The Cinquecento: The most famous period of Italian art, and for painting one of the greatest periods of all. It's the early 16th century and Italy is dominating the art scene. This of course should be little surprise to anyone- for we are all pretty familiar with Leonardo, Michelangelo, & Raphael. Gombrich refers to this period as the High Renaissance, and makes no mistake in naming all three artists geniuses. It was during this special period that artists had the rare opportunity to pick and choose what kind of projects they wanted. This notion of the artist being free to decide for the very first time is compelling.
"Thus it came about that the artists could frequently choose the kind of commission which they liked, and that they no longer needed to accommodate their works to the whims and fancies of their employers. Whether or not this new power was an unmixed blessing for art in the long run is difficult to decide. But at first, at any rate, it had the effect of liberation which released a tremendous amount of pent up energy. At last the artist was free."
Quotes like this one feel more dramatic than they are- in reality this was a huge deal- the affects of such a change are still being felt today. Brutally so in some respects. I don't have to make a list of the many things Leonardo da Vinci was free to and did do - it's fairly legendary. Gombrich spends enough time to make clear the relevancy of Leonardo, among many examples - one being how dynamic The Last Supper proved to be. The Mona Lisa is discussed, "What strikes us first is the amazing degree to which Lisa looks alive", which I can agree with. Seeing the Mona Lisa in person your eyes want and try to keep zooming in, waiting to see those brush strokes on her face - yet you never quite see any evidence from the artist. Then there is this beautiful and painful moment in realizing that there will never be another painting like it.
Detail of the Mona Lisa
You move on to other geniuses. Michelangelo also dissected human bodies for anatomical purposes. By the time he was 30, the community had already thought him to be a genius, equal to Leonardo. Pope Julius II did well to annoy and later disappoint Michelangelo when he commissioned huge sculptures, that were to be for the Pope's tomb, that he later bailed on because he had some other projects going on, like St.Peter's. Michelangelo was angry but the Pope convinced (or forced since Michelangelo tried to evade the commission altogether) Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel. We all know how that turned out.
Detail of The Sistine Chapel
"The wealth of ever-new inventions, the unfailing mastery of execution in every detail, and above all, the grandeur of the visions which Michelangelo revealed to those who came after, have given mankind quite a new idea of the power of genius."
While Leonardo and Michelangelo were competing for the best genius alive award, Raphael made appearances. Raphael had such a sweetness of temper that choosing him over Leonardo and Michelangelo was a no brainer - he garnered a lot of business this way. Raphael painted The Nymph Galatea - and blew everyone's ideas about composition out of the water.
The Nymph Galatea
"By these artistic means Raphael has achieved constant movement throughout the picture, without letting it become restless or unbalanced. It is for this supreme mastery of arranging figures, this consummate skill in composition that artists have ever since admired Raphael. Raphael was seen to have accomplished what the older generation had striven so hard to achieve: the perfect and harmonious composition of freely moving figures."
The long chapter about three incredible painters gives plenty to the imagination - but even more so to the intellect. Gombrich explains thoroughly yet concisely the relevancy of these Renaissance men, and how their impecable skill changed painting forever.