The High Renaissance

The High Renaissance is seen as the artistic pinnacle of the era and is a term given to a particular period within the Renaissance. This thirty-year period was exemplified by the groundbreaking and iconic works of art being made in Italy. This time general was considered a thriving societal prime. There was a deep rejuvenation of classical art that was married to an intense exploration into the humanities. This spurred artists on to wield their exceptional skills, exploring the concepts of science, anatomy, and architecture through their work. Even today, these works remain some of the most awe-inspiring artworks of history.

This was the dominant style in Italy during the 16th century and also saw the birth of Mannerism, which we explore in further essays. The High Renaissance period is traditionally taken as starting in the 1490s, with Leonardo da Vinci’s fresco of The Last Supper. It ended in roughly in 1527 with the Sack of Rome by the troops of Charles V. The term, “High Renaissance” was first used in the 19th century, some 300 years later. However, it is important to note that in recent history, many academic art historians criticize the term for oversimplifying the artistic developments that took place and ignoring historical context. There is also a notable focus on only a few iconic works and the era was truly blooming with culture and art.

High Renaissance is seen as being “high” because it was considered the period in which the artistic aims and goals of the Renaissance truly reached their pinnacle. The era is seen to have been dominated by three individuals: Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci. Michelangelo was an exquisite sculptor, painter, and architect and he demonstrated a true mastery of the human figure. His frescoes rank among the greatest works of Renaissance art. Raphael was skilled in creative incredible perspective and hailed for his delicate use of colour. Da Vinci painted two of the most well-known works of Renaissance art: The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa. Despite this, it is important to note that he was actually a generation older than Michelangelo and Raphael, though his work is still stylistically consistent with the High Renaissance. Because of this, he is therefore often seen as the father of the movement.

In terms of the artworks themselves, they followed a certain set of principles and ideologies. Stylistically, painters during this period were influenced by classical art and their works were harmonious. However, this can be said for Early Renaissance too. What separates the two eras was the unity of the image, for one. And two, it was during the High Renaissance that artists first began to use oil paints. Traditionally, tempera paint or was the only available painting medium and artists were therefore fairly limited. Tempera dries superbly fast but with oils, the artist could achieve a quality to the work that had simply not existed before. There was a restrained beauty to a High Renaissance painting. Coming back to the unity of the image, we see in these works a process where all the distinct parts and details of the works come together to support a cohesive whole.

One of the other furthering factors in the endeavors of the High Renaissance was that the number and diversity of patrons had increased tenfold and this allowed for greater development in art. For example, Da Vinci is credited for inventing the Sfumato technique, which allows tones and colours to shade gradually into one another, producing softened outlines or hazy forms. This can be seen especially in the Mona Lisa and is likely one of the reasons she is so revered. This technique originated in part due to the introduction of oil paint as a viable medium but also because artists like Da Vinci were given the space and freedom to explore and push boundaries.

It is easy to see how the High Renaissance is viewed as the pinnacle of artistic success but it truly was just the beginning. Finally, there was truly room for art to grow and not just follow the norms of the day. It is the beginning of a series of flowering into further art movements that would only serve to enhance man’s ability to communicate through art. And was this not the purpose of Renaissance art? To explore the possibilities of humanity?