Art Across Time: From the Middle Ages to the Digital Age of Instagram
The text below is the excerpt from the book 1000 Paintings of Genius (ISBN: 9781783109296), written by Victoria Charles, Joseph Manca, Megan McShane and Donald Wigal, published by Parkstone International.
For the sixteenth-century Italian writer and painter Giorgio Vasari, a dark period in human history ended when God took pity on humankind and brought about a reform of painting. Vasari wrote in his Lives of the Artists of 1550 that the naturalism of Tuscan painters like Giotto di Bondone in the early fourteenth century was a miracle, a gift to humankind to bring about an end to the stiff, formal, unnatural Byzantine style that had held sway before that time. Today, we recognise that it was hardly by chance or divine mercy that such a change occurred in artmaking. The development of crisp, effective narrative, convincing spatial representation, and the introduction of corporeal, realistic figures possessing physical presence are all aspects of painting echoing the changes in European culture that were beginning to take hold by the fourteenth century and later, and which found their most forcible expression in Italy.
Set against a social revolution in which traders, manufacturers and bankers were gaining in prominence, painters were responding to the growing demand for clear, naturalistic representation in art. The monumental works of the Florentine Giotto and the elegant, finely wrought naturalism in the paintings of the Sienese Duccio di Buoninsegna were but one part of a larger cultural movement. It also comprised: the moving, vernacular writings of Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio; the vivid traveladventure of Marco Polo; the growing influence of nominalism in philosophy, which encouraged real, tangible and sensate knowledge; and the religious devotion of Saint Francis of Assisi, who found God’s presence not in ideas and verbal speculation but in the chirping of birds and the glow of the sun and moon.
What the primi lumi, the ‘first lights’, in the art of painting had commenced by the fourteenth century was continued in the fifteenth century with ever greater sharpness and thoroughness, and with a new historical sense that caused them to look back before the Middle Ages to the world of the classical civilisations. Italians came to admire, almost worship, the ancient Greeks and Romans, for their wisdom and insight, and for their artistic as well as scholarly achievements. A new kind of intellectual, the humanist, fuelled a cultural revolution in the fifteenth century. A humanist was a scholar of ancient letters, and humanism was the broader attitude they fostered: a belief in the value of a thoughtful study of Nature, a faith in the potentiality of humankind, and a sense that secular, moral beliefs were necessary to supplement the limited tenets of Christianity. Above all, the humanists encouraged the belief that ancient civilisation was the apex of culture and one should be in a dialogue with the writers and artists of the classical world.
The result was the Renaissance, the rebirth, of Greco-Roman culture. The panels, paintings and murals of Masaccio and Piero dell Francesca captured the moral firmness of ancient Roman sculptural figures, and these artists strove to show their actors as part of our world: the Renaissance perspective system is based on a single vanishing point and carefully worked out transversal lines, resulting in a spatial coherence not seen since antiquity, if ever. Even more clearly indebted to antiquity were the paintings of the northern Italian prodigy Andrea Mantegna. His archaeological studies of antique costumes, architecture, figural poses, and inscriptions resulted in the most thoroughly consistent attempt by any painter up to his time to give new life to the vanished Greco-Roman civilisation. Even a painter like Alessandro Botticelli, whose art evokes a dreamy spirit that had survived from the late Gothic style, created paintings with Venuses, Cupids, and nymphs that responded to the subject matter of the ancients and appealed to contemporary viewers touched by humanism.
It would be better to think of ‘Renaissances’ rather than a single Renaissance. This is demonstrated no more clearly than by looking at the art of the leading painters of the High Renaissance. Giorgio Vasari saw these masters as all setting out to create an art greater than Nature, as idealists who improved on reality rather than imitating it, and who thoughtfully suggested reality rather than delineating it for us in every particular detail. We recognise in these painters different embodiments of the cultural aspirations of the time. Leonardo da Vinci, trained as a painter, was equally at home in his role as a scientist, and he incorporated into art his research into the human body, plant forms, geology, and psychology.
Michelangelo Buonarroti, trained as a sculptor, turned to painting and expressed his deep theological and philosophical beliefs, especially the idealism of Neoplatonism. His muscular, over-scaled and intense heroes could hardly differ any more from the graceful, smiling, supple figures of Leonardo. Raphael of Urbino was the ultimate courtier, whose paintings embody the grace, charm and sophistication of life at Renaissance courts. Giorgione and Titian, both Venetian masters, expressed with their colourism and free brushwork an epicurean sense of life, their art finding no better subject matter than in luxurious landscapes and sumptuous female nudes. All the sixteenth-century painters tried to improve on Nature, to create something greater or more beautiful than nature itself. Titian’s motto Natura Potentior Ars, ‘Art More Powerful than Nature’, could be the philosophy of all the sixteenth-century artists.
Among the achievements of the Italian Renaissance painters was that they had established their intellectual credentials. Rather than being considered as mere handicraftsmen, artists – some of whom, such as Leon Battista Alberti, Leonardo da Vinci, and Michelangelo, were themselves writers on this subject – made a bid to be considered on a par with other thinkers of their time. The profession of painting experienced a sharp rise in its critical fortunes in Renaissance Italy. Michelangelo, for example, was called Il Divino, ‘the Divine’, and a kind of cult sprang up around leading painters and other artists of the time. Already in 1435, Alberti urged painters to associate themselves with men of letters and mathematicians, and this paid off. The present-day inclusion of “studio art” in university curricula has its origins in the new attitude to painting that arose in Italy during the Renaissance. By the sixteenth century, rather than only commissioning particular works, art patrons across the peninsula were happy to get their hands on any product of the great individual artists: acquiring ‘a Raphael’, ‘a Michelangelo’, or ‘a Titian’ was a goal in itself, whatever the work in question.
While the Italians of the Renaissance had turned to highly organised spatial settings and idealised figural types, the northern Europeans focused on everyday reality, on optical sensations, and on the variety of life on earth. No painter has ever surpassed the Netherlandish painter Jan van Eyck in his close observation of surfaces, and no one has ever seen and captured more clearly and poetically the glint of light on a pearl, the deep, resonant colours of a red cloth, or the glinting reflections that appear in glass and on metal. Scientific observation was one form of realism, while another was the intense interest at the time in the bodies of saints and on the anatomical details of the Passion of Christ. This was the age of religious theatre, when actors, dressed as biblical characters, acted out in churches and on the streets the detail of Christ’s suffering and death.
It is not coincidence this was also the period when masters such as Netherlandish Rogier van der Weyden and German Matthias Grünewald painted, sometimes with excruciating clarity, the wounds, streams of blood, and pathetic countenance of the crucified Christ. The northern masters carried out their pictorial research with a skilled use of oil painting technique, a medium in which they remained in the forefront in European art until the Italians joined them only in the later fifteenth century…
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