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 difficult technique with unique artistic results
When Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, he not only had to stand with his head craned backwards and his arm raised for hours at a time, but he also had to work in the technically challenging medium of fresco.
Fresco painting has two supreme qualities: the first is that it involves applying paint onto freshly laid plaster, meaning it is apt for large murals that cover entire walls — or in the case of the Sistine Chapel, an entire ceiling too.
The second quality of fresco is that it must be made 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-sighted designs.
One of my personal favourite series of fresco paintings is at the monastery of San Marco in Florence, where the artist Fra Angelico decorated the monk’s living quarters with scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary and Christ. These paintings are fine examples of the power of fresco: uncluttered, compelling and immediate.
The reason for speed is because with fresco painting the pigment is applied to fresh plaster whilst it is still damp. The word fresco is Italian for “fresh”. The artist must therefore work quickly to complete the apportioned section of plaster before it dries. The pigments, which are made by grinding dry-powder colour in pure water, are painted whilst the plaster dries to become a permanent part of the wall.
In order to achieve this, the artist must plan out the stages of the painting carefully, dividing the image into appropriate sections.
If you look at the image shown here, of The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden by Masaccio, you can see how the wider work would have been split into days.
With each day, a thin layer of wet plaster called the intonaco (Italian for “plaster”) is applied to the area to be painted. The artist must work within the plaster’s curing time — a day’s work, or a giornata in Italian.
If you look closely, you can see the dividing lines between each section of giornata. A correctly prepared intonaco will hold its moisture for many hours, perhaps as much as nine or ten, giving the artist time to complete a single section in a day.
The fresco mural technique has its origins in antiquity, going back at least as far as the Minoan civilization, as seen at Knossos on Crete. It was also widely used by the ancient Romans as decoration for important rooms.
Over time, two alternative fresco techniques emerged. Up until the age of the Renaissance, the secco method tended to be more prominent. In this method, the paint is applied onto plaster that is already dry. Essentially, this is painting directly onto wall. Usually the pigment is mixed with a binding medium — either egg white or lime —to act as the glue. It is an easier method but has the drawback that the pigments are not completely absorbed by the plaster and may flake in time.
The second method is known in Italian as buon fresco or “true fresco” and results in a more durable finish. Many of the outstanding fresco works of the Renaissance were made using this technique.
In this method, a coat of rough plaster (arriccio) is applied to a stone or brick wall. Once dried, the artist makes a preliminary drawing onto the wall. This initial drawing is reinforced with red paint (sinopia) to give a more finished quality to the sketch.
The purpose of the sinopia underpainting is to flesh out the planned image before the final coat of plaster is applied. It makes it easier to plan for the various days to come, and also allows the commissioning patron a chance to see the work and give their approval.
Finally, a smooth coat (intonaco) of plaster is applied to as much of the wall as will be painted in that session — at which point the artist gets to work.
Since the wetness of the plaster naturally changes over the course of the day, the artist must dilute their paint with water to keep the same tone across the giornata. Once dried, no more buon fresco can be painted on that area. If mistakes have been made, it is not unusual for the whole section of plaster to be removed and then repainted the following day. The alternative is to add finer details using the seccomethod.
Fresco paintings have a particular look and feel. As the wall dries and sets, the pigment particles become bound or cemented with the plaster. The surface texture is dry and opaque, giving rise to an appealing chalky feel, since the paint is an integral part of the wall surface.
When put to best use, the fresco effect can be lively and expressive, with bold designs and well-defined figures. When a fresco occupies an entire wall space or sometimes the whole interior of a building — as in the decorations for the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua by Giotto — then the results can be spectacular.
The Italian artist explains the Greek myth through his traditional play of light and shadow.
The human being is a well-oiled machine, but it has flaws.
One of them affects that concept as ethereal and mysterious as the soul. Psychology, some call it. If we stick to the latter, the problems of the human psyche are practically endless.
Vanity, for example, would not fall within that group of problems; however, it can be a double-edged sword. Greek mythology taught us this danger through the myth of Narcissus.
In the Hellenic mythological narrative, we are presented with a very proud and insensitive young man in its cosmogony. A guy who keeps rejecting suitors so that sooner or later, the divine punishment had to come for such a braggart.
Narcissus was not going to be an exception.
Among his many suitors who took a good cut was Aminias; the poor man loved Narcissus deeply, but that did not prevent him from rejecting him in nasty manners and with malice. Among these taunts, he gives him a sword, with which the same Aminias will commit suicide in front of the house of Narcissus himself (did he think anything else was going to happen?). While the suitor was dying, he had time to beg the goddess Nemesis to give him an exemplary chastisement Narcissus, making him suffer the suffering of unrequited love in his flesh. Having launched the supplication, Aminias died.
As expected, Narcissus spent enough of that death in front of his house. The guy continued with his business until, one day, he came to a pond.
He saw his own reflection in its waters, falling in love with it. Intoxicated by this attraction, he did not realize that he saw himself. He leaned towards the water’s surface to kiss that attractive young man, recognizing the tremendous deception.
At that moment, shocked by the discovery, he fell into the water and drowned. Saddened by this pitiful spectacle, the gods decided that his body would become a flower, the daffodil we all know.
Knowing the myth, we can better understand Caravaggio’s painting, which shows us the moment in which Narcissus is engrossed contemplating his reflection in the pond water.
When contemplating the painting, we can make a mythological reading (what it tells the story of Narcissus, the specific passage of the myth that shows us and that is clear) and another more allegorical reading, the messages that the artist wanted to convey through this representation.
We see in the upper part the real character, who looks down on his aquatic antagonist. Two parts divide the work, an upper and a lower one, that is opposed both in presentation and composition.
Above (the real Narcissus), we see the well-defined light in the arms, neck, and face and some flashes here and there. On the contrary, the lower part (the reflection) is very dark, with a very attenuated image that transmits fragility, which seems to foreshadow the fatal outcome of the myth.
The figure of Narcissus, the luminous one, has his left hand coming out of the frame, and we do not see the tips of his fingers; the lower reflection as well, but also part of his back disappears from the painting beyond the margins.
This technique enlarges the figure of the protagonist and promotes the sensation of proximity. A very distant anteroom to the three dimensions, of which there are many other examples throughout the History of Art.
It is as if we could almost reach out and touch Narcissus.
This technique was prevalent in Caravaggio, who liked his paintings to create an impact. Spontaneity and closeness are two common aspects of his works. He wanted the viewer to feel that the characters were about to fall at his feet.
If we look at the painting again, and as mentioned before, we can see that the reflection of Narcissus is somewhat different. It seems older and worn out. In the shoulder canvas, we can appreciate Caravaggio’s mastery in playing with lighting in his works. The ability to put darkness into light was a revolution in his time, so much so that this technique ended up having its name: tenebrism.
Some interpret this luminous contra-position between the upper and lower parts as the visualization of the Ego confronting one’s self-consciousness.
Some even venture to theorize that Narcissus can be read as an explanation of Caravaggio’s psyche, a man of great vanity.
Focusing on the reflection again, we can consider it as that dark place we all have and where aspects such as excessive self-contemplation or selfishness nest.
Above is the conscious, luminous, beautiful, and evident self; below is the egocentric subconscious, which is what we want to hide and which is the shadow of any human being.
And their controversial relationships with their maestros
When viewing art, we are often only aware of two individuals — subject and artist. There is, for example, Mona Lisa and Leonardo DaVinci. And for simple portraits, this is as far as it goes. But there is often a third hidden figure in art, one we know very little about — the artist’s model.
By the very nature of their work, their identities are mostly erased, but we do know something about these people drawn from the highest and lowest rungs of society. Perhaps it’s time to take a fresh look at the faces that made the masterpieces of the renaissance possible.
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was a complicated individual. He was one of the most celebrated painters of his age, but he was also a volatile and lustful man, spending the last years of his life on the run following a murder.
Caravaggio’s choice of models could also be controversial. Firstly, Mario Minniti. A fellow artist and one of Caravaggio’s go-to models, Minniti appears in Boy with a Basket of Fruit, 1593, Bacchus, 1596 and Boy Bitten by a Lizard, 1593–1594. Their working relationship lasted from around 1592 and 1600, though they seem to have been friends until Caravaggio’s death in 1610. He even provided shelter to the artist in Sicily during his time on the run. The flower behind the ear of Minniti in Boy Bitten by a Lizard, a common symbol of a prostitute,and the ‘close relationship’ between the two men have led some to speculate that they were lovers, but there is relatively little hard evidence to support this theory.
Two women often painted in tandem by Caravaggio were Anna Bianchini and Fillide Melandroni. In Martha and Mary Magdalene, 1598, Anna (right) can be seen as Mary Madelene, being convinced to give up her sinful life by her sister Martha (left), portrayed here by Fillide. The scene is a masterful study of light and emotion, typical of Caravaggio and the religious intensity of the scene is not undercut by the fact that Anna and Fillide were both courtesans.
That is not to say that using courtesans as models for religious figures came without controversy though. In his Death of the Virgin, 1505–6, Caravaggio used the high-class courtesan Fillide Melandroni as the model for the mother of God. A controversial move for sure, though he was by no means the first to do so. She was also the model for Judith in Judith Beheading Holofernes, c. 1598–99 or 1602, and as such is perhaps the most recognisable figure in Caravaggio’s art.
Sandro Botticelli is one of the greatest artists of the Renaissance and his most famous work, The Birth of Venus, 1484–86 owes a great debt to the tragically short life of one woman — Simonetta Vespucci. Married to the cousin of Amerigo Vespucci, Simonetta became a favourite at the Florentine court of the newly resurgent Medici family and as such became a favourite of numerous artists. Botticelli here depicts her as the face of the Goddess of Love.
As ever, such affinity for one woman has led many to believe that Botticelli may have harboured feelings for Simonetta, and while this is possible, there is no evidence that these were acted upon by either of them. Perhaps he had simply found a woman he believed to be the height of beauty and everything he stood for, as Beatrice was for Dante. Much like Beatrice though, Simonetta would die tragically young at the age of 23, from an unclear cause, though her beauty lives on as the face of Love itself today.
Perhaps it’s only fitting that the most famous artist model is associated with the quintessential artist of the Renaissance — Leonardo DaVinci. That model’s name was Gian Giacomo Caprotti da Oreno, a student and servant of Leonardo’s from the age of ten, who is remembered by history as Andrea Salaì or just Salaì.
While famous for his detailed studies of anatomy for his art, Leonardo also used models to great effect. Salaì is most strikingly rendered in the celebrated Saint John the Baptist, 1513–1516 (?), as well as Bacchus, 1510–15. It has also been erroneously claimed that Salaì is the real model for the Mona Lisa and her enigmatic smile, though this is disputed by most mainstream art critics and theorists. There is some similarity between the soft features of Salaì and Lisa del Giocondo (the suspected subject of the Mona Lisa). The letters of ‘Mona Lisa’ can also be rearranged into Mon Salaì (‘my Salaì’ in French). Neither the slight similarity of their features nor the apparent anagram has convinced most experts that Salaì is the Mona Lisa’s true subject, however.
Once again, the relationship between the two men has frequently been called into question. Leonardo was charged with homosexuality when apprenticed to Verrocchio, but he was acquitted. He is not recorded as having had a relationship with any woman, but there remains little compelling evidence of his relationship with men either.
The Face Behind the Art
Researching and understanding exactly who these models were can be challenging. Many wealthy patrons had portraits done of themselves, but many of the names behind the faces we today associate with the Renaissance have been lost to history. But understanding who these individuals are is crucial to understanding the art world of the Renaissance.
Even the most traditional of art can be made radical by understanding more about artists’ models, many of whom came from the lower classes. There is something wonderful in knowing that many of the faces we associate with sainthood and religious zeal belonged to people who in their real lives were prostitutes and ‘sinners’.
It could be argued that it doesn’t matter who the artist’s model is. Once they strike a pose, they are erased, becoming instead a character on the canvas.
But I think there’s more to it than that. We, as viewers, can enrich our appreciation of even these masterpieces by understanding the world they came from and the often simple, ordinary people that made them possible.
How two artists represented the same subject with radical differences
When two artists chose to paint the same subject, the difference between the resulting works can be fascinating.
Here, I look at two paintings, one by Titian and one by Caravaggio, produced just over 70 years apart, both of them depicting the subject of Bacchus — the Greco-Roman god of wine and festivity.
Titian’s depiction, titled Bacchus and Ariadne, shows the marching band of Bacchus and his followers in full abandon. Bacchus himself can be seen in a pink robe leaping out of his chariot towards Ariadne — dressed in blue — with whom he is in love.
Titian completed the work in 1523. Born around 1490, the artist was in his early-thirties at the time. It was commissioned by Alfonso d’Este, an Italian duke and an enthusiastic patrons of arts.
Bacchus, also known as Dionysus to the Greeks, was most likely a fertility god in his origins, a vital “life force” who expressed himself in the energy inherent in nature — from the blood in the veins to the sap in the tree. By the 7th century BC, worship of Dionysus was well-established in Greek culture.
The cult of Bacchus was brought to Rome from the Greece, where ecstatic festivals known as Bacchanalia took place, frenzied rituals where devotees are said to have eaten raw flesh and danced to the drumming of tambourines. By the time this image was painted, the lively and passionate spirit of Bacchus had gained meaning as a complimentary opposite to Reason, as personified by Apollo.
Titian’s work follows the tradition established in art, that of showing Bacchus riding a triumphal carriage drawn by wild animals. Behind him, a partially clothed woman clashes a pair of symbols as the Bacchanalia march proceeds.
At her feet is a young satyr, with the face of a boy and the legs of a goat, who drags a calf’s head next to him — an animal probably sacrificed during the festival. The man behind — a sileni or companion of Bacchus — is wrapped in a snake, symbolic of death and rebirth since snakes shed their skin.
The feisty merriment continues onwards: a chanting follower holds a calf’s leg aloft and a staff with vines growing round it, the vine leaf representing wine. The staff is probably a thyrsus, a symbolic wand used to bestow favour or else as a weapon to destroy those who opposed Bacchus’ cult and the freedoms he celebrated.
Titian’s great painting has a clear narrative element too: Bacchus has fallen in love with Ariadne at first sight and asked her to marry him. As he jumps towards her, he offers the sky as a wedding gift, in which one day she would become a constellation — as seen in the scattering of stars in the top-left of the painting.
The two cheetahs pulling the chariot may also be specific references: Alfonso d’Este is known to have had a menagerie at his palace in which he kept a cheetah or a cheetah-like member of the cat family.
Caravaggio’s painting of Bacchus contains all the revelry associated with the mythological libertine — only this time it is bubbling beneath the surface rather than on show. The painting expresses a deeply restrained sense of a “storm-beneath-the-calm”, making it a potent work of art for all its quietude.
Caravaggio, who was born in 1571, painted this work at the age of around 24. It was commissioned by Cardinal Del Monte, an Italian diplomat who became one of Caravaggio’s early patrons.
The painting shows Bacchus as a callow youth. The boy-god is swathed in autumnal vine leaves that drape over a thicket of black hair that itself might be a bunch of black grapes. His cheeks are plump and red. He is half-dressed, clutching the black ribbon of his robe in one hand and a glass of wine in the other. He is reclined before a table or stone slab bearing a carafe of wine and a basket of overripe fruit with pomegranate, pear, apple, peach, quince, fig, plum and grape.
In Caravaggio’s work, the setting is opulent yet also far more sedate than the Titian painting. There is little sense of narrative impulse in this painting, only perhaps in the intimacy of the drink being offered.
For me, the force of Caravaggio’s painting lies in two details: the first is the particular shape of the wine glass offered by the boy, a glass so extraordinarily shallow that it seems to emanate decadence itself. The wine inside shimmers with fresh ripples — as if the boy is shaking a little with excitement as he passes it.
All of the energy of the painting is concentrated in this wine glass. There is no Bacchanalian revelry, no tambourine-thumping sileni. The boy seems not the least bit drunk, only placid and self-assured as he welcomes us into his private soirée.
As if to underline the worldly setting, the second detail that always catches my attention is the grubby pillow on the bottom-left of the painting, exposed beneath the sheets, the one with the blue stripe, reminding us that the opulence here is makeshift and temporary.
Along with this sense of the makeshift, there is also something transitory in the feel of the entire piece. The fruit in the basket is beginning to rot and the vine leaves on the boy’s head are turning brown. These elements hint at a vanitasundertone, a symbolic theme in art that attempts to show the transience of life and the futility of pleasure. With this ephemerality and suggestion of impending demise, Caravaggio gives the painting an additional tragic element.
The sensuality of scene is a prominent aspect, and many critics have written about the homoerotic echoes of the work. The art historian Donald Posner, for instance, felt that the latent homoeroticism was actually alluding to Cardinal Del Monte’s sexuality and his relationships with the young boys who frequented his inner circle.
The painting makes use of a simple setting, unlike the rich detail of the Titian work. The sense of place in the Caravaggio work is given simply by a shadow that falls across the backdrop. By no means untouched by trouble in his personal life, Caravaggio would go on to use light and dark in more figurative ways in later paintings, yet without losing the psychological ambiguity he so successfully located in this early Bacchus depiction.
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