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Renaissance Art Essay, Research Paper

(in college 100-level course, I received a perfect score with “brilliantly written” as a professor’s comment)

Masaccio s fresco The Tribute Money (1427) is a continuous narrative which uses contrapposto, aerial perspective, and humanistic facial expressions and body postures to illustrate purposeful interaction in its portrayal of divine intervention to assuage a resolute IRS man. This concept of emotions in motion is even more stunning in his Expulsion from Paradise (1427), and his Holy Trinity (1425) is a brilliant example of the use of architect Brunelleschi s newly-discovered scientific perspective in creating the appearance of three dimensions on a flat surface. These examples typify the techniques and philosophy of Early Renaissance painters in Florentine Italy beginning around 1420. This rebirth of the classics from Greek and Roman antiquity spread its influence to Rome and Venice, and its sway is also seen in Late Gothic painting north of the Alps, where it is evident in works by Flemish master Jan van Eyck, for example, in his Arnolfini Portrait (1434).

The Early Renaissance in Italy saw the widespread adoption of oil paint, although its invention was credited to Northerner Jan van Eyck. Oil was a godsend, for it blends more readily due to slow-drying characteristics, and thankfully for us it stands the test of time (as long as it is not mixed with buttermilk or tempera as in da Vinci s Last Supper debacle). Oil allowed the use of the technique of glazing to show depth, which, taken further, can be used to produce impasto s thick layers (seen later in Titian s Christ Crowned with Thorns [1570]) that reflect ambient light from raised texture. Oil opened to painters a world of versatility, permitting artists to wing it while achieving the Early Renaissance concept of visible reality.

Since I am not politically correct or am hopelessly devoid of artistic interpretative capabilities, I shall assert that there was a talent void after Masaccio s inopportune death. Alberti s 1835 treatise On Painting was widely read, and it no doubt influenced later painters.

Castagno is an example of the progress of the Italian rebirth of painting at mid-century, and Neo-Platonism is peeking around the corner. Emphasis on natural forms can be seen in Castagno s Last Supper (1850) and David (1857), as he tries to eschew the harsh rigidity of linear perspective. It is interesting to note the difference between Castagno and his Northern counterparts such as van der Weyden. My eyes seem to jump from one figure to another with the Northern paintings, whereas the Italian artists tend to force my eyes to take in the whole scene. Some medieval vestiges remain in Last Supper as Castagno screams to the viewer which disciple is Judas; a half-century later, da Vinci makes the viewer labor to discern the betrayer of Christ.

In 1480 we see Botticelli s Birth of Venus and, two years later, Primavera introduce Neo-Platonism (a product of philosopher Ficini), the belief that a spiritual circuit exists between Heaven and Earth. This tool allowed painters (without having their heads chopped off) to use classic mythological characters to represent divinity. For example, Venus is allowed to represent the Virgin Mary, and various gods and goddesses can be depicted as angels.

Further north in Venice a Gothic aura still surrounded the painting, which was obviously influenced by the Flemish masters, but this later merged with High Renaissance style emanating from Rome. We see stark realism and light-bathed landscapes in such works as Mantegna s St. Sebastian (1460) and Bellini s St. Francis in Ecstasy (1485). The symbolism of the North is evident in everyday objects, such as an ass or a bundle of grapes, which signify spiritual phenomena and beings. Bellini s Madonna and Saints (1505) shows the evolution (or perhaps Flemish influence) in the sacra conversazione of the depicted characters from convivial interaction to more transcendental poses. Geography no doubt played an important part in the influence of Flemish painting upon Venetian art, as we know that commerce was common between these areas at this time. The dissemination and the artistic trends of Italy s Renaissance in the genre of painting have now set the stage for the more familiar big guns to ply their mastery.

Visual effectiveness in the High Renaissance (centered in Rome and facilitated by Pope Julius II) illustrates nearly a century s evolution from rigid linear perspective. Men of the world such as Raphael and solitary geniuses like Michelangelo and Leonardo realized the quirks of the human eye and made their paintings look right accordingly. We now see in use such concepts such as artist as creator, imagination over intellect, and the poetic storytelling concept of pittura poesis exemplified by Giorgione s The Tempest (1505).

Leonardo da Vinci (included here, although he worked in Milan, Florence, and Venice) used mastery of techniques and knowledge of nature. Virgin of the Rocks (1485) illustrates different examples of da Vinci technique well. He uses sfumato haziness to endow the Virgin with a seeming mysticism. In this painting Leonardo s mastery of chiaroscuro directs the viewer to the sacra conversazione transpiring within the hazy composition. Leonardo s Last Supper (1498), as opposed to Castagno s, makes the viewer work to detect the Judas, but it illustrates how Leonardo could deftly make the surrounding architecture secondary to the characters. Of note, he painted the Mona Lisa.

Michelangelo was also a busy man during the High Renaissance in Rome. Far beyond contrappasto, he portrayed action-in-repose and terribilita in his visually effective characters. Not only was Mike a genius, he was convinced of it — a formidable combination. He captured a dualism of body and soul through gestures and expressions; characters such as ideal-figured Adam and Eve in their Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (1512, Sistine ceiling) show much more emotion than Masaccio s Expulsion or Northerner van Eyck s (in his Ghent Altarpiece [1432]) depictions. Even considering his access to ideas and techniques that had been around for a while at this time — as well as the Pope s big bucks, I think this man simply had more genius and talent than the rest in his milieu. His self-portrait in his Last Judgement shows he felt he had used this talent up after a long lifetime.

The High Renaissance s progression must be intoned with Raphael, whose paintings such as Sacrifice at Lystra (1515), School of Athens (1511), and Pope Leo X (1518), tell of trouble brewing in the Catholic Church as a result of Luther and the scandal of selling papal indulgences. The High Renaissance closed with the brilliant portraiture of Titian, who used a unique brand of chiaroscuro to thrust characters such as Man with the Glove (c1520) from a dark background. He also introduced the heavy-textured, ambient-light reflecting technique of impasto in Christ Crowned with Thorns (1570).

Intense realism and disguised symbolism can best be used to describe the Northern Flemish, or late Gothic, aspect of the Renaissance in a sound bite. The use of oil (described earlier) facilitated the Flemish painters in their use of bright colors and sharp contrast, and, conversely, aided the blending technique of aerial perspective. Their biggest challenge was depicting spiritual events within the confines of everyday settings: disguised symbolism sufficed quite well. The M rode Altarpiece (1430) serves to typify the Northern Renaissance. As we look through a window at the Annunciation, disguised symbolism abounds in a recently extinguished candle, towels, and a missing candle, which confer meaning to the religiously informed. It also demonstrates the focus of Northern painters on micro-reality as opposed to Italian painters concentration on macro-reality. This painting demonstrates that Northerners knew of scientific perspective, and we see Jan van Eyck show aerial perspective in his Crucifixion (1425). A revived interest in portraiture in this period is shown by van der Weyden s Francesca D Este (1455) and van Eyck s Arnolfini Portrait, which also shows brilliant use of light and was the first signed painting. Arnolfini is my personal favorite of this genre, as it shows van Eyck s ability to capture the most minute detail such as the curvature of the figures reflected from the convex mirror in addition to the intense realism of the characters. Mr. van Eyck might have compared in current renown to Mr. Buonarroti if he would have had the Pope s big-dollar sponsorship. As we move forward in this period, we see Hieronymus Bosch display a departure from realism with Garden of Delights (1515), which seems to reflect Neo-Platonistic characters as well as Italian High Renaissance influence in that it depicts chaos as well as negative emotions. The Flemish style also is seen further east, for example, in the symbolism-laden Miraculous Draught of Fishes (1444), a Conrad Witz narrative that is also the first depiction of an actual landscape (Lake Geneva).

Art and artists within this discussed time period obviously shared pervasive discoveries, concepts and ideas, but each locale and its painters developed and evolved work with distinct signatures. Who is my favorite? Ask the Man in a Red Turban.

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