobleman. This burial is attended by ranks of Spanish aristocrats and important church dignitaries. Above this scene Orgaz’s soul rises to heaven to be met by the Virgin Mary, Christ, and ranks of saints. In this work El Greco has already begun to elongate his human figures, a tendency that increased over time. During the artist’s late years his art also grew more feverishly intense, as can be seen in his view of Toledo and his famous Resurrection, both completed after 1600.


The period between 1300 and 1600 was one of amazing achievement in the visual arts throughout Europe. Change was constant throughout these centuries, and artistic styles frequently overlapped, with medieval styled works continuing to appear at the same time the newer more naturalistic styles of the Renaissance flourished. The primary achievements of Renaissance artists lay in their observation of the world, their discovery of nature and its complexities, and their ability to produce space and the human body realistically. Renaissance artists also considered new themes in their art. Sometimes they drew these subjects from pagan Antiquity; at other times they recorded the lives of their fellow countrymen in genre paintings and portraits. The growth and development of portraiture over the period points to the appearance of a new kind of individualism, as both painters and their patrons strove to immortalize the outward appearance and inward spirit of the personality. During the sixteenth century religious issues made the visual arts increasingly subjects of controversy. In Northern Europe the Protestant Reformation moved to limit the uses of religious art, while in Italy and other Catholic regions the Counter-Reformation aimed to reform painting and sculpture. Counter-Reformation artists gave expression to the church’s demand for an art that was clearly intelligible and which stirred the faithful to pious living. In time the new style they fashioned gave rise to the seventeenth-century Baroque, a style that drew upon the achievement, innovations, and sheer inventiveness that Renaissance artists had demonstrated over the previous centuries.