Painting in Italy around 1500 1: Tradition

Fra Bartolomeo (1472–1517), Adoration of the Child (c 1499), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Galleria Borghese, Rome. Wikimedia Commons.

The period around 1500 was a time of great change in Italian painting, when some of the greatest masters were creating masterworks. To provide context for the commemoration of the life and work of Piero di Cosimo, this weekend I look at some of the other artists active in the Southern Renaissance at that time. Because I take a narrow window in time, I’ve arranged most of these paintings in order according to the age of the artist, starting with the oldest, and often the most traditional.

Giovanni Bellini (about 70 years old in 1500) is generally considered to have brought a revolution to painting in his native Venice with his use of rich colours and glazes of oil paint.

Giovanni Bellini (c 1430–1516), The Doge Leonardo Loredan (c 1501), oil on poplar, 61.6 × 45.1 cm, The National Gallery, London. Courtesy of The National Gallery.

His portrait of The Doge Leonardo Loredan from about 1501 explores the texture and properties of oil paint using fine impasto, something unique to oil paint, and a radical departure from anything achieved with egg tempera or fresco.

Giovanni Bellini (c 1430–1516) (workshop of), Madonna and Child with Saint John the Baptist (c 1490-1500), tempera and oil on wood, 76.2 × 58.4 cm, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis, IN. Wikimedia Commons.

Although perhaps not by the hand of Bellini himself, Madonna and Child with Saint John the Baptist (c 1490-1500) is a good example of the fine modelling of textiles and textures.

The paintings of Andrea Mantegna (69 years old) are a marked contrast, given that he was from the same generation as Giovanni Bellini, worked in Venice for much of his career, and married into the Bellini family too.

Andrea Mantegna (1431–1506), Triumph of the Virtues (Pallas Expelling the Vices from the Garden of Virtue) (1499-1502), tempera and oil on canvas, 160 x 192 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Isabella d’Este, Marchionness of Mantua, commissioned Mantegna late in his career to paint a moralistic allegory of The Triumph of the Virtues, or Pallas Expelling the Vices from the Garden of Virtue (1499-1502), which he executed largely in egg tempera rather than oils. The scene is a garden with a pond, near a river which meanders down to a lush valley in the distance. Inside its arched perimeter Pallas Athena, at the left with her distinctive helmet and shield, is chasing away figures representing the vices.

At the far left is a tree representing Virtue Deserted, and to the right of Athena’s feet is the armless vice of Idleness. Also in the pond is a centaur who carries a standing figure, usually read as Diana, on its back. At the far right is the virtue of Prudence represented as a message from within her prison, and in the sky are the virtues of Justice, Temperance and Fortitude.

In Piero’s Florence, the most senior master was Sandro Botticelli (55 years old), whose pioneering secular narrative paintings I’ll look at in tomorrow’s article.

Sandro Botticelli (1445–1510), Mystic Nativity (1500), oil on canvas, 108.6 × 74.9 cm, The National Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.

In the final years of the fifteenth century, Botticelli became a follower of the Dominican friar Savonarola, and in 1500 he painted this Mystic Nativity. At its heart are traditional key elements, but they’re set uniquely between scenes which today look quite bizarre.

At the very top is an inscription in Greek, which means: “This picture, at the end of the year 1500, in the troubles of Italy, I Alessandro, in the half-time after the time, painted, according to the eleventh [chapter] of Saint John, in the second woe of the Apocalypse, during the release of the devil for three-and-a-half years; then he shall be bound in the twelfth [chapter] and we shall see [him buried] as in this picture.” This refers to the chapters from Revelation which Savonarola had used in his preaching.

Below that are twelve angels, dressed in the colours associated with faith, hope, and charity, who are circling a golden opening in the heavens. The angels fly/dance in a circle, clutching olive branches, at the bottom of which are crowns associated with the kingship of Christ. The ribbon-like objects are in fact scrolls, which examination by infra-red reflectography has shown to bear inscriptions meaning “peace on earth to men of good will”.

Below this is the traditional cattle-shed with the holy parents and infant, standard animals, shepherds, and further angels.

At the foot of the nativity scene is another passage which appears strange. Three angels are seen embracing men, possibly a reference to Savonarola and his accompanying martyrs. Behind them, among the path and rocks, are seven small devils, some of them already impaled on their own weapons, who are fleeing back to the underworld.

Among the next generation of artists, Pietro Perugino (52 years old) came from Umbria but was apprenticed alongside Leonardo da Vinci in Florence, and taught Raphael.

Pietro Perugino (1448–1523), Tezi Altarpiece (Virgin and Child, Saint Nicholas of Tolentino and Saint Bernardino of Siena) (1500), media and dimensions not known, Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria, Perugia, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

The Tezi Altarpiece from 1500 is among Perugino’s major religious works.

Perhaps the most famous single work of art of these few years was painted by Leonardo da Vinci (48 years old) in a convent in Milan.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), The Last Supper (1498), mixed oil and tempera on plaster, 460 x 880 cm, Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan. Wikimedia Commons.

Leonardo’s innovation in using oils for what would normally have been a fresco was almost the undoing of The Last Supper (c 1495-97). What we now see on the refectory wall in that convent is a pale and changed reflection of the magnificent work which he painted, because of his choice of media and seemingly endless attempts to repaint sections over the centuries since.

Giampietrino (1495–1549), copy after Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), The Last Supper (c 1520), oil on canvas, 298 x 770 cm, The Royal Academy of Arts, London. Wikimedia Commons.

Giampietrino’s copy made in about 1520 gives the closest impression today of what the original must have looked like.

Leonardo was ten years older than Piero di Cosimo, who was in turn ten years older than Fra Bartolomeo (28 years old), who like Piero was also apprenticed to Cosimo Rosselli in Florence, and like Botticelli was strongly influenced by Savonarola.

Fra Bartolomeo (1472–1517), The Rest on The Flight into Egypt (c 1500), tempera and oil on canvas, 135 x 114 cm, Palazzo Vescovile, Pienza, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

Bartolomeo’s Rest on The Flight into Egypt from about 1500 is a traditional composition showing Mary and Joseph during their journey to Egypt. The more distant landscape is less detailed, but his donkey and palm trees are delightful.

Fra Bartolomeo (1472–1517), Adoration of the Child (c 1499), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Galleria Borghese, Rome. Wikimedia Commons.

His tondo of the Adoration of the Child was another of his last works before he took orders and stopped painting. Its reading depends on the interpretation of the spring flowers in the foreground: if these are symbolic of new life, then it could safely be a nativity scene; if they are literal indicators of the season, then this is intended to show an adoration well after Christ’s birth, and probably after the return from Egypt.

Tomorrow I’ll look at those who were still rising stars, and the state of mythological painting at the time.