From Artisan to Artist

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Here we are again to speak about ART.

In the previous post (check it out if you haven’t done so yet!) I started from a question asking session on the importance of art as such. I brought up an example of stunning frescoes painted by Domenico di Ghirlandaioin Florence for a the banker Francesco Sassetti. Thanks to the painter’s art the memory of the man and his family survived and reached us through more than six centuries.

Quite a privilege… don’t you think?

Privilege? Yes. I said it on purpose. For a long time art has been considered a privilege. It is a privilege to own an important work of art or to commission and pay for one: how about hiring Leonardo da Vinci to paint your portrait?

During my tours people often tell me that I am a privileged person because I see stunning examples of art every single day and I have keys to UNDERSTAND them.

So I am asking whether art is something that only specialists create and understand? Is it something only very rich people can afford? Or is it something for everybody to reach out for?

I like to believe it IS for everyone. The joy of looking and being inspired by the beauty IS for everyone to experience.

Creating art is a different issue. Not everybody can paint or sculpt.  In childhood we all were creative and sensible to beauty. It is later that the adults tought us to judge ourselves, feel incapable of making art, or even worse, label ourselves as lacking talent.

Those of us who don’t get discouraged, go on learning and believe to have talent will become

ARTISTS.

How beautiful does it sound: he/she is an artist. The artist’s figure is surrounded by some sort of light that shines upon this person only.

But… nowadays, if someone who defines him/herself a full – time creative, people think he/she must be damn lucky to constantly do fabulous things dedicating him/herself to what he/she loves and not needing to work, right?

I can literally hear it: “Ah, so you are an artist! Great. But.. what is your job?”.

Facepalm.

This said, our modern times are most probably the most difficult ones EVER for an artist to survive with his/her art. It is a privilege. This is why there are not so many left. Creative professionals – yes, there are some. But artists? There are not many around, believe me. Not as many as there used to be because the ground for them to develop is not fertile.

But what about the past? Let’s say the glorious past?

Jump on a time machine with me and let’s go to XVth century Florence. I am taking you back to the Renaissance.

Being an Artist from Middle Ages to the Renaissance


Florence in these years is one of the biggest European states and its ambitions certainly match its dimensions. The fourteen hundreds are also the period of the rise of the Medici family that within few years manages to spread its loving bankers’ arms around the flourishing city. Out of all the things power makes possible for the Medicis, they want…  A R T.

Art that will speak about them up until our XXIst century.

The number of artists that work and create masterpieces in Florence is astonishing. Moreover, their role and status in the society changes dramatically within only one hundred years.

What does it mean?

In the Middle Ages (dark times, remember?) being an artist was no fun. Nobody would want to neither remember your name nor care about your existence. If you were very lucky, your superb painting of a Virgin Mary, a Saint or Jesus on the Cross, would survive until the XXth century. It would then be placed on a white wall of a museum and would be given a NUMBER. Just a number. Because seven hundred years prior to that nobody took care of writing your name down… You were an artISAN in those times. A manual worker with good manual skills. More or less like a shoemaker or a carpenter. Fullstop.

That of an artist was not a distinct profession but… (Surprise, surprise!) you had to pay your taxes. So the medieval Florentine society would kindly ask you to join one of the existing professional associations, called the guilds. Artists did not have one of their own. A painter was listed together with physicians and pharmacists (because the pharmacies sold the pigments and all the painting materials). A goldsmith would find himself as part of the silk merchants guild etc, etc.

An artist was a nobody but the taxes were still to be paid.

In the fifteenth century the art, the artist, the meaning of art finally CHANGE. It’s the Renaissance and Florence must have been a a freakin’ mad place to be for an artist! It was full of wildly talented, extraordinary people, all born and raised in the same years in one tiny town. They learned together, grew up together, competed for the appreciation of the rich against one another, invented new techniques etc, etc. Every street was home to tens and even hundreds of workshops of painters and sculptors.

THEY turned Florence into what we love it for today: the Cradle of the Renaissance. Of course the money came from bankers and merchants. But bankers, like Cosimo de’ Medici or Palla Strozzi, did not know how to paint, sculpt or design a church or a palace. They were hungry for glory and beauty and their appetite and ambitions met the talent of the numerous artists present in town. The chemistry functioned and lead to an explosive reaction:

BOOM!

The Renaissance.

Who are the artists in the XVth century Florence? Let me just name a few and do not be scared if some names sound new or strange (pssst… you can google them!):

Lorenzo Ghiberti, Donatello, Michelozzo, Leon Battista Alberti, Masaccio, Rossellino, Desiderio da Settignano, Pollaiolo, Beato Angelico, Benozzo Gozzoli, Filippo Lippi, Paolo Uccello, Piero di Cosimo, Leonardo da Vinci, Piero della Francesca, Filippo Brunelleschi etc etc etc etc etc. The list is already long so I’d rather stop at Brunelleschi.

Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446) is most famous for the construction of the immense dome for the Florentine Cathedral. This one:

It dominates the city and it is really difficult to totally lose it out of sight! The construction took almost twenty years and was finished in 1436.

Until today it is the biggest brick dome on the Planet.

In 1434, the author of the masterpiece of engineering ends up in jail for disobedience. He refuses to pay his taxes to the Stonemasons and Carpenters Guild he officially belongs to! He will be released the day after but the importance of this act is immense! For the first time an artist lifts his head up high to say: I am not an artisan. I am much more and I do not like the fact that this society does not recognize my importance and my profession.

Recognising Talent

Together with Brunelleschi artists become more and more aware of WHAT being an artist means.

In 1436 Filippo’s good friend and colleague Leon Battista Alberti (1404 – 1472) will write a treatise called De Pictura (“On Painting”) where he will celebrate the painter’s work as the highest form of art on Earth!

You must be questioning yourself: why? What’s the fuss about some colors and paintbrushes?

Well,  Alberti has the answer. In order to paint properly you need to know geometry and mathematics, understand optics and perspective, study medicine and human body, understand the movement, know poetry and rhetorics. In this perspective painting is so much more than canvas, color and brushes, right? And it gives life to those who lived long time ago.

“Painting contains a divine force which not only makes absent men present, as friendship is said to do, but moreover makes the dead seem almost alive. Even after many centuries they are recognized with great pleasure and with great admiration for the painter.” [L.B. Alberti, De Pictura, book, 2]

Finally! Finally we read the word admiration and… with Alberti we shall see the TALENT to be considered a necessary component of artists’ personality.

Here we come to another, probably the most famous man of the XVth century: Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519). We all know about his Gioconda in the Louvre and the fantastic futuristic machines the genius worked on. But he also wrote a lot and some of his writings were published after the artist’s death under the title: “Treatise on Painting”. It is an absolutely stunning and illuminating thing to read, believe me.

For Leonardo, like for Alberti, painting is the highest of all arts.

It needs science and observation. Every painting begins with an idea in the painter’s mind and is born through an attentive study and verification through experience. The idea then turns into reality through the work of the artist’s hand.

Painting is higher than science because the ability to paint is a gift from above. Painting, is higher than poetry. It is a language that needs no translation, for it speaks to everyone’s eyes directly.

Painting has a higher purpose to imitate Nature (i.e. the Divine) and uncover its laws.

Within less than a century of time, less than three generations, the artist’s figure has gone through a mind blowing metamorphosis. He is not a member of a lower social class anymore. He is an intellectual, the one who studies and knows. The powerful people from all over the place are looking for him, they fight to get the artist work for them! They let him step into the “high” society and start treating artists as equal.

Lorenzo the Magnificent, the head of the Medici bank and the ruler of Florence was so broke to find out about the death of one of his favorite artists, Filippo Lippi, he commissioned and paid for the artist’s tomb personally. Agnolo Poliziano, Lorenzo’s friend and poet, wrote the epitaph in verses:

Here am I brought, Filippo, painting’s fame,
To nought unknown my wondrous grace if hand.
With craftsman’s fingers I gave colour life
And fooled the living with its long-awaited voice.
Nature herself by my expressive figures stilled
Confesses me the equal of her arts.
Lorenzo Medici placed me in this marble tomb,
Who before was covered in the humble earth.

What a privilege. What an honor for an artist.

But the story does not end here. The XVIth century will see the genius of Michelangelo Buonarroti and with him the ARTIST’s work and dignity fly up to an even higher level.

This is to be continued…

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About the Author Tatjana

Licensed tour guide, sommelier and blogger. She helps adventurous travellers, art enthusiasts and wine lovers find their way in Tuscany.