Renaissance Modern Introduction

Renaissance Modern: Tradition and Innovation in Sixteenth-Century Italy and Northern Europe

By Guido Rebecchini and Edward Wouk

Renaissance Modern, conceived and organized by students from The Courtauld Institute of Art and the University of Manchester in collaboration with their tutors and with Stephanie Buck, the Martin Halusa curator of drawings at the Courtauld Gallery, examines how artists working in a variety of media sought to challenge established ideas about art and creativity during the sixteenth century.  It focuses on drawings produced in Italy, primarily Florence and Rome, but also includes examples from Northern Europe, many of which have never been studied before.
The term ‘modern’ in late medieval and early Renaissance Italy referred to the present and was generally used to establish distance from ancient paradigms. Its connotations were not, at first, altogether positive.  Leonardo da Vinci, for instance, writing of the ancient equestrian statue of the Regisole in Pavia, stated, ‘It is better to imitate ancient things than modern ones’ (Leonardo on Painting, ed. M. Kemp, New Haven and London, 1989, 264). During the course of the sixteenth century, however, the term ‘modern’ assumed a positive meaning in the visual arts and came to be closely associated with the creative freedom that has seemed to define Renaissance artistic production.  Thus, the poet and critic Pietro Aretino, writing in 1542, could describe the works of Raphael’s follower Giulio Romano as ‘anciently modern and modernly ancient.’ While this turn-of-phrase might seem paradoxical to readers today, for Aretino’s audience it encapsulated the blend of admiration for ancient art and desire for novelty that characterized the greatest artistic achievements of their times.

North of the Alps, and in the Low Countries in particular, conditions of production, an expanding art market, and the rise of the print, all contributed to a new awareness of history and traditions in the work of many Northern artists.  For Dominicus Lampsonius, the first historian of Netherlandish art, the diversity fostered by this reflexivity was a defining feature of the art of his age, and of northern European art in particular, which encompassed historic techniques of painting as well as an attention to new media, especially the print.

In cultures which valued newness, in the North and in Italy alike, drawing acquired an elevated status as an immediate expression of artistic subjectivity. Drawing was a means by which Renaissance artists not only learned from the ancient past, but also began to rival and even question its models. Values such as beauty, grace, softness, vivacity, fluidity of movement, facility, speed of execution, displayed in this display in works by Francesco Mazzola, called Parmigianino (cat. 3-6), Jacopo Ligozzi (cat. 8), Maarten de Vos (cat. 7), and Hendrick Goltzius (cat. 12-13), became embedded in artistic culture and articulated in drawings, in which artists worked through visual problems and gave expression to their thoughts.  In contrast to earlier drawings, which served as workshop models or as presentation drawings to show a design to a potential patron, many drawings from this period provide insight into the creative process of artists and reveal the visible development of their ideas. For example, Parmigianino, represented with four drawings in this display, used all the graphic means at his disposal in a constant quest to refine his treatment of the nude and to develop sophisticated yet powerful compositions in drawings, paintings and prints.

The decades in which the works on display were produced saw the emergence of art history as a field of study.  Texts including Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, first published in Florence in 1550, and Domenicus Lampsonius’ Biography of Lambert Lombard, appearing in Bruges in 1565, contributed to a close exchange between artistic practice and critical thinking and advanced a new awareness of methods, processes, and historical perspective.  The elevated status of drawing in this period centred on the concept of disegno.  For Vasari and critics like Lampsonius, disegno, meaning both drawing and design, became the founding principle that united the arts of painting, sculpture, and architecture. It was through disegno that an artist first defined his stance to earlier visual traditions and charted his personal style.  Disegno secured the status of the visual arts as an intellectual discipline and one which could be taught in academies.  Drawings, in turn, could be collected, discussed, and analysed, setting in motion a series of concerns about art and identity which began in the Renaissance and continue to the present.

This novel emphasis on inventiveness gave artists a new license, albeit one guided by their judgment and the constraints of social, political and religious decorum.  In works by Giulio Romano (cat. 16) and Alessandro Allori (cat. 17) we see how artists responded in different ways to the expectations of the courtly environments in which they worked, displaying exceptional talent for creating new inventions to please their patrons’ thirst for innovation. For them, the ideal creative process was not simply one which embodied novel invention, but rather one that joined innovation with selective imitation and emulation of nature; of the venerated vestiges of antiquity; and of the works by the founding masters of the new style: Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael.  As the drawing by Jacopo Tintoretto (cat. 11) reveals, artists offer up highly personal interpretations of the vocabulary provided by these sources to produce works in a style which was explicitly recognized as ‘modern’.

The Renaissance witnessed travel and cultural exchange on an unprecedented scale.  Courts attracted artists who contributed to form a new culture which valued self-consciously stylish visual expression.  Italian and northern artists visited Rome to see its ancient wonders and the work of modern masters, chiefly Raphael and Michelangelo.  Some northerners like the Bruges-born painter Joahnnes Stradanus (born Jan van der Straet) remained to work in Italian centres of production, while others returned home to explore new pictorial genres and styles in paintings and in designs for the modern medium of print.

Maerten van Heemskerck (cat. 14-15), most notably, became famous for his studies of the ancient and modern wonders of Rome.  His drawings and those of his Netherlandish contemporaries offered up a view of the city in fragments, showing courtyards strewn with broken marbles and crumbling buildings.  Yet, we now understand that many of his studies, as well as the anonymous view of St Peter’s on display (cat. 1), were motivated by imagination as much as observation.  They appealed to a growing antiquarian culture fascinated by Rome’s ruins and the lost great civilization they represented, here best encapsulated in Perino del Vaga’s representation of an arch (cat. 2) which appropriates the visual conventions of an ancient triumph as a supreme compliment to the current Habsburg Emperor Charles V.

Modernity, in Italy as in the North, was thus a function of historical perspective and a new self-consciousness on the part of artists who perceived their place in relation to a historic tradition, yet were firmly rooted in their present.  Whereas in Italy, conditions of artistic production contributed to the formation of an idiom that responded to courtly expectations in both secular and religious spheres, in the North the rise of a market for paintings fostered a new plurality of subjects and techniques while an increasingly sophisticated publishing industry drove a proliferation of images in print.

This display showcases works made in a range of media, from pen or brush and ink, to chalks, often heightened with white, on white or coloured laid papers.  Some drawings served as the basis for paintings, engravings, luxurious metal work, or tapestries, while others, like Federico Barocci’s vivid drawing for the doctor in Christ’s Cirumcision (cat. 10), study the pose of a figure or gesture drawn from life or from the design of another artist.  In all cases, the drawings exhibited here display an insistent creativity and a concern for process which was in large measure new to the art of drawing and came to define the visual culture of Early Modern Europe, in which a work of art might be valued for its subject, scale, and materials, but also for its connection to an individual master, his mind, and his hand.