In this lesson, you will explore the artistic styles of Italy during the 16th century and discover what characterizes each style.
Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.
Italian Art in the 16th Century
Say we have a time machine. Where would you go? What would you see? I vote that we head to Italy during the 16th century. Why? Because I love art, and Italian art in the 1500s was pretty terrific. Okay, yes, we could just go to a museum to see Italian art, but we’ve already got the time machine here, so what the hey? Let’s use it!On our trip, we are going to be checking out art from a few different movements. Italy in the early 1500s is in the High Renaissance, the last years of the Italian Renaissance, an era of war, religious fervor, and an amazing amount of art.
We are also going to see art from the Mannerist movement, as artists moved away from the geometric perfection of Renaissance styles and embraced more playful styles.Ok, do we have everything we need? Renaissance-era clothing, sunscreen, Italian phrasebook? Alright then, andiamo! Let’s go!
High Renaissance Art
Well, here we are at the very beginning of the 16th century. The year is 1504, and we are somewhere; dusty. Actually, this is a studio in Florence where marble statues are carved. Sculpture is a major art form in the Italian Renaissance, and the masters have learned to depict human figures in a way that is both highly realistic and very idealized.
See that man over there? That’s the famous Italian artist Michelangelo, and he’s working on his masterpiece, a sculpture of David.
This statue perfectly represents Renaissance ideals. These artists greatly valued the Classical traditions of ancient Rome and Greece and so, David is depicted as a male nude, like a Roman hero or god would have been. Michelangelo carved this figure with idealized ratios between parts of the body, determined by geometric formulas. David is clearly posed but in a life-like way, leaning on one foot and looking off into the distance.Like most Renaissance sculpture, there are multiple levels of meaning in this statue.
The actual moment depicted is just before David fights the giant Goliath. However, it also represents the struggle of the city of Florence against more powerful and aggressive states.We don’t want to disturb Signore Michelangelo, so let’s hop back in the time machine. And off we go to Rome. It’s a few years later, around 1510, and many of the most prominent Renaissance artists are here, painting the newly rebuilt Vatican, the center of the Catholic world. Pope Julius II has commissioned half of Italy to work on this.
Let’s pop into this building real quick and take a peek. This is the Sistine Chapel and, oh look, it’s Michelangelo again! Ciao Michelangelo! He is working on a massive fresco, or painting completed directly on plaster of a wall or ceiling. Notice the use of illusions to make the figures look as if they are 3-dimensional.
Religious art was very popular in the Renaissance, and this fresco contains scenes from the creation all the way to the last judgment.
We’ll leave Michelangelo and head into the Papal apartments, or Stanze della Segnatura, where we find the great artist Raphael. Right now, he is painting an image called The School of Athens.
This painting shows the greatest philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome together inside a building that looks a lot like the Vatican’s newly planned basilica. The Renaissance was all about respecting Classical traditions, and this painting shows how the Classical philosophers created the foundations of European intellectual culture.
There are many more examples of High Renaissance art we could look at. Leonardo da Vinci is painting The Mona Lisa, and Raphael is reaching the end of his career. But, for time’s sake, we need to get moving. So off we go to Florence.
It’s now around 1580, and the Mannerist sculptor Giovanni da Bologna is here working on his Rape of the Sabine Women. Look at the complexity of this composition. It twists and turns. The viewer must walk all the way around it to get a sense of everything that is happening. In typical Mannerist style, this statue features intertwined figures and an upward motion, which was very different than the grounded, solid poses used by most Renaissance artists.Also, while Renaissance artists were very careful about the subjects and symbolism of their work, Mannerist artists were not. If you asked da Bologna over there why he named this piece the Rape of the Sabine Women, he wouldn’t know what you are talking about.
This is a sculpture about form and spiral movement, not about a particular story. Its title will actually be given to it in a few years by a city official who needed to explain it, not da Bologna himself.For our last stop on our tour of 16th-century Italy, we head to Parma. This is Parmigianino, a great master of the Mannerist style of painting.
The year is 1539, and he’s working on The Madonna with the Long Neck.
Funny name, right? Well, there she is, the Virgin Mary. Notice anything different about these figures, as opposed to the paintings of Michelangelo and Raphael? Mannerists moved away from the natural and idealized forms of Renaissance artists and used exaggerated, elongated figures. The purpose is to emphasize the grace and elegance of the Virgin, over realistic proportions. Like da Bologna’s statue, there is a sense of spiral movement in this composition, leading the eye up towards Mary’s face.
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