High Renaissance, later used to refer to the creative apogee of the Renaissance, describes thirty years that are best represented by the ground-breaking, famous artworks produced in Italy during what was then seen as the country's thriving sociocultural peak.
The Big Three of the High Renaissance
At the end of the 15th century, France invaded Florence, and the fanatical monks of Savonarola came to power and vigorously attacked humanism. With the loss of its patrons, art in Florence ceased to flourish, while at the same time, the pope became the greatest patron of art. Pope Julius II, aware of the propaganda value of art, commissioned a large number of artists to emphasize his authority and that of the Catholic Church.
Julius II's most ambitious project was the St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican. In order to replace the aging old church, the pope opened a call for proposals to build the grandest building in Christendom and finally selected architect Bramante's proposal. The new church cost over 46.8 million ducats to build and finance, and the pope issued atonement tickets, which invariably became one of the triggers of the Reformation movement. If the Florence Cathedral is a representative of the early Renaissance, then St. Peter's Basilica is worthy of being a symbol of the Renaissance in its prime and early Baroque art.
The design of St. Peter's Basilica was modified several times and was the work of several generations of artists, including Michelangelo and Raphael, among the Big Three of the High Renaissance. Julius II especially admired Michelangelo, believing Michelangelo best embodied and communicated his ideas.
Born near Florence, Michelangelo was a sculptor, painter, architect, poet and engineer. He believed that an artist's creation must come from within and that his task was firstly conceptual and secondly real. The artists were not a creator of ideas; they had to discover beauty in nature and ultimately create novel and sublime forms. Michelangelo's views heralded the emergence of the modern artist but contradicted artists such as Leonardo da Vinci and Alberti, who emphasized mathematics and the real and more or less deviated from the mainstream style of the Renaissance in its heyday. Michelangelo left behind masterpieces in sculpture, painting, and architecture. He preferred to express repressed emotions, and his works are full of power and tension, with a sense of awe-inspiring sacredness. He considered sculpture a superior art form to painting, and even in paintings, the figures he created are muscular and powerful. Michelangelo excelled in painting with the cangiante method, which uses different colors to render shadows or highlights to create a clean, crisp effect.
While Michelangelo was painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling, Julius II called Raphael to decorate his residence. Born in Urbino, Raphael was a friend of Bramante and the youngest of the Big Three of the High Renaissance. He rose to prominence at a young age and painted classics such as The School of Athens for the Pope. Raphael was good at his job, had a constant flow of orders, and later opened a large studio. Although he died young, he left behind many works (though not necessarily all of them entirely his own) and apprentices. Raphael designed many sketches for the prints and tapestries of his time. He was a good learner, learning sfumato from Leonardo da Vinci and stealing the expression of muscles from Michelangelo. Raphael embraced the technique of oil painting and excelled in the use of color. His paintings are beautiful, with bright colors and soft, non-voluminous figures, combining Christian piety and the secular atmosphere of humanism.
The oldest and most versatile of the three Renaissance masters, Leonardo da Vinci, was born near Florence. His interests covered various fields such as flora and fauna, anatomy, geography, cartography, physics, engineering, and so on. He can be considered the best representative of the "Renaissance Man". Da Vinci's pleasure was to explore the laws behind natural phenomena, for which he specialized in studying the structure of the human body and physiological and psychological phenomena. Unlike Michelangelo and Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci did not leave any works in Rome and spent his creative career mainly in Milan, Florence and France. Leonardo's paintings are known for their subtle smiles. He pioneered the sfumato (halo painting) technique based on the study of optics and human vision. The sfumato technique expresses subtle gradations of light and shadow through soft transitions between light and dark, allowing for atmospheric perspective and realistic painting effects. Leonardo da Vinci painted very slowly, and his pursuit of perfection and willingness to explore distracted his experience, so few works have been handed down. On the other hand, the sketches left by Leonardo da Vinci are also important materials for later generations to study Renaissance science.
Venice in northern Italy was known for its wealth and was for a long time the most powerful state in Italy. Although Venice in the 16th century had passed its peak, it was a major center alongside Rome in the field of art. As a trading powerhouse, the Venetians always had access to high-quality canvas and pigments, which were ideal for the development of oil painting, so most of the works of the Venetian school are paintings, not frescoes.
The Byzantine style heavily influenced early Venetian painting. Paolo Veneziano, active in the mid-14th century, was the first known Venetian painter. Although living after Giotto, he was not influenced by Giotto.
The 15th-century painter Giovanni Bellini played a crucial role in forming the Venetian school. He studied the International Gothic style in his early years before being influenced by Mantegna and Antonello da Messina and embracing the oil painting and Renaissance aesthetic. Giovanni Bellini developed an artistic style focused on color and was rich in shadows. Under his influence, the Venetian school, which focused on color, was formed, in contrast to the Florence and Roman artists, who focused on the structure of the form. In terms of subject matter, the Venetian school favored poetic and joyful scenes, different from the Florence and Roman artists who focused on expressing rational and lofty ideals. Giorgione and Titian were both apprentices of Giovanni Bellini. Giorgione, who lived a short life, loved music and poetry and was particularly adept at depicting romantic and poetic pastoral scenes. He painted in chiaroscuro and sfumato, with free composition and soft shadows, and was a master of the use of light and color. Giorgione's surviving works are few and difficult to identify, but he opened up the possibilities of landscape and portraiture and was a major influence on the Venetian school.
The long-lived and prolific Titian was known for his expertise in color. He lived at a time when canvas replaced wood panels as the primary medium for oil painting, which influenced Titian's painting habits. Titian was probably the first painter to notice the expressive power of the oil brushstroke, and his paintings are bold and tense in composition, using almost every kind of paint available at the time, imbuing them with texture and drama through intense color.
In the late 16th century, the Venetian painter Tintoretto aspired to combine Titian's color with Michelangelo's powerful expression. Drawing on the stylistic techniques popular at the time, he used bold brushstrokes, dynamic and powerful figures, exaggerated composition, perspective and light, giving the paintings a strong dramatic tension with a touch of the later Baroque art style.
Tintoretto's successor, Veronese, is known as one of the three masters of the Venetian school, along with Titian and Tintoretto. He was not influenced by the dramatic pictures of Mannerism and continued to focus on color, devoting himself to the representation of scenes with classical architecture and magnificent scenes, leaving behind a number of large-scale works.
The achievements of the Venetian school are not only in the field of painting. Andrea Palladio, active in Venice, was the first professional architect in the West to focus on architecture and stage design. His book The Four Books of Architecture systematically discusses the evolution of architectural codes, aesthetic laws, and architectural styles and is richly illustrated. Palladio designed churches, palaces, villas, and other buildings of all grades in Venice, and his architectural style, known as Palladianism, influenced Western architecture for centuries.