By the end of the fifteenth century, a remarkable number of Italian cities north of the Apennines were firmly established as great artistic centers. These included cities with dazzling courts, such as Milan, Bologna, Ferrara, and Mantua, and, of course, the Republic of Venice. Other cities, such as Bergamo, Brescia, and Parma, rose to prominence in the sixteenth century. The region was dominated by Venice and Milan, which had long vied for control of the lands that stretched between them. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, the political situation in northern Italy was further complicated by French, Spanish, and papal claims to various parts of the peninsula. In the years that followed, the Spanish, the Venetians, and the Papal States consolidated their control, although some cities managed to maintain their independence.
Despite the political uncertainty of the first decades of the sixteenth century, the arts flourished in all of the principal cities across Lombardy, Emilia-Romagna, and the Veneto. Even the contemporary artist and biographer Giorgio Vasari, author of the groundbreaking Lives of the Artists (1550, 1568) and a staunch defender of all things Tuscan and Roman, had to admit that Giorgione and Titian in Venice and Correggio in Parma were brilliant practitioners of what he called the maniera moderna, or modern manner of painting.
In discussing these schools of painting, distinct regional characteristics are evident. For example, in Lombardy and its capital, Milan, beginning in the late fifteenth century there was a fascination with the visual effects of perspective. In Bologna and Ferrara, in Emilia, there were other interests, such as a desire to emulate Raphael and other artists active in central Italy and the creation of paintings suggestive of poetry. Sixteenth-century Venetian painters long enjoyed a reputation as the standard-bearers of an approach that was at once painterly, affective, and steeped in the primacy of color—colore—as its guiding principle. Nonetheless, painters in the three regions shared many aesthetic goals, and many artistic ties bound them together. For one, after the 1480s and well into the next century, Leonardo da Vinci’s influence was strong and can be seen in paintings from Milan, Bologna, and Parma. More broadly observant viewers and authors sensed that Lombard, Emilian, and Venetian painters were unified by the naturalism of their painting—in degrees that varied from artist to artist and area to area but nonetheless present almost everywhere. “Naturalism” to them meant an investigation of the natural world, with its emphasis on direct observation as translated into paint—an emphasis that separated their work from the strongly classicizing styles of their fellow artists south of the Apennines.