The High Renaissance and Mannerism

With the idealism of Leonardo discussed last class we begin to transition from the Early Renaissance to the High Renaissance, generally cited as starting in the 1490s and ending with the Sack of Rome by the armies of Charles V in 1527. Italian art from this period explores the ideal human form to even greater degree and perfects many of the trends begun in the 15th century. The decades following the High Renaissance, often referred to as “Mannerism,” are characterized alternately by an academic dedication to the style of Michelangelo (seen in the work and writings of Vasari) and stylistic experimentation within the this tradition (seen in the work of Parmigianino and Pontormo).


One of the most iconic Renaissance artists was Michelangelo Buonarotti (1475-1564), an artist who like Da Vinci explored many disciplines, exemplifying the “Renaissance Man.” Despite his famous Sistine Chapel frescoes, Michelangelo identified not as a painter, but as a sculptor. This is particularly significant given the competition between painting and sculpture in the 16th century, known as the paragone.

Smarthistory: Michelangelo–Sculptor, Painter, Architect, and Poet

Oxford Art Online: Renaissance Paragone

Two of Michelangelo’s most iconic sculptures were reinventions of established iconography we have encountered before for new purposes: a humanist reinterpretation of the medieval pietà and a monumental public sculpture of David. Please look closely at these works, and consider them in comparison to earlier images we’ve studied of both subjects.

Smarthistory: Michelangelo, Pieta

Smarthistory: Michelangelo, David

What strikes you most about these two sculptures? What makes them both emotionally affecting to the viewer and images of perfection and high humanism? In what ways do they compare to the Rottgen Pieta and Donatello’s David?

The saga of the Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes is one of the most well-known in art history. The Florentine sculptor, reluctant to focus for so long on painting, was forced by the political might of Rome to complete one of the most famous fresco cycles in western art. A close look at these frescoes gives us insight into principles of disegno, humanism, 16th century theology, and the shifting political climate of the Vatican. Decades later, in the wake of the Protestant Reformation with the church in chaos, Michelangelo returned to paint the Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel.

Smarthistory: Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel

Smarthistory: Michelangelo, Last Judgement, Sistine Chapel

What makes this work of art so iconic? How does the artist work within but also rebel against the patron’s wishes and what does this mean for the status of the artist in society?

Renaissance Self-Fashioning

One of the underlying themes emerging in this discussion is the notion that individuals can shape their own earthly destiny through education, discipline, and a well-rounded exploration of the liberal arts. This was a somewhat radical departure from medieval thought and tied to both humanist ideas we read about in Pico della Mirandola’s text and the flourishing of named artists in the Renaissance. We will look at one primary source and two Mannerist artists who engage with this concept of self-fashioning.

Baldesar Castiglione’s (1478-1529) The Book of the Courtier was a Renaissance book of manners. Set in a noble residence, the entire book is a series of dialogues between noblemen and noblewomen on how to best perfect oneself in Renaissance society. Below are some excerpts. Read through them and attempt to paraphrase main points in plain language as you annotate the text.

Primary Sources: Baldesar Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier (excerpts)

What does sprezzatura mean in their conversation and why is it so important? What are the things that an ideal courtier should know and how does he attain such knowledge? What is the view of women in this discussion and what avenues does this society see for them?

A painting that in many ways typifies Castiglione’s ideas is Bronzino’s (1503-1572) portrait of an unknown man. Look closely at this and think of how it connects to The Book of the Courtier.

Met Museum: Bronzino, Portrait of a Young Man (see also audio and catalogue entry linked below)

Sofonisba Anguissola (1532-1625), one of the few women to rise to prominence in a male-dominated art world, not only found success as the official portrait painter of the Spanish court but also dealt frequently with her own identity as an artist through self-portraiture. She fashioned for herself a new kind of identity–that of a professional woman artist.

The Art Story: Sofonisba Anguissola

What challenges did Anguissola face when pursuing her career in art? In what ways does she negotiate the expected roles of artists and of women in her self-portraiture?

Summary Questions:

What was the paragone and how did it impact how artists thought of themselves in the Renaissance?

In what ways does Renaissance art engage in the idea of sprezzatura, as defined by Castiglione?

What political and economic challenges did artists face in terms of patronage?

Outline for Class Notes

1.06- High Renaissance and Mannerism