The 16th Century in Italy: Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael

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.

Leonardo's notebooks

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.

The paintings

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.

Leonardo's Women

Leonardo's portraits of women were unique for the time, partly because he used the 3/4 profile position before most other artists used it with female portraits and partly because he gave the sitter in the painting a strong presence.  These are not generalized portraits of beautiful women as virtue and as Mary; these are portraits of individuals who seem to be making contact with the viewer. This is even truer in the case of the Mona Lisa, partly because her head and body are not aligned in the same position, as they are in the painting of Ginevra.  What both paintings share, in addition to the interest in conveying a female subject who is more than the sum of her jewelry and fashion, is the way Leonardo uses the landscaped background as a continuation of the qualities of the female subject.  The rhyming curves, colors and forms which unite the figure and the background is something he did in his paintings of religious scenes as well.  In those paintings, the landscape communicated religious symbolism; in these, it communicates the virtues of the women.
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.)

Raphael and the "Classical" Spirit of the Renaissance

Raphael’s short career spanned the years of 1500-1520.  Born in 1483 to a father who was himself a painter and poet in the court of the Montefeltro dukes, his early career was influenced by the Umbrian artist Perugino, whose workshop may or may not have been his first “school.” When Raphael moved to Florence at this time, his style underwent significant change, largely under the influence of having seen the work of Leonardo, Michelangelo and Fra Bartolommeo.
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.

Frescoes for the Pope: the Stanza della Segnatura in the Vatican Palace, 1509-11

In 1508, Pope Julius II commissioned Raphael to paint frescoes in his personal apartments in the Vatican Palace.  Called the Stanza della Segnatura by Vasari, it was long thought that the name of the room referred to the fact that the pope signed documents in this room.  In fact, the room was actually the Pope's library. All the paintings in this room relate to the bodies of knowledge that would have been the subject matter of the books in his library: philosophy, theology, law, and poetry (the arts).  Two of these in particular, The School of Athens (philosophy) and Disputà (the painting of theology), because they were placed on walls which were not interrupted by doorways, display Raphael’s perfected Renaissance style. Both paintings are framed by illusionist architecture which in both cases suggests the front of a stage and an arched entry onto the stage. Grisaille paintings below the central frescoes make references to the Pope as both the patron of the work and as Pope (who appears in the painting of jurisprudence or the law).  The actual walls are flat (as walls generally are) without architectural ornamentation or sculpture, so the illusion which Raphael created is a striking example of trompe l’oeil.  They do arch, though, and this arching form of the walls serves as the underlying geometric structure of the paintings.  Note, for example, how the clouds in the Disputa form a gentle arc which moves back into the painting and which is echoed by the figures on the ground below and repeated in the gold semicircle above Christ.  We see this form as the top half of a circle behind Christ and we see a complete circle beneath his feet, with the holy dove in its center and again in the monstrance on the altar.
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

Painting the Pope

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 influence of Laocoon: a new dynamism

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.