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The High Renaissance in Italy - Art History 101 Basics

Late15th- and Early 16th-century Italian Art

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Image © Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden; Used with permission

Raphael (Raffaelo Sanzio or Santi) (Italian, 1483-1520) Sistine Madonna, 1513-14 Oil on canvas 265 x 196 cm

© Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden

After hearing so much about Florence, in the article entitled "The Early Renaissance," it would be natural to assume that the next - and most glorious - phase in Art History would occur in the same location. Well, no, this didn't happen.

Wonderful Florence met the end of its Renaissance heyday in the 1490s for several reasons. First, Lorenzo de Medici - arguably the greatest of the Medici - died in 1492. This brought a close to what is often referred to as the "Laurentian Age" in Florence.

Of equal importance, a rabidly religious monk named Savonarola was busy in Florence decrying the decadence of its art which, in his opinion, had caused moral decay and would, quite possibly, bring the Apocalypse upon the Florentines. As is always the sad case in instances such as these, many were willing to listen to Savonarola. The powerful Medici were expelled, fleeing to Rome. Savonarola inspired, for a time, great religious fervor in the townspeople, to the point of organizing the first "bonfire of the vanities", wherein "sacrilegious" items were burned in public. Loyalty being fickle, Savonarola himself suffered a similar fate in 1498. The damage to Florence's profile in the arts, however, had already been irreparably done.

Finally, the Florentine scene had made it incredibly chic for Those in Power (elsewhere) to acquire their own, personal artistic geniuses. Have you ever heard the phrase "keeping up with the Jones-es"? On a grand scale, at this time, many were keen to "keep up with" the Medici. The ranks of the Florentine artists were plundered, lured to other locations by promises of wealth and fame.

The good news is that, even though Florence was left with not much talent, it had already trained the talent that went elsewhere. In one of those ironic twists of fate, nearly all of the "greats" (excepting the Venetians, which is another topic entirely) of the High Renaissance were either trained in or influenced by the Florentine School.

Bidding Florence both huge thanks and a fond farewell, then, let's get right down to defining the who-s, what-s and when-s of the "High" Renaissance.

Why is it called the "High" Renaissance?

    Simply put, this period represented a culmination. The tentative artistic explorations of the Proto-Renaissance, which caught hold and flowered during the Early Renaissance, burst into full bloom during the High Renaissance. Artists no longer pondered the art of antiquity. They now had the tools, technology, training and confidence to go their own way, secure in the knowledge that what they were doing was as good - or better - than anything that had been done before.

    Additionally, the High Renaissance represented a convergence of talent - an almost obscene wealth of talent - concentrated in the same area during the same small window of time. Astounding, truly, considering what the odds against this have to have been.

How long did the High Renaissance last?

    Not long at all, in the grand scheme of things. Leonardo began producing his important works in the 1480's, so most art historians agree that the 1480's were the start of the High Renaissance. Raphael died in 1520. One could argue that either Raphael's death or the Sack of Rome, in 1527, marked the end of the High Renaissance. No matter how it's figured, though, the High Renaissance was of no more than forty years' duration.

Where did the High Renaissance occur?

    A little bit in Milan (per early Leonardo), a little bit in Florence (per early Michelangelo), smaller bits scattered here and there throughout northern and central Italy and a whole lot in Rome. Rome, you see, was the place to which one fled when a Duchy was under attack, a Republic was being reorganized or one simply grew tired of wandering.

    Another attractive feature Rome offered artists, at this time, was a series of ambitious Popes. Each of these Popes, in turn, outspent the previous Pope on elaborate works of art. In fact, if this string of Holy Fathers agreed on any one secular policy, it was that Rome needed better art. By the end of the 15th-century, Popes were coming from the sorts of wealthy, powerful families that were accustomed to underwriting public art and employing their own private artists. Now, a Pope had (still has, in fact) a great deal of clout. If one was an artist, and the Pope "requested" one's presence in Rome, one certainly packed off to Rome. (Not to mention the fact that these Holy "requests" were often delivered by armed emissaries.)

    In any case, we've already seen it demonstrated that artists tend to go where arts funding is found. Between Papal requests and the money being in Rome, the Big Three Names of the High Renaissance each found themselves in Rome being creative, at certain points.

The "Big Three Names"

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