The High Renaissance consisted of a continuation of the Classical ideologies which were ‘re-discovered’ in the quattrocento, during the Early Renaissance. Evidence of the Classical past not only influenced the beliefs people held at the time and challenged their lifestyles, but this rediscovery of Ancient history, philosophy and mythology also impacted greatly on literature and the visual arts. Italian humanists revived the Ancient Greek teachings of Platonism. The philosophies of the new ‘Neo-Platonism’ taught that beauty was a sign of virtue and nobility. It is no doubt then that the “divine” Michelangelo used an idealised depiction of figures and atmosphere in his vivid and poignant sculptures and paintings to reflect this sense of perfection. Michelangelo (1475-1564) was born into an impoverished family at Caprese, near Arezzo in Italy. His mother suffered from ill-health and the young Michelangelo was sent to a wet nurse who cared for him until he was ten. Even as a young boy Michelangelo was sure that he wanted to be an artist when he grew up. At the age of thirteen, he was apprenticed to the successful painter Ghirlandaio’s, workshop, where he learnt the art and skill of fresco painting. It was here that he would study the famous paintings of great artists such as Masaccio, Giotto and Donatello. His studious dedication impressed Lorenzo (of the Medici family) so much that he offered the promising Michelangelo a place in his household. Here, Michelangelo was exposed to the family’s large collection of Ancient and current sculpture, and was inevitably taken with the soft sensuousness of these monumental works of art.
As opposed to the previous Early Renaissance, which predominantly took place in Florence, the High Renaissance centered around the capital city, Rome. This was significant in that scattered throughout this ancient city lay many old Classical ruins, such as the Pantheon, the Colosseum, a number of arches and columns, and many sculptures. Lorenzo de Medici established his own “sculptural garden”, where the young and impressionable Michelangelo studied and learnt from these works. As well as the sculptures acquired by Lorenzo, Julius II also had a fine collection of ancient masterpieces. Three of these works, all of which had a significant influence on Michelangelo, were kept in a special court in the Belvedere, next to the Vatican palace. For example, the soft serenity that the nude Apollo Belvedere (unearthed in 1496) possesses is reflected in Michelangelo’s tranquil and calm David (1501-1504). Another sculpture seen in Julius’ court is the Belvedere Torso, a remarkable work described by Michelangelo as ‘the work of a man who knew more than nature’. The energy and monumentality this colossal sculpture conveys is captured in Michalengelo’s muscular and majestic Ignudi’ on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Immersed in and surrounded by so many grand fragments of the past, it was inevitable that these collected Antique sculptures had a huge influence on the budding Michelangelo and his work.
In a society steeped deep in religious tradition, during the High Renaissance there was a certain stigma related to artists who presented the female and male nude in their art. However, in previous Classical times, the male nude in particular was often ideally portrayed in sculptures, murals, and other art mediums. A lot of Michelangelo’s work focuses on the detail of the male human body and this aspect can be seen as being taken directly from the Ancient world. The revival of Classical stories and myth show that Antique subject matter was of great interest to the people living in the cinquecento. For example, in his Bacchus, Michelangelo uses “the nude to express every human action and emotion.”
Bacchus (1496-1497) stands at an impressive 6’7’’ and is Micheangelo’s first life-sized statue. Bacchus, or Dionysus as he was known to the Greeks, is a pagan god of wine, celebration, and fertility. As an embodiment of drunken joyous occasions, it is no wonder Michelangelo has depicted the intoxicated god wearing a wreath of vine leaves around his head and carrying a bunch of grapes and a panther skin – all symbolic of the intoxication and pleasure this god brings upon people. Instead of depicting Bacchus with an idealised classical anatomy, Michelangelo has instead shown him with loose muscles and an untoned stomach, a result of too much drinking. He stands in a lazy contrapposto form, leaning back and holding his right hand up which delicately clutches a cup of wine, as if in a toast. Mysteriously placed behind the gods left-side is the satyr – a classically inspired half-man half-goat. The satyr seductively twists around a tree stump, as if tempted by Bacchus’ aura, furthering the feeling of sensuality in this sculpture. Another allusion Michelangelo makes to the Classical period is the type of wine cup the figure holds. Decorated with flowers, it is based on antique models, and thus subtly emphasises the significance of the influence of the past in modern day art.
Another example showing the influence of ancient subject matter is in his sculpture, Battle of the Lapiths and the Centaurs (1492). The re-discovery of Ancient literature, mythology and philosophy brought on a new movement, ‘Humanism’. Michelangleo was largely influenced by this development and uses a Classical Greek myth as a basis in this work. According to the myth, the Centaurs were happily drinking their milk at a wedding amongst the Lapiths until, overwhelmed by the aroma of the alcohol, they began drinking the wine greedily. Unused to the wine, the Centaurs kicked up a drunken fuss and a riot broke out amongst them and the Lapiths. Michelangelo captures the notion of chaos in this work, set in the Classically inspired high-relief form and perspective; the use of many different levels and layers add depth and substance to the sculpture. He successfully reflects the disorder at the wedding with an array of nude figures, tangled up and intertwined with each other. This is effective as Michelangelo has recreated a scene from the past, capturing within it every sense of anarchy, savagery and mayhem. Classical art was based on rules regarding proportion and anatomy. There was a set belief that beauty equalled virtue and nobility and because of this, new ideals on perfection and beauty brought about an idealisation of reality. Figures stood their ground strongly and were often nude or else clothed in a timeless drapery. Mature models were preferred – men were muscular and powerful whilst women were depicted as well rounded and broad hipped. Idealisation in the human anatomy implied both physical and mental potential, making the figure out to be seen as heroic. This trend in art of going beyond reality, was rediscovered and reused in the Christian world of the High Renaissance. These ideas, including those of Neo-Platonism, are especially seen in Michelangelo’s work, the Pieta.
Carved when he was just 23, the Pieta was the first of his works to earn him fame, and the only one he ever signed, (‘Michelangelus Buonarotus Florentinus faciebat’ is carved onto the Virgin’s ribbon.) Commissioned by the French Cardinal, Jean de Villiers de la Groslaye, the work was carved from a single block of highly polished Carrara marble between the years 1498-1500. In comparison to Northern art which is more emotional and expressive, Michelangelo’s Pieta is a calm image – a reflection of Jesus’ death as a sacrifice. His wounds are played down so there is no terror or shock and the Virgin’s face is tranquil and accepting of God’s will. As she holds out her left hand, she is not only sharing the world with her son, but also offering her viewers a sense of acceptance. This is an example of the Classically inspired idealisation. Her expression is soft and longing, reflecting the deep love and mourning she inevitably feels for her son. Upon looking at the work, instead of being cast into a grief-stricken state, the spectators are instead able to marvel at Mary’s calm contemplation and rational thought. Her composure heightens her sense of purity and dignity and as a result of Michelangelo’s particularity, the viewers are persuaded to see the rationale behind Christ’s death. The figures of Mother and Child, of which lay in contrapposto form (which gives a sense of life to the characters), show a single moment in time of a complex narrative. This frozen frame offers the opportunity to the viewers to reflect and rationalise the events in Christ’s life; to obtain new feelings towards his horrendous death.
Michelangelo’s David is thought to be by far one of the most influential of all the artist’s early work, and has been thought of as one of the “great depictions of ideal beauty”. Standing at an epic 17 feet, David is shown before his fight with Goliath; Michelangelo has chosen a calm moment before the battle, emphasising his aura of holiness and tranquility. Peering into the distance, possibly at Goliath, David’s expression is contemplative and meditative. Completed in 1504, Michelangelo has paid extreme attention to the details of sinews and vein structure (it is documented that he gained knowledge of the human body from clandestine visits to the morgue), and even the direction of the eyebrows and pupil size. Together these aspects create a colossal male nude who dominates the attention of all those who stand before him. In a firm contrapposto stance, the youthful male effectively portrays a sense of powerful, energetic confidence which convey his heroic qualities. This statue demonstrates what it means to go ‘beyond nature’ to obtain a notion of idealism. As mentioned above, this was a common element in art of the Classical period, and heavily influenced Michelangelo. For example, the figure’s ideal anatomy reflects the intellectual and spiritual perfection of his divinity. His facial expression indicates he is aware of the direction of his enemy as his frown lines seem to follow something or someone in the distance.
Shocked by Michelangelo’s finished masterpiece, the Florentines were reluctant to have David placed so high up on the buttress of the Duomo in Florence (as previously planned). Instead, the newly completed statue was moved to the entrance of the Palazzo Vecchio, as a symbol of the ‘Valiant Republic’. Representing the victory of ‘right over might – the victory of intelligent action over brute force’, it is no wonder that scholars have gone on to suggest that Michelangelo’s David is indeed one of man’s greatest achievements. Michelangelo strived for perfection and beauty in his works to reflect the nobility and high status of the figures he carved. Basing many of his sculptures on the concepts and ideologies of the Classical period, it is seen that direct Antique sources and subject matter, along with the Ancient rules of Idealisation, all influenced Michelangelo in producing epic and significant masterpieces.