At the start of this period, the region is fragmented into city-states dominated by Venice and Milan, two great rivals whose territorial holdings extend over much of northern Italy (with frequently changing boundaries). Even after peace is established between the two at Lodi in 1454, political strife continues through the sixteenth century, as the area is subject to invasion by foreign powers intent on possession of Milan and parts of the Venetian terra firma. Meanwhile, to preserve their own authority, city-states frequently form alliances with and against each other, often with papal or imperial support.
The Renaissance ideals that prevail in central Italy by the turn of the fifteenth century take root in the north by mid-century. Painting, architecture, and the liberal arts flourish at the courts of noble rulers such as the Sforza in Milan, the Gonzaga in Mantua, and the Este in Ferrara. Above all, however, Venice is home to a celebrated school of painting and many of the greatest masters of the period.
Venice is one of Europe’s wealthiest and most powerful cities, with an extensive overseas trade empire. Venetian culture is so marked by material opulence that sumptuary laws are adopted and enforced with only nominal success.
Ludovico II Gonzaga (r. 1444–78), a member of the influential ruling family of Mantua (from 1328), Montferrat (from 1536), and Guastalla (from 1539), is named marquis of Mantua. Under Ludovico, the great architect Leon Battista Alberti (1404–1472) designs the Church of Sant’Andrea in Mantua, and the painter Andrea Mantegna (1430/31–1506) enters his service. Even more illustrious as an art patron at the Gonzaga court is Isabella d’Este (1474–1539), a daughter of the ruling house of Ferrara and Modena and wife of Francesco Gonzaga (r. 1484–1519). Highly educated and versed in music, poetry, and classical languages, Isabella is also a consummate collector: among the cultural luminaries with whom she associates are the poets Matteo Maria Boiardo (ca. 1441–1494) and Ludovico Ariosto (1474–1533), and numerous artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Bellini, and Perugino.
Giovanni Bellini (ca. 1430–1516) is the foremost Venetian painter of his time. Known particularly for compositions of the Madonna and Child and sacre conversazioni, of which the altarpiece for the Church of San Zaccaria is one of the most celebrated, Bellini develops a style of painting that combines the sculptural monumentality of the Florentine tradition with a lyricism achieved by rich, saturated colors and subtle effects of light and shade. Among his pupils are the later masters Giorgione (ca. 1477/8–1510) and Titian (Tiziano Vecellio) (ca. 1485/90–1576).
Sigismondo Malatesta (1417–1468), a member of the ruling house of Rimini (in Romagna), commissions Alberti to rebuild the thirteenth-century Church of San Francesco. The renovated structure, called the Tempio Malatestiano, reflects Alberti’s admiration for classical models in its marked emulation of the nearby Arch of Augustus (27 B.C.), as well as the patron’s ambitions to identify himself with the glory of the Roman emperors.
The death of Filippo Maria Visconti (1392–1447) ends more than two centuries of Visconti rule in Milan. A republic (the so-called Ambrosian Republic) is established at his death, but by 1450, Filippo’s son-in-law, Francesco Sforza (1401–1466), is named duke of Milan. The city flourishes under the patronage of the Sforza family, who remain in power, with interruptions, until 1535, after which possession of the duchy is contested by Spain and France.
Ferrara, ruled by the Este family, is a center for humanist learning and the arts. Chiefly responsible for this is Leonello d’Este (1407–1450), himself a scholar and avid patron. Several years later, Ercole I d’Este (1431–1505) cultivates in Ferrara his love for Northern art and culture, supporting the production of manuscript illumination and commissioning music from the celebrated Flemish composer Josquin des Prez (ca. 1450–1521).
Characterized by a humanistic treatment of subject matter and an emphasis on rational space, proportion, and perspective, the Renaissance style, which has by this time flourished in Tuscany, makes its way to northern Italy. These developments are inspired by visiting artists such as Paolo Uccello (1397–1475)—who travels to Venice earlier in the century, contributing mosaics to the Cathedral of San Marco—and Donatello, who produces among other commissions the earliest significant equestrian monument in the new Renaissance style, the Gattamelata, during his ten-year stay in Padua from 1443–53. An important school of painting develops in Padua, of which Andrea Mantegna (1430/31–1506) is the chief exponent. Mantegna is among the first artists of the Renaissance to produce images that combine mythological subject matter with a style based on the study of ancient art; his prints, accessible by a wide audience, are especially vital in the dissemination of Renaissance ideals.
Giovanni Antonio Amadeo constructs the exquisitely ornamented Cappella Colleoni in Bergamo (ruled by Venice), the city’s finest fifteenth-century structure.
In 1464, the first printing press arrives in Italy and by 1467 the first printed book to include woodcut illustrations has been published in Rome. In Venice, the first book is printed by Johannes de Spira of Mainz in 1469; in 1476 the first book with woodcut decoration is published by the innovative typographer and printer Erhard Ratdolt of Augsburg. Soon many other Northern European printers set up shop in Venice, which by the end of the century has become the center of international book publishing. Partly because the foreign printers are often accompanied by Northern (particularly German) specialists in woodblock cutting, Venice also becomes the most flourishing center of woodcut illustration in Italy, a position it enjoys until the third quarter of the sixteenth century.
Sculpture and architecture are dominated by Lombard mason-artists. Foremost among these are Pietro Lombardo (ca. 1435–1515) and his sons Antonio (ca. 1458–1516) and Tullio Lombardo (ca. 1455–1532). In 1504, Pomponius Gauricus (ca. 1482–ca. 1530) publishes his treatise on the art of sculpture (De Sculptura), extolling Tullio as the greatest sculptor of his time.
Marcantonio Raimondi (ca. 1480–before 1534) is born near Bologna. His successful career as an engraver includes a close partnership with the painter Raphael, whose works Raimondi reproduces. He also copies many of the graphic works of the great German master Albrecht Dürer, and after Raphael’s death in 1520, the works of his follower, Giulio Romano.
Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) enters the service of Ludovico Sforza in Milan, where he and assistants execute a version of the Virgin of the Rocks (now Paris, Louvre), and the Last Supper, one of his greatest and best-known works, for the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie. Leonardo leaves Milan after the fall of the Sforza family from power in 1499 and travels briefly to Venice and Mantua before resettling in Florence. He returns to Milan for seven years in 1508 in the service of Louis XII of France (r. 1498–1515).
Aldus Manutius (ca. 1450–1515) sets up a printing press in Venice, the new book publishing center of Europe. A scholar keenly interested in the classics, Manutius publishes editions of Greek and Roman texts—most famously the five-volume works of Aristotle (1495–98)—as well as contemporary humanist works such as the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (23.73.10)(1499), a complex tale of erotic love and antiquarianism. The Hypnerotomachia provides an influential contribution to the rediscovery of the classical world in its employment of mythological imagery. The legacy of the Aldine Press continues after its founder’s death in the hands of Aldus’ son, Paulus Manutius (1512–1574), and grandson, Aldus Manutius the Younger (1547–1597).
Painter, printmaker, and theoretician Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) leaves his native Nuremberg for the first of two journeys to Italy (the second in 1505–7), staying principally in Venice, where he later produces the Virgin of the Rose Garlands (1506) altarpiece for the Confraternity of the Rosary. In Italy, Dürer admires works of classical antiquity as well as those of contemporary masters such as Andrea Mantegna and Giovanni Bellini. Dürer’s sensitivity to Italianate form as well as his attention to classical proportion and perspective contribute to his renown as the most influential German artist of his time; his prints also exert a profound influence on Italian artists of this period and of future generations.
Various European powers, particularly France and Spain, vie for control of several Italian city-states in a series of conflicts known as the Italian Wars (or Habsburg-Valois Wars). In 1494, Charles VIII of France (r. 1483–98) begins invading the Italian peninsula; in 1499, his successor Louis XII (r. 1498–1515) seizes Genoa and Milan, and attempts, unsuccessfully, to take Naples as well. The French defend their claims in northern Italy until 1559, when the Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis establishes Spanish rule in Milan and Naples.
Venetian publisher Lucantonio Giunta produces an illustrated Italian edition of the Metamorphoses of Ovid (43 B.C.–17 A.D.). The Augustan poet’s compendium of classical myths is an essential reference for innumerable artists—through this period and the next—who depict the adventures of gods, be they amorous, valorous, or treacherous.
Giorgione (ca. 1477/8–1510) paints The Tempest, an enigmatic and atmospheric work, for a private collector in Venice. His preoccupation with pastoral setting and treatment of the female nude in this and other works from his brief career look forward to an even greater development in the oeuvre of his contemporary, Titian. Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574), in his Lives of the Artists (1550, revised 1568), calls Giorgione the founder of modern Venetian painting.
Pope Julius II forms the League of Cambrai with Emperor Maximilian I, Ferdinand V of Aragon, and Louis XII of France, with the aim of ending the territorial dominance of the Republic of Venice, then in possession of an enormous empire west of the city known as the terra firma, and with possessions not only in Italy but also along the Dalmatian coast. While the republic suffers several losses in wars of the following two years, it remains a major political and economic power throughout the sixteenth century.
Titian (born Tiziano Vecellio, ca. 1488–1576), the outstanding painter of his time in northern Italy, is active as an independent master. Throughout his long and successful career, Titian is employed by the dukes of Urbino, Mantua, and Ferrara, honored by Emperor Charles V, and avidly collected by Philip II of Spain. His early paintings show the influence of Giorgione, with whom he collaborates on a series of frescoes for the Fondaco dei Tedeschi in Venice.
Venetian painter Lorenzo Lotto (ca. 1480–1556) settles in Bergamo, where he remains until 1525. There, under the patronage of Conte Alessandro Martinengo-Colleoni, Lotto paints a high altarpiece for the Church of SS. Stefano e Domenico, his first great work for the city.
Titian paints an Assumption of the Virgin for the Church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice. The emotional fervor and sense of drama, dynamic forms, and lush palette of this imposing altarpiece are characteristic of the master’s oeuvre, and he lends these qualities to sacred and profane subjects alike. In the years immediately following the completion of thisAssunta, Titian paints three bacchanals (ca. 1518–22) for Duke Alfonso d’Este in Ferrara and in 1519 is contracted to paint the Pesaro Madonna (Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice, completed 1526), a monumental recreation of the compositional type known as the sacra conversazione (holy conversation).
Correggio (active by 1514–died 1534) secures a commission for the dome fresco of Parma Cathedral, for which he paints the Assumption of the Virgin (completed 1530). This illusionistic fresco full of sharply foreshortened figures is Correggio’s great masterpiece, and is among the most influential works for Baroque artists in the next century.
A painter of provincial birth called Il Pordenone (ca. 1483–1539) paints a set of organ shutters for the Duomo at Spilimbergo (in Friuli). The Assumption of the Virgin, painted on the outside of the shutters, employs an illusionistic perspective to theatrical effect. Pordenone later has a major career painting in Cremona, Piacenza (both Lombardy), and Venice.
Giulio Romano (ca. 1492–1546), a Roman painter, architect, and former pupil of Raphael, leaves Rome and enters the service of Federigo Gonzaga (1500–1540) in Mantua. The Palazzo del Te (completed 1534) is his finest work of the period, in both its exterior construction and opulent interior decoration, including a lavish mythological fresco cycle for the Sala di Psiche.
Jacopo Sansovino (1486–1570), having earned renown in both Rome and Florence, flees the sack of Rome and settles in Venice, where in 1529 he is placed in charge of building projects on the Piazza San Marco. By the mid-1530s, he designs three major buildings for this location: the mint, or Zecca, the Loggetta, and the Libreria Marciana, thought to be his masterpiece. The decorative program for the library includes contributions from major artists of the time, including the sculptor Alessandro Vittoria (1524/5–1608), and the painters Tintoretto (1519–1594) and Paolo Veronese (1528–1588).
Formerly active in the workshop of Raphael, painter Perino del Vaga (Pietro Buonaccorsi) (1501–1547) travels to Genoa, where he works on the Palazzo del Principe of Genoese statesman Andrea Doria (1466–1560). Perino oversees the remodeling of the palazzo, which was damaged in a fire in 1527, and begins the decorative program of mythological and historical subjects by about 1529. A major surviving work from the palazzo is the Fall of the Giantsfresco (ca. 1531) in the west salon.
Parmigianino (1503–1540), so called because of his birthplace, Parma, journeys from Rome to Bologna after the sack of 1527, later resettling in his native city. There he produces what is not only the great masterpiece of his career, but is also among the finest works of Mannerist painting: the Madonna dal Collo Lungo (Madonna of the Long Neck) (ca. 1535, now Florence, Uffizi). With elongated form and elegant, stylized gesture, Parmigianino achieves an epitome of grace and refinement.
Ludovico Ariosto (1474–1533) publishes the final version (first version, 1516) of Orlando Furioso, one of the greatest and most influential epic poems of its time. Continuing the unfinishedOrlando Innamorato (1487) of poet Matteo Maria Boiardo, Orlando Furioso takes as its subject the medieval French hero Roland. The poem is written as a tribute to Ariosto’s patrons, the Este family of Ferrara.
The Farnese summon Titian to Rome, where he enters their service for several months. During his stay, he paints several portraits for the family, notably the Portrait of Paul III and His Nephews (1546).
The first session of the Council of Trent convenes in the city of the same name (region of Trentino-Alto Adige) with the aim of initiating reform within the Roman Catholic Church and checking the spread of Protestantism throughout Europe. It reaffirms church doctrine, asserts the authority of the Vulgate, and provides a detailed justification for the seven sacraments. The council also demands strict attention to decorum and the necessary legibility of images in sacred art. The movement known as the Counter-Reformation is largely concerned with upholding the beliefs either set forth or elucidated by the council in this and two following sessions (1551–52, 1562–63). A number of texts are produced as a result of the council’s demands; of particular note is the Discorso intorno alle immagini sacre e profane of Cardinal Gabriele Paleotti (1522–1597), which details the responsibilities of the Christian artist.
After meeting Titian at Bologna in 1533, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (r. 1519–56) invites the master to Augsburg, where he paints a series of portraits for the emperor. Even after his return to Venice, Titian maintains contact with his Habsburg patrons, winning extraordinary favor with Charles’s son and later king of Spain, Philip II (r. 1556–98). Around 1550, Titian begins a cycle of mythological paintings (which he refers to as poesie), many of which depict climactic scenes from the myths, to be sent to Philip at the Escorial, the monarch’s palace near Madrid. He also paints several religious works for Philip.
Andrea Palladio (1508–1580), the great architect of Paduan birth, undertakes his first major commission: the renovation of the town hall, called the Basilica, in Vicenza. For the facade of this structure, he employs a motif of arches supported by slender columns, which are in turn framed by engaged piers; this is later known as the Palladian motif.
As the city of Genoa, formerly controlled by France and Milan, regains political and financial power, significant programs of urbanization are initiated; foremost among these is the Strada Nuova (completed 1558), a wide street fronted by a series of splendid palazzi.
The painter Tintoretto (1519–1594), much sought after by the scuole (lay devotional organizations) of Venice, begins a monumental series of paintings for the Scuola di San Rocco, on which he works for over two decades. The pictures, including scenes from the Passion of Christ, are characteristic mature works, with their unconventional perspective and expressive handling of light and shadow.
Greek painter Domenikos Theotokopoulos (1541–1614), called El Greco, travels to Venice. Trained previously in his native Crete, and later in Rome (1570–76), his works combine Byzantine elements with an intense color palette characteristic of Venetian painting—particularly the works of Titian, in whose workshop El Greco may have studied—and dynamic compositional techniques influenced by Roman mannerism.
Andrea Palladio publishes The Four Books on Architecture (I quattro libri dell’architettura). Taking as his inspiration the treatise of ancient Roman architect/author Vitruvius, Palladio’s Four Books include architectural and proportional studies based on antique models as well as his own designs. Shortly before this (1565), he begins work on the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice, one of his most important commissions. This central-plan structure exemplifies the balance and harmony that Palladio advocates throughout his career. In the following years (ca. 1566–70), he designs the Villa Rotonda in Vicenza, perhaps the most celebrated of the many secular structures for which he is known. Consisting of simple geometric components—primarily the circle and square—the Rotonda is a masterwork of perfect symmetry, and is thought by contemporaries to manifest an architectural “ideal.”
Venetian, Spanish, and papal ships defeat the Ottoman fleet at the Battle of Lepanto, vastly diminishing both Ottoman domination of the Mediterranean and the threat of future assault.
Paolo Caliari, called Veronese (1528–1588), executes a Last Supper for the refectory of SS. Giovanni e Paolo, Venice. In it he includes animals, clowns, and a host of other lively characters in colorful contemporary dress. For this he is summoned before the Inquisition and charged with heresy, but is excused and made only to retitle the work after a less sacred biblical event, the Feast in the House of Levi. Veronese continues to execute characteristically splendid, brilliantly colored paintings, including the Rape of Europa and other works for the Doge’s Palace in Venice, as well as sensitive portraits.
A fire destroys much of the Doge’s Palace in Venice, including works by Titian and Veronese.
Painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571–1610) receives his artistic training in Milan. After completion of his apprenticeship, he travels to Rome (1592) and enters the service of Cardinal Francesco del Monte.
“Venice and Northern Italy, 1400–1600 A.D.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ht/?period=08®ion=eustn (October 2002)