What style of art became popular in the 16th century?

What style of art became popular in the 16th century?


In the sixteenth century, the Italian city-states “lacked the wealth and power to compete with Spain’s and Portugal’s American activities (Markey, 7).” Due to the lack of a central authority across the peninsula, the Italians experienced political, economic, and social turmoil throughout this period. Despite this, the Italians maintained a level of cultural growth that thrust them forward as an “intellectual center ready to digest news of the Americas and to dissect its significance” with each further exploration into New Spain.

Even without much engagement in the early exploration or conquest of the Americas, whatever happened. Or was brought across the Atlantic intrigued the Italians, from its fauna and flora to the culture of the Natives. The Americas broadened the geographic scope of Renaissance literature, and to find out what elicited such a response from the Italians, Markey studied the Medici to understand what they gained from the New World without direct involvement. 

Like the rest of the Old World. Florence became presented with a plethora of opportunities by the New World. There was religious opportunity. As “the papacy and Italian missionaries were involved in the conversion of the people of the Americas”. As well as the introduction of new trade routes and goods.1 This increase in economic opportunity left the distribution of power in Europe hanging in balance, and, for the Italians to remain uninvested in the discovery of the New World, it could have been an eerie time for their economic stability.

Nonetheless, the Italians, particularly Venetians, managed to profit from the Americas through the means of “book publishing related to the New World” to “their population of literate people and a thriving network for disseminating texts.”1 Without involvement in the conquest, Italy did not hesitate to print texts on the Americas from a neutral perspective and, soon, the combination of publications of Italy’s primary sources along with French and Spanish writings gave Italy a central role in information about the Americas. 

Among the first objects that came from the New World to Europe included live people, agriculture, and featherwork.

Although the earliest of the explorers of the Americas brought goods back to Europe, “the earliest substantial documentation of these objects dates from 1519,” a couple of decades after the initial discovery.1 In Florence, the Medici quickly embraced the new goods by displaying and celebrating the New World crops, the creatures, the artistic styles, and many other aspects of life in the Americas. 

Even though the Medici were far from traveling to the New World and exploring on their own, members of the family were still able to experience what exploring the new continent may have felt like through the “flora, fauna, and objects they collected in Florence.”1 The artistic representations that came from the New World only further created this virtual experience for anyone to see. 

As New World art from and about the New World continued to stream into the Florentine culture, it played a bigger role for the Medici family, not just economically, but also politically and symbolically. To illustrate this, Markey explains her study of a Medici tapestry created in Florence “known as La Dovizia,” dating back to 1545, featuring a turkey from the New World that “stands prominently in the center of the composition.”1

With the goods they accumulated from the New World, Duke Cosimo de’ Medici made sure to show off the Americas, despite his inactivity in the Americas. Cosimo “cultivated New World plants on Medici grounds,” and his interest in the agricultural side of the New World only continued to develop to the point that an ambassador serving in Florence even noted “Cosimo’s ‘rare’ and ‘personal’ interest in botany.”1 Duke Cosimo oversaw the growth of botanical gardens and hired specialists to aid him. The new plants differed from the norm and became ingrained in the culture through appearances on “fresco cycles and tapestries.”1 It became a flourishing side of Florence as the crops were not just studied by botanists for interesting findings and gardens, but also depicted in decorations and buildings. 

As the crops invaded Florentine art and agriculture, the symbolism of the turkey also played a prominent role in the propaganda of the Medici and the culture of the Renaissance. The turkey was received as a novelty in the New World and made its way into the heart of icons such as the depiction of dovizia. For the Florentines, “the personification of dovizia, or abundance of plenty” had historically been used to depict wealth, particularly for the Medici family.1

The way that artists chose to depict this prosperity and the exact symbolism of the term evolved throughout the years, but the name, dovizia, held onto its significance in the public eye. As the dovizia evolved into a symbol of conquest for the Medici, associating New World goods, like the turkey, with this figure seemed to be “their claim over the Americas.”1 As a result, tapestries containing such turkeys were distributed and strewn by the Medici in “palaces and villas throughout their conquered Tuscany.”1 Markey found that through tapestries and other visual representations, turkeys became a strong symbol for the Renaissance. 

500 years after all these discoveries and exchanges from the New World, scholars and historians are viewing the artwork that was created by the Natives and Europeans at the time. Today, they view the Renaissance through a different lens as they try to incorporate a multi-dimensional approach in their analyses of colonial art history. This means accounting for how Europeans descended upon the Americas and its natives as well as introducing the “power and inequality” between both parties (Cohen-Aponte, 68).

No doubt, shifting our perspective from a purely European standpoint to understanding how racial and power issues melded with artistic production can yield a better, well-rounded look at the history of this Renaissance art. In other words, “decolonizing” the Renaissance allows us to add nuance to our views of Latin American art from the colonial period as we consider how conditions were imposed on the Native Americans and how the artwork interacted with colonial projects. 

Cohen-Aponte “draws examples from the Andean region of South America,” particularly at the “conditions faced by indigenous and mestizo artists” within the city of Cuzco, Peru. As the original capital of the ancient Inca empire and the “active center of artistic production throughout the colonial period,” there is lots of literature on the artistic grandeur of Cuzco that can be reframed to fuse the historical events at the time with the creative Latin arts.2 While Cohen-Aponte recognizes that Cuzco is a small sample size in the entirety of New Spain, it can still be used as a case study to attempt to “decolonize” the Renaissance, by considering the conditions that artists faced at the time.2

To illustrate what these racialized circumstances for the artists may have looked like, Cohen-Aponte sheds light on the socioeconomic dimensions of colonial Peru. What he notes is the difference in pay structures between the indigenous people and the Spanish artists, which led to “broader implications for issues of agency, hybridity, and colonial domination in the artistic arena.”2 It is apparent from his analysis of data from Cuzco that the contracts for the artists, who ranged from bricklayers to sculptors to musicians, were drawn up to bolster the European’s religious agenda.

Cohen-Aponte notes from the “240 artists’ contracts in Cuzco written between 1600 and 1704” that there were clear disparities, not just in the pay, but also in the honor and ranking between the Spanish and the Indigenous.2 Except stand-out, lifelong Indigenous artists and earners like Tuyru Tupac, the “highest wages were consistently given to Spanish artists.”2

Moreover, some indigenous artists earned amounts that were nearly impossible to survive on, no to mention further oppressive forces such as the required “annual tribute to the Spanish crown” or the rotational labor draft “required of all able-bodied indigenous men.”2

Furthermore, these are among the factors that must be considered to begin to piece together the lives these Indigenous artists lived and how their artworks came to be. Hundreds of Indigenous artists that played crucial roles in developing the grandeur of Cuzco lived difficult and overbearing lives with regard to their socio-economic conditions, which didn’t improve significantly until “the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.”2

While Cohen-Aponte ends that segment of the chapter by stating that “further research still remains to be done in terms of the extent” of the inequality described above, the overarching point of reframing the context of many pieces of this early colonial art to include the “crude, violent, messy histories of economic exploitation and of profound racial and ethnic inequality” is key to a proper and fair view of many works.2 While the history of colonial New Spain was written from the perspective of the Europeans, it is possible to understand better, with our reflections of that period, how the Natives may have reacted and how the culture was changed by colonial rule as a result.

Written by Jiming Xu

  1.  Markey, Lia, “Imagining the Americas in Medici Florence.” Pennsylvania State University Press, 2016.

 2. Cohen-Aponte, Ananda, “Decolonizing the Global Renaissance: A View from the Andes,” 2017.

What style of art became popular in the 16th century?