tellectual Life of the Painters of the Early Renaissance

tellectual Life of the Painters of the Early Renaissance

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Intellectual Life of the Painters of the Early Renaissance

Before attempting to answer the question it is important to consider what we mean by ‘early Italian Renaissance. Unlike many periods in history the Renaissance has no obvious start and end dates, for the purposes of this assignment I will define the approximate period within which to look as about 1390 to about 1520. 1390 represents the time when the Carrara court in Padua was gaining an intellectual reputation of excellence, as well as this being about the time that two Roman coin like medals were cast of Francesco II and his father. This represents a typically renaissance trait of looking to antiquities for inspiration, as will be discussed later. The time around 1520 represents when Raphael died this was followed closely by the death of Pope Leo X, the second High Renaissance pope. It is after their deaths that the creative and optimistic mood in Italy began to fade. The decade ending 1520 saw Leonardo da Vinci leaving for France and then dieing there in 1519. There are many other examples that could confirm these dates as significant, and also many more that would dispute them, but for the purposes of simplicity we will take these as a guide. In the beginnings of the Renaissance painting was seen very much as a craft performed by members of the artisan class and not a ‘liberal art’. In fact the term artist was not used, as it is today, as a general term meaning painter and sculptor. ‘Artista’ was a term already in use by Dante, but it was used in reference to a University level graduate of the ‘liberal arts’, it is not until the beginning of the sixteenth century that it is used in a context resembling today's usage. The lower status of painting at the beginning of the Renaissance is reflected in the fact that members of the aristocracy or learned class did not generally practice it. A member of the Milanese aristocracy, Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio’s epitaph stressed that although he was a painter, he was an amateur, because if it were thought that he made his living from painting it would significantly lower his social status. It is for this reason that few people in the early Renaissance would see painting as a method of social advancement or to demonstrate intellectual ability.
This did not however stop many

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Related Searches">painters having aspirations for higher social and intellectual status, despite their background and education rarely supporting this aspiration.

The majority of painters were brought up in the artisan class, this meant that painters seldom went to Grammar school or University. Most painters’ education was limited to the basic training provided by the abacus school. There are however exceptions to this trend, perhaps most notably Alberti. He attended Grammar school and graduated in law from University. Similarly Leonardo da Vinci was gifted in mathematics, as Vasari tells us, he “began to learn arithmetic and after a few months he had made such progress that he used to baffle his master with questions and problems that he raised.”# Even Leonardo did not have knowledge of Latin. The study of Latin was not part of the abacus school curriculum. When Pietro Lorenzetti needed a text of the life of St Savinus for his alter piece in Siena Cathedral; he paid a grammar school teacher to translate the text from Latin for him. Proficiency in Latin was a prerequisite to be considered a literate man in higher social circles. The lack of a humanist education on the part of the artist perpetuated the view of painting as a craft. Leonardo admitted in the last decade of the fifteenth century that he was not a ‘man of letters’ he was saying he did not have a command of Latin “I do not have literary learning but my concerns are better handled through experience rather than bookishness.”# Despite this statement it is obvious from an analysis of the books in his library that he attempted to learn Latin. A gradual increase in the number of Latin texts suggests he gained in proficiency in later life.
Leonardo’s library was certainly not typical of the early renaissance artist’s. The size and scholarly character of it was unheard of amongst his contemporaries. This effort on the part of Leonardo is evidence of his desire to advance his position within society. Leonardo did much to improve the view of artists, and himself became a courtier. Dürer thought that it was important for young artists should be taught how to read and write Latin in order to be able to understand certain texts.

The style and quality of the early Renaissance painter’s handwriting can be a good indication of the types of education received. There is very little awareness of the new humanistic script early in the fifteenth century. This does change over the course of the century with some intellectually aspiring artists developing sophisticated humanistic script. This can be seen in Manlegna’s letter of 1484 to Lorenzo ‘the magnificent’ de Medici, as this is written in a refined humanistic hand. The effort to improve the quality of their handwriting shows that the artists are trying to emulate characteristics found in courtiers and other learned people. The awareness of the humanistic script also shows the desire of the artists to advance their social position and also the recognition that this cannot be done solely through the quality of their work. There is a deliberate attempt on the part of the artist to gain intellectual credibility. The study of more intellectual fields was not solely for advancement within the intellectual community. Early in the Renaissance period’s artists realised that education in more intellectual areas was essential to the advancement of painting from a craft to a profession. Lorenzo Ghiberti proposed that painters should embark on a study of grammar, geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, philosophy, history, medicine, anatomy, perspective and ‘theoretical design’. This would be a substantial undertaking for anyone, regardless of background. This curriculum was perhaps a bit too ambitious.
Alberti was slightly more realistic in his treatise De Pictura, “| want the painter, as far as he is able, to be learned in all the liberal arts, but I wish him above all to have a good knowledge of geometry.”# Geometry was particularly important to Alberti not just because of his passion for maths, but because in the same treatise he proposes a method of representing a three-dimensional scene on a two-dimensional panel, called perspective. This was a substantial development for painting but did require knowledge of geometry in order to use the technique effectively. The early experiments show that this was not an easy technique to master. The knowledge of geometry required was beyond that taught at abacus school.

For a painter to embark on an extended curriculum of more intellectual study it would have been after their basic training at abacus school and even perhaps after their initial apprenticeship. At the beginning of the fifteenth century an artist’s apprenticeship would be very unlikely to contain a wider intellectual syllabus. This did change through the course of the early Renaissance; opportunities in the bottega allowed the painter to absorb intellectual ideas and understanding. During the course of the early renaissance artists increasingly wished to take on apprenticeships that allowed the opportunity to expand their intellectual range, so these opportunities were seized with increased regularity.

During the early renaissance there were shifts in the social status of the artist as well as the extent to which he was valued as an intellectual. This marked the gradual shift from the artist as a craftsman to a practitioner of the liberal arts. An artist favoured by a court might be awarded the title valet de chambre or familiaris. These positions were a significant advancement from the positions of other artisans, but he was not yet a courtier but he was in a much better placed to attain this position.

The intellectual pursuits of the artists were not solely limited to the study of Latin and geometry. The study of antiquities also became important. Classical archaeology started to be developed by enthusiastic humanists and artists. Some Renaissance artists no doubt saw the pursuit of archaeology as a means to achieve their intellectual ambitions. They perhaps also saw the potential to incorporate the archaeology-derived motifs into their works, the artist’s equivalent to the humanist’s texts on ancient civilisations. A distinction must be made between this classical archaeology and later scientific archaeology. The Renaissance artists had no need for the precision of today’s archaeologists, they tried to recreate the spirit of the classical past by copying the antiques and learning from visual records, for use later in artistic projects. Objects from the classical past were not new to the Renaissance artist; they had been used as inspiration throughout the centuries before 1400. During the early Renaissance much more focused archaeological attitudes were developed towards the classical past. One of the first examples of the information gained from archaeological endeavours being put into use by the artists was the medal. The medals were very closely derived from Roman coins. Today the differences are quite obvious, but at the time due to the relative lack of samples the style would have been enough to fool most people. This is not to say that the artists were trying to create forgeries, they were made for patrons to give the ideas of the genuine artefact.

There was a great degree of difference in the educational expectations of the art theorists and the artist concerned with studio practice of his art. For this reason there is very little evidence that the artists themselves were concerned with the theoretical or intellectual issues during the first half of the fifteenth century. There are of course exceptions, again Alberti stands out with his treatise De Pictura written in 1435. Albert’s unusually advanced education in comparison with his contemporaries explains this exception. Alberti’s treatise was first released in Latin suggesting that it was written for the educated court readers. The majority of artists were unable to read Latin; it was later translated into vernacular so it could be used as a guide to painters. In the late fifteenth century the trend for artists to abstain from theoretical discussions began to change with some picking up the pen to write on theory and practice. They were sometimes trying to gain footholds on the intellectual’s territory. They even started writing poetry and responding to classical and contemporaries texts. As the early Renaissance unfolds there are increasing instances of artists expanding their intellectual scope in this way. There are an increasing number of artists getting involved in debates usually participated in by the art theorists; one such argument was concerning the importance of paintings. It is in this debate that Leonardo was going to air his views in his unwritten treatise on painting:

“Those sciences that are imitable are of such kind that through them the disciple can equal the master... Amongst these, painting has first place. It cannot be taught to someone not endowed with it by nature... Such singularity gives it greater excellence than those things that are spread abroad.”#

The argument about the importance of painting, especially with regard sculpture raged for over one hundred years. The argument was fought both through works of art and also through text on the subjects. It engaged the intellectual energies of many Renaissance artists. It was in the presentation of their arguments that they were given the opportunity to demonstrate their intellectual prowess in both discourse and works of art.

One of the most important debates, from the artist’s point of view, was the status of painting as a liberal art. If painting were a liberal art then it would be a pursuit worthy of courtiers and so bolster the artist’s social and intellectual level. This debate took one of its forms in whether paintings could be considered wordless poems. It was perhaps to aid in this debate or just to gain a better social standing that many Renaissance artists aspired to write poetry. The early attempts were not very well received but by the first decade of the sixteenth century some of the poetry was very respectable. It was in the artists that reached maturity at the turn of the century that we can see a profound change. In these artists we can observe a high degree of verbal as well as pictorial skill. The best example of one such artist is Michelangelo. He succeeded in the literary world almost as much as he did with painting and sculpture. It is in this period that the artists become much more self-aware and have greater belief in their talents and intellectual abilities developed quickly. This is reflected in their position in society as well. Dürer wrote in a letter to Willibold Pirckheimer from Venice in 1506, “here I am a gentleman, at home only a parasite.” This statement is not a true reflection of his standing in Germany, he, in few years after this was written, was accepted to sit on the Great Council in Nuremberg, it does however highlight the growing status of artists in Italy and particularly in Venice.

At the beginning of the period in question we can see the artist as a craftsman and member of the artisan class. This is reflected in his training at the bottega, which did not contain any wider intellectual training. Over the course of the early Renaissance this began to change, whether it was due to the aspirations of the artists or the pressures of the patron, that the artists stared pursuing intellectual training, is up for debate. Most likely the answer lies between the two, patrons wanted works that contained religious or mythical themes, and these were based on texts written almost exclusively in Latin. The artist could pay someone to translate but this could become costly. Also knowledge of Latin was essential to be considered an equal in intellectual circles. The use of perspective required knowledge of geometry beyond that of most of the artists schooling, the patron again was a driving force for painters to master this skill. The preoccupation with the classical on the part of the humanist required the artist to gain knowledge of forms and motifs from this period, as a consequence painters become involved in archaeology to gain this knowledge. The reasons for the shift of the artists into literary pursuits are probably more to do with social stature than the demands of a patron. Although there is no doubt a well-educated artist who also has a command of poetry would be in higher demand and receive a greater fee. I feel it is the prestige awarded to their profession that is the driving force behind this move. As the intellectual pursuits multiply, from learning Latin, geometry, anatomy and archaeology, then moving into the fields of poetry and debate. We can see the extent of the artists intellectual life grows from fairly non-existent to a major component. The level of intellectual activity on the part of the artist can be seen directly in the progression from craftsman to courtier during the early Renaissance.


Alberti, L. B., Leon Battista Alberti On painting and On Sculpture, ed. and trans. C. Grayson, London 1972

Ames-Lewis, F., The Intellectual Life of the Early Renaissance Artist, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2000.

Burke, P., The Italian Renaissance: Culture and Society in Italy, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1972.

Kemp, M. and M. Walker, eds, Leonardo on Painting, New Haven and London, 1989.

Vasari, G., trans Bull, G., Lives of the artists, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1987.
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