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How to recognize Italian Renaissance art

A brief introduction to Italian Renaissance art. Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(gentle music) - [Man] How do you recognize Italian Renaissance art? - [Woman] Sometimes we use the word renaissance to talk about the revival of something generally, but in art history, Renaissance means something very specific. - [Man] It means the rebirth of the culture of ancient Greece and ancient Rome. - [Woman] Which we call the classical period or classical antiquity. - [Man] Let's start at the very end of the medieval. - [Woman] And that's a good place to start because it gives us a sense of what the Renaissance is going to do differently, so let's start with this beautiful stained glass window from Chartres Cathedral. - [Man] This was a very important cathedral in the medieval period and it's extremely famous for its stained glass, and one of its most famous windows is known as the Blue Virgin. In the center is the Virgin Mary, she's seated on a throne and the young Christ child is seated on her lap. - [Woman] Both of the figures are frontal and that's a pose that is very static, it gives us a sense of the divine. We move our bodies in space, we're rarely seen from a perfectly frontal view so as soon as a figure is represented in a frontal way, there's a sense of authority, a sense of the eternal. - [Man] There's a formality. This is not meant to portray real people, this is meant to portray the Virgin Mary and the Christ child in a heavenly sphere, and in fact, we see above them a representation of a dove and that's a symbol of the Holy Spirit. - [Woman] The Holy Spirit being one part of the three-part nature of god. We also see that the figure of the virgin especially, if she were to stand up, her body would be so long. - [Man] There's no concern with a naturalistic rendering of the proportions of the human body, but one of my favorite aspects is that you have this very large virgin and child in the center and then you have these rather small angels that are framing them on either side. - [Woman] A hierarchy is expressed here between the angels and the Madonna and the Christ child, telling us that they're more important than the angels on either side of them, so let's now look at a painting, a fresco, by Giotto. - [Man] We're now in Italy, we're in a town named Padua and we're looking at one scene in a complex series of scenes painted on the walls of a private chapel which is usually called the Arena Chapel or sometimes the Scrovegni Chapel. - [Woman] So we've shifted to a smaller family chapel and this tells us something about how patronage is shifting at the very end of the Middle Ages, we have more individuals who are accumulating wealth and they spend their money often on religious works of art, on family chapels, to help to ensure their place in heaven. - [Man] But it also helped to ensure his social position on earth. Scrovegni was a banker, his father had been a banker and they hired one of the most prominent artists of the era, Giotto, to paint a fresco cycle. Now Giotto came from the city of Florence and every artist that we'll look at in the remainder of this video will be associated with Florence, which is often seen as the birthplace of the Renaissance. - [Woman] So let's look closely at the Lamentation. This is after Christ has been crucified, his body has been removed from the cross, he's being held, mourned by his mother, Mary, in an incredibly emotional moment, surrounded by the apostles who are also mourning his death. - [Man] So a number of important changes. First of all, we have emotion, we have emotion in the face of Mary and in the tender way in which she holds her now-dead son. We have emotion in the angels. But I think, even more importantly, we've lost the frontality that we saw at Chartres. - [Woman] We have figures from profile view, three-quarter view, we have figures that are seen from behind, this is much more the way we would really see a group of people. By using modeling, Giotto is able to create figures who take up space. - [Man] When you use the term modeling, or we could use the Italian word, chiaroscuro, we're talking about the creation of an illusion on a flat surface of something that is rounded, something that takes up space, and if you look at the backs of these figures, you see how the cloth is light in certain places, and shadowed in certain places. The figures seem to take up space, they have a sense of mass and volume. - [Woman] He's also using that light and dark to call attention to the forms of the body underneath the drapery, so for example, Mary Magdalene, who's seated at the feet of Christ, we see her knee pressing through the drapery, we see the beginnings of an interest in the human body. - [Man] One other important change is that we're now in a landscape. At Chartres, we were in a heavenly sphere, we had this marvelous red background, but here we see a bit of a hill, we see a tree, we see a sky, what we're seeing is an increased interest in placing Christ on earth. - [Woman] So we're gonna move from the early 1300s to the middle of the 1400s, to a period that art historians usually call the early Renaissance. - [Man] Now, the image that we saw at Chartres was stained glass. The Giotto was fresco, that is, it was painted directly on the wall. This is different, this is a piece of wood, and on that, the artist has happened with tempera, pigment that is suspended in egg yolk. - [Woman] Tempera on wood means that the artist has created something that is movable. This is something that can be bought and sold. - [Man] This is by Fra Filippo Lippi and we see again the Virgin Mary. - [Woman] Even though her hands are in prayer, she seems more like an earthly mother and those angels seem much more like little boys than they seem like angels. - [Man] In fact, they even look mischievous. - [Woman] And the Christ child seems more like a baby. - [Man] Lippi's facility with naturalism is evident. We wanna believe the truthfulness of these figures. In fact, they seem to literally come out of the frame into our space. - [Woman] And I just wanna call our attention to that word naturalism, it means like nature, truthful. - [Man] And we see it not only in this increasing ability to render something that seems believable but also in the landscape beyond. We see a convincing representation of depth and that's represented by diminishing scale as well as something that we call atmospheric perspective. That is, as things go back in space, they become lighter and their colors become less intense. But these are all formal qualities. Why are artists interested in this kind of naturalism. - [Woman] We have an increasing number of families in Florence who are accumulating vast amounts of wealth and people want to enjoy their earthly life and one of the things that they do is commission works of art. - [Man] And works of art become a signal for somebody's social status. - [Woman] Although these are religious paintings, we are still looking at a culture that is deeply religious. - [Man] And we see the conflation of those issues in this painting. Here we have tremendous naturalism, a tremendous interest in the anatomy of the human body, in human emotion, human intimacy, but at the same time, this is the Christ child, this is the Virgin Mary. - [Woman] Let's move now to a period art historians call the High Renaissance, and the artists there are Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Raphael. - [Man] This is the Creation of Adam from the center of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. - [Woman] Michelangelo is a artist from Florence but he's been called to Rome by the pope. - [Man] So what are the formal characteristics of the High Renaissance? For me, it is an extraordinary understanding of the anatomy of the human body, of its skeletal structure, of its musculature, and a direct focus on the beauty of the human form. - [Woman] There's this new interest in the graceful movement of the human body, making that body move through space in an incredibly graceful and elegant way. - [Man] And in increasingly complex ways as well. We see god on the right, who seems to be moving with great velocity, his arm reaches out. His other arm, however, moves back around another figure. We see his legs are crossed. His face is in profile but his chest is forward. We have not only this careful articulation of the body, but we have that body in the most complex poses. - [Woman] And the same could be said of Adam. His right arm comes back and his right shoulder moves back. His left shoulder moves forward, his head tilts back as he looks toward his creator, this is an expression of the beauty and love of the body in the High Renaissance. We've been talking about the elegance and the complexity of god and of Adam, but we could also say that that complexity extends to groupings of figures, so we see those angels who surround god, they twist, they turn, they lean forward to see what god has created. We have this complex interaction between the figures and layering of the figures that is also very High Renaissance. - [Man] So where do you go after Michelangelo's Creation of Adam? - [Woman] And after the other great works of the High Renaissance, like Raphael's School of Athens or Leonardo's Last Supper, it's as though the interest in naturalism had reached this level of perfection, so where do you go after you've gotten to the perfect? - You heighten the perfect. - You complicate the perfect. - [Man] And the Renaissance is slowly transformed into a style that we know as mannerism. This was a moment when the virtuosity of the artist comes to the fore. - [Woman] During much of the 15th century, Florence had been a republic, but in the early 1500s, Florence becomes basically ruled by the Medici, and the court culture results in this new style that we call mannerism. - [Man] We're looking at Pontormo's Deposition or Entombment of Christ. Look at the length of his body. Look at the length of the figures that support him. They are unnaturally long. There's an unnatural complexity to their poses. - [Woman] And to the composition, we don't know where to look, our eye doesn't rest anywhere, and there's no earthly setting here. - [Man] But this is not a regression, this is not painting that is less technically proficient than the High Renaissance, this was a further development, the culture had changed and therefore, the art had changed. (gentle music)