Whereas the Renaissance is generally a period of cultural and stylistic rebirth of Ancient Classical cultures and styles, the artworks of the Early Italian Renaissance demonstrate a significant departure from some of the guiding principles of artworks throughout the Middle Ages. Artists and artisans developed and perfected the Gothic nascent interest in naturalistic representations of forms and places. They went to great lengths to understand how the human eye perceived the material world in order to replicate it in their works through the use of perspective, chiaroscuro, and human anatomy. In addition, this is a period of significant financial growth in some regions, resulting in hotspots of artistic activity, such as in Florence. Let's explore this period a little more in depth.
The painting shows the moment when Christ, standing in the center dressed in purple and blue garments, gives the keys of the heavenly kingdom to the kneeling St. Peter. This episode comes from the Gospel of Matthew (16:18-19) as Christ said to Peter: “And I tell you that you are Peter (Petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church… I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven….” The pair of gold and silver keys became Saint Peter’s attribute (an attribute, in this sense, is an object associated with a saint that aids the viewer in identifying the saint).
Perugino pulled out every pictorial device in his painter’s arsenal to construct an image that is reflective of Renaissance ideals: figures, balance, harmony, and three-dimensional space. To begin with, see that the pictorial field has been clearly delineated into three distinct planes: foreground, middle-ground and background. In the foreground, on either side of Christ and St. Peter—are the other eleven Apostles.
Like all artwork, the context of this work helps us to know how to understand the work in its own time. As you consider this work, refer to the elements of art listed in Tier 2: Context.
In this work, several contexts illuminate various aspects of the work, such as aesthetics and logistics. One of the defining characteristics of the Italian Renaissance was the interest in all aspects of classical antiquity (ancient Greece and Rome), especially its aesthetics of art and architecture. That interest in manifested in Perugino’s fresco in two different ways. One is his use of contrapposto (Italian meaning “counter-pose”) for some of the foreground figures. This pose (seen in several of the figures in the work) was known in the Renaissance through copies of ancient Greek sculpture. When standing in contrapposto, one leg bears all of the person’s weight while remains relaxed at the knee, producing a very natural stance.
The second nod to antiquity is in the architecture. The central “temple” in the background of Perugino’s fresco is based on the Florence Baptistery, which was believed at the time to have been an ancient Roman temple. And at either side of the piazza are representations of the Arch of Constantine (in Rome). The arch commemorates Constantine the Great, the Roman emperor who legalized Christianity in 314 CE. Famously converting to Christianity on his deathbed in 336 CE, he effectively became the first Christian Roman emperor. Moreover, Constantine founded St. Peter’s Basilica, the site of Peter’s burial and the location of Perugino’s fresco. Thus, the inclusion of the Arch of Constantine was an important reference to the history of Rome, and St. Peter and the basilica.
In terms of logistics, the work was part of a large decorative program commissioned by Pope Sixtus IV in 1481 for the walls of the Sistine Chapel (the name “Sistine” being derived from Sixtus’ own name), which was then, as it is today, the pope’s private chapel in the Vatican, in Rome. This large scale fresco, measuring 10’10” x 18’, is part of the New Testament narrative cycle depicting events from the life of Christ on the north wall of the chapel (the south wall illustrates the Old Testament life of Moses). The narrative and style employed not only recount an important Biblical story, but position the Pope as an heir to Classical learning and ideals.
While much of the distinction between the art of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance has to do with a focus on naturalism—such as through greater emphasis on the human form or the application of visual perspective—there are more factors at work than might be detectable to the uninformed viewer. Indeed, the very reason that Renaissance artists and artisans became so fascinated with naturalism has much to do with growing interest in history and attempts at reconciling Christianity with earlier pagan philosophies. This interest, identified as humanism by later historians, characterizes much of the artistic and aesthetic choices of many influential figures from this period.
Beginning in the thirteenth century, Italian buildings, sculptures, and paintings began to look increasingly like they did in the ancient Greco-Roman world, even if the subject matter, contexts, and functions were vastly different. Eager to serve the interests of their classically inclined patrons and to demonstrate their own ingenuity, visual artists explored new approaches to form inspired by surviving art and architecture from antiquity as well as ancient authors’ discussions of them.
While it is helpful for a broad overview such as this, to use a blanket term like “Antique” to designate cultural production of the ancient Greek and Roman worlds is misleading as it suggests there was a single artistic tradition, passed from Greece to Rome, that constituted art before the Christian era. In fact, what we designate as “ancient art” includes a vast range of subjects and styles. Renaissance artists responded to different facets of ancient art at different times, often due to their own or their patron’s interests or to broader stylistic trends. Donatello, for example, drew upon Etruscan, Early Christian, Neo-Attic, as well as ancient Greek and Roman art forms from various periods throughout his career. Scholars note that artists gravitated to those ancient art forms that best aligned with their personal or regional worldview.
One way this is particularly evident, is the preference for some artists to engage with figures of Ancient Greek and Roman mythology in their paintings. Sandro Botticelli is one such artist. Let's explore his enigmatic "La Primavera."
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