High Renaissance Painting
Characteristics, Aesthetics, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael.

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Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione by Raphael
Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione
Painted by Raphael.
(1514-15) Louvre, Paris. One of the
greatest Renaissance paintings.

For details of art movements
and styles, including all periods
of the Italian Renascimento,
see: History of Art.
For a chronological guide to
see: History of Art Timeline.

High Renaissance Painting (c.1490-1530)


High Renaissance Painting: Characteristics
Greatest High Renaissance Painters
Leonardo da Vinci (c.1490 onwards)
Raphael (1483-1520)
Michelangelo (1475-1564)
Dispersal of the High Renaissance Trio
Mannerist Tendencies (c.1512 onwards)
High Renaissance Ideals Outside Rome and Florence
Venetian High Renaissance Painting
Giorgione (1477-1510)
Titian (c.1488-1576)

Related Resources

Pre-Renaissance Painting (c.1300-1400)
Early Renaissance Painting (c.1400-90)

The Tempest (c.1508) (Detail)
By Giorgione.
Venice Academy. A masterpiece from
the Renaissance in Venice.

High Renaissance Painting: Characteristics (c.1490-1530)

The style of Italian painting known as "High Renaissance" represents the summit of Renaissance art and the culmination of all the exploratory activities of the quattrocento. It is characterized above all by the qualities of harmony and balance. Although movement is both necessary and important, it is always dignified and calm, and the viewer's eye is always provided with a point of focus. The picture is invariably totally balanced and self-contained, so that it satisfies the definition of beauty as offered by Leon Battista Alberti (1404-72) in his treatise Della Pittura: "such complete harmony of parts to which nothing can be added or taken away without destroying the whole." High Renaissance painting is neither as intense nor as self-conscious as that of the Early Renaissance. Nor is it as contrived as so much of Mannerist painting was to be. In respect of its evident calm and monumentality it is often bracketed with High Classical Greek Sculpture of the 5th century BCE.

Detail from, The School of Athens
(1509-11), in the ‘Raphael Rooms’ at
the Vatican Palace, Showing Plato
and Aristotle.

See: Best Artists of All Time.
See also: Greatest Paintings Ever.


Greatest High Renaissance Painters

Its greatest exponents were the Florentine geniuses Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, together with the Urbino master Raffaello Santi - known as Raphael - and the Venetian colourist Tiziano Vecellio - known as Titian. Other important High Renaissance painters include Andrea del Sarto (1486-1530) and Fra Bartolommeo (1472-1517) in Florence, Giovanni Bellini (1430-1516), Giorgione (1477-1510) and Sebastiano del Piombo (1485-1547) in Venice. That said, the story of the High Renaissance is closely associated with the Renaissance in Rome, where ambitious Popes including Julius II (1503-13) and Leo X (1513-21) financed a wide range of public art projects to ensure that the city surpassed Florence as the greatest cultural centre in Italy. In fact, both Florence and Rome became key stop-overs in the European Grand Tour of the 18th century. Important artists active outside the major centres, include Antonio Allegri da Correggio (1489-1534), the creator of the highly influential fresco the Assumption of the Virgin (Parma Cathedral) (1526-30).

Leonardo Da Vinci (c.1490 onwards)

The advanced style of painting practiced by Leonardo da Vinci in Milan was continued with modifications in Lombardy by his principal Milanese follower Bernardino Luini (c.1480-1532) and others. It found no immediate converts in his native Florence, however, even though his unfinished panel painting "Adoration of the Magi" remained close by the city, in the Monastery of San Donato a Scopeto. Some contemporaries of Leonardo, such as Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio, and Filippino Lippi did imitate the broad outlines of the picture, but they failed to absorb its deeper and more innovational features. The real impact of Leonardo's painting was seen only when he returned to Florence in 1500. Fellow artists and members of the public flocked to the church of the Santissima Annunziata to see his full-scale study for The Virgin and Child with St. Anne. His great mural depicting the Battle of Anghiari (1503-06) competed with work by his rival Michelangelo in a civic competition to record the history of Florence. Neither the panel nor the mural was ever finished. Even so, his art left an abiding impression on his native city. More was to come. His masterpiece Mona Lisa (La Gioconda), now in the Louvre, revolutionized portraiture, with its innovative shading technique - sfumato. (See also his earlier Lady with an Ermine, 1490, Czartoryski Museum, Krakow.) Among those greatly influenced by Leonardo's handling of light and shade was Fra Bartolommeo (1472-1517), later leader of the Florentine High Renaissance.

In addition, his Renaissance drawings stimulated both fellow artists to make similar preparatory studies for their paintings, and patrons to collect them. Above all, his reputation as an artist - who was also a scientist and scholar - rubbed off on his fellow artists, leading to improved opportunities and status for all.

Raphael (1483-1520)

The artist who assimilated most from the painting of Leonardo was undoubtedly Raphael. Son of the painter and writer Giovanni Santi, he was greatly influenced in his early days by Perugino (1450-1523). At the age of 21 he came to Florence as a respected artist, only to discover to his consternation that everything he had learned was old-fashioned and ultimately provincial. His immediate response was to set about learning the new style from the Florentines, including provincial artists working in Florence, such as Luca Signorelli (1450-1523). Out went his old style of drawing, with its tight contours and interior hatching; in came the more flowing style of Leonardo. From a close study of Leonardo's Virgin of the Rocks he came up with a new type of Madonna set against a soft and gentle landscape (The Madonna of the Goldfinch, Uffizi). He borrowed the format of Leonardo's Mona Lisa for his portrait paintings, and he also made a meticulous study of Michelangelo's sculpture. Within 5 years, by the time he left for Rome in 1509, Raphael had absorbed all Florence had to offer and was poised to make his own artistic statement.

Located on the upper floor of the Vatican palace, the Stanza della Segnatura was used by the ageing pontiff Pope Julius II (1503-13) as a library. It was here, between 1509 and 1511, that Raphael painted his famous fresco The School of Athens. It was the room's second mural painting to be completed, after La Disputa, on the opposite wall, and is regarded as one of the clearest and finest examples of the High Renaissance style. In this work, like Leonardo before him, Raphael creates a balance between the movement of the figures and the order and stability of the pictorial space. He populated the composition with numerous figures in a diverse variety of poses, yet manipulated these poses so as to finally lead the eye of the spectator to the central pair of Plato and Aristotle whom he made the converging point of his system of linear perspective. A masterful example of High Renaissance painterly technique. See also his wonderfully harmonious Sistine Madonna (1513-14, Gemaldegalerie Alte Meister Dresden).

Raphael's style continued to influence generations of artists in Rome and elsewhere. See, for instance, the work of Carlo Maratta (1625-1713), the leader Catholic artist after Bernini.

Michelangelo (1475-1564)

While the 26-year old Raphael was frescoing the Vatican apartments, the 33-year old Michelangelo Buonarroti was (against his will) decorating the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (1508-12) with his Genesis fresco. Although trained in fresco painting by Domenico Ghirlandaio - and influenced by others like Luca Signorelli - and despite having painted several high quality panels (eg. Tondo Doni, 1504-06), Michelangelo really saw himself as a sculptor. He actually began painting his Genesis fresco in collaboration with a number of other High Renaissance artists whom he knew from Ghirlandaio's workshop, but soon dismissed them, and painted the entire ceiling alone. Over the next four years (1508-12), he decorated some 1,000 square-metres of ceiling with a seething mass of brightly coloured figures, illustrating scenes from the biblical Book of Genesis, as well as others from the Old Testament and Classical mythology. One of these religious paintings - entitled The Creation of Adam - in which the kinetic energy of God the Creator contrasts vividly with the flaccid lifeless form of Adam - is regarded by many scholars as Christianity's greatest pictorial work. The Sistine ceiling was acclaimed as a masterpiece in its own time, and its creator was henceforth known as Michelangelo "Il divino", the divine Michelangelo. Contemporaries talked of his awesome power ("terribilita") and divine genius. These three artists - Leonardo, Raphael and Michelangelo - played a pivotal role in raising the status of the painter (and his disegno) to a new level, on a par with architects and similar experts. As it was, their enormous achievements set standards that were impossible to surpass - a factor which contributed to the emergence of the anti-classical style of Mannerism (c.1530-1600).



Dispersal of the High Renaissance Threesome

By 1513, the year of Julius II's death and the accession of Pope Leo X, the three greatest painters of the Italian High Renaissance were occupied with new projects that diverted them from their previous paths. Leonardo was at the French court in Milan, where he devoted himself to refining the Mona Lisa, writing his treatises and working on tasks for the French monarch. Italian patrons meanwhile had become wary of his relentless curiosity - a double-edged quality which resulted in most of his projects being left unfinished. Michelangelo was sculpting the tomb of Julius II in Rome; in 1516 he returned to Florence to complete a number of sculptural and architectural jobs for the Medici family. As for Raphael, he was becoming overloaded with administrative duties as the architect overseeing the construction of the new St. Peter's Basilica. As his workload increased, he began to depend more and more on Giulio Romano (c.1499-1546) and his other assistants. As a result only a handful of paintings were completed by his own hand during the period 1514-20. One of these was the glorious Sistine Madonna (1513-14, Gemaldegalerie Alte Meister Dresden), surely one of his greatest paintings.

Note: A great deal of the pioneering work on the attribution of paintings during the High Renaissance era, was done by the art historian Bernard Berenson (1865-1959), who lived most of his life near Florence, and published a number of highly influential works on the Italian Renaissance in Florence and elsewhere.

Mannerist Tendencies (c.1512 onwards)

Raphael's later Vatican frescoes in the Stanza d'Elidoro (1512-14) already show Mannerist tendencies - see, for instance The Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temples and the Liberation of St. Peter. One of his last (unfinished) works, The Transfiguration (1518-20, Pinacoteca Apostolica, Vatican, Rome) also shows unmistakable signs of Mannerist expressionism. In fact, some art historians believe that the dramatic tension contained within Raphael's figures, allied to his strong use of chiaroscuro, anticipates Baroque painting.

Leonardo's death in 1519, followed swiftly by that of the 37-year old Raphael in 1520, left Il Divino Michelangelo as the sole surviving genius of the Italian Renaissance. Fully occupied with Medici matters until 1527, when the powerful family was expelled from Florence, and then again from 1530 to 1534, it wasn't until 1534 that he settled in Rome. In the meantime, the High Renaissance world in which he had matured as an artist had changed out of all proportion. Rome had been sacked (1527) by troops of Emperor Charles V - who forced the Pope to abandon the Vatican and flee to Orvieto - and Florence besieged. Furthermore, the principles of High Renaissance Humanist philosophy had been overtaken by the rise of Northern Protestantism and its clash with the militant Catholic Counter-Reformation was on the horizon. Not surprisingly, this collapse of High Renaissance idealism is reflected in the dramatic content, swirling movement, and distorted forms of Michelangelo's Last Judgment fresco (1534-41) on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel - now regarded as the greatest masterpiece of religious art of the 16th century. As soon as the fresco was unveiled in 1541 it became a model for young artists. [In 1586, the painter Armenini, recollected how, as a young man, when he was drawing in the Sistine Chapel, he would overhear discussions about minute details of Michelangelo's work. It became a school for anatomy, the best place in Rome to study the male nude figure.] After capturing the mood of the moment with his thundering 'Last Judgment God', who seemed more concerned with condemning the human race than in welcoming the blessed into heaven, Michelangelo completed two final frescoes for the Farnese Pope Paul III's private chapel (Cappella Paolina) - the Conversion of St. Paul and the Crucifixion of St. Peter. The figures in these works are even more Mannerist than those in the Last Judgment. Given his aesthetic and spiritual doubts, it is perhaps no surprise that in his final 20 years Michelangelo largely abandoned painting and sculpture to focus on architecture.

High Renaissance Ideals Outside Rome and Florence

The ideals or aesthetics of the High Renaissance - as illustrated by the compositions of Leonardo, Raphael, and Michelangelo - continued to evolve outside the two major centres of Rome and Florence. In Parma, for instance, Correggio (1489-1534) was strongly influenced by Andrea Mantegna (1430-1506) and Leonardo's Milanese followers. His Rest on the Flight into Egypt (Uffizi, Florence) and the Madonna of the Bowl (1525, National Gallery, Parma) are clearly executed in the idiom of the High Renaissance. Even so, Correggio is probably best known for his soaring frescoes on the duomo of Parma Cathedral (1524-30) and in the church of San Giovanni Evangelista - which provided a perfect model for the illusionistic quadratura and other trompe l'oeil devices of later Baroque painting - and for his late series of sensuous Mannerist-style paintings such as Jupiter and Io (1532-3, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna). See Parma School of painting, for more details.

Venetian High Renaissance Painting

During the late quattrocento, painting in Venice followed a similar type of path to that of the Renaissance in Florence, albeit with a Venetian twist. Giovanni Bellini's Madonnas of 1505-10, for instance, are stylistically quite similar to those painted by Raphael in Florence at about the same time. His San Zaccaria altarpiece ("Enthroned Madonna with Four Saints") (1505) endows the theme of the sacra conversazione with a definite High Renaissance flavour. Giovanni Bellini (1430-1516) was the dominant force in Venetian painting by the 1490s, and his style had a huge impact on younger painters such as Giorgione and Titian, as well as Lorenzo Lotto (1480-1556). In any event, Venetian painters traditionally attached more importance to luminosity of colour (partly a result of their expertise with oil paint), as well as compositional expressiveness - in contrast to the more rarified classical style of painting practiced in Rome. For more about altarpiece art during the High Renaissance, see: Venetian altarpieces (c.1500-1600); for portraiture, see: Venetian Portrait Painting (c.1400-1600). See also: Titian and Venetian Colour Painting (c.1500-76). See also: Legacy of Venetian Painting on European art.


Giorgione (1477-1510)

Giorgione learned an enormous amount from Bellini, but then far exceeded his master to create a type of lyrical landscape painting that can only be compared with pastoral poetry. In his short career this innovative young painter gave his contemporaries a master-class in how to exploit the medium of oil paint to create the illusion of textures and light in their paintings. His earliest work, the Madonna and Child with Saints Francis and Liperale (c.1504, Castelfranco Cathedral), borrows heavily from Bellini. Yet within a few years Giorgione moved from this style of painting, via the mysterious and foreboding Tempest (c.1505, Venice Academy Gallery), to the lyrical Sleeping Venus (1510, Gemaldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden) and the dreamy Pastoral Concert (c.1510, Louvre). The last mentioned picture reveals the Venetian love of texture, for he renders exactly the contrasting textures of flesh, fabric, stone, wood and foliage. Giorgione's soft, diffused light, together with his gentle landscape - hills stretching into the distance and all harsh contours removed, creates a perfectly pastoral mood: a technique which became characteristic of Venetian painting of the 16th century and one of great importance in the evolution of Baroque art.

Titian (c.1488-1576)

The impact of Giorgione on Venetian art was immediate, and on none more so than Titian. Although not a student of Giorgione, he collaborated with him on one project and completed a number of his paintings. In his Sacred and Profane Love (1512-15, Borghese Gallery, Rome) Titian shows himself capable of rivaling Giorgione using Giorgione's own painting techniques. If the Giorgione's influence is particularly evident in Titian's profane paintings, Bellini's is visible in the religious paintings, and he continued to act as Titian's teacher and rival until his death in 1516 - some 6 years after the demise of Giorgione - when Titian himself emerged as the leading figure in Venetian painting.

Titian's inspirational Assumption of the Virgin (1516-18, S. Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice), established him as Bellini's successor. Reflecting the Venetian love of colour in painting, its balance and movement - despite certain obvious Mannerist elements - is comparable with that of Raphael's School of Athens, in both its conception and grandeur. The Assumption - together with Sacred and Profane Love (1512-15), The Entombment of Christ (1523-26, Louvre, Paris) and the Pesaro Madonna (1519-26; Santa Maria dei Frari) - exemplifies Titian's contribution to High Renaissance art. Once in his 40s - with the exception of occasional calm compositions like Venus of Urbino (1538, Uffizi, Florence) - Titian moved further and further away from the High Renaissance idiom.

Titian's portraiture was derivative yet markedly Venetian. His masterpiece Pope Paul III with his Grandsons (Cardinals Alessandro, Ottavio Farnese) (1546, Capodimonte Museum, Naples) - which deliberately rivals Raphael's Pope Leo X with Cardinals (Giulio de' Medici and Luigi de' Rossi) (c.1518, Galleria Palatina, Pitti Palace, Florence) - shows clearly that Venetian painting was the equal of the Florentine-Roman tradition. His Danae with Nursemaid (c.1553, Prado, Madrid) pits the sensuous colourism of Venetian painting against the sculptural tradition of Michelangelo for later historians to judge.

Titian's late works carry the oil medium to new heights. His painterly methods included: full use of preparatory studies and drawings to enable him to create paintings that look as if they have been freshly painted in the heat of inspiration; the use of loosely juxtaposed patches of colour; paint applied freely and loosely with the brush and then reworked with his fingers.

Two late works in particular show the scope of Titian's genius. The Martyrdom of St. Lawrence (c.1548-50, Church of the Jesuits, Venice), painted when the artist was 60, shows all the enthusiasm of youth. Notice the Mannerist foreshortening and exaggeration, as well as his handling of light, which are used to emphasize the dramatic and emotional content of the painting. The same intensity of drama, light, and colour can be seen in Rape of Europa (c. 1559-62; Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston) - a style which prefigured the work of Rubens and the Baroque. Titian's long and magisterial career had an enormous impact on Mannerist artists in Venice. The city's other two great painters of the 16th century, Paolo Veronese and Tintoretto, each focused on a different aspect of Titian's style of painting and developed it.


Frescoes and oil paintings from the High Renaissance can be seen in most of the best art museums around the world, notably the Uffizi Gallery, Florence; the Vatican Museums in Rome, and the Pitti Palace, Florence.

• For the meaning of important High Renaissance pictures, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed.
• For information about Italian 16th century painting, see: Homepage.

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