Rick Steves' Art of the Renaissance

Around 1400, Europe rediscovered the aesthetics of ancient Greece and Rome. This rebirth of classical culture showed itself in the statues, paintings, and architecture of Florence, then spread to Spain, Holland, Germany, and beyond. The Renaissance — from art-loving popes to Leonardo's "Mona Lisa" and Michelangelo's "David" — celebrated humanism and revolutionized how we think about our world.

Find names and locations for works of art listed in the Script.


[1B] Hi, I'm Rick Steves, here with a fascinating chapter in the long and inspirational story of Europe's art. In this hour, it's the radical Renaissance — with a star-studded cast, from art-loving princes and popes to Mona Lisa to Michelangelo's David. This is the art of the Renaissance. Thanks for joining us.

[3] After centuries of medieval struggles, Europe enjoyed a reawakening to the enlightened ways of ancient Greece and Rome. For two centuries — roughly 1400 to 1600 — there was an explosion of art, learning, and culture. This rebirth was known as the Renaissance.

[4 Montage] We'll start where the Renaissance did, in Italy. We'll trace the dramatic revolution in art and the bold spirit of the times. And we'll meet the artistic geniuses who made it possible. From Italy, the Renaissance spread to the seafaring lands of Spain and Portugal, and to the merchant cities of Germany, Belgium and Holland. By the end, the Renaissance had revolutionized the way we think about the world and our place in it.

[5, Piazza della Santissima Annunziata, Florence] Though best known for its art, the Renaissance would change Europe in every way — from politics to economics to religion.

[6] Most of all, it was a whole new attitude toward life, a new optimism and confidence: it was Humanism. Humanism focused not on our sinfulness — as dominated the Middle Ages — but in our essential goodness.

[7, fresco series by Ghirlandaio in Tornabuoni Chapel in Santa Maria Novella church, Florence] People worked hard, making money was respectable, and excellence was rewarded. Real-life people — not just saints and kings — were worthy…worthy of being portrayed realistically in all their human glory…humanism.

[8, Piazza della Signoria, Florence] In politics, the Renaissance meant budding democracy — people power not kings. This was the city hall. In economics, merchants were developing modern capitalism–like banking and loans.

[9, The Annunciation with St. Emidius, 1486, Crivelli, National Gallery, London; Piazza Annunciation, Florence] Scientists were delving into nature. Artists were employing new techniques to show depth and to portray things more realistically. And architects were going forward by going back to ancient Greek-style columns and Roman-style arches.

[10, Uffizi Gallery] If the Renaissance was a foundation of our modern world, a foundation of the Renaissance was classical art. Sculptors, poets, and painters alike turned to ancient work for inspiration.

[11, Three Graces by Botticelli, Birth of Venus by Botticelli, Madonna of the Goldfinch by Raphael, School of Athens by Raphael, St. Peter's Basilica dome is essentially ancient Roman Pantheon atop ancient Roman Basilica of Maxentius] For example, this Renaissance portrayal of the Three Graces was inspired by ancient versions from 1,500 years earlier. This Renaissance goddess?... clearly modeled on works done in ancient times. And this holy Virgin Mary looks suspiciously like this very pagan ancient goddess of love. The great pre-Christian thinkers, like Plato and Aristotle, were back in vogue. And, in architecture, the ultimate Renaissance-designed church was essentially this ancient dome placed upon this ancient basilica.

[12, viewpoint from Piazzale Michelangelo, Florence] The city of Florence was the epicenter of the Renaissance and, in so many ways, the birthplace of our modern Western world. And for good reason. This was where capitalism was replacing feudalism. The city had money and it knew what to do with it.

[13, Ponte Vecchio on Arno River, Florence, view from top of Brunelleschi's dome, Florence] Florence was a prosperous city — a producer of wool and fancy clothes, well-located along a busy river. Trade brought bankers who brought money. And wealthy businessmen showed their civic pride by investing in their city — commissioning splendid art from talented artists, artists who were now respected and well paid. With all this going for it, Florence of the 15th century unleashed a cultural explosion.

[14, baptistery and duomo, Florence] Three works by pioneering geniuses helped launch the Renaissance: the towering dome of its cathedral, the groundbreaking statues that decorated it, and the doors of its baptistery. Excitement over these bold projects — by three greats of the early Renaissance: Brunelleschi, Donatello, and Ghiberti — sparked a city-wide boom in art and creativity.

[15, Elena Fulceri, Florence guide, www.florencewithflair.com] To better appreciate the ground-breaking art of the early Renaissance, we're joined by my friend and fellow tour guide, Elena Fulceri.

[16] Elena: Some say that the Renaissance truly started here in 1401 when the city arranged a competition to select an artist for the bronze casting of the new door of the baptistry. The winning panel was made by a brilliant goldsmith named Lorenzo Ghiberti.

Ghiberti, this is a self-portrait, won the competition with this panel. He then completed the north doors of the baptistry with additional panels like this.

Rick: So, the competition doors were on the north side.
Elena: Exactly. And later on, Ghiberti was in charge of another wonderful project. He cast in bronze the eastern door of the baptistry which ended up being so revolutionary and so spectacular that it was nick-named the Gate of Paradise. And as you can see here, Ghiberti was able to use also the rules of prospettiva, perspective — mathematical laws that helped define the three-dimensionality and you can see that there is a foreground, middle ground, and background.

By doing this, Ghiberti creates a vanishing point that gives the illusion of depth — a believable 3-D scene on a 2-D surface.

Elena: They were considered revolutionary for the three-dimensionality that they offered.
Rick: It's like now the viewer is involved in the art.
Elena: Exactly. We feel part of the artwork. It's three-dimensional. It goes way beyond the shape of the panel. And it's achieved by mathematical laws. And the next great Renaissance achievement was the construction of the dome for the cathedral. It was a huge medieval church that, after 120 years, was left incomplete…with a huge hole. So, the city really needed the proper technology and the right genius. And this genius was Filippo Brunelleschi. With his innovative eight-sided design, Brunelleschi was able to finish the largest dome in a thousand years. And this is the essence of the Renaissance. You can see how art and science can create great beauty.

[17, Duomo (Florence's cathedral), dome by Brunelleschi] The Cathedral and its soaring bell tower were landmark accomplishments in architecture…and they were to be decorated inside and out with wonderful statues. For this, Florence turned to Brunelleschi's good friend and Ghiberti's assistant — the sculptor Donatello. An eccentric, innovative, workaholic master, Donatello lit up his statues with an inner soul, giving his subjects unprecedented realism and emotion.

[18, Cantoria, 1433, Donatello, Museo del Duomo, Florence] This balcony from where the choir sang, captures the exuberance of the Renaissance. Dancing and swirling in a real space, unconstrained by columns, Donatello's happy angels celebrate the freedom and spirit of this new age.

[19, Mary Magdalene, 1455, Donatello] His Mary Magdalene — carved out of wood — is provocative…shockingly realistic. Rather than a saint in glory, Donatello portrays a real person, whose entire being is about the spiritual rather than the physical. Hands folded in prayer and emaciated from fasting, she's repentant. While her neglected physical body seems fragile, she exudes strength in spirit…with a faith that salvation will be hers.

[20] Before the Renaissance, church architecture — because it was the house of God — was the most noble art form. Other arts — like statues, paintings, and stained glass — were especially worthwhile if they ornamented the church.

[21, St. George, c. 1417, Donatello, copy at Orsanmichele Church, Florence] Back then, statues were set deep in alcoves. But, with the Humanist idea of Man standing on his own, the statues literally begin to step out of their protective niches. And Donatello's St. George looks out boldly: ready it seems — both physically and symbolically — to break free from the church as well as the medieval past.

[22, David, c. 1440, Donatello, Bargello Museum, Florence] With his bronze David, Donatello helped revolutionize sculpture. "Renaissance man" now stands on his own. This is one of the first freestanding nudes sculpted in Europe in a thousand years. While the formal subject is still biblical — David slaying the giant — truth be told, it's a classical nude…a celebration of the human body. Driven in part by artists, society was changing. A generation before, this would have been shocking — but with the Renaissance, it's art for art's sake, adorning not a church but a noble family's courtyard.

[23, Piazza della Santissima Annunziata, Florence] The Renaissance lasted roughly two centuries. The High Renaissance or early 1500s is famous for Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael — who we'll get to later. But the first half of the Renaissance, the 1400s, is often overlooked. During this period, there was a steady evolution in art from medieval two-dimensional to more life-like 3-D.

[24, Christ Triumphant altarpiece, c. 1200, unknown Tuscan artist, Uffizi Gallery, Florence] Back in the Middle Ages, altarpieces were far from realistic. Panels, like painted pages, told Bible stories…but with little sense of depth. To show Jesus' head leaning out…it actually does.

[25, Rucellai Madonna, 1285, Duccio, Uffizi Gallery, Florence] Here, angels are stacked on top of each other with no concern for realistic depth. The throne is crudely drawn. It's as if Mary and baby Jesus exist somewhere in a golden never-land. Mary, like a flat cardboard-cutout, seems to float weightlessly.

[26, Virgin and Child Enthroned, c. 1300, Cimabue, Uffizi Gallery, Florence] A decade later, this work takes a few baby steps forward. The throne, while still clunky, shows an attempt to create the illusion of depth. Mary's foot actually sticks out over the edge. But the angels, while now portrayed one behind the other, are still stacked…like heavenly bookends.

[27, Giotto, 1267–1337; Ognissanti Madonna, 1306, Uffizi Gallery, Florence] The great leap forward was made by the pioneering late-medieval artist Giotto. Still a century before the Renaissance, Giotto creates a spacious three-dimensional "stage," and then fills it. There's a realistic canopied throne surrounded by real bodies: angels in front, prophets behind, clearly defining its depth. Mary herself is monumental…you know there's a body under her robe.

[28, Masaccio, 1401–1428; The Tribute Money, 1427, Brancacci Chapel, Florence] Building on Giotto's work, the ground-breaking artist Masaccio gave his figures believability: they had mass, shadows indicated a light source, they came with a range of emotions. And Masaccio portrayed the illusion of depth like never before. He masterfully captured the three-dimensional world on a two-dimensional surface.

[29, Holy Trinity, 1427, Masaccio, Santa Maria Novella, Florence] Masaccio painted this believable scene on a flat church wall. He used math to create linear perspective. Parallel lines would converge at what's called the "vanishing point." With this revolutionary technique, it's as if Masaccio blew a hole in that wall, creating a chapel, and letting worshippers feel like they're standing in the presence of the Holy Trinity…portrayed here before our very eyes: God the father, the son, and a dove representing the Holy Spirit.

[30, Fra Angelico, 1395–1455; frescoes in each monk's cell in San Marco Monastery, Florence] Masaccio influenced the early Renaissance artist Fra Angelico — a humble monk as well as a great painter. Using the fresco technique — where the plaster is put on the wall, then painted while still wet — he decorated the walls of his own monastery, giving each cell a meditation-enhancing scene.

[31] For Fra Angelico, painting was a form of prayer, and it's said he couldn't paint a crucifix without shedding tears. He fused medieval spirituality with groundbreaking Renaissance techniques to achieve a new level of realism…drama…and emotional impact.

[32, Deposition of Christ, 1434, Fra Angelico, San Marco Museum, Florence] His painting of the Deposition (Christ taken down from the cross) was no longer just a symbol of the crucifixion, but featured a real man mourned by both haloed saints and contemporary Florentines, amid a very real setting — one of the first great landscapes ever painted. And this holy scene is not in faraway Jerusalem but on a lawn in Tuscany…among real trees and everyday people…bringing the Bible lesson closer to home.

[33, Annunciation, c. 1450, Fra Angelico, San Marco Museum, Florence] This Fra Angelico scene of the Annunciation — the angel telling Mary she'll give birth to the Messiahgreeted monks at the top of the stairs as they headed to their cells. It's set in an everyday garden, beneath a shady arcade — with receding columns creating a sense of depth…bringing this heavenly scene down to earth.

[34, Madonna and Child, 1465, Filippo Lippi] Increasingly, Renaissance artists were enlivening their subjects. Here Mary and her child are portrayed with a new playfulness…complete with a couple of cheeky angel boys. Even without the gold plate halo, we know she's holy — she radiates sweetness and light from her divine face.

[35, Palazzo Medici Riccardi Garden] You can't have an art boom without money. And the Medici family, who ruled Florence for generations from palaces like this, was loaded. The statues in their gardens are another reminder that, more and more, art was to be enjoyed by a wealthy secular elite.

[36, Palazzo Medici Riccardi Garden] The art-loving Medici hosted lots of famous artists, philosophers, and poets. Imagine…a teenage Michelangelo lived with them almost as an adopted son. Leonardo da Vinci played the lute at their parties. And Botticelli actually studied the classical statues that dotted their gardens.

[37, Gozzoli fresco, 1459, Magi Chapel, Palazzo Medici Riccardi] In their lavishly frescoed family chapel, this biblical king is actually a magnificently dressed Medici ruler. In all his Florentine finery, he leads his family through a Tuscan landscape.

[38, Gozzoli fresco, 1459, Magi Chapel, Palazzo Medici Riccardi] The chapel doubled as the place the Medici received important guests. And by portraying their family in this religious setting, the Medici made an impressive display of power and sophistication. When potential rivals would drop by and see this, they could only think, "Damn, those Medici are good."

[39, Piazza della Signoria, Florence] Florence's City Hall became the Medicis' personal palace (with their offices, or uffici, next door — now a gallery showcasing the greatest paintings of this period). Michelangelo's David (this one's a replica) originally stood here, a suitable mascot for both the family and the city they ruled. The elaborate courtyard, with its Roman inspired decoration, is quintessential Renaissance.

[40] In the enormous main room of the City Hall, 500 guests could gather surrounded by dazzling art — which was actually powerful Medici propaganda: Florence beating rival city states, thanks to the Medici…the Medici duke was dressed like an emperor…and blessed by the pope…who was also a Medici — talk about having a well-connected banker. The ancient hero Hercules, whose labors earned him the status of a demigod, reminded all of the accomplishments of their feared and admired leading family.

[41, Medici Chapel, 1527, Michelangelo] The Medici even died in luxury, buried in the family chapel. This is a good example of Renaissance aesthetics with circles, squares, and symmetry. Its statues so realistic and noble and its striking lack of Christian iconography, celebrate the humanism of the age — honoring great individuals comfortable in the company of God.

[42] By the late-1400s, the Florentine Renaissance was in full bloom, and that exuberant spirit is best found in the big, colorful paintings of Sandro Botticelli. As a member of the Medici circle — he was even a friend of Lorenzo the Magnificent — he studied their collection of ancient statues.

[43, Sandro Botticelli, 1445–1510; Venus and Mars, 1483, National Gallery, London] Botticelli found inspiration in the balanced compositions, the naked beauty, and secular, humanistic outlook. As he painted, he created visions of pure beauty that captured the optimistic springtime — or primavera — of the Renaissance.

[44, Spring (a.k.a. La Primavera), c. 1482, Botticelli, Uffizi Gallery, Florence] Here, in a celebration of fertility, as a nymph escapes the cold west wind, she sprouts flowers from her lips and transforms into the goddess of spring, who spreads blossoms from her dress. The Three Graces do a delicate dance, while a blindfolded Cupid happily shoots arrows of love without worrying who they'll hit. In the center stands Venus, the goddess of love, framed by a halo of leaves as she presides over a delightful scene of beauty, joy, and love.

[45, The Birth of Venus, c. 1485, Botticelli, Uffizi Gallery, Florence] The epitome of Early Renaissance beauty may be Botticelli's Birth of Venus — the first large-scale depiction of a naked woman in a thousand years. Born from the foam of a wave, Venus is just waking up. The world itself seems fresh and newly born. The god of the wind sets the whole scene in motion. Floating ashore on her scallop shell, Venus takes center stage. Botticelli creates an ideal world — perfectly lit. The bodies curve harmoniously, the faces are idealized, and their gestures exude grace. Naked as a newborn, Venus symbolized the optimism of the Renaissance.

[46, Boboli Gardens, Florence] By the year 1500, what had begun in Florence a century earlier was coming to a peak: an exciting time known as the High Renaissance. Italy was thriving, with a huge appetite for art. Artists who in earlier times had toiled as anonymous craftsmen were now famous and well-paid. Three towering artists — all with Florence connections — brought the Renaissance to its culmination and then helped spread it throughout Italy and beyond: Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael.

[47, Leonardo da Vinci, 1452–1519] Leonardo da Vinci was the ultimate well-rounded "Renaissance man": inventor, engineer, sculptor, and painter. Always asking why and how, he filled up entire notebooks with sketches and ideas.

[48, angel by Leonardo in Verrocchio's Baptism of Christ, Uffizi Gallery, Florence] When he was an apprentice — just a boy — Leonardo painted this beautiful angel, with curly hair, rosy cheeks, and innocent gaze.

[49, Portrait of Ginevra Benci; Madonna of the Carnation, 1475] Welcomed as a part of the elite and enlightened Medici circle, young Leonardo was already developing the elements of his signature style: meditative Madonnas, a playful baby Jesus, amid a hazy, mysterious backdrop.

[50, Annunciation, 1472, Leonardo da Vinci, Uffizi Gallery, Florence] His obvious talent as an artist along with his mastery of engineering and architecture put him in high demand. Leonardo journeyed to Milan, where he enjoyed the generous patronage of that city's answer to the Medici, the Sforza family.

[51, Leonardo's Horse for Duke of Milan, designed 1482, built 1999] He donned his engineer's cap and laid out Milan's system of canals, complete with locks. And he designed the largest equestrian statue in the world — recently cast in bronze from his drawings.

[52, Last Supper fresco, 1498, Leonardo da Vinci, Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan] One of Leonardo's greatest masterpieces decorates a dining hall in a Milan monastery. The Last Supper. It's Jesus' last meal with his disciples, just before he'd be crucified. Leonardo packs the scene with psychological tension. He captures the moment Jesus says, "One of you will betray me," and the apostles, huddling in stressed-out groups of three, wonder, "Lord, is it I?" In this agitated atmosphere, only the traitor Judas — clutching his 30 pieces of silver — is not shocked.

[53] Leonardo's use of linear perspective gives the scene an extra punch. He makes the painted room an extension of the actual room, with shadows as if lit by the real room's windows. All the lines of perspective converge toward the center, sub-consciously drawing you to the powerful emotional focal point — Jesus. His calm expression makes it clear that he knows the painful sacrifice ahead — and accepts it.

[54, Virgin of the Rocks, Leonardo da Vinci, National Galley, London] Constantly evolving, Leonardo perfected his signature sfumato, or "hazy," technique — the soft outlines of the faces…the mysterious mountains fading in the mist. Using what's called "atmospheric perspective," he showed depth by understanding how colors become muted when more distant. He managed to create scenes that looked perfectly natural…but had an underlying geometry that reflected the order seen in nature.

[55, Mona Lisa, 1506, Leonardo da Vinci, The Louvre, Paris] And with his Mona Lisa, all these techniques came together marvelously.

[56] Lisa, a woman from Florence, rests easily, as if sitting in a window looking out. Remarkably realistic and relaxed, her body is a solid pyramid, turned slightly at an angle, so we can appreciate its mass. With its hazy background emphasizing the depth, the overall mood is one of serenity and harmony, but with an element of mystery. Especially the enigmatic smile. Leonardo's hazy sfumato blurs the edges. That's why, try as you might, you can never quite see the corners of her mouth. Is she happy? Or sad? Everyone sees her differently.

[57] For me, this painting sums up the Renaissance: balance, confidence, and humanism — the age when the common individual — Mona Lisa — becomes art-worthy.

[58] In his long career, Leonardo da Vinci — by combining art and science — revolutionized our notion of art. He was the epitome of perhaps the highest compliment an artist can receive — a true Renaissance genius.

[59] Leonardo strongly influenced another talented young artist — Raphael. By combining the grace of Leonardo, the power of Florentine sculpture, and the humanist spirit of the age, Raphael became the master of High Renaissance painting.

[60, Raphael, 1483–1520; self-portrait, Doni portraits, Uffizi Gallery, Florence] A true prodigy, young Raphael quickly mastered realism. In these portraits, he captured the proud faces, rich clothing, and fine jewelry of this cloth merchant and his noble wife. He gave them Leonardo's Mona Lisa treatment: turned at a three-quarter pose, arms and hands resting comfortably.

[61, Madonna of the Goldfinch, 1506, Raphael, Uffizi Gallery, Florence] This Madonna also pays homage to Leonardo. Mary presides in a beautiful earthly setting, with a curly haired young Jesus and little Johnny the Baptist, washed in warm sfumato and a golden glow…and posed like a pyramid. While natural, it's thoughtfully planned: symmetrical — a baby to the left, baby to the right…flanked by trees and framed with clouds…all reinforcing the atmosphere of serenity, order, and maternal love.

[62] Raphael soon became the most sought-after painter of his day. The pope in Rome actually hired him to decorate his palace — now the Vatican Museums — with his paintings.

[63, Laocoön and Belvedere Torso, Vatican Museums, Rome] The classical decor and ancient treasures that line the halls of the Vatican palace show how popes of this age actually embraced that Renaissance respect for pre-Christian thinking.

[64, School of Athens, 1511, Raphael, Vatican Museums, Rome] Raphael's School of Athens merges the ancient and Christian worlds. Here in the pope's study — the heart of Christian Europe — he painted not only Christian saints but — so radical…so shocking for the age…pagan philosophers — Plato…Aristotle. Again, in good Renaissance style, Raphael balances everything symmetrically, with all the lines of perspective leading your eye to dead center — two secular saints framed with a Renaissance arch as their halo. This is Humanism: the geometrically perfect world…created by a Christian God.

[65] The ancient philosopher Plato is none other than Raphael's idol, Leonardo da Vinci. And the guy in the black cap, young Raphael himself. Finally, there's this brooding figure — the man who would take the High Renaissance to the greatest heights of all…Michelangelo Buonarroti.

[66] More than any previous artist, Michelangelo pioneered the idea that art was not just a job, but a unique personal statement, an expression of his inner passion. Even as he worked for the Church and wealthy patrons, his vision was always his own.

[67, Michelangelo, 1475–1564] As a multi-talented "Renaissance man", Michelangelo made his mark as a world class sculptor…painter…and architect.

[68, Medici Chapel and tombs, Michelangelo, Florence] As an architect, he designed and created this memorial chapel for his patrons, the Medici — a harmonious ensemble of innovative architecture, tombs, and sculpture.

[69, Prisoners, Accademia Gallery, Florence] As a sculptor, Michelangelo believed his figures were already divinely created within the stone…he was simply chiseling away the excess. These rough and unfinished statues seem to be struggling, like prisoners, to free themselves from the marble. They show the Renaissance love of the body as, with his chisel, Michelangelo reveals these compelling figures.

[70, Pietà, Michelangelo, St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City] Barely 25 years old, Michelangelo established his genius by sculpting this Pietà, adored by centuries of pilgrims. With powerful realism, Michelangelo made it clear to the faithful: Jesus is dead. The theological point of this work: He gave his life for our salvation. Mary's crumpled robe accentuates Christ's smooth body — helping make hard stone look soft as skin. Great art that delivers an emotional punch is no accident…that's its purpose and it does so by design.

[71, David, 1504, Michelangelo, Accademia Gallery, Florence] Next, Michelangelo took on the epic-scale statue of David — displayed today as if the high altar in a temple to Humanism. The young shepherd who slew the giant turned down the armor of the day, arming himself only with stones. He throws his sling over his shoulder and goes out to face the giant. Michelangelo catches David at the exact moment when he's sizing up the enemy, and thinks to himself, "I can take this guy."

[72] This statue has come to symbolize that, with the Renaissance, humankind could slay the giant of medieval ignorance and superstition. David's over-sized right hand was no accident — it represented how this shepherd boy — empowered by God — could slay the giant…and how Florence could rise above its rival city-states. When you look at David, you're looking at "Renaissance man."

[73] Artists now made their point using realism. They did this by merging art and science. For instance, Michelangelo actually dissected human corpses to better understand anatomy. This humanism was not anti-religion. Now people realized that the best way to glorify God was not to bow down in church all day long, but to recognize their talents and to use them.

[74, Dying Slave, Michelangelo, The Louvre, Paris] Michelangelo established himself as Europe's greatest sculptor. And he was a pretty darn good painter as well.

[75, Holy Family (or Doni Tondo), 1506, Michelangelo, Uffizi Gallery, Florence] This Holy Family — Michelangelo's only surviving easel painting — offers a closer look at his mastery as a painter. The solid, statuesque people posed in a sculptural group show why many call Michelangelo "a sculptor with a paint brush." And the Greek-style nudes in the background are a reminder of the artist's humanist and classical orientation.

[76] He created perhaps his greatest work in the pope's Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo depicted no less than the entire history of the Christian world, from the Creation…to the first people, …and, much later, to the final event in history, the awe-inspiring Last Judgment. Michelangelo painted God busy creating from every conceivable angle. And the centerpiece: the central act of Creation…God passing the divine spark of life to His greatest masterpiece — you and me.

[77, Florence Pietá (or Deposition), 1555, Michelangelo, Museo del Duomo, Florence] As Michelangelo aged, he sculpted this Pieta for his own tomb. The broken body of the crucified Christ is tended by his grieving mother Mary and his friends. Jesus is larger than life, with a heavy lifeless body that zig-zags down to the grave, again…this accentuates that theological point — Jesus is dead. Nicodemus is actually a self-portrait of Michelangelo — now an old man. After spending a lifetime bringing stone to life, now Michelangelo reflects tenderly upon his savior — looking down thoughtfully at what he feared might be his final creation.

[78] But Michelangelo saved his most majestic work for last. Now, as a master architect, he designed the dome of the greatest church in Christendom, St. Peter's in Rome. The dome rises up from the church's heart, the tomb of St. Peter — taller than a football field on end. Enjoying the commanding view from the top, is a reminder of how the cultural explosion of the Italian Renaissance was destined to reverberate far and wide.

[79] The Renaissance was a time of great curiosity, confidence, and bold new ideas. Leonardo, Luther, Machiavelli, Michelangelo…consider these great names and that they were all living around the year 1500…and so was Vasco da Gama, Columbus, and Magellan. There was a collective sense of adventure to reach out and explore. The Renaissance was fueled in part by the riches generated by the growth of overseas trade. It was a time of exploration…and conquest…an age known — both ethnocentrically and euphemistically — as the "Age of Discovery."

[80] The Age of Discovery changed Europe forever. As explorers sailed east for the luxury goods of Asia, and west for gold in the Americas, they returned with new plants, animals, and lots of plunder — including enslaved people. Soon, exotic luxuries and gold from abroad were decorating Europe's palaces and churches.

[81] This age made the sea-faring nations of Spain and Portugal (rather than Italy) the richest countries in Europe, funding another cultural and artistic boom.

[82, Monastery of Jerónimos, 1515, Belém Tower, Lisbon, Portugal] The Age of Discovery began in Portugal — as the ornate architecture of the day recalls. This tower protecting Lisbon's harbor was the last sight sailors saw as they headed out into the unknown, and the first they saw when they returned, bearing plunder, gold, and spices.

[83, Monument to the Discoveries, 1960, Belém, Lisbon] These early explorers were certainly heroic — eyes on the horizon — but, with hands on their swords, they were also cruel conquistadors. They ushered in a time of trade and advancement but also a dark time of exploitation and slavery. Portugal's Prince Henry the Navigator holds the ship that made it possible…a caravel.

[84] Tiny Portugal on the Atlantic seaboard eventually emerged as an economic and cultural power with its own distinctive art. This ornate monastery was built by King Manuel as a thanks to God for the wealth that poured in.

[85] Manuel financed the construction by taxing spices brought back from Asia. He built all of this on the site of a humble chapel, where seafarers prayed before leaving on their frightening voyages. The style of Manuel's church: Manueline.

[86, church and cloisters at the Monastery of Jerónimos, Belém, Lisbon] This uniquely Portuguese style of art reflects the wealth and diverse culture of the age. It features motifs from the sea; interiors are open and airy, with slender columns reminiscent of exotic palm trees. Monsters evoke the mystery of uncharted lands…there's a column of indigenous people…artichokes eaten by sailors to fight scurvy…and the ceiling: a scout handbook of knots — it all trumpets Portugal's nautical know-how. These lacy Manueline cloisters are a testament to the bold entrepreneurial and conquering spirit that launched the Age of Discovery and the affluence and art that resulted…in Portugal and beyond.

[87] The Age of Discovery reached its peak in Spain. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella — the monarchs who commissioned Columbus — ushered in Spain's so-called Golden Age. The massive wealth plundered from the Americas was transformed into great art: towering altarpieces of silver and gold…cavernous churches…grand palaces…elaborate carvings…and paintings that told the story as Spain wanted it told.

[88] Europe's mightiest power ruled an empire that stretched across the globe — from the Spanish Netherlands all the way to the Philippines. With their immense wealth, cosmopolitan Spanish monarchs appreciated and collected art from far and wide.

[89, The Feast at the House of Levi, 1573, Veronese, Accademia Gallery, Venice] The Spanish especially loved art from far away Venice — a once-great power that, while in elegant decline, was still producing great art. Rich conservative Spaniards ate up the big canvases and bright colors of the Venetian Renaissance…lush golden women…bathed in a soft-focus haze, like the city of Venice itself. They reveled in the Venetians' buoyant Renaissance spirit.

[90, Titian, c. 1490–1576; Venus with the Organ Player, 1550, Titian, Prado Museum, Madrid; Danaë, 1554, Titian, Prado Museum, Madrid; Charles V on Horseback at the Battle of Mühlberg, 1548, Titian, Prado Museum, Madrid] Titian, the greatest Venetian painter, captured on canvas the bold confidence of the Spanish king — the most powerful man in the world, Charles V. The emperor's son, though very religious, collected a bevy of sensual Titians. We see the moral conflicts these people must have struggled with as this nobleman — with his hands on his organ — is torn between high cultural pursuits like music and more worldly pleasures. During this age, it must have seemed as if Europe's elites were being showered with blessings from Heavenat least that's the implied message they hung on their walls.

[91, El Greco, 1541–1614] The artistic influences from Spain's vast empire came together in Toledo with its greatest and last Renaissance painter. His name was Domenikos Theotokopoulos, though his tongue-tied friends just called him "The Greek," or "El Greco."

[92] Artistically, he's hard to classify. El Greco's work reflects his strong faith and his much-traveled life. It's a synthesis of three cultures: the icon-like faces of his Greek Orthodox homeland; the bold color and twisting poses from his schooling in Venice; and the mystical Catholicism of Spain where he eventually settled…in the city of Toledo, then Spain's capital. It's there that El Greco forged his unique style.

[93] El Greco painted supernatural visions — elongated saints…stretched between Earth and Heaven. He painted souls — not bodies. Faces flicker like candles. Thoroughly modern in its disregard of realism, El Greco's art feels contemporary even today.

[94] This altarpiece depicting the Virgin Mary ascending to Heaven combines El Greco's signature elements to capture an otherworldly event. While on Earth the city of Toledo sleeps, an angel in a billowing robe spreads its wings and flies up, supporting the Virgin Mary, on her trip to Heaven. In this divine vision, she floats through warped space, to be serenaded by angels and wrapped in the radiant light of the Holy Spirit. Mary is charged from within by the ecstasy of her faith.

No painter captured the mystery of the spiritual world quite like El Greco. He fused innovative techniques with Spanish religiosity to cap the Renaissance of Golden Age Spain.

[96, Bruges] The Renaissance eventually spread throughout Europe. In each country the art and architecture evolved differently, shaped by that country's unique cultural and economic environment. That's clear in Europe's Northern Renaissance.

[97] In Germany, the spirit of the age thrived in merchant towns like Rothenburg — which looks today much like it did in the 1500s.

[98, Altar of the Holy Blood, Last Supper, 1504, Riemenschneider, St. Jakob's Church, Rothenburg] This wooden altarpiece, Rothenburg's artistic highlight, is a testament to German craftsmanship. Tilman Riemenschneider, the Michelangelo of woodcarvers, created it to hold a tiny crystal capsule — believed to contain a drop of Jesus' blood. Carved 500 years ago, the dramatic expressions add emotion to the story. In the scene of the Last Supper, Jesus gives Judas — as usual, clutching his bag of coins — a piece of bread, marking him as the traitor. This exquisite altarpiece is a German blend of medieval piety and Renaissance sophistication.

[99, Albrecht Dürer, 1471–1528; The Four Apostles, 1526, Alte Pinakothek, Munich] In painting, Germany's Renaissance master was Albrecht Dürer. He traveled to Italy and brought home Italy's embrace of realism, humanism, and respect for artists as cultural leaders of the day.

[100, self-portrait at age of 28, 1500, Albrecht Dürer, Alte Pinakothek, Munich] Bold and dynamic, and quirky, Dürer had no problem with his ego. He painted himself almost as the Christ of his day…celebrating his genius…and his great head of hair. His proud monogram marks nearly all his art.

[101] Dürer was more than a painter. As a master engraver he created prints made from finely crafted metal plates. His trademark detail and realism is extraordinary.

[102, Albrecht Dürer's house and workshop, Nürnberg, Germany] At his workshop you can see how it's with these tools that the artist cuts an image into the copper plate. After rubbing it with ink, a print is made from the plate. Dürer was famous for his vivid portrayals of the natural world. To be able to enjoy such beautiful, yet mass-produced art, must have been a marvel 500 years ago.

[103] Dürer was the first best-selling artist in history. Thanks to this impressive new technology, many prints could be made from a single master plate. Dürer's engravings were affordable and spread across Europe, further accelerating the rapid spread of new art and new ideas.

[104, Bruges] The Northern Renaissance wasn't a Renaissance in the literal or Italian sense — like the rebirth of classical culture in Florence. It was a cultural boom funded by an economic boom. While in the south it was art for kings, nobility, and the Church, here in the north it was more the art of merchants and businessmen.

[105, La Grand-Place, Brussels] Europe's North was humming with commercial hubs like Brussels. Its magnificent main square and towering city hall proclaimed the wealth of the new merchant class. These ornate buildings were the headquarters for the different professional guilds — bakers, brewers, tanners, and so on.

[106] The nearby city of Bruges was another economic and cultural powerhouse. Its soaring bell tower announced that it was a self-ruling city of the prosperous region of Flanders. (That's the Dutch — or Flemish-speaking northern half of Belgium.) This church — also with a skyscraping tower of bricks, the most practical local building material — was filled with cultural treasures, from its powerful pipe organ to its elaborate tombs.

[107, Groeninge Museum, Bruges] The appetite of the market shaped the art. Here in the north, where the patrons were mostly merchants, they didn't want to be preached at. They wanted art that celebrated their values and their hard work…art that was feel-good and affordable.

[108] It was no-nonsense portraits of themselves and their families. Happy scenes of everyday life. Flemish painters were great story tellers. Rather than just Madonnas and saints, it was also peasants, landscapes…and food.

[109] Northern paintings were filled with symbolism and extremely realistic — with astonishing detail.

[110, The Arnolfini Portrait, 1434, Jan van Eyck, National Gallery, London] This Flemish power couple hired a famous painter to portray — with lots of symbolism…their wealth, loyalty, piety, and fertility. Their rich belongings from fancy clothing to their stylish headwear are proudly on display. The dog at their feet? Loyalty…you can practically count the hairs on its head. Rosary beads on the wall…that meant a strong faith.

[111] While the woman may look pregnant, she's most likely not — just gathering together her fine cloth to show it off or creating the impression that she's fertile or maybe she's just boasting the belly of a well-fed, upper-class woman. Perhaps the first famous canvas to use oil-based paint, the detail is ground-breaking: the reflection of the couple from behind in the mirror and even the artist himself, the masterful treatment of light and shadow…

[112] By the way, to capture such detail, Flemish artists mastered the use of oil-based paints. Until about 1500 an egg-based paint called "tempera" was what most European painters used. They'd mix the mineral-based colors with egg yolk which, when dried, became the binder.

[113] But then, Flemish painters begin using oil-based paints. With this new improved paint — the same mineral-based colors are mixed into vegetable oil. Now, when dried, the oil — rather than egg yolks — binds the color.

[114] This oil painting by the Flemish artist Jan van Eyck — from the early 1400s and still vivid — is exquisite in its detail. The Madonna's delicate face, the saint's robe, the weave of the carpet, the stubble on the aging face…glasses actually magnifying the print…are all possible because of the qualities of oil-based paints.

[115] Ever since, oil paints have been the standard. With these paints, artists enjoyed richer colors and more flexibility — they could apply layer upon translucent layer (called "glazes") to create ever-more subtle details. While medieval paintings, like this lovely Madonna by Giotto, are egg-based tempera on wood, you can see the advantage oil-based paints on canvas gave later artists. With oil, Raphael could get a fuller spectrum of colors and Leonardo could paint with more nuance.

[116] One thing I love about art is it can be the closest thing to a time-tunnel experience we'll enjoy in our travels. Slices of everyday life like these take us back in time.

[117, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, c. 1525–1569; The Fight between Carnival and Lent, 1559, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna; Children's Games, 1560, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna] The undisputed master of the slice-of-life scene was the Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder. He captured the rustic simplicity of country folk at play. Where the Italian Renaissance depicted strong noble heroes, northern artists like Breugel celebrated humanity's quirks and poked fun at its foibles.

[118, The Peasant Wedding, 1565, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna] At this Peasant Wedding, farmers scramble for their share of the free food. Two men bring in fresh pudding on a tray, another passes the bowls down, a kid licks his fingers, while the bagpiper pauses to check it all out. Amid the feeding frenzy, almost forgotten, sits the demure bride.

[119, The Peasant Dance, 1567, Bruegel, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna] At this farmers' dance, there's not a saint in sight, but there's still a moral. The bagpipes symbolized hedonism, so, here, the church is ignored…while the piper gets all the attention.

[120, The Census at Bethlehem, 1566, Bruegel, Royal Museums of Fine Arts, Brussels] In this bird's-eye view of a snow-covered Belgian village, kids throw snowballs and play on the ice while men lug bushels across a frozen lake and a crowd gathers at the inn. But wait…it's actually a religious scene: the village is Bethlehem, and there's Joseph with his carpenter's saw leading a pregnant Mary, looking for a room. Far from the Holy Land, Breugel literally brings the religious message home…it's Bethlehem in Flanders.

[121, The Last Judgment, 1450, van der Weyden, Beaune, France] In addition to their slice-of-life secular scenes, Northern artists of the Renaissance also gave the traditional medieval altarpiece a new level of sophistication. To those who understood it, the symbolism was obvious: As Jesus presides, the lily means "Mercy"…the sword…"Judgment." He stands on a globe representing the universality of His message. As angels blow horns to wake the dead, Michael the Archangel determines which souls are heavy with sin. The apostles pray for the souls of the dead as they emerge from their graves. A painting could be like a sermon for the illiterate faithful.

[122] The individual faces are painted to make each a real person with a unique personality. And extraordinarily intricate detail — enhanced by the new technique of oil paints — illustrates the full range of human emotions. In the faces of the damned, you can almost hear the screams and gnashing of teeth. But Jesus is expressionless — at this point, the cries of the wicked are useless.

[123, St John Altarpiece, 1479, Hans Memling, Bruges] This altarpiece in a hospital in Bruges was also painted with an agenda: to comfort dying patients. Gazing at this gathering in Heaven, they could imagine leaving this world of pain and illness, and being at home with Mary, Jesus, and the saints. This Heaven — which echoes wealthy Bruges in the 1400s, complete with familiar details — brought the religious message home to the here and now.

[124, Hieronymus Bosch, c. 1450–1516] Five hundred years ago, one Flemish painter, Hieronymus Bosch, took the Northern Renaissance in a direction that seems radical even today. His Garden of Earthly Delights — a three-paneled painting, or triptych — shows the delights of the world and where those temptations lead. In Act One, man and woman are born innocent in the Garden of Eden, blessed by a kind God.

[125, The Garden of Earthly Delights, c. 1505, Hieronymus Bosch, Prado Museum, Madrid] But then, foolish people chase after earthly delights — a pursuit that is ultimately a vicious cycle. They're lured by the world's pleasures: eating…drinking…sex. Like the fleeting flavor of that fruit, strawberries everywhere symbolize how the delights of hedonism are soon gone. Two lovers are suspended in a bubble….

[126] …then, in the third panel, the bubble pops. The moral of the story: those party animals are heading straight to Hell…a burning, post-apocalyptic wasteland where sinners are led off to eternal torment. Every sinner gets an appropriate punishment: gluttons are themselves consumed over and over; good-time musicians are tortured by their own instruments; gamblers have their party forever crashed; and a lecher gets sexually harassed by a pig-faced nun. Amid it all a face peers out of this bizarre nightmare — a self-portrait of the artist: Bosch.

[127] Whether portraying Heaven, Hell or anything in between, artists of the period were opening people's eyes to a new way of looking at things. And the Renaissance was this and more — an invigorating spirit of humanism that had begun in Florence…it spread from Italy to Spain to the northeventually infusing all of Europe with its can-do optimism.

[128B, Piazzale Michelangelo, Florence] The Renaissance was bringing exciting new ideas, yes…but unsettling ones, as well. The old order that guided Europe since medieval times was transformed. And the progress unleashed by that would bring even more revolutionary changes, and even more dynamic art. And that's another story. Thanks for joining us. I'm Rick Steves, celebrating the joy of European art.