It used 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—
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.
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
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
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 beyond
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
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
ADORATION OF THE MAGI. 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 studies. 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.
Leonardo da Vinci.
Adoration of the Magi (detail).
Monochrome on panel. Galleria degli Uffizi. Florence
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 (see
Our detail (fig.
THE VIRGIN OF THE ROCKS. Soon after arriving in Milan,
Leonardo did The
Virgin of the Rocks (fig.
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 sfumato, is 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 the Bible. 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 define. 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 doctrinal.
Leonardo da Vinci.
The Virgin of the Rocks, ñ
Oil on panel transferred to canvas, 199
x 122 cm.
Musee du Louvre, Paris
Unhappily, the 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.
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
Supper, later by a dozen years, has always been recognized as the
first classic statement of the ideals of High Renaissance painting (fig.
A comparison with Castagno's Last Supper (fig.
603), 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
15 feet above the floor and
30 feet back—an
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
Leonardo da Vinci.
The Last Supper, ñ 1495-98.
Tempera wall mural, 4.6 x 8.8
Sta. Maria dellc Grazie, Milan
(Note 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.
The Saviour, 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
Peter Paul Rubens.
Drawing after Leonardo's cartoon for The Battle of
Anghiari. c. 1600. Cabinet des
Dessins, Musee du Louvre, Paris
BATTLE OF ANGHIARI. In 1499, the
duchy of Milan fell to the French, and
Leonardo 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 1503
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 1506 at the request of
the French, abandoning the commission. 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 (fig. 636).
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
(fig. 602), 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.
LISA. While working on The battle of Anghiari,
Leonardo painted the
Mona Lisa (fig.
637). 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
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 the Greeks (see
The Mona 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
1479 and died before
1556. This is
not the only painting of the Mona Lisa: Leonardo also
painted a nude version that once belonged to the king of
Leonardo da Vinci.
ñ. 1503-5. Oil on panel,
77 x 53.5 cm.
Musee du Louvre, Paris
blow original 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 Womb (fig.
638) combines his
own vivid observation with the analytic clarity of a diagram—or,
to paraphrase Leonardo's own words, sight and insight.
DRAWINGS. In his later years,
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.
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 domed, centrally planned churches of the type illustrated in
figure 639 hold
particular interest for us. The plan recalls Brunelleschi's Sta. Maria
degli Angeli (see fig. 588),
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 (compare figs. 478,
642, and 643).
It gives evidence, too, of Leonardo's close
contact, during the 1490s, with the architect Donato Bramante
(1444-1514), 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
15 years of his life, that he became the creator
of High Renaissance architecture.
Leonardo da Vinci.
Embryo in the Womb. c. 1510.
Detail of pen drawing. Windsor Castle, Royal Libran
Leonardo da Vinci.
Project for a Church. (Ms. Â), ñ
1490. Pen drawing. Bibliotheque de l'Arsenal, Paris