|Leonardo: Self-portrait (or Plato?), pen and ink, 1512|
Unlike some artists, Leonardo did not believe in improving on or idealizing nature. He believed that the true artist became a mirror of nature. To this end, he also believed that all classes of natural things should be observed -- the good, the bad, the beautiful, the ugly. Part of his belief was a response to what he saw as the increasing conventionalization of nature in paintings of the early Renaissance as artists developed "formulae" for depicting living things (not entirely surprising since most artists at the time were basing their observations of nature on classical sculpture). Leonardo’s interest in science related to his goal of returning reality to nature and to his belief that painting was the "granddaughter" of nature.
Following the precepts of his teacher, Andrea Verrochio, Leonardo kept notebooks with him at all times, filling them with drawings of everything he saw and imagined. Leonardo's understanding of the role of the imagination was also important. In his system, imagination meant a recombination of things (or the parts of things) which already existed, and creating some previously unimagined form.
|study of grotesque heads, 1490||study of the proportions of the head (undated)|
Many of the characterististics of
16th-century Italian renaissance painting, although not directly invented
by Leonardo, reached a degree of perfection in his hands:
spatial clarity, simplicity, richer vocabulary of body movement and gesture, more convincing light and atmosphere. His drawings, often done as studies for the larger paintings, demonstrate the same qualities and in some cases, the same techniques that he uses in paint. Sfumato (or sfumatura), for example, the technique developed by his teacher Verrochio, is used by Leonardo in both his drawings and paintings. Sfumato can create an atmospheric effect of haze and distance but it also provides unity to the figures by softening outlines and letting them merge into a sculptural unit.
|Madonna and Child with Saint Anne, ca 1508|
The Madonna and Child with St.
Anne is just one example of Leonardo's increasing use of a "pyramidal"
composition or grouping of figures. The tendency to cluster figures
together, depicting them in physically connected groups, is an important
change from the paintings of the earlier 15th century and will be very important
for artists such as Raphael and later developments in the 16th century. Overall,
we might note that Leonardo was not the only one to do this. Raphael, Michelangelo
and other 16th century artists began to think in terms of unified compositions
rather than just the arrangement of figures in space, making this one
of the important differences between 15th century Italian painting and the
developments which we see in the 16th century.
|The Last Supper, 1498, after the most recent cleaning||perspective diagram of the Last Supper|
|Andrea del Castagno: Last Supper, 1447|
Some of the debate over the Last Supper has concerned the point in time which people think is represented in the painting. Is it just after Christ has said, “one of you shall betray me” as many people have thought? He does not look as though he has finished speaking. The other figures do appear to be responding to him, and their grouping suggests the spread of Christ’s words from the center to the edges. The figures closest to Christ are recoiling strongly while those at the ends of the table do not seem to have felt the impact of his words just yet. Ultimately, it seems as though Leonardo has not chosen a single moment to convey but a sequence of moments which flow together to form a unit, much as the individual figures in most of his other paintings flow together to form a pyramid of humanity and emotion. In this sense of flowing time, it seems reasonable to think that Leonardo has created an auditory equivalent of his sfumato, the blurring of time and actions, making it closer to the way we experience things in real life.
Although both paintings illustrate the same scene, Andrea del Castagno's version makes the figures look as though they're seated on stage or inside a box. They display very little movement and they seem to have been designed in order to fit within the spaces on the wall behind them. Leonardo, as we have seen, shows his figures in a variety of positions. Leonardo broke with certain conventions in his presentation: in Andrea's representation, Judas, as in most versions, sits on the opposite side of the table. In Leonardo's, he sits on the same side as the other figures, slightly to the left of Christ (from the viewer's perspective) or on the right-hand side of Christ (from the perspective within the painting). Leonardo, also unlike Andrea, enhances the symbolization of the scene by creating a space which pulls the viewer's eyes to the window behind Christ's head and out into the light blue space behind him. Both artists used linear, one-point perspective in their compositions, but Leonardo's use of perspective pulls the viewer through the painting; Andrea's perspective brings the viewer to a complete stop in front of the white table.
|Mona Lisa, 1503-5 (oil on wood)||Portrait of Ginevra de' Benci, 1474 (oil on wood) (in the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.)|
|Leonardo: Madonna and Child with Saint Anne, ca 1503-8||Raphael: The Madonna of the Meadow, 1505|
Throughout his career, Raphael appears to respond to the influences of both Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. Although his own style can be recognized, we can also find the ways in which he surely looked at both Leonardo and Michelangelo and absorbed their influences. The resulting fusion is a style which retains the clarity and precision of the 15th century Italian painters, such as Masaccio, but contains the more communicative and expressive style of Leonardo, and the more dynamic and sculptural quality of figures that we find in the work of Michelangelo. In The Madonna of the Meadow, we can see how Raphael has absorbed the pyramidal grouping which was so characteristic of Leonardo's compositions but at the same time, he has rejected the mysterious atmospheric effect created by the sfumato technique and replaced it with a much more luminescent background (the influence of Perugino). Raphael's tendency to retain the more overt symbols associated with the religious painting is notably different from Leonardo.
|La Disputà (Disputation of the Holy Sacrament)||view of the Stanza della Segnatura and the Disputà; Jurisprudence can be seen on the wall to the left|
If the theological fresco is structured
by a sacred or cosmic architecture, then the philosophy fresco is structured
by architecture which might remind you of the interior of Alberti's church,
Sant' Andrea (look at the picture in your textbook or in Artstor).
Raphael's use of the architectural structure in both cases is similar to
the way Masaccio used architecture and landscape in his frescoes: it contains
the figures and organizes them. This contrasts with Leonardo's use
of architecture, especially in the Last Supper, where we saw how the
figures seemed to come first and generate the architecture around them.
In each case, it looks convincing and real, but the effect on the figures
in the painting is that they appear to be standing on stage waiting to take
a bow before the audience who is looking at the painting. This may be somewhat
intentional since the model for the type of painting we see here was a familiar
medieval and Renaissance type of painting used to depict a pantheon of heroes
or great men and perhaps the iconostasis paintings of orthodox churches was
another influence. Compared to those, Raphael's version is more animated
and alive. One of the key differences between Leonardo's Last Supper
and Raphael's paintings for the pope is that Leonardo was working from the
familiar and recognizable biblical story of the last supper. Raphael received
his narrative from the Pope, probably through the intermediary of the Pope's
librarian. This is one of the reasons why interpretations of the School
of Athens have tended to focus on identifying the figures rather than
the meaning. When we realize that the narrative was created by the Pope and/or
his librarian, we also recognize the way in which the painting served to
communicate the goals and ideology of the Pope.
|The School of Athens||detail of Plato and Aristotle|
|Raphael: Pope Julius II, 1511-12|
Raphael’s portrait of Pope Julius II (1511) exhibits a new quality of placing the spectator very close to the subject of the painting and revealing his inner psychological state. The spectator must be standing close enough to the seated pope to be in a position which allows him or her to be looking down at the seated man. The pope, however, does not make eye contact with the viewer, but does allow himself to be seen as an almost vulnerable man, also thoughtful, both characteristics unlike the image of the warrior he usually projected. All the same, he is surrounded by his symbols and wears his papal costume so it unites two, almost opposing conditions: formality and intimacy.
|the Laocoon statue group (Hellenistic ancient Greece)||Raphael: Galatea, salon of the Farnesina Villa, c 1512|
Galatea, a fresco for the salon
of Agostino Chigi, and another fresco for the Pope, The Expulsion of Heliodorus,
show a more animated style of painting which makes visual reference to the
newly discovered Laocoon statue group. Discovered in 1506, kept by Julius
in his collection of art, the dynamic and twisted movement of these figures
was to be an enduring influence not only on the painting of Raphael but even
more important, on the sculpture and painting of Michelangelo. In addition
to noting the newly dynamic style of painting, we should also note that by
choosing this subject (Galatea), Raphael has elevated a mythological story
to the status of heroic religious narratives.