Prior to the 16th century, only a minority of Europeans were able to read, but by the 1500’s, an increase in literacy occurred synonymously with an increase in book printing. Also, in 1517, Martin Luther introduced his Ninety-Five Theses, which led to the establishment of Protestantism, a Christian movement away from the Catholic Church. Art from this period reflects the artist’s and society’s reactions to the Protestant Reformation. Many Protestants destroyed religious artwork (i.e. stained-glass windows), and instead had a greater focus on landscape, courtly scenes, and acceptable religious pieces.
In the 16th century, the Renaissance had overwhelmed Italy and was slowly moving throughout the rest of Europe. Because of the new establishment of the Vatican in Rome, this city became a center for new Christian art and Renaissance ideals. Meanwhile, in Florence, artists were receiving more commissions from private sources and had made the switch from tempera to oil. Many artists, such as Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and Correggio, trained and completed some earlier work in Florence and Northern Italy. One painting in particular done by Leonardo captures the Renaissance essence of the 16th century: The Last Supper.
With the order, stage-like space, and one point perspective, Leonardo captures the human emotions in a symbolic narrative. He even used recognizable people as models. The calm, enduring setting and figures build onto the already established early Renaissance forms and characterize the art in the 16th century.
And everyone knows Leonardo’s Mona Lisa! The Louvre in Paris has the original but if you want to experience the challenge of her direct stare and observe the softly modeled forms first hand—there is a copy at the Walters! Just go the 16th century Art Gallery!
Although this copyist did not completely master Leonardo’s techniques, there is an attempt to recreate the sfumato (a smokey haze effect) like the original. Leonardo incorporated techniques such as sfumato as well as experimenting with chiaroscuro (Italian for “light-dark”). With chiaroscuro, the figures would be more realistic because of the deeply contrasted light and dark tones. But Leonardo was not just a painter! In fact, he was much more interested in math and the natural world.
With the Vatican in place, Rome was undergoing a complete revival—socially, religious, politically, and even artistically! Artists from all over Europe traveled to Rome to contribute to the city’s “makeover.” The biggest project was the decoration of the Sistine chapel. Raphael was immediately put to work in the papal apartments, where he created one of his most well known works, School of Athens. Typical of Renaissance style, Raphael incorporated the classical idea of philosophy (Plato and Aristotle in the center), trompe l’oeil architecture, and set-like organization of the figures.
While Raphael was working on School of Athens, Michelangelo was busy working on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel. Although Michelangelo much preferred sculpture, Pope Julius II was confident that his strong work ethic and keen artistic ability would be sufficient for the redecoration of such an extreme task–and he was right! In accordance with Julius’s directions, Michelangelo created a narrative sequence inside an illusionistic architectural frame. Biblical scenes of the Creation, the Fall, and the Flood, were divided into compartments by bands of stone. Due to his superb sculpting, his ignudi (male young men) that accented the sides were perfection in form and modeling. In his sixties, Michelangelo also took on the demanding task of painting the Last Judgement on the wall behind the altar.
Side note: In the 20th century, a restoration test was done on a single lunette of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. The ceiling had long been accepted as having a dusky appearance but underneath the dust and dirt, the conservators found brilliantly bright colors. In 1981 conservators set up a plan to restore the ceiling to its original state and in 1989, it was finished. To many art historians and people who appreciated the beauty of the ceiling, this was a controversial plan that could destroy Michelangelo’s work by moving so quickly. Also, many people thought that Michelangelo had purposely dulled the colors by reworking the fresco. To learn more about the restoration of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling click here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Restoration_of_the_Sistine_Chapel_frescoes
Meanwhile, in Venice, painters used oil paint on canvas that perfectly suited the styles of the major Venetian painters: Giorgione, Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese. By painting on canvas, the painters had much greater flexibility; they could paint in their studio and carry it to the location to be displayed but also, because oil paint takes so long to dry, they were able to correct their mistakes easily. In the 16th century, many women became strong supporters of the arts. Titian painted a portrait of one of these important (if not the most important) female patron, Isabella d’Este from Mantua. He was able to portray her individual characteristics through his meticulous brushstrokes. The Venetian painter, Tintoretto, elaborated on his teacher Titian’s techniques. His brushstrokes were faster and bolder, yet his paintings were dynamic with vivid colors and strong lighting. Veronese, however, was much more focused on trompe l’oeil architectural scenes and elaborate costumes and textiles.
You can see just how detailed Veronese’s work is by visiting the Walters Art Museum to see the Portrait of Countess Livia da Porto Thiene and her Daughter Porzia.
Architecturally in Italy during the 16th century, many of the classical Greco-Roman characteristics were still influencing many of the buildings like they had done in the previous century. Rome was influenced by the widely published book by Vitruvius, a Roman architect from the first century BCE. The most important achievement was Saint Peter’s Basilica designed by Michelangelo (yes, he was an architect too!). Venetian architecture was dominated by Jacopo Sansovino and Palladio. In the second half of the 16th century, Palladio displayed his diverse designs in his numerous villas along the Italian countryside. His most famous villa, Villa Rotunda (inspired by the Roman Pantheon), incorporates classical influences such as ionic porches on each side of the building and a central dome. This first central dome on a domestic home has influenced so many more country home designs.
Although Renaissance style was very popular in Europe in the 16th century, other artists had slightly varied ideals and ways of expression. This movement was called Mannerism. Mannerism suggests art that exhibits certain playfulness and does not exactly conform to the idealized, classical “beauty” of the Renaissance culture. By using unusual colors, elongated forms, over-exaggerated expressions, odd arrangements, or bizarre scenes, mannerist artists developed their own aim of expression through their art beginning in the second decade of the 16th century. It is true, however, that artists could be both Renaissance and Mannerist artists—take Raphael, for example. Towards the end of his career, he transitioned to a much more mannerist style. Some of the more notable Italian mannerist artists are Pontormo, Parmigianino, and Bronzino.
This painting below is in the mannerist style, which can be characterized by the elongated figure and careful detail to anatomical features. Mannerist artists were known for their knowledge of anatomy, but also for their tendency to manipulate anatomy for a visual effect. Come see this painting in the 16th Century Art Gallery on the 3rd floor at the Walters Art Museum!
Spain also was experiencing a mannerist movement with the arrival of the artist whom the called El Greco (“The Greek”). El Greco was criticized by some for his often expressionistic and daring style. Each painting was very emotional and had dramatic lighting effects. El Greco was known to regard color over form, thus his figures were often vibrantly colored and excessively elongated.
The most well-known Netherlandish painter during the 16th century is Hieronymous Bosch for his triptych Garden of Delights. By combining decorative forms and people, Bosch created a bizarre scene. Coupled with his surreal style, Bosch featured a troubling scene focused on sin and damnation. He brought a humorous, yet terrifying outlook on a religious theme.
Many artists tried to imitate Bosch’s comical stance on sin and hell, such as the piece the Walters Art Museum has on display in the Chamber of Wonders by Pieter Huys. Huys incorporates ordinary characters with imaginative monsters to emphasize his message.
Brueghel the Elder also dominated art in 16th century Netherland by focusing and being so observant of scenes of Flemish life. His work is characterized by having big groups disguising or hiding a main figure, which often draws the viewer visually into the piece.
Germany and the Holy Roman Empire
In the last decades of the 16th century, arts flourished in Germany and the Holy Roman Empire, despite many of the religious disputes and social problems. Although German artists’ styles varied, most of them were highly influenced by the religious reforms. Germany was dominated by the works by either Matthias Grunewald or Albrecht Durer. Grunewald is known specifically for the Isenheim Altarpiece created for Saint Anthony of Isenheim’s hospital where it was used as visual medical care for the patients. When it was closed, Grunewald had painted a dark, horrific crucifixion. Yet contrasted with the exterior, the interior was bright and comforting. Grunewald’s simplified forms arouse an emotional and sympathetic response in the viewer. Albrecht Durer, on the contrary, was more focused on the visual aspects than the sympathetic reaction. His focus was primarily on revealing the subject’s personality through individualized features. Because of the harsh society and economy during the 16th century in Germany, Durer made prints to earn some money. Although prints were typically not expensive, his attention to detail and ability to carefully arrange sets, his prints made him a fortune.
The High Renaissance period may seem endless and confusing, but it merely builds on what was developed in the 15th century Early Renaissance (with the exception of the Mannerist movement). Most of the architecture is yet again Greco-Roman influenced; most of the paintings are still religiously themed and have classical contours; and the sculptors are still imitating Roman models. And Mannerism is basically a rebellious reaction and expressive movement to the strict Renaissance ideals. Historically, the Protestant Reformation did have a huge impact on European societies, so naturally it influences art. The Catholic Church, however, may have had an even bigger impact on art (the Sistine Chapel!). Renaissance artists were influenced even in the 16th century by the religious, political, and social changes that occurred during this “rebirth” after the Dark Ages. The ideas were accepted and adapted all over Europe and thus we have “European Renaissance.”