Alexander Nagel


On his book The Controversy of Renaissance Art

Cover Interview of July 12, 2011

The wide angle

The Italian Renaissance has always been understood as the foundation of European art. The entire artistic tradition through Picasso stems from the extraordinary achievements of early 16th century artists.

Traditionally, this period has been presented as one of classical harmony and aesthetic resolution. And yet it is also universally acknowledged that the classical balance of the art of the first two decades of the 16th century—the art of Raphael, early Michelangelo and early Titian—was quite soon disrupted by the advent of what we call Mannerism.

If it was so stable, then why was this art so quickly succeeded by an art of unnatural contortions, non-perspectival space, convoluted compositions, and obscure meaning? Perhaps the extraordinarily compelling visions of the first two decades of the 16th century were just that—visions, stunning and short-lived efforts to create order that were then quickly succeeded by a more unstable and heterodox art.

Another traditional view is that this was the period that saw the emergence of a secular art out of a traditional, religious past. This view doesn’t hold up either. Most of the art of this period was religious, and it was not grudgingly undertaken by the artists simply to fulfill commissions and earn money.

In their religious works, Raphael, Michelangelo, Titian and the other major artists of the period were attempting to join the highest ambitions of art with the most exalted aims of religion. They developed some of their most innovative ideas in their efforts to resolve what they saw as major, epochal challenges to the integrity and legitimacy of religious art.

All of them believed that religious art could not continue in the way it had been made and promoted by previous generations. Something had to change, and they offered radical proposals for such changes.

The proposals included a new mode of visionary altarpiece, developed by Fra Bartolommeo and Raphael, a new mode of antique-inspired Christian statuary, developed by Andrea and Jacopo Sansovino and Michelangelo, and complete re-orderings of church space in such a way as to focus attention on the high altar and the Eucharist—a development that affected many major cathedrals and smaller churches throughout Italy.

Classicism, a new monumentality, and the most sophisticated pictorial developments were not the hallmarks of a new secular art so much as the primary means used to reform religious art.

All this reveals an art that was not simply progressivist, forward-looking and secular, but instead self-questioning, complex, and at its most innovative when engaged in a retrospective investigation of Christian art.  This view of Renaissance art perhaps speaks to our era even more forcefully than the traditional one did.