Central to the development of Renaissance art was the emergence of the artist as a creator, sought after and respected for his erudition and imagination. Art, too, became valued--not merely as a vehicle for religious and social didacticism, but even more as a mode of personal, aesthetic expression.
Although the evolution of Italian Renaissance art was a continuous process, it is traditionally divided into three major phases: Early, High, and Late Renaissance. The last phase has been the subject in recent years of complex interpretations that recognize many competing and contrasting trends. Some scholars date the beginning of the Italian Renaissance from the appearance of Giotto di Bondone in the early 14th century; others regard his prodigious achievements in naturalistic art as an isolated phenomenon. According to the second view, the consistent development of Renaissance style began only with the generation of artists active in Florence at the beginning of the 15th century.
Rational inquiry was believed to be the key to success; therefore, efforts were made to discover the correct laws of proportion for architecture and for the representation of the human body and to systematize the rendering of pictorial space. Although these artists were keenly observant of natural phenomena, they also tended to extrapolate general rules from specific appearances. Similarly, they made an effort to go beyond straightforward transcription of nature, to instill the work of art with ideal, intangible qualities, endowing it with a beauty and significance greater and more permanent than that actually found in nature. These characteristics--the rendering of ideal forms rather than literal appearance and the concept of the physical world as the vehicle or imperfect embodiment of monumental spiritual beauty--were to remain fundamental to the nature and development of Italian Renaissance art.
The term Early Renaissance characterizes virtually all the art of the 15th century. Florence, the cradle of Renaissance artistic thought, remained one of the undisputed centers of innovation. About 1450 a new generation of artists that included such masters as Pollaiuolo (see POLLAIUOLO family) and Sandro Botticelli came to the fore in Florence. Other Italian cities--Milan, Urbino, Ferrara, Venice, Padua, Naples--became powerful rivals in the spreading wave of change. Leon Battista ALBERTI's work in Rimini and Mantua represented the most progressive architecture of the new HUMANISM; Andrea Mantegna's paintings in Padua displayed a personal formulation of linear perspective, antiquarianism, and realistic technique; and Giovanni Bellini's poetic classicism exemplified the growing strength of the Venetian school.
By the late 15th century the novelty of the first explosive advances of Renaissance style had given way to a general acceptance of such basic notions as proportion, contraposto (twisted pose), and linear perspective; consequently many artists sought means of personal expression within this relatively well-established repertoire of style and technique. The Early Renaissance was not, as was once maintained, merely an imperfect but necessary preparation for the perfection of High Renaissance art but a period of great intrinsic merit. In retrospect, however, Early Renaissance painting seems to fall short of thoroughly convincing figural representation, and its expression of human emotion is stylized rather than real. Furthermore, the strength of individual features of a work of art is disproportionate to the whole composition.
The High Renaissance style endured for only a brief period (c.1495-1520) and was created by a few artists of genius, among them Leonardo da Vinci, Donato Bramante, Michelangelo, Raphael, and Titian. Leonardo da Vinci's unfinished Adoration of the Magi (1481; Uffizi Gallery, Florence) is regarded as a landmark of unified pictorial composition, later realized fully in his fresco The Last Supper (1495-97; Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan). Leonardo is considered the paragon of Renaissance thinkers, engaged as he was in experiments of all kinds and having brought to his art a spirit of restless inquiry that sought to discover the laws governing diverse natural phenomena. In a different way, Michelangelo has come to typify the artist endowed with inexplicable, solitary genius. His universal talents are exemplified by the tomb of Julius II (c.1510-15), San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome; the Medici Chapel (1519-34), Florence; the SISTINE CHAPEL ceiling (1508-12) and Last Judgment (1536-41), Rome; and the cupola of SAINT PETER's BASILICA (begun 1546)--works that represent major and inimitable accomplishments in the separate fields of sculpture, painting, and architecture. Raphael, a man of very different temperament, evoked, in paintings of Madonnas and in frescoes, not overwhelming forces but sublime harmony and lyric, graceful beauty.
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