(1444/5-1510). He was trained by Fra Filippo
Lippi, whose Madonna Enthroned (fig.
undercurrents of linear movement, and was strongly influenced by
Pollaiuolo. Botticelli soon became the favorite painter of the so-called
Medici circle: those patricians, literati, scholars, and poets
surrounding Lorenzo the Magnificent, the head of the Medici family and,
for all practical purposes, the real ruler of the city.
In Florence, the trend forecast by Castagno's David
substitutes energetic, graceful movement and agitated linear
contours for the stable monumentality of Masaccio's style. Its climax
comes in the final quarter of the century, in the art of
For one member of this group,
did The Birth of Venus
623), his most famous picture. Its kinship with
Pollaiuolo's Battle of the Ten Naked Men (fig.
619) is unmistakable. The shallow
modeling and the emphasis on outline produce an effect of low relief
rather than of solid, threedimensional shapes. In both we note a lack of concern with deep
space. The ornamentalized thicket forms a screen behind the naked men
much like the grove on the right-hand side of the Venus. But the
differences are just as striking. Botticelli obviously does not share
Pollaiuolo's passion for anatomy. His bodies are more attenuated and
drained of all weight and muscular power. Indeed, they seem to float
even when they touch the ground. All this seems to deny the basic values
of the founders of Early Renaissance art, yet the picture does not look
medieval. The bodies, ethereal though they be, retain their
voluptuousness. They are genuine nudes enjoying full
freedom of movement.
Mantegna in northern Italy—does
classical form begin to rejoin classical content. Pollaiuolo's lost
paintings of the Labors of Hercules (about 1465)
mark the earliest instance, so far as we know, of
large-scale subjects from classical mythology depicted in a style
inspired by ancient monuments.
BOTTICELLI. The Birth
of Venus, ñ.
1480. Tempera on canvas, 1,8 x 2,8.
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence
The Birth of Venus, in fact, contains the first
monumental image since Roman times of the nude goddess in a pose derived
from classical statues of Venus. Moreover, the subject of the picture is
clearly meant to be serious, even solemn. How could such images be
justified in a Christian civilization, without subjecting both artist
and patron to the accusation of neo-paganism? To understand this
paradox, we must consider the meaning of our picture, and the general
use of classical subjects in Early Renaissance art. During the Middle
Ages, classical form had become divorced from classical subject matter.
Artists could only draw upon the ancient repertory of poses, gestures, expressions, and types by changing the
identity of their sources. Philosophers became apostles, Orpheus turned
into Adam, Hercules was now Samson. When medieval artists had occasion
to represent the pagan gods, they based their pictures on literary
descriptions rather than visual models. This was the situation, by and
large, until the mid-fifteenth century. Only with Pollaiuolo
In the Middle Ages, classical myths had at times been interpreted
didactically, however remote the analogy, as allegories of Christian
precepts. Europa abducted by the bull, for instance, could be declared
to signify the soul redeemed by Christ. But such pallid constructions
were hardly an adequate excuse for reinvesting the pagan gods with their
ancient beauty and strength. To fuse the Christian faith with ancient
mythology, rather than merely relate them, required a more sophisticated
argument. This was provided by the Neo-Platonic philosophers, whose
foremost representative, Marsilio Ficino, enjoyed tremendous prestige
during the later years of the fifteenth century and after. Ficino's
thought was based as much on the mysticism of Plotinus as on the authentic works of
Plato. He believed that the life of the universe, including human life,
was linked to God by a spiritual circuit continuously ascending and descending, so that all
revelation, whether from the Bible, Plato, or classical myths, was one.
Similarly, he proclaimed that beauty, love, and beatitude, being phases
of this same circuit, were one. Thus Neo-Platonists could invoke the
"celestial Venus" (that is, the nude Venus born of the sea, as in our
picture) interchangeably with the Virgin Mary, as the source of "divine
love" (meaning the recognition of divine beauty). This celestial Venus,
according to Ficino, dwells purely in the sphere of Mind, while her
twin, the ordinary Venus, engenders "human love."
Once we understand that Botticelli's picture has this quasi-religious
meaning, it seems less astonishing that the two wind gods on the left
look so much like angels and that the personification of Spring on the
right, who welcomes Venus ashore, recalls the traditional relation of
St. John to the Saviour in the Baptism of Christ (compare fig.
431). As baptism is a "rebirth in
God," so the birth of Venus evokes the hope for "rebirth" from which the
Renaissance takes its name. Thanks to the fluidity of Neo-Platonic
doctrine, the number of possible associations to be linked with our
painting is almost limitless. All of them, however, like the celestial
Venus herself, "dwell in the sphere of Mind," and Botticelli's deity
would hardly be a fit vessel for them if she were less ethereal.
Neo-Platonic philosophy and its expression in art were obviously too
complex to become popular outside the select and highly educated circle
of its devotees. In 1494,
the suspicions of ordinary people were aroused by the friar Girolamo Savonarola, an ardent advocate of religious reform, who gained a huge
following with his sermons attacking the "cult of paganism" in the
city's ruling circle. Botticelli himself was perhaps a follower of Savonarola
and reportedly burned a number of his "pagan" pictures. In his last
works he returned to traditional religious themes but with no essential
change in style. He seems to have given up painting entirely after
1500, even though the
apocalyptic destruction of the world predicted by Savonarola at the millennium-and-a-half was not fulfilled.
624) by Botticelli's younger
Piero di Cosimo (1462-1521)
illustrates a view of pagan mythology diametrically
opposed to that of the Neo-Platonists. Instead of "spiritualizing" the
pagan gods, it brings them down to earth as beings of flesh and blood.
In this alternate theory, humanity had slowly risen from a barbaric
state through the discoveries and inventions of a few exceptionally
gifted individuals. Gratefully remembered by posterity, they were
finally accorded the status of gods. St. Augustine subscribed to such a
view (which can be traced back to Hellenistic times) without facing all
of the implications expressed by ancient authors. The complete theory, which was not revived until the late fifteenth century,
postulates a gradual evolution from the animal level and so conflicts
with the scriptural account of Creation. This could be glossed over,
however, by making a happy idyll out of the achievements of these pagan
"culture heroes" to avoid the impression of complete seriousness, which
is exactly what Piero di Cosimo has done in our picture.
The Discovery of Honey (fig.
Its title refers to the central episode, a group of satyrs busying
themselves about an old willow tree. They have discovered a swarm of
bees, and are making as much noise as possible with their pots and pans
to induce the bees to cluster on one of the branches. The satyrs will
then collect the honey, from which they will produce mead. Behind them,
to the right, some of their companions are about to discover the source
of another fermented beverage: they are climbing trees to collect wild
grapes. Beyond is a barren rock, while on the left are gentle hills and
a town. This contrast does not imply that the satyrs are city dwellers.
It merely juxtaposes civilization, the goal of the future, with untamed
nature. Here the "culture hero" is Bacchus, who appears in the lower
right-hand corner with a tipsy grin on his face, next to his ladylove,
Ariadne. Despite their classical appearance, Bacchus and his companions
do not in the least resemble the frenzied revelers of ancient mythology.
They have an oddly domestic air, suggesting a fun-loving family clan on
a picnic. The brilliant sunlight, the rich colors, and the far-ranging
landscape make the scene a still more plausible extension of everyday
reality. We can well believe that Piero cli Cosimo, in contrast to
Botticelli, admired the great Flemish masters, for this landscape would
be inconceivable without the strong influence of The Portinari
Altarpiece (see fig. 551).
DI COSIMO. The
Discovery of Honey, ñ.
Tempera on wood panel, 79.2 x
Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, Massachusetts
(1449-1494), another contemporary
of Botticelli, shared this inclination. Ghirlandaio's fresco cycles have
so many portraits that they almost serve as family chronicles of the
wealthy patricians who sponsored them.
Piero was not the only Florentine painter receptive to
the realism of the Flemings.
Among his most touching
individual portraits is the panel An Old Man and His Grandson
(fig. 625). Although it
lacks the pictorial delicacy of Flemish portraits (compare fig.
546), it reflects their precise
attention to surface texture and facial detail. But no Northern painter
could have rendered the tender relationship between the little boy and
his grandfather with Ghirlandaio's human understanding. Psychologically,
our panel plainly bespeaks its Italian origin.
An Old Man and His Grandson.
Tempera and oil on wood
panel, 61.2 x 45.5
Musee du Louvre, Paris
375), once more
became an important center of art patronage in the later fifteenth
century. As the papacy regained its political power on Italian soil, the
occupants of the Chair of St. Peter began to beautify both the Vatican
and the city, in the conviction that the monuments of Christian Rome
must outshine those of the pagan past. The most ambitious pictorial
project of those years was the decoration of the walls of the Sistine
Chapel beginning around 1482.
Among the artists who carried out this large cycle of
Old and New Testament scenes we encounter most of the important painters
of central Italy, including Botticelli and Ghirlandaio, although these
frescoes do not, on the whole, represent their best work.
Rome, long neglected during the papal exile in Avignon (see
There is, however, one notable exception: The Delivery of the Keys
(fig. 626) by
Pietro Perugino (c. 1450—1523)
must rank as his finest achievement. Born near Perugia in Umbria (the
region southeast of Tuscany), he maintained close ties with Florence.
His early development had been decisively influenced by Verrocchio, as
the statuesque balance and solidity of the figures in The Delivery of
the Keys suggest. The grave, symmetrical design conveys the special
importance of the subject in this particular setting: the authority of
St. Peter as the first pope, and that of all his successors, rests on
his having received the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven from Christ
Himself. A number of contemporaries, with powerfully individualized
features, witness the solemn event. Equally striking is the vast expanse
of the background. Its two Roman triumphal arches (both modeled on the
Arch of Constantine; fig. 285)
flank a domed structure in which we recognize the ideal
church of Alberti's Treatise on Architecture. The spatial
clarity, achieved by the mathematically exact perspective of this view,
is the heritage of Piero della Francesca, who spent much of his later
life working for Umbrian clients, notably the duke of Urbino. Also from
Urbino, shortly before 1500,
Perugino received a pupil
whose fame would soon outshine his own: Raphael, the most classic master
of the High Renaissance.
is linked to Perugino by a similar background, although
his personality is far more dramatic. Of provincial Tuscan origin, he
had been a disciple of Piero della Francesca before coming to Florence in the
1470s. Like Perugino, Signorelli was strongly impressed by Verrocchio,
but he also admired the energy, expressiveness, and anatomic precision
of Pollaiuolo's nudes. Combining these influences with Piero's cubic
solidity of form and mastery of perspective foreshortening, Signorelli
achieved a style of epic grandeur that later made a lasting imprint on
Michelangelo. He reached the climax of his career just before
1500 with the four monumental
frescoes on the walls of the S. Brizio Chapel in Orvieto Cathedral
representing the end of the world. The most dynamic of these is The
Damned Cast into Hell (fig. 627).
What most strikes us is not Signorelli's use of the nude
body as an expressive instrument, even though he far surpasses his
predecessors in this respect, but the deep sense of tragedy that
pervades the scene. Signorelli's Hell, the exact opposite of Bosch's
(compare fig. 553), is
illuminated by the full light of day, without nightmarish machines of
torture or grotesque monsters. The damned retain their human dignity,
and the devils, too, are humanized. Even in Hell, it seems, the
Renaissance faith in humanity does not lose its force.
Delivery of the Keys. 1482. Fresco.
Sistine Chapel, The Vatican, Rome
1500 a great tradition was born
in Venice and its dependent territories that was to flourish for the
next three centuries. The Republic of Venice, although more oligarchic
and unique in its eastward orientation, had many ties with Florence. It
is therefore not surprising that Venice, rather than the duchy of Milan,
should have become the leading center of Early Renaissance art in
SIGNORELLI. The Damned
Cast into Hell. 1499-1500. Fresco.
S. Brizio Chapel, Orvieto Cathedral
VENICE AND PADUA.
We must now consider the growth of Early
Renaissance art in northern Italy. The International Style in painting
and sculpture lingered there until mid-century, and architecture
retained a strongly Gothic flavor long after the adoption of a classical
vocabulary. As a result, there were hardly any achievements of major
significance in these fields,
1450, the young
Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506)
emerged as an independent master. He was first trained
by a minor Paduan painter, but his early development was decisively
shaped by the impressions he received from locally available Florentine
works and, we may assume, by personal contact with Donatello. Next to
Masaccio, Mantegna was the most important painter of the Early
Renaissance. He, too, was a precocious genius, fully capable at
17 of executing commissions of
his own. Within the next decade, he reached artistic maturity, and
during the next half-century (he died at the age of
75) he broadened the range of his
art but never departed, in essence, from the style he had formulated in
Florentine masters had been carrying the new style to
Venice and to the neighboring city of Padua since the 1420s. Fra Filippo
Lippi, Uccello, and Castagno had worked there at one time or another.
Still more important was Donatello's ten-year sojourn. Their presence,
however, evoked only rather timid local responses until, shortly before
The greatest achievement of Mantegna's early career, the frescoes in
the Church of the Eremitani in Padua, was almost entire!) destroyed by an accidental bomb explosion in
grievous loss than the murals of the Pisa Camposanto see fig.
529). St. James Led to His
Execution (fig. 628)
is the most dramatic scene of the cycle because of its daring
"worm's-eye view" perspective, which is based on the beholder's actual
eye level. (The central vanishing point is below the bottom of the
picture, somewhat to the right of center.) The architectural setting
consequently looms large, as in Masaccio's Trinity Iresco (see
Its main feature is a huge triumphal arch
which, although not a copy of any known Roman monument, looks so
authentic in every detail that it might as well be.
Here Mantegna's devotion to the visible remains of antiquity, almost
like that of an archaeologist, shows his close association with the
learned humanists at the University of Padua, who had the same reverence
for every word of ancient literature. No Florentine painter or sculptor
of the time could have transmitted such an attitude to him. The same
desire for authenticity can be seen in the costumes of the Roman
soldiers (compare fig.
268). It even extends to the use
of "wet" drapery patterns, an invention of Classical Greek sculpture
inherited by the Romans (see fig. 271).
But the tense figures, lean and firmly constructed, and
especially their dramatic interaction, clearly derive from Donatello.
Mantegna's subject hardly demands this agitated staging. The saint, on
the way to his execution, blesses a paralytic and commands him to walk.
Many of the bystanders express by glance and gesture how deeply the
miracle has stirred them. The large crowd generates an extraordinary
emotional tension that erupts into real physical violence on the far
right, as the great spiral curl of the banner echoes the turbulence
St. Umies Led to His Execution.
1455. Fresco. Ovetari Chapel,
Church of the Eremitani, Padua (destroyed
St. Umies Led to His Execution.
1455. Pen drawing,
Newbury, Berkshire, England
By rare good luck, a sketch for this fresco has survived (fig.
629), the earliest instance we
know of a drawing that permits us to compare the preliminary and final
versions of such a design. (Among the drawings by earlier masters, none,
it seems, is related to a known picture in the same way.) This sketch
differs from sinopie (full-scale drawings on the wall; see fig.
530) in its tentative, unsettled
quality. The composition has not yet taken full shape. Still growing, as
it were, the image in our drawing is "unfinished" both in the conception
and the quick, shorthand style. We note, for example, that here the
perspective is closer to normal, indicating that the artist worked out
the exact scheme only on the wall. Our drawing also offers proof of what
we suspected in the case of Masaccio: that Early Renaissance artists
actually conceived their compositions in terms of nude figures. The
group on the right is still in that first stage, and in the others the
outlines of the body show clearly beneath the costume. But the drawing
is more than a document. It is a work of art in its own right. The very
quickness of its "handwriting" gives it an immediacy and rhythmic force
that are necessarily lost in the fresco.
On the evidence of these works, we would hardly expect Mantegna to be
much concerned with light and color. 630,
painted only a few years after the Paduan frescoes, shows that he was,
however. In the foreground, to be sure, we find the familiar array of
classical remains (including, this time, the artist's signature in
Greek). The saint, too, looks more like a statue than a living body. But
beyond we see a wonderfully atmospheric landscape and a deep blue sky
dotted with the softest of white clouds.
The St. Sebastian panel
reproduced in figure
The entire scene is bathed in the warm radiance of late afternoon
sunlight, which creates a gently melancholy mood, making the pathos of
the dying saint doubly poignant. The background of our panel shows the
influence, direct or indirect, of the Van Eycks (compare fig.
Some works of the great Flemish masters had surely reached Florence
as well as Venice between 1430
and must have been equally admired in both cities. But in Venice they
had more immediate effect, evoking the interest in lyrical, light-filled
landscapes that became an ingrained part of Venetian Renaissance
Tempera on panel, 68
Kunsthistonsches Museum, Vienna
In the painting of
(ñ 1431-1516), Mantegna's brother-in-law, we
trace the further growth of the Flemish tradition. Bellini was slow to
mature, and his finest pictures, such as St. Francis in Ecstasy
(fig. 631), date from the
last decades of the century or later. The subject is unique. The saint
has left his wooden pattens behind and stands barefoot on holy ground,
like Moses in the Lord's presence.
Despite the absence of the crucified seraph that
appeared to him on Mount Alverna, the painting seemingly shows Francis
receiving the stigmata (the wounds of Christ) on the Feast of the Holy
Cross in 1224, although
they are barely visible even in person. However, it also "illustrates"
the Hymn of the Sun, which he composed the following year after his
annual fast at a hermitage near his hometown of Assisi. During that time
he could not bear the sight of light and was plagued as well by mice.
The monk finally emerged from these torments after being assured by the
Lord that he would enter the Kingdom of Heaven. We see him looking
ecstatically up at the sun. (Note the direction of the shadows.) In the
background is a magnificent expanse of Italian countryside. Yet this is
no ordinary landscape. It represents the Heavenly Jerusalem, inspired by
the Revelation of St. John the Divine. It lies across the river,
separated from the everyday realm by the bridge to the left. Behind
looms Mount Zion, where the Lord dwells. How, then, shall we enter the
gate to Paradise, shown as a large tower? For Francis, the road to
salvation lay in the ascetic life, signified by the cave, which also
connects him symbolically to St. Terome, the first great hermit saint.
The donkey is a symbol of St. Francis himself, who referred to his body
as Brother Ass, which must be disciplined. The other animals (difficult
to discern in our illustration) are, like monks, solitary creatures in
Christian lore: the heron, bittern, and rabbit.
The complex iconography is not sufficient in itself to explain the
picture. Far more important is the treatment of the landscape. St.
Francis is here so small in comparison to the setting that he seems
almost incidental. Yet his mystic rapture before the beauty of the
visible world sets our own response to the view that is spread out
before us, ample and intimate at the same time. St. Francis revered
nature as the Lord's handiwork, made for humanity's benefit. Our artist
shares his tender lyricism, expressed in the Hymn of the Sun:
Be praised, my Lord, with all Your creatures,
Above all Brother Sun,
Who gives the day and by whom You shed light on us.
And he is
beautiful and radiant with great splendor.
Of Thee, Most High, he is a
Bellini's contours are less brittle than those of Mantegna, the
colors softer and the light more glowing. He has as well the concern of
the great Flemings for every detail and its symbolism. Unlike the
Northerners, however, he can define the beholder's spatial relationship
to the landscape. The rock formations of the foreground are structurally
clear and firm, like architecture rendered by the rules of scientific
As the foremost painter of the city of Venice,
Bellini produced a
number of formal altar panels of the sacra conversazione type. The last
and most monumental one of the series is the Madonna and Saints
of 1505 in S. Zaccaria
(fig. 632). Compared to
Domenico Veneziano's sacra conversazione of 50
years earlier (fig.
the architectural setting is a good deal simpler
but no less impressive. We stand in the nave of a church, near the
crossing (which is partly visible), with the apse filling almost the
entire panel. The figures appear in front of the apse, however, under
the great vaulted canopy of the crossing. The structure is not a real
church, for its sides are open and the entire scene is flooded with
gentle sunlight, just as Domenico Veneziano had placed his figures in a semi-outdoor
setting. The Madonna's solid, high-backed throne and the music-making
angel on its lowest step are derived (through many intermediaries, no
doubt) from Masaccio's Madonna Enthroned of
1426 (see fig.
What differentiates this altar immediately from its Florentine
ancestors is not merely the ample spaciousness of the design but its
wonderfully calm, meditative mood. Instead of "conversation," we sense
the figures' deep communion, which makes all rhetorical gestures
unnecessary. We shall encounter this quality again and again in Venetian
painting. Here, we see it as through a diffusing filter of atmosphere,
for the aged master has bathed the entire scene in a delicate aerial
haze. All harsh contrasts are eliminated, light and shadow blend in
almost imperceptible gradations, and colors glow with a new richness and
depth. In this magical moment, Bellini becomes the true heir of the two
greatest painters of the fifteenth century, uniting the Florentine
grandeur of Masaccio with the Northern poetic intimacy of Jan van Eyck.