Art of the High Renaissance

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BOTTICELLI (1445 - 1510)

Sandro Botticelli studied under Fra Filippo Lippi, was influenced by both Fra Angelico and Donatello, and entered into "the charmed circle" of the Medici's Platonic Academy (Batterberry 156). Art historians place him variously as a highwater mark in the early Renaissance or an early representative of the High Renaissance. In his famous, "Primavera" (a.k.a. "Springtime" or "The Garden of Venus,") Bottielli demonstrated mastery of his craft and the inspiration of the classics that so characterized Florentine humanists. He was one of the first painters to give frank, admiring expression to classical themes, which both represented and enhanced Florence's fascination with the classics. However, like his contemporaries, he was devout. He did for art what Donatello did for sculpture: attempt to fuse the Christian with the classical, the sacred with the pagan. His two most famous paintings, "The Birth of Venus" and "Primavera," symbolize the heady optimism of the Florentine Renaissance in the Quattrocento.
Like many Renaissance paintings, "Primavera" tells a story. According to Michael Batterberry, it's possible to "read" the painting: "As Zephyr, the icy East [sic]* Wind in the right-hand corner, seeks to grasp the nymph Clovis [sic], flowers cascade from her mouth and she is transformed into the Goddess Flora at her left, wreathed in blossoms and dressed in flower-embroidered silks. Venus occupies the center of the picture...; the male figure [left] represents either Paris placing the apple of discord to award the most perfect of the Graces or Mercury dispersing the mists with his wand" (159). In "Primavera," Zephyr, the West Wind and son of Aurora, goddess of dawn, captures Chloris and makes her his consort and can be seen in "The Birth of Venus" (below) still holding her in his arms. She is raised to the rank of goddess from nymph by her marriage to Zephyr. (Cumming 22-23) *Zephyr is the West Wind; the nymph is Chloris.

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Botticelli's "The Birth of Venus" was the "first large scale Renaissance painting with an exclusively and explicitly secular and mythological subject." Venus almost seems to be carved from marble as Botticelli portrays her in the pose of a well-known Roman statue, an allusion that he expected all to recognize as he paid homage to his classical inspiration. In Botticelli's dreamy vision of poetic feminine beauty, Venus rises from the sea (according to legend, born of its foam,) welcomed by the West Wind (to her left, holding Chloris) who blows her gently to shore scattering rosebuds in her path (roses symbolizing love); an attendant nymph, representing Spring, waits to cover her nakedness.

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Proponents of the Neo-Platonic Academy interpreted"The Birth of Venus" as bringing together the legend of Venus' birth with the Christian sacrament of baptism (signifying rebirth)--Venus (earthly love) progressing towards the Virgin (divine love.) Botticelli's Venus is ethereal and unworldly, though her nudity made it difficult for the devout to make the mental leap of associating Venus with the Virgin (Janson 188). "Botticelli's Venus represents an ideal of classical beauty that was greatly admired..., especially in intellectual circles in Florence..." (Cumming 23). Towards the end of the Quattocento, Renaissance Florence experienced a swing of the pendulum away from the sunny optimism of Botticelli, Lorenzo, and the Platonic Academy.

In December, 2009, the Stadel Museum in Frankfurt, presented an exhibition devoted to Botticelli centered on
the "Idealized Female Portrait." Venus and Springtime appear over and over in Botticelli's art, the model
for whom was Simonetta Vespucci who, alas, died in 1476. Kimmelman's article on the Stadel exhibition comments
on Botticelli's signature style that "was supple, elastic, linear, refined but full of exaggerations" (C5). Kimmelman continues
that Botticelli's paintings were "polished, rich, and charming..." that he had a "meticulous eye for detail.... The great
Botticellis also have an ethereal, haunted eloquence... " (C5). Visit site below to see a sampling of
Botticelli's "Idealized Female Portrait" and/or to read the accompanying article.

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At the end of the 15th century, Dominican priest Savonarola railed against the lavish opulence of the Medici and other elites; from his pulpit he condemned their corruption and dissipation, foretelling a terrifying "day of judgment." Botticelli responded to Savonarola's dire, gloomy predictions of divine retribution, experienced a profoundreligious conversion, and flung some of his paintings on the flaming pyre known as "the burning of the vanities." His later paintings, notably the "Pieta" ("Descent from the Cross") indicate his new mood of pessimism and religiosity.

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Influential as Botticelli was on his own generation and after, the later artists--Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael--tower over the High Renaissance of the Cinquocento/1500s .

LEONARDO DA VINCI (1452 - 1519)

Apprenticed as a boy of fifteen in the studio of Verrocchio in Florence, Leonardo quickly revealed his prodigeous talents. Nothing seemed beyond his scope: painting, sculpture, engineering, architecture, music, botany, anatomy...the list is endless. "His studies encompassed every detail of the natural world" (Ruskin 11).
Leonardo was fascinated by light and shadow and experimented endlessly with the technique he invented called sfumato, "whereby the tones of a painting shift from light to dark by stages..." (Ruskin 12). In his private notebooks Leonardo wrote, "'To give figures a heightened effect, a light figure must be painted against a dark ground, and a dark figure against a light ground...'" (Ruskin 12). "The Virgin of the Rocks," one of his early masterpieces, also illustrates Leonardo's mastery of composition--note the triangular design that he favored and experimented with over and over again.

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for a slide show describing/explaining the restoration a Leonardo painting

One of his earliest efforts, the unfinished "Adoration of the Magi" illustrates several of Leonardo's signature characteristics: his fascination with light and shadow, his inability to bring a work to completion. "Leonardo was notoriously unreliable...". Art historians have commented that the conception of the work engaged his imagination, but he often found himself unable to finish the job. For example, the monks of a nearby monastery in Florence commissioned Leonardo in 1480 to paint an altar piece, with "The Adoration of the Magi" a case in point. He broke his contract with the monks, left for Milan in 1481, and never completed the painting. However, even the incomplete painting testifies to the complexity of Leonardo's vision. He included his own face in the crowd; in addition, he incorporated an old man facing death, the Magi, St. Joseph, classical ruins, men fighting. Viewers have counted "...sixty-six human beings and eleven animals" in the overcrowded and unfinished masterpiece.

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Returning to a favorite subject, the Virgin and Child and triangular composition, Leonardo painted the exquisitely beautiful and tender "The Virgin and Child and St. Anne." He places the Virgin on the lap of her mother, St. Anne, reaching out her arms to the Christ Child, who holds a lamb (signifying Christ, the Lamb of God.) Although Leonardo began the work in Florence, he took it with him to Milan where he worked for a number of years under the patronage of Ludovico Sforza.

Leonardo's most famous work--nothwithstanding his notebooks, sketches, scientific endeavors, etc., etc.--remains "La Gioconda," more famously known as "Mona Lisa" of the enigmatic smile, now familiar in its depiction on the paintings above. The portrait is that of the wife of a Florentine businessman, Francesco di Bartolommeo de Giocondo. For five hundred years, viewers have commented on its air of mystery. Vasari wrote, "'...on looking closely at the base of her neck, one could swear that her pulse was beating'" (Ruskin 20). Alas, Mr. Giocondo never gained possession of his wife's portrait; Leonardo took it with him when he answered the invitation of Francis I of France; Leonardo died in France, according to legend, still working on the painting, in 1519. It hangs in the Louvre.

"The Last Supper"

In July, 2011, Michael Kimmelman revisted "The Last Supper" and commented on its enduring power and influence.
You can look at details below. Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, offers an interesting (and unbelievable) take on
Leonardo and "The Last Supper."



For many art historians, Michelangelo's towering presence and prolific output mark the culmination of the High Renaissance. He saw himself as divinely inspired and "...could acknowledge no authority higher than the dictates of his own genius" (Janson 211). He joined the household of Lorenzo in 1490, but answered the call of the Pope in 1496. After the death of Lorenzo and the religious frenzy of Savonarola, Michelangelo moved to the more congenial atmosphere of Rome.


At the comparatively young age of twenty-one, he carved what some believe is the most beautiful statue of the Renaissance, the "Pieta." It earned him the reputation of Italy's greatest sculptor. In the "Pieta," as envisioned by Michelangelo, Mary grieves over the death of her son as she cradles his body in her arms. Her eternally young face reflects her eternal purity or sinlessness. Like the ancient Greeks whom he admired, Michelangelo carved his idea of feminine perfection in the face of the young Madonna.
follow links to Michelangelo

In 1501, Michelangelo accepted a commission in Florence to carve a statue in honor of the restoration of the Republic. For his subject, he chose the popular Renaissance hero drawn from the Old Testament, David. David symbolized the Renaissance mantra articulated by Leon Battista Alberti, "A man can do all things if he will." David, the twelve year old boy, armed with his trusty slingshot, slew the Philistine giant, Goliath. Michelangelo's fascination with the human form, especially that of the male nude, reached its perfection, according to many art historians, in "David." Bernard Berenson wrote that Michelangelo believed that the human figure was "'the best vehicle for art ...[that] directly life-confirming and life-enhancing...'" (Ruskin 25). Influenced by the Neo-Platonic school, Michelangelo "looked upon the body as the earthly prison of the soul....This dualism endows his figures with their extraordinary pathos.... They seem stirred by an overwhelming psychic energy..." (Janson 212).

In 1505, Pope Julius II--warrior pope and patron of the arts--summoned Michelangelo to Rome to design his tomb. Years of arguing and wrangling between the two men over the cost of the tomb, whether Michelangelo could be coerced by the Holy Father into painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, punctuated by threats of excommunication and flight to Constantinople resulted, at long last, in "Moses" and the unequalled frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.


While Michelangelo protested that he was a sculptor not a painter, that he had not painted since he was thirteen, Pope Julius II prevailed. The resulting stupendous achievement: Michelangelo "covered 10,000 square feet of plaster with some 343 figures.... The scheme was monumental--the story of the Creation, the Fall, and the prophecy of the Redemption of man" (Ruskin 27). Across the huge panorama of the ceiling, Michelangelo included athletes, the sibyls of antiquity, and the Old Testament prophets who foretold the coming of the Messiah

Wikipedia has a clear summary of the ceiling as a whole and each panel
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Although Michelangelo had to scale down his grandiose original plan for the tomb of Julius II, he did complete "Moses" with the idealized face of Julius as that of Moses. The horns on Moses' head refer to the legend that when he came down from the mountain top with the Ten Commandments, rays of light radiated from his forehead.

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"The Last Judgment" suggests "tragedy, terror, and eternal justice. Figures whirl like clouds around the gigantic Christ...more like a Hercules" (Ruskin 33). In the final huge undertaking of his painting career, Michelangelo portrayed a murky, dark vision of hell. However, Michelangelo's last masterpiece lay in the field of neither painting nor sculpture; he designed the dome for the basilica of St. Peter's, a key moment in the reign of Leo X and the onset of the Reformation.

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In 1534, Michelangelo was back in Rome. Europe was rocked by the Reformation and Paul III was on the papal throne. The Pope "appointed Michelangelo chief architect, sculptor, and painter to the Vatican," instructing him to paint over Perugino's frescoes on the back wall of the Sistine Chapel with an original work (Ruskin 33). "The Last Judgment" (see above) was the result of Pope Paul III's commission. The Reformation, by this time, had rocked the Church to its very foundations; Paul III was planning, even in the 1530s, a counter-attack, a Counter-Reformation. (Detail of Christ as stern avenger, right)

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RAPHAEL ( 1483 - 1519)

Raphael's father, an artist of modest talent, recognized the spark of ineffable talent in his son and apprenticed him to the studio of Perugino. Younger by almost a generation than Leonardo and by almost a decade than Michelangelo, Raphael set himself to study and learn from the masters. He practiced the sfumato technique of Leonardo and the heroic human figures of Michelangelo. The ubiquitous biographer Vasari wrote, "'He turned himself from a master into a pupil more than once.'" (Ruskin 40)


Raphael's friend, Bramante (architect of St. Peter's and rival of Michelangelo,) let him into the Sistine Chapel during Michelangelo's absence; the massive masterpiece of Michelangelo--still a work in progress--so impressed the younger artist that he attempted to replicate Michelangelo's style in the figure of Heraclitus in his own "The School of Athens." Heraclitus wears the clothes of a stonemason as Raphael acknowledges his debt to the older artist. While Raphael never equalled Michelangelo in portrayal of the human form, especially that of the male nude, "...he made up for this failing by attacking every other artistic form with gusto..." (Ruskin 40). One art historian wrote, "His genius was a unique power of synthesis that enabled him to merge the qualities of Leonardo and Michelangelo, creating an art at once lyric and dramatic..." (Janson 218).

"Heraclitus" in "The School of Athens" (for larger )
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Much of Raphael's fame rests on his tender and beautiful madonnas. Here are four: "The Cowper Madonna" and "The Sistine Madonna," (below) "La Belle Jardiniere," (left) and "The Madonna of the Goldfinch." (right) In the latter two, the same model posed for his rendering of the Virgin. Raphael reflected the influence of Leonardo in his experimentation with the triangular form of composition and in the intricate interplay of light and shadow.

jardiniere (and larger version ) < >

goldfinch (and larger version ) <


Cowper Madonna (and larger version)

Sistine Madonna (and larger version )

Only twenty-five at the time of its commission, Raphael completed his most famous painting,"The School of Athens," to decorate the Vatican Library during the Pontificate of Julius II. As suggested above, while Michelangelo toiled in the Sistine Chapel, the younger artist worked on "The School of Athens," reflecting (as in the figure of Heraclitus, thought by some to be his rendering of Michelangelo himself) Michelangelo's influence, especially in the central figures of Aristotle and Plato that dominate the fresco.

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In "The School of Athens," notice Philip of Macedon (on the far left) in armour listening to Socrates as he enumerates the points of his lecture on the fingers of his hand. Pythagoras kneels in the front left, teaching his geometry to a small group of listeners. Diogenes sprawls across the steps in the center of the painting almost at the feet of Plato and Aristotle. To the right, Raphael painted Euclid (wearing the face of his friend Bramante) explaining a difficult mathematics problem to four young men. In the niches on either side of the vast hall are Apollo on the left (holding his attribute, the lyre, loosely based on Michelangelo's "The Dying Slave") and Minerva on the right (the goddess of wisdom, patroness of those pursuing knowledge and artistic endeavors) (Cumming 32-33).


Look at the detail of "The School of Athens," to see the influences on Raphael, and why art historians have deemed him a synthesizer and an impeccable master of both classical forms and perspective. Carrying on another Renaissance tradition, he painted his own face into the picture (right.) On the left, Plato (perhaps an idealized portrait of Leonardo?) points upwards, indicating his interest in abstract theory; Aristotle, representing empiricism, stretches his hand out to the immediate world around him.

Aristotle and Plato

Raphael as Raphael

While we don't have time to examine the later, Venetian masters, it would be worth your while to "google" Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese, towering geniuses from Venice. Art critic and historian, Holland Carter, describes the 2009 Boston exhibit as a "breathtaker... monumental...masterpiece gathering..." (C19). He goes on, "In a gallery of female nudes with skin so incandescent as to barely need lighting, eroticism floats like a scent." The three artists "shot off sparks as they reforged painting as a medium."
To see a slide show of great artists of the Venetian School,
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Background. Ruskin, Ariane. "Michelangelo's 'The Last Judgment." Art of the High Renaissance. New York et al.: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1968

Batterberry, Michael. Art of the Early Renaissance. New York, et al.: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1968.

Cotter, Holland. "Passion of the Moment: A Triptych of Masters." The New York Times--Weekend Arts.
March 13, 2009.

Cumming, Robert. Annotated Guides: Art. London: Dorling Kindersley, Ltd., 1995.

Escortnet. "Leonardo Da Vinci." Instanbul, 2001. (site has flown away)

Grisham. Kathleen. Honors Art History. Saratoga: West Valley College, 2001. Online Available.

Gulbrandsen, Ms., et al. "The Birth of Venus." APEH. Pompano Beach: Ely High School.

Hales, Peter Bacon. "Michelangelo's 'David.'" The Art History Image Base. Online Available.

Harden, Mark and Nicholas Pioch. "Mona Lisa." Paris: WebMuseum. Online Available.

Jacques-Edouard Berger Foundation. "Botticelli's 'Pieta.'" Lousanne, Switzerland: Ecole Polytechnique Federale.

Janson, H. W. History of Art for Young People. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, 1983.

Kimmelman, Michael. "Classic Botticelli, Ethereal Ad Man." The New York Times. December 2, 2009.

Kimmelman, Michael. "Just a Quick Bite with Leonardo." The Arts: The New York Times. July 14, 2001.
Online available.

Kishlansky, Mark, et al. Civilization in the West. New York: HarperCollins College Publishers, 1995.

Kren, Emil and Daniel Marx. Web Gallery of Art. Oneline Available. (has replaced Tiger Tail Virtual Gallery)
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Lloyd, Brigitte Gastel. Online Available.

Mataev, Olga and Helen Mataev. "The Virgin and Child and St. Anne." Olga's Gallery. 2001.

Mezzo-Mondo Corporation. "Primavera." Arcadian Galleries, 1999-2001.

Monheit, Michael. Early Modern European Intellectual and Cultural History. University of South Alabama.

Perroud, Pierre. ""Heraclitus." ATHENA. Geneva: University of Geneva, 1999.

Treadwell. Larry. "The Wizard's Wand." The Cave Online. Online Available.
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Uzgalis, Robert and Tigertail Associates. Tigertail Virtual Art Museum. (flown away, alas, replaced by Web Gallery [above])