The High Renaissance &
Francesco del Cossa
to be taken for granted that the High Renaissance followed upon the
Early Renaissance as naturally and inevitably as night follows day.
The great masters of the sixteenth century— Leonardo, Bramante,
Michelangelo, Raphael, Giorgione, Titian—were thought to have shared
the ideals of their predecessors, but to have expressed them so
completely that their names became synonyms for perfection. They
represented the climax, the classic phase, of Renaissance art, just
as Phidias had brought the art of ancient Greece to its highest
point. This view could also explain why these two classic phases
were so short. If art is assumed to develop along the pattern of a
ballistic curve, its highest point cannot be expected to last more
than a moment.
Since the 1920s, art historians have come to realize the
shortcomings of this scheme. When we apply it literally, the High
Renaissance becomes so absurdly brief, for example, that we wonder
whether it happened at all. Moreover, we hardly increase our
understanding of the Early Renaissance if we regard it as a
"not-yet-perfect High Renaissance," any more than an Archaic Greek
statue can be satisfactorily viewed from a Phidian standpoint. Nor
is it very useful to insist that the subsequent post-Classical
phase, whether Hellenistic or "Late Renaissance," must be decadent.
The image of the ballistic curve has now been abandoned, and we have
gained a less assured, but also less arbitrary, estimate of what,
for lack of another term, we still call the High Renaissance.
In some fundamental respects, we shall find that the High
Renaissance was indeed the culmination of the Early Renaissance,
while in other respects it represented a significant departure.
Certainly the tendency to view artists as sovereign geniuses, rather
than as devoted artisans, was never stronger than during the first
half of the sixteenth century. Plato's concept of genius—the spirit
entering into poets that causes them to compose in a "divine
frenzy"—had been broadened by Marsilio Ficino and his fellow
Neo-Platonists to include architects, sculptors, and painters. For
Giorgio Vasari, individuals of genius were thought to be set apart
from ordinary artists by "grace," in the sense of both divine grace,
a gift from God, and gracefulness, which reflected it. To him, this
concept had moral and spiritual significance, inspired in good
measure by Dante's Inferno. Building further on Petrarch's scheme of
history, he saw the High Renaissance as superior even to antiquity,
for it was ruled by God's law, which had not yet been revealed to
the pagans. Thus in Lives of the Painters (1550-68), Vasari extolls
the "gracious," virtuous characters of Michelangelo, Leonardo, and
Raphael, as a way of accounting for their universal talent. Grace
served, moreover, to justify his treatment of his close friend and
idol Michelangelo as the greatest artist of all time, a view that
remains with us to this very day.
What set these artists apart was the inspiration guiding their
efforts, which was worthy of being called "divine," "immortal," and
"creative." (Before 1500 creating, as distinct from making, was the
privilege of God alone.) To Vasari, the painters and sculptors of
the Early Renaissance, like those of the Late Gothic, had learned
only to imitate coarse nature, whereas the geniuses of the High
Renaissance had conquered nature by ennobling, transcending, or
subjecting it to art. In actual fact, the High Renaissance remained
thoroughly grounded in nature. Its achievement lay in the creation
of a new classicism through abstraction. It was, we must insist, an
act of the imagination, not the intellect, for the result was a
poetic ideal informed by a spirit of ineffable harmony.
The faith in the divine origin of inspiration led artists to rely on
subjective, rather than objective, standards of truth and beauty. If
Early Renaissance artists felt bound by what they believed to be
universally valid rules, such as the numerical ratios of musical
harmony and the laws of scientific perspective, their High
Renaissance successors were less concerned with rational order than
with visual effectiveness. They evolved a new drama and a new
rhetoric to engage the emotions of the beholder, whether sanctioned
or not by classical precedent. Indeed, the works of the great High
Renaissance masters immediately became classics in their own right,
their authority equal to that of the most renowned monuments of
antiquity. At the same time, this cult of the genius had a profound
effect on the artists of the High Renaissance. It spurred them to
vast and ambitious goals, and prompted their awed patrons to support
such enterprises. Since these ambitions often went beyond the
humanly possible, they were apt to be frustrated by external as well
as internal difficulties, leaving artists with a sense of having
been defeated by a malevolent fate.
Here we encounter a contradiction: if the creations of genius are
viewed as unique by definition, they cannot be successfully imitated
by lesser artists, however worthy they may seem of such imitation.
Unlike the founders of the Early Renaissance, the leading artists of
the High Renaissance did not set the pace for a broadly based
"period style" that could be practiced on every level of quality.
The High Renaissance produced astonishingly few minor masters. It
died with those who had created it, or even before. Of the six great
personalities mentioned above, only Michelangelo and Titian lived
External conditions after that date were undoubtedly less favorable
to the High Renaissance style than those of the first two decades of
the century. Yet the High Renaissance might well have ended soon
even without the pressure of circumstances. Its harmonious grandeur
was inherently unstable, a balance of divergent qualities. Only
these qualities, not the balance itself, could be transmitted to the
artists who reached maturity after 1520. In pointing out the limited
and precarious nature of the High Renaissance we do not mean to deny
its tremendous impact upon later art. For most of the next 300
years, the great personalities of the early sixteenth century loomed
so large that the achievements of their predecessors seemed to
belong to a forgotten era. Even when the art of the fourteenth and
fifteenth centuries was finally rediscovered, people still
acknowledged the High Renaissance as the turning point, and relerred
to all painters before Raphael as "the Primitives."
Leonardo da Vinci
One important reason why the High Renaissance rightfully deserves to
be called a period is the fact that its key monuments were all
produced between 1495 and 1520, despite the great differences in age
of the artists who created them. Bramante, the oldest, was born in
1444, Raphael in 1483, and Titian about 1488-90. Yet the distinction
of being the earliest High Renaissance master belongs to
Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519),
not to Bramante. Born in the little Tuscan town of Vinci, Leonardo
was trained in Florence by Verrocchio. Conditions there must not
have suited him. At the age of 30 he went to work for the duke of
Milan as a military engineer, and only secondarily as an architect,
sculptor, and painter.
Leonardo da Vinci.
of the Magi (detail).
ADORATION OF THE
He left behind, unfinished, the most ambitious work
he had then begun, a large
Adoration of the
Magi, for which he had made many preliminary
Its design shows a geometric order and a precisely
constructed perspective space that recall Florentine
painting in the wake of Masaccio, rather than the
style prevailing about 1480.
The most striking, and indeed revolutionary, aspect
of the panel is the way it is painted, although
Leonardo had not even completed the underpainting.
is taken from
the area to the right of center, which is more nearly finished than
the rest. The forms seem to materialize softly and gradually, never
quite detaching themselves from a dusky realm. Leonardo, unlike
Pollaiuolo or Botticelli, thinks not of outlines, but of
three-dimensional bodies made visible in varying degrees by the
incidence of light. In the shadows, these shapes remain incomplete.
Their contours are only implied instead. In this method of modeling
(called chiaroscuro for
"light-and-dark"), the forms no longer stand abruptly side by side
but partake of a new pictorial unity, for the barriers between them
have been partially broken down. There is a comparable emotional
continuity as well. The gestures and faces of the crowd convey with
touching eloquence the reality of the miracle they have come to
behold. We will recognize the influence of both Pollaiuolo and
Verrocchio in the mobile expressiveness of these figures, but
Leonardo may also have been impressed by the breathless shepherds in
The Portinari Altarpiece, then
newly installed in Florence.
Leonardo da Vinci.
The Virgin of the Rocks, с 1485.
THE VIRGIN OF THE
Soon after arriving in Milan,
The Virgin of the
another altar panel, which suggests what the
Adoration would have looked like had it been completed. Here
the figures emerge from the semidarkness of the
grotto, enveloped in a moisture-laden atmosphere
that delicately veils their forms.
This fine haze, called
more pronounced than similar effects in Flemish and
Venetian painting. It lends a peculiar warmth and
intimacy to the scene. It also creates a remote,
dreamlike quality, and makes the picture seem a
poetic vision rather than an image of reality.
infant St. John adoring the Infant Christ in the
presence of the Virgin and an angel—is
without immediate precedent. The story of their
meeting is one of the many legends that arose to
satisfy the abiding curiosity about the "hidden"
early life of Christ, which is hardly mentioned in
Leonardo was the first to depict it, but the
treatment is mysterious in many ways: the secluded,
rocky setting, the pool in front, and the plant
life, carefully chosen and exquisitely rendered, all
hint at levels of meaning that are somehow hard to
How are we to interpret the relationships among the
four figures, signified by the conjunction of
gestures? Protective, pointing, blessing, they
tellingly convey the wonderment of St. John's
recognition of Christ as the Saviour, but with a
tenderness that raises the scene above the merely
THE LAST SUPPER.
Despite their originality, the
Adoration and The Virgin of
the Rocks do not yet differ clearly in conception from the aims
of the Early Renaissance. But
Last Supper, later by a dozen
years, has always been recognized as the first classic statement of
the ideals of High Renaissance painting.
famous mural began to deteriorate a few years after its completion.
The artist, dissatisfied with the limitations of the traditional
fresco technique, experimented in an oil-tempera medium that did not
adhere well to the wall. We thus need some effort to imagine its
original splendor. Yet what remains is more than sufficient to
account for its tremendous impact. Viewing the composition as a
whole, we are struck at once by its balanced stability. Only
afterward do we discover that this balance has been achieved by the
reconciliation of competing, even conflicting, aims such as no
previous artist had attempted.
A comparison with Castagno's
painted half a
century before, is particularly instructive here. The spatial
setting in both cases seems like an annex to the real interior of
the refectory, but Castagno's architecture has a strangely
oppressive effect on the figures, unlike Leonardo's. The reason for
this becomes clear when we realize that in the earlier work the
space has been conceived autonomously. It was there before the
figures entered and would equally suit another group of diners.
Leonardo, in contrast, began with the figural composition, and the
architecture had no more than a supporting role from the start. His
perspective is an ideal one. The painting, high up on the refectory
wall, assumes a vantage point some
feet above the floor
obvious impossibility, yet we readily accept it nonetheless. The
central vanishing point, which governs our view of the interior, is
located behind the head of Christ in the exact middle of the picture
and thus becomes charged with symbolic significance. Equally plain
is the symbolic function of the main opening in the back wall: its
projecting pediment acts as the architectural equivalent of a halo.
We thus tend to see the perspective framework of the scene almost
entirely in relation to the figures, rather than as a preexisting
entity. How vital this relationship is we can easily test by
covering the upper third of the picture. The composition then takes
on the character of a frieze, the grouping of the apostles is less
clear, and the calm triangular shape of Christ becomes merely
passive, instead of acting as a physical and spiritual force.
Leonardo da Vinci.
The Last Supper,
Tempera wall mural,
4.6 x 8.8
Sta. Maria dellc Grazie, Milan
presumably, has just spoken the fateful words, "One of you shall
betray me," and the disciples are asking, "Lord, is it I?" We
actually see nothing that contradicts this interpretation, but to
view the scene as one particular moment in a psychological drama
hardly does justice to Leonardo's intentions. These went well beyond
a literal rendering of the biblical narrative, for he crowded
together all the disciples on the tar side of the table, in a space
quite inadequate for so many people. He clearly wanted to condense
his subject physically by the compact, monumental grouping of the
figures, and spiritually by presenting many levels of meaning at one
time. Thus the gesture of Christ is one of submission to the divine
will, and of offering. It is a hint at Christ's main act at the Last
Supper, the institution of the Eucharist, in which bread and wine
become His body and blood through transubstantiation. The apostles
do not simply react to these words. Each of them reveals his own
personality, his own relationship to the Saviour.
that ludas is no longer segregated from the rest; his dark, defiant
profile sets him apart well enough.) They exemplify what the artist
wrote in one of his notebooks, that the highest and most difficult
aim of painting is to depict "the intention of man's soul" through
gestures and movements of the limbs—a
dictum to be interpreted as referring not to momentary emotional
states but to the inner life as a whole.
Peter Paul Rubens. Drawing after Leonardo's
cartoon for The
Battle of Anghiari. c. 1600.
THE BATTLE OF
the duchy of Milan fell to the French, and
returned to Florence after brief trips to Mantua and
Venice. He must have found the cultural climate very
different from his recollections of it. The Medici
had been expelled, and the city was briefly a
republic again, until their return. For a while,
Leonardo seems to have been active mainly as an
engineer and surveyor, but in
the city commissioned him to do a mural of
some famous event from the history of Florence for
the council chamber of the Palazzo Vecchio. Leonardo
chose the Battle of Anghiari, where the Florentine
forces had once defeated the Milanese army. He
completed the cartoon (a full-scale drawing) and had
just begun the mural itself when he returned once
more to Milan in
at the request of the French, abandoning the
The cartoon for
The Battle of Anghiari survived for more than a century and
enjoyed enormous fame. Today we know it only through Leonardo's
preliminary sketches and through copies of the cartoon by later
artists, notably a splendid drawing by Peter Paul Rubens.
Leonardo had started with the historical accounts of the
engagement. As his plans crystallized, however, he abandoned factual
accuracy and created a monumental group of soldiers on horseback
that represents a condensed, timeless image of the spirit of battle,
rather than any specific event. His concern with "the intention of
man's soul" is even more evident here than in
The Last Supper. In this case,
a savage fury has seized not only the combatants but the animals as
well, so that they become one with their riders.
The Battle of Anghiari stands
at the opposite end of the scale from Uccello's
Battle of San Romano,
where nothing has been omitted except the fighting itself;
yet Leonardo's battle scene is not one of uncontrolled action. Its
dynamism is held in check by the hexagonal outline that stabilizes
this seething mass. Once again, balance has been achieved by the
reconciliation of competing claims.
Leonardo da Vinci.
1503-5. Oil on panel,
Musee du Louvre, Paris
While working on
The battle of Anghiari,
The delicate sfumato of
The Virgin of the
Rocks is here so perfected that it seemed
miraculous to the artist's contemporaries. The forms
are built from layers of glazes so gossamer-thin
that the entire panel seems to glow with a gentle
light from within. But the fame of the
Mona Lisa comes not from this pictorial subtlety alone.
Even more intriguing is the psychological
fascination of the sitter's personality. Why, among
all the smiling faces ever painted, has this
particular one been singled out as "mysterious"?
Perhaps the reason is that, as a portrait, the
picture does not fit our expectations.
The features are too individual for Leonardo to have
simply depicted an ideal type, yet the element of
idealization is so strong that it blurs the sitter's
character. Once again the artist has brought two
opposites into harmonious balance.
The smile, also, may be read in two ways: as the
echo of a momentary mood, and as a timeless,
symbolic expression, akin to the "Archaic smile" of
Lisa seemingly embodies a quality of maternal
tenderness which was to Leonardo the essence of
womanhood. Even the landscape in the background,
composed mainly of rocks and water, suggests
elemental generative forces. Who was the sitter for
this, the most famous portrait in the world? Her
identity remained a mystery until very recently. We
now know that she was the wife of a Florentine
merchant who was born in
and died before
This is not the only painting of the Mona
Lisa: Leonardo also painted a nude version that once
belonged to the king of France.
In his later years,
Leonardo devoted himself more
and more to his scientific interests. Art and science, we recall,
were first united in Brunelleschi's discovery of systematic
perspective. Leonardo's work is the climax of this trend. The
artist, he believed, must know not only the rules of perspective but
all the laws of nature, and the eye was to him the perfect
instrument for gaining such knowledge. The extraordinary scope of
his own inquiries is attested in the hundreds of drawings and notes
that he hoped to incorporate into an encyclopedic set of treatises.
he was as a scientist is still a matter of debate, but in one field
his importance remains undisputed: he created the modern scientific
illustration, an essential tool for anatomists and biologists. A
drawing such as the Embryo in the
own vivid observation with the analytic clarity of a diagram—or,
to paraphrase Leonardo's own words, sight and insight.
Contemporary sources show that Leonardo was esteemed as an
architect. Actual building seems to have concerned him less,
however, than problems of structure and design. The numerous
architectural projects in his drawings were intended, for the most
part, to remain on paper. Yet these sketches, especially those of
his Milanese period, have great historic importance, for only in
them can we trace the transition from the Early to the Fligh
Renaissance in architecture.
The plan recalls Brunelleschi's Sta. Maria degli Angeli,
but the new
relationship of the spatial units is more complex, while the
exterior, with its cluster of domes, is more monumental than any
Early Renaissance structure. In conception, this design stands
halfway between the dome of Florence Cathedral and the most
ambitious structure of the sixteenth century, the new basilica of
St. Peter's in Rome.
evidence, too, of Leonardo's close contact, during the 1490s, with
the architect Donato Bramante
who was then also
working for the duke of Milan. Bramante went to Rome after Milan
fell to the French, and it was in Rome, during the last
years of his life,
that he became the creator of High Renaissance architecture.
Leonardo da Vinci.
in the Womb. c.
of pen drawing. Windsor Castle, Royal Libran
Leonardo da Vinci.
Project for a Church.
В), с 1490.
Pen drawing. Bibliotheque de l'Arsenal, Paris
Donato Bramante. The Tempietto, S. Pietro in Montorio, Rome.
The new style is shown fully formed in
Tempietto at S. Pietro in Montorio,
designed soon after
This chapel, which marks the site of St. Peter's
crucifixion, was planned to be surrounded by a
circular, colonnaded courtyard. The Tempietto would
then have appeared less isolated from its
environment than it does today, for Bramante
it to be
set within a "molded" exterior space, a conception
as bold and novel as the design of the chapel
"little temple," is well deserved. In the three-step
platform and the severe Doric
order of the
colonnade, Classical temple architecture is more
directly recalled than in any fifteenth-century
structure. Equally striking is Bramante's
application of the "sculptured wall" in the
Tempietto itself and the courtyard. Not since
Brunelleschi's Sta. Maria degli Angeli have we seen
such deeply recessed niches "excavated" from heavy
masses of masonry. These cavities are
counterbalanced by the convex shape of the dome and
by strongly projecting
and cornices. As a result, the Tempietto has a
monumentality that belies its modest size.
Plan of the
Regole generali di
Gray indicates unbuilt sections
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence
Cupola progettata da Donato Bramante per la Basilica di San
ST. PETER'S, ROME.
Tempietto is the earliest of the great achievements that
made Rome the center of Italian art during the first quarter
of the sixteenth century. Most of them belong to the decade
papacy of Julius IT. It was he who decided to replace the
old basilica of St. Peter's, which had been in precarious
condition, with a church so magnificent as to overshadow all
the monuments of ancient Imperial Rome. The task fell to
Bramante, the foremost architect in the city. His original
is known only
from a plan
from the medal commemorating the start of the building
shows the exterior in rather imprecise perspective. These
are sufficient, however, to bear out the words Bramante
reportedly used to define his aim:
place the Pantheon on top of the Basilica of Constantine."
surpass the two most famous structures of Roman antiquity by
a Christian edifice of unexampled grandeur—nothing
less would have satisfied Julius
II, a pontiff of
enormous ambition, who wanted to unite all Italy under his
command and thus to gain a temporal power matching
authority of his office.
design is indeed of truly imperial magnificence. A huge
dome, hemispherical like that of the Tempietto, crowns the
crossing of the barrel-vaulted arms of a Greek cross, with
four lesser domes and tall corner towers filling the angles.
This plan fulfills all the demands laid down by Alberti for
entirely on the circle and the square, it is so rigidly
symmetrical that we cannot tell which apse was to
high altar. Bramante envisioned four identical facades like
that on the medal of
dominated by the same repertory of severely classical forms
we saw in the Tempietto: domes, half-domes, colonnades,
however, do not prevail inside the church. Here the
sculptured wall reigns supreme. The plan shows no continuous
surfaces, only great, oddly shaped "islands" of masonry that
have been well described by one critic as giant pieces of
toast half-eaten by a voracious space. The actual size of
these islands can be visualized only if we compare the
church with those of earlier buildings. S. Lorenzo in
Florence, for instance, has a length of
than half that of the new St. Peter's
did he propose to build a structure of such overwhelming
size? Cut stone and brick, the materials favored by medieval
architects, would not do, for technical and economic
reasons. Only construction in concrete, as used by the
Romans but largely forgotten during the Middle Ages, was
strong and cheap enough to till Bramante's needs.
reviving this ancient technique, he opened a new era in the
history of architecture, for concrete permitted designs of
far greater flexibility than the building methods of the
medieval masons. The possibilities of the material, however,
were not fully exploited for some time to come. The
construction of St. Peter's progressed so slowly that in
Bramante died, only the four crossing piers had actually
been built. For the next three decades the campaign was
carried on hesitantly by architects trained under Bramante,
who modified his design in a number of ways. A new and
decisive phase in the history of St. Peter's began only in
Michelangelo took charge, and the present appearance of the
largely shaped by his ideas. But this must be considered in
the context of Michelangelo's
for St. Peter's, Rome.
Bronze medal showing
design for St. Peter's.
British Museum, LondonPlan
of BRUNELLESCHl's S. Lorenzo, Florence, reproduced at the
same scale as figure
The concept of genius as divine inspiration, a superhuman
power granted to a few rare individuals and acting through
them, is nowhere exemplified more fully than in the life and
work of Michelangelo (1475-1564). Not only his admirers
viewed him in this light. He himself, steeped in the
tradition of Neo-Platonism, accepted the idea of his genius
as a living reality, although it seemed to him at times a
curse rather than a blessing. The element that brings
continuity to his long and stormy career is the sovereign
power of his personality, his faith in the subjective
Tightness of everything he created. Conventions, standards,
and traditions might be observed by lesser spirits, but he
could acknowledge no authority higher than the dictates of
Unlike Leonardo, for whom painting was the noblest of the
arts because it embraced every visible aspect of the world,
Michelangelo was a sculptor—more specifically, a carver of
marble statues—to the core. Art, for him, was not a science
but "the making of men," analogous (however imperfectly) to
divine creation. Hence the limitations of sculpture that
Leonardo decried were essential virtues in Michelangelo's
eyes. Only the "liberation" of real, three-dimensional
bodies from recalcitrant matter could satisfy his urge.
Painting, for him, should imitate the roundness of
sculptured forms, and architecture, too, must partake of the
organic qualities of the human figure.
Michelangelo's faith in the human image as the supreme
vehicle of expression gave him a sense of kinship with
Classical sculpture closer than that of any Renaissance
artist. Among recent masters, he admired Giotto, Masaccio,
Donatello, and Della Quercia more than the men he knew as a
youth in Florence. Yet his mind was decisively shaped by the
cultural climate of Florence during the 1480s and 1490s.
Both the Neo-Platonism of Marsilio Ficino and the religious
reforms of Savonarola affected him profoundly. These
conflicting influences reinforced the tensions within
Michelangelo's personality, his violent changes of mood, his
sense of being at odds with himself and with the world. As
he conceived his statues to be human bodies released from
their marble prison, so the body was the earthly prison of
the soul—noble, but a prison nevertheless. This dualism of
body and spirit endows his figures with extraordinary
pathos. Outwardly calm, they seem stirred by an overwhelming
psychic energy that has no release in physical action.
Michelangelo. St Petronius. 1494. Marble, height: 64 cm with
base. San Domenico, Bologna
Michelangelo. St Proculus. 1494. Marble, height: 58,5 cm
with base. San Domenico, Bologna
The unique qualities of Michelangelo's art are already fully
present in his David, the earliest monumental statue of the
High Renaissance. Commissioned of the artist in 1501, when
he was 26, the huge figure was designed to be placed high
above the ground, on one of the buttresses of Florence
Cathedral. However, a committee of civic leaders and artists
decided instead to put it in front of the Palazzo Vecchio,
as the civic-patriotic symbol of the Florentine republic,
where it has since been replaced by a modern copy.
We can well understand the decision. Because the head of
Goliath has been omitted, Michelangelo's David looks
challenging. Here is not a victorious hero but the champion
of a just cause. Vibrant with pent-up energy, he faces the
world like Donatello's St. George, although his nudity links
him to the older master's bronze David as well. But the
style of the figure proclaims an ideal very different from
the wiry slenderness of Donatello's youths. Michelangelo had
just spent several years in Rome, where he had been deeply
impressed with the emotion-charged, muscular bodies of
Hellenistic sculpture. Although the Laocoon, shortly to
become the most famous work in this style, had not then been
discovered, other Hellenistic statues were accessible to
him. Their heroic scale, their superhuman beauty and power,
and the swelling volume of their forms became part of
Michelangelo's own style and, through him, of Renaissance
art in general. Yet the David could never be taken for an
ancient statue. In the Laocoon and similar works the body
"acts out" the spirit's agony, while the David, at once calm
and tense, shows the action-in-repose so characteristic of
Michelangelo. David. 1501-4. Marble, height 4.08 m. Galleria
Michelangelo. David. (detail)
Michelangelo. David. (detail)
Madonna del Granduca. с 1505.
If Michelangelo exemplifies the solitary genius,
belongs just as surely to the opposite type: the
a person of the world. The contrast between the two
was as clear to their contemporaries as it is to us.
Although each had his partisans, both enjoyed equal
fame. Today our sympathies are less evenly divided:
In the room the
come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.
So do a lot of us,
including the authors of historical novels and
fictionalized biographies, while Raphael
is usually discussed only by
historians of art. The younger master's career is
too much a
his work too filled with seemingly effortless grace,
to match the tragic heroism of Michelangelo. As an
innovator, Raphael seems to contribute less than
Leonardo, Bramante, and Michelangelo, the three
whose achievements were basic to his. Yet he is the
central painter of the High Renaissance, for our
conception of the entire style rests more on his
work than on any other artist's.
The genius of Raphael 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, pictorially rich
and sculpturally solid.
after he completed his apprenticeship with Perugino.
The meditative calm of the Madonna del
still reflects the style of his
but the forms
are ampler and enveloped in Leonardesque sfumato.
The Virgin, grave and tender, makes us think of the
any of her mystery.
This power is already present in the first works he
made in Florence
Michelangelo's influence on Raphael asserted itself somewhat
later. Its full force can be felt only in Raphael's Roman
works. At the time Michelangelo began to paint the Sistine
Julius II summoned the younger artist from Florence and
commissioned him to decorate a series of rooms in the
Vatican Palace. The first room, the Stanza della Segnatura,
may have housed the pope's library, and Raphael's cycle of
frescoes on its walls and ceiling refers to the four domains
of learning: theology, philosophy, law, and the arts. To the
right in our view
Disputa, or Disputation over the Sacrament, in
which Christ sits enthroned between the Virgin and St. John
the Baptist, with God the Father behind Him, saints and
to either side, and the Holy Spirit below. In the lunette
over the door to the left are represented The Three Legal
Virtues; beneath are The Granting of Civil Law
and The Granting of Canon Law. The opposite doorway
depicts Parnassus, the sacred mountain of Apollo and
Of these frescoes,
The School of Athens,
the Disputa, has long been acknowledged as Raphael's
masterpiece and the perfect embodiment of the classical
spirit of the High Renaissance. Its subject is "the Athenian
school of thought," a group of famous Greek philosophers
gathered around Plato and
each in a characteristic pose or activity. Raphael must have
already seen the Sistine Ceiling, then nearing completion.
He evidently owes to Michelangelo the expressive energy, the
physical power, and the dramatic grouping of his figures.
Yet Raphael has not simply borrowed Michelangelo's repertory
of gestures and poses. He has absorbed it into his own style
and thereby given it different meaning.
Body and spirit, action and
emotion, are now balanced harmoniously, and every member of
this great assembly plays his role with magnificent,
purposeful clarity. The total conception of The School of
Athens suggests the spirit of Leonardo's Last Supper
than the Sistine Ceiling. This holds true of the way Raphael
makes each philosopher reveal "the intention of his soul,"
distinguishes the relations among individuals and groups,
and links them in formal rhythm. Also Leonardesque is the
centralized, symmetrical design, and the interdependence of
the figures and their architectural setting. But Raphael's
edifice shares far more of the compositional burden than
of The Last Supper. With its lofty dome, barrel
vault, and colossal
it is classical in spirit without being at all Greek in
appearance. Inspired by Bramante, it seems like an advance
view of the new St. Peter's. Its geometric precision and
spatial grandeur bring to a climax the tradition begun by
transmitted to Raphael by his teacher Perugino.
Stanza della Segnatura, with frescoes by
Vatican Palace, Rome
Raphael's decoration of the
Vatican apartments for Pope Julius II began with the Stanza
della Segnatura. In a cycle about the human intellect that
asserts the ideals of goodness, truth, and beauty, the
artist included his School of Athens, with its theme of
philosophy, and Disputation over the Holy Sacrament, with
its theme of theology. The former is a summary of the
history of philosophical thought. It centres on the figures
of Aristotle and Plato, who are depicted in the centre of a
large building reminiscent of both classical basilicas and
the new St Peter's. Raphael tried to achieve complete
balance in the composition, the variety of figures shown
forming a representation of the ideal relationship between
the different philosophical beliefs. In the later, and more
dramatic, Stanza d'Eliodoro, painted between 1511 and 1514,
the theme is divine intervention on behalf of the Church. In
this work, Raphael showed quite different influences. There
are, for instance, hints of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel in
the weight and build of the figures, while touches of
Venetian art, especially that of Sebastiano del Piombo, are
also evident. These more dynamic works depend on a stronger
use of light and colour, typified by the drama of the
Expulsion of Hehodorus.
The School of Athens. 1510-11.
Fresco. Stanza della Segnatura,
Vatican Palace, Rome
Raphael's fresco contains
portraits of many classical philosophers.
In the center stand Plato and Aristotle, the
two great philosophers of antiquity. To their left
Socrates is seen in argument with several young men. The
old man seated on the steps is Diogenes. Other
philosophical figures are identifiable, including
Pythagoras, shown bottom left, explaining his proportion
system on a slate, and, on the extreme right, Ptolemy,
depicted contemplating a celestial globe.
Galatea. 1513. Villa Famesina, Rome
Raphael never again set so splendid an architectural stage.
To create pictorial space, he relied increasingly on the
movement of human figures, rather than perspective vistas.
In the Galatea of
1513, the subject is again classical: the
beautiful nymph Galatea, vainly pursued by the giant
Polyphemus, belongs to Greek mythology.
Here the cheerful
and sensuous aspect of antiquity is celebrated, in contrast
to the austere idealism of The School of Athens.
Its composition recalls
of Venus, a picture Raphael knew from his Florentine days.
very resemblance emphasizes their profound dissimilarity.
Raphael's full-bodied, dynamic figures take their expansive
spiral movement from the vigorous contrapposto of Galatea.
In Botticelli's picture, the movement is not generated by
the figures but imposed on them from without, so that it
never detaches itself from the surface of the canvas.
Pope Leo X with Giulio de'
Media and Luigi de' Rossi, с.
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence
Early in his career Raphael had already shown a special
talent for portraiture.
It is another tribute to his genius
for synthesis that he combined the realism of
with the human ideal of the High
Renaissance, which in the Mona Lisa nearly overpowers
the sitter's individuality.
Raphael did not flatter or
conventionalize his subjects. Surely Pope Leo X
looks here no handsomer than he did
His sullen, heavy-jowled features have been
recorded in concrete, almost Flemish detail. Nevertheless,
the pontiff has a commanding presence, his aura of power and
dignity emanating more from his inner being than from his
Raphael, we feel, has not falsified the
sitter's personality but ennobled and focused it, as if he
had been fortunate enough to observe Leo X in his finest
The two cardinals, who lack this balanced strength
although they arc studied with equal care, enhance by
contrast the sovereign quality of the main figure.
pictorial treatment shows a similar gradation: Leo X has
been set off from his companions, his reality heightened by
intensified light, color, and texture.
The Alba Madonna
Like Bellini, Raphael
became a Madonniere - a painter of Madonnas. Depicted like
Bellini's Madonna of the Meadow in an open landscape, The
Alba Madonna is an example of the Renaissance "Madonna of
Humility" tradition. However, all comparison with Bellini
ends here, and it is the influence of Michelangelo that is
more evident in The Alba Madonna, not least in its tondo
format - derived from Michelangelo's Holy Family (c. 1503),
which Raphael saw in Rome.
The Alba Madonna
The Alba Madonna is not as
representative of Raphael's treatment of the subject as the
Small Cowper Madonna, which exhibits all the sensual warmth
of human love that exists between a mother and her baby.
Here the Christ Child is depicted as a kind of baby crusader
-upright and courageous, a child with a man's understanding
of the difficulties of human existence. By comparison, the
chubby figure of St. John, dressed in a drab lamb's fleece
to remind us of his future in the wilderness, appears
unsophisticated and truly childlike.
The relatively close tonal
range and restrained palette of The Alba Madonna is
perfectly suited to her self-contained, gentle heroism. It
is wholly unlike the rosy glow and brilliant hues of the
Small Cowper Madonna.
The Alba Madonna's whole demeanor, as well as her quietly
mournful gaze, expresses dignity, spiritual strength, and
solidity. She meditates on a small wooden cross that
symbolizes Christ's Crucifixion.
Beyond the statuesque
figure of the Madonna, in the open Umbrian landscape, is a
small wood filled with odd, tightly foliaged trees. Beyond
the wood, still farther into the distance, are tiny
horsemen. The activities of the horsemen, too minute to make
out, are reduced almost to nothingness by the giantlike form
of the Madonna, her remote gaze echoing their physical
distance and their essential irrelevance.
The military style of the
sandal worn by the Madonna emphasizes her warriorlike
demeanor. Like her Son, she assumes a heroic stance. The
ground on which she sits is sprinkled with small flowers,
some in bloom. The petals are painted delicately over the
primary layer of green earth. The flowers that St. John has
gathered are anemones that grow behind him. Around the
picture from where he kneels are a white dandelion, what
could be another anemone, a plantain, a violet, and three
lilies, not yet in bloom.
The Sistine Madonna and
The Sistine Madonna (detail)
bend to you in solemn ceremony and
Saints pray where your foot steps: glorious
Queen of Heaven! To you the lyre of the
spheres resounds, which God has strung.
Your spirit gazes, divine to see, through the
veil of your unfading, blooming figure;
you bear a child of sublime omnipotence,
victor over death and liberator of the world.
August Wilhelm von Schlegel, Sonnet to the Sistine Madonna,
Visiting Dresden, the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky
(1821—1881) could hardly tear himself away from The Sistine
Madonna. He kept returning to the Gemaldegalerie where it
hung to spend hours in front of it. Vasari, the Founding
Father of art history, said of the artist: "How generous and
benevolent Heaven may on occasion show itself to be by
showering one man with the infinite riches of its treasures,
all the grace and rare gifts otherwise distributed over a
long period of time among many individuals, can be clearly
seen in the beauty and grace of Raphael." Dostoyevsky may
have had similar feelings about the painting and the artist.
On his last day in Dresden, he pulled up a chair in front of
the painting so that he might be closer to the Madonna's
face: "What beauty, innocence and sadness in that heavenly
countenance, what humility and suffering in those eyes.
Among the ancient Greeks the powers of the divine were
expressed in the marvellous Venus de Mile; the Italians,
however, brought forth the true Mother of God — the Sistine
Madonna." The author of Crime and Punishment (1866) went so
far as to claim that, compared to this masterpiece, other
representations of the Virgin resemble bakers' wives or
other pedestrian, petty-bourgeois women.
A major Italian artist by 1500, Raphael was commissioned at
the age of thirty-nine to work on the design of the new St
Peter's in Rome. The young architect had already painted The
Sistine Madonna for the high altar of San Sisto in Piacenza,
where the relics of Pope Sixtus 11 (martyred in 258) had
been kept since the ninth century. The Sistine Madonna hung
in the church until 1753, when it came into the possession
of the Prince Elector, Frederick Augustus II of Saxony.
Before Dostoyevsky, German writers, such as August Wilhelm
von Schlegel, Heinrich von Kleist and Franz Grillparzer, had
been enthralled by the painting. The Sistine Madonna
continues to enjoy wide acclaim to this day. In recent
times, advertising and commerce have discovered the
irresistible appeal of the two bored, mischievous angels on
the lower edge of the picture plane. They appear on cups and
napkins, letter paper and lampshades. Putti like these are a
type of angel, which made their first appearance during the
Renaissance. Deriving from the Italian word for "child" or
"infant boy", the putto, with his chubby, sensual
cheerfulness, is in the tradition of Bros or Cupid, the god
of love. In ancient writings and representations, Eros was
portrayed as a half-naked boy with wings, while his figure
ranged from slim to plump. The child-like appearance of
Italian putti is an expression of their innocence. In
connection with the Virgin, they represent the immaculate
purity of the Queen of angels and men.
K. Reichold, B. Graf
The Sistine Madonna (detail)