Renaissance Notes

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Chapter 22 Beauty, Science, and Spirit in Italian Art: The High Renaissance and Mannerism - Notes The 15th century artistic developments in Italy matured during the 16th century. The 15th century is thus designated the “Early Renaissance” and the 16th century the “High Renaissance”. Although there is no single style that defines the period, there is a distinct level of technical and artistic mastery that does. This is the age of Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Michelangelo, and Titian, artists whose works exhibit such authority, that later generations of artists relied on these works for instruction.

These exemplary artistic creations further elevated the prestige of artists. Artists could claim divine inspiration, thereby raising visual art to a status formerly only given to poetry. Painters, sculptors, and architects were elevated to a new level and they claimed for their work a high position among the fine arts.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452 - 1519) was born in the small town of Vinci, near Florence. He trained in the studio of Andrea del Verrocchio. He was brilliant man with many interests. His directions foreshadowed those that art and science would take in the future. A discussion of his many interests enhances our understanding of his artistic production. Those interests are seen in his Romulus sketchbooks filled with drawings and notes from his studies of the human body and natural world. He explored optics in-depth, allowing him to understand perspective, light, and color. His scientific drawings are artworks themselves.

Leonardo’s ambition in painting, as well as science, was to discover the laws underlying the processes and flux of nature. Leonardo believed that reality in its absolute sense is inaccessible, and that humans can only know it through its changing images. He considered the eyes the most vital organs and sight the most essential function. In his notes, he repeatedly stated that all his scientific investigations made him a better painter.

Around 1481, Leonardo left Florence, offering his services to Ludovico Sforza, duke of Milan. In his offer he highlighted his competence as a military engineer, mentioning his artistic abilities only at the end. This provided Leonardo with increased financial security and highlights the period’s instability.

During his first trip to Milan Leonardo painted Virgin on the Rocks as a central panel of an altarpiece for the chapel of the confraternity of the Immaculate Conception in San Francesco Grande. The painting builds on Masaccio’s understanding and usage of Chiaroscuro. Modeling with light and shadow and expressing emotional states were, for Leonardo, the heart of painting.

A good painting has two chief objects to paint - man and the intention of his soul. The former is easy, the latter hard, for it must be expressed by gestures and the movement of the limbs... A painting will only be wonderful for the beholder by making that which is not so appear raised and detached from the wall.

Leonardo presented the figures in Virgin of the Rocks in a pyramidal grouping and more notably, as sharing the same environment. This groundbreaking achievement - the unified representation of objects in an atmospheric setting - was a manifestation of scientific curiosity about the invisible substance surrounding things.

The Madonna, Christ Child, infant John the Baptist, and angel emerge through nuances of light and shade from the half light of the cavernous visionary landscape. Light veils and reveals the forms, immersing them in a layer of atmosphere that exists between them and the viewer. Atmospheric perspective is in full view. The figures actions unite them; prayer, pointing, and blessing. The angel points to the infant John. His outward glance involves spectators out of view, perhaps the viewers of the painting. John prays to the Christ Child and is blessed in return. The Virgin herself completes the series of interlocking gestures,...
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