Why is art important? This one seems like a big question and.. let’s be honest, I am not the first person in the world to puzzle myself with it. Remember Mr. Wilde’s pill of wisdom: “All art is quite useless”? Yes, great artists, writers and philosophers have tried to give an answer multiple times and left endless pages on the subject.
Let’s take Wilde’s conclusion as the starting point here. If art is useless then why on Earth, whenever we travel, we end up visiting “historical” city centers filled with masterpieces of architecture or museums like Uffizi, Vatican, National Gallery or Prado? What are we looking for in the dusty past? Or maybe it is not all that dusty? Huh?
The question is urging to me because my primary work is to take people through the masterpieces and help them read and understand art. Botticelli’s Venus and Springtime, Micheangelo’s David and the Prisoners.
Why? Why do people need them? And honestly.. do they?
To live and survive there is absolutely no need in paintings and sculptures, novels and poems, music and theatre. And yet, since the earliest times of our existence as a species we have been trying to leave a trace, send a message, make sure we’d be remembered.
Well.. let me cut the whole thing short and just tell you a story:
Imagine Florence in the years 1482-1485.
In terms of art history timeline these dates fall into the glorious Renaissance period. Of course.
The Florentine state is held by the tremendous and tremendously powerful Medici family. Lorenzo, better known as Lorenzo the Magnificent, is the head of the Medici Bank that has already expanded its influence all over Europe with active branches in Pisa, Milan, Venice, Avignon, Bruges, London, Lyons, to name a few. Not bad for a family business, is it?
And by the way, in the French town of Lyons the head of the bank’s branch is a man with a funny name Sassetti (which translated into English means “little stones”). Let me tell you a secret: the “Littlestones” family is not remembered because of the bank. Much more for the fact that they have left us a masterpiece that we can still admire in Florence:
The Sassetti funerary chapel at the Holy Trinity church.
The chapel is a breathtaking example of the art of fresco panting and of course Francesco Sassetti did not paint it himself. He was a skillful money maker but a very poor painter. Therefore the only solution for him was to hire a master for the job. Which indeed he did.
Domenico di Ghirlandaio (an incredibly talented artist and Michelangelo’s very first teacher) got the commission and painted THIS fresco exactly in the years 1482-1485:
It’s just a fragment of the fresco and I shall limit myself to this one for now.
Well, just imagine it occupying an entire wall above your head with the human figures being almost natural size.
You literally have an illusion of an open space that unfolds beyond the wall. In the background you see the Signoria Square with the people moving through their everyday life. In the middle – the kneeling figure of Saint Francis (the patron of Francesco, just by chance) receiving the approval from the Pope. Or, to be more precise, the Confirmation of the Rule.
And in the foreground? Two groups of people on the sides and a strange staircase showing up from under the ground with adults and children walking up the steps. THIS IS the stunning part of Ghirlandaio’s creation! All these guys wearing red and blue precious fabric are members of the Medici and Sassetti families.
They’re still there to tell us what they looked like, what they dressed like, what their status and life were all about.
In one way or another Ghirlandaio’s art and skill served a very precise purpose: to survive through the time and give a message to everyone who’s still to come. Nothing lasts for ever, we shall all pass and only art will keep the image and the name immortal (or at least for as long as it exists).
The Sassetti Chapel has a complex iconography and multiple stories that unfold in the images all together and I promise, I am creating an in-depth post on that.
In this case I just used it as an example to give one possible answer to the question in the title of this post. Art, as the application of human capacity to create and generate beauty, serves us to survive and live beyond our lives. The Sassettis send their images into the future and they did not pay Ghirlandaio just for his work. Nope…
Not only. I somehow think they paid for a chance to go on living on Earth in people’s memory. And, hell yes, they do! Every day, during my Florence Walk tour I take my guests into Sassetti chapel and let their story live again and again and again.
I hope you enjoyed this post. Please share your ideas, doubts and questions in the comments.
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Licensed tour guide, sommelier and blogger. She helps adventurous travellers, art enthusiasts and wine lovers find their way in Tuscany.