the school of athens and the birth of venus
Set in an immense architectural illusion painted by Raphael, The School of Athens is a masterpiece that visually represents an intellectual concept. In one painting, Raphael used groupings of figures to lay out a complex lesson on the history of philosophy and the different beliefs that were developed by the great Greek philosophers.
In particular, Raphael’s fresco The School of Athens has come to symbolize the marriage of art, philosophy, and science that was a hallmark of the Italian Renaissance. Painted between 1509 and 1511, it is located in the first of the four rooms designed by Raphael, the Stanza della Segnatura.
According to Latin writer Ovid, Venus, the Roman Goddess of Love, was born from sea foam just off the coast of Cyprus, a myth that inspired one of the greatest artistic masterpieces in history. The Birth of Venus is a tempera painting on canvas measuring 172 by 278 cm. It was painted between 1483 and 1485 by Sandro Botticelli, one of the most important artists of the Renaissance.
The word “Renaissance” indicates a period in the history of European culture between the 15th and 16th Centuries, when the values of the late Medieval period gave way to a new conception of existence. The will of God no longer lay at the center of the world, but was replaced by the glory of man and his creations. Through ancient Greek and Latin artworks, Renaissance artists and philosophers rediscovered classical ideals of beauty and harmony, recognizing them as tools with which to elevate the spirit.
Florence, in Italy, was the cradle of the Renaissance. The de’ Medici family governed Florence, and family member and banker Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco commissioned Botticelli to paint the Birth of Venus.
In 1478 Botticelli had already painted Primavera, one of the first works to consciously capture the essence of the Renaissance. In the same manner, the Birth of Venus expressed the Renaissance cult of sublime, idealized beauty. In the painting Zephyrus, the fertilizing wind and symbol of carnal love, can be found on Venus’s right, embracing a female figure who may be his wife Chloris, or perhaps another wind, Boreas. One of the Hours, the nymphs who accompany the goddess, can be found on Venus’s left, covering the goddess’s nudity with a cloak and thereby becoming a symbol of purity of spirit. Zephyrus and the nymph are the sides of a triangle divided into two halves by Venus. In this way, the goddess intercedes between earthly and spiritual love; elevation of the soul is fed by physical beauty in what is a summary of Renaissance thought. But in the painting, philosophical implications are mixed with biographical elements as well. The figure of the goddess is a portrait of Simonetta Vespucci, the mistress of Giuliano de’ Medici, the patron’s cousin. Initially, the Birth of Venus was hung on a wall at the Villa di Castello, the de’ Medici’s country residence. It remained there at least until 1761, after which its destiny became uncertain. All that is known is that the painting was eventually moved to Florence’s Palazzo Pitti Museum. The Birth of Venus has been on display at the Uffizi Museum in Florence since 1815.
It’s easy to see Michelangelo’s influence in the muscular forms or Leonardo’s harking back to Roman classical frescos with the bright coloring. Yet, there is no doubt that this painting is a supreme example that embodies all Raphael had learned resulting in a magnificent elegy to the dreamlike nature of beauty.
Described by Giorgio Vasari as Raphael’s “most beautiful and divine work,” this painting has been a source of constant education and inspiration to artists. Turner used it as reference in a lecture on composition, and Caravaggio for its use of chiaroscuro (the effect of contrasted light and shadow), a technique Caravaggio went on to master.
In the late 16th century, as the Renaissance era closes, an extremely manneristic style develops. In secular music, especially in the madrigal, there was a trend towards complexity and even extreme chromaticism (as exemplified in madrigals of Luzzaschi, Marenzio, and Gesualdo). The term mannerism derives from art history.
After 1580, the Carracci brothers, Annibale and Agostino, began to develop the Baroque style of painting focused on greater drama, rich colors and the use of extreme light and darkness. After 1590, Caravaggio developed a realistic approach to the human figure, painted directly from life and dramatically spotlit against a dark background having an even larger impact on painting moving the Baroque style to the forefront after 1600.
However, Christianity wasn’t the only place artists were drawing their influence. The Renaissance, with a focus on antiquity, also drew on mythological and historical subjects. The School of Athens, by Raphael, for example, is a fresco that depicts all the great thinkers from the past including Plato and Aristotle. Botticelli’s Birth of Venus is another good example of mythological subject matter during the Renaissance. This classical image was copied and reworked well into the Baroque and later.
Renaissance art is classified by a focus on religious subject matter in a realistic style. Even though many works from the Renaissance are now seen as priceless masterpieces, they were mere devotional objects during the Renaissance, used in churches and public places for worship. Because of this, there are many scenes of Christ, Mary, and other religious subject matter in all sorts of forms. Sculpture, painting, and fresco were popular mediums to create these scenes.