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Understanding what art meant in Renaissances Italy affects our view of Renaissance practitioners more than our view of the works they produced. Discuss.

The purpose of this essay is to consider the meaning of art in Renaissance Italy, a period widely believed to span the three hundred years beginning just before 1300AD and ending just before 1600AD, and discuss why this meaning affects our view of those artists producing works during that period rather more than the actual pieces they produced. According to Berenson in his book The Italian Painters of the Renaissance:

'The quality of art remains the same, regardless of time and place and artist. Nevertheless, our feeling for it is conditioned by time and place and the personality of the artist.'

At this point it may be interesting to return to Stephens to illustrate the change in the public view of artists by comparing a Dugento crucifix painting of around 1200 with Leonardo's Virgin of the Rocks painted in 1480. The crucifix painting, we are told, 'invokes the Byzantine East…and is a gilded object…more concerned with the surface effects of line and colour than with depicting a living body suspended in space.' Leonardo's painting, however, is very different, and while the crucifix portrays a 'window to heaven', the Virgin portrays a 'window into nature' in which the figures appear to be real and of this world. As the placement of the objects in Leonardo's painting are due to the design of the artist and not beholding to 'pictorial and religious tradition', it is possible to ascribe this painting to Leonardo even without his signature, a luxury which the Dugento painter was not afforded. In the centuries between the execution of the paintings mentioned, many things in painting had changed, 'style, composition, a painting's purpose and the role of the artist' (Stephens 1990) and consequently, painting was now considered to derive, not from the church, but from the 'painter's art.' And even though the Virgin was a religious painting, Leonardo had also painted many famous non-religious paintings such as the Mona Lisa, a fact which further strengthened the importance of the painter himself in that the works emanated from him and his genius rather then from any other source.

This essay set out to discuss why the meaning of art in Renaissance Italy affects our view of Renaissance artists more than the works they produced. To this end we have considered the complete monopolisation of painting, by the church, before the beginning of the Renaissance. This was used to convey religious teachings to a largely illiterate population before the invention of printing. But the church's adherence to painting as a form of communication began to make people feel that they needed such a medium in other areas of their lives. They began to look to their roots and the worship of human endeavour that had been so influential in the past. Italy's importance in the world of commerce meant that there were many rich patrons who were able to commission the artists of the day to carry out works specifically for them, using their own personal blend of skills and the inspiration of a truly glorious past. From the research carried out in the execution of this essay, we can conclude that the artists, once they had achieved separation from the church, as regards their work, were able to demonstrate their own particular skills and consequently achieve a new level of personal admiration previously unknown in the world of Italian painting.

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