The sixteenth century has been called 'the century of academies', and the time was ripe for a proper Academy of Art. The academic movement had begun in the second half of the fifteenth century with the informal gatherings of Ficino's Platonic Academy in the Medici villa at Careggi near Florence. Here philosophical discussions ranged over a wide field, but art and art theory hardly entered. It is well known that this first modern academy was the breeding-ground for the infinitely rich development of European academies. As early as the first half of the sixteenth century the original universality began to break up and to be replaced by formalized institutions for the pursuit of specific studies and often dedicated to a narrowly defined programme.
We find historical logic in the fact that the earliest academy of art worthy of the name was founded in Florence and that its initiator and organizer was no other than Vasari, that versatile man of the world, to whom professional status and academic propriety had always been objectives of primary importance. Vasari knew exactly how to handle this affair and give it the right cachet: in 1563 he launched the Accademia del Disegno under the combined auspices of Duke Cosimo de'Medici and Michelangelo.
In certain respects the old guilds were similar to modern Trade Unions. Like the latter, they looked after the economic interests of their members and protected them against foreign competition. The new foundation, on the other hand, welcomed artists 'of any nationality' into its fold provided they were 'distinguished by their genius and judgment'. Artistic competence rather than corporate protection opened the doors to the Academy. Titian, Tintoretto, Andrea Palladio and other famous masters applied for membership. As has been mentioned elsewhere, a grand ducal decree of 1571 exempted all Florentine academicians from membership of the guilds. This was the thin end of the wedge driven officially between arts and crafts.
But whether Vasari was disappointed with the development of the Academy and lost interest, or the academicians quibbled too much over trivial points, or Florence ceded her primacy in matters of art slowly and inexorably to the papal city, it was in Rome that the next important step was taken with the foundation of the Accademia di San Luca.
Not that the aspirations of the Roman founder-members were entirely fulfilled; on the contrary, very little of the original programme survived for more than a few years. But just as the Italian academies of literature, music, science, law, sport, dance, and so on inspired other European countries to found similar establishments, so the Accademia di San Luca in Rome became the prototype of all European academies of art.
France followed first with the Académie Royale, founded in 1648; Germany opened five academies between 1650 and 1750; while it was not until 1768 that England's Royal Academy was inaugurated. Nowhere did the academics entirely supplant the old system of workshop training, but they supplemented it to an ever-increasing degree. In Paris, for instance, no life classes were permitted outside the Académie Royale; in Germany, on the other hand, the guilds could, as late as 1756, prevent Anton Graf from Augsburg from painting because he had not served the prescribed term of apprenticeship.
The Roman academy owed its foundation chiefly to the ambition and drive of Federico Zuccaro (1542/3-1609), who was elected its first president. A prolific painter and draughtsman, versatile, much travelled, and an eloquent, not to say verbose, theorist, Zuccari immediately set the pace for a certain pomposity which distinguished many later academicians both in their work and in their manner of living.
In his inaugural address on November 14, 1593, he urged artists to show 'goodness of heart, to have upright and civil manners and to be, above all, prudent in your actions and undertakings, reverential and obedient to your superiors, affable and courteous to your equals, benevolent and amiable to your inferiors.' And he exhorted them not to give way to 'extravagant, frenzied caprices and a dissolute, eccentric life'. The statutes proposed by Zuccari repeated ad nauseam that the academicians shall behave 'peacefully and quietly. They shall not complain or grumble, not sow discord or give rise to dissensions.' To regulate conduct by statute may strike us as hypocritical. And, indeed, how different was reality in Rome in those years! But it still remains a fact that these provisions set the official seal on the drive towards conformity advocated from many quarters since the mid-sixteenth century. For Zuccari the Academy was the legitimate body to vouch for the high mission of the artist and his calling.