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Renaissance to the 18th century


By Alex Brown





By the middle 1500s, Rome had become powerful again as the centre of the Papal States. The area in central Italy controlled directly by the Popes who now had political and military power. The popes could rely on a large amount of money donated to the Church from Christians all over Europe and like many other Italians, considered themselves heirs to the greatness of Rome. Indeed, some such as Julius II saw themselves as the new Caesar with both spiritual and military authorities.


The importance of this for art was that Rome (under the Popes) became a major centre of art and attracted artists from all Italian cities. In some cases the popes demanded that other cities send their most famous artists to help rebuild and GLORIFY THE CITY AND CHURCH OF ROME.


After a struggle of status among other Arts, the status of Italian artists finally becomes greater. They now had the privileges equal to leading scholars and could now choose the work they wished to carry out.



2.0   THE HIGH RENAISSANCE (from the 1490’s)


The concept of ‘High’ Renaissance was introduced by Giorgio Vasari to mark the perfection in visual arts. Yet this is set in a time of wars, religious crisis and corruption.


Italian states formed and re-formed leagues to defend themselves from foreign invaders as well as one another. As a result, the country was in constant warfare, but it was due to this chaotic situation that art flourished. The influence of Italian art is visible in Northern Europe and a number of German and Flemish artists broke away from their Gothic roots to embrace the Renaissance style.


Architecture, (mural) painting and sculpture suddenly became a form of propaganda. The structure of the city became more sophisticated, with proper drainage system etc. - all done to reflect the power and success of the ruling lord.


2.1    Learning in the High Renaissance


Humanistic thoughts continued into this period, particularly Neo-Platonism, classical rhetoric and Roman history. At the same time, classical mythology began to seep into the culture more so than before.


1.      Machiavelli

2.      Castiglione

3.      Ariosto


2.2    The Art of the High Renaissance


By this time Renaissance artists had become more familiar with the Classical canon, and have began to create a style of their own.


The depiction of Nature can be seen as a background now, though it being the main subject is not yet accepted.


Four artists who dominated the High Renaissance period and the century that followed are:


          Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael and Titian.


Their work expresses the full force of Renaissance art and culture and although in many cases religious in theme, it is essentially focused on the Human figure ('the Measure of all things') as the central issue of art.


2.3    Characteristics of High Renaissance Art


With a better understanding of Nature, artists of this period began to conceive that the reproduction of Nature can and should be improved upon:


1.      Ultimate technical skill in painting and sculpture with the ability to express the full range of  human emotions.

2.      Dynamic movement or tension in groups depicted (through CHIAROSCURO and CONTRAPOSTO).

3.      Extreme sensitivity in the portrayal of Mother and Child, and often placed within a cone/pyramid composition.

4.      More delicate use of colours: richer and more dense than Gothic.

5.     The horizontal line becomes more pronounced in paintings and sculpture and architecture as against the Gothic                   vertical emphasis.

6.      Figures and groups are more massive 'heavy' than the fragile Gothic figures of the past.


3.0    MANNERISM (from 1520’s)


The Catholic Counter-Reformation brought an end to the High Renaissance. Mannerism is not a label for any period or is it associated with any particular group of artists. Rather, it is for certain works produced with an emphasis on contraposto (in painting and sculpture) and violations of Classical orders (in architecture).


3.1    Characteristics of Mannerism


1.       A greater tension on the twisting of human body to express movement.

2.      The linear arrangement of composition in paintings.        

3.      General preference for the female nude.

4.       A reworking of the Classical Order, which varied the traditional rules in architecture.




The Roman Catholic Church in the 17th century  regained the confidence of the public with the success of the Counter-Reformation. Rome, in particular, was revamped with magnificent style by Pope Sixtus V.


The Baroque style is often seen as a theatrical manner in celebrating the power and vitality of  Catholicism.


Note that:


At the time of Counter-Reformation, Rome under the Popes had become an extremely powerful source of patronage of art. Money drawn from all over Europe was used to glorify the power of the Church now under pressure from Protestant reformers in Northern Europe. By the 1600s Europe had taken shape as a group of powerful states such as France, Spain, Britain, the Netherlands and several German kingdoms. They were now politically and economically as important as Rome and rich enough to become powerful patrons of the arts. Classicism was the International Style of Art used with local variations by all European states for their art and architecture. However Rome remained the major centre for the formation of new art movements and it was there that the Baroque style emerged from the Renaissance. 


4.1    Art of the Rococo


Besides, the patronage of the Church, painters, sculptors and architects of this period enjoyed commission by both the royal and noble families.


For, paintings, the subject ranges from religious stories (figures clad in contemporary garments), allegorical contents, scenes from everyday life, the ‘ideal landscape’, seascapes to portraits.


4.2    Characteristics of Baroque Art


The return to the Early Christianity period is the underlying approach. Although studies on antiquities continued and certain works being restored during this period, there is the rejection of Paganism. More rather, it is religious in content.


1.      The convex/ concave alternation on the walls is prominent to demonstrate a sense of  movement. The oval form is                used throughout the building.

2.       On the Baroque facades are the expressive display of mouldings and ornamental statues

3.      In a multiplicity of intersecting planes and curves, the power of masses and spaces is displayed in a sensual and                  emotional style.

4.      The passions of the soul are illustrated vividly or acted out through paintings and sculptures. At the same time, they              freeze’ the action, wanting to depict the very moment of action.

5.      Theatrical use of lights and shade, with the light source being a candle, or at a corner of the canvas.

6.      New allegory : Ancient gods and Christian virtues are often personified, obeying the power of the patrons.




The dominant Baroque style somehow came to an end with the death of Louis XIV in 1715 though there was still an overlap of Late Baroque and Rococo in the early decades of the 18th century.


It is a style mainly of  INTERIOR DESIGN with the dominant use of stones (Fr. Rocaille = pebble) and shells (Fr. Coquille). The internal arrangement at this period is a division of function, and the study of architecture of this period should be approached from this point of view.




The approach of Rococo art is much more frivolous yet worldly. At a stage, the assimilation of both Egyptian and Chinese motifs is found in some interior decorations.


The expression of free growing Nature is seen through the use of carved tendrils and foliage with shell forms. This FEMININE look could be a reflection of the taste and social initiation of women:


          Madame de Pompadour in France

          Maria Theresa in Austria

         Elizabeth & Catherine in Russian


5.2  Characteristics of the Rococo Art


1.      Often simple or even plain Classical facade in architecture.

2,      Interior walls with irregular painted cornices, richly  decorated for a festive atmosphere.

3.      Decorations include scrolls and wreaths of flowers.

4.      The gay bodily movement, the gliding motion and the sensual intimacy are emphasised in both sculptures and                      paintings. S- and C-curves seen.


5.3    Other Art-forms


The ornamental passion is seen in Rococo furniture and objects of many kinds such as tapestry, porcelain and jewellery.





In 1789 came the French Revolution where the French rebelled against their king, Louis XVI, executed him, the royal family and many of the nobility. They declared the country a Republic.


However, continual fighting amongst the leaders of the Republic led eventually to the dictatorship of Napoleon Bonaparte who later crowned himself Emperor of the French.


 6.1    Art of the Neo-Classicism


The Greek and Roman models were studied more consciously than before. Some architects, painters and sculptors travelled to Greece to make accurate observations and drawings while others continue to turn to Rome for inspirations. Using images and ideas from the glorious past, artists sought to represent this new `Imperial Republic'.'


The style which developed from this was called: NEO-CLASSICISM

('Neo-' is Greek for `new'. Neo-Classicism is, therefore, the new Classicism).


The French artist most typical of this Neo-classical phase was the painter Jacques-Louis David whose portraits of the emperor Napoleon sum up the artistic feelings of the age. The paintings of David are classical, heroic, severe yet richly coloured and filled with a clear, sharp light.


In keeping with its Classical sources, French Neo-Classical painting emphasized the simple LINE and CONTOUR at the expense of colour.


6. 2    Characteristics of Neo-Classical Art

A sense of ORDER prevails everywhere” whether in paintings, architecture or sculpture.


1.       Cool, severe, linear and restrained in expression and colour.

2.       Heroic subject matter instead of mythologies. (Usually Roman themes.)

3.       Less depth in the picture. Foreground and frontal views are emphasised

4.       A much simplified Classical architecture - more Greek than Roman.

5.       Use of simple geometric shapes- pyramids, spheres, cubes.




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