Term Paper: Renaissance and Baroque

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Renaissance / Baroque

Comparative Analysis of Renaissance and Baroque

What is the Baroque? We use this term to refer to an artistic movement that got started, roughly, at some point in the early seventeenth century and continued for decades, but it is important to recall that successive artistic movements are in many ways indebted to their predecessors: the idea that new artistic trends represent in some way a serious break with the past is, in itself, a modern twentieth-century idea and inappropriate for an analysis of Renaissance art (with its respectful search for models and precursors). We can perhaps see the elements of Baroque style more clearly by viewing them in contrast, then, to the style of the high Renaissance. For purposes of comparison I would like to examine two Italian paintings depicting the lives of saints: Domenico Beccafumi's "St. Catherine of Siena Receiving the Stigmata" was painted about 1513-1515 and can be seen as a legitimate, if late, example of Renaissance style. Carracci's depiction of "St. Sebastian Thrown into the Cloaca Maxima" is painted about century later, in 1612, but exhibits by contrast the hallmarks of Baroque style. These two paintings nicely encapsulate the difference in styles.

Unlike much religious painting, Beccafumi's "St. Catherine" is painted on wood and would therefore be portable, but it is important to note the large degree to which architecture is still the governing principle in the painting's design. Renaissance art is, of course, marked by a return to the classical style of Greece and Rome, and to a large extent this entailed the rediscovery of ancient ideas of architecture and proportion (as discussed, for example, in the text of the Roman architect Vitruvius, whose rediscovery and republication was responsible for most of the architectural feats of the Renaissance). Beccafumi seems to devote most of his artistic energy to the accurate representation of the mostly-empty interior space of a church where St. Catherine receives her mystic vision. The space includes a more conventional Renaissance altarpiece (seen at the far back of the painting) and a conventional crucifix. Also, crucially, the space Beccafumi depicts has depth: if the painting places St. Catherine at the center, it is worth noting that St. Catherine's own immediate background is architectural -- the stone walls and staircases that establish the interior depth of the space. However what marks Beccafumi as a Renaissance painter is the highly classical reliance upon posed dramatic figures arranged in groups. Admittedly Beccafumi is a late Renaissance painter (basically a Mannerist) so there is a certain amount of wit in his arrangement here: the best example is to contrast the altarpiece depicted at the rear of the painting with the actual arrangement of Beccafumi's composition. What becomes most astonishing is how stark and empty Beccafumi permits most of his composition to be.

Carracci's depiction of Saint Sebastian dates about a century after Beccafumi, but we have already witnessed here the transition from Renaissance mannerism to the Baroque. Perhaps the most crucial thing to witness is what happens to Beccafumi's empty space -- it has vanished. Carracci's composition is no less dependent on classical ideals of depicting the human form -- to a certain extent, Sebastian's body here is depicted in a rather bravura contrapposto, in which its own dead weight is balanced against itself as the Roman soldiers prepare to dump him. But there is almost no empty space in Carracci's surface -- and indeed the only area in which the eye could find real depth, the upper right of the composition, is utterly frustrated by Carracci's inclusion of a squat round stone tower, and additional Roman soldiers bearing their arms at attention. It is as though the entire painting is attempting to occupy the foreground -- we can compare the use of human figures here to the stark and isolated nuns of Beccafumi's painting. Beccafumi's people engage in dramatic behavior -- but Carracci seems to have captured every single person at the moment of their greatest dramatic exertion. This exaggeration of dramatic content as well as surface form is probably the single biggest clue that we are dealing with the Baroque -- although exaggeration is found in Italian mannerist paintings as well, it is never as melodramatic as this.

Part II: Comparative Analysis of Different Regions in the Same Time Period

To a certain extent, communication over long distances is a function of modern technology -- this is something that becomes quite evident when examining paintings of the sixteenth century from different geographical regions. The communication of painterly technique and style required long periods of time because there was no technology to speed up communication. As a result, we can examine paintings from roughly the same time period but different countries -- as for example Lucas Cranach's "Faun and His Family with a Slain Lion" from Germany in the latter 1520s and Titian's "Venus and Adonis" from the 1550s -- and realize that the gulf between regional artistic schools was very broad indeed.

Cranach's "Faun and His Family With a Slain Lion" is only about two decades earlier than Titian's "Venus and Adonis" but to a certain extent it looks like it is centuries older, vastly more primitive. Perhaps the easiest way to highlight this is by examining the animals in each painting. Cranach's slain lion looks like it belongs more to the history of heraldry than to representative painting. It is not clear how tall Cranach thought a Faun was, but the dead lion looks miniscule beside the Faun. But it's not just the lion's size that is jarring -- its proportions are bizarre, and it is seen in a strange angle that has its head in profile but its rear legs both facing the viewer. It seems like Cranach had never seen or studied an actual lion. Compare this with the hunting dogs depicted by Titian in "Venus and Adonis" -- these handsome hounds are beautifully detailed and accurate. To a certain extent Titian's dogs have more realistically depicted faces than Adonis himself. But it is clear that Titian's technique owes a lot to the close examination of actual subjects -- the dogs and the clothing depicted seem to have been painted from life. Cranach by contrast does not depict any cloth or man-made textures. Likewise Cranach's formal composition is about as unadventurous as possible: the heavy forestation behind the Faun and his family seems awfully convenient, to highlight their pale coloration, and the landscape behind them fits into picturesque slices as predictable as a layer-cake. Titian has a landscape behind his figures, but his figures utterly dominate the landscape.

The biggest single difference, however, between these two regions of painting would seem to be a conceptual one -- Titian's painting looks like it was done with an awareness of Renaissance sculpture, while Cranach's looks like it was done with an awareness of the crude carved wooden altar sculptures of German churches. The readiest example here is Cranach's Faun, who holds his wooden staff in a way that nobody has ever held a wooden staff (with its base between his thighs). The positioning of the figure almost seems to owe something to sculpture here -- if we were carving the Faun from wood, we would place the staff in this position to reduce fragility in the overall composition. But in a painting the Faun's gesture looks bizarre -- the contrapposto of his weight seems to make no visual sense given where he holds the staff and where its base is placed.

Part III: Individual Preference

Rembrandt's "Abduction of Europa" offers such a grandly dramatic depiction of myth within a visual context that is realistically grand -- to a certain extent it is easy to imagine Rembrandt's painting here being much more modern than it actually is, and to discern in the landscape a much later early 19th century concern with sublimity. Renaissance chiaroscuro in this Rembrandt canvas now becomes a technique of melodrama, pushed beyond realistic depiction of light and shade -- instead we get the dramatic and highly stagey contrasts between light and darkness that we'd expect in an overripe Hollywood noir like Mildred Pierce. There is no particular explanation for why the illumination hits the women standing on the shore, and hits Europa and the Bull, so perfectly but can barely penetrate the first five feet of forestation. Instead we feel like the artist has quite consciously turned a spotlight on the dramatic action, while allowing everything else to exist in a kind of twilight. The cityscape depicted in the distance on the left side of the canvas looks like it might have come from a Turner watercolor. One of the most appealing things about Rembrandt's depiction here is the way it utterly naturalizes the mythology -- the bull is depicted with utmost farmyard realism, just as the carriage horses on the shore are. Apart from the illumination coming from above, seemingly, there is no reason to suppose there is anything supernatural about the white bull that is carrying Europa… [END OF PREVIEW]

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