From Mantegna to Michelangelo: Illusionistic Ceiling Paintings of the Renaissance Pave the Way for Baroque Excess

Trevor Hunt

Writer’s comment: Professor Ruda’s Art History 178C class seemed both daunting in scope and exciting at the same time. I'd taken a class with him before and knew he would not just cover general historical facts but would instead meld societal influences, culture, and perspective into his lectures. Immediately, ancient art took on new life, and the more we learned, the more interesting and complex it became. He left this assignment open, allowing students to write just about anything they wanted, as long as it fell within the time frame of the material taught. This paper is more or less a straightforward examination of the big names in Renaissance ceiling painters. I tried to put some of my excitement for the material into the essay and also tried to tie each painter together using qualities other than merely the paintings themselves. Because if there was one thing that stood out in my mind after taking this class it was that no one lives—or paints—in a bubble. Cultures mingle, ideas spread, mistakes are made. Even today this holds true, and as a design student told to think outside the box, I learned that there is just another box waiting outside the first.
—Trevor Hunt

Instructor’s comment: Trevor’s paper takes a broad view of a large topic. Italian painted ceilings constitute one of the most complex and ambitious artistic traditions in the history of art. The paper discusses the most important surviving examples from the beginnings of this tradition. Trevor articulates the key structural features of each design, and he places them in historical relationship to each other. The writing is exceptionally clear in its own techniques; I rarely see papers with such well-constructed paragraphs and sentences, and with such a literate vocabulary. The passages of historical analysis and of description are extremely well integrated, so that the paper achieves a cohesive style.
—Jeffrey Ruda, Art History Program

For one reason or another, illusions delight us. Children become amazed when a magician takes a rabbit out of his magic hat, and adults become amazed when the same magician makes a grown woman disappear, then reappear from thin air. Rationally, we know the rabbit must have been hidden away in a secret compartment and the woman could not really have disappeared. Of course we know because there is no such thing as magic. What excites us is the prospect of magic—of something that seems to defy the laws of nature to produce a result that our minds cannot understand. Magicians have been around a long time, in various forms. The true magicians of the Renaissance were the illusionistic painters. By using linear and atmospheric perspective, naturalistic figures borrowed from antiquity, and other trompe l’oeil techniques, Renaissance painters created the special effects of their time. Rather than pure entertainment, however, these artists—Mantegna, Corregio, and Michelangelo, to name a few—always painted with a purpose. Often, religious subjects necessitated socially and politically acceptable treatments of subject matter. At other times, the patron of a particular chapel or secular building would specify a general theme for the painting, like a series of images representing vices. Within this framework, the artist would work his magic and create space where there was none and beauty where little had existed before.
         During the Early Renaissance Andrea Mantegna set the tone for illusionistic ceiling frescoes with his designs for the Camera degli Sposi in the Ducal Palace in Mantua, Italy, in 1472-1474 (Meiss 162). Other painters before Mantegna had, of course, painted frescoes on ceilings, but none had implied realism in quite the way he did. Giotto, for instance, as we can see in Plate 1, adorned the ceiling of the Arena Chapel in Padua, Italy in 1303-1305 with rich blue pigments and gold stars, the latter symbolizing heaven (Meiss 42). Imaginary marble arches run the length of the vaulted ceiling, interspersed with portraits. While the faux marble treatment is meant to fool the viewer’s eye, the portraits and stars do not begin to look real even with the highest suspension of disbelief. One exception flanks the chancel arch, just above the dado. As Kren and Marx point out in describing Plate 2, “Instead of ‘stories,’ Giotto painted two views of the interiors of what appear to be sacristies or a choir, in perfect perspective.” The flat wall seems to recede into space, as if the chapel continues out into a Gothic window. This is true trompe l’oeil and would become more and more desirable as time progressed.
         As we see in Plate 3, Mantegna took advantage of illusionistic space in his ceiling fresco in the Ducal Palace to an extent that had not been seen before. His use of radical perspective known as di sotto in su (“seen from below”), his placement of figures in believable and appropriate settings, and his use of naturalistic and individualistic details “began a long-lasting tradition of illusionistic ceiling painting” (Stokstad 667-68). The ceiling fresco uses the look and illusionistic qualities of the wall frescoes and presents an imaginary space that seems to open up to the sky outside. A number of figures rest on and around the false architecture. Both the figures and the architecture have been radically foreshortened to maintain the viewer’s sense of viewing di sotto in su. The three putti standing on the balustrade that encircles the opening are shown from a very unconventional viewpoint (Meiss 162), demonstrating Mantegna’s attention to naturalistic detail (the figures are shown foreshortened as if seen from below) and his breaking of new ground, both visually and in his handling of subject. The putti look fairly naturalistic in their skin tones and shape, keeping with convention, but the di sotto in su viewing angle removes them from the cute putti of the past and forces the viewer to recognize Mantegna’s manipulation of space and interpretation of body shape. The remaining figures include four women, a turbaned man, other putti, and a peacock. A barrel rests perilously overhead, balancing on a wooden dowel. The remaining space is filled with a blue sky and gray and white clouds. And while Mantegna creates a novel illusion of space, he does not make it entirely believable. Much like Giotto’s paintings in the Arena chapel, the fantasy lasts only so long, and quickly the viewer consciously appreciates the painting as just that. As Millard Meiss writes, “Mantegna invites us to join him in a gay game of make-believe, and he persuades us that the experience is entirely delightful” (162).
         Thirty-four years later, Michelangelo began work on what might be the most famous fresco paintings in the world—the ones covering the Sistine ceiling in the church of the Vatican. With interior dimensions of 130 feet long by 43.5 feet wide, the chapel provided ample space for Michelangelo’s illusionistic expression. Similar to Giotto’s design for the Arena chapel, but on a much larger scale, Michelangelo painted imaginary arches that span the width of the ceiling. In Michelangelo’s work, however, the painted architecture appears more realistic and three-dimensional. Yet these arches, referring back to classical antiquity, remain ambiguous in their relationship to the real world. From the ground below it is hard to tell exactly how the arches might be supported, and figures sit and play around what rationally should be, but do not appear to be, precarious supports. Indeed, the figures look perfectly comfortable in their uncertain spaces, blending the real world and the spiritual world with graceful poses: “Michelangelo sought the inner ‘ideas’ in his dialogue between the material and spiritual realms, increasingly striving for a level of visionary insight which might transcend the materiality of his media” (Kemp and Richards 154). On a purely visceral level, the alternation between bright solid color and subdued shadowy murk and the effect of chiaroscuro on the bulky human forms is sublime. Intellectually, the piece works equally well, playing one story off another (the creation of Adam and Eve, for example, placed near their final expulsion from paradise) and keeping with storytelling conventions enough so that onlookers might readily understand the intended meaning.
         Michelangelo’s conception of space in the Sistine frescoes differs greatly from Mantegna’s. While the illusion of architecture has many similarities, the placement of figures has few. In Mantegna’s fresco, putti are seen from below, and faces peer out as if looking down from the illusionary space above. In the Sistine ceiling, Michelangelo varied the use of perspective and foreshortening, and the ceiling as a whole works more like a resplendent mural than an exercise in trompe l’oeil. The prophets and sibyls, as Vasari pointed out, are painted without the rule of “perspectives in foreshortening, nor is there any fixed point of view, but [Michelangelo] accommodated the compartments to the figures rather than the figures to the compartments.” In doing this, Michelangelo allows the shapes to spill over across architectural borders, further enhancing the ambiguous space and the fuzzy line between reality and illusion. Meiss describes how in Plate 4 the figure of Daniel leans dramatically out of his vertical place to write something—perhaps a prophecy—down on his tiny desk, while two small figures restore the vertical and bring the composition together (188). From below, the piece reads as a wall fresco seen looking up, not as a deliberate attempt to persuade the viewer of an imaginary reality. This is in contrast with Mantegna’s fresco, which attempts to lead the viewer’s eye through a space that never existed in real life. Michelangelo’s fresco more resembles Giotto’s in this sense because they both focused less on creating an extension of the real world and more on creating an imaginary other world.
         This is not to say that Michelangelo ignored naturalism in his fresco. In fact, the common subjects that he painted become interesting because of his representation of nature, or rather, his interpretation of it. At this time many ancient Greek and Roman sculptures had been uncovered and were generally available to artists in the area. One particular sculpture, known as the Belvedere Torso, was often used in figure studies to create a truly natural form. Michelangelo used the Belvedere Torso to aid the shape of all his figures in the Sistine fresco (Ruda). Perhaps it is for this reason that Michelangelo did not skew the perspective of the figures to trick the observers into believing the images were real. Classical forms were held with such high regard that skewing their overall shape would destroy any link to the past and dishearten enlightened observers. For a similar reason, Michelangelo might have kept the basic classical model to prove that he, too, could recreate nature in a beautiful and graceful way, just as the ancients did, and that he, as a painter, could not only create one or two variations on the torso, but a whole ceiling full.
         Six years after the completion of the Sistine Ceiling, Correggio began work on a fresco of Christ and the Apostles for the cupola at the San Giovanni Evangelista church in Parma, Italy (see Plate 5). In the center of this work, Christ floats amidst a glowing cloud of orange and yellow light. Correggio’s Christ measures thirteen feet high—higher than any of Michelangelo’s Sistine forms (Meiss 208). Especially impressive is the fact that Correggio’s figure is foreshortened, resembling the methods used by Mantegna over forty years earlier. Correggio also took advantage of the low viewing angle and rendered the figures di sotto in su. The idea is technically similar to Mantegna’s, but in design it is much more complex. Correggio’s use of chiaroscuro and subtleties of color in the shadows formed by folds of cloth and ripples of muscle create a much more striking image than Mantegna’s. The illusion of real space is enhanced by these kinds of details. The illusion still requires the viewer to suspend disbelief, not because of a lack of skill on Correggio’s part, but because of the religious subject matter. Surely, had Correggio painted a completely believable type of scene—perhaps a group of figures looking down on the viewer below like Mantegna did in the Ducal Palace—no one would have mistaken it for reality. How many people would believe an unmoving group of figures suspended one hundred feet in a church ceiling were real?
         The fantastical scene works on another level, though, in that it invites the viewer on a conscious escape to another, spiritual world. Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling does the same thing, but on an even more removed level. By linking his frescos to the real world through the use of foreshortening and illusionism, as well as the usual techniques of chiaroscuro and naturalistic, classical forms, Correggio creates a strong link between the real and imaginary worlds.
         In 1520-1524, Correggio painted his most famous work—Assumption of the Virgin (Plate 6), on the main dome of the Parma Cathedral (Stokstad 704). Here, Correggio uses a similar motif as he did in the cupola fresco (that is, religious figures spiraling and floating away from the ceiling in a blur of clouds and light) and the dome, along with the material world we know, seems to dissolve into a fantastic and exciting alternate world. Here is where we see the true magic of illusionistic ceiling painting. The rich, warm colors, and the attention to detail in every aspect of the fresco—from the figures themselves to the illusionistic architecture surrounding them—create a stunning and coherent visual experience: “The viewer’s strongest impression is of a powerful, spiraling upward motion, as if the artist hoped to convey the spiritual essence of the Assumption” (Stokstad 705). Certainly, to many modern-day onlookers, Correggio’s Assumption might perform on superficial levels. Without knowledge of biblical themes, the lay observer might miss the point of the Assumption entirely, and may even overlook the Virgin herself as she soars up to Heaven. This interpretation (or lack of interpretation, rather) of the fresco as simply eye candy obviously neglects much of Correggio’s hard intellectual work he put into the piece. The way he used the actual vault as a real-world parallel to the vault of heaven, for example, shows his mind at work (Kren and Marx, “Assumption”). Also, the interpretation of classical forms both from direct, ancient examples, and through other artists, demonstrates Correggio’s understanding of ideal human forms. Correggio did, in fact, borrow and reinterpret many artists’ styles:

[The Assumption fresco] distinctly recalls the ceiling by Andrea Mantegna in the Gonzaga ducal palace. Leonardo clearly influenced Correggio’s use of softly modeled forms, spotlighting effects of illumination, and a slightly hazy overall appearance. Correggio also assimilated elements from Raphael’s work in developing his highly personal style, which inspired artists for the next three centuries. (Stokstad 705)

         The main reason these works are as effective today at inspiring the viewer as they were hundreds of years ago lies in the almost magical—some might call it divine—way that the artists handled difficult, clichéd subject matter and the equally difficult fresco medium. In the driest sense, the artists made dynamic compositions balancing color, light and shadow, intellectual content, perspective, illusionism, and angles in unique and exemplary ways. More thoughtfully, the illusionistic ceiling painters of the Renaissance created joy and intellectual teachings to a mass of viewers. With brush strokes and color—simple pigments that reflect different wavelengths of light—the artists inspired countless numbers of painters and patrons. Correggio and his Assumption of the Virgin fresco helped spur the wondrous and ornate illusionistic ceiling paintings of the seventeenth century Baroque period (Stokstad 705). The years to come would see an overflow of creative excess, all following, at least in a large part, from the experimentations and creations of Renaissance ceiling painters.

Works Cited

Kemp, Martin, and John Richards. “The New Painting: Italy and the North.” In Martin Kemp (ed.), The Oxford History of Western Art. Oxford U P. 2000.

Kren, Emil and Daniel Marx. The Art of Giotto. “Painted Views of Interior.” June 6, 2002.

Kren, Emil & Marx, Daniel. Assumption of the Virgin by Correggio. “Assumption of the Virgin.” June 6, 2002.

Meiss, Millard. The Great Age of Fresco. New York: George Braziller. 1970.

Ruda, Jeff. Lecture, 5/15/02. University of California, Davis.

Stokstad, Marilyn. Art History. New York: Abrams. 1999.

Vasari, Giorgio. The Great Masters. Trans. Gaston Du C. de Vere. In Michael Sonino (ed.) China: Hugh Lauter Levin. 1986. Plate 1: Ceiling of the Arena Chapel by Giotto (Meiss 43) Plate 2: “Painted Views of Interior.” (Kren and Marx, “Painted”) Plate 3: Ceiling Fresco in the Ducal Palace by Mantegna (Meiss 163) Plate 4: Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo (Meiss 189) Plate 5: Fresco of Christ and theApostles by Correggio (Meiss 209) Plate 6: “Assumption of the Virgin.” (Kren and Marx, “Assumption”)