Sample Essay for Ren-Ref hw2 (Fall 2012)

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Sample Essay for Ren-Ref HW2 (Fall 2012)

Assignment: Homework 2:  In two pages (ca. 500 words), summarize the content of what you learned at the extracurricular activity that you attended (Renaissance Faire, Renaissance Conference, Gardner Museum, MFA, or other). Also explain how this experience confirmed or challenged  your previous understanding of the Renaissance.

Evaluation of Paper: This paper is far longer and more detailed than what is expected of this assignment. It’s clear that you listened carefully and looked attentively during our visit to these 2 museums. The best part of this essay is that it refers to specific examples from each museum, rather than stating broad generalizations about how the works were “beautiful” or “interesting” without any further detail. A second strength of this essay is that it directly ties the artwork and architecture seen at the MFA and the Gardner Museum with some of the themes and material covered in class. The title of the paper is clear, but not terribly intriguing. 20/20

What I Learned from the Class Field Trip to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts

The extracurricular activity that I attended was the class field trip to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. At both of these museums, members of the class were able to view notable works of Renaissance art in person, and analyze the ways in which each of them exemplified the artistic developments of the Renaissance in terms of subject matter, style, and technique. With the help of tour guides, our group also compared and contrasted the art of the late medieval and early Renaissance periods with that of the High Renaissance, distinguished between art of the Italian Renaissance and that of the Northern Renaissance, and discussed how different regions of Italy were sometimes known for their own distinctive artistic styles and techniques.

At the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, we learned facts about the museum and its founder in addition to information about the paintings, sculptures, and furniture contained in the museum. The museum docent stated that Isabella Stewart was born in New York City in 1840, and married John Gardner in 1860. Soon after their wedding, the couple moved to Boston, where Isabella Stewart Gardner became an extensive traveler, prominent member of society, and influential patron of the arts. When her husband died in 1899, she began building the museum, which opened to the public in 1903. Her role in the formation of the museum can be described by the "Three C's": she was the collector of all of the items in the museum, and was the museum's creator and curator, as she meticulously placed all of the works of art exactly where she wanted them to be. She even left a will that stated that the organization and arrangement of the pieces of art in the museum's permanent collection could not be significantly altered after her death, which occurred in 1924. In this will, she also left an endowment of one million dollars to the museum, which was intended to help finance the museum and support its educational programs for visitors.

The Isabella Stewart Gardner museum includes three floors of paintings, furniture, rare books, sculptures, and other objects, and a magnificent enclosed courtyard. The facade of the building that surrounds the courtyard was inspired by the exterior appearance of the palazzos on the Grand Canal in Venice, specifically the Palazzo Barbaro, where the Gardners frequently stayed when in Italy. The courtyard is filled with classical statues, such as the statue of the goddess Persephone, and the headless statue entitled Peplophorus, which was modeled on a Greek bronze statue of the fifth century B.C. The courtyard also has a mosaic floor that was a remnant from a bathhouse in an ancient Roman villa. After viewing the courtyard, the class moved on to the Gothic Room, where we were shown a portrait of Isabella Stewart Gardner that was painted by John Singer Sargent in 1888. Gardner made Sargent redo the portrait nine times until she was completely satisfied with it- yet many Bostonians had an entirely different opinion of the piece when it was exhibited in a one-man show that Sargent held in the city. With the tour guide, the class explored different reasons why the painting received such a negative reaction from Boston society, such as her bare arms in the portrait, which showed more skin than was thought proper at the time, the bold stare that she gives the viewer, and the faint halo around her head, which prompted a contemporary to nickname her the "Byzantine Madonna."

After comparing the artistic techniques and styles of Giotto's "The Presentation of the Christ Child in the Temple" and Simone Martini's "Virgin and Child," the class moved on to the Titian Room. There we viewed Titian's famous masterpiece "The Rape of Europa," and learned that Titian was a Venetian painter whose major patrons included King Philip II of Spain. Our guide explained that although the room held important works of Renaissance art, it included furniture from the eighteenth century and was decorated in a Victorian style, as the paintings were hung high on walls covered with fabric. The room was modeled on the Grand Salon of the Palazzo Barbaro. As we moved throughout the rest of the museum, we saw several other works of art, such as Florentine paintings and pieces housed in the Dutch Room. The Dutch Room holds paintings made in European countries during the Northern Renaissance, such as a portrait of Queen Mary I of England. The room is also distinguished by the intricate designs and etchings on its ceiling.

At the Museum of Fine Arts, the class was immediately led to "The Crucifixion," a large-scale painting which was made in the 1360s by the Master of the Urbino Coronation. Our guide informed us that the actual name of the painter is unknown, but the style of "The Crucifixion" matches the style of a painting entitled the "Urbino Coronation," so art historians attribute "The Crucifixion" to the painter of the latter work. Before this field trip, I was not aware that art historians and other scholars could determine the artist of a painting by comparing its style with that of other works of art created during the same time period. The class discussed how this painting features several characteristics of Renaissance art, as it is realistic in its depiction of emotion and human anatomy, and conveys a sense of movement rather than the stiffness that was common in medieval art. We also discussed some of the symbolism in the painting, such as the fact that the sincere mourners are on the right side of Christ in the painting, while the sinners and unbelievers are on his left side. This is symbolic because the left hand of God condemns people while the right lifts people to Heaven. Moreover, we talked about the message that the painting sends to the audience, and the possibility that it was meant as a call to conversion, largely because the figure of Saint Longinus is included, who converted to Christianity after Christ's crucifixion.

Subsequently, the class examined Donatello's "Madonna of the Clouds," which was notable because it was carved in low relief- the distance between its deepest and shallowest points is only between one-eighth and three-eighths of an inch. It was completed between the years 1425 and 1435, and is also important because it has many intricate details carved into the marble, exhibits technical mastery, and conveys a sense of emotion. We then turned around and viewed the decorative items created by members of the della Robbia family on the opposite wall. The museum had pieces made by Luca della Robbia and Andrea della Robbia, among others, who were active primarily in Florence during the fifteenth century. These objects mainly depicted religious figures and scenes. Afterwards, we analyzed Fra Carnevale's "Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple," which was painted in 1467 as the center panel of a large altarpiece. The class discussed its use of linear perspective and depth, and its emphasis on classical architecture through its inclusion of columns and arches, and our guide gave us some background on Mary's life. She stated that when Mary was young, her parents were so happy to have a child that they brought her to a temple, dedicated her to God, and left her there until puberty. Although it is not clear what particular event the scene in the painting is referring to, the figures at the top of the painting foreshadow her later life, specifically the Annunciation.

Later, the class viewed Bartolomeo Vivarini's "Virgin and the Dead Christ with the Ascension and Saints" from 1485. It is a gold altarpiece that centers on a figure of Mary with the dead Christ in her lap. This figure is surrounded by portraits of several Saints, such as Saint George, Saint Jerome, Saint Christopher, Saint Benedict, and Saint Scholastica. The last Italian Renaissance painting we examined was Rosso Fiorentino's "The Dead Christ with Angels," which was painted during the period of the High Renaissance. The class pointed out a number of this painting's most important features, such as its dramatic lighting, its focus on the hands of its subjects, the sinewy and elongated body of Christ, and the large proportions of Christ's body when compared to the size of the painting. In addition, the painting offers a different interpretation of Christ in suffering- instead of depicting Christ in agony, it portrays him in a relaxed, almost sleep-like state. Lastly, the class analyzed several works of Northern Renaissance art, such as Rogier van der Weyden's "Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin" and Rembrandt's "Portrait of the Artist at His Easel."

The class trip to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts confirmed my previous understanding of the Renaissance in several ways. First, both of the docents at the museums discussed how Renaissance artists were inspired by classical Greek and Roman works. Moreover, they highlighted the changes that occurred in painting and sculpture between the medieval period and the High Renaissance. For instance, Titian's paintings at the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum were great examples of High Renaissance art: their subject matter included mythological scenes, not simply religious figures or events as in medieval times. They also depicted more emotion, movement, and realism than works of art created during the Middle Ages. However, the guides also emphasized that artistic techniques gradually evolved from the fourteenth century through the sixteenth century; medieval notions of style and technique slowly developed into those accepted during the Renaissance. This allowed for the regional artistic differences observed during the Italian Renaissance. For example, at the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum, the class observed significant differences between Giotto's "The Presentation of the Christ Child in the Temple" and Simone Martini's "Virgin and Child." In Martini's painting, Mary's hands are flat and distorted, and are not realistically holding the infant Christ. The figures also have no depth, and look very two-dimensional. In Giotto's painting, there is more color, realism, perspective, anatomical accuracy, and motion, as Joseph is passing the baby Jesus to Mary. Giotto's painting is much more characteristic of those created during the Renaissance, and Martini's is more representative of medieval art. However, Giotto's "Presentation" was painted in 1320, while Martini's "Virgin and Child" was painted in 1325. In this way, there is no sharp dividing line between the medieval and Renaissance styles and the years in which they were used by artists; such factors as location or region in Italy could have an effect on which style a painter chose to use. The guides at both museums also discussed the differences between Italian Renaissance art and Northern Renaissance art, the latter of which was usually distinguished by its use of a darker and more subdued color palette than that used in Italian artwork, a more extensive use of oils, and a greater inclusion of landscapes and cityscapes in paintings, as in Rogier van der Weyden's "Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin."

There were also some facts that I learned during the trip that challenged my previous understanding of the Renaissance. Prior to the field trip, I did not know that some artists would sometimes modify a painting of a religious scene or other subject in order to make it more relatable and interesting to his contemporary viewers. Hope Stockton, our guide at the Museum of Fine Arts, pointed out two instances of this in particular. She stated that in Fra Carnevale's "Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple from 1467," the many men depicted in the painting are wearing Renaissance-style clothing that his contemporaries would have been accustomed with, rather than the traditional dress of the years before Christ, when the scene in the painting would have taken place. Likewise, Rogier van der Weyden's "Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin" depicts a traditional religious scene, but the view of the countryside in the background of the painting is not from the time period of Mary and Christ. Rather, the modern multi-storied buildings in the distance suggest that the landscape is one that Carnevale's fifteenth century viewers would be familiar with. I was also surprised by a fact that our guide at the Isabella Stewart Gardner shared with us: I was not aware that rooms in wealthy Renaissance homes were so intricately decorated that walls and ceilings would be embellished, or that details on picture frames would match the details on pieces of furniture. Therefore, I was in awe of the ceiling of the Dutch room, which included many small, elaborate carvings and designs. It is hard to imagine that that level of intricacy would be commonplace in the homes of the rich and privileged during the Renaissance.

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