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Christopher L. C. E. Witcombe

Spring 2014

Rudolph and Margot Wittkower
Born Under Saturn: The Character and Conduct of Artists,New York: Norton, 1969 (edited excerpt)

The New Ideal of the Artist

But the day came when artists began to revolt against the hierarchical order of which they were an integral part—a day when they regarded the organization meant to protect their interests as prison rather than shelter. It was in Florence that the new ideology, irreconcilable with the established order, first arose. The artists themselves began to propagate it at the precise moment when Brunelleschi asserted his freedom in the face of the guild laws. Some time before 1437 the painter Cennino Cennini wrote his Book on Art which in many ways still has the practical and technical character of the medieval manuals. Yet he also visualized the new type of artist about whose behaviour he talks as follows:
    Your life should always be regulated as if you were studying theology, philosophy or other sciences, that is: eat and drink temperately at least twice a day. consuming light yet sustaining food and light wines.

    There is one more rule which, if followed, can render your hand so light that it will float, even fly like a leaf in the wind, and that is: not to enjoy too much the company of women.

To our knowledge, this is the first exhortation in writing by an artist to his fellow-painters to emulate a scholar's dignity and temperance. Only slightly later Lorenzo Ghiberti (d. 1455), painter, sculptor and architect, composed his monumental treatise on art and artists which includes the first autobiography known to have been written by an artist. This fact in itself is of the utmost importance, for an autobiography means looking at one's own life as an observer, seeing it in history and as a part of history; it needs the distance of self-reflection, and introspection became an important character trait of the new race of artists. Towards the end of his autobiography Ghiberti states with obvious pride: 'Few are the things of importance created in our country that have not been designed and carried out by my own hand.' If it is permissible to interpret this sentence to mean that Ghiberti laid stress on the fact that he not merely carried out directives but 'designed', that is, invented 'things of importance' himself, then his words, together with Cennini's ideal of a scholarly mode of life, express succinctly what was happening: a new type of artist was arising, an artist essentially different from the artisan of old in that he was conscious of his intellectual and creative powers.

But the locus classicus for this new ideal is Leon Battista Alberti's short treatise On Painting, written in 1436. When the young scholar and writer visited Florence in 1434 he was delighted to find there 'unheard of and never before seen arts'. Brunelleschi, Donatello, Luca della Robbia and Lorenzo Ghiberti were at the height of their careers, while Masaccio had died a few years before in the prime of life. Inspired by responsive artists and understanding patrons Alberti wrote and circulated his treatise. To him painting, the highest among the arts, 'contains a divine force'. It is 'the best and most ancient ornament of things, worthy of free men, pleasing to the learned and unlearned'. He considers 'a great appreciation of painting to be the best indication of a most perfect mind', and advises that 'the first great care of one who seeks to obtain eminence in painting is to acquire the fame and renown of the ancients', a goal which can only be reached by devoting all one's time and thought to study. Besides acquiring the necessary technical skill the 'modern artist' should master geometry, optics and perspective and know the rules of composition; he must be conversant with the mechanism of the human body for 'the movements of the soul' are shown by 'the movements of the body'. But the highest achievement, good inventio, will be his only if he makes himself 'familiar with poets, rhetoricians and others equally well learned in letters'. Alberti also points out that polite manners and easy bearing will do more to earn goodwill and hard cash than mere skill and industry. It is clear that it no longer sufficed to be an excellent craftsman. The new artist had to be an 'huomo buono et docto in buone lettere'—a man of good character and great learning. The Renaissance artist had entered the European scene. The time had come for painting, sculpture and architecture to be admitted to the cycle of the liberal arts. In order to raise the visual arts from the level of the mechanical to that of the liberal arts they had to be given a firm theoretical foundation and the first and most important step in this direction was taken by Alberti. By the admission of the visual arts into the circle of the liberal arts, for which artists of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries pleaded in word and picture, the artist rose from a manual to an intellectual worker. His profession now ranked equal with poetry and the theoretical sciences. To the emancipated artist the old guilds of craftsmen were an anachronistic survival.

The process of liberation was fostered by a complete misinterpretation of the position of artists in antiquity. Alberti adduced the high social standing of ancient painters to lend prestige to their modern successors; towards the end of the fifteenth century, Filarete recorded that painting, in his day still regarded as a disgrace, was practised even by the Roman emperors, and Giovanni Santi, Raphael's father, was not the first to maintain that the Greeks did not allow slaves to study painting. Michelangelo too laboured under the misapprehension, if his biographer Condivi is correct, that the ancients did not admit plebeians to the practice of art.

In On Painting Alberti propounded his ideal of the well-adjusted and socially integrated artists which was upheld in academic circles through the ages. But the liberation from the protective bond of the guild also led to the emergence of a different type of artist—one who refused to accept conventions, who belonged, in the eyes of the public, to a class of his own.