Can You Spot What All these Paintings Have in Common?
A powerful trick that so many paintings employ
It’s a rainy day in Paris. The street teems with umbrellas, hats and frock coats.
On the right side of the image, a couple walks toward us. Meanwhile on the left the street opens out, giving us a view of modern Paris in the late 19th century.
The question is: can you spot the similarity between Paris Street; Rainy Day — painted by Gustave Caillebotte in 1877 — and the painting shown below, The Roman Campagna, painted by another French artist Claude Lorrain in around 1639?
The landscapes of Claude Lorrain were some of the first images to consciously use this particular effect, which has since become a favourite technique of painters.
Notice the contrast between the glowing light in the background and the shadowy trees in the foreground. Take a moment to let your eyes roam around each image. Try to notice where your gaze is drawn to…
Here’s another image that shares the same attribute. It was painted in 1871 by Frederic Edwin Church, the American artist and member of the Hudson River School of landscape painters.
The painting looks over the famous ruins of the Parthenon, located at the Acropolis, the ancient citadel above the Greek city of Athens. Notice again how the foreground lies in shadow — a shadow that runs diagonally upwards from left to right. Also take note of the column on the right-hand side, which again sits in shadow. The effect is to elevate the temple both visually and symbolically, as it is uniquely bathed in this glowing light.
So what’s happening in all of these paintings?
Well, they all utilise a powerful technique that helps to draw the viewer’s eye into the painting.
The word for this technique is repoussoir, and it refers to an object in a painting that is positioned in the foreground and to one side. It comes from the French verb répousser, meaning “to push back”. (The word is pronounced reh-poo-swahr if it helps.)
In art, the meaning of repoussoir is “a thing or person that emphasises another by contrast”.
Often this contrast is made by setting near and far against one another. A spatial contrast is generated, often helped along by casting the foreground area in shadow, thereby serving to direct the viewer’s attention toward the main subject of the work.
Here is a painting by the German Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich in which the repoussoir technique is most apparent. Chalk Cliffs on Rügen was painted in 1818 on the island of Rügenin the Baltic Sea.
The other aspect of repoussoir that the Friedrich painting makes clear is how it can be used to frame the main motif of the image. The darker shades of the foreground act as a kind of window frame through which we peer outwards.
(Apart from the brilliant clarity of this painting, I also like the detail at the front where the man appears to have dropped something over the edge of the cliff; the woman points downwards whilst he scrambles on his knees in vain.)
The repoussoir technique is not confined to landscapes. Take this memorable Caravaggio painting. The subject is a biblical scene as told in the Gospel of St. Luke: three men are sitting eating at a table when one of them reveals himself to be Christ. Like many of Caravaggio’s paintings, he achieves a powerful sense of tension by means of light and shadow.
Notice the disciple on the left-hand side, who has been identified as Cleophas. See how he thrusts out his elbow towards us, painted with brilliant foreshortening, thereby giving us something to look beyond toward the figure of Jesus in the middle.
Finally, to round up this exploration of the repoussoir technique, here is a painting by Johannes Vermeer called The Art of Painting, completed in 1668.
In the image, a tapestry hangs along the left-hand side. Notice how it has been drawn aside like a drape and is also held back by a chair pushed up against it. The effect of the drape is, or course, to reveal the scene in front of us, almost like a curtain lifted in front of a stage at the theatre.
In this painting, Vermeer’s use of the drape is emphatic: it successfully pulls us into the space beyond it, emphasising the depth of the room and encouraging us to feel as if we are peering into this most private and intimate of spaces.
A tiny section of the Sistine Chapel masterpiece explored
When you step into the Sistine Chapel, it’s like stepping into an immense jewellery box. The rectangular space, some 40 metres long, is an overwhelming arena to enter.
The first thing visitors tend to notice is the array of frescos that adorn the walls, painted by the likes of Sandro Botticelli and Domenico Ghirlandaio — made in the 1480s when Michelangelo was still a child.
Up until the recent cleaning and restoration work completed in 1999, the true intensity of the painted frescoes was not fully understood by modern audiences. Centuries of candle soot had cloaked the walls and ceiling with a layer of dirt. When this layer was removed, the full vibrancy of the chapel decoration was revealed. Most especially, Michelangelo’s unrivalled ceiling cycle.
Michelangelo was an Italian artist who grew up in Florence and quickly established himself as a supremely talented sculptor with the house of Medici. Apprenticed under the Domenico Ghirlandaio, Michelangelo’s rise to prominence was crowned when in 1504 he carved the mighty statue of David, now housed in the Accademia Gallery in Florence.
Michelangelo caught the attention of Pope Julius II and was called to Rome in 1505. His initial project in Rome was to work on the tomb of the Pope, who was already planning his grand commemorative mausoleum. It was during his work on the tomb that Michelangelo was commissioned to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel — which at that time was painted blue and dotted with golden stars.
The technical process of creating the ceiling frescoes for the Sistine chapel began with the artist developing his thoughts in sketch form. The small-scale studies were essentially about working through and narrowing down ideas, which considering the size and complexity of the finished work, was an imperative step in the planning process.
The sketches later developed into full-figure studies, and these were then converted into full-scale cartoons. These one-to-one images were transferred onto the wet plaster, probably using a technique known as “pouncing” where the outline of the image is pricked with a pin and charcoal dust dabbed through the pinholes to leave the tracing of the cartoon on the plaster. In later sections of the ceiling, Michelangelo used a more direct method of incising or cutting through the cartoon to leave a physical mark in the wet plaster.
For the lunettes (the semi-circular corners), it is believed that Michelangelo worked without transferring any cartoons but rather painted directly from his sketches — an unprecedented and remarkable feat given the fresco medium and the intricate nature of the final image.
The wider ceiling image shows the story of Genesis split into nine panels, from The Separation of Light from Darkness, through to The Creation of Adam, and culminating in The Great Flood and The Drunkenness of Noah. All of these panels are oriented towards the priest at the altar, who of course would often have been the Pope.
This central section of the ceiling is part of a broader narrative that is designed to express the salvation offered by God through Jesus. Around the outer edges of the ceiling, Michelangelo painted sibyls and prophets who predicted the coming of Christ, whilst the lunettes in each of the four corners show Biblical scenes associated with the salvation of Israel.
The physical working conditions that Michelangelo worked under were intensely difficult. Scaffolding was erected at nearly 25 metres in height, with all the associated carrying of materials up ladders or hoisting them via pulleys.
Michelangelo painted in a standing position which necessitated a constant tilting of the head backwards. And since the ceiling was painted in fresco it was essential to work fast: the freshly plastered area had to be painted during the course of one day before the plaster dried.
One of the qualities of fresco is that it must be painted with confidence and speed, since there is little room for error and incomplete sections usually have to be re-plastered and painted again.
This aspect means that fresco paintings often have a vivid and monumental feel, where finer details must be simplified in favour of prominent and clear designs — all of which contributed to the resulting feel of Michelangelo’s compelling imagery.
The Libyan Sibyl
Michelangelo’s sketch for the Libyan Sibyl is one of the best surviving drawings from the artist’s preparatory process.
The drawing, made largely in red chalk, shows the torso of the figure shown from behind. Notice how Michelangelo has drawn her as a nude — probably based on a real-life male model — and only clothed her in the final painting. The muscular definition of the sibyl’s torso and the way that the upper and lower halves of the body are twisted allow Michelangelo to fully delineate the robust structure of the human body.
Notice too the attention placed on the toes of the sibyl’s left foot: Michelangelo worked through multiple studies of these weight-bearing toes to get the action just right. The meaning is not a symbolic one but all about the display of the human body through a coiled contrappostoposture — not unlike a dancer expressing physical agility and strength through a difficult pose.
The finished image of the Libyan Sibyl appears in one of the pendentives — the curved triangles of the vaulting — as part of the series of twelve figures who prophesied a coming Messiah. She is clothed except for her muscular shoulders and arms, and wears an elaborately braided coiffure.
The term “sibyl” comes from the ancient Greek word sibylla, meaning prophetess. The Libyan Sibyl is a depiction of Phemonoe, the priestess of the Oracle of Zeus-Ammon, an oracle located in the Libyan desert at Siwa Oasis, once connected with ancient Egypt.
The classical world was inhabited by many sibyls, with the Libyan Sibyl being one of the most important for foretelling the “coming of the day when that which is hidden shall be revealed.”
The Libyan Sibyl on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is depicted with deliberate grandiosity, holding a serpentine pose whilst stepping down from her throne. She holds an enormous book of prophecy which she is about to open up before us, or else close shut. With her clothes finished in shades of vibrant yellow, peach and green, she stands as one of the most visually striking and emblematic sections of the whole Sistine Chapel decoration.
Given the difficult working conditions, and the fact that Michelangelo was so close up to his subject — which was to be viewed from nearly 25 metres below — the final painting is a remarkable accomplishment of artist planning, vision and technique.
Small wonder then that the Sistine Chapel has inspired so many admirers, including the following praise from the German writer Goethe: “Without having seen the Sistine Chapel, one can form no appreciable idea of what one man is capable of achieving.”
Evil and art have a long history. For almost as long as we have existed, we have externalised the things we fear most. The Ancient Egyptians made reliefs of Apophis, the snake god of chaos and darkness continually trying to consume Ra, the Sun god. The Aztecs evoked the feared Tezcatlipoca, the ‘smoking mirror’ in their art. Christians for millennia have depicted the devil haunting the margins of numerous books and manuscripts.
Over the centuries though, the relationship between art and evil has remained in constant flux. Far from being a simple visceral reminder of our greatest fears, evil in art is often used to say more about the observer than the art itself, as I shall go on to demonstrate. I’ve broken evil down into three categories, which I believe broadly cover evil in art, the role it plays and its relation to the viewer.
We, as observers and consumers of art, are either its victims, witnesses, or perpetrators.
I’ll start with what I think is the rarest form of evil in art — that which makes the viewer the victim of evil. It takes a special confronting kind of art to achieve this effect. We must not only be addressed by the piece but overcome by it. For me, there is no greater example of this than Peter Paul Rubens ‘Two Satyrs’, 1619.
The first thing we are drawn to in the painting is the eyes. The satyr is staring directly at us, cheeks flushed, with a wicked grin. Presumably, he has been drinking like his fellow satyr in the background. Satyrs are half-men, half-beast in Greek and Roman mythology and are the attendants of Bacchus (Dionysus). They are distinct from similar creatures like fauns and centaurs and their primary focus is to entertain Bacchus and drink with their wild, indulgent god. They also have a reputation for debauchery, particularly sexual depravity, and are sometimes represented as being permanently erect. Combined with their wild lust, they make for an uncomfortable figure in mythology.
Rubens achieves something disturbing in this painting. Then as now, the context behind the art is important. Understanding this painting means understanding the nature of satyrs. To have one staring at you, grinning, with lust in his eyes is chilling to the core. We are victimised by the evil at play here, our own vulnerability seemingly reflected at us in the satyr’s ever-widening grin.
To be a witness to evil is to be a part of it. We are affected by the things we see and moved to action. Artists for millennia have played on our need to act and encouraged us to judge the subjects of their work. It’s no wonder then that being a witness to evil in art is the most common expression of the relationship between evil and art.
A great deal of religious art revolves around this premise. We are encouraged to judge the crucifiers and sympathise with Christ. It is a simple and sometimes passive relationship, meant to inspire contemplation of the suffering. But a huge amount of art play with us as witnesses on a different level.
A masterful example of this is William Bouguereau’s, ‘Dante and Virgil’, 1850. Deep in the bowels of Inferno, in a region known as the Malebolge (Rottenpockets), Dante, Virgil and a demon witness two men fighting with one another. Capocchio, a heretic, is bitten by the fraudster Gianni Schicchi. The violence here is visceral and shocking. To the bottom right a man lays crippled in pain and emerging from a glowing pit behind him are several other groups battling one another. Dante and Virgil are clearly sickened by what they see, but the demon revels in it. He is a creature of evil that delights in evil.
Bouguereau has given us an interesting dynamic here, offering us two different choices. We know that these two men have been condemned to Hell for their crimes. We are not asked to judge whether they are guilty because we already know they are. What Bouguereau is subtly implying here has more to do with us as viewers of the art than the figures in it.
Put simply, he asks whether you are horrified by the animal barbarity of the men’s fate, or revel in it as the demon does. Bouguereau seems to suggest that you’re doing the latter. Of all the characters in the painting, the demon is the only one really looking out at you. His smile is almost conspiratorial, and his horrific features invite us to contemplate our own inner thoughts on how punishment and retribution must be exacted.
This kind of intimate relationship between subject and witness is different from what we find in many other paintings where we witness evil acts. For example, Caravaggio’s, ‘Judith Beheading Holofernes’, 1558–1602, is powerful and shocking, but the focus is mostly on Judith. The brilliant light, her determined face and firm grip of the blade all seem to me to suggest a commitment and reassure the viewer that although this is a horrific, ‘evil’ act, it is right.
Picasso’s, ‘Guernica’, 1937, offers a different relationship too. We see the trauma of Nazi and Fascist Italy’s bombing campaign on the town of Guernica at the request of the Spanish nationalists. Surrealism here offers us nothing less than a world falling apart. Buildings burn, swords are broken, and men and animals lie in pieces. This is a painting of war on an industrial scale and Picasso overwhelms us with it. We are still witnesses here, but Picasso suggests that our judgement is meaningless. Our voices are drowned out by the falling of Fascist bombs, the lick of flames and the screams of the dying.
Finally, and perhaps most uniquely, we can be perpetrators of evil in art. This is where the true ‘allure of evil’ comes in. While Bouguereau’s demon asks us to think about ourselves, art where we take part in the evil, however subtly, asks no such thing of us.
In Europe, this type of art most commonly depicts Satan. The change from monstrous abomination to the complicated anti-hero Satan has become today is mostly the result of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Milton depicts a rebellious bad boy fighting against the establishment. His Satan is a far cry from the epitome of evil in we find in Christianity. Artists are quickly drawn to the idea. In fact, I would go so far as to say that our understanding of the devil/Satan/Lucifer should be considered in pre and post-Milton terms, especially where art is concerned.
William Blake’s, ‘Satan Arousing the Rebel Angels’, 1808 is a testament to this. Here Satan is powerful and beautiful, a moving figure giving a rousing speech. We are encouraged to sympathise with him. Likewise, Thomas Stothard’s, ‘Satan Summoning His Legions,’ (c. 1790), presents us with a gilled figure, summoning an army. He appears almost imperial, a worthy challenger to the Almighty. We know that the figure in these paintings is meant to be emblematic of evil, and yet he is seductive and alluring. He seems passionate, a revolutionary and rebel, someone we could follow. The artists’ triumph here is to make us forget that evil is evil and draw us closer to darkness than we would ever have dared go ourselves.
These are the first steps toward where we are today with TV shows like Lucifer and Supernatural, where the devil is charming, and his diabolical nature extends no further than his wicked grin. Evil is no longer evil. It is sexy, passionate and inviting. Our crime is being tempted by it. We are co-conspirators and would-be rebels. Our inner minds betray us as we feel the pull to figures like Satan.
As art continues to evolve so will our relationship with evil. New mediums, materials and artists will revolutionise the field, but their goals will remain the same. To bring forth the things that torment our nightmares and to reflect back at us those parts of ourselves we would rather remain hidden.
An explanation of a major turning point in Western art and culture
Beginning in the early 15th century, Western culture underwent a major turning point, characterised by a new confidence in the possibilities of human thought and creativity. It was a moment in time when art became intellectualised, and artists and architects began to establish themselves as individuals with singular talents.
That turning point was the Renaissance.
What does it mean?
The word Renaissance is a familiar term in the history of art. It is a French word that comes from the Italian rinascimento, meaning “rebirth”.
In other words: there was once a birth of cultural excellence, and now, from around 1400 onwards, there emerged a rebirth of the same excellence. But a rebirth of what exactly?
The simple answer is a rebirth of the values relating to ancient culture, most especially the Classical cultures of ancient Greece and Rome.
The Renaissance centred largely around Italy, where a profound interest in classical antiquity was spurred on by the rediscovery of old texts by authors like Aristotle and Archimedes, and by the recovery of ancient sculptures that were presumed lost. Admirers of the ancient world saw the Classical past as a time of rational thought, prescient philosophical enquiry, and the emergence of human-centred systems of understanding.
With new ideas spreading, the arts began to flourish under a concentration of commissions from influential patrons, most notably the powerful Medici family which ruled Florence for more than 60 years. Many of these patrons wished to link their own status with the eminence of the ancient world and the creativity of the present one. Painters and sculptors were were in demand like never before.
In short, ancient Greece and Rome became idealised as high-points in human civilisation. To be influenced by them and to draw on their philosophies was therefore seen as the very best sign of good taste and learning.
Old books rediscovered
Several things spurred on this interest in the classical past. One of them was the rediscovery of old texts.
An example is the writings of Pliny the Elder, a Roman author who wrote an enormous encyclopaedia covering the full breadth of ancient knowledge. It is from his Natural History, published in around 77 AD, that scholars were able to read about ancient painters like Apelles and Zeuxis, whose works were praised by Pliny for their high levels of naturalism. In one story told by Pliny, Zeuxis entered a painting contest with a rival artist; when he unveiled his painting of a bunch of grapes, birds flew down to peck at the fruit, so lifelike was their appearance.
Stories like this gave the classical past a certain idealised character which artists wished to imitate and learn from.
In architecture and sculpture too, the vocabulary of antique forms and their a search for a perfect harmony of parts inspired the likes of Filippo Brunelleschi, who would go on to build the famous dome of Florence Cathedral. The rediscovery of Vitruvius’ The Ten Books of Architecture (written between 30 and 15 BC) meant that the architectural principles of antiquity could be observed and developed in detail.
People on the move
One of the key factors in the emergence of the Renaissance was the way ideas moved around the European continent as people travelled.
One major event was the conquest of Constantinople (now Istanbul) by Ottoman soldiers in 1453. Before this point, Constantinople had been the capital city of Byzantium, otherwise known as the Eastern Roman Empire — an extension of the Roman Empire into eastern territories that had lasted for a thousand years, even beyond the fall of the Western Roman Empire in Rome.
As a major city situated between Europe and the Middle East, Constantinople had become home to large numbers of ancient texts, many written in their original Greek. When the attacking Ottoman army overtook the city, refugees made their escape and travelled west. Along with their personal possessions, they took with them valuable items relating to their culture and community, including numerous Greek texts.
Humanism in Italy
In numerous respects, Italy was ripe for the seeds of ancient learning to take root. It was one of the most prosperous countries in Europe thanks to extensive trade routes throughout the Mediterranean. Florence, above all, was extremely wealthy and supported a strata of diplomats and scholars who were well-versed in Latin and Greek.
Within this fertile setting, a new movement known as humanism began to emerge. Humanism promoted the idea that man was the centre of his own universe, and that the achievements of literature, art, rational thought and science should begin to rival the dominancy of the Christian worldview.
One such individual central to the humanist movement was Leonardo Bruni (1370-1444). With careful reading of ancient texts, Bruni came up with his own version of how society should be organised, based on ideals of civic virtue and the forms of government found in ancient Athens and the Roman Republic.
Bruni exemplified the Renaissance concept of humanism, a belief in the potential of human beings to order themselves more wisely and to live more fairly and prosperously. Bruni’s translations of Aristotle’s Politics and Nicomachean Ethics were widely distributed in manuscript and in print.
Ancient artefacts reconsidered
The Belvedere Torso was a fragmentary statue carved sometime around the 1st century BC. It was rediscovered at the beginning of the 15th century in Rome, most likely excavated from among the ancient ruins. Over the course of the next hundred years, the marble sculpture gained admirers and went on to become a significant point of reference for Michelangelo and many other artists working in Renaissance Italy.
The Belvedere Torso was one of many works whose style and technique were thought to express the perfection of the ancient past. After its discovery, the statue slowly began to attract the attention of artists and scholars, many of whom made detailed drawings of the object.
For the artist Michelangelo especially, the life-likeness of the sculpture, combined with the way it idealises the male form, was symbolic of the sculptor’s powers of creation. He admired the contorted pose of the torso, how it twists around on itself to bring out the muscularity of the whole body. It indicated to him how an artist can mirror nature and even transcend it to become an independent and creative force through his own endeavour.
It’s not surprising, therefore, to see the influence of the Belvedere Torso in Michelangelo’s own art, some of which have gone on to become the most famous images ever made.
In the scene of The Creation of Adam painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in around 1511, Adam’s body is reminiscent of the ancient statue. The muscular definition of Adam’s torso and the way that the upper and lower halves of the body are turned to allow Michelangelo to delineate the structure of the muscles, have their roots in the Belvedere sculpture.
Similarly, in The Last Judgement fresco, painted on the end wall of the Sistine Chapel, the figure identified as Saint Bartholomew — who, rather morbidly, is seen holding the knife of his martyrdom and his flayed skin — assumes a posture that is clearly drawn from the Belvedere model.
Most noticeably is the arrangement of the Saint’s legs, which sit astride the cloud. Michelangelo used variations of this posture in several of his sculptures as well as in his paintings. The marble statue of Victory (c.1519) and the Rebellious Slave (1513) both adopt a similarly turn-twist motion, with the legs askew and the upper body turned to one side.
The Belvedere Torso remained popular with artists across the centuries that followed. In the 17th century, the painter Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) made sketches of the statue, whose monumental energy can clearly be seen in his overall painting style.
Later, in the 18th century, Antonio Canova (1757–1822) continued to draw inspiration from the torso for his Neo-classical sculptures. And in the 19th century, the sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840–1917) is thought to have used the Belvedere statue as inspiration for his work The Thinker.
And so it’s possible to trace the chain of influence — from a lost ancient Greek sculpture, to a Roman copy made by Apollonius, itself lost until its rediscovery in Renaissance Rome, through the various artworks made by subsequent generations of painters and sculptors. In this way, the Belvedere Torso helps us to understand how ancient Classical art was venerated by European artists, and how its influence helped shape the art of the last 500 years.
The effect of historians
It is perhaps easy to imagine that the events which we now call the Renaissance were somehow a triumphant revolution in intellectual life.
Yet many modern historians have begun to reconsider this idea, arguing that the so-called “Dark Ages” or Middle Ages out of which the Renaissance emerged were not quite as dark as once supposed. An example might be the soaring gothic cathedrals of the High and Late Middle Ages, hugely impressive achievements that went out of favour in the mid-15th century.
Likewise, the Islamic Golden Age that occurred across North Africa and the Middle East, as mentioned above, was a period of cultural and scientific flourishing, traditionally dated from the 8th century to the 14th century.
In fact, it would take several influential historians to make it seem as if the Renaissance was a more radical break with the past than the evidence suggests. As such, we have to except that to some degree the Renaissance was an invention of historians as much as a reality.
Jacob Burckhardt’s The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy (1860) remained the principle guide for late 19th century students of the subject and provides one of the defining accounts of the Renaissance. Through his in-depth study of the individual components of the Italian state, Burckhardt established the Italian Renaissance as a period of world-historical significance, a homogenous moment delivered on a national scale — and with it, a sharp break from the Middle Ages that came before.
There is no doubt that the Renaissance was a profound cultural movement that affected European life in all intellectual spheres. What is disputed is the exact beginnings and ending of the movement, and to what extent it was an Italian phenomena or if it was continent-wide.
Terms like the Northern Renaissance capture important intellectual events that were taking place north of the Alps, from Netherlandish painting to Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the first movable-type printing press. The idea of a Renaissance in the north counterbalances the Italy-centric view of the period.
Nevertheless, the term Renaissance remains a widely recognised label for the multifaceted period that came before the modern era. With far-reaching developments in science and astronomy, and most especially art, alongside the decline of the feudal system and the growth of commerce, the Renaissance must be understood as a vital cornerstone of Western history
A masterpiece of composition and powerful elegance
I find that the more you look at this painting, The Alba Madonna by Raphael, the more compelling it becomes.
Let your eyes explore the shape and form of the Virgin Mary’s blue cloak, for instance. See how it gently dominates the scene, not only unifying the three figures in the picture by holding them within its folds, but also seeming to rest so naturally around Mary’s form, over her outstretched leg and onto the ground beneath her.
The effect is not only to create a harmonious composition, but also to establish the peace and integrity of the holy family — Mary, Jesus and John the Baptist — in visual form.
Raphael has the somewhat dubious distinction of being called a “perfect” painter. So many of his works have the aspects of serenity and inner harmony that it can be all too easy to stop looking at them with any degree of scrutiny. He was not a painter of mysterious or violent scenes. Instead, his artistic efforts went in search of a different type of mystery — a pursuit of harmonious beauty. Yet it was a search that is no less fascinating.
Images of the Virgin Mary and Christ as a young child — otherwise known as the Madonna and Child — have a long history in Western art. The earliest examples can be found in the Christian catacombs in Rome that date as far back as the 3rd century. This painting, made in around 1510, marks one of the great achievements in Renaissance art.
Perhaps what is initially most striking about the Alba Madonna painting its the circular form. This is a so-called “tondo” painting, from the Italian rotondo meaning “round”.
Numerous legends sprung up over the centuries that sought to explain why Raphael painted in the tondo-form. Most of them rehearse the cliche of the itinerant artist moving from place to place, who, thanks to his spontaneity and exceptional talent, was able to paint on anything that came to hand — in this case, a circular panel from a wooden barrel.
In truth, Raphael was a far more considered artist than these stories give him credit for. To have simply grabbed the first piece of wood that came his way was wholly unlikely. In fact, the tondo-form was popular in Florentine painting, and had its roots in Greek antiquity.
Raphael made numerous sketched studies for the Alba Madonna, and these show that the tondo-form was present in his thoughts throughout the planning process.
The sketches also offer a crucial insight into Raphael’s working technique, not least how he worked through various ideas of the composition, looking for ways to interlock the three figures in a rhythmic pattern within the circle.
The Alba Madonna is notable for showing Mary sat on the ground next to a tree stump. This follows the lesser-known tradition in Christian art known as the “Madonna of Humility”, in which images of the Virgin show her sat on the floor or on a low cushion, indicating her humbleness.
Raphael worked especially hard to arrange the three figures in a harmonious group, using their line-of-sight to forms an intimate and rhythmic unity. He also learned from artists around him. The upturned gaze of John the Baptist, for example, was a technique common in paintings from Urbino, where Raphael first trained under the artist Perugino.
Composition always played a vital role in Raphael’s work. The precise arrangement of elements in the painted space give his work an inner unity and structural balance. See how, for example, the head of John the Baptist is slightly larger than that of Christ, as a means of balancing out the interplay of looking, and how Jesus holds John’s staff, so physically linking the figures.
Perhaps more than any other artist of his generation, Raphael made use of geometrical shapes in his compositions to elevate his art towards the Renaissance ideal of mathematical harmony. A few year before making the Alba Madonna, Raphael painted the Madonna of the Meadow (Madonna del Prato), also known as the Madonna del Belvedere after the Viennese castle where it hung for many years.
In this work, there is an obvious pyramidal composition. Mary’s head creates the top of a triangle shape; the points of the base are made by her extended right foot and the toes of John the Baptist (bottom-left). There is an inner triangle too, formed between the two children and the shape of Mary’s reaching arm. The unified format gives the work an architectural structure, yet with an inner movement provided by the smaller triangle.
As Raphael’s work grew in maturity, his reliance on the pyramid evolved into a more complex blend of structural elements. In the The Alba Madonna, the triangular composition is still present, but it is allowed to flex with a degree of musicality that is new to Raphael’s work. An elliptical movement between various points of interest creates a beautiful rhythm across the work.
The year Raphael made the Alba Madonna, he’d been in Rome for two years. He’d moved there in 1508, summoned by Pope Julius II to decorate the personal apartments in the Vatican. Before Rome, Raphael had based himself in Florence, which was one of the great artistic centres of Italy at the time. Raphael he learned from Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, and in the spirit of the times, imitated many of their techniques in his own work.
The end painting, then, was not arrived at by chance or spontaneous inspiration, but by a careful and thorough working-out. The sketches he made in preparation for the painting also confirm the manner in which Raphael looked to other artists for inspiration, conforming to the prevailing theory of the times in which learning from other artists was seen as essential for creativity and invention. Vasari put is like this: “The most gracious Raphael of Urbino, who, studying the works of old and modern masters, took the best from all, and having gathered them together, enriched the art of painting with that complete perfection.”
Rebuilding an Identity: How Renaissance Architecture Reflected Italy
The architecture of Italy has always reflected the evolving culture of its people, a fact most easily seen in the major changes that took place during the Italian Renaissance. Leaving the design and cultural philosophies of the Medieval era in the past, Renaissance architects moved towards designs based on rationality, order, and a return to the Classical styles of the Greeks and Romans. This change in building styles reflected the changing priorities of Italian culture; where the Medieval period was focused on Buon Comune, or Common Good, of society, Renaissance sensibilities prioritized individualism and humanism. Civic duty was still a valued part of Italian life, as it was in the Medieval period, but Renaissance philosophy promoted the idea that every citizen was entitled to civic participation on some level, and that governments ought to be open and inviting to the people, rather than separate and imposing.
Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore
As such, architects in the Renaissance designed buildings to reflect these changing attitudes. Architecture in Renaissance Italy was a thriving crossroads of religion, philosophy, science, and politics. Whether designing buildings and whole cities from scratch, as in the case of the Ospedale degli Innocenti in Florence and the city of Pienza, or recontextualizing Medieval architecture within the Renaissance’s sensibilities, as in the case of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, architects played a major role in adapting and advancing the cultural changes that Italians were experiencing.
The dominating feature of the Piazza della Signoria in Florence, Italy, is undoubtedly the Palazzo Vecchio (1298-1314). With its towering offset clock tower and crenelated walls, a keen viewer can easily guess as to its history as a fortress. It is decidedly not of the Renaissance; rather, it is a product of a more authoritarian, Medieval Florence. Palazzo Vecchio was designed to be imposing, to separate the city’s ruler from the common people. Its design is in many ways the antithesis of Renaissance philosophy. Yet, the Palazzo Vecchio continued as Florence’s seat of power throughout the Renaissance, and acts as the City Hall today. Rather than abandon it, architects and city planners recontextualized the Palazzo Vecchio, building around it the Piazza della Signoria, a decidedly Renaissance space.
From left to right: Loggia dei Lanzi, Piazza della Signoria, and Palazzo Vecchio
Designed by Benci di Cione and Simone Talenti between 1376 and 1382, the Loggia dei Lanzi was built directly adjacent to Palazzo Vecchio, and perfectly represents the Renaissance ideals in architecture. Made up of three open-air arched portions, the Loggia is symmetrical and orderly per the rational design philosophy. Unlike the Palazzo, it is open and inviting to all citizens, with plenty of space and wide steps allowing for many visitors at once. It contains multiple sculptures representing some of the best of the Renaissance period, particularly Cellini’s Perseus with the Head of Medusa and Giambologna’s Rape of the Sabine Women. All of the art in the Loggia is freely available to the entire citizenry of Florence, reflecting the openness and inclusiveness characterized by the period. With the inclusion of the Loggia dei Lanzi and other Renaissance style renovations to Piazza della Signoria, architects and city planners of the time were able to successfully fold Palazzo Vecchio into the Renaissance identity of Florence.
Ospedale degli Innocenti
Another seminal work of Renaissance architecture in Florence was directly inspired by the Loggia dei Lanzi: the Ospedale degli Innocenti, as designed by Filippo Brunelleschi. Supposedly, Brunelleschi was deeply inspired by the uniformity and rationality of the repeating arches of the Loggia, and so designed the Ospedale degli Innocenti with the Loggia’s themes of rationality and openness in mind. In fact, the very first thing Brunelleschi designed and built was a loggia for his new Ospedale (see left), one which directly built upon the design used in the Loggia dei Lanzi. The loggia is quite long, dominating the entire Eastern side of the Piazza Santissima Annunziata.
The loggia of the Ospedale degli Innocenti went on to define the styling of the Piazza as a whole, with Michelozzo building an atrium and central bay for the Santissima Annunziata in 1454 purposefully based on Brunelleschi’s designs. In 1516, architects Antonio de Sangallo the Elder and Baccio d’Agnolo followed suit by designing the building on the opposite side of the piazza from the Ospedale’s loggia also within Brunelleschi’s design style. With all four sides of the square completed, Piazza Santissima Annunziata now stands as a unified example of Renaissance ethos, a perfectly rational square emulating the classical design choices of the Romans. In particular, the broad stairs that are present on either side of the square emulate stadium seating, giving the Piazza the feeling of a Roman amphitheater, an identity reinforced by the arcades with Classical pilasters.
Brunelleschi built on the existing design and functional traditions of Florence when designing the Ospedale degli Innocenti, with the most obvious inspiration coming from Florence’s Ospedale di Mateo, built at the end of the 14th Century. Impressively Brunelleschi incorporated and improved upon all of the functionality present in the Ospedale di Mateo, while giving the Ospedale degli Innocenti a unique identity rooted in the Renaissance philosophy. While the loggia serves as a monumental statement piece of the Ospedale, the interior serves all the different functions required by its inhabitants. What’s more, it incorporates the concept of cloisters into its design well past the principle of separation. Brunelleschi’s designs create an interior cloister that is cut off from every other part of Florence so that no exterior building can be seen from inside, no matter the angle one stands at. This artificial feeling of tranquility and isolation in the middle of a major city reflected the dual nature of the Renaissance itself, focused not only on functional rationalism, but on perfect form and idealized aesthetics.
The Renaissance harmony found in Piazza Santissima Annunziata was not unique to one Piazza though. In fact, an entire city was able to accomplish this feat, the city of Pienza. Designed by Pope Pius and his architect Bernardo Rossellino, Pienza is the embodiment of Renaissance architecture, with around forty significant buildings being designed and constructed between 1459 and 1464. The city is designed around the central Piazza Pio Il, with all the buildings bearing specific features to link them together. As composer uses leitmotifs to build connective tissue between movements of a symphony, so to did Pope Pius and Rossellino use features like cross windows, doorframes, and pilasters to create a city united in its Renaissance identity. The piazza itself is designed with the humanist and commercial priorities of the Renaissance in mind, with broad streets and many entrances, making it easy for vendors and customers to come and go as they please. From the Piazza Pio Il outward, Pienza was rebuilt as the architectural embodiment of Renaissance principles.
One of the defining characteristics of Italy will always be its arts, and the architecture of the Renaissance is no exception. The buildings and city-planning perfectly reflected the humanist, rationalist priorities of philosophers, artists, and politicians of the time, and by extent the overall culture of Italy. These grand traditions have certainly carried into the modern day, and informed Italian culture in a way that not many other nations have been affected by their own past. Perhaps more so than any other people, to understand where they are and where they will go, it is most important to look at Italy’s past, both architecturally and otherwise.
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