The physical appearance of artists' shops of the Renaissance was no different from that of many other crafts. The word "artist" as a generic term was almost never used: a painter was called a painter, a sculptor a sculptor, and so on. They were seen as members of a particular occupation, not, as in our day, as people with a vision and a calling. They had no special title which implied that, either by vocation or inspiration, they were different from any other group of craftsmen.
Often located together in the same area of town, the shops of Renaissance artists were usually small rooms opened to the street by the raising of heavy wooden shutters. Several illustrations from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries depict craftsmen at work in these humble, semi-public shops. A number of similar structures still survive on the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, although these are now filled with the stores of some of the world's most exclusive jewelers. In Italian cities one can still get an impression of what these artists' shops, or botteghe, were like by looking at the small shops of carpenters or gilders, which are usually open to the street and filled with the same kind of hurly-burly that characterized their Renaissance forerunners.
The production of art was, first and foremost, a cooperative venture. Within the shop there was an organization and working procedure developed through long experience to allow maximum efficiency. At the head of the organization was the master, who obtained the commissions and oversaw all the shop's activities. It was his reputation and his ability to attract work that kept the shop going. Some work was done for the market without commission, but probably not enough to keep the shop in business full time.
Looking at the works themselves, we can tell that the master was usually in charge of the overall design. The consistency of design and iconographic interpretation by Giotto, Donatello, Raphael, or scores of other well-known artists indicates that the genesis of the work and its earliest development were most often products of the master's mind and hand.
The master (apparently always a man, for there are few secure records of women artists until the seventeenth century and then their names appear only infrequently) had the final say on everything that went on in the shop. He was himself an experienced independent artist, who had to arrange for the rent of the shop, negotiate commissions and check the contracts that went with them, keep the books, pay the bills, and (it was fervently hoped) make a profit. He was a craftsman-businessman who, except for his product (and he most definitely would have considered it a product) was no different from any of the other craftsmen who lived and worked near him.
Under the master's charge were the apprentices. We do not know much about the mechanism whereby a boy became an apprentice, other than that it was bound up in both legal procedure and social custom. Because many of the artists were related either by blood or marriage, the family must have played an important part in predisposing many young men for artistic careers.
Apprentices seem to have entered the artists' shops in their early teens. Several contracts of apprenticeship have survived, but such a small sample does not really tell us much. Certainly, the master agreed to teach the boy, to provide for his safety, and, sometimes, to pay him a small salary. This pattern of apprenticeship appears to have been common to all the crafts.
There seems to have been no rigid limitation on the time apprentices spent in the shop: we have reports of their stay lasting anywhere from two or three months to several decades; the fourteenth-century artist Cennino Cennini recommends at least six years. The relationship between master and apprentices seems to have been extremely flexible, geared to the economics of the art market. When an artist was fully trained and experienced, he would find, if he could, customers and commissions, set up a shop for himself, and eventually take on his own apprentice or apprentices. The number of apprentices appears to have been directly related to the master's popularity: the busier he was, the more apprentices.
It was the apprentice's task to assist the artist in the preparation of materials and, once the design had been formulated, to help him execute the work. On occasions when the master was absent, the apprentices executed the whole work. More often they did the less important and quite tedious decorative parts of frescoes or statues. Their relation with the master was truly collaborative; pure artistic individuality in the twentieth-century sense did not exist.
Each shop was an ad hoc organization, expanding when there was much work, contracting when few or no commissions were obtained. When the shop was very busy or when it had a very large commission (a fresco cycle or a series of statues), extra employees were taken on. These might be independent artists who had no work of their own at the moment, or they might be less skilled helpers who assisted with many of the difficult, tedious jobs involved in the making of art. Sometimes both types of temporary help were hired at the same time. Materials and equipment, needed in considerable quantities, were seldom purchased in their finished state; their procurement and preparation were hard, time-consuming jobs that were often delegated to apprentices and helpers.
Naturally, the structure of each artist's shop and its working methods and materials were dependent on its particular specialization. We do not know which of the various mediums was the most popular, but painting was certainly always in demand. We tend to think of painters as producing only pictures, but this was definitely not the case during most of the Renaissance, a period when artists worked on many tasks we would not now normally associate with them. The shop of a Renaissance painter might make painted shields and armor as readily (and willingly) as altarpieces. Decorated banners, beds, chests (cassoni), plates, and drapery were, in many cases, the objects that kept painters in business. In fact, it appears that only a small portion of the total production of many painters' shops was given over to what we would classify as paintings. The altarpieces, portraits, and other work we think of as typical may really have been rare in comparison to the painted coats of arms, banners, and chests.
A hierarchy of painting types does not seem to have existed; there was no distinction between what later periods were to term the "decorative arts" and "figurative painting." Renaissance artists, with few exceptions, were happy to paint almost anything. They did not consider such work beneath them nor outside their trade. Decoration, whether of a house or a church, was a vital, integral part of the art of the period. The painted wainscot, decorated chest, or design of a geometric marble floor were highly valued; in truth, such things are often major works of art in their own right. The concept of the minor art, of crafts in our sense of the word, had not yet been born.
Much figurative religious painting also issued from the painters' shops: altarpieces of various traditional shapes and sizes, portable triptychs and diptychs, special votive panels, and many other types made up the considerable pictorial repertoire. These same shops also were often involved in the complicated process of fresco painting, which, though based on the master's design, was a task requiring many hands, great cooperation and skill, and, above all, the smooth working of the shop.
The whole process of design was an important one during the Renaissance. Painters seem to have been the most active designers. Of course, they designed their own panels, frescoes, and the objects produced in their shops; but they were also responsible for designing works done in other mediums. Sculpture, for instance, was often designed by them and only later carved or cast by a sculptor. This working procedure—which was most frequent at the beginning of our period—seems strange to us, but it was quite common. What, exactly, each type of design looked like and how it was then utilized to fashion stone or bronze or some other material remains unknown.
On occasion, painters were also called upon to do designs for colored windows. These were sometimes executed by specialized window painters who were often monks. The painters' designs were quite faithfully followed, and we can attribute certain windows to known artists on the similarity of design between the glass and their other surviving works.
Sculptors provided a number of objects for Renaissance society. Today, we tend to think of them as the makers of statues only, but then their production encompassed a wide range of objects. Altar tables, altar rails, ciboriums to cover the altar, and tabernacles to set upon it were all vital to the rituals of the Church. The sculptors also carved architectural decoration, furnished tombs, and made pulpits, statues, and reliefs for churches. The Renaissance home had portrait busts, medals, private altars, and fountains all made by sculptors. Public fountains (and sometimes their hydraulic systems), which so grace the Renaissance city, were also their responsibility. The variety and usefulness of the sculptor's trade made him a necessary and important figure in society.
The miniaturist, too, was a valued craftsman. Whole shops were involved with the production of books highly prized both for their content and their pictures; the hundreds of extant manuscripts testify to their popularity and beauty. Religious tracts, commercial manuals, chronicles, humanistic writings, and scores of other texts were illustrated. In a world without photographs, the pictures in these books played an important part in shaping the readers' ideas and perceptions.
Often artists, and especially sculptors, were given larger-scale jobs. There appears to have been no group of professional architects during our period; the design and supervision of the construction of buildings, even the most important, were traditionally carried out by men trained in one of the other arts. A large number of artists—from Giovanni Pisano to Michelangelo and Raphael—were employed as architectural designers and superintendants, although in many cases they seem not to have had any specific training in the profession. Probably these men learned much on the site; in any case, the technological aspects of building were less complicated than they are today.
Other commissions were awarded to painters and sculptors for fountains, bridges, and walls. A number of artists were also kept busy designing fortifications and machines of war; it was in this capacity that they were often most necessary to the scores of warrior-princes who ruled much of the Italian peninsula.
Occasionally, artists worked in more than one medium. A number of goldsmiths became sculptors and at least one—Brunelleschi—became something close to a professional architect. The Florentine Andrea di Cione, called Orcagna, was a building designer, painter, and sculptor. In Siena during the fourteenth century several men practiced both the arts of painting and sculpture, as did Michelangelo during the next century. Yet, although artists often made designs for mediums other than their own, the works they executed in their shops were mainly in the material in which they were trained.
All these shops, each specializing in some aspect of art, employed a considerable number of people. Reliable statistics are hard to find, but we do know that of the 25,000 or so people who lived in Siena in 1363, there were 30 painters and 62 master stonemasons, many of whom were probably sculptors. In the next decade, the total of painters had risen to 64, and by the early fourteenth century, it had reached nearly 100. A similar painter-population ratio probably existed in Florence and the other major Renaissance cities. Art was not a luxury, but something that society wanted, needed, and used; consequently, there had to be enough artists to satisfy the considerable demand.
One has to think of Renaissance art as the product of a sizable industry. It was, of course, more a primitive industry rather than a modern one, but it was a collective economic enterprise nevertheless. Art was produced by many people, all working on different but interrelated tasks. The work force, brought into the business at an early age, received a long, intensive training. The result of all this labor was not a single product but a multitude of images, decorations, and other objects, all of which had some function. Artists geared themselves to the manufacture and sale for profit of utilitarian but beautiful objects of great variety.
These artists and their wives came generally from what might now be termed the craftsmen and small tradesmen class. They did not move in the elite, powerful circles of society (except as employees of powerful patrons). They were, instead, the sons of fathers and mothers who came from families with limited social standing, and on the whole they remained men of the middle rank.
With great frequency, artists came from artistic families. The vast network of artists' interrelation has not yet been charted, but we do know that a high percentage of artists were related, either by blood or marriage, to other artists.
The extended family was the foundation of Renaissance society; its role in the arts was crucial. Although we have no records proving it, workshops, and much of the equipment in them, were probably passed down from one relative to another. One case, that of the famous Sienese artist of the fourteenth century, Duccio di Buoninsegna, illustrates some of the family relationships between artists. Duccio, who lived until 1319, had a brother, Bonaventura, who also seems to have been a painter. Three of Duccio's sons, Ambrogio, Galgano, Giorgio, and possibly a fourth, Giovanni, were painters. Segna, Duccio's nephew, followed his uncle's footsteps—and Segna's two sons, Niccolo and Francesco, were painters.
Duccio's contemporary, Simone Martini, after marrying the daughter of a painter, went into partnership with his painter brother-in-law. The daughter of Simone's painter brother married another painter. These interlocking relationships were extremely common and probably ensured a source of income as son succeeded father. There can be no doubt that many men became painters simply because painting was the family business. Talent must have often been a secondary consideration. This father-son pattern was common in Western art until quite recently: to realize what it has sometimes produced, we need only recall Raphael or Picasso, or Bach or Mozart, all artists' sons.
Family connections, either by blood or marriage, were helpful in many ways. They probably facilitated entry into the guild, just as today membership in some unions is helped by family ties. Access to workshops and guaranteed apprenticeship were privileges that tended to go with the right connections. And sons probably inherited some of the reputation and much of the trade built up by their fathers. Shops were a family business. This was also true of the other crafts.
Other boys—outsiders, so to speak—probably went into the shops simply because the profession was chosen for them by their parents, who thought it would be the proper life's work for their offspring. It is likely, in other words, that youths were selected for an artistic career solely because their elders wished it. There can be no doubt that some entered the shops because they had already shown talent in drawing or carving, but these boys may not have been in the majority. This surprises us, for we consider the making of art something quite extraordinary and far removed from business, not taken up simply because one's parents are connected with it or because they think it would afford a good livelihood for their children. These conflicting ideas—one perceiving art as a calling, the other as a trade—indicate the vast chasm between our conception of art and that of most of the Renaissance.
The trades and much of Renaissance life in general were regulated by law and tradition; every citizen was caught up in a maze of institutions and rules governing most aspects of his world. The artists were no different. Artists' guilds existed in many of the Renaissance cities; each was at least slightly different in structure and the artists played various roles within them. Sometimes they were just one among several groups in their guild. Sculptors often belonged to the same guilds as stonemasons and carpenters, while the painters sometimes joined the guild of the pharmacists from whom they bought colors. This integration with other occupations did not always work to the artists' advantage. In Florence, where the painters were in the Arte dei Medici e Speziali guild, they were dominated by other professions much higher on the economic and social scale.
Again, our lack of knowledge prevents us from describing exactly how the guild aided and controlled the artists, but some idea can be inferred from the few relevant documents that survive. It appears as though membership in the guild was a prerequisite to the execution of any important commission. The guild must have functioned much like a closed shop where work is impossible without a union card. Artists matriculated when they embarked on their careers, for without guild membership one could not find employment. Foreign artists were also required to enroll in the guilds.
The guild must have helped the artist by giving him a certain status and certification as a member. It may also have provided financial help in times of need. Often it was equipped with its own courts, where problems arising from conflicts among artists themselves and between artists and their patrons (who could be demanding indeed) were arbitrated. The guilds provided a religious and social service through their patronage of various churches. Guild membership, like everything else in Renaissance society, had strong religious overtones.
By belonging to a guild, artists also played some part in the governing of their cities. In the oligarchical republics, the guilds were important power blocks in communal government. Membership in them probably gave artists a sense of participation in the affairs of the city-state and a strong professional identity. There are numerous records of artists holding guild positions of some authority, even in those guilds where they were in a decided minority.
Artists also associated in some of the many religious confraternities found in all Renaissance cities. The confraternities served both as mutual aid societies and as vehicles for collective religious expression. Usually attached to a church or an order, they were of varying character and purpose, from groups founded to sing laudes before images of the Virgin to societies devoted to self-flagellation. Many of them, such as the famous Misericordia, which still functions in many Italian cities, provided much-needed social and charitable services. They were yet another manifestation of the cooperative character of Renaissance society.
In Florence the painters founded the confraternity of St. Luke, named after the patron saint of their trade. This organization gave them a voice that they did not have in their guild, dominated by the doctors and pharmacists. Artists did not belong to one confraternity only; like their fellow citizens, they could, if they wished, join several of these organizations. Many of the confraternities also actively patronized artists.
Artists sometimes traveled extensively. Their livelihood was based on obtaining commissions; consequently they were willing, and indeed eager, to work almost anywhere. Of course, the great majority of them obtained commissions only in their home cities; but a fair number found employment farther afield.
There seem to have been several artists who were much in demand in the small towns surrounding the larger metropolitan centers. The Florentine painters Bicci di Lorenzo and his son Neri di Bicci, for instance, worked for numerous villages scattered throughout Tuscany. Basically conservative, their style seems to have been much appreciated by the more traditional inhabitants of the smaller towns, who wanted to avoid the up-to-date (and probably more expensive) fashionable painters of Florence. In fact, Bicci and his son made these commissions such an important part of their careers that today scores of their sturdy, slightly old-fashioned altarpieces are still found in provincial churches.
Conversely, a very up-to-date and sometimes revolutionary artist might receive commissions from major, but distant, cities. The young Sienese, Duccio, was called to Florence at the end of the thirteenth century, and just several decades later Giotto was to achieve great fame and many commissions; Giotto not only sent paintings long distances but went to work himself from one end of the peninsula to the other. Gentile da Fabriano and Pisanello, in the fourteenth century, were constantly on the move in search of commissions. For the next century, the frequent peregrinations of Michelangelo and Titian come to mind.
The wandering of painters and sculptors and their work helped disseminate knowledge not only of foreign artists' individual idioms but also of the style of their cities. We must remember, however, that the intense localism of Renaissance civilization meant that total transformation of style by outside influence was very difficult.
Much of our knowledge about Renaissance artists' travel, and indeed most other aspects of their lives, comes from documents, of which considerable numbers survive. These vary widely in type and in the amount of information they disclose, but a survey of a few of the records demonstrates what they reveal about the artist and his place in society. Surviving records suggest that artists had about the same rank in society as goldsmiths, shoemakers, or tailors. They were certainly below the powerful, wealthy bankers and traders, but they were many steps above the poverty-stricken manual laborers and wool workers.
Many artists engaged in moneymaking ventures outside their shops; some invested funds in interest-bearing communal bonds. In Florence, their investments corresponded to those of their fellow tradesmen. Occasionally, as in the case of Giotto (who leased out looms), they had a small business on the side. Many of the artists, along with scores of their fellow citizens, had some land in the country, usually of modest size, worked for the olive oil, wood, and wine that it provided the artist and his family. Sometimes the land was rented to a tenant farmer.
If the tax returns or tax assessments of the artists are studied (and this can be done best in the very complete Florentine archives), one sees that they were not financially well off. The long lists of creditors that appear with alarming frequency are usually not counterbalanced by the artists' meager assets. But this picture of men just making a living, which the documents often present, must have been common to most of the craftsmen and tradesmen of what we would now call the middle class.
The archives also reveal that artists served in some communal offices, in the government of their guilds, and in other official capacities. In Siena and elsewhere, they were sometimes sent on diplomatic missions and represented their city in several of the towns it controlled or strongly influenced. But, in general, artists seldom rose to offices of great power. They were by birth not part of the noble or oligarchical power structure that really ran the cities. The exceptions to this statement—such as the several Sienese painters from noble families—are rare.
Much valuable information is found in the tax returns that Florentines were obliged to file from 1427 on. These are often our primary source of information about an individual painter or sculptor. They had to list the taxpayer's age; because birth dates are usually not included in other documentation, the tax returns are often the sole record for this precious bit of information. On occasion the artists were unsure exactly how old they were; occasionally they lied about their age, claiming to be older and less able to pay their fair share of the tax. Sometimes the tax returns also list, under the heading of debtor, an artist's patrons who still owed him money. On several of the forms, works the artist had not yet finished or delivered are mentioned.
Artists, like almost everyone else, had trouble with tax collectors. The whole process of tax collection seems to have been somewhat flexible and open to arbitration. Some artists—the Florentine thirteenth-century painter Agnolo Gaddi, for example—claimed that they were paupers or very poor and not taxable; but these claims must have been viewed with extreme skepticism by the tax officials who read the returns.
Another type of document the artist himself wrote was the will. These legal instruments, often modified by several codicils, are helpful in discovering who the artist's relatives were, with what particular church he was associated, how much money and property he had, to whom he wished to leave it, and other useful practical information that helps to place the artist in his time. Most of these wills confirm what is known from other documents: the artist often possessed only a meager amount of capital and property, and his will and the inheritance he left were like those of the hundreds of other craftsmen and tradesmen of his social and economic standing.
Judicial records, which survive in great number, are another invaluable source of information on artists. Like many of their fellow citizens, artists often ran afoul of the complicated and omnipresent legal system endemic to every Renaissance city. Few artists seem to have been habitual lawbreakers or, indeed, criminals, although several (such as Duccio, who had a record) appear to have had more than their fair share of trouble with the authorities. There are a number of cases of violence recorded, but artists seem to have been no quicker to use this traditional form of social behavior than any other group or class of citizens.
Court records also show that there were often bitter feelings between artists and patrons. Long, sometimes hostile legal battles between offended parties over broken contracts or missing wages occurred. Some of these disputes were probably heard in guild courts, while others were settled by the time-honored method of compromise outside the halls of justice.
It appears that many artists kept what might be called shopbooks. The few remaining examples demonstrate that they were a sort of private work diary in which the artist entered daily the business of the shop; he also recorded summary drafts of contracts for works of art and set down transcriptions of other legal matters. The most famous of the several of these to survive is by the Florentine fourteenth-century painter Neri di Bicci. This book, which covers the events of the years 1453-57, gives the most complete and interesting picture of the day-to-day activity of a shop that we possess. Its brisk, businesslike tone must have been common to many artists' shops.
Neri's book is quite long—the printed edition runs to over 400 pages—and surprising in its detail. Everything from the acceptance of an apprentice to the purchase of grain is meticulously recorded, including the commissions for a number of surviving paintings.
Also recorded are many business transactions (for instance, the purchase and leasing of land) that have nothing to do with the artistic activities of the shop. Reading through Neri's detailed shopbook reinforces the impression one receives from all the other documentary sources: the making of art was a craft engaged in for profit; it was not a calling or a spiritual or quasi-religious vocation. Books similar to Neri's must have been kept by nearly every goldsmith, draper, and shoemaker in Florence.
Another form of contemporary book on the artist, his education, and his shop, which survives in just a few manuscript examples, might be most conveniently termed a shop manual. The most famous is by the late fourteenth-century Florentine painter Cennino Cennini. Cennini's manual is aimed at preserving and passing on much of the accumulated knowledge and technique of the workshop. As such, it is one of the most valuable sources for our understanding of the way Renaissance art was made.
Cennini lists, in great detail and with considerable skill, many pigment recipes, scores of techniques, and much other practical information ranging from where to find eggs to what to eat. Most of the technical training of the apprentice must have been done by example, the young man watching the master and then trying to learn the skill himself. There may not have been much demand for a textbook like Cennini's. In the shops, education was not theoretical; skills were not gleaned from books, but from the handling of the material itself.
We also know something about the shops from several surviving inventories. One of the most fascinating, that of the Sienese artist Neroccio di Landi, was drawn up in the year 1500 and lists the artist's possessions, over 200 items in all. Aside from household objects, it mentions a number of things that must have been in the artist's shop: pieces of Carrara marble of various sizes; heads and figures of terracotta; heads and hands of wax; pieces of wood for painting; and numerous other objects connected with Neroccio's painting and sculpture business. According to the inventory, other items were at the pawnbroker—an important figure in Renaissance society. At Neroccio's death a few years before, some of his possessions had been taken from his shop, but one can still see that a considerable number of tools, materials, and works of art, probably in various states of completion, remained.
Another of these scarce catalogues of artists' possessions, this time an auction list, is known for the Venetian painter Jacobello del Fiore. Among Jacobello's things in 1439 were a parrot cage, a bed curtain, several panels of the Virgin, a mirror, and a fancy candlestick. It is hard to know how many of these were wares destined for eventual sale, but the list nevertheless gives a rare glimpse of what an artist owned.
Information about artists is also found in their letters and other writings. The former are seldom of extremely high literary quality; rather, they are concerned with such practical considerations as the landing of a commission or the need to clarify a point with a patron. Quite a number of these letters have survived, and some of them reveal much about the artists' relationships with society, especially with those people who were paying him. On occasion one sees a glimmer of independence in the artist's dealings with his patrons, but usually the tone is one of servility, as the artist maneuvers, and sometimes cajoles and pleads, for a commission or payment. More personal (and therefore more interesting) notes appear with less frequency.
There are examples of artists' writings that go beyond the need to find a commission or pass on the working methods of a shop. One of the most famous of these is On Painting (1435), by the Florentine writer and architect Leon Battista Alberti. This is not a book that arose from the usual hectic, workaday atmosphere of the shop; rather, it stemmed from the more theoretical interests of its author, who did not go through the apprenticeship system and was not a professional painter. Judgments on perspective, light, color, and other stylistic components of paintings, ideas for the fashioning of coherent narrative, and comments on how the painter should behave all appear in Alberti's tract. Although he knew and admired some of the most distinguished Florentine artists of his time, Alberti wrote something entirely different from their shopbooks or shop manuals. On Painting, even though it contains a number of practical suggestions, is one of the first theoretical works of the Renaissance. It is a bird's-eye view of art rather than a how-to book, and its author must be classified as one of the first truly gifted amateur theoreticians of painting.
Several artists' books are combinations of the theoretical and practical. One of the earliest is I Commentari by Lorenzo Ghiberti, who wrote this fascinating work—part autobiography, part history of art, and part theoretical manual—around l450. In some respects, the book is a forerunner of Giorgio Vasari's Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects, which was written in the mid-sixteenth century. Vasari's collection of artists' biographies, prefaced by a long discussion of material, methods, and theory, runs to many volumes and for centuries has been the single most influential work on Italian painting. Often called the first art historian, Vasari was an idolator of Michelangelo, the artist who emerges as the hero of the Lives. The work could be said to contain the first historical schema of the entire Florentine school of painting from Giotto to Michelangelo.
Benvenuto Cellini (1500-71), who wrote perhaps the most famous, the finest, of all artists' autobiographies, was a goldsmith and sculptor whose career and conduct point toward an important shift in the way some artists began to perceive themselves and their relationship to society. The creator of a number of superb bronzes, Cellini (who also wrote treatises on sculpture and goldsmithing) portrays himself as something more than the successful craftsman. His ego, temperament, and, above all, his belief in his divinely inspired virtuosity place him in a special category, prophetic of our modern ideas about artists. However, this is not yet the portrait of an artist outside of society, but one who moves easily within it and is admired and sought out even by princes and popes.
A number of self-portraits mirror the growing self-awareness of some artists. The tradition of the self-portrait inserted in an altarpiece or tucked into a fresco seems to date back only to the late fourteenth century. During the fourteenth century, however, a series of self-portraits appear that have no other purpose than to confer a degree of immortality upon the artist. Both in medalic and painted versions, these portraits (and others of artists by their colleagues) testify to the desire of a minority of artists to rise from the collective anonymity of the workshop system. This desire was shared by the Renaissance historians, biographers, memorialists, and rulers, all of whom began to concern themselves with the individual personality and its place in history .
This changing self-concept of the artist, especially noticeable in his relations with patrons, is most apparent in Vasari's life of Michelangelo and in the latter's letters and behavior. A poet with a deep and abiding interest in philosophy and theology, Michelangelo had an easy familiarity with literature, a familiarity foreign to almost all of his predecessors of just a half century earlier. Many of his interests were shared by a number of his contemporaries, including, of course, Leonardo da Vinci, the author of several remarkable treatises and notebooks.
Although most artists still lived within the confines of the workshop, a few—Michelangelo and Cellini among them—were moving in another direction that would help shape the modern conception of the artist as the inspired lonely creator, a person apart from regular society.
The houses of several artists illustrate some of these new attitudes. Titian, Leonardo da Vinci, and Vasari lived in dwellings that were palaces compared to the typical humble artist's home. They and a number of other artists adopted, or pretended to adopt, a style of life that was more like that of a wealthy burgher or nobleman than the craftsman-artist.
It was during the early sixteenth century that the notion of the artist as someone endowed with a special, quasi-divine calling arose; but the vast majority of artists still made no special claim to greatness, nor did they consider themselves geniuses or in any way extraordinary. Instead, they and their descendants for generations lived very much within the craftsman's tradition. It should be emphasized that in their attitude toward art, in their economic and social standing, and in their self-image, they still securely belonged, as did their fourteenth- and fifteenth-century predecessors, to what we might call the middle class. This is worth remembering because the early sixteenth century is too often seen as the period when most artists began to disassociate themselves from the craftsman's social standing and intellectual interests. In fact, it was only a small group of artists (albeit some of them of the greatest importance) who started to rupture the artist's established position. Nothing could have been farther from what most Renaissance men and women thought about the artist.
As we have seen, the great percentage of Renaissance artists lived lives that were, in every aspect except their trade, nearly identical to those of their fellow craftsmen. A very few, however, were touched by fame.
Giotto was the first living artist to be regarded as an important figure in his city's history. The Florentines not only honored him with the superintendency of the works of their cathedral, but also, in the document authorizing his appointment, called him an expert and famous man who should be welcomed as a great master in his native city. Moreover, he was one of just several artists accorded the rare honor of a mention in the Divine Comedy by Dante. Yet from everything we know about Giotto's life, this fame did not translate into any particular personal, political, or economic power. Giotto's fame seems rather to have centered exclusively on his works. The documentary descriptions of him by his contemporaries depict him as an ordinary, quite humble man. He was, however, honored by the commune with a burial in the cathedral he had helped to build, an act of homage indeed.
Contemporary fame was accorded to artists who executed important commissions for the major figures of their time: Cellini, Michelangelo, Titian, Leonardo da Vinci, and Raphael, to name just a few, were in the service of popes, dukes, kings and emperors, and other personages of renown. Their art, whether the portrait, the altarpiece, or the tomb, was in many ways propagandistic. In other words, artists played, a crucial role in the shaping of the public image of the ruler. These valuable servants of the court now began to acquire, by association, some of the fame of courtiers. And when they did, they were sometimes given tombs worthy of nobles: one only has to visit Michelangelo's tomb in Florence or Raphael's in Rome to see that this is true.
But these artists were a mere handful; for each of them there remain a thousand forgotten others whose fame went not much farther than their own neighborhood. Often their only surviving memorial is an altarpiece or sculpture hidden away in the corner of some provincial church. Their anonymity is a result of their harmonious integration into a society that valued them most as co-citizens. Even their training urged them to suppress their individuality.
Almost all our ideas about making art are of recent origin. Today, when we look at a contemporary picture in a gallery, we assume that it is the product of a single mind and a single hand from start to finish. This is a received idea we sometimes wrongly apply to the art of the past. Yet quite the opposite was true in Renaissance painting, where several members of the workshop might collaborate on a single altarpiece. And what was true for painting held for almost every other medium and type of art. In bronze sculpture, the master made the object in clay. It was then cast by a foundry and, finally, chased by the artist and his helpers. Illuminated books were also the products of several hands.
All this artistic cooperation demanded a uniformity of style: it was necessary that the work, whether it was a fresco, a bronze relief, or marble statue, look whole and seamless, not a jumble of disparate styles. And it was toward this uniformity that much of the artistic education of Renaissance artists was directed. From the moment the artist walked into the shop as an apprentice, he was urged (perhaps compelled is the more correct word) to make the master's style his own. The fledgling artist should not experiment with his style until he has fully learned the idiom of his teacher, advised Cennino Cennini in his late fourteenth-century shop manual.
This emphasis on copying, on learning by imitation, comes as a surprise to us. We are, after all, imbued with the notion that originality in art is a prerequisite of worth. Art that merely copies, we call derivative and petty. But this notion is at variance with the basic premise of Western artistic education from its beginnings to the twentieth century.
Art into art, the acquisition of style by imitation, is the way almost all artists learned their skills until very recently. Certainly they worked from life, taking inspiration wherever they found it; but the fundamental techniques of design, of drawing and modeling, were gained from other art. The study of plaster casts, the visit to the church or, in later centuries, to the museum to copy the works of others, the examination of illustrated books, these were part of the experience of every Western artist. Copying was the right and logical thing to do. It was the way one learned, and it kept the artist in touch with the wellsprings of the past.
Nowadays, when plaster casts have been destroyed or banished to the basement, in most circles copying the work of other artists is frowned upon, considered derivative and retrogressive. What is prized is originality of form and idea, the product of the avant-garde. But the very notion of the avant-garde, or the idea that originality is in and of itself a worthy thing, would have made no sense to the Renaissance artist. Feeling part of a vital artistic tradition, firmly fixed within the society surrounding him, and the product of a workshop education that demanded imitation of the master's style, he would have felt that it was correct to imitate openly and learn from other works of art. He would have had no need to shock, to establish a theoretical base for his work; nor would he have wished to hide his debt to the past. Perhaps this was because he was not yet an artist—that man of special name and calling who stands outside the workaday life of the shop.
Copying, education by imitation, created a particular type of stylistic development in the Renaissance. The sharp, swift changes in style (and in content) of the twentieth century were, of course, unknown. Instead, one finds the slow, gradual transformation of one style into another. Whole generations of artists, in retrospect, can be seen pursuing similar stylistic and iconographic goals. From generation to generation, from pupil to master, there is change, but it is modulated and slow. There are certain exceptions to this—Giotto, who created a new dramatic language; Donatello, who in his later works soared out of his own time; and Titian, who forged the syntax of oil painting—but these are rare indeed.
However, one should not think of the great majority of artists as drones, simply duplicating their masters' styles. There was, in fact, much change, a great deal of invention, and considerable experimentation. But it was all done within the bounds of a firmly established artistic convention, and with considerable respect and admiration for the works of art by the artist's ancestors and contemporaries.
Before an apprentice could even begin to think about style, he had to learn how to make art. From the very first, Renaissance apprentices were introduced to the materials and craft of art. To become artists, they had to master a variety of substances and techniques. Present-day artists buy many of their materials at the art store; in the Renaissance, most of the things used in the shop were made by the artist and his helpers. Instead of buying tubes of standard color, they made their own. Brushes and the scores of other necessary tools of their trade did not come off the shelf, but were a product of their own hands. This early—and lasting—knowledge of the material, physical aspect of his craft (a knowledge also possessed by every potter, shoemaker, and draper of the time) endowed the artist with an almost instinctive feeling for the most basic properties of a picture, a sculpture, or an illustrated book. His understanding of materials and his skill in using them were extraordinary.
Whatever the artist made had to be well conceived, well wrought, and long-lasting. His creation was perceived not only as a Virgin and Child or a Resurrection of Christ but as an object with a function, a thing made by a skilled craftsman for a specific commission. It is not debasing to the Renaissance artist to say that his product was looked at, in part, the way we might view a fine watch or a beautiful pair of boots. He himself would have taken such a comparison as a compliment.
Any careful, first-hand examination of Renaissance art reveals that craft is of remarkable importance: paintings and sculpture from the period are among the most beautifully made objects in the entire history of Western art. For instance, the carpentry of panels, the quality of pigments, the manner in which the paint is applied, the gilding, the skill of the punch work, all clearly demonstrate that the craft, the masterful and appropriate use of materials and tools, was highly valued. No work of art was worthy without it. Like a beautiful Stradivarius violin (also the product of nearly incredible skill), whose sound and use are not fully understood without a knowledge of its construction, a Renaissance work of art is not totally comprehensible without an understanding of the craft that formed it. There was no separation of arts and crafts; rather, art was achieved only through craft .
The Renaissance concept that all works of art were functional and skillfully made objects renders the apprenticeship system more understandable. The need to master techniques and materials encouraged and perpetuated the workshops. Painting and sculpture were complicated, intricate, laborious tasks. Just to learn how to do them well took a considerable amount of time. The exalted role of craft made the workshop necessary.
Today, art is a manifestation of the artist's creative spirit. Certainly the sale of art is an important element, but thousands of artists who have little hope of ever selling their work still continue to paint and carve with great energy. Art is their calling and catharsis; financial rewards, most of them believe, are important but considerations of a lower order. One debases art by talking about how much it costs.
This attitude was foreign to the Renaissance, when art was made on demand for commissions. The idea that a work was simply a personal expression of the artist would have been alien to the mentality of artists and their public alike. From Masaccio to Mozart, supreme works were made with their commercial value very much in mind.
Remember that most boys probably entered artists' shops because they were members of families already engaged in the trade, or because their parents had decided that, for economic reasons, their son should become a painter or sculptor. Previously demonstrated talent, it appears, was not an overriding factor.
The apprenticeship system, with its long period of study, early acquaintance with varied materials, copying, and collaborative work, somehow allowed boys who were probably quite ordinary in every respect to be turned into men possessing a high degree of artistic skill. Art—so the Renaissance believed—could be taught by a series of progressive steps from grinding colors, to making copies, to work on the master's design, to inventing one's own paintings or sculptures. All this may appear incredible to those who feel that the role of the art school is to encourage and train the already gifted. We do not believe that education alone can create a good artist: some kind of talent, of inspiration (divine or otherwise) marks a person for further artistic study. In fact, students are not admitted to most art schools unless they give some indication in their portfolio of artistic ability. The idea that almost anyone, given enough time and enough experience, can give a creditable artistic performance would sound like nonsense to most art school teachers.
Yet the vast majority of drawings, paintings, and sculptures produced in the Renaissance give clear evidence of the acquired skill of their authors. In every aspect of art—from the basic understanding of how to use a brush to the ability to foreshorten a hand correctly—the Renaissance artist achieved a level seldom attained in Western art.
It appears that it was indeed possible to train boys, who may or may not have had much talent, to a remarkable proficiency. Of course, the question remains: Could the Renaissance system of artistic education not only train most artists to be highly competent but also teach some of them to be great? Our immediate answer is no. We believe that extraordinary artists are inspired by some inner force, which no amount of study or effort can create. This notion, which started to gain support at the end of the Renaissance, is a romantic one. It would not have found wide acceptance during most of the period under discussion. However correct it may be, it remains alien to the mentality and the training behind most of the works of art produced in the Renaissance .
But in the early sixteenth century, new attitudes began to form in some of the more intellectual artistic circles: Vasari, for example, looking into the history of Florentine art, calls Giotto divinely inspired. The idea that the artist was a special creator standing apart from society, above the guild-workshop system, was being born. Artists were encouraged to read history and literature, to be gentlemen, to live in a style more suited to their new self-image. This was the period of the development of the first artistic academies; it was the beginning of the institutionalization of artistic education. This new attitude, which was not at first widespread, would lead eventually to our present concepts of the artist, his education and place in society, but also to the end of the unchallenged supremacy of the cooperative workshop and all that it stood for in the world of the Renaissance.