Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Italian Art at the Louvre

Painting as we know it got started in Italy in the 1200s. During the time of the Roman Empire, painting was basically confined to walls as interior decoration. Artists did not paint on separate panels or fabric, generally speaking. Also painters were anonymous craftsmen, seldom identified by name. After the Roman Empire in the west disintegrated in the 400s, there wasn't much culture or art for a Dark Age lasting a few centuries. The Barbarians who took down Rome were a tribal people who had no respect for culture; they destroyed all the large institutions and the patricians who could afford to commission art. Power was dispersed among a multitude of private landholders who governed their own territories according to their own rules. The economy of Europe in general was at a subsistence level.

The first institution to get back on its feet was the Church, the Catholic church as we now call it, though that term was not used at the time because there was only one Christian religion. Through regular donations by church members, the Church was able to accumulate wealth. The principal use for the wealth was to build churches, and it was a point of pride among the clergy and the worshippers to have as beautiful a church as they could afford. Thus the old tradition of painting on walls was applied to the walls of churches. The earliest separate panel paintings were special works to be placed on altars as part of the worship ritual. Naturally, churches wanted paintings of religious subjects, and certain scenes representing religious stories formed a standard repertory: every church needed its Nativity scene and its crucifixion.

At first the artists who worked on church decoration were anonymous craftsmen, as they had always been. By the 1200s city-states were gaining power and enterprises were becoming wealthy through maritime trade, and leaders began to use their wealth to commission art.


One of the first artists to be widely known by name was Cimabue, who lived in the 1200s. The Louvre has one of his most famous paintings, a very tall altarpiece known as Maesta, or Madonna and Child in Majesty. The Madonna and Jesus surrounded by angels was already a standard subject, and he used the sort of flattened design and extensive gold leaf that artists had been using for centuries. However, his figures are more rounded and natural looking and there is more depth than in standard decoration of the time; he is famous as a fore-runner of the Renaissance period, when full naturalism had been mastered.

Cimabue, 1240-1302
The Madonna and Child in Majesty Surrounded by Angels, c. 1280


Altarpieces were the major form of art. Most were fairly large because they were intended to be seen from afar on the altars of churches; some were small because they were intended for home use. Here are a couple of typical examples. Altarpieces were intended to recall well-known stories in a schematic way, rather than trying to capture any part of real life. These are small ones that were displayed in a glass cabinet. The panels are shaped to complement the design. Both Daddi and Veneziano are significant to art history.

Bernardo Daddi, 1312-1348
Virgin and Child Surround by 20 Angels and 4 Saints, c. 1338

Paolo Veneziano, active 1333-1358
Virgin and Child with Saints, 1354
Altarpieces frequently had stands called predellas, and those predellas were often decorated with small rectangular panels intended to tell a story that complements the altarpiece. Being less dominated by rigid tradition, these panels sometimes had interesting details. The panel below has a lovely arched composition, starting with the green figure in the lower right, extending up through the pink and blue costumes of the men; extended arms pull the arch down to the red figure on the left. The pattern of pastel colors on a gold ground is very pretty. Then you notice the gruesome subject. The figure in green is removing the nails from Christ's ankles, as the men lower the body from the cross into his mother's arms. This artist is not well-known, but clearly he was moving painting along toward a more realistic approach.

Pietro da Rimini, 1280
Deposition from the Cross, c. 1330
The predella panel below is a humorous piece. A saint flies in from outer space with only an exhaust trail to represent his legs; he is liberating poor people from unjust imprisonment, as symbolized by a man emerging from a hole in a blank wall.

Sassetta (Stefano di Giovanni), 1392-1450
The Blessed Ranieri Frees the Poor from a Prison in Florence, c. 1440

1400s—The Renaissance

The Renaissance style of painting got started around 1400. In the early Renaissance, the big names were Fra Angelico, Andrea Mantegna, Botticelli, and Domenico Ghirlandaio.

Despite the fact that he was a friar in a holy order, Fra Angelico was considered an innovator in his time, and he had a great deal of influence in setting the painting style for the Renaissance. This very large example is from early in his career, and has an old-fashioned look, but notice that these amassed saints and angels are actually quite a lot more natural than those of Veneziano or Daddi, and a certain amount of receding space has been defined for them. Along the bottom is a predella.

Fra Angelico, 1417-1455
The Coronation of the Virgin, c. 1432

Andrea Mantegna had full command of spatial perspective and human anatomy, as shown in this scene of Christ and two thieves being crucified, a scene known as the Calvary. The contrast is stark between the weeping women and the Roman soldiers gambling.

Andrea Mantegna, 1431-1506
The Crucifixion, 1456-1459
The beloved works of Botticelli are mostly in the Uffizi museum in Florence. You may associate the name with The Birth of Venus and Primavera, both of them expressions of classical mythology. He was equally adept at depicting Christian stories and symbols. However, by this time the secular portrait was coming into style, and artists began to use portraits to convey psychological insights as well as identity. His style is characterized by clear contours and linear grace.

Sandro Botticelli, 1445-1510
Portrait of a Young Man, c. 1480

Domenico Ghirlandaio excelled in painting frescoes directly on the walls of churches, and he painted relatively few panel paintings that museums could collect. He was the leader of a large workshop where many artists trained, including Michelangelo. This example shows the Virgin Mary greeting her relative Elizabeth, who, despite her advanced age, is pregnant with John the Baptist. Mary went to visit Elizabeth in another town right after the Annunciation. Even though Christ was unborn, Elizabeth was aware of his divine presence. When you gaze on the glorious color of Elizabeth's garment, the graceful figures of the women who accompany them, and the perfect arch framing the city beyond, the story hardly matters.

Domenico Ghirlandaio, 1449-1494
The Visitation, 1491
A contemporary of Botticelli and Ghirlandaio, Pietro Perugino, had the Renaissance style down except for the fact that his faces always seem so bland and expressionless. One reason for his enduring fame is that he was a teacher of Raphael.

Pietro Perugino, c. 1450-1523
The Virgin and Child With Angels and Saints Rose and Catherine of Alexandria, c. 1495

The princes of the High Renaissance are Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael.

Leonardo da Vinci could do anything. Besides being one of the greatest painters of all time, he was a scientist and inventor, and he sold his skills as a military engineer as well. It seems likely that painting well was a little too easy for him, and his genius constantly sought new challenges. Thus he didn't actually complete a large body of work, but each piece seems to be the pinnacle of its type.

Of course, the Mona Lisa is his most famous painting and the most famous painting at the Louvre. However, only the most assertive photographers can bust their way through the hoard of tourists taking selfies with this iconic image, and that does not include me. Since I can't tell the story without mentioning this work, here's an internet grab.

Leonardo da Vinci, 1452-1519
Mona Lisa, c. 1506
Internet grab
I wish I could tell you why Mona Lisa has attained such a high status. The subject is a pretty woman who seems to have a pleasant personality, and the hazy background is lovely. Her smile seems more noncommittal than mysterious. As far as skill in characterization goes, the following example seems equally powerful. This photo, like all the photos in this report except as noted, I took myself with my iPad.

Leonardo da Vinci, 1452-1519
La Belle Ferronnière, c. 1496
The Louvre has one of my favorite paintings by da Vinci. This is a perfect example of how a painting can have psychological validity without being realistic. The top face represents Anne, mother of the Virgin Mary. Her loving and protective gaze leads us down to Mary, whose rounded posture and sweet face express total devotion to her son. Her arms direct our sight toward the child, who seems to be trying to ride a lamb. All that motherly love directed toward a playful toddler seems so right. But wait a minute: have you ever seen a woman sit in her mother's lap? Is it even possible? Is Anne much larger than Mary? Their positions symbolize motherly affection, without really being true to life. The idealism of the vision is underscored by the hazy blue background.

Leonardo da Vinci, 1452-1519
The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne, c. 1503

Raphael only lived 37 years, but his output was prodigious and his growth as an artist was amazing. Here's an early work that is a very traditional and literal interpretation of an old story.

Raphael, 1483-1520
Saint George and the Dragon, c. 1504
Compare that with a similar subject painted 15 years later. Instead of an earthly knight slaying a dragon, he shows the archangel Michael overcoming Satan, who was also an angel at the start. The composition is much more dramatic and engaging, and the figures more fully developed; even the color scheme is more energized.

Raphael, 1483-1520
St. Michael Vanquishing Satan, 1518
One of the favorite subjects of the religious orders who commissioned work from him is the Virgin and Child with St. John the Baptist. Though John was only a few months older than Jesus, according to the story, he is sometimes depicted as a few years older, and he is always shown in a worshipful attitude. His role in the story is symbolized by a staff in the form of a cross and a garment made from animal skin. This example by Raphael is like a tableau, with everyone acting out their part. It is pretty, but bland; it reminds me of his teacher, Perugino.

Raphael, 1483-1520
La Belle Jardinière, c. 1507
Five years later he treated the same subject with a fresh new composition, fuller modeling, gorgeous coloration, and an engaging story: showing off the new baby to a toddler. Mary caresses John, so he doesn't feel left out; her arms create a unified shape with the children.

Raphael, 1483-1520
Madonna with the Blue Diadem, c. 1512
As for portraits with psychological insight, Raphael could do that, too; this fellow looks like a wise and gentle man, maybe a little sad. Plus he has a swell hat, and his fur stole is realized with broad, loose strokes that seem thoroughly modern.

Raphael, 1483-1520
Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione, c. 1515

The death of Raphael in 1520 is considered the end of the Renaissance. It's as though he and da Vinci totally realized the Renaissance aesthetic, and when they were gone, art was forced to change. Painting styles became more self-conscious, figures were elongated into attractive but unrealistic curves, emotional qualities were dramatized; in all, you might say it seems mannered, and this style is referred to Mannerism. Two of the most important Mannerist painters were Agnolo Bronzino and Giorgio Vasari.

This painting by Bronzino is a perfect example of Mannerism, and it is one of my favorites. Noli me tangere, meaning "touch me not" are the words Jesus spoke to Mary Magdalene when she recognized him after his resurrection. The way Jesus pulls back perfectly expresses that "don't touch me" feeling. Magdalene's exaggerated posture perfectly expresses yearning.  Compositional tension is characteristic of Mannerism. Jesus doesn't want Mary to try to touch him because, essentially, he's a ghost, a spirit, a vision. He appeared to a few people on earth before making his final ascent to Heaven.

Agnolo Bronzino, 1503-1572
Noli me tangere, 1561

Vasari was thoroughly imbued with the art of the Renaissance, having written about the masters of the previous generation in his book Lives of the Artists. This book is considered the foundation of the study of art history. His painting style had less flourish than Bronzino's, but the longer you look at the painting below the more innovative it seems. The Annunciation is a standard subject, but this one is reversed; the angel Gabriel is generally shown on the left, but appears on the right in this version.  Usually there is some sense of separation between the human and the immortal, and the angel looks rather grand with wings in rainbow hues, but in this painting Gabriel is the same size as Mary and occupies the same space; the two could be girlfriends having a chat. The angel does have a nice cloud to float on and its wings match its costume perfectly.

Giorgio Vasari, 1512-1574
The Annunciation, c. 1567

1500s—The Venetian School

Most of the Italian artists covered so far were centered in Florence or Rome. Venice was like another country, with its own leaders, its own economy, and its own artists. Major artists of the Venetian school included Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese. Although the Venetian school is always associated with rich coloration, the painters were so different that the main thing they shared was location and patronage.

Titian was the dominant force in Venetian art for a half century in the 1500s. His output was vast and varied. The Louvre showed only a few examples. This next work, in a rather grainy iPad photo, has a relaxed and intimate quality. Mary is showing Jesus a bunny; Jesus, a very realistic infant, seems eager to play with it. Joseph, who is typically treated as a sort of by-stander, is petting a lamb in the background, perhaps thinking about rabbit stew. The other woman is an unexplained bonus, just a pretty figure to round out the scene.

Titian, 1490-1576
The Madonna of the Rabbit, c. 1530

Tintoretto had a penchant for large scenes on broad canvases. He strained to find a subject big enough to meet his vaulting ambition. For awhile he was preoccupied with trying to paint Heaven and all its occupants, and I have seen several works on this theme. Taking painting to the maximum! In this one, the reason all these beings have gathered is to observe the Coronation of the Virgin Mary by Jesus.

Tintoretto, 1518-1594
The Coronation of the Virgin, c. 1580

Veronese had a rich and colorful style that I find especially appealing. He, too, was given to extravagance of expression. The painting below, for instance, depicts a standard story of Jesus having supper with a couple of travelers that he meets on the road after his resurrection; each of them holds a staff. Usually this scene has only one or two other characters, who are waiting table. But that was way too simple for Veronese. He had to have a bunch of extra characters, including a pretty lady and a bunch of kids. Oh yes, and what painting is complete without a nice bit of architecture and a little scenery.

Veronese, 1528-1588
Supper at Emmaus, c. 1559

1600s—The Baroque Period

Baroque art is characterized by great drama, rich, deep colour, and intense light and dark shadows. In Italy, the period was dominated by Caravaggio and Guido Reni.

It's almost impossible to mention Caravaggio without mentioning his wild and crazy life. His work was popular with patrons and he could have been successful, but he was quarrelsome and violent, and engaged in all sorts of self-destructive behavior, finally resulting in death at the age of 38. His personality seems to show up in his edgy realism, his dramatic subjects and his high-contrast lighting. Other painters were captivated by his work, and his influence was profound and wide-spread. The Louvre has one of his best works.

Caravaggio, 1571-1610
The Fortune Teller, 1597

Guido Reni was very prolific and very popular in his time, and the Louvre has several of his canvases. He was a contemporary of Caravaggio, but you could say his aesthetic was the opposite. Where Caravaggio was dark and edgy, Reni was bright, balanced and harmonious. While Caravaggio's characters look real, Reni's are idealized. He painted both religious and mythological scenes.

Guido Reni, 1575-1642
The Annunciation, c. 1629
Guido Reni, 1575-1642
Abduction of Helen, c. 1629


Giovanni Paolo Pannini, one of my favorite painters, liked to depict buildings, both exteriors and interiors; figures are present merely to show the building's purpose and size. He specialized in Roman ruins, and in this one he clumps a bunch of these together, without regard to actual location, and throws in a pyramid and an obelisk from Egypt to boot.

Giovanni Paolo Panini, 1691-1765
Architectural Caprice with a Preacher in Roman Ruins, c. 1750
He was a tremendous showoff. In the next painting he imagined a gallery full of paintings of Rome, as it looked in his time, when a lot more ruins were still extant. He framed the scene with drapery to show that it is a product of his imagination; no such gallery really existed.

Giovanni Paolo Panini, 1691-1765
Gallery of Views of Modern Rome, 1758
In the next painting he really got carried away. Where did he get the time and energy? This musical presentation is being performed in honor of the marriage of some rich guy; his party sits on either side of the cleared space in front of the stage. By the way, this is a very large canvas.

Giovanni Paolo Panini, 1691-1765
Musical Fête, 1747


You can trace the history of Italian art from the altarpieces of the 1300s to the architectural depictions of the 1700s at the Louvre. It's a good story.