A Glimpse at the History of Art

The cultivation of great ideas and wondrous art came understandably during a time of immense wealth, particularly of the Medici family, the most wealthy and important of all of Europe, as was necessary for the construction of great cathedrals that would house elaborate, religious relief panels on pulpits and baptisteries. The Renaissance period started in Florence, Italy and the citizens would regularly donate their money commissioning artists to create specific pieces which included huge statues (Urton). As realism and humanism began to take form in the art of years following, more secular pieces began to enter into the artist’s free creativity. It came in the form of nudes and often inspired by the mythology of the Greeks and Romans.  The carvings of relief panels and later, full size, free-standing statues, are spectacular on so many levels. Many artists that contributed to these great works of art include: Nicola Pisano and his son Giovanni in Italy in the thirteenth century, Claus Sluter and Tilman Riemenschneider of Northern Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Andrea del Verrocchio and Antonio del Pollaiuolo in Italy in the fifteenth century, and Benvenuto Cellini and Giovanni da Bologna in Italy in the sixteenth century. The materials used by these artists varied from marble, to wood, to bronze, and are all very interesting in how they are transformed.

Nicola Pisano was able to combine styles from Roman reliefs and French gothic sculptures to create a classical style that would catch on throughout Italy (Nicola). This Roman art influence on French sculptures of the previous Gothic style and the continued interest in classical antiquity, together brought the classical revival beginning in Italy, would prevail into a ubiquitous style (Kleiner, pg 376-377). Nicola was known for his carving marble reliefs and pulpit ornamentation and is often compared to his son, Giovanni’s, recreations. Two such comparisons are Nicola’s Annunciation, Nativity, and Adoration of the Shepherds a relief panel on the baptistery pulpit in Pisa, Italy, 1259-1260, versus Giovanni’s version on the pulpit of Sant’Andrea is Pistoia, Italy, 1297-1301, and also their renderings of the Crucifixion (Kleiner, pg 367-377). Nicola’s Crucifixion, marble relief panel, is on the pulpit of the baptistery of the Duomo in Siena and Giovanni’s relief panel is on a Cathedral pulpit, in Pisa. These two Italian sculptors, father and son, used styles in their marble pulpit reliefs that were essential elements in the formation of fourteenth century, Italian art.

Giovanni Pisano, Crucifixion, 1302-1310
Photo courtesy of friendsofart.net

Nicola Pisano, Crucifixion, 1265-1268
Photo courtesy of viaesiena.it

Nicola’s Annunciation, was strongly influenced by roman scarhaphagi as is evident in the faces, beards, and drapery of this rendition. Nicola’s figures are also thicker, fuller, and more compacted in their space (Kleiner, pg 376-377). In Giovanni’s version, he creates the figures with more depth and movement. The body language of the figures and busy appearance bring this more French Gothic style to life. The leaning, twisting, and bent postures of the figures suggest action in the movement of the scene. Giovanni’s figures also have more individualized faces showing more pronounced emotion. These same differences can be seen in their Crucifixion panels. Nicola’s figures are more thick and bulky, as is seen in classical relief sculpture. Giovanni’s figures are deeper into the panel, giving it a more realistic look. The figures on either side of Christ are smaller, indicating Christ’s forefront position and also his importance. Pictures of these two separate renditions of the Crucifixion are below and you can see in Giovanni’s relief panel the mass of people compared to Nicola’s, and the busy action in the scene is once again obvious.

Claus Sluter, Virgin and Child, 1425
Photo courtesy of art.thewalters.org

Another artist following the French gothic style, but creating much more realist figures than even Giovanni, is Claus Sluter, the foremost sculptor of his time. Sluter is considered a pioneer of northern realism due to the individualized character and emotion of his creations and a leader in naturalism and expressionism. He is known for moving away from the gothic style and more into the up and coming Renaissance style (Claus). Sluter’s most famous work is the Well of Moses, which stands six feet tall, and was the base for a Crucifixion group, and is made with limestone (Kleiner, pg 398-399). It was originally located in Chartreuse de Champmol, but can now be found in the Museum of Fine Arts in Dijon, France.  Sluter ‘s Well of Moses, 1395-1406, was built and carved almost entirely in the round instead of in the more conventional relief carving. This brought the figures out to a more full and realistic size. Each figure has their own specific clothing, draped accordingly, with individual faces and expressions. Even the Angels, that are located at each of the corners, are all very different and unique in dress and expression. Another statue carved by Sluter is the Virgin and Child, 1425, as seen here, this one completely in the round.

“Nearly life-size, this masterpiece of Burundian carving comes from a chapel in the cathedral of Besancon, France. The Virgin and Child, with their thick drapery, weighty bodies, and lack of ornament, reflect the 15th-century movement away from the Gothic ideal of elegant, slender forms towards greater realism and ordinary proportions” (20080106). The expression on the Virgin’s face is very sad and she seems burdened, as one might expect from the mother of the Christ child. The Child has a playful expression on His face, though the ball is not insinuating play, but rather is a symbol of the world and the Child’s sovereign authority (20080106).

An artist whom I am most fascinated with is Tilman Riemenschneider. He was a master carver of wood, but was one to resist the new Renaissance style and stuck more with Gothic style and his medieval roots.  “Riemenschneider was renowned for his attention to surface detail and texture, being more concerned with surface realism than Renaissance priorities of volumetric modeling and anatomic accuracy” (Tilman). This is more than evident in The Assumption of the Virgin, center panel of the Creglingen Altarpiece, Herrgottskirche, Creglingen, Germany, 1495-1499 (Kleiner, pg 413). The intricacy of the canopy aside, he creates great detail in the clothing so that it seems to flow in a natural form, and the expressions of taut tension on the individual’s faces is proof of his ability to create unmistakable emotional feeling in his work.

This picture is of Riemenschneider’s The Last Supper is another fantastic example of his very distinctive carving talent. In this brilliant piece, there are specific textural details in the hair of the figures, their robes, and even their feet below the benches. What make this piece so incredible are the glass windows that are in the background behind the columns. As the light shines through them, the shadowing and brightening on different spots of the large carving give it a breathtaking realistic look.

Tilman Riemenschneider , The Last Supper, 1495-1499
Photo courtesy of artexpertswebsite.com

Andrea Verrocchio, David, 1473-1475
Photo courtesy of art-prints-on-demand.com

The fifteenth century Italian Renaissance brought us many different kinds of artists, and as the styles grew and changed, the more the art resembled and simulated real life. One of the greatest artists from the second half of the century, Andrea Verrocchio, was originally a competent metal worker, but his extremely gifted skills as a painter and sculptor was not lost on the Medici family and his work emulated the family’s ties to Florence.  Many works were commissioned through Verrocchio’s workshop run by his assistants and students, one of which was Leonardo da Vinci (Finnan). In Verrocchio’s David, the elements of realism are very clear. Davidwas created with an open form and his relaxed, yet staunch and prideful posture is so prevalent in this four-foot tall, bronze statue.  Also the textures in the tussled hair and the lines showing age in the face, on the head of Goliath at David’s feet, show the humanism taking shape in the talents of this artist and the artists his students later became.

Antonio del Pollaiuolo was another expert sculptor who was a workshop owner and was loved by the Medici family, particularly Lorenzo Medici. As one of the best known artists in Florence, Pollaiuolo was a master sculptor and is most remembered for his Greek mythological, bronze statues. One statue commissioned by Medici was Hercules and Antaeus, 1470-1475, Museo Nazionale de Bargello, Florence. Incredibly, this statue is only one and a half feet tall with its base, but in the classical culture of this small bronze sculpture, there is palpable expression of strong emotions magnified by the strength shown in the muscles of the two nude figures. Again, body language in the throes of struggle and the strained emotions of self-defense create a movement in this humanistic piece (Kleiner, pg 428).

Antonio del Pollaiuolo, Hercules, 1475
Photo courtesy of backtoclassics.com

Antonio del Pollaiuolo also casted another bronze figure, Hercules, also in the 1470s, and currently a part of the Frick Collection in New York. This statue is a little rougher in its appearance and is likely to have had a bit of a different metal composition, as it has a more gray than bronze finish. Here, the same muscular detail of the nude Greco-Roman style statue shows the humanistic art form. Hercules appears to be standing triumphant as indicated by the head he holds over his shoulder and his foot planted on the animal head below. The corners of the base also seem to have ram heads adorning the corners.

Benvenuto Cellini was a mannerist sculptor of the sixteenth century and traveled all over Italy. It was in France that he sculpted the Saltcellar of Francis I, made for the table of and named for Francis I of France, 1540-1543, Kunsthisorisches Museum, Vienna. This unique sculpture is made from gold and adorned with enamel with an ebony base. A lot is represented in this mannerist piece including the extended length of the piece and the winds and indications of the different times of day that adorn it. The figures, known as Neptune and Tellus, a matronly goddess in Greek mythology, represent the sea, which is the source of salt, and land (Kleiner, pg 496-497).

Benvenuto Cellini, Perseus with the Head of Medusa, Loggia dei Lanzi, Florence, 1545-1554
Photo courtesy of terminartors.com

Later he moved to Florence, where he stayed for the remainder of his life. His greatest work of art, a bronze masterpiece and dubbed the greatest example of Florentine Mannerist sculpture, Perseus with the Head of Medusa, Loggia dei Lanzi, Florence, 1545-1554 . This large-scale statue in the round, and undoubtedly a most difficult piece to cast, took over ten years to complete. When it was finally unveiled, it was well received and met with enthusiastic approval (Benvenuto). Continuing with the secular, nude form, and humanistic, anatomical features, Perseus stands victorious over the body of Medusa, while holding her severed head up high. His calm stance and expressionless face may be interpreted as relief of the young god.

Mannerist art form was the up and coming style of Italian art, between the High Renaissance and the Baroque period, going into the sixteenth and seventeenth century. It was basically a more exaggerated, humanistic technique. In mannerist art, emotions, actions, movement, and the effects of light and perspective are much more personified (Mannerism). Giovanni da Bologna, or Giambologna, was another, and one of the greatest, mannerist sculptors in the history of art. His works were inspired by Michelangelo, which influenced him to always make “sketch-models” of wax or clay in preparation of his monumental statues. Giambologna’s greatest admirer was Francesco De’ Medici, who became his primary supporter and financial backer (Giambologna).

Giambologna’s greatest masterpiece, a statue of three figures in a vertical, spiral formation, is the Abduction of the Sabine Woman, also called Rape of the Sabines, 1579-1583, Loggia dei Lanzi, Piazza, Florence, Italy, and is an impressive 13’ 15 ½”. This was the first full-scale piece since classical antiquity, and Giambologna’s intention originally was to create a statue of three figures intertwined with a mythological influence. It wasn’t until after the unveiling that it got its name. (Kleiner, pg 497) The story that comes from early Roman history is that “when the Sabines didn’t allow their women to marry Romans, they were abducted and persuaded to accept their fate.” (Finnan) So, what this piece is now known to signify is the Romans and Sabines fighting over the Sabine women. (Giambologna) It is interesting the symbolism of the individual figures representing each of these three groups of people. The vertical and spiral arrangement of the figures insists on being seen from all around, and giving it a different effect from each viewpoint. (Kleiner, pg 497) This particular quality is what makes this piece so unwaveringly unique.

Giambologna, Hercules Beating the Centaur Nessus, 1599, Loggia dei Lanzi, Piazza della Signoria, Florence, Italy

Giambologna, Hercules Beating the Centaur Nessus, 1599, Loggia dei Lanzi, Piazza della Signoria, Florence, Italy

Hercules Beating the Centaur Nessus, 1599, Loggia dei Lanzi, Piazza della Signoria, Florence, Italy, is another of Giambologna’s great, large-scale, marble statues. This too, must be viewed all around to see the scene in its entirety. The mannerist style can be seen throughout this piece, and was also influenced by Greek mythology. In the pictures below, you can see that from one viewpoint, so much can be missed, therefore, once again commanding the viewer to circle around it. In the first picture, you can see that Hercules is fighting a “horse-like” creature, but it is not until you reach another viewpoint that you see the human head. Upon close inspection of the detailed picture, you can see the painstaking detail in the bulging muscles, popping veins, the centaur’s tongue and teeth, and even a hint of chest hair. Also the violence and strain of the two figures, the movement, and the grotesque stretching of the creature’s neck, are all mannerist qualities. Giambologna really took statue sculpture to a whole new level and his pieces are truly one of a kind from the Mannerist Era.

Giambologna, Hercules Beating the Centaur Nessus, 1599, Loggia dei Lanzi, Piazza della Signoria, Florence, Italy

Sculpture was the main form of three-dimensional art of the Western culture. “Its origins, history, and stylistic development are those of Western art itself. For example, as a key indicator of the artistic achievements of Classical Antiquity, it was an important influence behind the development of the Italian Renaissance Art”  (Sculptures). Sculpture can be created with just about any formable materials and is accomplished in a variety of ways. “[They] chip, carve, shape, or modulate a range of traditional materials, such as marble, granite, sandstone, bone, ivory, wood, terra cotta…” (Plastic).

Stone is one of the materials used, more specifically, limestone, or marble, during the Early to High Renaissance and beyond. Marble is a favorite of artists because of its composition and changes that occur under extreme pressure and heat. When first quarried, it is a softer and more workable material, but hardens and becomes more dense or solid with time and age. This particular type of stone also comes in an array of patterns and colors that were also appealing to artists (Marble).

Wood carving, one of the oldest forms of sculpture, is an impressive process. “Because of fibrous strength, wood can be carved more thinly and precisely than stone” (Wood). Sculptures can be carved from hard or soft wood, but the most common of the Italian Renaissance were linden wood and lime wood. Once the wood has been taken down to the relative size and shape of the intended configuration, the details are brought out with a variety of tools. Cutting knives used to cut down the excess outer layer, gouges, usually with curved blades to create hollows or depressions, chisels, for straight lines, hammers, mallets, and chippers. It is then smoothed to a polished finish with a rasp, or coarse file having separate conical teeth, a riffler, a small curved file, and different degrees of sandpaper (Wood).

Bronze sculpting is done by casting, which is the process of creating a mold, pouring metal, in a melted form, into the mold then removing the mold’s outer shell once the metal has hardened. Bronze is the alloy of tin and copper and once it is melted, its chemical properties causes it to expand as it cools, ensuring that every detail in the mold is filled completely (Rodin). The most common form of molding during the Renaissance was called the lost wax method, o form of plastic art which is the modeling or molding in three dimensions (Plastic). The general process of lost wax is the creating of a model of the work using non-drying clay called Plasticine, and the mold is made by enveloping the model in plaster. Using this mold, a wax model is created, encased in plaster, and then baked. The plaster hardens as the wax melts away and what is left is the mold for the final casting. The molten metal is poured into this mold, given time to set and harden, and then the plaster is chipped away to reveal the final bronze statue (Rodin).

No matter the material or method, it is the artistic style, vivid imagination, talented skills, and most importantly, the dedication and passion of the sculptor that emerges into the magnificent and beautiful works loved and admired by many, then and now.


2 responses to “A Glimpse at the History of Art

    • Thank you. Being an artist, I thought I should have some idea where art began and what it meant, but there is so much more to it that came before and of course, after. I may look into it further, or may just take a class. Glad you enjoyed it.

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