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16th Century Italian Renaissance

Shortly after the commencement of the sixteenth century, that movement toward the restoration of the antique which we have recognised in Italy as fragmentary and imperfect during the fifteenth, became systematised, and consequently invigorated, mainly through the means of popularisation afforded by the arts of printing and engraving. Through them translations of Vitruvius and Alberti, copiously illustrated and ably commented upon, were speedily in the possession of every designer of eminence in the country, and without its limits also; while, before the close of the century, the treatises of Serlio, Palladio, Vignola, and Rusconi, presented permanent records of the zeal with which the monuments of antiquity had been studied. But inasmuch as the requirements of the Italian Social system of the sixteenth century differed from those of the Imperial ages of Rome, so of a necessity the nature of the monuments created to supply those wants materially differed.

Soffite Panel, from one of the Genoese Palaees
Soffite Panel, from one of the
Genoese Palaces.

In the Renaissance styles of the fifteenth century the artist's attention had been mainly directed to the imitation of ancient ornament; in the sixteenth, however, it was principally the restoration of ancient proportions, both of the five orders and of architectural symmetry generally, that engaged the designer's attention; pure ornament having been to a great extent neglected in its details, and considered only in its mass as a decorative adjunct to architecture.

Vertical Ornament from Genoa
Vertical Ornament
from Genoa.

Those arts which during the fifteenth century had been so frequently united in the persons of the maestri, under whom great monuments had been carried into execution, in the sixteenth became individualised. The genius of such intellectual giants as Raphael and Michael Angelo could alone maintain the triple attributes of painters, architects, and sculptors, in due relative subordination; when, in after times, men such as Lorenzo Bernini and Pietro da Cortona attempted similar combinations, the result was little else than general confusion and failure.

As the rules of Art became more complex, academies arose in which the division of labour system was introduced. The consequences, with certain rare and notable exceptions, were obvious; architects thought of little else but plans, sections, and elevations, in which the setting out of columns, arches, pilasters, entablatures, etc., was all in all; painters worked more in their studios, and less in the buildings, their works were to adorn; forgetting altogether general decorative effect, and looking only to anatomical precision, powerful chiar'oscuro, masterly composition, and breadth of tone and handling. Sculptors of a high class deserted ornamental carving and gave their attention, almost exclusively, to isolated statues and groups, or monuments in which general effects of beauty were made subservient to the development of the plastic features alone. Ornament was left in a great degree to accident or caprice in its design, and to second-rate artists in its execution. Favourable specimens of such ornaments may be seen in our woodcuts. The painted arabesques of the Italian style, and the stucchi with which they were occasionally accompanied, form so remarkable an exception to the above, that it will be well to reserve them for special notice.

Although the architecture which Raphael has left to us in the Pandolfini Palace at Florence, and the Caffarelli, late Stoppani, at Rome, is excellent; it is in his connexion with the subject of arabesque that his celebrity as an ornamentist consists, and we shall not therefore further allude to him here. Neither shall we dwell upon the works of Baldassare Peruzzi, interesting though they be, since, so far as ornament was concerned, they approached so closely to the antique as to offer no striking individuality.

Bramante, too, is to be regarded rather as a Renaissance artist than in any other light. It is to the great Florentine, whose fervid genius, impatient of restraint, broke away from tradition, that we must look for that germ of self-willed originality that infected all his contemporaries in every department of art, and engendered a license which, it is vain to deny, ultimately, and in feebler hands than his, resulted in a departure from taste and refinement in every branch of art.

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