This gallery is composed of six paintings that are supposed to show the main principles and ideas of the Renaissance art in Italy. The choice of the paintings is stipulated not only by the popularity and significance of the works, but also by the way they reflect the most important artistic principles of this period. All the paintings presented in this gallery were created at the end of the fifteenth or at the beginning of the sixteenth century that roughly correspond to the period called the High Renaissance.
The artists of this time tried to revive classical ancient traditions that were almost forgotten during the Middle Ages. They also paid much attention to the philosophic ideas of humanism that glorified the potential of people and elevated the very essence of the human being. Therefore, the main focus of artists became beauty, balance and harmony. The works of art became more realistic as painters and sculptors did not reject the linear and aerial perspective as medieval artists. All these elements were combined with a new approach to religion when people were no longer treated as subservient beings as it was in the previous centuries.
This fresco is often considered one of the major works that marked the beginning of the High Renaissance. Leonardo da Vinci managed to revolutionize the art of the period by creating a masterpiece that incorporated all innovations that differ the Renaissance paintings from that of the medieval time. He depicted one of the most popular biblical scenes – the last supper Jesus had with the apostles before being betrayed and arrested. However, Da Vinci’s Last Supper significantly differs from all previous paintings. It shows the moment when Jesus told the disciples that one of them would be a betrayer, and the whirl of emotions possessed the room.
All of the apostles are shocked, but some get furious as, for instance, St. Peter, who took hold of a knife, and some are lost in sadness. Judas, who was always portrayed on the other side of the table, sits together with other disciples. All these innovations prove that Leonardo da Vinci was primarily interested in human nature than in depicting some heavenly space unattainable for the audience. Jesus and other saints lack halos that also makes them less “distant” from the viewer. In addition, da Vinci does not put Jesus and the apostles in a heavily decorated room. The hall where they have supper is quite simple and at the same time geometrically perfect. The Last Supper is also an example of exceptionally creative use of perspective and composition that helped the artist to communicate his message to the viewers. All the perspective lines meet at the center on the figure of Jesus who is the only one who remains calm and serene. Therefore, with this fresco da Vinci sets a very high standard for the art of this period.
One of the primary characteristic features of the Renaissance is its new attitude to ancient Greek and Roman motifs. Artists often started including these elements into their paintings, even those that depicted Christian scenes, such as the birth of the Virgin in the fresco by Domenico Ghirlandaio. He put this biblical scene into a contemporary Florentine palace heavily decorated with Roman-style cherubs, tall columns with Corinthian orders and other typically Latin architectural elements. As well as Da Vinci, Ghirlandaio pays crucial attention to the volume and perspective. The narrative of the painting starts in the top left corner of the painting where Saint Joachim kisses Saint Anne that leads to the Immaculate Conception of St. Mary. Then the narrative “goes down the stairs” to the chamber where St. Anne has just given birth to the Virgin and lies on a bed with three midwives helping her with the baby.
This painting is also an illustration to the new standards of patronage that were established by Lorenzo di Medici. The creation of so many extraordinary works of art as it was done during the Renaissance could not be possible without extensive supports of nobles, wealthy people and churches who gave commissions to artists and supported them in their work. Birth of the Virgin by Ghirlandaio depicts the daughter of the donor, Ludovica Tornabuoni, who enters the room where St. Anne gave birth to the Virgin. In this way Ghirlandaio honors the family of his patron and elegantly connects figures who symbolize the past with the present.
References to Greek and Roman art were evident not only in the inclusion of ancient architectural elements into the composition, but also in the direct addresses to popular mythological themes in art. This painting created by Sandro Botticelli is titled Primavera, that is the allegory of Spring. The artist depicted Venus, a woman in the center in a red shawl, in her garden. To the left of her there are Three Graces and Mercury (or Mars in different interpretations). At the far right part of the painting Botticelli portrayed Chloris running away from Zephyrus and a goddess of flowers and spring. All these mythological gods and deities prove how interested the society was in the ancient cultures. The painting was commissioned by someone from a powerful Medici family and there are many different theories concerning who of Medici or other nobles were the models for the figures in the painting. However, it is even more important that the elite wanted to be identified with Roman gods that served as a proof of great interest in ancient traditions, philosophy and culture. It is also very interesting that iconography of Venus is quite close to the way the Virgin was usually portrayed. The Roman goddess stands in the art of trees that form something like a halo for her, but a natural one created by the branches and the sky.
This work of art also shows how significantly improved the artistic techniques since the Middle Ages. It became possible to apply the paint in very gentle and thin layers creating the effect that was called sfumato. This canonic for the Renaissance painting mode was aimed at rendering subtle transitions between tones and colors. This technique is applied in many parts of Primavera, but it is most obvious in the way Botticelli depicted clothes of the graces and Chloris.
The portrait of St. Jerome by Verrocchio who was considered one of Leonardo da Vinci’s teachers is a perfect illustration to the new interpretation of religious images and themes. St. Jerome was considered to be one of the most educated Doctors of the Church and a patron of librarians and translators. He was usually portrayed with his symbols – a book, some writing materials and a lion that always accompanied him. However, Verrocchio rejected these traditions and focused on the humanistic aspects. St. Jerome is portrayed as an old man looking somewhere above him. He seems to be a very wise and experienced man who came to the God and better understanding of faith only late in his life. At the same time St. Jerome looks quite tired, a very humane feature that could not be seen in any medieval representation of saints.
In addition, Verrocchio’s painting is an example of another important artistic technique of the Renaissance – chiaroscuro. It is a combination of contrasted light and dark areas. It has two major purposes – to model the object by adding more three-dimensionality and produce the maximum emotional effect on the viewer. The light falls on St. Jerome’s face from the above symbolizing the light of the faith and the God, but the background at this painting is almost dark, so the figure of the saint creates a powerful contrast to the environment. This chiaroscuro modeling can be also seen on the body of the man – his wrinkles and bones. It is especially evident on the areas around his eyes and nose. In general, this portrait is extremely realistic and incorporates all humanistic principles of the Renaissance.
Although the attention of the artists to the realistic rendering of the human body is evident in all previous works of this gallery, Michelangelo’s drawings make a huge contribution to better understanding of this tendency. These preparatory sketches were done by Michelangelo at the initial stages of working with the Sistine Chapel decorations. Although Sibyl appears fully dressed at the final frescoes, the artist thoroughly studies her muscles, the way her body turns and many other anatomic details. It is amazing how much attention the painter pays even to the toes on her feet that would be obviously impossible to see properly at the height of about twenty meters (the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel). Not all elements present at these drawings can be found at the final variant of the fresco that proves the growing focus of the artists on the realism and physicality of the human figures. The pose of Sibyl is much more complicated than the poses of people at the medieval drawing that also results from the better studies of the dynamics and movements of the human body.
It is also important to add that these studies were done not only visually, but also via close examination of human organs and bones during dissection of human corpses. These methods were practiced by Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Pollaiuolo and some other prominent artists, but this practice was not much approved by the church that resulted in many limitations and restrictions.
It would not be a mistake to say that in addition to thorough studies of human anatomic details the Renaissance artists also improved their understanding of human psychology and learnt how to render various emotional states of a person. The portraiture of the Renaissance, both religious and civic, reached unprecedented heights. Ghirlandaio’s painting titled Portrait of an Old Man and a Boy is a brilliant illustration to this tendency. The emotional poignancy of this painting depicting a grandfather embracing his grandson (although the true identities of these people are unknown) makes this work of art one of the greatest masterpieces of the Renaissance portraiture. At the same time the realism of this painting is uncompromising – the nose of the old man is deformed with the skin disease and all his face is covered with wrinkles.
His appearance creates a powerful contrast with the delicacy and naivety of the child who looks like a small angel. The general thematic content and the composition of this painting are quite typical for this period – the figures are shown on the dark background with some schematic landscape seen through the window (the similar approach could be seen in The Last Supper by Da Vinci). Portrait of an Old Man and a Boy is a tribute to human virtues, such as wisdom, affection, sympathy and, what is even more important, connection between generations. It also proves that many Renaissance painters had extraordinary skills to capture the personality of the person, regardless whom they painted – a real person or a saint.
All things considered, the Renaissance was one of the most prolific periods in European art. Such artists as Da Vinci, Botticelli, Ghirlandaio and others created a large number of works, so of which are shown in this gallery. They represent both important philosophical and technical changes that happened during this period – revival of humanism, focus on realism and perspective and others.