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.’
Before the period classified as the Renaissance, the majority of painting, in Italy and elsewhere, was of a religious theme. Controlled and commissioned by the church, these works of art were not constructed for decoration as they are today but were a language of the time. A vast proportion of the population were illiterate and ‘from the earliest times it [the church] employed mosaic and painting to enforce its dogmas and relate its legends’, (Berenson 1967). But the artworks were not just a way of communicating the teachings of the church. They were found to be ‘peculiarly capable of being used as an indirect stimulus to moods of devotion and contrition’, (Berenson 1967), and to produce an extremely malleable people who looked and prayed but did not ask questions. Artists were considered to be there purely to serve the requirements of the church and they remained, in many cases, unknown.
But the church’s method of teaching by art was ultimately to become its undoing. Art had become so important in the religious lives of much of the populace that they began to feel a need for it in other areas of their lives. Printing had not yet been invented and ‘painting was the only way, apart from direct speech, of conveying ideas to the masses’, (Berenson 1967). To consider why painting moved out of the control of the church and into the general population we must look at Italy’s commercial history, a history that has been shaped by the geography of the country. ‘…Italy’s surface, one-fifth mountainous and three-fifths hilly, discouraged agriculture.’ Consequently, Italy’s main cities of Genoa, Venice and Florence were the ‘economic leaders of Europe’ (Burke). This disposition for commerce meant a high urban population and a ‘high degree of urban autonomy’, which ensured that the ‘educated layman in Medieval Italy’ achieved a much greater importance than those in other parts of Europe. Italy’s lead in the world of European commerce meant there were a number of rich families and communities able to afford the sort of artworks that they wished to display in their homes rather than visit in their churches. According to Stephens, Renaissance sculptors and architects had a wealth of classical models to influence them, but painters of the age were not quite as lucky as ‘antique examples had failed to survive’. So why did they begin to produce original artworks and why did the production of those artworks make them, more than the art that they produced, famous?
To return to Berenson, on the fame of Renaissance artists, ‘towards the end of the fourteenth century something happened in Europe that happens in the lives of all gifted individuals. There was an awakening in the sense of personality’. This meant that the formerly devout were beginning to wake up to the world and wanted to find out more about themselves and what was going on around them. They began to look to ‘classic literature and ancient monuments’ and consequently ‘the worship of human greatness’. From here it was only a short step to ‘that unlimited admiration for human genius and achievement which was so prominent a feature of the early Renaissance’, (Berenson 1967). But while the painters of the day were becoming more revered for their genius than they had previously been for their religious output, Stephens argues that genius was not the only element that drove their fame.
‘The stereotype of the romantic artist producing his works of genius isolated from the world used to be found in accounts of Renaissance art. It has been replaced by that of the painter and sculptor working in response to the demands of the patron’, (Stephens 1990)
But we need to question just how much the requirements of the patron determined the genius or skill of the artist. Obviously the needs of the patron were very important as if he were not pleased with his commission; the artist would not remain in the public sphere for long. Isabella d’Este was a famously authoritarian patron who commissioned many works from the artist Perugino but it has been shown that even she, with all her demands ‘looked to her artist to supply the essential features of skill and style’. It has also been argued that being granted a commission was not sufficient encouragement for the artist to summon all his powers to produce a great work. The artist required a ‘positive and even an intellectual understanding’, something that was eagerly supplied by the educated patrons who held ‘art and the act of creation in high esteem.’ The reason for this, according to Stephens, was the ‘ancient regard for art and the artist which Petrarch had been the first to revive.’ He also claims that the patrons were keen to commission such works in order to ‘demonstrate their moral worth’ rather than display their magnificent wealth.
Cronin, in his book, The Flowering of the Renaissance, discusses the views of Vasari, a Florentine historian born in 1511 whose word, by the time of his death in 1574, ‘was law on all matters of art throughout Italy.’ He placed great store in the power of artists to restore art to its rightful place after the scourge of the Middle Ages and as quoted as saying that ‘Giotto alone, by God’s favour, rescued and restored the art of good painting’. He also wrote a book entitled Lives of the Most Excellent Architects, Painters and Sculptors with the motive that ‘should the arts decline, the book may encourage artists and patrons to arrest it before it gets out of hand’, (Cronin 1972).
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.