The art of our species

If Neanderthal man created any form of art, no traces of it have yet been found. But with the arrival of modern man, or Homo sapiens sapiens, the human genius for image-making becomes abundantly clear. In the recesses of caves, people begin to decorate the rock face with an important theme in their daily lives, the bison and reindeer which are their prey as Ice Age hunters. And sculptors carve portable images of another predominant interest of mankind - the swelling curves of the female form, emphasizing the fertility on which the survival of the tribe depends.

Perhaps the most famous of early sculptures is the so-called Venus of Willendorf. Found at Willendorf in Austria, and dating from more than 25,000 years ago, she is only about four inches high. More than 100 fertility figures of this kind have been found in an area reaching from France to southern Russia.

The sculptor of the Willendorf Venus, scraping away with a flint tool at his fragment of limestone, is not engaging in what we would call art. His tiny but profoundly convincing fertility goddess is a religious object. An encampment of mammoth hunters at Gagarino, in the Ukraine, has yielded many such figures. The huts of the Gagarino hunters even have niches in the walls, or little shrines, to accomodate them.

Since the development of civilization and of the first literate societies, about 5000 years ago, the primitive tradition has continued to have a vibrant but essentially conservative existence in tribal societies all over the world. Ritual sculptures and masks are recreated to unchanging patterns for generation after generation, precisely because their sacred power in this form is well established.

There is no element here of the originality which has often been treasured in more sophisticated societies.

Cave paintings: from 31000 years ago

Prehistoric cave paintings have been discovered in many parts of the world, from Europe and Africa to Australia. Africa has some of the earliest paintings and rock engravings to have been securely dated. Nearly 30,000 years old, they are discovered in 1969 on the rock face in a cave near Twyfelfontein in Namibia. But the most numerous and the most sophisticated of prehistoric paintings are on the walls of caves in southwest France and northern Spain.

About 150 painted caves have been discovered in this region. Perhaps the most startling of all are the paintings in Chauvet Cave, found as recently as 1994 and thought to be as much as 31,000 years old. But far better known, as yet, are the glories of Altamira and Lascaux.

The walls and ceilings of these caves are covered in paintings, with shades of red, brown, yellow and black created from powdered minerals, probably mixed with animal blood and fat. The subjects are mainly the animals of the chase - bison, wild cattle, horses and deer. Many of the paintings are deep in the caves, in dark recesses.

The painters do their work by the light of saucer-like stone lamps, burning animal fat. The charcoal wick of one of the lamps at Lascaux has been carbon-dated to about 17,000 years ago. The same process has dated objects found at Altamira to some 13,000 years ago. Around this period cave art in other European sites also reaches its peak.

Why do hunter-gatherers paint images of large animals on the walls of caves? The evidence of tribal societies in more recent times makes it certain that the purpose is not merely decorative. Religion and magic are the context, but no one knows the precise motive.

There is no lack of theories. It has been argued that the magic is to aid the hunters in the chase; or that it is to increase the herds of wild animals; or that these images, in the innermost recesses of a mysterious and holy place, are to help the Shaman into the state of trance which is essential for his priestly work. Speculation may be endless, but the appeal of this early human art is eternal.

When humans first form settled communities, paintings again play a prominent part in religious life. A good example is the early neolithic town of Catal huyuk, from about 6000 BC. Many of the houses so far excavated appear to be shrines. Their walls are painted with a wide range of subjects, including hunting scenes, a picture of vultures setting about human corpses, and even an elementary landscape.

As in many early societies, such as Minoan crete, the bull is here a sacred animal. Bulls' heads and horns project aggressively from the walls and altars of the temple chambers of Catal huyuk.

Early civilizations

The Egyptian style: from 3100 BC

The first civilization to establish a recognizable artistic style is Egypt. This style follows a strange but remarkably consistent convention, by which the feet, legs and head of each human figure are shown in profile but the torso, shoulders, arms and eye are depicted as if from the front.

By this means, it has to be admitted, the artist is able to tackle each separate feature from the easiest angle. It is a convenient convention, and it is used both in paintings and in low-relief sculptures. Often the two are combined, with paint applied to the lightly sculpted figures.

The paintings in Egyptian tombs and temples usually depict the incidents which will occur during the journey of the dead into the next world. The practical purpose is to provide the sacred details required for this journey, in the form of images and Hieroglyphs.

In the great temple of Ramses II at Thebes, for example, one image shows his queen, Nefertari, being gently taken by the hand by the goddess Isis. The inscription says: 'Words spoken by Isis - Come, great king's wife Nefertari, beloved of Mut, without fault, that I may show thee thy place in the sacred world'. Similarly helpful paintings are later buried with rich Egyptians in the standard form of Papyrus scroll known as the Book of the Dead - introduced in the New Kingdom, from the 16th century BC..

The Egyptian style can be seen fully fledged in one of the earliest sculptures to survive - a relief, on a slate slab, which the pharaoh Narmer commissions in about 3100 BC to celebrate a victory.

The king holds his defeated enemy by the hair and threatens to strike him. The smaller figure on the left carries the king's sandals. He is smaller not because he is further away, but because he is inferior. Egyptian Perspective is essentially hierarchical.

Minoan art: c.1600 BC

While the Egyptian skill in painting was reserved mainly for tombs and temples, the Aegean civilization on the northern side of the Mediterranean makes much use of painted murals in the living rooms of the rich and mighty.

A fresco of about 1600 BC in the royal palace at Knossos, in Crete, develops the island's link with the cult of the bull. Two bullfighters flank the charging creature while an acrobat vaults over it.

The island of Thera is at this time a thriving colony of Crete. In about 1525 BC it is suddenly submerged in volcanic ash in an eruption of the local volcano. Archaeological excavations on the island (also known as Santorin) have unearthed some remarkably well preserved rooms, lived in by the richer inhabitants of Thera more than 3500 years ago. These rooms are lavishly decorated with murals.

One room has on its walls a range of fanciful mountains, of a kind later more familiar in Chinese painting. The Minoan tradition introduces landscape as a subject of art.


The Greek classical ideal: 5th - 4th century BC

Greece in the classical period makes the innovations which underlie the mainstream western tradition in art. This is true of both painting and sculpture.

The essential characteristic of classical Greek art is a heroic realism. Painters and sculptors attempt to reveal the human body, in movement or repose, exactly as it appears to the eye. The emphasis will be on people of unusual beauty, or moments of high and noble drama. But the technical ability to capture the familiar appearance of things is an innovation which can later be adapted to any subject.

Ancient Greek authors consider the paintings on the walls of public buildings, particularly temples, to be works of art as magnificent and important as anything created by the sculptors. But the fragility of the medium means that hardly any painting of this kind has survived (the murals unearthed at Vergina in 1977 provide one sensational exception).

We can acquire obliquely some idea of what has been lost. One method is through the designs on Greek vases, which survive in great numbers from the classical period. They represent a skilful and cartoon-like style of Greek drawing, and give some idea of the subjects chosen by Greek painters. But in their own time they are considered the work of craftsmen rather than artists.

The scale and ambition of classical Greek sculpture can be seen in a fragment of an early masterpiece. The famous Charioteer of Delphi, a life-size bronze, is the only surviving figure of a major group consisting of the chariot and its horses, a royal passenger on board with the charioteer, and an attendant slave boy.

This large work is presented to the temple of Apollo at Delphi by the ruler of a Greek colony in Sicily, to commemorate victory in the chariot race at the Pythian games in 477 BC.

The charioteer is shown in his chariot during the victory parade. The slight twist of the body, from bare feet to head, suggests an entirely natural stance - just as the arm seems to imply a light pressure on the reins. In an equally subtle way the face shows the quiet exultation of a man who has just won great honour in a solemn competition. Athletic contests in Greece have an almost religious status.

A boy jockey, of three centuries later, suggests how well the new naturalism of the Greek sculptors will cope with movement. This bronze distillation of human vitality, in the excitement of the race, is one of the most enchanting images to survive from the ancient world.

It is possible to have a glimpse of early Greek art through Greece's influence on the Etruscans, in central Italy. The style of the pre-classical period in Greece can be seen in the many murals which have survived in Etruscan tombs. These are extremely lively in a stylized manner, very different from the realism of classical Greek art.

A splendid example from the 6th century BC is the inebriated pair of dancers from the Tomb of the Lionesses, in Tarquinia.

The Greek style in Pompeii and Egypt

Another way of approaching Greek painting is through later copies. Many have been preserved by the volcanic ash at Pompeii, where one Mosaic in particular is considered an accurate version of a large picture of the late 4th century BC - when the classical period in Greece is just giving way to the Hellenistic age.

It shows, in dramatic detail, a moment in the battle at Issus between Alexander the great and the Persian king Darius. Even in Mosaic (inevitably more stilted than painting), the image suggests the painter's skill in conveying a realistic impression of a very complex scene.

Pompeii is in origin a Greek city, and many of the painters of the murals come from the eastern Mediterranean. But it is also part of the Roman empire. Throughout the Roman world artists strive for this degree of realism - particularly in portraits, the art form which most interests the Romans. Again a historical accident has delivered some striking examples.

The dry sand of Egypt has preserved many superb paintings, placed in coffins from the 1st century AD. They are known as Fayyum portraits, from the place where most of them have been discovered. Painted in encaustic, a medium using hot wax, they give an intimate and moving glimpse of some of the men and women of Roman Egypt.


Roman murals: 1st - 3rd century AD

Murals are even more fragile than the walls they are painted on, so it is not surprising that few survive from the days of the Roman empire. The accidents of being covered by ash or sand, or of being originally painted underground, have preserved some examples in Pompeii, Doura-europos and the Roman catacombs. They are not for the most part very distinguished. But they demonstrate that it is a normal custom, in Roman communities, to decorate walls by painting on the plaster.

It is equally conventional to enliven the floor with mosaics. This remains a relatively minor art form until Christian emperors move Mosaic from floors to the walls of churches.

Buddhist murals: 5th - 8th century AD

Monks and pilgrims play an important part in the practice of Buddhism. Both are attracted to caves in remote places. And the profusion of popular stories in Mahayana buddhism (on topics such as the adventures of Buddha in his previous lives on earth) provides a rich source of material for narrative paintings on the walls of the caves.

Two places suggest more vividly than any others the vitality of Buddhist cave painting from about the 5th century AD. One is Ajanta, a site in India long forgotten until Discovered in 1817. The other is Dunhuang, one of the great oasis staging posts on the Silk road.

At Ajanta there are about thirty architectural spaces cut into a steep cliff flanking a ravine. Some are viharas, or monasteries, with cells for the monks around a central hall. Others are chaityas, or meeting places, with a small central stupa as an object for worship and contemplation.

The paintings range from calm devotional images of the Buddha to lively and crowded scenes, often featuring the seductively full-breasted and narrow-waisted women more familiar in Indian sculpture than in painting. The latest images are from the 8th century, after which the decline of Buddhism in india causes these remote and beautiful places to become gradually abandoned and then entirely forgotten.

Dunhuang, on one of the world's greatest trade routes, is an altogether busier place than Ajanta. Rather than thirty caves, Dunhuang has nearly 500 - known collectively as the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas. The murals span three centuries, from the 5th to the 8th AD. The images in the earlier caves (hollowed from the soft rock, as at Ajanta) show the influence of central Asia and even India - the regions from which Buddhism travels on its way to China - but the later paintings are fully Chinese in style.

Dunhuang, unlike Ajanta, is never lost. But one particular cave is sealed against intruders. Rediscovered in 1899, this cave is found to contain fine examples of Chinese Painting on silk and the world's first known Printed book.

6th - 11th century

Byzantine icons: from the 6th century AD

The earliest images of the Christian empire are the Mosaics decorating the walls and domes of churches. But a different and ultimately more lasting tradition grows up in the monasteries of the eastern church. This is the tradition of the icon, from the Greek eikon meaning 'image' - a holy picture, and particularly one painted on a portable wooden panel.

This form of devotional object is well suited to the needs of monks in remote desert communities. One of the greatest collections of early icons survives in the monastery of St Catherine in Sinai, founded in the 6th century by the emperor Justinian.

Soon the icons themselves become objects of such veneration that strict rules evolve as to how they shall be painted, with proper place and rank given to the hierarchy of characters - Christ himself, his Virgin mother, the apostles, prophets and saints. With their gilded backgrounds, lavish clothes, crowns, haloes and solemn expressions, the holy figures of the Byzantine icon establish the dominant style of early medieval Christian art.

The tendency to worship these images provokes the violent reaction of Iconoclasm. From726 vast numbers of icons are smashed, along with the Mosaics in churches. But a century later imperial approval is once again given to the production of holy images.

From843 icons recover their special position in Greek Orthodox Christianity, never again to lose it. The screen between the nave and the altar sanctuary in an Orthodox church is dedicated to the display of holy images - as its name iconostasis specifically states.

As other regions are converted to the Greek religion, in the Balkans and in Russia, the veneration of images spreads. Indeed to many people nowadays, after a millennium of the rich tradition of Russian orthodox Christianity, the word 'icon' suggests first and foremost a Russian religious painting. And Russian icons, still being painted today, preserve much of the ancient Byzantine style.

Portable paintings

From The first cave paintings to the murals of Egypt, Pompeii or Buddhist China, pictorial art is almost exclusively found on walls. But in more recent centuries portable images, following the early example of Icons, have become the main thread in the history of painting.

Two separate kinds of portable art evolve, one rather easier to carry about than the other. The heavier kind at first uses wood as the support. Beginning with Byzantine Icons, this tradition develops into the Panel paintings of the early Renaissance and then evolves further when stretched canvas is introduced as the backing for the image (particularly in nothern Italy, in the late 15th century, by artists such as Mantegna).

Another great tradition of images is made possible by very light backing materials, most of them developed primarily as surfaces for writing. Each material in turn becomes associated with a school or style of painting. First the Papyrus scroll in Egypt prompts the delicate illustrations which are familiar, in particular, from the famous 'Books of the dead'.

Then the development of Parchment makes possible the codex (with the leaves bound together at the spine), enabling Christian monks to decorate Illuminated manuscripts. Similarly, Buddhist monks produce the earliest portable paintings from India (of which examples survive from the 11th century AD), each on a single palm leaf.

The discovery of Silk, in China, provides painters in the far east with a material which retains its popularity over the centuries. Even today, if tourists to China come home with a painted image, it is likely to be on Silk.

But it is another Chinese material, Paper, which comes to occupy a place even more central than canvas in the history of art. Paper makes possible the beauties of Persian and indian miniatures. The masterpieces of European Drawing, from the Renaissance onwards, are achieved on Paper - to be followed later by the subtleties of watercolour. And Printmaking, throughout its history, has depended on Paper.

Illuminated manuscripts: 7th - 11th century AD

Irish monks of the 7th and 8th century create illuminated manuscripts which are among the greatest treasures of Celtic and early Christian art. The beautiful calligraphy (the scribes sometimes add complaints in the margin about their difficult working conditions) usually provides the text of the four Gospels. The earliest is the Book of Durrow, from about 650. Others include the Lindisfarne Gospels (c.700) and the Book of Kells (c.800).

The glory of these manuscripts (in addition to their wonderfully inventive images of the evangelists) is the intricate decoration, with the famous 'carpet pages' formed of interlacing patterns - reminiscent of the complex linear designs in Celtic metalwork.

In the late 8th century many illuminated manuscripts are commissioned by Charlemagne, who values them both as holy objects and as his own personal art gallery. When the imperial court is on the move (which is most of the time), part of the emperor's baggage train is a wagon full of precious manscripts.

Legend adds that after his death Charlemagne is buried in a sitting position, clothed in rich robes and holding a sceptre. On his lap is an illuminated manuscript.

The scribes writing the texts of the manuscripts, and the illuminators adding the decorative lettering and the illustrations, do so in the workshops of Europe's monasteries - though probably not all the men employed are monks. The example of Charlemagne's patronage is followed by his immediate successors and by later rulers in medieval Europe, in particular by the emperors of the Charlemagne.

The Carolingian and Ottonian manuscripts are usually gospels or other holy texts, but the secular world intrudes more than previously. A frontispiece often now shows the imperial patron on his throne, in a manner previously reserved for Jesus or one of the evangelists.

The early medieval interest in illuminated manuscripts means that the portable art of the period is confined within precious volumes. A single spread of text, with ornament and illustration, is sometimes visible today in museum displays. But for the most part these images are locked away on the rare-book shelves of libraries.

This seclusion has preserved them in better condition than other art of the same period, but it has also had the effect of making this a somewhat invisible chapter in the story of European painting. The artists begin to achieve a higher profile, from the 13th century, with Ottonian dynasty.


Buddhist banners and scrolls on silk 9th century AD

The Cave discovered in 1899 at Dunhuang contains many Buddhist paintings on silk. The larger ones (mostly showing Buddha seated in paradise with attendant figures) are designed for hanging out on poles on special occasions. Some are almost two yards in height and more than a yard wide.

Narrower vertical images of dramatically painted figures from Buddhist mythology are intended as banners, to be carried in procession with silk streamers attached. Painting on silk remains a central theme of Chinese art. But this flamboyant public use of images, characteristic of Buddhism, subsequently gives way to the more discreet and private Art of the confucians.

Chinese poetry painting and calligraphy: Song dynasty

In the heyday of classical Chinese culture, a civilized gentleman - meaning a Confucian official - should be adept in three different artistic fields. When he settles down before a fresh sheet of paper and dips his brush in the ink (ground from a block of pigment by a servant), no one can be certain whether he is about to pen an impromptu poem, paint a quick impression of a romantic landscape or fashion some traditional phrase in exquisite Chinese characters.

The three skills, all expressed in the beauty of brush strokes, are closely linked. A 'soundless poem' is a conventional Chinese term for a picture. And a typical poem by the Song master Ou-yang Hsiu sounds like a painting.

Poetry and painting in Song China (960-1279) are largely social activities, both in the creation and in the appreciation of the work. On a convivial occasion, with wine flowing, Confucians will compete with each other in writing or painting. In more sober vein, among connoisseurs, a collector will bring the scrolls from their boxes and will unroll them to be admired and discussed.

China's past is also now a theme for conoisseurs, in a fashion pioneered by Ou-yang Hsiu (and echoed centuries later in Italy during the Renaissance). Ou-yang Hsiu clambers 'on precarious cliffs and inaccessible gorges, in wild forests and abandoned tombs' to make rubbings which he publishes, in about 1000 portfolios, as his Collection of Ancient Inscriptions'.

Inevitably much of the painting done by enthusiastic amateurs is dull and conventional. This is particularly true during the reign of the emperor Hui Tsung. Himself a talented painter, of a carefully exact kind, he sets up an official academy of painting.

Those who want to get on at court are unlikely to disagree with the emperor on matters of artistic style. Others, opting out of the system, come under the influence of Chan or Zen buddhism with its emphasis on freedom of expression. The Chan painters of the Song dynasty, using a few quick brushstrokes to capture a fleeting visual moment, provide one of the most brilliant interludes in the story of Chinese art.

Medieval Europe

European frescoes: 10th - 13th century AD

Although the grandest style of medieval church decoration is Mosaic, the classical tradition of painted murals (as at Pompeii or in the Catacombs) continues to be used. A surviving example is the 10th-century church of St George at Oberzell, on the island of Reichenau in Lake Constance.

The frescoes here, depicting the miracles of Christ, are painted in a strip high above the rows of columns and rounded arches which flank the nave. The rather remote position of the images is exactly that of the Old Testament scenes depicted in Mosaic five centuries earlier in the church of Santa maria maggiore in Rome.

Frescoes are more vulnerable than Mosaic, and many more fresco cycles were painted in the Middle Ages than have survived. But the preferred medium for important church interiors continues to be Mosaic in the Byzantine style - even as late as the end of the 13th century, when the gilded narrative panels are set into the dome of the baptistery in Florence.

But at exactly the same period elsewhere in central Italy, at Assisi, an important new building is being decorated entirely in fresco. It is the convent church of St Francis. Built on a hillside, and consisting of two basilicas one above the other, its construction begins soon after the saint's death in 1226.

Assisi attracts thousands of pilgrims. The frescoes depicting the life of St Francis are for their edification. Instead of being high in the air above the arches of the nave, these images are now close to ground level. Unlike the earlier Romanesque interiors, the pointed Gothic arches reach right up to the vaulting of the roof. The top half of the arch can become the window, while the lower part is closed in to provide a flat wall for the painted images.

In this design of church the frescoes are close enough to the onlooker for the painter to be able to tell a detailed story.

Work on the Assisi frescoes begins in about 1280, probably under the supervision of Cimabue - considered by his contemporaries the greatest Italian master.

The scenes of the life of St Francis in the upper church are painted with a much greater sense of realism and drama than has been the case with Byzantine mosaics. Some of these scenes are almost certainly the work, during the 1290s, of the first great genius to use the medium of fresco - Giotto. In the next decade Giotto decorates almost entirely with his own hand an entire chapel in Padua.

The Scrovegni Chapel: AD 1300-1310

In 1300 Enrico degli Scrovegni, son of a rich banker, buys the derelict site of an old Roman arena in Padua. On it he builds a house for himself and a chapel. Variously known now as the Scrovegni Chapel or Arena Chapel (from its site), this little building is the first great milestone in Italian art and an early pointer in the direction of the Renaissance.

The reason is that the frescoes on its walls are the chief masterpiece of Giotto. The artist is already working in a Franciscan church in Padua, probably in about 1305, when Scrovegni employs him for his arena project.

Giotto undoubtedly uses assistants, for the sequence of frescoes - covering every inch of the interior walls - is completed in about two years. But the detailed schematic arrangement is entirely his, together with the greater part of the painting.

The brilliance of the scheme is that the entire gospel story of the Holy Family, spanning three generations (the Virgin's parents, the Virgin herself and Jesus) is told with great clarity and drama in the panels which run, like a strip cartoon, in three rows along the walls. The Annunciation has the central position at the top of the east wall, but this is also its correct place in the narrative sequence.

The genius of Giotto

The elegance of the chapel's overall scheme would be nothing without the power of the paintings themselves. Giotto's genius is revealed both in his way of dramatising each moment and in his treatment of the figures. Each panel is like a small stage on which the artist arranges the players to reveal the drama, just as a director would in the theatre.

But these are painted people, unable to move. In the earlier Byzantine tradition a virtue is made of this limitation. Byzantine figures are richly static, as if selecting and holding a significant expression or gesture. Giotto loses none of the solemnity of Byzantine art, but he adds solidity.

Giotto achieves a three-dimensional quality, a sense of depth and space, by his unprecedented use of modelling, shadow and perspective. These skills in themselves makes his people appear more real, but Giotto's sturdy approach to the human face and body adds another new element.

His people are more than real. They have a heroic stillness, a superhuman quality which becomes a characteristic of Italian Renaissance art - seen over the next 250 years in artists such as Masaccio, Piero della francesca and Michelangelo.

The final magical ingredient of these frescoes is an implied sense of movement. Artists have often found ways of depicting limbs in action, as far back as the bullfighting acrobat in Minoan crete. But Giotto's secret is different. His hint of movement is that of a coiled watch spring. He freezes his figures just when the energy is already in place for the next moment.

Numerous good examples could be found in the Scrovegni Chapel. My own favourite, perhaps, would be the mother of the Virgin gently pushing the young girl up the steps for her presentation in the temple.

In addition to the originality of Giotto's work, the chapel points to the future in another way. Scrovegni himself is painted by Giotto, at the base of the Last Judgement on the west wall, presenting his chapel to three female saints. Rich private donors, keeping company with saints, will become a feature of Renaissance art. Scrovegni is one of the first.

He has good reason to wish to be seen in holy company, for his wealth derives from his father's sin of usury. The chapel is an expiation for that sin. Scrovegni would surely be astonished to know how much credit has accrued to his family name over the centuries, thanks to his father's tainted money and his own immaculate taste.

Duccio and the Maestà in Siena: AD 1308-1311

In the same decade as Giotto's chapel in Padua, another masterpiece of Christian narrative is created in Siena. In 1308 the cathedral authorities commission from Duccio the great altarpiece now known as the Maestà ('Majesty').

The tradition of the altarpiece, with panels depicting holy figures, goes back many centuries to the lavish blend of gold and jewels and enamelled scenes favoured by Byzantine emperors for the Altars of their churches. In those cases the scenes depicted are simple. But Duccio, like Giotto in Padua, undertakes something much more ambitious - an account, in narrative scenes, of the whole Christian story.

Duccio has only two sides of a great screen to decorate (the development of the Ambulatory behind the altar means that pilgrims can marvel at both back and front), whereas Giotto has all the walls of a chapel. But the Sienese painter boldly undertakes even more scenes than his rival. There are about 40 narrative panels in Padua and nearly 60 in Siena, reinforcing the great central scene of the Virgin and Child enthroned.

Duccio and his assistants work as fast as the team in Padua in their creation of this marvellous object. The documents reveal that on 9 June 1311 it is carried in a joyous musical procession from Duccio's studio to the cathedral - where it remains on show nowadays in a specially built museum.

Duccio's treatment of the people in the gospel story shares the new realism of Giotto, though the overall style of these panels with their gilded backgrounds has elements of the Byzantine tradition of Christian art.

With these masterpieces in Padua and Siena, Italian painters bring to a new peak two great traditions of Christian art - the fresco cycle and the altarpiece. The panels in later frescoes become larger, eventually filling the whole wall (as, for example, in Raphael's Stanze in Rome). In altarpieces, by contrast, the narrative subsequently shrinks to a few incidents in the predella, allowing maximum emphasis on the central scene of the Virgin and Child or of the Crucifixion.

Duccio's work contains elements of two styles which will later go their separate ways, each bringing results of great beauty. The chunky realistic quality which he shares (to a lesser degree) with Giotto reappears a century later in the work of International gothic, leading to a strong native Italian tradition. Meanwhile a more refined and slender quality in some of Duccio's figures is developed by Simone Martini, the greatest Sienese painter of the next generation and possibly trained in Duccio's studio.

Simone's Annunciation in the Uffizi is a good example of this refined style, which by the end of the 14th century is popular throughout Europe - becoming known later as Giotto.

International Gothic: 14th - 15th century AD

The Europe of the Middle Ages, dominated by a powerful church and criss-crossed by pilgrim routes, has enjoyed a culture which largely transcends geographical regions. It is appropriate therefore that the final style of medieval art should also be common to much of the continent.

This style, flourishing between about 1375 and 1425, is known to art historians as International Gothic - or sometimes simply the International Style. It is characterized by figures of a slender and even winsome elegance, painted with great confidence but looking somewhat ill-equipped for the hurly-burly of everyday life.

The style can be traced back to Italian artists of the early 14th century, such as Simone martini. It reaches its mature form at the end of the century. The Wilton Diptych, painted in about 1395-9 and now in London's National Gallery, is often quoted as an outstanding example. Against gilded backgrounds a kneeling king, Richard II, is presented by three saints to the Virgin and Child and a host of blue-robed angels.

The stillness of the scene, and the beauty of the robes and the angels' wings, makes this a glimpse of an ideal world. Its international quality is attested by the inability of the experts to decide whether it was painted in England, France, Italy or Bohemia.

This international style features in a more relaxed and secular form (though still with the same slender decorative figures) in the prayer books or 'books of hours' illustrated in the early 15th century for the duke of Berry, a member of the French royal family. The most famous of them is the Très Riches Heures (Very Rich Hours), illustrated between about 1411 and 1416 by the three Limburg brothers.

The artists, from the border region between modern Germany and Belgium, provide beautiful images of the duke's many castles and of his peasants working in the fields, as well as scenes from the gospel story.

In their confident control of space within each picture, and in the natural ease of their human figures, the Limburg brothers have something in common with other artists of their generation who are the founding figures of the Renaissance. But a certain decorative quality, a prettiness, a lack of emotional conviction, makes the painters of International Gothic a transitional group between medieval and Renaissance.

In the decades after the Très Riches Heures, in Flanders to the north and in Italy to the south, images of a new kind are created. These Flemish and Italian artists are very different from each other, but they share a solidity and a solemnity lacking in International Gothic.

Works on paper

Drawings: 14th - 17th century AD

Drawing is as old as art. Indeed the earliest paintings, in palaeolithic Caves, are so linear in concept that they can equally well be described as drawings.

The Art of china, achieved with a brush on silk or paper, is as close to drawing as to painting. And medieval illuminated manuscripts are often linear in their illustrations. One famous example, the 9th-century Utrecht Psalter, has pen-and-ink drawings of such energetic freedom of line that the closest analogy seems a modern cartoon. But these, in their context, serve the same purpose as paintings. Not until the late 14th century does a drawing come to seem something different, something of its own kind.

Paper is the distinguishing factor. Unlike the Parchment of an illuminated manuscript, a sheet of Paper is cheap enough to be used for a sketch. Unlike the slow and important task of painting a wall or a panel, drawing on Paper is a process suitable for experiment.

With the availability of Paper, drawing becomes another aspect of an artist's skill - and one in which the relationship between hand and eye is unusually direct. A rapid sketch reveals a great artist's genius in an exceptionally fresh manner, which is why drawings are so much prized.

The story of drawing need not be told separately here, for it mirrors closely the story of painting; most of the great artists have excelled in both forms. However the unfamiliar appearance of some early drawings on Paper needs explanation. Pen and ink are used throughout the history of drawing, as are chalk, charcoal and a watercolour wash. These are all familiar today. So is the graphite pencil, which goes back only to the 17th century.

The unusual appearance of many drawings before the 17th century is due to two related factors - the use of a metal point instead of a lead pencil, and the need for a prepared surface on which the metal will make a mark.

Paper is prepared by coating it with several layers of powdered minerals (particuarly lead, but also sometimes bone, eggshell or sea shells) dissolved in linseed oil. This surface can be tinted to any colour, the favourites being grey, blue, brown or orange-pink. Lines drawn with a metal point show up as dark grey. The artists often provide contrast by painting on highlights in white.

A more convenient way of adding extra colour and tone to a drawing is by means of watercolour, in a tradition which begins with Dürer's sketches of landscape and natural history in the late 15th and early 16th century.

Persian miniatures: 14th - 16th century AD

One of the great traditions of miniature painting on paper is that of Persia, which later spreads to Muslim india. These intricate images, designed to illustrate manuscripts, usually depict scenes of history or romance - with small figures engaging in battle or courtship in pleasantly stylized landscapes.

The earliest paintings of this kind date from Persia in the 14th century. The Mongols at this time dominate an entire swathe of Asia from China to the Black Sea. It is probably the influence of Chinese landscape painting (and possibly even the arrival of Chinese artists) which stimulates Persian art to evolve in this new direction.

The city of Tabriz, well placed on the international trade routes, is the first centre of this school of painting. Scenes from Persian legend and history are depicted in a vigorously chaotic style, crowded with movement and colour. The shah-nama is the favourite source.

Towards the end of the 14th century, in 1392, Tabriz is taken by a conqueror as ferocious and alarming as the Mongols - Timur, or Tamerlane. But Timur is not hostile to art (one of his passions is beautifying his capital city of Samarkand), and his descendants - known as the Timurids - prove to be enthusiastic patrons of calligraphy and miniature painting.

During the 15th century Herat, rather than Tabriz, becomes the centre of Persian painting under Timur's son, Shahrukh. A son of Shahrukh, Baisunqur Mirza, establishes a library and an academy where forty calligraphers and many painters are employed to produce illustrated manuscripts.

The Herat style gradually becomes dull and conventional. But late in the 15th century the academy is shaken into new life by its principal, Kamal-ud-din Bihzad - now considered the greatest artist in the Persian tradition.

Bihzad introduces a new animation in the figures of a scene, making them more realistic and at the same time setting them in a more unified composition of line, space and colour. His example, and the work of his followers, establishes the style of art of the powerful new Persian empire of the 16th century - that of the Moghul.

Meanwhile pupils of Bihzad carry the tradition into fertile new territories. Two of them are employed in the mid-16th century to teach painting to artists in northern India, a region conquered by descendants of Timur. Here there emerge artists who soon rival the older Persian tradition. These talented upstarts are in the studios of the Timur emperors.

Renaissance in Europe

Art and architecture in Florence: AD 1411-1430

Three Florentine friends, an architect, a sculptor and a painter, are recognized in their own time as being the founders of a new direction in art - subsequently known as the Renaissance. In the preface to an influential book on painting, published in 1436, Alberti says that the work of these three has convinced him that the ancient arts can be revived.

They differ considerably in age. The architect, Brunelleschi, is the oldest. The sculptor, Donatello, is about ten years younger. The painter, Masaccio, is about fifteen years younger again, though he is by a wide margin the first to die.

Brunelleschi is the pioneer who first consciously applies a Renaissance curiosity to the arts. Where the Humanists visit Rome and other ancient cities to copy inscriptions, he notes the dimensions and sketches the details of the ruins and surviving buildings of classical antiquity. These include the columns and arches of Rome, but also the domes of Byzantine Ravenna and even of the baptistery in Florence - a Romanesque building of the 11th or 12th century which Brunelleschi and his contemporaries believe to be a temple of Mars adapted for Christian worship.

His aim is to abandon entirely the medieval heritage, even if lack of historical knowledge makes the break less absolute than he intends.

Brunelleschi's first biographer (Antonio Manetti, writing in the 1480s) states that Donatello accompanies the older man on trips to Rome to study the style of the ancients. Whether true or not - and scholars tend to doubt the story - it is undeniable that between 1411 and 1417 Donatello carves two free-standing figures in a more purely classical style (and with much greater artistry) than anything attempted by predecessors such as Nicola pisano.

These figures, profoundly significant in the story of sculpture, are commissioned by two of Florence's guilds. The linen drapers and the armourers need statues of their patron saints.

Brunelleschi is a painter and sculptor, as well as architect, and his interest in classical buildings leads him into pioneering work of another kind. He is the first to evolve a scientific theory of perspective, which he is said to have used to startling effect in murals in the Baptistery and the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence (none have survived).

This newly discovered skill is adopted by Masaccio and becomes of absorbing interests to Renaissance artists after Alberti has described the techique in detail in his book of 1436, crediting Brunelleschi as its originator.

Masaccio and the Brancacci Chapel: AD 1423-1428

In about 1423 a Florentine silk merchant, Felice Brancacci, commissions frescoes for a chapel in Santa Maria del Carmine. His choice of artist is Masolino, who brings into the project a younger colleague, Masaccio. Most of Masolino's frescoes in the chapel have been destroyed or painted over. But those done by Masaccio, before his very early death in 1428, are among the great turning points of the Renaissance.

Masaccio clearly admires the work of Giotto. He adopts the solid manner in which the earlier master depicts character (this can be seen superbly in the figure of St Peter paying the tribute money), and he adds to it two further qualities.

One of these qualities is a new freedom in the expression of emotion. The bodies of the naked Adam and Eve, driven from Paradise, are almost distorted in the intensity of their shame, as seen in the agonized upturned face of Eve.

The other significant new element is an increased ability to create figures with a real sense of air around them. The apostles, hearing Jesus tell them that tribute money should be paid to Caesar, make a freely arranged group in an entirely believable open space flanked by receding buildings on one side and a landscape on the other.

Classical perspective: 15th century AD

The sense of depth achieved by Masaccio is partly thanks to the new Renaissance interest in the science of perspective, which goes hand in hand with the rediscovery of the appeal of classical architecture. Masaccio makes use of both themes in his illustionistic Trinity in the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, where the cruficied Christ and other figures appear within a dramatically receding Roman arcade.

The perspective in this painting derives from personal knowledge of Brunelleschi and his work. But after Alberti's treatise of 1436 (De Pictura), the new science becomes widely practised. Indeed perspective becomes something of an obsession with Italian painters of the 15th century.

A genius such as Piero della francesca uses perspective with exquisite skill and restraint. But Paolo Uccello, famous for his use of the technique, verges on the obsessive in his painstaking arrangement of crossed lances and foreshortened corpses in The Battle of San Romano.

The twin Renaissance interest in perspective and classical architecture can be seen above all in the work of Andrea Mantegna. His Christian scenes take place in totally convincing vistas of Roman buildings, often ruined. And the Dead Christ of about 1485, with the pierced soles of his feet thrust into the face of the onlooker, is the most famous example of foreshortening in the history of art.

Jan van Eyck and the Ghent altarpiece: AD 1432

On 6 May 1432 a vast new painted altarpiece is set in place in the cathedral of Ghent. An inscription on it states that it was begun by Hubert van Eyck and completed in 1432 by his brother Jan.

Nothing is known of Hubert apart from this one mention of his name. But the Ghent altarpiece is only the first of a succession of masterpieces signed by Jan van Eyck during the 1430s. This is the decade in which the Renaissance makes a spectacular appearance in the painting of northern Europe.

The Ghent altarpiece is part of a late medieval tradition of works of this kind made up of many panels, in this case folding in on each other. Duccio's Maestà in Siena is a noble predecessor. But Duccio's panels are for the most part small and crowded. Each, on its own, would be interesting, delightful and touching - but not spectacular.

Van Eyck, painting with a new certainty of detailed design and execution, makes each panel a powerful work in its own right. And yet each collaborates with its immediate neighbour and its opposite number to make a balanced whole which is even more impressive than the separate parts.

The central panel, the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, is the most ambitious composition up to this point in the story of art. Scores of Christian saints, dignitaries and pilgrims are set with complete realism in a complex landscape.

The surrounding panels, tall and thin, are equally impressive. Whether they be the naked Adam and Eve, or organist and singers, or the archangel and the Virgin in the two halves of an Annunciation, these figures occupy their allotted spaces with complete naturalness and realism. Each is a powerful composition in its own right, striking when seen at a distance and fascinating in its detail if viewed more closely.

Jan van Eyck and portraiture: AD 1433-1444

The faces in the panels of the Ghent altarpiece are so real that they could be portraits, and indeed two of the panels depict the kneeling donors. This degree of realism, introduced here in Flanders, is also found in the paintings by van Eyck which are commissioned as portraits - again among the first of their kind.

Van Eyck's most famous portrait is of a married couple - an Italian merchant in Bruges, Giovanni Arnolfini, and his wife Giovanna. Painted in 1434 and known now as The Arnolfini Marriage, this view of the pair holding hands in a bedroom is thought to symbolize their union rather than to depict an actual ceremony.

The representation of the room as a three-dimensional space, together with the almost tangible textures of the couple's rich clothes, gives notice that an exact depiction of reality can now be achieved. Henceforth, in the work of the best artists, this can be taken for granted.

Similarly the character in the faces of the stern Italian merchant and his yielding wife signify that portraiture has come of age. The same is true of a deeply personal image of a man in a turban, painted by van Eyck in 1433 and possibly a self-portrait. But in these pioneering works of portraiture, in the 1430s, van Eyck is not alone - and perhaps cannot even claim priority.

Robert Campin: AD c.1430

In about 1430, probably in Flanders, a husband and wife have their portraits painted by an artist whose identity has been something of a mystery. Believed now to be Robert Campin, he has been known in the past as the more anonymous Master of Flémalle.

These two sitters are simpler than the Arnolfinis (painted four years later). In a head-and-shoulders format, each panel is almost filled by a friendly face in an elaborate headdress of everyday cloth. These people are well-off, but they have few pretensions. They are the first real glimpse of Europe's new middle class. I know of no couple, so far away in time, to whom art brings one so close.

A sense of close involvement is a hallmark of Robert Campin and his workshop. It is seen in one of their favourite subjects - the Virgin and Child in an ordinary domestic interior. In these views Mary is not enthroned as she would be in an Italian painting of this period. Here she is more likely to sit on everyday furniture, nursing her child in a cosy room with wooden panelling, tongs in the fireplace, a useful towel hanging up ready to hand and a view through a leaded window over a northern townscape. It is all reassuringly real.

In his mastery of illusionistic technique Campin, like Van eyck, has one technical advantage peculiar at this time to northern Europe - oil paint (see oil and tempera).

Rogier van der Weyden: AD 1435

The extraordinary decade of the 1430s, in Flanders, introduces yet another outstanding master. Rogier van der Weyden, who probably learns his craft in the studio of Robert Campin, becomes the official painter to the city of Brussels in 1435. In the next few years he produces a succession of masterpieces, of which the Descent from the Cross in the Prado is merely the best known.

Van der Weyden retains the clarity and realism of Campin and van Eyck, but replaces the calm and stillness of their work with a new intensity of emotion - seen in the Prado painting in the gruesome dead weight of Christ's body and the collapse into grief of his mother.

The three great Netherlands artists of the 1430s are central figures in the story of Renaissance painting. By contrast their successors, in the rich sequence of great painters from this small northwest region of Europe, are decidedly quirky. The gloriously eccentric canvases of Bosch and brueghel are much appreciated by collectors of the time, particularly within the Habsburg family. But they are a byway of their own, far from the mainstream.

For a century after the heyday of van Eyck, Campin and van der Weyden, Italy is the centre of European painting. But the Netherlands and Italy have strong economic links.

The three great Netherlands artists of the 1430s are central figures in the story of Renaissance painting. By contrast their two greatest successors during the following century, in the rich sequence of great painters from this small northwest region of Europe, are decidedly quirky.

The gloriously eccentric canvases of Bosch and brueghel are much appreciated by collectors of the time, particularly within the Habsburg family. But they are a byway of their own, far from the mainstream.

Bruges and Italy: 15th century AD

The links of Trade and finance between cities in Italy and the Netherlands have been immortalized in two works of art. Giovanni Arnolfini is a merchant from Lucca living and trading in Bruges. In 1434, when newly married, he commissions a double portrait from Jan van eyck.

Hoping for a memorial to himself and his wife, Giovanni could not possibly have made a wiser investment. The Arnolfini Marriage is now one of the most famous paintings in the world. It is also an early glimpse of the Italian interest in Flemish art which will result, later in the century, in the spread southwards of the northern technique of oil painting (see oil and tempera).

An altarpiece of about 1475 proves very influential in this same respect when it reaches Florence. Tommaso Portinari, the agent in Bruges for the Medici bank, commissions from Hugo van der Goes an altarpiece for the church of St Egidio in which his family has a chapel.

The central panel of the triptych shows the Virgin with her newly born Child visited by angels and shepherds, while the kneeling Portinari family are presented from the side panels by saints. This large altarpiece makes the journey south by sea and river. It is the most imposing example of the northern style of painting to have reached Florence, the heart of the southern Renaissance.

Fra Angelico and San Marco: AD 1443-1447

The Dominican order has among its ranks a superbly talented painter. As a friar he is referred to as 'brother' (frater in Latin, fratello in Italian), and the name by which he becomes known is Fra Angelico - the angelic brother.

From 1443 Dominicans in Florence employ him to provide contemplative images for the walls of their convent of San Marco. Over the next four years he and his assistants create an extended masterpiece of Italian Renaissance art - though they would not have thought of it in those terms.

There are large frescoes in the cloisters and in the public areas of the convent (mainly by Fra Angelico), and forty-four smaller scenes from the Gospel story in the cells of the friars (many of them painted by his assistants). But the master's style - clear colours, strong design, a sense of depth and light learnt from the example of Masaccio - is one which the pupils can adopt with a fair measure of success.

The result is a building whose interior, as intended, is marvellously conducive to a sense of wonder and contemplation - certainly for the friars for whom the images were painted, and almost as much among today's tourists.

Jean Fouquet: AD 1445-1460

Jean Fouquet, born in Tours in about 1420, spends four years in Italy in the 1440s. When he returns to Tours, he begins a decade of very fruitful activity blending Italian and northern influences.

One of Fouquet's most striking works, from about 1450, is the portrait of his patron, Étienne Chevalier, seen praying with St Stephen and painted as one half of a diptych for a church in Melun. The realism with which the two men are depicted derives from the example of the Netherlands masters of the time, such as Van eyck and van der Weyden, but Fouquet adds a classical calm of his own.

In about 1452 Étienne Chevalier commissions from Fouquet the work on which his reputation is mainly based. It is a Book of Hours, for which Fouquet provides detailed miniature illustrations of scenes from the Bible and the lives of the saints. Fouquet probably completes the work by 1456. The original number of the scenes is not known but forty-seven exquisite images survive, nearly all of them in the museum at Chantilly.

In these small but beautifully controlled compositions Fouquet again brings together two traditions from outside France.

The colourful elegance of Fouquet's scenes develops the tradition of the miniatures of northern Burgundy and of the Limburg brothers, masters of the International gothic style. But in other elements - his use of the motifs of classical architecture, his interest in persective, the rounded solidity of his figures and of their spatial relationships - Fouquet reveals the influence of what he has his seen in Renaissance Italy, such as the work recently completed by Fra angelico in Florence.

A link with Italy remains a central characteristic in the next great period of French painting, the 17th century.

Piero della Francesca: AD 1445-1460

A religious fraternity in Sansepolcro, near Arezzo, requires a new altarpiece. In January 1445 the members commission it from a young man in his late twenties, who has been away in Florence for the past few years learning his craft but who is now back in his small provincial home town.

The painter is Piero della Francesca. He spends much of his working life in Sansepolcro and in Arezzo, far from the main artistic centres, which to some extent explains why his name is largely forgotten for several centuries after his death. Another reason may be the profound calm of his work, unfashionable in periods when art has tended more to the dramatic gesture. He is now recognized as one of the great masters of the Italian Renaissance.

While in Florence, the young Piero has clearly seen Masaccio's frescoes. His first altarpiece at Sansepolcro is old-fashioned in concept, with a gilded background, but the figures already achieve the rounded solidity pioneered in the frescoes of the Brancacci chapel.

From this beginning, within a few years, Piero evolves his own characteristic and inimitable style. It is visible in the famous Baptism of Christ, probably painted as an altarpiece in Sansepolcro in the early 1450s. The figures stand with monumental stillness, bathed in a cool light of seemingly eternal clarity. This is Renaissance Humanism in its broadest sense, allowing full weight to the dignity of man.

The stillness, the sense of a scene perfectly positioned in space, the use of patches of almost pure colour to suggest a harmony of pattern and order - all these are characteristics of Piero's timeless art. They can be seen at their best in the fresco cycle on the Legend of the True Cross, which he paints in the church of St Francis in Arezzo in the years around 1460.

Underpinning the calm certainty of Piero's created world is a fascination with theories of form and Perspective, very characteristic of the Italian Renaissance. Piero is the author of two learned treatises on the mathematics of pictorial illusion.

Botticelli: AD 1470-1510

If Piero's work offers the mystery of stillness, Botticelli introduces mystery of another kind - mysterious content, expressed in a restlessly sinuous line. From about 1470 Botticelli is established as one of the leading painters of Florence, frequently working for the Medici.

His very characteristic style is seen in two of the best loved and most widely recognized paintings of the Renaissance. The Birth of Venus (c.1482) is a traditional subject (in classical mythology the goddess is born from the foam of the sea and floats ashore in a scallop shell). But Botticelli's tall nude and her attendant winds are a strikingly original way of depicting the scene.

In Primavera (Spring, c.1478) the scene itself is profoundly mysterious. In a grove of oranges the three Graces dance, while Flora scatters flowers upon the ground. She wears an exquisitely embroidered floral dress and is attended by a woman with a plant growing vigorously from her mouth. This woman, in her turn, is seized by a man in flight.

These figures depict a scene in Ovid. Zephyr (the west wind) grasps his bride Chloris (the goddess of flowers), whereupon blooms sprout from her lips and she is transformed into the fully developed Flora, strewing spring flowers upon the ground.

These two paintings, imbued with classical allusion, are believed to contain themes of special significance to the Neo-Platonists of Florence's Platonic academy. It is even possible that their content is devised by the academy's director, Marsilio Ficino. Primavera also conceals within its imagery several hints of the names Medici and Lorenzo.

Both works are commissioned for his private villa by Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici, a cousin of Lorenzo the magnificent. They suggest very well the rarefied nature of Renaissance Florence in the late 15th century - an atmosphere about to be brutally interrupted by the more strident certainties of Savonarola.

The High Renaissance

Renaissance man: 15th - 16th century AD

The term Renaissance Man has come to mean someone with exceptional skills in a wide range of fields. The description applies to many people during the Renaissance (a period when it is assumed that artistic talent can be easily adapted to differing crafts), but there are two outstanding candidates for the title.

They are Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. The older man, Leonardo, is exceptional in that he excels in two entirely different disciplines - experimental science and the visual arts. But on the artistic side alone, Michelangelo must be the man. He creates works, all of the highest quality, in the four distinct fields of sculpture, painting, architecture and poetry.

Leonardo da Vinci: AD 1482-1519

Leonardo trains in Florence as a painter, almost certainly with Verrocchio, and he becomes a member of the painters' guild in 1472. But in about 1482 he sends a letter to Ludovico Sforza, the duke of Milan. In it he offers the duke his skills, which he lists under ten headings. The first nine are all to do with war. The 30-year-old genius declares that he can provide the duke with original designs for portable bridges, siege engines, mining and explosive equipment, mortars to spray the enemy with small stones, and even a cannon-proof vehicle to transport troops safely into the midst of the enemy - in other words a tank.

In the tenth and final clause Leonardo adds that he is also a talented architect, sculptor and painter.

This imbalance may be Leonardo's guess at the duke's priorities, but it also reflects to some extent his own interests. His famous notebooks show his hand and his eye and his feverish mind working ceaselessly together to observe and to analyze the physical world, and then to develop the ideas and designs which emerge from that process of observation.

Leonardo is ahead of his time in the notions which he dreams up (his flying machines, like the tank, are useless until there is an engine to propel them). But he is also the pioneer of new scientific principles. In his Anatomical researches, as with Vesalius half a century later, observation takes precedence over theory and tradition.

The draughtsmansip in Leonardo's notebooks and sketches would in itself rank him among the world's greatest artists. So would the quality of his surviving paintings, few though they are.

Little remains of his two most ambitious projects, a large mural in Milan and another in Florence. The Last Supper in Santa Maria della Grazie in Milan has been so much restored (because Leonardo used a new but defective technique) that only its linear design is authentic. The scene of the victory at Anghiari for the council chamber in Florence was never completed and was subsequently painted over. Only a few sketches survive, some of them showing skirmishes in the battle.

Sfumato and the Mona Lisa: AD 1505

Art historians can demonstrate the influence of both these works. Leonardo is a pioneer in his treatment of the human drama between Jesus and the apostles at the Last Supper, and in his depiction of movement in battle.

But no expert guidance is required to appreciate Leonardo's panel paintings. They introduce a subtlety in the use of paint, and in the treatment of light, which adds a new technique to the painter's repertoire. Leonardo gently blurs his colours, one into another, to avoid hard lines. The effect is known as sfumato (smoky) - or in Leonardo's words 'without lines or borders, in the manner of smoke'.

Leonardo's smoky style is seen in the portrait of a young woman which he paints in Florence in about 1505. She smiles at the viewer, with her hands folded serenely on a ledge in front of her. Her gaze is wonderfully mysterious; so is the dream-like rocky background; so even is her identity.

It is probable that the sitter is Lisa Gherardini, the wife of Francesco del Giocondo, so the portrait is variously known now as La Gioconda or the Mona Lisa (from monna, an old Italian word for 'lady'). Now in the Louvre, she has been in France since 1517 - when Francis i makes the elderly Leonardo his court painter, and takes Monna Lisa into the royal collection.

Michelangelo the painter: AD 1504-1550

Michelangelo's reputation as a painter derives, almost entirely, from his work in one building - the Sistine chapel. A few panel paintings possibly survive from his hand from the period 1495-1508, though only one of them is accepted by scholars beyond any doubt. This is the circular Virgin and Child commissioned by Angelo Doni in about 1504, now in the Uffizi. Two panel paintings in the National Gallery in London have long been attributed to Michelangelo by some and rejected by others.

At the end of his life there are frescoes for another Vatican building, the Pauline chapel, which Michelangelo completes in 1550. But all the rest of his painting is done in two creative bursts - on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel (1508-12) and on the wall above the altar (1536-41).

Michelangelo's concept for the ceiling of the chapel is as bold as his execution of the figures. An elaborate architectural perspective draws the eye up past alcoves, in which huge figures sit, to ever-receding panels which eventually display a series of narrative scenes.

These vast but distant-seeming panels along the centre of the ceiling (each about 10 by 18 feet) tell the story at the start of Genesis - from God's creation of the universe to the famous spark of life (from the Creator's finger to the languid Adam), and on through the expulsion from Eden to the more conventional form of human frailty in the drunkenness of Noah.

The attendant figures, many of them cramped in the available spaces, twist and turn with convincing flexibility. They seem to have a muscular certainty, even where distortion is involved, deriving from Michelangelo's skills as a sculptor. The colours, revealed afresh in a cleaning programme during the 1990s, are vibrantly bright, in often startling combinations. (With these surprises, of posture and colour, Michelangelo inspires a younger generation to develop the style known as Mannerism).

The effect of the Sistine ceiling is exuberant, optimistic. It fits with the confident papacy of Julius ii. The end wall of the chapel is very different. But it too reflects its times.

In 1527 Rome is sacked by an unruly army of German mercenaries, while Clement VII shelters helplessly in the Castel Sant'Angelo. In the aftermath of this appalling event, Clement commissions Michelangelo to paint the end wall of the Sistine chapel. The subject is to be the Last judgement. Again Michelangelo captures the mood perfectly, giving this traditional cautionary tale a dark and dramatic violence (though the anguished nudity proves too much for some - twenty years later Daniele da Volterra is employed to paint in some loincloths).

From the Creation to the Last judgement, the Sistine chapel forms a single masterpiece. Giotto's chapel in Padua is the only other building to express so thoroughly one painter's vision.

Raphael: AD 1504-1520

While Michelangelo is painting the ceiling of the Sistine chapel, Raphael - his junior by eight years - is working on another commission from Julius ii just a few hundred yards away.

Raphael may be described as the boy wonder of the Italian Renaissance. Born in Urbino in 1483, the son of a minor painter (Giovanni Santi), Raphael makes his way in about 1504 to Florence. Over the next few years he paints the serenely beautiful Madonnas and Holy Families, set in luxuriant landscapes, which first reveal his genius. The style derives from Perugino, in whose studio Raphael probably learnt his craft, but in these paintings there is a new certainty of composition, modelling and colour.

News of his talent must have spread rapidly among the patrons of the day, because towards the end of 1508 he is summoned to Rome and is given a papal commission of great importance. Julius ii wants frescoes for a series of rooms in the Vatican which he intends to use as his own apartment. This sensitive task is entrusted, in 1509, to the 26-year-old Raphael. It occupies him for the rest of his life.

Raphael's astonishing achievement in the Stanze (Italian for 'rooms', and the simple name by which they are still known) is a triumph over many different problems, all new to him when he begins.

The themes to be depicted for the pope are often intellectual and thematic, and thus much harder to bring to life than the intimacy of the Holy Family. They involve large numbers of characters, requiring compositional skills similar to those of a director presenting a scene on a stage. And the vaulted rooms, with walls interrupted by doors or alcoves, present irregular and difficult surfaces.

Raphael triumphs over these obstacles. In the very first room which he undertakes, the Stanza della Segnatura, he creates with great confidence two crowded and contrasted scenes - the School of Athens, featuring Plato, Aristotle and many others, and the Disputa in which biblical figures and saints discuss the Christian sacrament.

Raphael's work on the Stanze is interrupted from 1515 by another important papal commission. Pope Leo x, elected in 1513, wants a set of ten tapestries to hang around the lower walls of the Sistine chapel. He asks Raphael to design ten scenes from the New Testament, to be sent north to Europe's best weavers in Brussels.

Raphael, by now a master of large narrative compositions, paints the scenes as full-size cartoons in gouache on paper. In spite of hazardous journeys to Brussels and back to Rome, and then to England in 1623 (after being bought for Charles I's tapestry factory in Mortlake), seven of these cartoons survive in surprisingly good condition in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

During these same years Raphael has been developing formidable skills as a male portraitist, painting his subjects more informally than has been the tradition, with a soft play of light on fabric and flesh, usually against neutral backgrounds, to focus all attention on the man's character. His sitters include both his papal patrons, Julius ii and Leo x, and his friend the writer Baldassare Castiglione.

The brilliant portrait of Castiglione, with its muted range of blacks and greys and browns, is the perfect example of this new style. It is a style which will be developed with great flair during the 16th century by the portrait painters of Venice, in particular Titian.

When Raphael is painting Castiglione's portrait, in 1515, Michelangelo has recently finished the Sistine ceiling and Leonardo da Vinci is also in Rome - not painting, but busy with scientific experiments. A mere six years after beginning the Stanze, Raphael is as much admired as the two older men. He has a thriving studio, with a great number of assistants. He has been appointed architect of St Peter's (in 1514) and is busy with other achitectural projects.

These three artists are already seen as the outstanding figures of the time - a period subsequently regarded as the High Renaissance in Florence and Rome. Five years later, after a brief illness in 1520, Raphael dies. He is thirty-seven. His career has spanned just sixteen years.

Venetian painting: AD 1475-1576

During the 15th century, the great formative period of the Italian Renaissance, Venice lags far behind Florence and Rome in responding to the spirit of the time. The reason is partly the long centuries of Byzantine influence; Venetian patrons still expect a painting to be an object of solemn formality, preferably against a gilded background in the tradition of Icons.

It is also true to say that in architecture, at this same period, the Venetians are enjoying a magnificent late flowering of the earlier Gothic tradition. The mood of the Renaissance has less immediate appeal here. But in terms of painting this changes rapidly after 1475.

In 1475 a Sicilian painter, Antonello da Messina, arrives in Venice, where he spends about eighteen months. He is expert in the northern technique of oil painting, and the rich glowing quality of his work greatly impresses Venice's leading painter, Giovanni Bellini (see oil and tempera).

After Antonello's visit, the figures in Bellini's paintings evolve towards the rounded and richly human style of the Italian High Renaissance. The grouping of the figures in his altarpieces becomes solidly three-dimensional; his Virgins sit at ease with their infants in enchantingly natural landscapes; his portraits (such as the superb image of Venice's doge in 1501) are of flesh-and-blood people, even if in their Sunday best.

In the last years of Bellini's long life there are two young painters in Venice capable of more than equalling his genius. They add to the Venetian palette the richness of colour which becomes the outstanding characteristic of the school.

The first of the two is Giorgione. He dies young in 1510 (though only two or three years younger than Raphael), and his work is only known from a very small number of richly glowing masterpieces. The second is Titian, whose life is as long as Giorgione's is short. Titian establishes a dominant position in northern Italian painting equal to that of Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael in Florence and Rome.

Like any other good painter of the time, Titian receives commissions for church altarpieces (his Assumption of the Virgin for the church of the Frari in Venice, in 1518, is by far the largest yet seen in the city), but he also produces large secular paintings for delivery to an impressive clientele of princely customers.

The first such patron is Alfonso d'Este of Ferrara, for whom Titian paints three magnificent classical subjects between 1517 and 1523. One of them, Bacchus and Ariadne, is today one of the treasures of the National Gallery in London.

Titian's customers also include the two great rivals of the era, Francis I of France and the emperor Charles V. He has no need to enter their service abroad. He despatches works to them from his studio in Venice.

Charles V and his son, Philip II, become Titian's most persistent patrons. They particularly like his mythological subjects, or poesie. Mythology provides many opportunities to display the naked female form, and these paintings build upon a rich new tradition in western art. Botticelli has pioneered the theme of the nude, but Giorgione and then Titian develop it seductively in the art of Venice. (Cranach is doing so at much the same time, with less subtlety, in Germany.)

Titian also has an extremely busy career as a portrait painter, particularly in the 1530s and 1540s. During his long life (into his mid-80s) he paints in an increasingly free style, until his brush strokes become bold short cuts to the depiction of reality.

A similar freedom of execution is characteristic of Tintoretto, the next of Venice's great masters. Veronese, arriving from Verona in 1555, completes the trio who together give this Venetian school such distinction. Veronese paints his vast canvases in a more measured and controlled style than Titian or Tintoretto. But the richness and colour remain unmistakable, as with so many other painters in the studios of Venice at this time.

Dürer: AD 1494-1528

In 1494 a young German artist, trained originally by his father as a goldsmith, arrives in Venice to improve his skills as a painter. The following year he returns to Nuremberg to open a studio in his home town, but in 1505 he is back in Venice - staying eighteen months to savour the artistic delights of this city. He is impressed above all by the aged Bellini.

The young man is Albrecht Dürer, who becomes the outstanding figure in Renaissance Germany. His achievement is enhanced by his originality in many differing fields of art.

An early example is his extraordinary self-portrait at the age of twenty-two, now in the Louvre. A young man with dishevelled blond hair, wearing exotic red headgear and lavish robes, stares moodily from the canvas. It is the first example in history of an artist presenting himself as an eye-catching figure of dramatic interest. Renaissance painters in Italy have sometimes inserted themselves as bystanders in a crowded scene. But Dürer takes centre stage, beginning a long romantic tradition of the self-portrait (carried by Rembrandt to its greatest lengths).

Five years later Dürer paints himself in even more splendid clothes, with a view of the Alps through a window. Here, he says, is a man who has travelled - to Italy.

Dürer's two trips to Italy result in other work of great originality. As he travels, he sketches in watercolour the features of the landscape which take his fancy - trees by a lake, a castle on a hill, mountain valleys. These watercolours are not preparatory work for oil paintings. They are done, it seems, purely for pleasure - beginning a rich tradition in the story of art. Dürer's astonishing skill in the medium is evident in his famous 1502 sketch of a hare.

He breaks new ground yet again, travelling to Antwerp in 1520, when he keeps the first example of a journal illustrated with sketches. Meanwhile he makes himself the most prolific Renaissance master in the new Printmaking techniques of woodcut, engraving and etching.

16th century in Europe

Cranach and Holbein: AD 1505-1553

An almost exact contemporary of Dürer is Lucas Cranach, but his career follows a very different path. Whereas Dürer keeps his own independent studio, Cranach serves for almost half a century, from 1505, as court painter to the electors of Saxony in Wittenberg. As a result he produces endless portraits of the worthies of Saxony, resulting in a marked deterioration from the early style of his youth.

His good fortune, historically, is that from 1517 Wittenberg is at the heart of Germany's religious upheavals. Cranach finds himself, ex officio, the portrait painter of the Reformation. It is from his brush that we know the features of Luther, Melanchthon and other reformers.

Cranach and his studio also provide numerous other pictures which greatly appeal to the nobles of Saxony. These are paintings of impossibly elongated nudes, in provocative postures and often wearing just a large hat or necklace. They derive from the Venuses painted in Italy at this time, but transform them into something much closer to high-class pornography.

A generation younger than Cranach, and altogether more solemn as a painter, is Hans Holbein. If Cranach is the portrait painter of the German Reformation, Holbein fulfils the same role for the leaders of the northern Renaissance.

In 1520 Holbein establishes a studio in Basel. In the following year Erasmus comes to live in the city. Holbein paints the great scholar twice in 1523 and is given letters of introduction to humanist colleagues in the Netherlands and in England.

As a result, in the winter of 1526, Holbein finds himself lodging in the house of Thomas more in Chelsea. He paints here the earliest domestic family portrait in the history of art, showing More and nine of his relations grouped in a room at home (the image survives only in copies and in Holbein's original drawing).

On this first occasion Holbein stays only two years in England, but he paints a great many portraits during his visit - including the large series of coloured drawings now in Windsor castle. In 1528 he returns to Basel, but he is back in England by 1532. On this second visit, lasting till his death in 1543, he is frequently employed by Henry VIII.

The most familiar image of the self-indulgent tyrant is Holbein's sturdy portrait of him. The future Edward VI is familiar too, as a child, from Holbein's brush. So are three of Henry's queens (Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard) as well as high officials such as Thomas more. Holbein in early Tudor England opens a window on a tense society.

Bosch and Brueghel: AD 1480-1569

Hieronymus Bosch acquires his name from the town of 's Hertogenbosch, where he is born in about 1450 and spends his entire working life. Relatively little is known about him, but the teeming fantasy of his imagination, vividly realized in paint, makes him one of the most distinctive of artists.

In both subject matter (the torments and delights associated with Hell and heaven) and style (the slender figures and clear colours characteristic of International gothic), Bosch's art looks back towards late medieval models.

Bosch's most elaborate works abound in vivid and fantastic vignettes, little self-contained scenes of delight or horror which can keep a viewer browsing happily for hours as if wandering in some surreal adventure playground (much in his work directly prefigures surrealism).

The two largest and most characteristic paintings are the triptychs of The Haywain and The Garden of Earthly Delights. Now in the Prado, these are among twelve paintings by Bosch acquired by Philip II for the Escorial. All come from the collections of Spaniards posted to the Netherlands. One group of six, including The Haywain, is bought by a diplomat during Bosch's life, presumably from the artist himself.

The natural successor to Bosch in Netherlands art is Pieter Brueghel, born in about 1525. His works too are mainly gathered in a Habsburg collection, this time in Vienna. There are as many as fourteen of his paintings in the Kunsthistorisches Museum - mainly collected by the Austrian archduke Ernst, regent in the Spanish Netherlands in the 1590s.

Brueghel often depicts details as fantastic as those of Bosch (as for example in The Triumph of Death in the Prado), but he usually prefers to find a more realistic context. Thus the weird scenes in the battle between Carnival and Lent (now in Vienna) are presented as part of a village festival.

Brueghel's landscapes, filled with people going about their everyday business, are perhaps his most characteristic achievement. He adds a stimulating extra ingredient when he presents New Testament or mythological events in just such an everyday down-to-earth Netherlandish context.

The Massacre of the Innocents take place with chilling conviction in a snowy northern village. Jesus makes his way, almost unnoticed, through a crowded summer scene to Calvary. In the Fall of Icarus only the leg of the fallen aviator shows above the waves, unnoticed by the ploughman in the foreground. The Tower of Babel is as busy, and as fascinating, as any other large building site. Brueghel is the first great poet of everyday life.

Mannerism: 16th century AD

While the Venetians in the 16th century are developing the sturdy themes of the High Renaissance, the painters of Florence and Rome are reacting against the achievement of Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael. The idealized perfection achieved by these artists can hardly be improved upon. The next generation devotes itself to a different kind of brilliance, aiming for a self-conscious stylishness which has become known as mannerism.

The word, used in many different ways by art historians, derives from maniera, meaning stylishness. It is used by Vasari, the near-contemporary biographer of the great Renaissance artists, to describe the quality displayed by painters such as Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael.

But mannerism is commonly used now to mean a style of great affectation (but corresponding brilliance) which bridges the gap between the Renaissance and the baroque in central Italy.

The first glimpses of this style come in the work of Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino, both born in Tuscany in 1494. An early masterpiece in the new style is Pontormo's Deposition (late 1520s) in the Capponi chapel in Florence. The composition is an awkward jumble of figures which miraculously achieves harmony. The colours are a mix of improbable pale blues and purples, both startling and pleasing. The tone of Michelangelo, in the Sistine chapel ceiling, is made in every way more mannered.

By this time a younger artist from Parma, known from his birthplace as Parmigianino, is developing a version of the style which makes much use of slender and elegant elongation. One of his best known works, the Madonna of the Long Neck in the Uffizi, admits as much in the title.

Another mannerist master is Bronzino, the adopted son of Pontormo. His special form of mannered elegance is an icy coolness, even in the depiction of naked flesh - as in the famous Allegory with Venus and Cupid in London's National Gallery, where the provocative poses of the figures combine with bewildering ambiguity of meaning to achieve a quintessential icon of mannerism.

Later in the 16th century the style spreads through Europe - to France in the school of Fontainebleau, to the Netherlands, to the court of the emperor Rudolf II in Prague. And the most individual of all 16th-century artists, El greco working in isolation in Spain, is essentially mannerist in the eccentricities of his style.

But the exquisite and the unusual eventually pall. Religious painting is brought back to reality with a gloriously controversial jolt, in Rome in the early 17th century, by Caravaggio.

El Greco: AD 1570-1614

When Domenikos Theotokopoulos is born in Crete, in 1541, the island is a Venetian possession. It is therefore natural that the boy should be sent to Venice when he shows talent as a painter. There is evidence that he studies for a while under Titian before going to Rome, with letters of recommendation, in 1570. In Rome he becomes known as Il Greco (the Greek). When he moves in 1577 to Spain, his name becomes El Greco.

Arriving in Spain with a Venetian instinct for colour, and with mannerist tendencies picked up during his stay in Rome, El Greco begins to develop his own extraordinarily personal style without further influence from other artists. For nearly forty years Toledo is his home.

Spain is the fervent centre of the Catholic reformation, and El Greco responds to the prevailing mood with a mystical intensity. The violently unmodulated colours, sinuous curves and swooning compositions of his religious scenes almost demand that the viewer join in a mood of spiritual ecstasy. Toledo, it seems, accepts the challenge - for El Greco has plenty of customers for paintings which, in purely artistic terms, can be seen as difficult.

Spain in the 17th century will have a powerful tradition of religious art, with painters such as Ribera, Zurbaran and Murillo. But none will match the vibrant eccentricity of El Greco.

17th century in Europe

Caravaggio: AD 1593-1610

One of the most startling and salutary shocks ever administered to fashionable art is the work of Caravaggio in the last few years of the 16th century. In about 1593 he arrives, at the age of twenty, in a Rome which is still attracted to the esoteric niceties of mannerism.

The young man soon introduces two invigorating new elements in his paintings: a use of composition and light which gives the viewer an immediate sense of drama; and an intense realism, endowing the characters in a scene with the believable attributes of ordinary people.

These qualities are evident in the Supper at Emmaus in London's National Gallery. A single raking light, characteristic of Caravaggio, causes a strong contrast between bright details and dark shadows - as in any interior lit by a lantern. The two disciples are very ordinary travellers sitting down to a meal. As one of them recognizes Jesus, he flings his arms wide in a gesture which almost bursts out of the canvas towards us.

This degree of ordinary reality is not to everyone's taste in a religious subject. When Caravaggio delivers a commissioned painting in 1602, showing St Matthew writing his gospel, it is rejected by the outraged priests in charge of the church of San Luigi in Rome.

The painting is a masterpiece (destroyed alas in Berlin in 1945), but it is easy to understand why the priests dislike it. St Matthew has bare feet (with a big toe jutting disturbingly towards us) and he is clearly a simple man, struggling with the difficult gospel words as a youthful angel stands beside him to guide his hand across the page.

It is a profoundly touching image, and one which brings a religious moment very close to us. But priests prefer something more respectful. Caravaggio duly obliges with the painting now to be seen in the church. The composition remains intensely dramatic, but the angel is now flying in the air as angels do (even if he does cheekily count off the generations of Christ's ancestors on his fingers).

In a turbulent life (he has to flee from Rome in 1606 after killing a man in a brawl after a tennis match), Caravaggio continues to bring religion close to home in this direct way. In more than one great painting the pilgrims kneeling to the Virgin thrust the dirty soles of their bare feet right in the viewer's face.

In the long run the church prefers the drama of Caravaggio's compositions, and his powerful use of light and dark, to the peasant realism of his detail. The preferred style of the 17th century becomes the baroque. This more full-blown exaltation of religious sentiment borrows much from Caravaggio - but not the gritty detail.

Rome and Bologna: AD 1595-1639

While Rome remains the centre of Italian art during the 17th century, there is a strong influence from the school of Bologna headed by the Carracci family of painters. In 1595 Annibale Carracci is invited to Rome by a cardinal in the powerful Farnese family. He is given the task of painting the ceiling of the banqueting hall in the Farnese palace. The magnificent result is completed by 1604. Carracci's theme is classical (the loves of the gods, from Ovid's metamorphoses), and so is his style - with echoes of both Raphael and Michelangelo.

This link between Bologna and Rome introduces a creative balance between classical and baroque tendencies in 17th century Italian art.

The Bolognese artists (in particular Guido Reni, who inherits the mantle of Annibale Carracci as the leading painter of the school) tend to retain a classical purity of line and composition. The artists of Rome incline more towards the theatricality of a fully baroque style.

The most spectacular expression of Roman baroque is the great ceiling painted for the Barberini palace in 1633-9 by Pietro da Cortona. In earlier Roman ceilings, such as Michelangelo's for the Sistine chapel or Carracci's for the Farnese palace, the figures remain obediently within their allotted architectural compartments. In the Barberini ceiling they are less restrained.

Cortona's figures seem to soar upwards, from the trompe-l'oeil continuation of the walls, like a flock of startled birds. The sense of profusion and energy in this triumphal celebration is overwhelming. Officially the triumph is that of Divine Providence, but by a fortunate coincidence both divine providence and the Barberini family (one of whom is now pope as Urban VIII) have bees as their emblem. The design makes it evident that the real triumph is that of the Barberini.

But this is a private palace. In public this ecstatic Roman style is more appropriately put to the service of the Catholic Reformation - and nowhere more so than in the sculptures of Bernini.

Moghul miniatures: 16th - 17th century AD

When Humayun wins his way back into India, in 1555, he brings with him two Persian artists from the school of Bihzad. Humayun and the young Akbar take lessons in drawing. Professional Indian artists learn too from these Persian masters.

From this blend of traditions there emerges the very distinctive Moghul school of painting. Full-bodied and realistic compared to the more fanciful and decorative Persian school, it develops in the workshops which Akbar establishes in the 1570s at Fatehpur sikri.

Akbar puts his artists to work illustrating the manuscripts written out by scribes for his library. New work is brought to the emperor at the end of each week. He makes his criticisms, and distributes rewards to those who meet with his approval.

Detailed scenes are what Akbar likes, showing court celebrations, gardens being laid out, cheetahs released for the hunt, forts being stormed and endless battles. The resulting images are a treasure trove of historical detail. But as paintings they are slightly busy.

Akbar's son Jahangir takes a special interest in painting, and his requirements differ from his father's. He is more likely to want an accurate depiction of a bird which has caught his interest, or a political portrait showing himself with a rival potentate. In either case the image requires clarity and conviction as well as finely detailed realism.

The artists rise superbly to this challenge. In Jahangir's reign, and that of his son Shah jahan, the Moghul imperial studio produces work of exceptional beauty. In Shah jahan's time even the crowded narrative scenes, so popular with Akbar, are peopled by finely observed and convincing characters.

Velazquez: AD 1617-1660

Spain, in the first half of the 17th century, has an artist of exceptional interest. Because of his long career as court painter to a single king, and his utter confidence in his own individual style, Velazquez produces a body of work of unusual consistency and distinction.

In his early years, working from about 1617 in his home town of Seville, he is influenced by the dramatic chiarascuro and realism of Caravaggio. And he proves that he can match anyone for realistic detail in his paintings of street vendors, such as the woman with her dish of fried eggs (now in the National Gallery of Scotland) or the water seller in Apsley House in London.

The turning point in Velazquez's career is his appointment in 1623 as court painter to Philip IV in Madrid. Philip has become king just two years previously at the age of sixteen. He will outlive Velazquez by five years, dying in 1665.

So for nearly four decades the painter works, with complete security, in a context where his talents are enormously appreciated. He has a studio within the palace. The king frequently drops in ('nearly every day', according to Velazquez's father-in-law) to sit for a while and watch the genius at work.

Velazquez's main subject matter is one which suits him well - the members of the royal family and their court servants. And on the walls of the royal palaces there hang the paintings which from now on profoundly influence his style, in the collection of Titians made by Charles V and Philip II.

The result is a body of work which can be seen as a one-man climax to the Italian High Renaissance. With a fluency of brushwork to match Titian's, and a magic touch which can make a few flecks of paint look like detailed lace or the rich texture of fur, Velazquez records the king and his family posing in their best clothes in the studio, prancing on a favourite horse, or out in the landscape shooting - and inevitably, with the passage of time, growing older.

The Habsburgs are far from handsome. Philip IV has their notorious Jutting jaw to an almost disfiguring extent. Velazquez does nothing to disguise this feature, except that he paints his employer with a warm and disarming honesty - a quality which he extends also to the court dwarfs and buffoons who sit for him.

Some artists might feel stifled by this environment, but clearly Velazquez finds it stimulating. He records it with affection in his masterpiece Las Meninas (The Maids of Honour), painted in 1656 and now in the Prado. It is an intimate glimpse of the private side of the Spanish court.

The viewer stands in the position of the unseen king and queen of Spain, who are being painted by Velazquez in his studio. On the left, behind a huge canvas, is the artist himself, about to dab on one of his subtle flicks of paint. In the foreground members of the court have gathered to watch. In the very centre, at the focal point of the picture, is a young princess. Fussing around her on either side are the ladies-in-waiting. On the right stand two dwarfs, one of them trying to stir a sleepy mastiff. In a mirror on the far wall we see a faint reflection of the sitters, Philip IV and his second wife, Maria Anna of Austria.

Here, in an inspired ensemble, is the world of Velazquez.

Rubens: AD 1600-1640

Rome is the cradle of the baroque, seen already in certain aspects of Caravaggio. But it is a northern artist who provides in this city the first fully realized paintings in the new style.

Leaving his home in Antwerp in 1600, at the age of twenty-three, Rubens finds employment at the court of Mantua and travels on to Rome towards the end of 1601. He begins an assiduous study of antique sculpture and of the masters of the Italian High renaissance. His own talent is soon so evident that in 1606 he is given a most prestigious commission. In preference to all the artists of Rome, Rubens is invited to paint an altarpiece for Santa Maria in Vallicella, recently built for the Oratorians.

The painting, completed in 1608, can be seen as the first baroque masterpiece. St Gregory, wrapped in gorgeous swirling robes (and with a hand thrust out at the viewer as dramatically as in Caravaggio's supper at emmaus), stares ecstatically up towards a holy image of the Virgin and Child around which plump cherubs disport themselves. Sumptously robed saints to either side of Gregory share his pleasure. The entire painting, in its warm hues and harmonious lines, invites us to do the same.

This luxuriant ease of composition and of colour becomes Rubens' hallmark, whether he is dealing with biblical themes or classical mythology (Greek goddesses, in his hands, become the most comfortable of nudes).

Rubens returns to Antwerp in 1608 and rapidly establishes Europe's most successful studio. He works very fast, as is evident in the brilliantly free oil sketches which he produces in preparation for any major painting. With an army of assistants filling in the unimportant parts of a canvas, he is able to fulfil an unprecedented number of commissions.

Prominent among his patrons are some of the leading rulers of Europe, often known personally to Rubens from the diplomatic missions entrusted to him by the regents of the Spanish netherlands.

In 1622 Rubens receives a major commission from Marie de médicis, until recently the queen regent of France. He is to transform her somewhat controversial life into a triumphal sequence of narrative paintings. He achieves this task with magnificent skill, completing by 1625 the great series of twenty-one canvases now in the Louvre.

Three years later Rubens goes on a diplomatic mission to Madrid, where he becomes friends with Velazquez - and so impresses Philip IV that as many as 100 paintings from Rubens' studio subsequently enter the Spanish royal collection. In 1629, after helping to negotiate a peace between Spain and England, Rubens travels to London.

Charles i knights the painter for his diplomatic achievements and commissions him to paint the ceiling in the Banqueting house, recently built by Inigo Jones. The great canvas panels are designed to celebrate the achievements of the Stuart dynasty. They are shipped from Antwerp to London and are installed in 1636. (Just thirteen years later Charles i steps out, from beneath this triumphal ceiling, on to a scaffold in Whitehall for his execution).

By that time another painter from the Spanish netherlands has made a stir in London - providing the superb portraits by which Charles and his queen, Henrietta Maria, are familiar to the world. Also from Antwerp, and also knighted by Charles i, he is Anthony van Dyck.

Van Dyck: AD 1618-1641

Van Dyck works in Rubens' studio in Antwerp between 1618 and 1620 and then spends most of the 1620s in Italy. In Genoa he makes an extremely successful career as a portrait painter, providing elegant and darkly dramatic full-length portraits of the city's aristocracy.

It is this same elegance, in a slightly gentler vein and with a lighter palette, which later makes van Dyck the favourite portrait painter in English court circles. He moves to London in 1632 and is immediately encouraged by Charles I, a most enthusiastic and knowledgeable collector of paintings. Within weeks of Van Dyck's arrival the king and queen are sitting for him. That same summer he is knighted.

There are to be many more such portraits of the royal pair. The charming but weak face of Charles I, with the delicately trimmed beard, and the fragile beauty of Henrietta Maria are the most familiar images of British monarchs, in the entire long span between the queens Elizabeth and Victoria, entirely thanks to the skill of van Dyck.

Other members of the aristocracy are as eager to use his services. They glow in his canvases, handsome and arrogant Cavaliers in fine fabrics (John and Bernard Stuart in London's National Gallery are a perfect example). Nemesis awaits them when Civil war breaks out in 1642. But the painter who gives them immortality has died in the previous year.

Unexpectedly, there is a talented English portraitist on hand to record the Cavaliers during the difficult years (1642-6) when the king establishes his court in exile at Oxford. Relatively little is known about Dobson until he succeeds Van Dyck in 1641 as chief painter to the court, and he dies in his mid-thirties in 1646. But in his four years at Oxford he produces some fifty portraits, closer in style to Titian and the Venetian school than to the refined elegance of Van Dyck.

Most notable of all among Dobson's works is the strongly characterized portrait of the Cavalier collector and connoisseur of art, Endymion Porter (now in Tate Britain).

French classicism: 17th century AD

Three painters, born in France within a span of seven years from 1593, are profoundly influenced by the traditions of ancient and modern Rome. They transform them into a classicism which is unmistakably French.

The oldest of the three is Georges de la Tour, who uses as his main stylistic device the strong contrast between light and shade pioneered by Caravaggio. He takes this to far greater lengths than his predecessor, often limiting the source of light in his paintings to a single candle. The result is a startlingly beautiful severity, with simple outlines of light picking out the contours of flesh or fabric. Where the Italians transform the example of Caravaggio into Baroque, a French artist takes it towards classicism.

It is not known whether La Tour visits Italy, but the style of Caravaggio is anyway familiar through the master's northern followers in the Netherlands. The other two French classical painters spend nearly all their working lives in Rome.

Nicolas Poussin moves to Italy in his twenties, in 1624. He makes an intense study of classical sculpture and finds himself increasingly out of sympathy with the Baroque style prevailing in Rome. His response is to devise his own alternative. Where Baroque painters engage in flamboyant visual gestures, carried along on a flood of emotion, Poussin develops a rational pictorial grammar to express the inner meaning of a scene and the attitudes of the participants.

His belief that the intellect can be a prime force in shaping pictorial art acquires immense influence as his own fame grows among the connoisseurs of his day. His theories become the cornerstone of the academies of art founded in the 17th and 18th centuries.

His own paintings divide viewers more decisively than those of any other great master. Enthusiasts rate them among the highest achievements of European painting. Others see only stilted exercises, revealing the effect of the wax figures which Poussin poses and groups on a miniature stage to help in perfecting his compositions.

The third French classicist of the 17th century is altogether more gentle in his appeal. Like Poussin, Claude Lorrain moves to Rome in his twenties and hardly ever leaves the region. Like Poussin, he is much taken with the evocative traces of the classical world in the city and the surrounding countryside. But what entrances Claude most of all is the Roman landscape itself, and the light which suffuses it.

Claude invents his own very original form of landscape painting. His countryside is beautifully calm and composed (no wind shakes a leaf in a Claude painting). Classical buildings frame striking vistas. Small figures, often mythological, move discreetly among them.

But what makes Claude's landscapes unmistakable is the light spreading through them from the large expanse of sky. Often it comes from a sun shining from the centre of the canvas, straight towards the viewer. The rays bounce off the surface of stone facades or permeate the leaves of graceful trees, infiltrating every corner of the scene.

Claude's seductive images appeal greatly to English aristocrats on the Baroque (there are more of his paintings in Britain than in any other country). English Grand tour of the 18th century is much influenced by these idealized French views of a classical Italian scene.

The great Dutch century: 17th century AD

While Rubens and Van dyck are international ambassadors for the painting skills of the southern Netherlands, the newly independent northern provinces are also entering an extraordinarily prolific period in the visual arts.

Holland and its neighbouring provinces have a new prosperity in the 17th century, and the Dutch burghers are determined to enjoy in pictorial form the fascinating world in which they live. For the first time there is a thriving middle-class market for art. The painters respond eagerly to the available opportunities, producing a flood of work across a very wide range.

There is no subject with which the Dutch painters of the 17th century do not busy themelves. Portraits, landscapes and seascapes, biblical and historical scenes, subtly lit interiors containing just a few characters in enigmatic relationships, riotous taverns, winter festivities, still lifes, and sinister allegories pointing up the vanity of human existence (even though all the other paintings seem to state just the opposite) - all these are produced in abundance, to standards ranging from brilliant to less than middling, in the studios of Amsterdam, Leiden, Haarlem, the Hague, Delft and many other smaller towns.

John Evelyn, visiting the Rotterdam fair in 1641, is astonished at the trade in paintings.

From the many practising in each field there emerge a handful of outstanding masters. In landscape Aelbert Cuyp achieves, from the 1640s, exceptionally beautiful effects of warm and gentle light in broad tranquil vistas.

Jacob van Ruisdael, a few years younger, is the greatest of the Dutch landscape painters. He works a more dramatic vein than Cuyp, finding romance in wooded landscapes among which streams tumble or half-hidden roads wind their way. Ruisdael's theme is followed by his pupil Hobbema - though Hobbema's most famous image, The Avenue at Middelharnis, is untypical in its boldly formal design.

There are two outstanding names among the Dutch portrait painters of the period. The elder by more than twenty years is Frans Hals, whose brush strokes seem to exult in their speed and facility - giving a breezy informality to his sitters. His most original achievement is his group portraits, beginning in the 1620s and 1630s with several magnificent paintings of the civic guards of Haarlem. Each is the equivalent of an officers' mess photograph, potentially lifeless and dull. But Hals presents these jovial amateur soldiers as completely convincing individuals, interacting naturally within the group.

Rembrandt, a generation younger, is an artist of such broad and diverse talents that he needs a section to himself.

Of all the many subjects being treated in Holland at this time, that of the Dutch interior is the most distinctive. Again there is one master so exceptional that he must be treated on his own - Vermeer. But others achieve almost as much within the limited setting of ordinary rooms.

Pieter de Hooch opens the window most fully on to the austerely comfortable houses in which Dutch merchants and their families now live. With him one catches glimpses from one room to the next, down passages, through the hall, along the garden path. The viewer, in the world of de Hooch, seems to know his way around.

Other painters tend to concentrate on a single corner of a room, framed by two walls. Here Gabriel Metsu is likely to show everyday events of household leisure, such as a man writing a letter or a woman drawing. Gerard Terborch more often presents two or three figures caught in a teasingly mysterious relationship. In either case the silks and furs will be painted with a rich brilliance, sufficient to make any envious viewer dream of a trip to market.

Gerrit Dou, a pupil of Rembrandt, also paints people in tight corners. He does so with an exquisite precision of detail which has caused his followers to be known as the fijnschilders (fine painters). Even Vermeer paints in corners. But his brilliance is more than in the detail.

Rembrandt: AD 1625-1669

The life and work of Rembrandt fulfil in many ways the modern romantic notion of an artist. He shows an easy brilliance in three fields of art (oil painting, drawing, etching), yet his prolific output seems to be as much for his own pleasure - in capturing life in all its fascination - as to meet specific commissions or the demands of the market. He makes a great deal of money but is hopeless at keeping it. He paints obsessively the people closest to him - his women, his son, himself - and thus allows us, through his art, into his private world.

Others have done this, but few so extensively. We have almost 100 self-portraits of Rembrandt, at all stages of his life.

Like Dürer, who begins the theme of the artist as his own central character, Rembrandt is incorrigibly histrionic. He depicts himself in exotic hats, costumes and poses. His early works, while he is still in his home town of Leiden, are of a kind unfashionable in the practical Dutch world. They are history paintings, for which a sense of drama is essential.

This is a field in which Rembrandt in his maturity will produce powerfully dramatic masterpieces, such as the Blinding of Samson in Frankfurt or Belshazzar's Feast in the National Gallery in London. Both feature Rembandt's wife Saskia in the only female role (as also does The Night Watch in the Rijksmuseum). Once again we are close to the artist's own world.

Rembrandt moves from Leiden to Amsterdam in 1631 and in the following year paints The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp. Like the group portraits of Frans hals of this same decade, the picture binds together several figures who are nevertheless treated as individual portraits. In this case they have an unusually strong focal point, in the corpse with his arm flayed for inspection.

The painting makes Rembrandt's reputation in Amsterdam, and ensures his a steady stream of commissions for portraits during the 1630s. At the end of the decade the Amsterdam militia, headed by Captain Frans Banning Cocq, select him for the large group portrait which is by now an essential attribute of any such company of guards.

Rembrandt goes one stage further than Hals in the originality of his response to this challenge. He presents the proud part-time soldiers at their best moment - not enjoying a social occasion, but marching off to the beat of a drum.

Saskia, painted so often and so dramatically by her husband and now seen incongruously amid the military turmoil of The Night Watch, dies at the age of thirty in the very year of the painting's completion, 1642. Three years later another companion, Hendrijke Stoffels, enters Rembrandt's life and becomes in her turn his favourite model. She and his son Titus together manage his affairs for a while from 1656, to help him through the financial crisis of his later years.

Rembrandt is a superb draughtsman in pen and ink (equally sure with landscape and the human figure) and he is one of the three greatest etchers in the history of the art - along with Goya and Picasso.

His etchings survive in numerous states, revealing the process of their creation, and they are treasured in their own time as much as today. The title of Rembrandt's best-known print reflects the value put on them. His etching of Christ surrounded by the sick, done in about 1649, acquires its popular name half a century later because of the extraordinary price paid for one impression - the Hundred Guilder Print.

Vermeer: AD 1653-1675

The artist now most highly prized, among all painters of Dutch interiors, rises from obscurity to the pinnacle of fame in a few decades at the start of 20th century.

At his death in 1675 Jan Vermeer is an unknown artist outside his home town of Delft. He becomes a member of the painters' guild in Delft in 1653 but apparently sells very little of his own work during his lifetime, living instead as a dealer. At his death he is bankrupt; his wife gives two of his canvases to settle a bill with the baker. For the next two centuries Vermeer's paintings, if appreciated at all, are usually attributed to others. In the early 1880s his exquisite Girl with a pearl earring goes for the equivalent of five shillings in an auction in the Hague.

By that time scholars are beginning to recognize his genius (there is the first glimmer of interest when his superb View of Delft is put on public show in the Mauritshuis when the gallery opens in 1822). Gradually his works become correctly attributed. There are few of them, not many more than thirty in all - a small output even for a life which ends relatively early, at the age of forty-three.

A measure of the esteem which these works acquire during the early years of the 20th century is that Vermeer, of all other Dutch artists, is the one whom van Meegeren chooses to forge when he hopes to sell expensive fakes to the Germans during World War II. But the forger could hardly have chosen a master more impossible to imitate.

The magic which Vermeer somehow works with space and light, within the simple confines of his scenes, is easy to appreciate when standing in front of a painting but is very hard to analyze or to describe in words.

In Vermeer women read letters, play harpsichords, pluck lutes or sip wine in quiet corners of everyday rooms just as they do in so many other Dutch paintings of the period. But an extra dimension is miraculously added in the way he captures the effects of light, filtering through latticed windows, casting gentle shadows on walls or floor, bringing up warm bright patches in fabrics and gently rounding out the flesh of face or hands.

This transformation of the everyday world into art is celebrated in one of Vermeer's most famous works, The Art of Painting. A tapestry curtain is pulled back to reveal, as ever, a quiet corner of a room. Light streams in from a hidden window to fall on a woman posing as Clio, the muse of History (she holds a book and a trumpet to reveal her identity). In the foreground a painter sits at his easel. He is just beginning to sketch her on the canvas.

Art is being created before our eyes. Yet in a more real sense it already exists, also before our eyes, in the enticing tones of Vermeer's finished painting. We can dwell at our ease within one beautifully achieved trick of reality, while observing the creation of another.

This History is as yet incomplete.

18th century in Europe

French delicacies: AD 1713-1789

There is a sudden lightening of the tone in French society in the second decade of the 18th century. The treaty of Utrecht, concluding the War of the spanish succession in 1713, seems to promise the end of the almost continuous warfare which has characterized the long reign of Louis xiv. And the death of the king himself, in 1715, offers possible liberation from the stifling formality which has been the mark of his court.

In these same years a young artist, Antoine Watteau, is producing paintings which suggest a new social mood.

The people whom Watteau depicts are rich and glamorous in their silks and satins, but they seem extremely relaxed as they busy themselves with social pleasures in romantic woodland settings. They chat with the clowns and guitarists who entertain them in these fêtes galantes (amorous festivities) as freely as one would in an open-air party today.

The painterly skill with which Watteau captures such fragile moments is seen at its best in his last work, the large Enseigne de Gersaint. Painted as a shop sign for his friend Gersaint (in just eight mornings in 1721, when Watteau is mortally ill), it shows elegant Parisians inspecting the dealer's paintings and mirrors.

These people are all set to enjoy themselves and for the rest of the century, in Europe's most sophisticated kingdom, they do just that - until the Shock of 1789.

Two younger artists reflect and satisfy this mood. François Boucher is born in 1703, Jean-Honoré Fragonard is a generation younger. Both produce the romantic landscapes and the titillating boudoir scenes which suit the market of the day. Boucher is at the erotic end of the spectrum in his portrayal of the young Louise O'Murphy sprawling naked on a sofa. Fragonard provides the sentimental touch in an image such as Le Souvenir, showing a slender girl in exquisite silks who carves an initial on the trunk of a tree, closely observed by her spaniel.

Fragonard lives on into the stern days of the French Revolution, when his frivolously elegant art becomes politically incorrect. He dies in poverty in 1806. But there is one French artist, of equal delicacy in his use of paint, who would have been warmly welcomed by the revolutionaries if he had not died (at the age of eighty) in 1779. He is Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin.

Chardin's subjects are unfashionable - most often just domestic servants going quietly about their business, among gleaming copper utensils. But his treatment of them has a profound honesty. And the paint sings. Chardin is one of those rare geniuses where the art is itself both the mystery and the joy.

This History is as yet incomplete.

Venetian sunset: 18th century AD

In the last century of Venice's independence the city's painters recover the esteem enjoyed by their predecessors in the 16th century. This is true in particular of the last great artist to work in fresco.

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo is born in Venice in 1696. The major influence on his life is Veronese, whose example he follows in tackling detailed and complex historical scenes. In keeping with the rococo spirit of the age, and with fresco as his preferred medium, Tiepolo brings to these pictorial pageants a light palette and a visible deftness of touch - and in doing so provides some of the most exhilarating images in the whole of 18th-century art.

Tiepolo first finds his characteristic style in the frescoes which he paints in 1726-8 for the archbishop's palace in Udine. In Venice his greatest surviving series is that of Antony and Cleopatra in the Palazzo Labia. But Tiepolo's outstanding achievement is his decoration of the prince-bishop's palace (the Residenz) at Würzburg.

The building, designed by Balthasar Neumann and completed in 1744, is on the cusp between Baroque and rococo. The great staircase and the central hall present Tiepolo with difficult and challenging surfaces which he fills, between 1751 and 1753, with superb scenes. They celebrate, with a very Venetian flourish, the glories of Germany's imperial past.

Tiepolo spends his last years on a similarly patriotic task in another country - providing a ceiling on the theme of The Triumph of Spain for the throne room of the royal palace in Madrid. Meanwhile, in the prosperous 18th century and the heyday of the Grand tour, rich tourists are flocking to Venice. It is they who promote the final chapter of Venetian painting.

Canaletto is born in Venice in 1697. In 1720 he begins to specialize in views of the city, and two years later wins his first commission from an English visitor. Thereafter the English become his chief patrons, partly thanks to the encouragement of Joseph Smith (the British consul in Venice and a keen collector of Canaletto).

Canaletto lives in England from 1746 to 1755, painting views of the Thames in London and of his aristocratic patrons' country seats. His practice of painting large topographical views is continued by his nephew, Bernardo Bellotto, who leaves Venice in 1747 and thereafter works mainly in Dresden and Vienna.

In Venice, from about 1760, the demand of the tourists for views is met at a simpler and cheaper level by Francesco Guardi. His small canvases, more vague and informal than Canaletto's topographical studies, are notable for the ease and delicacy with which Venice's watery landscape is suggested.

Hogarth and the English scene: AD 1728-1764

The first English painter on a grand scale is also the most English of painters. Hogarth observes London life with the keenest of eyes, and makes his main contribution by presenting the bustling scene in vivid narrative paintings.

His first great success is a picture in 1728 of the stage of the Lincoln's Inn Fields theatre during a performance of John Gay's Beggar's Opera, the smash hit of the day (over the next three years he paints several versions of the same picture). In 1731 Hogarth completes the six paintings which make up A Harlot's Progress, the first of his very successful narrative sequences in which a contemporary moral tale is told as if in a series of satirical scenes on a stage.

Hogarth engraves a version of the Harlot's Progress himself (his original trade is engraving) and publishes the six plates with great success in 1732. In this combination of narrative satirical paintings, followed by the publication of a set of engravings, Hogarth finds his natural medium. Subsequent series are A Rake's Progress (1735), Marriage à la Mode (1742-4) and The Election (1754).

From the 1730s Hogarth also paints portraits. They tend to have a delightfully rough informality (such as the infants of the Grey family in 1740, cheerfully tormenting a puppy) or a sturdy masculinity (Captain Coram of the same year). But by this time a painter of more elegant portraits, Allan Ramsay, has set up shop in London.

British portraits: AD 1739-1830

Allan Ramsay, born in Edinburgh in 1713, studies in Rome and Naples during the 1730s before opening a studio in London in 1739 (together with another in Edinburgh). He brings to British portraiture a delicacy previously lacking, as seen to brilliant effect in his 1759 portrait of his wife (now in the National Gallery of Scotland).

By the 1750s Ramsay has a younger rival, of considerable skill and soaring ambition, with whom he finds it hard to compete. Joshua Reynolds, who establishes himself in London in 1753 after two years in Italy, has a high notion of the dignity of art and the artist. He is the natural first president of the Royal Academy, when it is founded in 1768, and he endows his sitters with an equivalent sense of importance.

Reynolds often paints his subjects full length, in splendid poses and in close proximity to a classical column or urn. These are the sort of people who go on the Grand tour. Their easy self-confidence in Reynolds's canvases revives the great tradition of the English portraits of Van dyck.

If anything is missing in these powerful images by Reynolds, it is perhaps the fleeting quality of fashion - a quality abundantly supplied by his slightly younger rival Thomas Gainsborough. When Gainsborough catches William and Elizabeth Hallett on their Morning Walk (in London's National Gallery), the couple may not have the air of lasting importance which Reynolds would give them; but on this particular morning there is no one to match them.

Gainsborough maintains a studio in fashionable Bath from 1759 to 1774, and then moves to London. The rich English gentry who pose in town for him and for Reynolds have country seats where they are intensely interested in horses. These splendid animals also deserve a good portrait. England has just the man in George Stubbs.

Stubbs's wonderfully calm and elegant images of sleek horses with their grooms, huntsmen or jockeys in neatly tailored landscapes, or of conversation pieces with the family sitting proud and upright in their carriages, are in their own way as significant a part of the portraiture of prosperous 18th-century England as the work of Reynolds and Gainsborough.

The generation after Reynolds, Gainsborough and Stubbs produces two artists who round off in dramatic style the great period of British portrait painting. Henry Raeburn stays almost exclusively north of the border in Scotland, usually depicting his sitters in dramatic lighting against dark sketchy backgrounds. His striking image of The Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch (early 1790s) is Scotland's most famous painting but is untypical.

Thomas Lawrence, the youngest of this group, is also the most flamboyant and free in the brilliant facility of his brush strokes. As Holbein immortalizes Henry VIII, so Lawrence does the same for the Prince regent, or George IV. He and his most famous subject die in the same year, 1830.

Neoclassicism: 18th - 19th century AD

Ever since the Renaissance, successive generations of artists and architects have turned to classical models for inspiration. Even at the height of baroque (the least classical of styles in mood or line) contemporary grandees are often depicted in togas. Military heroes, however foolish they may look, strutt in the stiff ribbed kilt of the Roman legionary.

During the 18th century a quest for classical authenticity is undertaken with new academic vigour. There are several reasons. Archaeological sites such as Pompeii are being excavated. And interest is shifting from the Roman part of the classical heritage to the Greek.

Ancient Greek sites in southern Italy (in particular Paestum) and in Sicily begin to be studied in the 1740s. In 1755 Johann Joachim Winckelmann, a German archaeologist and a key figure in the Greek Revival, publishes a work on Greek painting and sculpture in which he argues that the art of Greece provides the best example of ideal beauty.

The avant-garde greets this notion with enthusiasm. Over the next century Greek themes increasingly pervade the decorative arts. Greek porticos and colonnades grace public buildings. Greek refinement becomes the ideal for neoclassical sculptors and painters.

In architecture there has already been a strong classical revival early in the century, particularly in the Palladian movement in Britain. Robert Adam, returning from Rome in 1757 with a multitude of classical themes and motifs in his head, creates an eclectic style very much his own - in which classical severity and rococo fancy are subtly blended to satisfy his customers.By the turn of the century these pleasant fancies seem too frivolous. A more rigorously Greek style becomes the architectural fashion in many parts of Europe.

Rome is the centre of neoclassical sculpture. The Venetian sculptor Antonio Canova arrives to set up his studio in 1782. He is soon producing beautifully modelled nudes in the Greek style - such as Theseus with the minotaur, now in the Victoria and Albert museum, or Perseus with the head of Medusa in the Vatican. The flesh is modelled with a slightly chilly perfection, more noticeable in female figures (such as the famous Graces done for Woburn Abbey, in which three languid ladies share a sentimental moment).

In 1802 Canova is invited by Napoleon to visit Paris, beginning an extraordinary relationship with the Bonaparte dynasty.

The effect of the Greek Revival on painters includes a new emphasis on the importance of line, deriving from the figures on Greek vases and in low-relief friezes. It also results in a great increase in the number of subjects selected from Greek mythology and literature.

Many of these neoclassical artists treat their ancient themes with a wispy sentimentality, more in keeping with their own time than with Greece or Rome. This is true of the French artist who pioneers the style in the 1750s, Joseph-Marie Vien. The charge can also be laid against the most energetic neoclassical painter working in Britain, Benjamin West. But an entirely new rigour is introduced by Vien's best pupil, Jacques-Louis David.

The neoclassical ideal is now so powerful that Napoleon is willing to be sculpted by Canova, larger than life and naked, in the role of Mars the god of war. It is one of the pleasant ironies of history that this 11-foot-high marble nude with the face of Napoleon is presented to the duke of Wellington after the battle of Waterloo, and stands now at the bottom of the stairs in Apsley House.

The Bonaparte link results also in one of the most famous of all neoclassical statues. Canova sculpts the emperor's sister, Pauline Borghese, reclining naked to the waist on a chaise longue. Just as her brother is Mars, she is posing as Venus - holding in delicate fingers the apple which she has been awarded for her beauty in the judgement of Paris.

A version of the Parthenon rises from 1806 in Paris, on Napoleon's orders, to become eventually the church of La Madeleine. Another Parthenon begins to be built on Calton Hill in Edinburgh in 1822 as a memorial to the Scots who have died in the Napoleonic wars (it remains uncompleted). The design chosen for the new British Museum, on which work begins in 1823, is a Parthenon with extensions.

So the 19th century acquires, through neoclassicism and the Greek Revival, a conventional style of considerable vigour. Architects of important new buildings, whether churches, parliaments or banks, will now consider a sprinkling of Greek columns as one serious option. The other, resulting from another 18th-century revival, is to go Gothic.

Pauline Borghese's smoothly sinuous flesh, and the plumped-up cushions on which she rests, are miracles of carving in marble - a skill in which Canova is unequalled among neoclassical sculptors.

The other most successful member of the school is a Dane, Bertel Thorvaldsen, who arrives in Rome in 1797 and is given encouragement by Canova. Twenty years later Thorvaldsen is employing some forty assistants in his Roman workshop. Even before the end of his life a museum devoted to his works is established in Copenhagen.

Sections are as yet missing at this point.

British watercolours: 18th - 19th century AD

In 1771 the topographical artist Paul Sandby sets off with a wealthy patron for a tour of Wales. Sandby's job is to sketch the magnificent scenery, now coming into fashion with the beginning of the Romantic movement. This new interest will be popularized a decade later by the Rev. William Gilpin, an indefatigable pilgrim in pursuit of the picturesque who publishes accounts of his own sketching tours, beginning with Observations on the River Wye, relative chiefly to Picturesque Beauty (1782).

Watercolour is the natural medium for sketches of this kind. The passion for the picturesque therefore lies behind the development of the most distinctively British strand in art history - that of the landscape watercolour.

The use of watercolour as the occasional medium for a rapid sketch goes back as far as Dürer, and many artists in the 17th century use monochrome wash drawings as studies for paintings. The difference in Britain in the 18th century is that specialists emerge who paint watercolours for their patrons (and later for a wider market) and in many cases restrict their work to this one medium.

This development coincides with a fortunate new discovery in printmaking, that of the Aquatint - which for the first time can provide in printed form something very close to the tones of a wash drawing. Again Paul Sandby is a pioneer. His Welsh trips result in the publication, in 1776-7, of thirty-six Views in Aquatinta taken on the Spot in Wales.

Soon British watercolour artists are travelling abroad to bring back views from regions such as the Alps which have scenery even more picturesque than Wales can provide. In a nice paradox, classical ruins in Italy are also now found to be romantic.

From the start very individual styles emerge among these artists. Many attempt a neat topographical precision, particularly in subjects such as ruins. Others go for much bolder effects. John Robert Cozens, touring in Switzerland and Italy in 1776, brings back wonderfully misty and evocative images. Francis Towne, in the same regions in 1781, turns landscape into simple blocks of wash so bold that the effect is almost abstract.

Other leading watercolourists who develop their own personal vision of the British landscape include Thomas Girtin, John Sell Cotman, David Cox and Peter de Wint. Vision tips over into visionary in the richly intimate views painted by Samuel Palmer at Shoreham in Kent (under the influence of William Blake, a master of watercolour in his own visionary scenes).

One figure above all personifies the development of the watercolour in England. Turner in his twenties paints brilliantly in the detailed topographical style. Later in his life he produces bright shimmering washes as bold as his large canvases of the same period. Constable says that they seem to be painted 'with tinted steam, so evanescent and so airy'.

This History is as yet incomplete.

This History is as yet incomplete.
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