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16th-Century Italian Painting & Sculpture: Characteristics, Techniques & Works

16th-Century Italian Painting & Sculpture: Characteristics, Techniques & Works
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore the artistic styles of Italy during the 16th century and discover what characterizes each style. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Italian Art in the 16th Century

Say we have a time machine. Where would you go? What would you see? I vote that we head to Italy during the 16th century. Why? Because I love art, and Italian art in the 1500s was pretty terrific. Okay, yes, we could just go to a museum to see Italian art, but we've already got the time machine here, so what the hey? Let's use it!

On our trip, we are going to be checking out art from a few different movements. Italy in the early 1500s is in the High Renaissance, the last years of the Italian Renaissance, an era of war, religious fervor, and an amazing amount of art. We are also going to see art from the Mannerist movement, as artists moved away from the geometric perfection of Renaissance styles and embraced more playful styles.

Ok, do we have everything we need? Renaissance-era clothing, sunscreen, Italian phrasebook? Alright then, andiamo! Let's go!

High Renaissance Art

Well, here we are at the very beginning of the 16th century. The year is 1504, and we are somewhere… dusty. Actually, this is a studio in Florence where marble statues are carved. Sculpture is a major art form in the Italian Renaissance, and the masters have learned to depict human figures in a way that is both highly realistic and very idealized.

Graphic of a man with a block of stone

See that man over there? That's the famous Italian artist Michelangelo, and he's working on his masterpiece, a sculpture of David. This statue perfectly represents Renaissance ideals. These artists greatly valued the Classical traditions of ancient Rome and Greece and so, David is depicted as a male nude, like a Roman hero or god would have been. Michelangelo carved this figure with idealized ratios between parts of the body, determined by geometric formulas. David is clearly posed but in a life-like way, leaning on one foot and looking off into the distance.

Like most Renaissance sculpture, there are multiple levels of meaning in this statue. The actual moment depicted is just before David fights the giant Goliath. However, it also represents the struggle of the city of Florence against more powerful and aggressive states.

We don't want to disturb Signore Michelangelo, so let's hop back in the time machine. And off we go to Rome. It's a few years later, around 1510, and many of the most prominent Renaissance artists are here, painting the newly rebuilt Vatican, the center of the Catholic world. Pope Julius II has commissioned half of Italy to work on this.

The interior of the Sistine Chapel
The interior of the Sistine Chapel

Let's pop into this building real quick and take a peek. This is the Sistine Chapel and, oh look, it's Michelangelo again! Ciao Michelangelo! He is working on a massive fresco, or painting completed directly on plaster of a wall or ceiling. Notice the use of illusions to make the figures look as if they are 3-dimensional. Religious art was very popular in the Renaissance, and this fresco contains scenes from the creation all the way to the last judgment.

Illusions make the fresco look 3D
Sistine Chapel fresco image

We'll leave Michelangelo and head into the Papal apartments, or Stanze della Segnatura, where we find the great artist Raphael. Right now, he is painting an image called The School of Athens. This painting shows the greatest philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome together inside a building that looks a lot like the Vatican's newly planned basilica. The Renaissance was all about respecting Classical traditions, and this painting shows how the Classical philosophers created the foundations of European intellectual culture.

The School of Athens, by Raphael
The School of Athens by Raphael

Mannerist Art

There are many more examples of High Renaissance art we could look at. Leonardo da Vinci is painting The Mona Lisa, and Raphael is reaching the end of his career. But, for time's sake, we need to get moving. So off we go to Florence.

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