Masters of Illusion: Italian Art in the 15th Century

1. The competition for the east doors, Florence Baptistry, 1402

Brunelleschi: Sacrifice of Isaac, 1401-2, gilded bronze relief, 21x17" Ghiberti: Sacrifice of Isaac, 1401-2, gilded bronze, 21x17"

Many historians think this competition can stand for the true beginning of the Renaissance not just because of the reliefs submitted by Brunelleschi and Ghibert but also because of the role of competition in the Renaissance. Competition between artists, between patrons, between literature and painting were all forms of rivalry which might ultimately lead to newer and better ideas. To that we might add the idea that the religious story chosen for the competition panels had symbolic, civic meaning to Florence at this time: the tendency to expand the religious meaning with reference to current events is characteristic of Renaissance humanism.

Both Brunelleschi and Ghiberti demonstrate some interest in creating the illusion of space in their reliefs, but overall, most of the space we see is due to the nature of a relief.  The figures protrude from the surface, a quality which makes the figures look three-dimensional.  But in terms of the composition or design of the whole picture in the relief, the space is not naturalistic.  Ghiberti won the competition and made the doors which were eventually moved to the north entrance in order to allow him to make another set of doors for the east.

Unlike Donatello's reliefs at this time, neither Brunelleschi nor Ghiberti used perspective. Ghiberti does use perspective in his reliefs for his second set of doors, but Donatello used perspective in this example:

Donatello: The Feast of Herod, Siena Cathedral baptismal font, c. 1425

Salome dances on the right side while King Herod, somewhat in horror, receives John the Baptist's severed head on the left side.  As the scene moves back into the distance, the people who are farther away seem to be engaged in meal preparation while in the most distant space, we can vaguely make out the beheading.  Recession into space in this work therefore seems to be associated with distance in time as well as distance in space. The central orthogonal line in the floor divides the relief into two scenes (left and right), again suggesting the passage of time, with the event on the right taking place later than the event on the left.

2. Ghiberti's Gates of Paradise

Ghiberti: east doors, baptistry of the Florence Cathedral, 1425-52, gilded bronze relief, 17' ht. detail of the east doors
detail: the panel of Jacob and His Sons detail: the panel of The Meeting of Solomon and Sheba

In these examples (remember: the work is not silver; the black and white photos are old reproductions; see the examples in Artstor for the "real" thing), it seems quite likely that Ghiberti had seen Donatello's work since he further develops what Donatello did in The Feast of Herod.  Not only are the figures up front more fully fashioned and in high relief, but the recession into space is enhanced by the architecture of repeating arcades in the left panel and the cross-vaulted nave arcade in the panel on the right.  As we noted in class, the scenes in the Jacob panel are not all happening at the same time, so again, the artist is using spatial divisions to suggest the passage of time. The panel with Solomon and Sheba is especially convincing as the line of figures, curving from central foreground in two directions to the mid-ground, ends with Solomon and Sheba perfectly centered in front of the vanishing point in the arcade behind them.

3. The Role of Linear Perspective in Painting: Characteristics and Uses

Duccio: The Betrayal of Jesus (from the reverse side of the Maesta altarpiece), 1308-11 Perugino: The Delivery of the Keys to St. Peter, 1481-3

This comparison allows us to see the difference between an artist who did not use linear perspective and one who did.  In one painting, the figures appear crowded with little differentiation in size, and therefore little sense of how far apart they may be.  In the second, the figures are convincingly made smaller as they recede in the distance.  The painting also provides a very clear focus on what is important: the central event in the foreground and the domed church in the background.

Characteristics of Linear Perspective:

1) there is no distortion of straight lines.
2) there is no distortion or foreshortening of objects or distances which are parallel to the picture plane.
3) Orthogonals to the picture plane converge on a single vanishing point which is dependent on the fixed position of the observer.
4) The diminution in the size of objects is proportionate to their distance from the observer. Everything is measureable in this respect. This is, therefore, a "mathematically homogeneous space," and it gives unity to the pictorial design.

Contributions of linear perspective to the work of art:

Taken together, these effects and uses mean that linear perspective can produce a structural focus, a narrative or dramatic focus, or serve the purpose of creating the illusion of depth. For Masaccio, Mantegna and other Italian artists, perspective was often a means of exploring relationships between the real space of the spectator and the space depicted in the painting. Don't forget that there are other forms of perspective (atmospheric and intuitive having been used long before linear perspective was invented) --  linear perspective is the only one which uses mathematical rules to determine the sizes of objects in the distance.
Masaccio: The Tribute Money, fresco in the Brancacci Chapel, c 1425-7 interior view of Brancacci Chapel, frescoes by Masaccio, Masolino and Filippino Lippi

Masaccio may have been looking at existing Florentine architecture as his model for spatial representation.  This seems especially likely in both the Tribute Money and the Holy Trinity.  In both cases, he used perspective to create a convincing symbolic focus, and in the Tribute Money, to create a sense of narrative movement.  His depiction of convincing figures in space was an important model for later artists, such as Michelangelo, who spent hours studying and sketching from the Brancacci frescoes.

Masaccio: The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden, (Brancacci Chapel, ca 1425) Van Eyck: Adam and Eve, Ghent Altarpiece, 1432

Comparing the Adam and Eve from the Ghent altarpiece to the Adam and Eve from the Brancacci chapel further illuminates the gains from using perspective.  While Van Eyck created believable bodies, Masaccio created two figures who suggest movement in space and emotional anguish.

Masaccio: Holy Trinity (Santa Maria Novella, Florence, 1428; 21'x10'5) perspective diagram

Although there is a vanishing point in the location shown in the diagram, there may also be another vanishing point which is much higher.  Masaccio treated the space in his Holy Trinity as more than one space: there is the illusionistically real space of an architectural niche built into the wall of the cathedral, with the vanishing point as shown in the diagram. There is another vanishing point which relates more to Mary and St. John, whom we see as if they are eye-level with us, and finally, there is a much higher vanishing point which characterizes what would be sacred space in this image.  You can tell this without drawing diagrams because none of the figures are seen as if from below.  The only part of the painting which we see from below is the coffered ceiling of the arch.

4. Breaking the "illusion": the trompe l'oeil effect

Mantegna: The Dead Christ, 1501

All perspective is truly "trompe l'oeil" (a trick or deception of the eye), but we tend to think of perspective, when used correctly or traditionally, as truthful.  In reality, it's never truthful to make a painting look like it contains three-dimensional space (a painting is flat).  Some paintings, however, take the deception to a level which breaks the "truth" of perspective. The Dead Christ uses extreme foreshortening which has the effect of making Christ's head much larger and more important than it would have appeared otherwise and placing the viewer at the feet of Christ. Without foreshortening, the feet would have blocked a view of Christ's head. The Decapitation of St. James in the painting below poses a greater challenge to the truth of the painting because it suggests movement outside of the painting into the space in front of it.

van Eyck: Ghent altarpiece, closed position, 1432 Mantegna: Decapitation of St. James, 1454

Mantegna is not the first to break the picture plane; Van Eyck did it with the figures on the top of the Ghent altarpiece, Giotto did it as well with the figures who sit on the edge of a wall (recall the Lamentation scene), their bodies jutting beyond the painting into the room, and Ghiberti and Brunelleschi did it in their reliefs for the Baptistry competition. It is less apparent in those other works, and in the reliefs, we almost don't notice it because the nature of the relief is to break the picture plane.  The effect in Mantegna's painting of the beheading of St. James may be a bit more dramatic.  The railing which spans the canvas suggests that it extends in front of and beyond the canvas. The executioner and another soldier seem to be leaning in front of the railing, so they, too, seem to be in front of the painting, and if that is the case, then St. James' head, when decapitated, will land on the floor at the spectator's feet.  In the ceiling oculus below, the trompe l'oeil effect of looking up from below (di sotto in sù, in Italian) is created by the figures who appear to be leaning into the room through the fake oculus, as well as in the very ornate architectural decorations which fill the room and appear to be real.

Mantegna: fresco of the family of the Marquis of Mantua, in the Camera degli Sposa (Camera Picta) of the Ducal Palace, 1474 Mantegna: ceiling oculus of the Camera degli Sposi, 1474; fresco: 8'9 diam.

With Ghirlandaio's painting of the Birth of the Virgin, we see another development and a different kind of illusion: the tendency to localize the religious narrative, either by placing it in a setting which resembles the home or palazzo of the patron or by including figures who are members of the patron's family but would not have been present at the original religious scene in the painting. Both of these strategies were used in this painting as one of the family's daughters is seen at the head of the procession of women in the painting. The rich interior setting is believed by many to be a representation of the home of the patrons. The detailed ornamentation in the room makes it too specific just to be an imagined home in which any rich person might have lived. But for any viewer, this image resonates with images of secular life. The viewer is therefore invited to imagine that he or she is present at this holy moment which might be taking place in his home.  Ghirlandaio demonstrates an outstanding use of architecture and perspetive to structure the narrative of the painting. Although it is still "old-fashioned" to repeat one figure twice (as he did with St. Anne), it is not confusing in the context of the painting and helps emphasize the sequence of events, leading our eyes to the focal point of the painting (the baby).

Domenico Ghirlandaio: Birth of the Virgin (Santa Maria Novella, Florence, 1485-90, fresco)

5. The Patron and the Artist: Art in the Medici Palace

The Medici family commissioned some of the art works for which the 15th century is most famous. From Donatello's David to Botticelli's Primavera, they contributed to a use of art as a means of establishing the family's wealth, prestige, and philosophical values, and in the case of architecture, as a means of contributing to the economic growth of the city.
Michelozzo di Bartomoleo: Medici-Riccardi Palazzo, Florence, beg. 1446 interior court of the Medici Palazzo

The Medici-Riccardi Palazzo was built for Cosimo Medici and it set the standard for domestic architecture for the wealthy class in Florence, essentially beginning a trend in which architecture was used to celebrate status, power and wealth.  Although ostentatious in design, we might note that buildings of this type supported a new construction industry, in this way contributing to the economic base of Florence. The exterior was not entirely unusual, with the exception of the rusticated base and the large cornice.  The other notable change was the interior court.  Although this idea was not new, Michelozzo  centralized and rationalized the interior open space, giving it a grandiosity which it generally lacked in other houses.

rustication: the larger, coarse stone on ground floor level
cornice: the overhang at the top of the building

Lorenzo Medici commissioned several paintings from Botticelli. Three paintings, including the Primavera, were made for the marriage chamber.

Sandro Botticelli: Primavera (temp./wood, 1482; painted for Lorenzo de Medici)

names of the figures in the painting (beginning on the right side): Zephyrus (the West Wind) catches Chloris (a nymph); Chloris turns into Flora who throws flowers toward Venus and the Three Graces; Cupid aims an arrow at the three graces; Bacchus picks fruit on the left-hand edge

Botticelli's style has more in common with the linear elegance of Fra Lippi than with the volumetric and sculptural figures of Masaccio or Mantegna.  The creation of deep space and volumetric figures does not seem to be his goal, and in some ways, his paintings suggest a greater affinity with the northern Flemish tradition than with the Italian tradition.  Although he did paint religious paintings, he is more generally associated with paintings of classical mythology, rendered in his elegant but linear style. But it is necessary to note that the new belief in Neoplatonism, a belief system which united Christian theology and classical mythology, may have given the mythological subject matter a Christian interpretation. It is certain, at any rate, that the Primavera had social meaning specifically directed to the patron and the reason for the painting.  In this respect, the questions to ask are these: Where was the painting to be kept? How did the context (location and other paintings in the same area) affect the meaning of the Primavera?

Primavera was one of a group of paintings made for the marriage chamber in his home.  All the paintings in this room were designed to be placed at shoulder level or eye level. Whether perspective is used or not, the placement brings the viewer into the poetic, fictional world of the painting and simultaneously brings the world of the painting into the real world of the domestic setting.  Generally, these "bedroom paintings" did not create the deep space of a perspective painting, preferring to emphasize the horizontal expansion and decorative qualities of the painting.

Botticelli: Birth of Venus, ca 1482 (temp. on canvas) Primavera

The Birth of Venus was also made for the Medici, although not the same room as the Primavera.  In both cases, though, the artist does not use linear perspective, places all the figures in the foreground, and creates a sense of flowing, curved lines running through the figures, their gowns, their hair.  The effect is an ornate pattern although one which is delicate and ethereal.

Botticelli's paintings raise the question of the role of the patron.  Lorenzo de Medici was known to be a poet and lover of mythology.  Did he choose Botticelli to be his artist because of something already apparent in Botticelli's style or did Botticelli cultivate his poetic style because Lorenzo was his patron?  The question is worth asking because we can see a change in his style at the end of his career raising the question of whether the artist had a "late" style in his old age, became disillusioned by the beginning of the Reformation, or adjusted his style throughout his career to meet the needs of his patrons. Remember that in the beginning of the Renaissance, art was a business as much as it was art.

6. Donatello's Sculptural Portraits

The Guild Church of Or San Michele

Almost half a century after the church of Or San Michele had been built, most of the niches on the exterior, intended to hold sculpture, remained empty.  In 1406, the governors of Florence called on the guilds to have the statues commissioned and completed before 1416.  It took somewhat longer than that, but the upshot was that Ghiberti, Donatello and Nanni di Banco all completed sculpture for Or San Michele within the next 20 years.  Ghiberti would have seen Donatello’s skill with relief in his work for this setting where his marble relief of St. George and the Dragon (1417) seems to treat the surface as though it is made of wax or clay. (Although we didn't look at them in class, all of the sculptural niches had reliefs carved beneath them.) In fact, he certainly would have had experience using these materials; but to transfer the effects which are possible in clay to marble was an unprecedented feat at that time.
Donatello: St. Mark  1411-13; marble; 7'9" Donatello: St. Mark

St. Mark has been described as the first really distinctive piece of Renaissance sculpture.  It borrows from antiquity, especially in the drapery and the contrapposto pose, but what distinguishes it from earlier sculpture is the very real sense of gravity which affects the body. This is also a benign and humane figure, about which Michelangelo is believed to have said, "No one could doubt the Gospel of Christ preached by so sincere a man."

David: an icon of Florence

Donatello: David (bronze, 1440s - after 1428) detail, head and chest of David detail: head of David

David was made for the Medici palace courtyard.  Some viewers have considered this to be a puzzling statue because the image of David is so slender, svelte and dreamy.  Perhaps the puzzle is not the fact that he is youthful, which would have been true to the biblical story, but that he unites the biblical David with the Greco/Roman tradition of statues of nude male god/athletes.  Although the statue is life-sized, it is not tall (5'2), which contributes to the sense of this David as an adolescent.  Just as Donatello's statue of Gattamelata was the first equestrian statue since the days of ancient Rome, this was the first life-sized statue of a nude male since ancient Greece.  Although David's face seems less emotionally expressive than is usually the case with Donatello's statues, upon close examination we can see that it is certainly a face which suggests contemplation and perhaps a touch of sadness.   It is also possible that this David relates to Plato’s version of the story, one which uses David as a symbol of heavenly love. The Medicis, the family which commissioned this work, collected art of a poetic nature and may have wanted art which related to neo-Platonic thought.