The Changing Face of Art: The Shift in Contemporary Perspective of Art and Artists During the Italian Renaissance


The statue of St. Mark on the Orsanmichele in Florence

(Author’s note: This post is derived from a paper written on the same topic for a class this past semester.)

People often hail the Renaissance as one of the most creative periods in human history. During this time, intellectual, religious, artistic, literary, and other cultures flourished as new ways of thinking and living developed from the prolific exchange of goods and ideas across the Eurasian region. A newfound appreciation of the human being himself as well as a return to the classics for inspiration characterized the Renaissance as something completely new and distinct from its medieval predecessor. Art was one of the arenas in which the separation from the medieval past appeared most clearly, especially in terms of the emergence of the artist as a valuable component of society and art being used as more than a representation of religious devotion. The changing role of artists during the Italian Renaissance highlights not only the humanist doctrine of the celebration of the human as actor and creator but also reflects the rise of a non-noble, wealthy middle class. This shift becomes apparent in the study the development of personal agency, the complex relationship between patron and artist, and the practical utilization of art.

Prior to the Renaissance, artists received little or no recognition. Artwork was usually limited to altarpieces and paintings installed on churches. Because of the importance and pervasiveness of religion to the medieval populace, most artists remained anonymous and their works unsigned. This occurred because people tended to believe that artistic talent came as a gift from God rather than the individual himself. Therefore, all art was done for the service of God instead of for the glory of the artist. It was not until the beginning of the Renaissance where man began to recognize his worth as a creator as much has he acknowledged God as the ultimate Creator.

Men such as Giovanni Pico della Mirandola and Leonardo da Vinci commented on the emerging belief in human potential. In his Oration on the Dignity of Man, Pico praises God for giving man the opportunity to reach his greatest potential in testament of His own benevolent grace. [1] He used the metaphor of seeds to discuss human potential, indicating that a man could sow vegetative, sensitive, or rational seeds and could thus become a plant, a beast, or a spiritual being and son of God. [2] Da Vinci took this metaphor and applied it to art. He extends this metaphor to say that “painting is born of nature…for all visible things are produce, and these her children have given birth to painting. Hence we may justify call it the grandchild of nature and related to God.” [3] Both of these men demonstrate that Renaissance artists now came to recognize their own value and be able to use that to further their own ends.

Personal agency remains one of the key ways in which artists differentiated themselves from their medieval counterparts. Not only did artists become recognized by their own hand, such as the Renaissance great Andrea Mantegna, they also began to use their growing agency as leverage for economic and personal gain. For instance, the painter Francesco de Cossa appealed to his patron the Duke of Ferrara for an increased pay due to his use of the fresco style, utilization of bright light and color, Cossa’s dedication to study, and the heightened renown of his own name. [4] Also, Andrea del Pollauiolo attempted to persuade his own patron, Virginio Orsini, to let him create an equestrian statue of Orsini versus a bust for the dual effect of increasing his own reputation and retaining a higher commission fee. [5] . In short, de Cossa and Pollaiuolo give historians not only a glimpse at an increased personal agency that emerged during the Renaissance but also provides small insight into the complex relationships between the patron and the artist.

Patron-artist relationships were much more complex than most people realize. There not only existed variances in how patron and artist came together but also a class component. Sometimes, an individual patron sought out an artist for a specific commission. Or, a group might hold a competition for a commission. For example, the Florentine government sponsored a contest for the replacement of the doors of St. John’s Baptistery between 1401 and 1402. Each prospective artist created a bronze panel, and the winner received the commission. In addition, many artists subordinated themselves to their patrons’ “superiority” in order to not only remain in the good graces of the socially elite but also in hopes of gaining employment. Although artists retained some ownership of their works and even defended their own work against critiques, the patron retained the purses strings by the end of the day. [6]

Finally, this article remarks upon the practical utilization of art which emerged during the Renaissance. Certainly, people such as Giovanni Ruellae and Lorenzo de’ Medici collected and appreciated and viewed artistic and architectural works as a leisurely pastime. [7] But the Renaissance saw art being used in various other forms beyond just a physical representation and celebration of the religious life. These included being used as a form of collateral, gifts, fees, commemorative works, and propaganda.

A humorous anecdote about the prominent Florentine Neroni demonstrates art as a form of collateral. In 1470, Neroni commissioned an altarpiece from the painter Mino da Fiesole. Unfortunately, Neroni defaulted on paying the fee due to a failed coup d’etat against the Medici administration which left him out of money. [8] As it stands today, he never reclaimed the altarpiece, and to this day, it resides in the Badia Church. It stands to speculation whether or not Mino disliked the fact Neroni failed to pay the fee and/or if he felt indifference about whoever paid him. The fact Neroni used art as a commodity bears testament not only to the fragile nature of wealth but also to the extrinsic value being placed upon Renaissance art.

In addition, art also became used for fees and gifts. The artist Donatello gave a bronze roundel to his doctor in return for services performed. [9] The Marquis of Ferrara sent a coin made by the painter Pisano to Pier Candido Decembrio in return for services rendered to a family member. [10] Using the roundel and coin as payment or presents again highlights the value of artwork as a commodity. Much like the aforesaid Neroni altarpiece, the extrinsic value placed on art indicates that the stature of artists changed from the medieval period.

Commemorative works such as elaborate tombs and monuments go hand-in-hand with the emergence of propaganda during the Italian Renaissance. Florence became a cultural hub for the artistic movement during the fifteenth century. The proliferation of various guilds in the city made Florence one of the wealthiest cities in Italy. Benedetto Dei recorded that between 1468 and 1472, Florence had 270 wool guilds, 83 silk guilds, 84 woodworker shops, 54 stone shops, 39 goldbeaters and silver filigree, and 44 goldsmiths and silversmiths. [11] The abundant economic resources made the city a veritable fairground for artistic pursuits. As such, many different guilds and individuals competed for commissions and sought to outdo each other. The grain market-converted church of Orsanmichele in Florence had several niches which had been set aside for different guilds to display a saintly figure as a mark of a specific guild. Like the equestrian statue discussed before, the dual purpose of placing the statues in these Orsanmichele’s niches allowed the guilds to display their wealth and prominence as well as demonstrating the greatness of Florence as a city.

Rather than art being employed with strictly religious undertones, Florence pushes its guilds to display themselves. The artists who created these sculptures gained renown, and their influence spread. Now, compare this with the medieval period where anonymity was the norm. The humanist influence on art can clearly be seen here where the artist and architecture is celebrated. Although the Church belongs to God, the sculptures belong to the artist, and by extension, Florence.

In conclusion, this article has delved into the shifting change in the perception of art and their creators from the medieval period to the Italian Renaissance. With the influence of such humanist doctrine of the celebration of the human as a creator (not the ultimate Creator, mind) and the rise of a wealthier, non-noble middle-class, art became viewed as something more than a medium through which religious interpretation could occur for the masses. Art became something much more. The complex combination of the relationships between artists and patrons, defined by personal agency, and shown through the various utilizations of art beyond representation strongly represents humanism at its finest. From here one could delve into a large-scale exploration of any one of the aforesaid topics, from looking at sculpture as propaganda to even more facets of how personal agency affected patron-artist relationships. This fascinating subject leaves much open for interpretation, right back at the artistic sources, something which humanists often attempted to do.

Works Cited:

[1] Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, “The Dignity of Man,” In The Portable Renaissance Reader, ed. James Bruce Ross and Mary Martin McLaughlin (London: Viking Penguin, 1981): 479.

[2] Ibid. 479.

[3] Leonardo da Vinci, “Nature, Art, and Science,” In The Portable Renaissance Reader, ed. James Bruce Ross and Mary Martin McLaughlin (London: Viking Penguin, 1981): 532.

[4] “Cossa Claims Better Pay for a More Outstanding Artist,” (1470) In Italian Art, 1400-1500: Sources and Documents. Ed. Creighton E. Gilbert (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1980): 9-10.

[5] “Antonio del Pollaiuolo Remembers His Youth,” (1494) In Italian Art, 1400-1500: Sources and Documents. Ed. Creighton E. Gilbert (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1980): 17-18.

[6] “Benozzo Gozzoli’s Patron Asks for Revision in His Work,” (1459) In Italian Art, 1400-1500: Sources and Documents. Ed. Creighton E. Gilbert (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1980): 8-9.

[7] “Lorenzo de’ Medici’s Criteria for Paintings,” (mid-1400s), In Italian Art, 1400-1500: Sources and Documents. Ed. Creighton E. Gilbert (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1980): 128-129; “Giovanni Ruellai’s Taste,” (1440-1470s) In Italian Art, 1400-1500: Sources and Documents. Ed. Creighton E. Gilbert (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1980): 110-112.

[8] “A Defaulting Patron and Mino da Fiseole,” (1470) In Italian Art, 1400-1500: Sources and Documents. Ed. Creighton E. Gilbert (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1980): 35.

[9] “Donatello Gives His Doctor a Bronze Madonna,” (1455) In Italian Art, 1400-1500: Sources and Documents. Ed. Creighton E. Gilbert (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1980): 117.

[10] Ibid. 117.

[11] “A Poet of Florentine Statistics,” (1468-1472) In Italian Art, 1400-1500: Sources and Documents. Ed. Creighton E. Gilbert (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1980): 182.

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