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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
Email: [email protected] / Phone: +44 7429 011000

The 16th century was a period of considerable transition and innovation within European art.

The period began with the continuation of the Italian High Renaissance, with masters such as Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael before being replaced by the Mannerist era and leading on towards the Baroque.

The earlier phases of the Renaissance had spread through much of Europe by the start of the 16th century, and other regions would now contribute their own variations of this ‘re-birth’ of painting, sculpture, architecture and literature. Besides the leading Italian artists, there were major players in Northern Europe, with Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-1569) contributing meticulously crafted landscapes, and Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) impressing in woodcuts and engravings.

Critically, we would also start to see more variety in content all across the continent, as whilst religious art was still dominant, alternative genres were starting to gain traction for the first time. Over the course of the 16th century we would start to see these genres start to gain more followers, and donors too. Portraiture would now include secular subjects, with privately ordered commissions offering new sources of income to the most widely regarded painters.

Continuation of the High Renaissance

The Italian High Renaissance lasted from around 1495 to 1520 and its end was marked by the death of one of its leading exponents, Raphael, as well as the sacking of Rome which brought great upheaval to the region. The period brought together all of the advancements in painting technique which had occurred across the earlier phases of the Italian Renaissance, which included a more realistic depiction of physical features, a more subtle balance of tone and a mastery of perspective within the visual arts.

Rome, Florence and Venice were to be the main hubs of creativity during this period, with Leonardo (1452-1519), Raphael (1483-1520) and Michelangelo (1475-1564) contributing iconic works such as The Mona Lisa, David and The School of Athens during this relatively short but productive period.

The Emergence of the Mannerists

Mannerism brought elongated forms to both painting and sculpture, and contributed the likes of Tintoretto (1518-1594), Jacopo Pontormo (1494-1557), Agnolo Bronzino (1503-1572) and Parmigianino (1503-1540) to Italian art history. Elsewhere, El Greco (1541-1614) would achieve success in Spain using a similar approach and it quickly became clear that tastes had finally moved on from the ground-breaking era of the Renaissance.

When viewing the writhing, twisted figures of the Mannerist era, one can immediately spot an early transition towards the Baroque era, in which many of the same principles would be used but expanded upon. Besides Italy and Spain, examples of this new, expressive approach would also spread to France and Germany.

The intention behind the Mannerist style was to allow artists to express themselves more openly, opposing the obsessive desire of the High Renaissance who themselves desired the greatest accuracy possible. The Mannerist approach lasted from about 1520 until about 1600, leading directly into the Baroque era. It also spread into architecture and sculpture, giving us the likes of Giambologna (1529-1608) and Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571).

Their work proved popular, with extreme emotion delivered in the facial features of their subjects, in a similar look to Caravaggio’s oeuvre which followed on soon after. Viewers felt uplifted by much of the work from the 16th century, which freshened up traditional themes, as shown with El Greco’s religious output. His View of Toledo (circa 1596-1600) was also groundbreaking in re-invententing the landscape genre, before later generations would help to establish this art form within the mainstream.

Masterpieces of the 16th Century

The first decade of the 16th century was marked by two masterpieces which rank amongst the most iconic artworks in history - namely Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (circa 1503-06) and Michelangelo’s David (circa 1501-1504). In Rome we also received Raphael’s The School of Athens between 1509 and 1511. These famous pieces remain the best known in their specific mediums, and represented the pinnacle of the Italian Renaissance.

In combining historical significance with technical expertise, Hans Holbein the Younger’s portraits of Henry VIII are also major highlights from the 16th century. The Hunters in the Snow from 1565 captured life in Northern Europe perfectly, and heralded a movement towards landscape art. Praying Hands from 1508 by Albrect Durer also demonstrated how pen and ink drawings could be treated as artworks in their own right, rather than merely serving as a tool of study and practice.

The Rise of Printmaking and the Graphic Arts

Printmaking made considerable advancements during the 16th century, allowing intricate designs from North European artists to be spread across society for the first time. Art could now be appreciated by the masses, with woodcuts, engravings, and etchings being copied many times over and sold at competitive prices. Over time, the printing process went beyond one of mere reproduction to actually offering artists further means of expression.

Albrecht Durer was one of the earliest masters in this regard, and his extraordinary prowess convinced many other artists to get involved. Indeed, his prints were easier to transport which enabled his artistic reputation to spread far beyond the boundaries of his native Nuremberg.

Artists of the Royal Court

The 16th century marked an important period in the opportunities given to artists through courts and royal commissions. These prestigious donors would use art as a means to display their wealth, and also to shape public opinion on their time in power. There would be a wide range of mediums involved, including painting, sculpture, tapestry and fresco art, often to decorate buildings that the patrons had themselves commissioned.

They sought out the finest artists from across Europe and could offer ambitious projects which were well financed.Hans Holbein the Younger found considerable success in England, serving Henry VIII and producing technically impressive portraits of the monarch and members of his family. Italian artist Titian would do likewise for the Habsburgs in Spain whilst the Medici court in Italy provided considerable support to the arts and held strong relations with most major Italian artists of their era.

Widening Scope of Flemish Art

Flemish artists continued to flourish throughout the 16th century, continuing their success with religious devotional and altarpiece paintings, whilst also branching out into new genres. Perhaps most memorable of all were their charming portraits which accurately captured the personalities of local peasantry, when previously there had been very little inclusion of the working poor within European art.

Bruegel himself went further, covering festive scenes of celebration, helping us to see their lives in a more positive light. Genre scenes and landscape paintings were also popular in this region, and provided us with a greater insight into daily life at that time. The use of oil painting was well established within Northern Europe and would start to spread into Italy, replacing their previous preference for egg tempera.

Establishment of the Still Life Genre

Still Life became a respected genre in its own right during the 16th century, and detailed depictions of all manner of different objects would litter this period, all across Europe. These would initially include tableware, flowers and food items before the scope widened as artists started to incorporate elements of symbolism within their paintings.

These would be used to represent themes such as life, death, birth, love and more, in a similar manner to how mythological and religious figures had been used in the past. The use of still life art as a specialization helped to raise standards considerably, with many objects no-longer being treated as an afterthought within a background scene, but now were the main focus of the composition.

These advancements were most commonly found in Dutch art, where the likes of Pieter Aertsen (1508-1575) would combine still life and genre painting in a number of popular and highly accessible compositions.

Evolution of Sculpture in the 16th Century

Sculptures continued to be an important medium across the 16th century, and most notably there was a revival of classical influences in comparison to the earlier periods of the Renaissance era. Michelangelo, for example, would also combine these nods to the past with an accuracy of anatomy that had never been seen before.

In a similar manner to painting and fresco art, there would be a wider selection of donors in the 16th century, which allowed a little more freedom for artists. Private commissions to decorate palaces and gardens brought new opportunities to the 16th century stable of sculptors, and they would also start to experiment with new choices of stone and metal.

Transition into the Baroque Era

Many of the stars of the Baroque era were born in the late 16th century. This movement, which dominated the European art scene of the 17th century, was best remembered for its awe-inspiring grandeur, dramatic use of lighting and a focus on evoking the emotions of the viewer, perhaps more so than their intellect. In terms of the color, most Baroque artists would use a warm palette, providing an upbeat atmosphere which appealed to the tastes of the time.

By the end of the 16th century we would see the likes of Caravaggio (1571-1610) starting to approach their peak, which would then influence the direction of the following generations of European art.

Outside of Italy, Northern Europe was again highly influential. Alongside the rise of the likes of Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), the late 16th century also delivered early contributions to the Dutch Golden Age, which itself would bring about famous names such as Frans Hals (1582-1666), Rembrandt (1606-1669) and Vermeer (1632-1675).

Therefore, the European art of the 16th century marked a transition from the peak of the Renaissance to the earliest examples of the Baroque, with the Mannerists firmly placed in the middle of that.

Views around what the Baroque era would represent varied widely. Some would compare it to the Renaissance and Mannerist periods and see it as re-energising European art with movement, color and expression. Others, however, saw it as excessive and unnecessarily complicated, but the strengths of this movement were underlined by its survival from the very early 17th century all the way to the mid-18th century, by which time it had impacted many artistic disciplines, going way beyond just the visual arts.