When I was at High School in Portugal in the 1980s, it was clear to us as we were growing up, that we needed to learn technical and specialist skills to be able to get what they considered at the time to be a “good job”. The focus of our further education, we were told, should be on the highly technical and specialised. Time spent studying art or literature was seen as “pointless”, without any practical application when it came to looking for gainful employment. On top of that, art appreciation was seen as effeminate and to be avoided by so-called “real” men. I was fortunate enough to question this school of thought.
Yet art offers poignant insights about what it means to be human and what it means to be a man. Art can capture the emotions of the human experience when words fail us. I was in awe as a child when I saw da Vinci’s inventions for a flying machine about 400 years before the first practical machine was built. This lead to experiencing his other inventions like the parachute (about 200 years ahead of his time), which lead to his anatomical drawings such as Vitruvian Man – showcasing the proportions of the human body, and then his works of art, his famous Mona Lisa and the Last Supper, while his drawings, all of which have become instantly recognisable. It was this broad range of skills, encapsulated in what was defined as a Renaissance Man, that started my interest in his art and those of his peers and became my inspiration.
The Renaissance, or “re-birth” came after a dark period in European history. It began in Italy with the rediscovery of the writings, philosophy, art, and architecture of the ancient Greeks and Romans, an age of antiquity seen as a golden age that could bring life back to society. It is as relevant today as it has ever been, which is why I love to blog about it. There are artist both famous and not so well known that have something to teach us about the human condition, challenge our preconceptions and push us on in learning more about living life well.
Here are some of the key works of art that inspired me to find out more about the history of art for this era. The inspiration comes from their brave search for new techniques despite potential conflict with the establishment. Also, the search back into antiquity to resurrect the beauty that had become dormant. These are brave men, innovative, questioning and not afraid to show beauty, realism and emotion in human form.
Madonna del Cardellino was painted by Raphael in 1506. The Madonna, Mary, has become much more realistically human with an expressive face. She looks natural and is placed in a natural setting. Jesus and John the Baptist look like real babies, not miniature adults as seen in Medieval art. Raphael used perspective to add depth to the painting depth, and the use of geometry from the ancient Greeks has Mary, Christ and John the Baptist, forming a pyramid.
Tribute Money, painted by Masaccio in 1425 shows the one-point perspective, a technique pioneered by Masaccio. What this means is that the painting is an image of what one person looking at the scene might see. This means that the mountains are paler and less clear than the objects in the foreground. The incorporation of light from a specific source to give a 3D effect to figures was ground-breaking at the time, even if it is basic today.
The Last Supper painted by Leonardo da Vinci in 1498, depicts a vibrant and emotive scene. All the apostles have different reactions to Christ, revealing that one will betray him. All the lines that create the perspective all end at the head of Jesus, at the so-called vanishing point for all the perspective lines.
The Creation of Adam painted by Michelangelo in 1511 is probably the most famous section of the Sistine Chapel. It shows the personal nature of faith, the divine potential of man, and the idea of man being co-creator with God. What is also fascinating to me is the anatomy; God is resting on the outline of the human brain, all made possible due to Michelangelo’s dissections of the human body, a study he shared with da Vinci.
David, a sculpture by Michelangelo, was completed in 1504. For the first time since antiquity, free-standing nude statutes were being created in a celebration of the ideal human form. When looked at closely, the upper body and hands are not exactly in proportion, which has led art historians to suggest the statue was carved to be put on a pedestal and viewed by looking upwards, where it would look in perfect proportion. I find this use calculation of proportion fascinating.
School of Athens painted by Raphael in 1510. This painting harks back to the days of antiquity. It depicts all the great philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome, with the perspective lines drawing the viewer to the centre of the painting and the vanishing point where Plato and Aristotle stand. In line with their philosophies, Plato’s philosophy is around form, so he is pointing to the heavens, while Aristotle points to the earth and the realm of things.
Yet none of these artists worked in isolation. In Florence, Masaccio (1401-28) brought about the greatest revolution that painting had ever known, which gave a new impulse to Early Renaissance painting in his frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel of Santa Maria del Carmine. His Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (1425-6) has figures in three dimensions, with gestures and expressions that both separated them and confirmed their interrelation, just like da Vinci’s The Last Supper.