A Brief History of Western Art
In order to discuss the history of art, it is necessary to discuss the history of civilization, as the former is a perpetual reflection of the latter. The current civilization timeline is centered around the birth of Christ, with everything before it classified as B.C. and everything after as A.D. Not only is this a politically incorrect, belief-centric view of time, the delineation is not particularly useful.
I've concocted my own civilization timeline, which I call C.T. for Civilization Time. In it, day 1 occurred on January 1, 8000 B.C. That would make 2000 A.D. to be 10,000 C.T. I chose this because it was around 10,000 years ago that civilization started to gel. The last Ice Age had ended and the glaciers receded, mankind had spread to every continent on the globe and had organized into cohesive tribes inhabiting permanent settlements. When the Agricultural Revolution took root and the domestication of animals became widespread, the era of Modern Man was underway.
Having laid all that out, though, I begin this treatise by pointing out that art predates civilization. By a considerable margin. I consider the first work of "art" to be the first object that a human being altered for the purposes of creating a representation of something else. The examples that survive to this day are little stone figurines of fertility goddesses, but they were surely predated by earlier wooden figures that long ago turned to dust. The day that man first began to carve these figurines was the dawn of sculpture as an artistic medium.
The stone figurines date back to 20,000 years ago. There is no way of knowing when man first started carving wood, but we were still co-habitating with Neanderthal man at the time. In fact it was art that set us apart. Neanderthal was surprisingly sophisticated, having mastered fire and tool-making, but his limitation was that he couldn't think abstractly. Our first practical application of abstract thinking was to attribute meaning to artistic symbols. To Neanderthal man, those objects had no value of any kind. In this way, it could be said that it is our appreciation of art that set us apart and indeed above Neanderthal man, exemplified our ability to adapt and survive, and lay the groundwork for our rise to the astounding echelon of civilization that we went on to achieve.
After carving stones for about 5,000 years, man discovered painting as an artistic medium. The earliest cave paintings date back to about 15,000 years ago. These were located deep within largely inaccessible places in these caves, so it can be assumed that they were used for secret and arcane ceremonial practices, not for display to the masses. And since animals were the subject matter, the function of the paintings was likely an attempt to either honor or beguile the spirit of the beasts they hunted. But whatever purposes they served, it must be noted that stylistically they are flowing, graceful, expressive, recognizable representations of these animals. They could actually be compared to work from the expressionist movement in 9900 C.T.
As mankind entered the era of civilization, it can be assumed that art came out of the caves and became more and more a part of daily life. The next major development in art, however, involved something that people don't conventionally think of as being "art." It was when man mastered stone as a building material and began to construct lasting, large-scale structures. The earliest example is the city of Jericho, which dates back to around 3000 C.T.
While this building process was born of practicality, it truly broached into the realm of art when man began to build monuments and monumental architecture. This began in earnest in 5350 C.T. when the Egyptians started making pyramids. It was one of those times in history when a lot of critical components all came together at once. It was the dawn of the Copper Age, which gave them the tools necessary to carve the stone effectively and in large scale. It was the point in time that stone construction advanced to the point that truly large-scale structures could be built. And these came together at a time when the infrastructure of civilization had become sophisticated and expansive enough to sustain a population dedicated to the construction of such a mammoth, ambitious undertaking.
In fact there is a chicken-and-egg debate that rages over this. Some say that civilization needed to advance to that level before it could support such a project. Others say that it was the drive to accomplish the project that necessitated the creation of that level of civilization. Personally I think that the truth lies somewhere between. Surely civilization had to have advanced to quite a level before the the first pyramid project could be undertaken, but I'm willing to bet that by the time the Age of Pyramids ended a short 150 years later when the Pyramid of Mycerinus completed the trio at Giza in 5500 C.T., that the level of civilization was overwhelmingly more advanced than when it all started.
Of course monumental architecture wasn't the only artistic medium in which the Egyptians dabbled. Their painting looks primitive and simplistic by modern standards, with everything in flat profile and eyes shown frontally, but their sculpture was actually representationally accurate and stylistically pleasing.
After the Egyptians decided they'd built enough pyramids for the time being, they continued building monuments and monumental architecture up and down the Nile for centuries. While they trundled merrily on, their civilization skills began to spread. It went first through the Holy Land, then around the Eastern end of the Mediterranean with the Assyrians and the Aegeans, and eventually onto the European continent and Greece.
The Greeks did a number of things. The state of the art for large-scale architecture at the time was the post and lintel system. While they didn't improve upon this, they elevated it to an unprecedented level of style and beauty. They also expanded upon the notion of art to what we call the Liberal Arts, with the inclusion of philosophy and poetry. They introduced science, with the laws of geometry and the notions of proportion and order. They were the first to really try to make sense of the universe rather than just trying to survive in it.
The true accomplishment of the Greeks, in the big picture, was to serve as a springboard for Rome and the advances of the Roman Empire. What really kicked it off was the invention of the arch. The concept wasn't new, actually. Centuries before, people learned that if you had one big stone that wanted to topple in one direction, and matched it with another big stone that wanted to topple in the other direction, that they'd topple against one another creating a gap below and an incredibly strong and stable platform above.
What the Romans did was to perfect it by making it perfectly semi-circular in shape. This allowed them to build each arc with individual stones, all held in place by the keystone at the apex. They would build a semi-circular wooden form in the diameter of the arch. They would lay the stones on top of it, capped by the keystone, and when the mortar set they could remove the wood and the arch would remain. The arch would be incredibly strong, and the Romans could create big arches and bridge larger spans.
They also employed the arch in ways never dreamed of before. The weakness of an arch is that it needs to be supported laterally at its base, or the legs will push out and the arch will break in two and collapse. The Romans found that they could put a number of arches in succession, and the base of one would push up against the base of the next, just as each arc presses against each side of the keystone. This created the architectural element known as the arcade, and it was the first major advance since the introduction of post and lintel.
The Romans used the arcade for stylish plazas and whatnot, but they also employed it as an engineering element to create things like aqueducts. It was the ability to supply their cities with a constantly flowing source of clean, fresh water, coupled with their foresight to wash away waste cleanly and efficiently, that allowed them to prosper and advance as they did.
Eventually someone learned that you could make an arcade into a circle, and it would create a stable and sustained form. By creating multiple, concentric rings, and putting other rings on top of them, that they could create stadiums. This was an advancement in monumental architecture both in terms of technological innovation, but also in creating a monument that was also functional. People came to the stadiums not to observe or pray, but to spectate, and in their way, participate in the spectacle that they were attending.
The other invention of the Roman Empire was the dome. A dome is essentially an arch that is rotated on its axis to create a stable, hemispheric form. The irony is that doing this makes superfluous the previously indispensable keystone. Known as an oculus, a dome can have a big, gaping hole at its peak as long as it's perfectly circular with the center precisely at the apex. The quintessential Roman dome, the Panthean, was constructed with an oculus.
The Romans, like the Greeks, valued sculpture. The Romans embraced the quality of perfectly realistic, precisely proportioned, vivid representations in stone and metal. There were also paintings everywhere. They found that if they painted wet plaster, that the pigment would become permanently bonded with the material, and that it would last as long as the plaster. The process would later become known as fresco.
The Romans also created elaborate mosaics in their floors and other surfaces for which fresco wasn't permanent enough. The images, sometimes decorative motifs but also representational figures and scenes, indicated a sophisticated understanding of light, shadow, and volume.
Alas, all the Romans' technology and skill couldn't keep their empire from collapsing. Much of their technology lived on in Asia Minor through the Byzantine Empire. They continued building large, domed structures, and covering every square inch with intricate mosaics. The grace and expression had given way to dogmatic icons and propagandistic portraiture.
Western Europe fell into the dark ages. The one thing that held it together was the Catholic Church. I am not wont to laud the Catholic Church for much of anything, but from a historical perspective it's important to acknowledge its role. Because the truth of it is that it played a huge role. In fact the Catholic Church was effectively the Internet of its day. It established protocols and communication paths that transcended borders, languages, and cultures.
In terms of art, the only painting and sculpture that was being made was strictly Christian imagery commissioned by the Catholic Church. The only building of any real consequence involved monasteries and churches. While much of the knowledge and technology of the Roman Empire was lost, the one thing that survived was the arch. It was enough to keep Rome as the namesake of the time to follow, which was known as the Romanesque era.
In fact Medieval man came up with an innovation that even bested the Romans. They found that if they took arches, and rather than put them end to end like an arcade, that they put them one behind another, that they would create a deep, open covered space. The element is known as a barrel vault, and in effect it's one solid arch that is just really, really deep in dimension. It was used to create the big, long, open churches that started cropping up everywhere.
The barrel vault was a very stable form, but it wants to push its legs out at the base just like an arch does. In order to make the structure work, the high walls on which the barrel vaults were placed needed to be very big, thick, and heavy, and only had small, thin windows. To reduce the thickness of the walls a little they invented the wall buttress. From the outside it just looks like they stacked up extra stones on the exterior at certain intervals, but these buttresses were actually stitched into the structure of the wall. Imagine a you build a wall of Leggos that's only one brick thick. It's really easy to break that wall halfway down. But if you make these wall buttresses not by stacking the bricks on one side of the wall, but to make the pattern of the Leggo bricks zig out and zag back in, and do that at intervals along the wall, try to break the wall again. It's has tremendously more rigidity with the wall buttress design.
Since churches were to be built in the shape of a cross, the concept of the groin vault quickly fell into being. If two barrel vaults intersect at right angles, they naturally form arches in the shape of an X as they span diagonally from corner to corner of the intersection. Known as a groin vault, it's an extremely stable way of effectively creating a span of spans.
The other artifact from the Roman empire was the design format known as the basilica. Roman judicial buildings, known as basilicas, had a wide, high, longitudinal central room, with a lower, thinner gallery flanking it on each side. An arcade at the base of the side walls of the central room gave access to the flanking galleries. The Christians borrowed this design, and introducing the cross shape created the longitudinal nave and the transept with the groin vault.
This was the state of the art for some time as Western Europe fell into the feudal system and grew into its post-Roman identity. Walls became taller, thinner, windows bigger, and arcades more open as materials and construction techniques improved. But the first true innovation came when someone realized that these barrel vaults and arches don't necessarily need to be semi-circular in shape. If you created a "pointed" arch, it was still stable and strong, but it allowed for more verticality. The problem with a semi-circular arch is that the higher you want it to be, the greater distance you need to span. The pointed arch created a greater height with the same span. It could be employed with arches, barrel vaults, groin vaults, and windows.
The style became known as Gothic. This was a derogatory term, as the style was a sharp departure from the traditional style that had enjoyed favor for more than a thousand years. The Goths were the barbarians who took down the Roman Empire and continued to be a threat, so Gothic effectively meant "barbaric."
But that slight wasn't enough to stop the Gothic style from fundamentally taking over architecture across Western Europe. The pointed arch just made more sense. And the innovation facilitated the vision of how weight and thrust really work, and what was really capable while using the stone Leggo block technology that was still what they had to work with.
This trend of thought eventually gave birth to the flying buttress. It was basically a wall buttress on steroids. Walls were becoming thinner and windows bigger because wall buttresses were taking on more responsibility with respect to bearing load and managing thrust. A flying buttress was basically a wall buttress taken to extremes and opened up to the point of being a skeletal structural element. In a way it was like really beautiful, permanent scaffolding. It allowed walls to get taller, thinner and windows bigger by helping to keep them from busting out, and by bearing much of the load of the heavy ceiling and roof above. It allowed the walls of the nave to appear as if they were simply made of glass.
While these innovations in architecture were going on, art in the form of painting and sculpture were still entirely in service to the church. Stylistically, it had stagnated. It was nothing more than a practical means of illustrating bible stories to the vast illiterate masses. Portraiture was begging to slip in, though, as patrons had their likeness painted into whatever bible scene was being portrayed.
Sculpture consisted of little more than crucifixes and the figures of saints and prophets.
As medieval man settled into the new millennium, a lot of things started to settle into place. Advancements were being made in metallurgy, specialization of labor, manufacture of goods, and trade and economics. But then something happened. The Black Death swept in, and just as quickly receded leaving Europe devastated.
A religious person would say that God works in mysterious ways. A humanist would say that it's remarkable how loss and hardship invariably breeds success and innovation. The survivors of the Black Death were not only happy to be alive, but they had a new enthusiasm and optimistic outlook on life. Additionally, the cumulative inheritances of the dead created a bit of a boom economy, and things started to move.
What this did, really was to create a fertile environment for future growth. It began slowly. The first name that is usually cited is a painter named Giotto. He did wall paintings in churches to illustrate bible stores just like every other painter did at that time, but Giotto wanted to do more than illustrate. He wanted to put life into his figures.
The custom was to paint flat, recognizable characters, portrayed with whatever detail was necessary to convey the textures of the fabrics they wore or the items they held. Proportion was something that had effectively been deprioritized. A figure should be in proportion to itself, in that the limbs and head are in proportion to the body, but the proportion of one figure to another, or to a building or the landscape, was in favor of importance rather than realism.
Giotto changed all that. Figures had volume, and they were placed with each other in a scene that had depth. Clothing showed its wrinkles not to illustrate that it was fabric, but to portray fabric as it truly appears when covering the volume of the figure within.
Giotto's realistic style caught favor, and other artists began to take over the mantle and create realistic, representational art. At the same time, science was experiencing a resurgence. There was a movement towards observation, classification, and the notion of governance of the world by means of predictable laws. The Age of Reason was just beginning to simmer.
There is one moment in time at which I believe the Renaissance began. It is a seminal story in the history of art, and indeed the history of civilization itself. It is a story that took place in Florence, Italy in 9402 C.T. It involves two men: Lorenzo Ghiberti, a sculptor, and Filippo Brunelleschi, a goldsmith who wanted to be a sculptor.
The Florence Cathedral wanted new bronze doors for its baptistry, adorned with scenes from the bible presented sculptural relieve in panels on the surface of each door. They held a competition. Each entrant must create a panel with the scene of the Sacrifice of Isaac. Ghiberti and Brunelleschi were the finalists. But ultimately Giberti's submission won him the commission. The truth was he deserved to win. His portrayal was beautifully composed with vivid emotion. The figure of Isaac, nude, bound, and preparing himself to receive his father's knife, is one for the ages.
Brunelleschi, however, was inconsolable. He left Florence in a huff and took up self-imposed exile in Rome. While he was there, he spent his time studying the Roman ruins that littered the city and the countryside. Brunelleschi looked at what the Romans had been up to, and he pieced together why they did what they did, and his outlook on architecture changed forever.
Years later there was to be another competition. The Florence Cathedral was stuck in an odd situation. Cathedrals generally took no less than a century to build, and in many cases it was well into the second century before it was finally completed. The designers of the Florence Cathedral specified a large, octagonal transept that would be topped by an enormous octagonal dome. The technology to construct a dome of that size did not exist at the time the designs were drawn. Normally wooden forms are erected on which the masonry can by assembled, but the cavernous dimension of this dome was too great to allow for that much wood to be used. They decided to proceeded anyway, with the expectation that technology would somehow catch up with their vision in the decades upon decades that it would take just to get the structure to the point that they were ready to start constructing the dome.
In one of the most egregious engineering blunders in history, the original designers over-estimated the pace of innovation. In fact, the cathedral sat for decades with a gaping hole where the dome should be. They just used it like that, and if it rained it rained.
After a while they'd had enough. They decided to have a competition to find someone who could figure out once and for all how to build that dome. At the head of the line was Ghiberti. He had completed the baptistry doors to accolades and fanfare. He claimed that he could design the dome.
But Ghiberti did not run unopposed. Brunelleschi was back from Rome, bringing with him all the technical knowledge that he had amassed from studying Roman techniques. And his design for the Duomo was the kind of innovative genius that comes along only once in the history of time. His plan called for a dome within a dome. There would be an inner dome that would form the structure, and an outer dome that would be a the shell that would form the outer shape and bear the tile roof.
That was innovative, but it was his plan to construct that inner dome without employing wooden forms that was pure genius. His plan was to start at the top of the open octagon, and build concentric rings of gradually diminishing diameter. This would be done with the same Leggo block technology that the Gothic cathedrals were, because it was still the pinnacle of building material technology at the time. What he did was to devise a way of putting the blocks together so that they would effectively weave the structure of the dome like weaving a basket from the rim up to the bowl. It became known as the "herring bone" technique, for the way it resembles the herring bone tweed pattern. Huge bricks were zig-zagged in alternating horizontal/vertial orientations that spiraled upwards and inwards creating the dome from within with no wooden forms required.
Long story short, the dome was built, Brunelleschi avenged his loss to Ghiberti, and he wound up humiliating his old rival before the project was completed. The Florence Cathedral Dome rises above the city and serves as an immediately recognizable monument to the dawn of the modern age of reason of mankind.
Now back to the matter of the moment in time that the Renaissance began. When the dome was under construction and Brunelleschi was spending a lot of time at the cathedral, he stood out front one day and looked at the octagonal baptistry in the plaza in which it lay. He saw the scene for its symmetry and geometrical purity. And he noticed that all the lines converged on one single point. He drew the scene, but rather than his sketch pad he used his architect's tools. He executed a geometrically perfect depiction of the scene based on his new technique of single-point perspective.
The result was a representation of a scene more precise and realistic than anything anyone had ever seen before. It changed the nature of drawing and painting forever, it ushered in the formal practice of drafting and architectural drawing, and it was the moment that we entered the Renaissance, and with it an age of reason and a path of discovering, learning, understanding, and innovating, that pace of which has yet to stop accelerating.
The interesting thing about the Renaissance is that it had to do with so much more than just art. It was more even than the technological advancements and the development of the scientific method. It was an attitude. For the previous 9,500 years, and for millennia before that, mankind had been at the mercy of nature, mostly struggling to survive, and attributing the fortunes of feast and famine to the whims of whatever deities they worshipped. In the Renaissance, for the first time, there was an understanding that everything in nature could be explained, often predicted, that the achievement of mankind could know no bounds, and that we as beings were beholden to no one in the universe. It was the beginning of the first Modern Era.
A contemporary and acquaintance of Brunelleschi's was a talented painter named Masaccio. Brunelleschi taught him the secrets of single-point perspective, and Masaccio applied it to great effect to his masterpiece The Trinity. At the time it was the most remarkable thing anyone had ever seen. It was so realistic that people were actually fooled into thinking it was real. It would be like what virtual reality is to us today. It changed everything overnight. The great thing about single-point perspective is that as soon as you see it, you get it. And your outlook on drawing will never be the same again.
Another artist of note in the Early Renaissance was a sculptor named Donatello. And another great thing about the Renaissance was that it fully embraced the nude body as a thing of beauty to be exhibited and revered. This was largely facilitated by the story of David and Goliath. Florence fancied itself a David, an independent city-state standing in the shadow of Rome, alone against the Goliath of a hostile and untamed world. As the early undercurrents of the Renaissance began to flow, David began to be portrayed in art waring less and less armor. One would say more "vulnerable," but the whole point was that David's protection lay in his intelligence and his cunning.
David was increasingly displayed as wearing less and less, until finally Donatello portrayed him entirely in the nude. Well, actually he was wearing boots and a hat, but it was a gorgeous, bronze sculpture that will always be one of my favorites, and in my opinion a masterpiece and a pivotal work in the history of art.
These guys were all kicking around Florence in the early 9400's C.T., but things really kicked into high gear right around 9500 C.T. Michelangelo and DaVinci were on the scene, Gallileo was looking through telescopes and stirring up trouble, and the practical application of the scientific method was having impacts in all areas. Navigation, for example. You know the old saying, "Columbus sailed the ocean blue in fourteen hundred and ninety two?" Well 1492 A.D. is just a couple years before 9500 C.T. It was a magical time when discovery and genius were everywhere, and the world saw change like it wouldn't see for another 445 years.
Michelangelo caused a ruckus from the day he hit the scene. He hit one out of the park on his first at-bat with his masterpiece the Pietá. It was an incomprehensibly beautiful sculpture, perfectly composed and carved, possessing real life, and real death, and conveying real feeling. The peace of the Mother Mary in the face of her worst tragedy was a reflection of the strength of reason in the age of the Renaissance. It was so successful, beyond anything anyone had yet seen in the Renaissance, that no one believed a neophyte like Michelangelo could have carved it. The legend is that he snuck back in after the unveiling and carved "Michelangelo Buonaroti created this" on the sash that Mary wore.
That was Michelangelo's first masterpiece. Some may have doubted his authenticity, but there could be no doubt after he unveiled his second masterpiece in his second outing: the now-ubiquitous Michelangelo's David. It's actually a great story. There was a huge piece of marble that was well known in Florence at the time. It was a block that had been botched by none other than Ghiberti, the sculptor who defeated and humiliated Brunelleschi all those years before. Ghiberti, the great sculptor, took this very large and very expensive block of pure white marble, and he so bungled the job that he had to abandon it for scrap. Every sculptor in the land had seen that block at one point or another and given up on it, but Michelangelo took one look at it and said, "I can do something with that."
He took the stone into his workshop, and 3 years later unveiled his David. Until then, Donatello's David was the best that Florence, a town known for loving David, had ever seen. And as beautiful as it was, it was eclipsed by Michelangelo's. First of all the scale was monumental. The block that Ghiberti had botched was enormous. The commission Michelangelo was making the statue for was a figure to go at the roof line on the tippy top of the Florence Cathedral, so it had to be huge. But it was more than the scale that made it a magnificent work. It was the composition. The pose, the relaxed and natural contrapasto, with one arm hanging, the other holding something over the shoulder, and one foot slightly advanced, is the pinnacle of "less is more" grace and beauty. But it's also the beauty of the body as Michelangelo portrayed him. Everything about that body is perfect. The proportion, the shapeliness of the musculature; just the right amount of definition, just the right amount of bulk; all the right bumps in exactly the right shape in precisely the right place, organized into the perfect pose. There can be no question as to why this figure resonates with so man people and is so universally identifiable. It is the most beautiful figure of man ever created.
And this speaks only to Michelangelo's vision. Consider also his ability to carve it. This was no small undertaking, and it was executed perfectly. It was flawless. I would say that it was better even than the carving of the Pietá, but flawless is a degree that cannot be exceeded, and is a degree that he attained with each. And the David, remember, was carved from a block that everyone else had abandoned as unusable. It is in every way a masterpiece, but this is still not even what makes it so remarkable.
Donatello had portrayed David as wearing only the boots and had. Michelangelo took it to the ultimate level. His David was entirely nude. He had nothing but his own ability, the meager sling draped confidently over his shoulder, and absolutely nothing else. It was the perfect symbol for Florence as an up-and-coming powerhouse. It was the perfect symbol for Renaissance sensibilities. And it put the nude male figure in the public eye as a symbol of all this is good and right about humanity. And yet this is still not what makes this work of art so remarkable.
Michelangelo's David has a characteristic of which most people are unaware. Everyone's seen it. You could picture it in your mind right now. But most everyone has only ever seen it directly on as it was intended to be displayed in its niche high atop the Cathedral wall. We see the figure in his confident stance, ready to face the overwhelming odds that will confront him in moments. But if the face is seen directly, not in profile as we're accustomed to seeing it, we see in David's face his furrowed brow, and the fear in his eyes. By carving the face this way, Michelangelo said so much. It recognizes that each of us, even the greatest hero in the history of Western culture, is deep down afraid of confronting whatever overwhelming odds we face. We are all just humans, ultimately naked and vulnerable, yet we can be confident in our abilities if we stick to our strengths and avail ourselves of every advantage at our disposal. This, this small detail that no one would likely ever have seen, on top of everything else that makes this work of art so remarkable, is what makes it a masterpiece for the ages.
Of course people took one look at it and there was no way they were going to hide it way up where people could barely see it. They put it right in the middle of the town square, where it remained until it was retired to the Academia museum and replaced with an original. Michelangelo, the confident man that he was, probably expected that this would be the reaction. But that would fail to explain one lingering mystery about this statue. It is fairly well known that the proportions are, in fact, far from perfect. The head and the hands are actually way too big for the rest of the body. It couldn't be because Michelangelo had blundered. There has to be another explanation. The prevailing theory is that since it was intended to be seen from far below, that these features were accentuated to compensate for distance vision. But if Michelangelo suspected from the beginning that the statue would be displayed in the town square as it ultimately was, then why would he bother? Another theory is that it was because of the "ruined" block of stone he started with. Maybe in order to fit the figure into the existing shape, he had to enlarge those features. Or maybe he thought it gave the figure a more imposing appearance when viewed from near or far. Or maybe it was because he knew it was going to be a masterpiece for the ages, and he included this intentionally in order to keep a shadow of mystery forever lying behind it.
Michelangelo was the first Renaissance Man. That term is totally overused today. It's supposed to mean more than someone who is well-rounded, or a jack of all trades. It describes someone who is a full-fledged master in a number of fields. Specifically, in terms of fine art, it is someone who has created a masterpiece in a variety of media. Michelangelo's next big feat was to move to Rome and paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. It is a single work of painting so unfathomably complex in terms both of composition and symbolism, that it remains unparalleled to this day. By a mile. And it solidified his place in history.
But it was also a turning point for him. He never really completed anything else the whole rest of his career. He dabbled in architectural projects that were all generally completed, but in the case of the Medici Chapel, the original sculpture work he created to adorn the architecture remained forever unfinished. His ambitious, elaborate tomb for Pope Julius II wound up being one admittedly very nice statue, and a quartet of incomplete figures. He finished his follow-up to the Sistine Chapel ceiling when he painted the Final Judgement on the far wall, but it really wasn't any good. It failed as an éncore for his earlier masterpiece to which it is adjacent and to which he must have known it would forever be compared, but even evaluated in isolation it's just not particularly good. There's nothing technically wrong with it, but the composition was nothing special, and frankly a bit of a mess.
But at least he went out on a high note by creating a masterpiece in a third medium when he designed Saint Peter's Cathedral in Rome. He scored a Renaissance Man hat trick with that one. But I say, "designed" because what everyone sees when they think of Saint Peter's is not what Michelangelo intended. If you look above and beyond that familiar façade to the dome in the background, then you will see the hand of Michelangelo. In fact if you walk around behind the building and look at pretty much everything other than that familiar façade you'll see what he originally intended.
Michelangelo's original design was for a Greek cross, which has all four arms the same length, as opposed to the longitudinal cross that is the layout for conventional churches. He chose this because it had a more pure symmetry, and was therefor more purely Renaissance. But as these projects were completed over great spans of time, Michelangelo's original designs were re-evaluated after his death. It was decided to go with the conventional longitudinal arrangement, and since Michelangelo's design didn't even have a primary façade, they had Carlo Maderno whip something up in 9610 C.T.
But the apse and the North and South ends were three of the four equally-sized arms as Michelangelo had originally designed them, as was the dome that proudly sits atop it today. The Florence Cathedral sat without a dome for centuries, but little more than a century after Brunelleschi's had been completed, it had been exceeded.
Michelangelo really dominated all disciplines of fine art, even dabbling in the decidedly intellectual realm of poetry, but there were other artists of the era who should be noted. Raphael was considered the top painter of the Renaissance. He never did anything as large and complex as the Sistine Chapel ceiling, but he was very prolific, and in terms of a body of work he would be considered to be the best.
And later on in the Renaissance, out of Vicenza came a talented architect we now know as Palladio. Most famously known for the Palladian Arch, which was a configuration he concocted to put an arcade on the face of a building that had irregularly-spaced posts. He needed a way to keep the radius of each arch the same while the span between the posts changed. His solution was ingenious, and had made him a household name.
Palladio was one of these artists who was able to come up with something special and beautiful every time he created. He had a knack for Italian villas, making them looking very proper and Roman, and still very graceful and well-suited to the terrain. He also solved a stylistic problem that had plagued the designers of church façades since the classical elements had come back into fashion. The basilica configuration was a challenge. Long ago architects started using it at the top of the central aisle portion, but the side galleries always presented a problem. There was just no way to work that classical shape in there and make it work. Yet Palladio's ultimate solution is so obvious once seen, that it's impossible to imagine how no one thought of it before.
Palladio really sort of ushered out the period known as the Renaissance. It was followed by a period of pale imitators until it eventually morphed into the Baroque. It was kind of like how Classic 60's Rock eventually gave way to Disco. Baroque art basically set out to see how ornate something could be. Initially jaw-dropping in its grandeur, after a short while it just seems garish. The painting, while advanced in terms of expression and technique, was employed in saccharine scenes of frolicking mythological beasts and buszwa scenes of leisure.
There were some standouts, though. There was a very successful, very prolific painter in Venice named Titian who was doing some really interesting work. And in terms of proper Baroque sculpture, a very talented guy named Bernini made his mark. He is most well known for the twisty columns on the St Peters alter platform, but there are also a couple of sculptures that are of note. Like Donatello and Michelangelo, Bernini sculpted his David. But where Donatello depicted David after he had defeated Goliath, and Michelangelo depicted him in the moments before the confrontation, Bernini depicted David at the precise moment that he was about to let fly the stone that took down the giant. That had become the sensibilities of the Baroque at that point. It was all about capturing a moment in time when all the action was happening.
There is one other sculpture of Bernini that is of note. It is called "The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa." The subject is Saint Theresa of Avila, and she was known for her Godly
Toaph's Timeline Art separates us from Neanderthals Cave paintings; spiritual component of art Egypt; civilization and tech innovation allowed monumental architecture; architecture as art; silly painting but great statuary Greek: took post & lintel technology to the epitome of style; innovation in the engineering of monumental architecture Roman: tech innovations as art, e.g. arch or even city; sophisticated artistic skill and sense of spacial relations and proportions from frescoes and mosaics; Medieval christian art: painting childish and dogmatic, but architecture was faboo; church as medieval internet; gothic; early renaissance painting renaissance: brunelleschi's story; spp; photo-realistic painting; harmonious architecture; gorgeous scuplture (big hitters: early - brunelleschi, donatello, masaccio; high - palladio, michelangelo, raphael; and then there was leonardo) baroque: shift from italy to france and with it all the foofooery. post-revolutionary PC propaganda Mayonaise Lunch on the Grass Impressionism Cubism Dada Expressionism Abstract Expressionism