Essential Reading: 16th Century in Europe

Notes from WHA in prep for assignment 3:

1 Political, economic or social factors

In the 16th century, the Protestant Reformation called into question teachings and practice of the Catholic Church, the invention of printing allowed the spread of information amongst the masses. Plague and sickness were seen as punishment for sin. Large devotional donations were made for the sake of the soul by wealthy men. In Germany, new urban culture developed on the recovery of trade and industry after the Black Death. Protestant art started appearing after the Peasants War (against the landed nobility and higher clergy) of 1524-6. Partoniage declined and artists and sculptors were forced to take up other occupations or emigrate, including famously, Hans Holbein the Younger who moved the England to the court of Henry VIII. Across Europe, war, riots and political stress broke out as countries struggled to accept of reject Lutheranism and later the Counter Reformation. In Italy, a highly turbulent period spawned the High renaissance, Florence passed from republic to autocratic rule of the Medici and back to republic again, northern Italy was twice invaded by France, the Papacy struggled with extending its power and Rome was sacked in 1527 by German and Spanish Mercenaries. Venice remained richer than any other city in Italy by resisting political and economic domination, trading with Asia and retaining a republic system of government. Venetian patricians turned to farmers to keep economic independence from the north. Patronage in Venice was by both state and private but not so much the church. By this time, patrons and art collectors had become savvy connoisseurs looking to collect new artworks that demonstrated their artistic knowledge, good taste and religious understanding. Three main artists emerged but did not form a group, Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) and Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio 1483-1520). All religious art of the Counter Reformation era was scrutinized in being in strict accordance with the decrees of the Council of Trent to eliminate any imagery which might be misconstrued as profane, pagan or heretical, for example Michelangelo’s Last Judgement was condemned. El Greco was the last great artist of this period. Strong supporters of the Counter Reformation and in a period of rapid expansion, the Spanish emerged as the leading power of the latter part of the 16th century.


2 Changes to status or training of artists

In the 16th Century, for the first time artists took their place among the great minds of the age. All the top regarded Artists were Italian (except Dürer) and their art and career details spread by printed accounts across Europe. They were highly sort after by Kings and Popes alike. This change is status is also as a result of Alberti’s treatise on architecture, painting and sculpture, meaning that visual arts could be liberal arts and artists weren’t just artists anymore, their other accomplishments were taken into account. Leonardo da Vinci was a scientist and daring experimental thinker, Michelangelo was a poet, and Raphael was an architect. Only Venetian artist Titian (1490-1576) seem to have no other notable claims to fame. Da Vinci’s thoughts on great minds (see below) “presuppose that ‘art’ is much more than ‘craft’ and lead directly to the notion of a great artist as ‘a genius’” p466. Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling was a commission which demonstrates the rising status of the artist through the idea of artistic license (the pope let him do what he wanted). In Germany, the woodcarvers gained recognition of craft and belonged to the middle ranking of society, were members of guilds, with one, Tilman Riemenschneider, becoming mayor of Wurzburg. Titian maintained his independence turning down offers from Popes and Kings and made himself the most sort after artists in Europe, so much so he could work largely for who he wished and on what he wished. “The contrast between his career and that of the constantly thwarted and disappointed Michelangelo is poignot” p490


3 Development of materials and processes

The 16th century saw new techniques of pictorial representation, invented or perfected by da Vinci. Chiaroscuro (effect of light and dark to create effect of relief or modelling), sfumato (misty, soft blending of colours), hazy atmospheric effects, indicating distance by grading tones and muting of colours. He was the first to draw anatomically correct figures (from dissecting corpses)! The Contrapposto principle was also developed to convey even more natural poses which contribute to overall rhythm of compositions. eg Fra Bartolommeo, Carondelet Altarpiece. The idea of Harmonious unity developed which inspired architects as well as painters. Raphael’s frescoes in the Vatican use contrasting colours to create an animating pattern but the great innovation in them is the relationship of the figures to their architectural context (conceived after the arrangement of the figures). He invented the relaxed ¾ length and ¾ face pose for portraits (later developed by Titian). Whilst painting the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo innovatively solved the problems with painting curved surfaces. He also started the process of making full sized models mostly carved by assistants, added finishing touches himself, a process used for next four centuries. Giorgione (1476-1510) was the first artist to explore luminous effect of oil painting on canvas as opposed to wood but it was Titian who really exploited the possibilities it presented for the first time using vigorous brush strokes on the rough texture of the canvas. Titian had a new attitude to painting displayed in new techniques of bold, heavily loaded brush strokes and smudges, finishing paintings with highlights and smudging to tone down contrasts.   Venetian Renaissance Architects solved the problem of adding a Classical temple into a church with Andrea Palladio’s design for S Georgio Maggiore. He also designed mathematical harmoniously proportioned private villas. Contrapposto was developed further by 16th century sculptors.  

4 Styles and movements

In the 16th Century the Italian Renaissance spread north and was gradually accepted in Northern Europe but co-existed with Gothic in early in the century (e.g. Tomb of Henry VII in Westminster Abbey). Gothic styles, Perpendicular, in England and Flamboyant style in France, persisted until mid to late 16th century.

In the Netherlands Jan van Eyck’s legacy lived on, although Hieronymous Bosch (Jeroen van Aken 1450-1516) had a unique style with disturbing and creative visions. Protestant art reflected Lutheran ideas, and in protestant countries there was demand for portraits of the reformers, provided by artists such as Holbein the Younger, Lucas Cranach the Elder and Dürer. Albrecht Altdorfer painted the earliest landscapes, devoid of figures of narrative content, they were a new kind of religious picture. In Italy, the High Renaissance came into being from turmoil with art of serene and elevated conception, of great but controlled energy and above all classical balance. p466. This style is characterised by the work of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael. In sculpture, the figure of David by Michelangelo was the first nude to be sculpted such a large scale since antiquity but not in an entirely Classical style. In Architecture, da Vinci experimented with designs for a free standing church which is centrally planned with a hemispherical dome crowning it, which was realised by his friend Bramante in the Tempietto, Rome. In this amazing period, the Mona Lisa (Leonardo), the Stanza della Segnatura (Raphael) and the Sistine chapel (Michelangelo) were all painted. In Venice, a contemporary of Raphael, Giorgione’s work emphasised the mystery and magic of the Renaissance style but lacked the rationality of it. Another rising Venetian star of the period was Titian. Later came the Mannerist style, associated with generation of artists after the fab three, it has been defined as the antithesis of naturalism, later art historians have interpreted this style as an intentional deviation from the previous generation. Notable artists associated with this style are Tintoretto, Correggio and Parmigianino.

5 Inside and outside influences

In the 16th Century, German painter Grünewald, Mathis Gothardt Neithardt (d 1528), painted a very violent, tortured crucifixion, the Isenheim Altarpiece, inspired by the mystical writings St Bridget of Sweden, but also perhaps inspired by the inhabitants of the monastery’s hospital for skin diseases. Humanism continues to influence artists across Europe, additionally Lutheranism. Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael influenced each other and everyone else. Michelangelo was influenced by Neoplatonism. Titian was influenced by literary texts such as Ovid for his works for Philip II. Two young Venetians, Tintoretto and Veronese were influenced by the colouring of Titian and the drawing of Michelangelo in the 1550s.

6 Critics, thinkers and historians

Notable humanist Desiderius Erasmus is said to have ‘laid the egg that Luther hatched’ WHA p.458. Leonardo da Vinci, had thousands of unpublished pages of illustrated notes on artistic theory, human anatomy, natural history and many other topics. He wrote “Great minds often produce more by working less, for with their intellect they search for conceptions and form those perfect ideas which afterwards they merely express with their hands”. P466 He was independent of classical and medieval thought, the first thinker to be so. Imitation of Christ possibly by Thomas a Kempis was a work of anti-worldly and anti-intellectual piety. Translated and printed in four languages is said to have had almost as much influence a the contemporary vernacular translations of bible. Architect and writer, Palladio, published his own book where he wrote about Bramante’s work in Rome and the initiation of new phase of Renaissance architecture. Luca Landucci’s journal on art was one of the most influential of its time.


re my previous reflection on the chapter for the 15th century, this is better but still I think I’ve written too much again.


Honour, H & Fleming, J. (2009) A World History of Art. (7th Ed), London, Laurence King Publishing


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