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Italian Renaissance (1330-1550)

Art in the High Renaissance (1450-1550)

Art in the Early Renaissance (1330-1450)

The Rise of Printing: Literature in the Renaissance (1350-1550)


The artists of the High Renaissance, which is loosely defined as the period from 1450 to 1550, built upon the foundation laid by their predecessors. The best- known artists of the Italian Renaissance grew famous during the High Renaissance. Wealthy patrons continued to enthusiastically support theses artists as they traveled around Italy in search of commissions to create their masterpieces.

Leonardo Da Vinci

Perhaps the most influential figure of the entire Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci epitomized the renaissance ideal. He was a talented painter and sculptor. His interest in science was boundless and his work in that field unprecedented. In 1482, Lorenzo de Medici purchased a lyre which Leonardo had fashioned in the shape of a horse's skull, intending to send it to Ludovico Sforza of Milan. Leonardo asked to personally deliver the gift, and when he did, Sforza persuaded him to remain in Milan, where he painted his famous mural The Last Supper on the wall of a monastery. Leonardo remained in Milan seventeen years, returning to Florence in 1499 when the French invaded Milan. In Florence, he became chief military engineer, a position he held until 1513, when he went to Rome in search of a commission from the pope. Pope Leo X preferred the work of the painter Raphael, however, and Leonardo moved on, becoming court painter to Francis I of France, where he remained until his death in 1519. In addition to The Last Supper, Leonardo's best known work is the Mona Lisa, the most famous portrait ever painted. Many of da Vinci's greatest ideas remained just that, and he recorded his plans for future inventions and his notes on life around him in notebooks that have given historians insight into the true extent of his genius.

Michaelangelo Buonarroti

Michaelangelo Buonarroti enrolled in the school for sculptors established by Lorenzo de Medici in Florence, when he was only thirteen, and soon attracted the attention of Lorenzo himself. Michaelangelo lived for a while in the Medici palace as a member of the family, absorbing the principles of humanism and Neoplatonism that freely flourished there. Later, Michaelangelo, inspired by the belief that he had a divine calling, traveled to Rome, where, at age 23, he carved the Pieta, a bust of the Virgin Mary, bringing him instant fame. When he returned to Florence in 1501, he was commissioned to sculpt the Hebrew King David, just as Donatello had. Michaelangelo's David became the symbol of Florence's prospering artists, and remains there today. In 1508, Michaelangelo began his work decorating the walls and ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. The project was arduous and time-consuming, and when he finished he had painted over 300 human figures. The painting of the ceiling has assumed legendary status and is considered one of the great artistic undertakings of all time.


Raphael, born Raffaello Santi, was the leading painter of the Renaissance. In 1508, Pope Julius II summoned him to Rome to decorate the papal apartments in the Vatican. The most widely known of the series of murals and frescoes he painted is the School of Athens, which depicts an imaginary assembly of famous philosophers. Raphael maintained the favor of the Julius II and his successor Leo X, and thus painted for papal commissions all his life. He was widely renowned as the greatest painter of his age, and considered so important by his contemporaries that when he died at the premature age of 37 he was buried in the Pantheon.


The most prominent Venetian artist of the Renaissance, Titian was born Tiziana Vecellio, in the Italian Alps. Early in life he moved to Venice to study art. Titian distinguished himself through the use of bright colors and new techniques that inbued those colors with greater subtlety and depth. Between 1518 and 1532 he served as court painter in Ferrara, Mantua, and Urbino. In 1532, he became the official painter to the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, in which role he dabbled mainly in portraiture.


If the artists of the early Renaissance had introduced and worked to perfect the techniques and style of Renaissance art, it was the artists of the High Renaissance who mastered these techniques, creating the most intricate and beautiful works of the entire period. Earning even greater fame than their predecessors, the artists of the High Renaissance were able to pick and choose their commissions, often wandering from city to city in search of favorable projects. Meanwhile, wealthy patrons competed fiercely to support these famed artists and take credit as the financiers of the masterpieces they created.

Leonardo da Vinci took full advantage of this freedom, traveling to many locales during his career, leaving every place he visited awed by his presence. Leonardo has been hailed as one of the greatest geniuses in all of history, praised both for this artistic talent and his brilliant mind. Da Vinci always carried notebooks with him, which he filled with notes, sketches, and diagrams. His notebooks, recently published, contain ideas for such inventions as the scaling ladder, rotating bridge, submarine, armored vehicle, and helicopter, none of which were built until decades or centuries later. Leonardo keenly observed the natural world around him, seeking to find out how things worked in order to draw more accurately. He deduced that the rings in a cross-section of a tree delineate age, developed a theory on the origin of the earth, and dissected and diagramed the organs of the human body. Leonardo, perhaps more than any other Renaissance figure, demonstrated the spirit of humanism, excelling in a wide variety of fields and continually seeking to better himself through knowledge. In fact, the case of Leonardo da Vinci supports the argument that the humanist values of learning, rationality, and reality rose to truly rival and in some cases overshadow the importance of Church doctrines.

However, during the High Renaissance, the Church maintained control over the psyche of the Italian people, and more tangibly, the arts. The Roman Golden Age under Julius II and Leo X provided constant work for the artists of the High Renaissance, and in fact, the Papacy built up enormous debts in part to finance the commissioning of great artists. Raphael did a great majority of his life's work inside the papal apartments, and Michaelangelo consistently claimed that he had a divine mandate to create art, preferring the Church to all other patrons. Both of these artists played a large part in the rebuilding of Rome, and Michaelangelo, specifically, was heavily involved in the design and construction of the new St. Peter's basilica. Therefore, the art of the High Renaissance remained highly religious in theme, though the extreme humanism exhibited by Leonardo gained strength, portending the further schism between art and the Church, and intellectualism and the Church, which would reach a head in the coming centuries.

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