Within a thirty year span, beginning approximately in 1495, the city of Rome replaced Florence as the Italian seat of artistic pre-eminence. A series of powerful and ambitious popes, most notably Julius II and those associated with the rich and powerful De Medici family run by Cosimo De Medici and later on by Lorenzo De Medici, created a new papal state with Rome as its capitol and artistic center of Europe. These popes embellished Rome with great works of art and invited artists from all over Italy to take on some very challenging tasks. In its duration, the "High Renaissance" (ca. 1492 to 1520) produced works of such authority and magnitude that later generations of artists were forced to imitate it in order to compete with the growing competition within Italy and northern Europe. The various masters of this period had of course inherited the pictorial science of their predecessors, yet they made a distinct break from the past and occupied new and lofty ground that had never been explored before.
In his excellent work The Lives of the Artists, Giorgio Vasari points out that the artists of the High Renaissance, especially Raphael, Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonarroti, epitomized a return to naturalness and to the old artistic methods linked with ancient Rome; Vasari also maintains that these three artists, as compared to the earlier Italian masters, embellished their works with rule, order, proportion and exquisite delineation. Thus, Raphael, Da Vinci and Michelangelo expressed the ideals of the High Renaissance through their abilities to mirror the natural world in all its realities.
The artist most typical of the High Renaissance is undoubtedly Raphael Sanzio (1483-
1520). Although he was strongly influenced by Da Vinci and Michelangelo, Raphael developed his own individual style which, in some measure, was borrowed from the earlier Italian masters. But Raphael also learned much from his contemporaries which helped to create his powerful originality and to assimilate the best artistic ideals and render them into visions of perfection.
In 1508, Raphael was commissioned by Pope Julius II to paint the papal apartments in the Vatican, especially the Stanza della Segnatura, where he rendered upon one wall a composition that constitutes a complete statement of the High Renaissance in its artistic form and spiritual meaning, the so-called School of Athens (1509-1511). In this painting, the setting is not an actual "school" but is rather a concourse of the great philosophers and scientist of the ancient world who appear to be holding a convention where they teach each other and inspire new thoughts and principles. In a vast hall covered by massive vaults that recall Roman architecture and predict the new look of St. Peter's cathedral, the figures are ingeniously arranged around the central pair, being Plato and Aristotle which serves as the focal point for the perspective. On Plato's side, we see the ancient philosophers who seems to be pondering ancient mysteries; on Aristotle's side, the philosophers and scientist are concerned with nature and the social lives of men. These two great philosophers are rendered as very self-assured and with natural dignity which reflects the balance so greatly admired by Raphael's contemporaries and the learned men of Rome.
While Raphael was still in the studio of Perugino, Leonardo Da Vinci has painted his Marriage of the Virgin which probably served as the model for Raphael's rendering of The Marriage of the Virgin (1504). Although he was only twenty-one, Raphael was able to
recognize and remedy some of the weaknesses in Da Vinci's composition, for he relaxed the formality of the foreground figure and added much more depth which provided greater freedom of action. The result was a more fluid and better unified painting which in essence expressed the ideals of the High Renaissance and brought about the science of rendering figures as they exist in nature.
Of course, two other highly important artistic giants that were working along with Raphael were Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519) and Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564), both of whom perceived the world about them with new eyes and a mind wide open to the possibilities that moved within and without their individual orbits. Da Vinci, the epitome of the artist/genius as well as the first "Renaissance man," has become a kind of wonder of the modern world who stood at the beginning of this epoch as a prophet and sage of his times. The art of Da Vinci is almost superhuman, while his mind and personality remain mysterious and remote. Thus, as Vasari relates, Leonardo possessed the most profound knowledge on art which allowed him to give his figures true life and movement.
Like Da Vinci, Michelangelo also epitomized the ideals of the High Renaissance, for his work also has the authority of unquestionable greatness. His belief that nothing worth preserving could be done without genius was supported by the fact that nothing could be done without long and hard study of the natural world. Although he was an architect, sculptor, painter, poet and engineer, Michelangelo always regarded himself first as a sculptor. In true Platonic fashion, Michelangelo, through the force of his unearthly intelligence, believed that the image produced by the hand of the artist must come from the idea within one's mind, being
based on reality. However, the artist is not the creator of this idea, for it truly only exists in the natural world that is filled with absolute beauty.
One of Da Vinci's greatest artistic accomplishments lies in the refectory of the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, Italy, namely The Last Supper which is considered by many as his most impressive work. This painting is the first great figure composition of the High Renaissance and is definitely the greatest interpretation of its themes. Christ and the twelve apostles are seated in a simple, spacious room at a long table set parallel to the plane of the picture. The highly dramatic action of the painting is made still more emphatic by the placement of the group in an austere, quiet setting.
This ability to render the dramatic with nature can also be found in Da Vinci's masterpiece of the Mona Lisa (1503-1505). She is shown in half-length view, her hands quietly folded with her gaze directed at the observer. The ambiguity of the famous "smile" is actually the consequence of Leonardo's fascination and skill with atmospheric chiaroscuro, meaning that he disguises rather than reveals human psyche. During the 19th century, much was made of this enigmatic "smile" which unfortunately subtracted interest from Leonardo's scientific concern for the nature of light and shadow, two important aspects of all High Renaissance images. The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa clearly weave the dramatic with nature itself which makes these two paintings dual representatives of the High Renaissance style.
In the case of Michelangelo, with his insight into the nature of stone and his confidence in the mind's idea, he added to his already great reputation by carving his David (1501-1504).
This colossal figure takes up once gain the themes laid down by earlier Renaissance artists yet it also reflects Michelangelo's highly original interpretation. The anatomy plays an important role in what the eye perceives as pure human action, for David characterizes absolute energy which gives the tension of the coiled spring to Michelangelo's figures. Undoubtedly, Michelangelo had the classical nude in mind when he sculpted this monumental work. Thus, his genius, as compared to that of Raphael, is dedicated to the representation of towering, pent-up passion rather than calm, ideal beauty. Clearly, David stands as not only as a symbol of Biblical heroic values but also of the "Renaissance Man" who defies tradition and extols his own virtues…