TIMELINE OF WORLD HISTORY
 

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  Late Gothic & Early Renaissance

Architecture
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Late Gothic & Early Renaissance
 
 
 
Painting
 
 
 
Robert Campin
Jan van Eyck & Hubert van Eyck
Rogier van der Weyden
Hugo van der Goes
Geertgen tot Sint Jans
Hieronymus Bosch
Konrad Witz
Jean Fouquet
Enguerrand Charonton
Michael Pacher
Martin Schongauer

Masaccio

Fra Filippo Lippi
Fra Angelico
Domenico Veneziano
Piero della Francesca
Paolo Uccello
Andrea del Castagno
Botticelli
Piero di Cosimo
Domenico Ghirlandaio

Pietro Perugino
Luca Signorelli
Andrea Mantegna
Giovanni Bellini
 
 

Botticelli

In Florence, the trend forecast by Castagno's David substitutes energetic, graceful movement and agitated linear contours for the stable monumentality of Masaccio's style. Its climax comes in the final quarter of the century, in the art of Sandro Botticelli
(1444/5-1510). He was trained by Fra Filippo Lippi, whose Madonna Enthroned already had undercurrents of linear movement, and was strongly influenced by Pollaiuolo. Botticelli soon became the favorite painter of the so-called Medici circle: those patricians, literati, scholars, and poets surrounding Lorenzo the Magnificent, the head of the Medici family and, for all practical purposes, the real ruler of the city.

For one member of this group, Botticelli did The Birth of Venus, his most famous picture. Its kinship with Pollaiuolo's Battle of the Ten Naked Men is unmistakable. The shallow modeling and the emphasis on outline produce an effect of low relief rather than of solid, threedimensional shapes. In both we note a lack of concern with deep space. The ornamentalized thicket forms a screen behind the naked men much like the grove on the right-hand side of the Venus. But the differences are just as striking. Botticelli obviously does not share Pollaiuolo's passion for anatomy. His bodies are more attenuated and drained of all weight and muscular power. Indeed, they seem to float even when they touch the ground. All this seems to deny the basic values of the founders of Early Renaissance art, yet the picture does not look medieval. The bodies, ethereal though they be, retain their voluptuousness. They are genuine nudes enjoying full freedom of movement.


BOTTICELLI. The Birth of Venus, с. 1480. Tempera on canvas, 1,8 x 2,8.
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence




NEO-PLATONISM.

The Birth of Venus,
in fact, contains the first monumental image since Roman times of the nude goddess in a pose derived from classical statues of Venus. Moreover, the subject of the picture is clearly meant to be serious, even solemn. How could such images be justified in a Christian civilization, without subjecting both artist and patron to the accusation of neo-paganism? To understand this paradox, we must consider the meaning of our picture, and the general use of classical subjects in Early Renaissance art. During the Middle Ages, classical form had become divorced from classical subject matter. Artists could only draw upon the ancient repertory of poses, gestures, expressions, and types by changing the identity of their sources. Philosophers became apostles, Orpheus turned into Adam, Hercules was now Samson. When medieval artists had occasion to represent the pagan gods, they based their pictures on literary descriptions rather than visual models. This was the situation, by and large, until the mid-fifteenth century. Only with Pollaiuoloand Mantegna in northern Italydoes classical form begin to rejoin classical content. Pollaiuolo's lost paintings of the Labors of Hercules (about 1465) mark the earliest instance, so far as we know, of large-scale subjects from classical mythology depicted in a style inspired by ancient monuments.

In the Middle Ages, classical myths had at times been interpreted didactically, however remote the analogy, as allegories of Christian precepts. Europa abducted by the bull, for instance, could be declared to signify the soul redeemed by Christ. But such pallid constructions were hardly an adequate excuse for reinvesting the pagan gods with their ancient beauty and strength. To fuse the Christian faith with ancient mythology, rather than merely relate them, required a more sophisticated argument. This was provided by the Neo-Platonic philosophers, whose foremost representative, Marsilio Ficino, enjoyed tremendous prestige during the later years of the fifteenth century and after. Ficino's thought was based as much on the mysticism of Plotinus as on the authentic works of Plato. He believed that the life of the universe, including human life, was linked to God by a spiritual circuit continuously ascending and descending, so that all revelation, whether from the Bible, Plato, or classical myths, was one. Similarly, he proclaimed that beauty, love, and beatitude, being phases of this same circuit, were one. Thus Neo-Platonists could invoke the "celestial Venus" (that is, the nude Venus born of the sea, as in our picture) interchangeably with the Virgin Mary, as the source of "divine love" (meaning the recognition of divine beauty). This celestial Venus, according to Ficino, dwells purely in the sphere of Mind, while her twin, the ordinary Venus, engenders "human love."

Once we understand that Botticelli's picture has this quasi-religious meaning, it seems less astonishing that the two wind gods on the left look so much like angels and that the personification of Spring on the right, who welcomes Venus ashore, recalls the traditional relation of St. John to the Saviour in the Baptism of Christ. As baptism is a "rebirth in God," so the birth of Venus evokes the hope for "rebirth" from which the Renaissance takes its name. Thanks to the fluidity of Neo-Platonic doctrine, the number of possible associations to be linked with our painting is almost limitless. All of them, however, like the celestial Venus herself, "dwell in the sphere of Mind," and Botticelli's deity would hardly be a fit vessel for them if she were less ethereal.

Neo-Platonic philosophy and its expression in art were obviously too complex to become popular outside the select and highly educated circle of its devotees. In 1494, the suspicions of ordinary people were aroused by the friar Girolamo Savonarola, an ardent advocate of religious reform, who gained a huge following with his sermons attacking the "cult of paganism" in the city's ruling circle. Botticelli himself was perhaps a follower of Savonarola and reportedly burned a number of his "pagan" pictures. In his last works he returned to traditional religious themes but with no essential change in style. He seems to have given up painting entirely after 1500, even though the apocalyptic destruction of the world predicted by Savonarola at the millennium-and-a-half was not fulfilled.




Piero di Cosimo


The Discovery of Honey
by Botticelli's younger contemporary Piero di Cosimo (1462-1521) illustrates a view of pagan mythology diametrically opposed to that of the Neo-Platonists. Instead of "spiritualizing" the pagan gods, it brings them down to earth as beings of flesh and blood. In this alternate theory, humanity had slowly risen from a barbaric state through the discoveries and inventions of a few exceptionally gifted individuals. Gratefully remembered by posterity, they were finally accorded the status of gods. St. Augustine subscribed to such a view (which can be traced back to Hellenistic times) without facing all of the implications expressed by ancient authors. The complete theory, which was not revived until the late fifteenth century, postulates a gradual evolution from the animal level and so conflicts with the scriptural account of Creation. This could be glossed over, however, by making a happy idyll out of the achievements of these pagan "culture heroes" to avoid the impression of complete seriousness, which is exactly what Piero di Cosimo has done in our picture.

Its title refers to the central episode, a group of satyrs busying themselves about an old willow tree. They have discovered a swarm of bees, and are making as much noise as possible with their pots and pans to induce the bees to cluster on one of the branches. The satyrs will then collect the honey, from which they will produce mead. Behind them, to the right, some of their companions are about to discover the source of another fermented beverage: they are climbing trees to collect wild grapes. Beyond is a barren rock, while on the left are gentle hills and a town. This contrast does not imply that the satyrs are city dwellers. It merely juxtaposes civilization, the goal of the future, with untamed nature. Here the "culture hero" is Bacchus, who appears in the lower right-hand corner with a tipsy grin on his face, next to his ladylove, Ariadne. Despite their classical appearance, Bacchus and his companions do not in the least resemble the frenzied revelers of ancient mythology. They have an oddly domestic air, suggesting a fun-loving family clan on a picnic. The brilliant sunlight, the rich colors, and the far-ranging landscape make the scene a still more plausible extension of everyday reality. We can well believe that Piero cli Cosimo, in contrast to Botticelli, admired the great Flemish masters, for this landscape would be inconceivable without the strong influence of The Portinari Altarpiece.



PIERO DI COSIMO. The Discovery of Honey, с. 1499.
Tempera on wood panel,
79.2 x 128.5 cm.
Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, Massachusetts





Domenico Ghirlandaio

 


Piero was not the only Florentine painter receptive to the realism of the Flemings.
Domenico Ghirlandaio
(1449-1494), another contemporary of Botticelli, shared this inclination. Ghirlandaio's fresco cycles have so many portraits that they almost serve as family chronicles of the wealthy patricians who sponsored them.

Among his most touching individual portraits is the panel An Old Man and His Grandson
. Although it lacks the pictorial delicacy of Flemish portraits, it reflects their precise attention to surface texture and facial detail. But no Northern painter could have rendered the tender relationship between the little boy and his grandfather with Ghirlandaio's human understanding. Psychologically, our panel plainly bespeaks its Italian origin.





GHIRLANDAIO.
An Old Man and His Grandson.

с
. 1480.
Tempera and oil on wood panel,
61.2 x 45.5 cm.
Musee du Louvre, Paris





Pietro Perugino


Rome, long neglected during the papal exile in Avignon
, once more became an important center of art patronage in the later fifteenth century. As the papacy regained its political power on Italian soil, the occupants of the Chair of St. Peter began to beautify both the Vatican and the city, in the conviction that the monuments of Christian Rome must outshine those of the pagan past. The most ambitious pictorial project of those years was the decoration of the walls of the Sistine Chapel beginning around 1482. Among the artists who carried out this large cycle of Old and New Testament scenes we encounter most of the important painters of central Italy, including Botticelli and Ghirlandaio, although these frescoes do not, on the whole, represent their best work.

There is, however, one notable exception: The Delivery of the Keys by Pietro Perugino (c. 1446/501523) must rank as his finest achievement. Born near Perugia in Umbria (the region southeast of Tuscany), he maintained close ties with Florence. His early development had been decisively influenced by Verrocchio, as the statuesque balance and solidity of the figures in The Delivery of the Keys suggest. The grave, symmetrical design conveys the special importance of the subject in this particular setting: the authority of St. Peter as the first pope, and that of all his successors, rests on his having received the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven from Christ Himself. A number of contemporaries, with powerfully individualized features, witness the solemn event. Equally striking is the vast expanse of the background. Its two Roman triumphal arches (both modeled on the Arch of Constantine; flank a domed structure in which we recognize the ideal church of Alberti's Treatise on Architecture. The spatial clarity, achieved by the mathematically exact perspective of this view, is the heritage of Piero della Francesca, who spent much of his later life working for Umbrian clients, notably the duke of Urbino. Also from Urbino, shortly before 1500, Perugino received a pupil whose fame would soon outshine his own: Raphael, the most classic master of the High Renaissance.
 


PERUGINO. The Delivery of the Keys. 1482. Fresco.
Sistine Chapel, The Vatican, Rome





Luca Signorelli


Luca Signorelli
(1445/50-1523) is linked to Perugino by a similar background, although his personality is far more dramatic. Of provincial Tuscan origin, he had been a disciple of Piero della Francesca before coming to Florence in the 1470s. Like Perugino, Signorelli was strongly impressed by Verrocchio, but he also admired the energy, expressiveness, and anatomic precision of Pollaiuolo's nudes. Combining these influences with Piero's cubic solidity of form and mastery of perspective foreshortening, Signorelli achieved a style of epic grandeur that later made a lasting imprint on Michelangelo. He reached the climax of his career just before 1500 with the four monumental frescoes on the walls of the S. Brizio Chapel in Orvieto Cathedral representing the end of the world. The most dynamic of these is The Damned Cast into Hell. What most strikes us is not Signorelli's use of the nude body as an expressive instrument, even though he far surpasses his predecessors in this respect, but the deep sense of tragedy that pervades the scene. Signorelli's Hell, the exact opposite of Bosch's, is illuminated by the full light of day, without nightmarish machines of torture or grotesque monsters. The damned retain their human dignity, and the devils, too, are humanized. Even in Hell, it seems, the Renaissance faith in humanity does not lose its force.
 


SIGNORELLI. The Damned Cast into Hell. 1499-1500. Fresco.
S. Brizio Chapel, Orvieto Cathedral




VENICE AND PADUA.

We must now consider the growth of Early Renaissance art in northern Italy. The International Style in painting and sculpture lingered there until mid-century, and architecture retained a strongly Gothic flavor long after the adoption of a classical vocabulary. As a result, there were hardly any achievements of major significance in these fields, but between 1450 and 1500 a great tradition was born in Venice and its dependent territories that was to flourish for the next three centuries. The Republic of Venice, although more oligarchic and unique in its eastward orientation, had many ties with Florence. It is therefore not surprising that Venice, rather than the duchy of Milan, should have become the leading center of Early Renaissance art in northern Italy.




Andrea Mantegna

Florentine masters had been carrying the new style to Venice and to the neighboring city of Padua since the 1420s. Fra Filippo Lippi, Uccello, and Castagno had worked there at one time or another. Still more important was Donatello's ten-year sojourn. Their presence, however, evoked only rather timid local responses until, shortly before
1450, the young Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506) emerged as an independent master. He was first trained by a minor Paduan painter, but his early development was decisively shaped by the impressions he received from locally available Florentine works and, we may assume, by personal contact with Donatello. Next to Masaccio, Mantegna was the most important painter of the Early Renaissance. He, too, was a precocious genius, fully capable at 17 of executing commissions of his own. Within the next decade, he reached artistic maturity, and during the next half-century (he died at the age of 75) he broadened the range of his art but never departed, in essence, from the style he had formulated in the 1450s.

The greatest achievement of Mantegna's early career, the frescoes in the Church of the Eremitani in Padua, was almost entire!) destroyed by an accidental bomb explosion in 1944 a more grievous loss than the murals of the Pisa Camposanto. St. James Led to His Execution is the most dramatic scene of the cycle because of its daring "worm's-eye view" perspective, which is based on the beholder's actual eye level. (The central vanishing point is below the bottom of the picture, somewhat to the right of center.) The architectural setting consequently looms large, as in Masaccio's Trinity Iresco. Its main feature is a huge triumphal arch which, although not a copy of any known Roman monument, looks so authentic in every detail that it might as well be.

Here Mantegna's devotion to the visible remains of antiquity, almost like that of an archaeologist, shows his close association with the learned humanists at the University of Padua, who had the same reverence for every word of ancient literature. No Florentine painter or sculptor of the time could have transmitted such an attitude to him. The same desire for authenticity can be seen in the costumes of the Roman soldiers. It even extends to the use of "wet" drapery patterns, an invention of Classical Greek sculpture inherited by the Romans. But the tense figures, lean and firmly constructed, and especially their dramatic interaction, clearly derive from Donatello. Mantegna's subject hardly demands this agitated staging. The saint, on the way to his execution, blesses a paralytic and commands him to walk. Many of the bystanders express by glance and gesture how deeply the miracle has stirred them. The large crowd generates an extraordinary emotional tension that erupts into real physical violence on the far right, as the great spiral curl of the banner echoes the turbulence below.



MANTEGNA.  St. Umies Led to His Execution. с. 1455. с. 1455. Fresco. Ovetari Chapel, Church of the Eremitani, Padua (destroyed 1944)
MANTEGNA.  St. Umies Led to His Execution. с. 1455. Pen drawing, 15.7 x 23.5 cm.
Collection G. M. Gathorne-Hardy, Donnington Priory, Newbury, Berkshire, England

 

By rare good luck, a sketch for this fresco has survived, the earliest instance we know of a drawing that permits us to compare the preliminary and final versions of such a design. (Among the drawings by earlier masters, none, it seems, is related to a known picture in the same way.) This sketch differs from sinopie in its tentative, unsettled quality. The composition has not yet taken full shape. Still growing, as it were, the image in our drawing is "unfinished" both in the conception and the quick, shorthand style. We note, for example, that here the perspective is closer to normal, indicating that the artist worked out the exact scheme only on the wall. Our drawing also offers proof of what we suspected in the case of Masaccio: that Early Renaissance artists actually conceived their compositions in terms of nude figures. The group on the right is still in that first stage, and in the others the outlines of the body show clearly beneath the costume. But the drawing is more than a document. It is a work of art in its own right. The very quickness of its "handwriting" gives it an immediacy and rhythmic force that are necessarily lost in the fresco.
 

On the evidence of these works, we would hardly expect Mantegna to be much concerned with light and color.
The St. Sebastian painted only a few years after the Paduan frescoes, shows that he was, however. In the foreground, to be sure, we find the familiar array of classical remains (including, this time, the artist's signature in Greek). The saint, too, looks more like a statue than a living body. But beyond we see a wonderfully atmospheric landscape and a deep blue sky dotted with the softest of white clouds.

The entire scene is bathed in the warm radiance of late afternoon sunlight, which creates a gently melancholy mood, making the pathos of the dying saint doubly poignant. The background of our panel shows the influence, direct or indirect, of the Van Eycks.

Some works of the great Flemish masters had surely reached Florence as well as Venice between 1430 and 1450, and must have been equally admired in both cities. But in Venice they had more immediate effect, evoking the interest in lyrical, light-filled landscapes that became an ingrained part of Venetian Renaissance painting.





MANTEGNA.  
St. Sebastian,
с.
1455-60.
Tempera on panel,
68 x 30.6 cm.
Kunsthistonsches Museum, Vienna





Giovanni Bellini


In the painting of
Giovanni Bellini (с 1431-1516), Mantegna's brother-in-law, we trace the further growth of the Flemish tradition. Bellini was slow to mature, and his finest pictures, such as St. Francis in Ecstasy, date from the last decades of the century or later. The subject is unique. The saint has left his wooden pattens behind and stands barefoot on holy ground, like Moses in the Lord's presence. Despite the absence of the crucified seraph that appeared to him on Mount Alverna, the painting seemingly shows Francis receiving the stigmata (the wounds of Christ) on the Feast of the Holy Cross in 1224, although they are barely visible even in person. However, it also "illustrates" the Hymn of the Sun, which he composed the following year after his annual fast at a hermitage near his hometown of Assisi. During that time he could not bear the sight of light and was plagued as well by mice. The monk finally emerged from these torments after being assured by the Lord that he would enter the Kingdom of Heaven. We see him looking ecstatically up at the sun. (Note the direction of the shadows.) In the background is a magnificent expanse of Italian countryside. Yet this is no ordinary landscape. It represents the Heavenly Jerusalem, inspired by the Revelation of St. John the Divine. It lies across the river, separated from the everyday realm by the bridge to the left. Behind looms Mount Zion, where the Lord dwells. How, then, shall we enter the gate to Paradise, shown as a large tower? For Francis, the road to salvation lay in the ascetic life, signified by the cave, which also connects him symbolically to St. Terome, the first great hermit saint. The donkey is a symbol of St. Francis himself, who referred to his body as Brother Ass, which must be disciplined. The other animals (difficult to discern in our illustration) are, like monks, solitary creatures in Christian lore: the heron, bittern, and rabbit.

The complex iconography is not sufficient in itself to explain the picture. Far more important is the treatment of the landscape. St. Francis is here so small in comparison to the setting that he seems almost incidental. Yet his mystic rapture before the beauty of the visible world sets our own response to the view that is spread out before us, ample and intimate at the same time. St. Francis revered nature as the Lord's handiwork, made for humanity's benefit. Our artist shares his tender lyricism, expressed in the Hymn of the Sun:

Be praised, my Lord, with all Your creatures,
Above all Brother Sun,
Who gives the day and by whom You shed light on us.
And he is beautiful and radiant with great splendor.
Of Thee, Most High, he is a symbol.

Bellini's contours are less brittle than those of Mantegna, the colors softer and the light more glowing. He has as well the concern of the great Flemings for every detail and its symbolism. Unlike the Northerners, however, he can define the beholder's spatial relationship to the landscape. The rock formations of the foreground are structurally clear and firm, like architecture rendered by the rules of scientific perspective.

As the foremost painter of the city of Venice, Bellini produced a number of formal altar panels of the sacra conversazione type. The last and most monumental one of the series is the Madonna and Saints of 1505 in S. Zaccaria. Compared to Domenico Veneziano's sacra conversazione of 50 years earlier, the architectural setting is a good deal simpler but no less impressive. We stand in the nave of a church, near the crossing (which is partly visible), with the apse filling almost the entire panel. The figures appear in front of the apse, however, under the great vaulted canopy of the crossing. The structure is not a real church, for its sides are open and the entire scene is flooded with gentle sunlight, just as Domenico Veneziano had placed his figures in a semi-outdoor setting. The Madonna's solid, high-backed throne and the music-making angel on its lowest step are derived (through many intermediaries, no doubt) from Masaccio's Madonna Enthroned of 1426.

What differentiates this altar immediately from its Florentine ancestors is not merely the ample spaciousness of the design but its wonderfully calm, meditative mood. Instead of "conversation," we sense the figures' deep communion, which makes all rhetorical gestures unnecessary. We shall encounter this quality again and again in Venetian painting. Here, we see it as through a diffusing filter of atmosphere, for the aged master has bathed the entire scene in a delicate aerial haze. All harsh contrasts are eliminated, light and shadow blend in almost imperceptible gradations, and colors glow with a new richness and depth. In this magical moment, Bellini becomes the true heir of the two greatest painters of the fifteenth century, uniting the Florentine grandeur of Masaccio with the Northern poetic intimacy of Jan van Eyck.


BELLINI. St. Francis in Ecstasy, с. 1485.
Oil and tempera on panel,
124 x 141.7 cm.
The Frick Collection, New York


BELLINI. Madonna and Saints. 1505.
Oil on panel,
5 x 2.4
m.
S. Zaccaria, Venice

 
 
 

 
 
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