High Renaissance

High Renaissance

Definition, periodization and historical background of High Renaissance

Cinquecento, translated from Italian like “five hundred”, is the term of identifying the cultural life of Italy of the 16th century — the periods of High and Late Renaissance. The time lapse of the first one is usually set from the end of the 15th cent. up to 1520 — 1530s (only for Venice it will be a decade longer). Such shortness of the most fruitful age in Italian art is explained with its attachment to the creativity of some key personalities (like Leonardo, Rafael, Michelangelo etc.) that embodied renaissance esthetic in all its glory.

If Florence was the main center in Early Renaissance, changes in social and political situation in the country led to drift in the art-map of Italy. Italian wars, French invasion — all that undermined stability. But historical ascent doesn’t necessarily concur with the cultural one. Very often personalities catalyze epochal changes. For High Renaissance such person was pope Julius II. He turned Rome into the place seething with artistic life and worked out the reputation of the most powerful humanist patron.

Emergence of anti-classical tendencies at the decay of the historical stage, in 1520s-1600, is usually defined as Late Renaissance or Mannerism, historically connected with the Reformation. Despite the fact that it’s fully based on the achievements of the previous period, in many respects Mannerism formed a unique cultural phenomenon and requires to be considered separately.

Architecture of High Renaissance

The beginning of Cinquecento witnessed the heyday of Renaissance style: the art of classical architectural lexicon was matured and brought to almost a pick of clarity. It became a symbol of power and its authority. Authors systemized usage of orders and elaborated the theoretical base in some treaties. Great attention was paid to urban-planning. Main monuments of Italian architecture of that time are secular buildings, distinguished by the grandeur and harmony of their proportions, elegancy of the details, trimming and ornamentation of cornices, windows, and doors. Palaces with light, often two-level columnar galleries were common. The prominent High Renaissance architect was Antonio Palladio. His style corresponded to the urban environment, as narrow streets required more clear-cut shapes. Massive rustication, doubled columns, pendent entablature and sculpture on the roof-edges were eye-catching.

Apart from city palaces, palazzos, wealthy families often had countryside lands. Many small estates nearby the cities and big villas with large gardens of that time survived till nowadays. They were meant to for the recreation and owners desired to see an analogy of ancient roman living houses in them. The key issue was selecting place for a villa and a location on a hilltop with a closely situated lakes or rivers (as an eye-pleasing view and a water-source). Already mentioned Antonio Palladio always built villas, blending them in the surrounding landscape. For example, if a structure was situated on eminence, he made all four facades identical (like on villa La Rotonda), so the building looked good from every quarter. Usually his villas were cross-shaped in plan and had three floors — the lower one, traditionally, with rustication.

As it was already said, Rome was a cultural capital of Italy in the 16th cent. The restoration of the papal court and reconstruction of the dwindled city provided architects with numerous commissions. They became a powerful instrument for demonstration of the church’s power and magnitude. As well, as in Early Renaissance, two planning types were most popular — basilica and centric temple. Their composition corresponded to the new religious mass and functional requirements. The roman model of basket handle vault took the place of groined vaulting. Other relicts of medieval style were also rejected. Since Brunelleschi’s invention of system for erecting cupola, domes gained extreme popularity. The church of Santa Maria della Grazie, built by Donato Bramante, illustrates the aspiration towards enormity and sublimity.

Like Santa Maria del Fiore in Quattrocento’s Florence, Rome also had its own protracted building — St Peter’s basilica. In 1505 Pope Julius II decided to replace an old basilica with a new one and announced a contest for its design. Donato Bramante’s project won it, but after the death of pope, Giuliano da Sangallo, Fra Giocondo and Raphael were appointed as chief architects. After them ‑ Antonio da Sangallo the Younger. Even Michelangelo used to be “Capomaestro” here. And Giacomo della Porta, Domenico Fontana and Carlo Maderno (who finished it in 1626) after him. As the result, basilica occurred a fusion of High and late Renaissance, and baroque style.

The characteristic feature of the Cinquecento architecture is the all-round completeness of temples, villas etc.: façade was still important and emphasized, but didn’t prevail so much, like it was before. The second peculiarity of the style is the break up between structure and the appearance of the building. In Ancient Greek and Roman art, exterior gave a clear understanding of the interior’s construction. But since late 15th cent. the situation was reverse.

Sculpture of High Renaissance

Tangible changes involved sculpture as well. New, more self-sufficient, relations between it and its architectural setting was established. In fact, along with emancipation of sculpture, buildings, their decoration now became more sculpturesque. The low relief was ousted by round sculpture and high relief. Unlike in Early Renaissance, the copying of ancient forms, in sometimes more monumental (even colossal) ways slightly overshadowed the ideas of representing humanistic values in the very same forms. For sure, verisimilitude wasn’t always an end in itself, but the ambitions to replicate nature were absolutely obvious.

Among all types of Cinquecento sculpture the most interesting and significant is funeral one. A particular pattern in structure of the wall tombs was shaped. Sarcophagus (usually with a carved in marble lying figure of a deceased) resembled an altarpiece, surrounded with several biblical or allegorical statues. These statues were usually placed in niches, formed by triple structure of arcade, pilasters and other architectural elements or could be depicted carrying sarcophagus. Wall tombs expressed the Renaissance cult of individuality. Michelangelo is known for two amazing sepulchral monuments — of pope Julius II and Giuliano and Lorenzo Medici.

Portraiture developed in a small-scale medallic sculpture too. The realistic traits, with accurate representation of physiognomy, details of appearance and accessories that give us a hint at the epoch. Female characters were more tender and lyrical, as a pure glorification of beauty. The vast majority of pieces were ordered not by church, but by private patrons. That explains the rationalism, rarefied qualities of sculptural pieces. Unrestrained emotions were extraneous to the art of the period, as models wanted to underline their inner nobility.

Besides Michelangelo, important figures in High Renaissance sculpture were Florentines Jacopo Sansovino and Baccio Bandinelli.

Painting of High Renaissance

Watching from a distance, the story of Cinquecento painting is a story of four Giants of High Renaissance: Leonardo, Michelangelo, Rafael and Titian. All of them had a tremendous impact on their contemporaries and got many progenies (though no one desired to establish school). If to put aside all aspects of their creative activity, some bullet points of the art of that artistic era are:

  • Illusionism. The Early Renaissance idea of realistic imagine of figures and space reached it summit by the 16th cent. Oil painting now was a widely common media and artists mastered their knowledge of linear and aerial perspective on the highest level. For various visual effects, four principal painting techniques were used: sfumato, chiaroscuro, cangiante and unione. Leonardo da Vinci was started using sfumato (from italian “to vanish like smoke”) blurring borders, so the effect of environment filled with light and air is achieved. Unione, unlike sfumato, smooths borders, but doesn’t loose the intensity of colors. Chiaroscuro (from Italian “light — dark”) is the effected, created by contrast light, illuminating an object in the darkness. With cangiante an artist replaces one color with another, mostly to render shadows: for example, yellow color with green, if yellow isn’t intense enough.
  • Supremacy of drawing over coloring. Despite renaissance artists were good in selecting hues, a meticulous disegno of a scene with neatly defined forms was praised above all. It was so-called linear manner. However, Venetian school, since Quattrocento, maintained its picturesque inclinations. They were interested in painting light, atmosphere and richness of shades, then in bare coloring geometric forms. The sensuality of the city, nourished by its multicultural population, begot such unsurpassed masters of vivid, fleshy colors, as Titiano. This style went through the ages and eventually blossomed in the art of Impressionism.
  • Pyramidal (or triangular) composition accompanied the linear manner of painting. To provide a feeling of stability in composition and make some hierarchical accents among personages, renaissance masters often placed objects and figures within the outline of an imaginary triangle.

High Renaissance wasn’t interrupted by any external factors, but was merely exhausted after two centuries of dynamic expansion. It’s an evidence of situation, when crisis situation in society stimulates rapid spiritual upsurge. First decades of Cinquecento were the period of logical accomplishing of all creative quests, that had been started earlier in 14 — 15th cent. For sure, High Renaissance shouldn’t be perceived as the culmination of Italian art. And no way Protorenaissance and Early Renaissance art should be seen as drafts to it.

History of art isn’t a history of progress. Each epoch provides its own invaluable cultural material. For High Renaissance it was the myth about Homo Universalis that found its personification in the life stories of Giants of the Renaissance. Their oeuvre was charged with optimism and faith in intelligibleness of the world. But civilization is forced to change ideals in order to uphold its vitality. After 1490 — 1520s the general attitude towards reality changed and the art moved on. For sure, many renaissance achievements became a reference point for further styles and movements. They even exist in contemporary painting and sculpture, but within the cultural of Cinquecento.

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