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The High Renaissance was about taking what the early Renaissance painters were doing and expanding on it, elevating it to new incredible heights. This period didn’t last very long, beginning around 1480 and continuing for about 40 or so years; however, there are some works on this list that are a bit younger. Beginning with Leonardo da Vinci, who started the next Renaissance phase in art, we bring you 12 works that will introduce you to this incredible period in art history.
When discussing the High Renaissance, we must start with Leonardo da Vinci, who started to expand on what the early Renaissance artists were doing. He begins playing with space, making use of more than one vanishing point, and using light and shade in new ways. Leonardo also loved making drawings of all sorts, especially the human form, which he did with great precision – unlike anyone before. One famous drawing of his is the Vitruvian Man, which depicts how an ‘ideally proportioned human’ would fit perfectly inside a circle within a square – something Roman architect Vitruvius described in On Architecture. This drawing is in the collection of the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice.
As stated above, Leonardo was about elevating Renaissance art by experimenting and sometimes with different techniques, which didn’t always work out. One such example, which we are quite lucky to still have today, is the iconic The Last Supper. Created between the years 1495 and 1498 for the refectory of the Santa Maria della Grazie in Milan, this fresco made use of the experimental technique of oil and tempera on plaster – it has faded horribly; however, it is one of the best and most loved pieces of all time. Using multiple-point perspective, Leonardo also had the incredible talent of depicting individual personalities and characters, evident in this work. It has been restored; however, only about 42 percent of Leonardo’s work remains.
Michelangelo’s David is quite different from Donatello’s early Renaissance version – a young man that looks like a young man and one who just killed the enemy. Michelangelo’s version is colossal, standing at 17 feet, with extremely large hands: the reason for this is because it is meant to be placed up high so that viewers have to look up – the proper way to view it, making him appear superhuman. While still a young man – age 16 – this David has a strong body, making him appear slightly older than his 16 years, and with his sling resting on his shoulder, he has not yet gone to battle. David can be seen inside the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence.
If you’ve ever been to the Louvre, then you know just how many people flock to see this painting in person. One of the most recognizable artworks, if not the most, in the world, Leonardo’s Mona Lisa was painted beginning in 1503. It’s believed that the sitter is Lisa Gherardini, the wife of Francesco del Giocondo, a Florentine cloth merchant; however, Leonardo never gave the portrait to whoever commissioned it, as it was still in his possession when he died. Some of the unique features of this painting are the positioning of the sitter – half-length and slightly turned, which was new to Italy – against a landscape background and the use of sfumato lighting – a hazy, gentle contrast between light and shade.
From 1508-12, the Renaissance man himself, Michelangelo, created the magnificent Sistine Chapel Ceiling – an epic High Renaissance work that is sure to take your breath away. Commissioned by Pope Julius II, the ceiling features stories from the Old Testament separated by painted-on architectural elements. The frescoes are brightly colored and make use of chiaroscuro, and the figures are very sculptural in form. Some of the stories represented include The Creation of Adam and Eve, Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, and Noah and the Great Flood, plus there are various Sibyls, prophets, and ignudi, or nude youths, dotted throughout.
Giorgione’s The Tempest is just as mysterious as the artist himself. A High Renaissance painter of the Venetian school, Giorgione’s life was cut short at the age of 30, and there are only between a half dozen and dozen works attributed to him – experts don’t agree, hence the range. The Tempest causes just as much controversy among scholars as how many works are, indeed, done by his hand. The beautiful landscape, although menacing, can easily stand on its own – it doesn’t need the figures present. Who are the figures? Nobody knows for certain. The nude female feeding her baby is sometimes referred to as a gypsy while opposite her stands a soldier. Many attempts have been made to identify the subject – literary or biblical – but it’s still a mystery. Find this one in the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice.
An introduction to High Renaissance art would not be complete without Raphael. A contemporary of Leonardo and Michelangelo, Raphael was younger and inspired by them and his teacher, Perugino; therefore, you’ll often find hints of all of them in his work. While he only lived until the age of 37, Raphael left behind many incredible works, including the fresco School of Athens, located in what is now referred to as the Stanze di Raffaella, or Raphael Rooms, inside the Palace of the Vatican. This large fresco features a troupe l’oeil arch – painted so well and with such incredible detail that it appears to be real – with all the philosophic greats represented, including Plato and Aristotle. It’s also believed to have a self-portrait of Raphael himself, located on the right side, and a portrait of Michelangelo in the foreground.
Another work by Raphael, the oil painting Sistine Madonna is the first Madonna Raphael ever painted on canvas. Commissioned by Pope Julius II for the San Sisto in Piacenza, the painting now hangs in the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in Dresden, Germany. This masterpiece is beautifully rendered with Madonna and the Christ Child at the center with Saints Sixtus and Barbara flanking each side, along with green drapes. The background features dozens of cherubs with a hazy quality, making them appear cloud-like. If you’re not familiar with this painting, you will have almost certainly seen the two little angels at the bottom of the painting; famous for their classic bored look, these two have been featured on stationery and porcelain and everything in between.
A sculpture by Michelangelo, Moses was created for Pope Julius II’s tomb – it was common in those times for rulers to commission a tomb before their deaths. The tomb was meant to be a marble three-story edifice; however, the Pope died before Michelangelo could finish, so they made it work with what was already done. The sculpture is unique in that Moses features horns, and all due to a misinterpretation. When Saint Jerome was translating the Bible, he mistook the word rays – when it’s explained that God’s light radiated out of Moses – for horns, so now, this Moses will always have horns. His torso is also quite long because the sculpture was originally supposed to be placed up high on the second level rather than on the ground. Moses is located in the San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome.
One of the greatest painters, if not the best, from Venice in the 16th century, Titian, born Tiziano Vecellio, had a long career, producing many incredible artworks. One such work is Bacchus and Ariadne located at The National Gallery in London. An oil painting – Titian was known for employing layers upon layers of oil paints to achieve the rich quality seen in his works – Bacchus and Ariadne is a mythological subject about Bacchus, the god of wine, who falls in love with Ariadne, who was left abandoned on Naxos, a Greek Island. The painting is one of a series painted for Alfonso d’Este, who commissioned them for Camerino d’Alabastro in the Ducal Palace.
The Last Judgment is another massive masterpiece by Michelangelo located in the Sistine Chapel. Commissioned by Pope Paul III, this glorious work features over 300 figures, most of which are muscular (some over the top) and nude, with colorful pieces of cloth here and there. Christ is, of course, at the center of the fresco, along with his Mother, and is surrounded by various saints, including St. Bartholomew, who was flayed alive; he, indeed, is shown holding skin with a caricature of Michelangelo’s face on it. While the majority of the work displays Heaven on a celestial blue background, the bottom of the work takes a terrifying turn as many of those people will not be floating up but rather pulled to Hell.
The inspiration for Édouard Manet’s 1863 Olympia, the Venus of Urbino is another masterpiece by Titian. Within an interior space, viewers see a nude reclining woman with a dog at her feet – a symbol of fidelity. Painted for the Duke of Urbino Guidobaldo II Della Rovere to celebrate his marriage, this work exudes eroticism and is very much ‘in your face’ about it, as the female figure stares directly out at the viewer while covering her genitals with one hand and holding flowers with the other. The background finds a woman watching a young girl in a white dress who is searching for something within a cassone, a chest where clothes were often kept. Today, the Venus of Urbino is located in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.