December 2019 --

Counter-Reformation in Italy: Impact on Painting

     Last month, the thematic focus was on the Protestant Reformation’s intellectual and aesthetic impact on German and Netherlandish painting. This month, the highlight shifts to Italy’s subsequent response to that movement through a comparative study of pre-Counter-Reformation and Counter-Reformation art in Italy, beginning with da Vinci’s work. Ultimately, besides the fact that religious iconography intensified after the Council of Trent, concealed documents and a sixteenth century feminist trend reveal that different types of schools of thought can greatly influence and alter the works of leaders, patrons, and perspective on message.

     A quick summary of the Counter-Reformation context in Italy clarifies some intellectual, political, and spiritual trends that surfaced in Italian art after 1517. After the Council of Trent, the Catholic response to the Protestant Reformation was to indoctrinate a spiritual concept of inner renewal. This idea spread an awareness that the immortality of the soul, dominant in medieval Catholic theology, led to false conceptions and abuses of power. In Italy, however, although Counter-Reformation only lasted between 1520 and 1590, its impact on culture and politics was profound and lasting. The reason for that was mainly because this movement drained Italy’s economical resources: in 1542, the Italian Inquisition required an intense re-definition of its judicial and military resources. Additionally, the movement against clerics remained essentially less popular in Italy than where, for example, its rival papacy had resided until 1437 in Avignon, France.

     Of changed standards for Counter-Reformation art in Renaissance Italy, Virgin Mary, Saints, and the Seven Sacraments remained distinctive thematic features of Catholicism. Appropriate Counter-Reformation themes in art after 1517 included the Immaculate Conception, Annunciation, and Transfiguration of Christ. An explicit portrayal of Christ's pain on the Crucifix was appropriate, and pivotal to aesthetic message, for it effectively illustrated a Catholic view of Transubstantiation in the Eucharist. Although the Nativity theme was immensely popular before Counter-Reformation, artists began to use it less than they did lamentation scenes from the Passion Cycle, for example, to emphasize Roman Catholicism. Additionally, reformers maintained that a clear, accurate rendering of Biblical painting needed to communicate message via a direct, compelling narrative style, and without unnecessary flourishes. It is in this sense that da Vinci and Rafael appeared so much more advanced than others of this period.

     Moreover, besides appropriate theme and clear narrative, reformers also insisted that Catholic art needed to encourage devotion: artists had to paint or sculpt scenes that communicated an appropriate level of spiritual energy. Lastly, reformers stressed the significance of content relatability, as understandable and as relevant to ordinary people, as possible. As a matter of consequence, the Mannerist style became less
associated with Counter-Reformation spirituality because of its emphasis on artifice and exaggerated gesture -- appearance.

     The portrayal of emotion in pre-Counter-Reformation art had been subtle; later, it intensified and mainly featured lamentation. After Counter-Reformation, Baroque artists focused on micro-expressions and meticulously captured them on canvas. The profound influence of Counter-Reform on Italian art is clear when contrasting it with pre-reform works, especially those of one artist who strongly identified as a Mannerist painter. Botticelli’s lunette shaped fresco, The Birth of Christ, 1476, at Santa Maria Novella, Florence, is a great masterpiece that aptly re-defines the sacra conversazione of medieval art, and illustrates the religious iconography typical of pre-Counter-Reformation works.

     Golden halos envelope the heads of John the Baptist, Virgin Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. Botticelli arranged his Biblical characters neatly around the swathed baby Jesus, within the confined and bare space of an animal barn. The subdued emotion here is weariness and adoration rather than lament for Jesus; all eyes are on the icon of worship, Baby Jesus. Christ’s outstretched arms indicate joy rather than pain; Mary’s praying hands, and John the Baptist’s figure are sinuous with energy and represent visual icons of worship.

     The emphasis on humanistic details in Italian painting also remained a consistent intellectual attribute from the Early Renaissance to the Baroque period. Da Vinci’s portrayal of emotion in Annunciazione, 1475-82, completed under the tutelage of del Verrocchio before new guidelines The Council of Trent established, shows a traditional religious theme enhanced with standard icons and emblems. The startled Mary’s and Archangel Gabriel’s haloes and wings stand out as identifying religious attributes; an expanse green landscape littered with flowers also conveys a conventional use of naturalism.

     Moreover, da Vinci’s intensification of raw emotion as he matured as an artist identified him as much more advanced than his successive colleagues; such ranges in emotion developed during the Baroque period. Da Vinci’s incomplete tempera and oil on panel, San Girolamo in the Wilderness, 1480, Vatican City, Rome, reveals an elderly and impoverished hermit in the Syrian Desert, striking his bosom piously, and gazing penitently at a Crucifix etched on a rock to the right. Like Annunciazione, much of the message focuses on the devotional worship of a holy saint. Girolamo’s facial expression is both a unique and ingenious accomplishment for any artist of the Early and High Renaissance.

     The angle at which San Girolamo sits is a variation of archangel Gabriel’s contrapposto crouch in Annunciazione, but more angular and sloping; the hermit suggests the rugged landscape’s shape. Very definitely, Girolamo’s awkward position implicates a mix of contrapposto and figura serpentinata, where penitence and remorse
burden thoughts. Therefore, the representation of body stance and emotion in Italian Renaissance art reflected both the spirituality and intellectual traits of this period.

     Contrastingly, one political example of “devotional” art that originated in North Europe after the Reformation was a two-hundred-page Austrian prayer book, which Cardinal Albrecht von Brandenburg commissioned in 1537 and Albrecht Glockendon illuminated. This miniature illuminated manuscript narrated a salvation theme and drew content from the Annunciation to the Entombment of Christ themes. Glockendon’s scenes narrate content familiar to both the worlds of politics and religion, but their architectural décor is virtually void of Classicism. Despite the Romanesque décor on the illuminated prayer book’s pages, it was from such devotional forms of art which many Italian artists drew creational inspiration.

     As Italian Counter-Reformation art promoted religious themes, they contrasted with the mixed religious and political messages of the Austrian miniature. Rafael’s Sistine Madonna, completed in 1512 for a Spanish Rovere Pope, Julius II, visibly marked the start of a new representation of religious devotion in Counter-Reformation art, years before the establishment of a Protestant Reformation in the North!

     The atheist Rafael created this 104 by 77inch oil on canvas for an altarpiece at the Benedictine Monastery of San Sisto, Piacenza, now at the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden, Germany. Rafael’s models include lady love, Margherita Luti -- a local baker’s daughter – and winged cherubs -- children who also flocked to watch Rafael at his easel and gaze longingly into the baker’s windows. Rafael’s expressions are intent, yet humble, to inspire contemplation, personal devotion, and prayer. The sentiment of devotion is subtle, but gradually intensified under High Mannerism after Rafael’s death in 1521. Therefore, the developing trend of personal devotion in Italy began just prior to the onset of the Counter-Reformation, and increasingly drew more popularity.

     Rafael’s very composition bears a Crucifix form, as well as a simple yet artificial arrangement of figures, in an amazing effort to revolutionize the sacra conversazione genre. Understandably, this five hundred and five-year-old masterpiece inspired artists to paint; Augustus III, King of Poland, eventually purchased it in 1754. This painting deviates from Northern works in its specific portrayal of standard devotional icons: Biblical characters and cherubs. The Madonna holds Jesus, staring intently at a nearby Crucifix, as do the cherubs and Jesus; Saint Sixtus II and Holy Barbara flank the two central figures. Incredibly, artificiality, or contrived uses of space became a hallmark Mannerist trait. This work’s simplistic composition contrasts significantly with that of Bruegel’s complexly arranged The Peasant Dance.

     Rafael’s hexagonal composition in Sistine Madonna also echoes the mysticism of Spanish popes, and High Renaissance Neoplatonic philosophy Rafael encountered in Gnostic and Hermetic studies for art; the de Medici introduced such humanism into Florentine society around the time Michelangelo was under an apprenticeship. Even without the traditional religious iconography, Rafael’s atheistic approach placed him ahead of his peers. Deep green curtains, golden robes, and a Crucifix-shaped composition amplify a devoted worship of icons and steadfast relationship that once existed between Julius II’s late uncle, Pope Sixtus IV, and the Benedictine Monastery of San Sisto.

     In Rafael’s 120 by 90-centimetre oil on panel, Madonna of Loretto, 1511, now at Musée Condé, Château de Chantilly, Paris, accurately defines the sombre, subtle religious tone of High Renaissance nobility. The original ownership of this exceptional masterpiece is obscure, for, unlike other Italian masters at the time, Rafael’s workshop habitually produced and customized numerous copies of the same works. Julius II housed the original version at Santa Maria del Popolo, Florence. Most important is the veil with which the Madonna and Jesus play. The veil symbolizes a Latina influence on the Counter-Reformation response via Latinized masses. Part of that response included the enforcement of the female’s veil to signify chastity.

     Rafael’s Madonna of Loretto uniquely combines standardized methods with innovation and follows that of da Vinci in an orderly use of space, darkened chiaroscuro background, and lightly brushed atmosphere. Although this Madonna and Joseph -- who don tiny, fragile haloes -- belong to a noble society, they still play a leisurely game with Jesus and a veil, wearing melancholic expressions to signify impending tragedy. Besides asserting a steadfast devotion to traditional Biblical icons and faith in Christian Doctrine, the Madonna and Jesus -- wrapped in luxuriant red, blue, and white folded cloth -- display del Verrocchio’s own innovative technique, figura serpentinata, to suggest a fluidity of previous, current, and future motion in biological processes, for example, which differs from contrapposto. The Madonna’s left fingers and torso twist and curl in suspended space, as do Christ’s legs, arms, and head. As da Vinci was a scientist as well as artist, his representation of sinuous energy likely pertained to his own experimentations in scientific studies.

     The definition of this High Renaissance feature is a poising of a human body at ease in art, but leaning weight on one foot so the shoulders and arms thrust away from the lower extremities at the waist. As this exaggerated stance was highly used by Classical Greek sculptors to denote the action of strategic thought; its use by High Renaissance painters and sculptors likely commemorated a rediscovery of Classical humanism.

     As Rafael’s work shows, in addition to the altered representation of religious iconography and emotion, an essentially distinct trait between Protestant Reformation and Italian Counter-Reformation art is a portrayal and visual interpretation of the intellectual realm via humanism – the study of Classical scholastic philosophy. As noted of Bruegel’s painting, casual dialogue between peasants signified erudite knowledge – humanism. On the other hand, if the Protestant Reformation did celebrate an age of academics and investigative study, why, then, were the visual attributes of Classical Greek culture so much less dominant in Northern Renaissance works? The reason for this controversy originated in an idea that the outward emblems of Classical humanism – scrolls, curled acanthus leaves – symbols which people deeply associated with the stern dogmatic theology of medieval Christianity – the dogma responsible for a spread of repressive and false theologies about the immortal human soul.

     Da Vinci’s Biblical Annunciazione is chronologically fitting to this comparative study; although generations ahead of his peers in terms of technique and style, da Vinci never lived to see the days of Luther’s Protestant Reformation and its profound impact on Italian art. Da Vinci’s elegantly carved lectern in Annunciazione -- scrolls and wispy leaves -- visibly signified a study of Classical scholastics -- of humanism – as a hot Renaissance trend in noble households. The archangel Gabriel’s leaning posture also conveys another of da Vinci’s own hallmark stresses on humanism and the activity of melancholy, or thought: contrapposto.

     In the decades that led to the close of the Italian Counter-Reformation, Baroque period art marked another important transitional style that drew on the spirituality of Counter-Reformation art. Annibale Carracci’s (1560-1609) Bolognese School in Emilia Romagna evolved as a rejection of the older, artificially contrived High Mannerist style, such as that of the Parma School. The essential feature of newer Bolognese art was traditional naturalism, defined by minimal detail. Unlike modern realism, naturalism focused on the ideal or extraordinary rather than the real; it had been a key element of International Gothic art. Botticelli was famous for his Mannerist style. The Bolognese School’s rival was Correggio’s (1494-1534) and Parmigianino’s (1503–1540) Parma School. The Parma emphasis was on illusionism. It featured artists like Mantegna and Melozzo da Forli (1438-1494). It was from the Parma School that Mannerist art developed.

     Carracci’s aesthetic aim at the Bolognese School was to recapture the essence of da Vinci’s, Rafael’s, and Michelangelo’s lost Classicizing High Renaissance traits -- without the limiting spiritual implications of Mannerism. Madonna con Bambino, santa Lucia, san Giovannino ed angelo, at Yale University Art Gallery, magnificently draws on the religious iconography typical of later Counter-Reformation art.

     Carracci’s 78.5 by 63-centimetre oil on canvas masterpiece effectively portrays a popular Biblical scene with a lucid narrative scheme and traditional iconography: the averted, gazes on Mary’s and Saint Lucy’s faces communicate devotion and humility. Haloes encircle Christ and Mary; the angel’s wing spans full and wide behind him. The outer edges of the bodies are well-defined, yet hazy and quite idealized. The bright spot against the darkened sky reflects an unmistakeable division between the Eternal and Terrestrial worlds, and intently promotes a worship of Holy icons to express religious piety.

     The aesthetic aim of the Bolognese School evidently proved that these artists were very interested in both recapturing the vigorous rediscovery of the Classical world and spreading new Counter-Reformation messages spirituality via heightened emotion, clear narrative schemes, and detailed landscapes. Stirred by the Farnese dissatisfaction for Carracci’s creative skill, his Assumption of the Virgin, completed at the end of Counter-Reformation,1590, now at the Museo del Prado, Madrid, expressively communicates the clarity of Virgin Mary’s mortality with a powerful and moving intensity. This melancholic Passion Cycle theme effectively conveys that Resurrection and Eternal Life follow Virgin Mary’s death. The scene reverberates with persistent energy: flowing, sumptuous, deeply hued robes, swollen clouds, and a winged angel surround Mary; they float Heavenward. Mourners don intently lamenting expressions and gaze upwards. Equally important, the mourners faithfully worship a traditional Holy icon – Virgin Mary.

     As fluted columns in the background may suggest Classical Greek Corinthian capitals rather than Classical Roman columns, it is evident that besides the instillation of truer spiritual values, Carracci’s style and technique also reconciles the intellectual controversy between Roman and Greek traditions in history. The controversy erupted amongst Italian humanists between 1439 and 1440, after Lorenza Valla’s publication of De falso credita et ementita Constantini Donatione declamation. The Spaniard Alfonso V of Aragon strongly supported this discovery. Valla’s thesis contended Constantine I’s donation of the Western Roman Empire to the Roman Catholic Church as a gift for a fourth century event, Pope Sylvester I’s healing of leprosy.as false.

     It is highly plausible that Valla’s discovery instigated some of the revised aesthetic standards for Counter-Reformation art, which still maintained guidelines Alberti established in his own treatise, de pictura. Valla found grammatical errors in Latin translations that matched the literary style of another eighth century rather than fourth century clergy. This validated Valla’s refutation of the donation’s fourth century date. Moreover, based on the finding of that discrepant evidence, Valla’s writings also challenged that Constantine’s donation had ever even existed after all.

     That eighth century document commemorates Pope Stephen II’s anointment of a Carolingian king to establish new royalty over an older Merovingian line. The document reveals that it was the Carolingian Pepin who returned stolen Byzantine lands to Italian popes, not Constantine. That property became “Papal States”, a seat of temporal power for eleven centuries to come. Nevertheless, even after the controversy that Valla’s findings sparked amongst the guild workshops of Florentine and Roman masters, Giuliano and Rafael’s other assistants completed The Donation of Constantine, between 1521-1524 for the Apostolic Palace, Vatican City, Rome.

     Contrarily, unlike Baroque naturalism’s sharper clarity, the High Renaissance style of Parma artist, Correggio, 1494-1534, resembled the style of Verrocchio and da Vinci. Chiaroscuro, a lax control of line, and faint contour shading -- several methods which da Vinci established -- defined Correggio’s idealistic illusionism. Correggio’s masterpiece, Assumption of the Virgin, completed for the Parma Cathedral ceiling at the onset of Counter-Reform, c.1530, effectively displays a stylistic split between High Mannerist and a newer Baroque style that emerged from the Bolognese School.

     Correggio and Forli created the fresco’s dramatic, illusionistic impression of an upward, soaring sensation via a visual vortex, amplified by del Verrocchio’s figura serpentinata to add gradient layers of height and movement. The predominantly puffed roundness of the shapes, figures, and faces taken from scenes out of traditional Bible stories create a highly idealized, elaborate, glamorous narrative scheme to convey a message of Christian faith in Eternal life, rather than immortality. Correggio’s pairing of contrasting elements renders his masterpiece a hybrid, ingenuously wedged amidst the High Renaissance and Baroque styles.

     The positioning and stances of the figures in Assumption of the Virgin are orderly, yet filled with tension, and not as harmonious as, for example, the figures in Rafael’s School of Athens. Here, Correggio and Forli emphasize Classical humanism, for movement flows continuously with a figura serpentinata energy, yet contrapposto sustains it, as in the Saint John the Baptist scene. Despite High Mannerist gestures of Correggio’s putti and Biblical characters, their faces bear the intense emotion typical to late Baroque period art. This is a transition away from Rafael’s use of passionate, yet controlled expression.

     The Baroque style evolved to a fuller extent during the early Seicento. By 1640, the portrayal of human, micro-expression in Italian art matured; again, joy was an acceptable aesthetic sentiment. Artist Guido Reni, 1575-1642, lucidly and dramatically conveyed a traditional Biblical scene through its appropriate, introverted emotion. Reni’s 72.4 by 88.9-centimetre oil on canvas -- Saint Joseph and the Christ Child, now at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston -- exemplifies a conventional Early Renaissance theme where The Council of Trent’s extreme penitent emotion no longer constrains individual artistic style or message. It is fitting that Reni chose to magnify joy in this Nativity scene, which does communicate a Counter-Reform emphasis on inner renewal.

     Just as expressive emotion, important traditional family also evolved in seventeenth century Italy. During Reni’s lifetime, Baroque period literature and art redefined the human experience in terms broader than spirituality or religion. This was likely due to Protestant Reformers such as John Calvin, 1509-1564, whose ideas about Adam and Eve shattered the traditional norms of family life everywhere in Europe, and German scholar and feminist, Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa,1486 –1535.

     Ultimately, the humanist father figure evolved as equally dominant as the mother in a child’s life, and open to the realistic process of trial and error rather than perfection. This entirely diverse tone changed the traditional religious theme of the sacra conversazione genre in Italian art, which had evolved from medieval triptych and diptych altarpieces. The conventional elements of the sacra conversazione typically include angels, saints, Joseph, the Madonna, and Baby Jesus. As his predecessor, Masaccio, Rafael greatly altered the old-fashioned format of this genre: most of Rafael’s representations featured Saint John the Baptist, the Madonna, and Baby Christ in a natural landscape, which was devoid of architecture.

     Reni’s link between Joseph and Baby Christ evokes a standard Renaissance significance of family, with an alternate twist: Mary is virtually absent from this scenario, and thereby altogether deleted from the sacra conversazione. In Reni’s emotional scene, Joseph bends to cradle Baby Jesus in a pure white blanket while looking down in joy at Him. In His hands, Baby Christ clutches a round fruit that refers to the downfall of Adam and Eve, and suggests forgiveness and renewal. Joseph’s beard grazing against Christ’s hand refers to a conventional Renaissance concept that facial hair denoted wisdom and masculinity; masculinity interweaves with the feminized role of fatherhood. Therefore, Reni, like Masaccio and Raphael, ingeniously transforms the sacra conversazione so that it evoked a truer emotional and feminist perspective of a new father. 

     This discussion has therefore examined the political importance of Roman Catholicism's theology and doctrine and its subsequent impact on society through various perspectives in Italian Renaissance and Baroque painting. Artists never stopped discovering, experimenting, or learning, and so the most positive attributes of Counter-Reformation art was that this trade had to be free of the dogmatic constraints of the age, regardless of the censorship issues many works raised. The use of well-loved, traditional Biblical themes  had to be overlooked for the sake of politics, and therefore, Counter-Reformation masterpieces may not have been viewed as simply works of a creative genius. The key to the most effective communication of message is still to this day most powerfully expressed through realistic rather than artificial emotion.

     All learning environments should implement its most valuable tools  and instruction as a way to reach student's inner creativity, and not hinder it. The  politics of an age must never undermine the mastery and use of a valuable skill -- whether creative or wholly technical .