ART & VISUAL CULTURE 1100-1600: MEDIEVAL TO
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The statue is made out of ordinary stone, not a particularly rare or valuable material, though the pigments used to paint it and the formidable transport costs would have added greatly to the price. It is unlikely to have impressed for its intrinsic material value, however. The renowned art historian Michael Baxandall — identified a crucial change in values around the beginning of the fifteenth century. Increasingly, he argued, patrons were impressed not by material ostentation of precious materials such as gold and expensive pigments, but by the prowess of the artist.
Artistic skill per se was not really the issue at stake; it was the cultural importance of expensive materials, the status of painting and the status of artists. Even taking into account expensive pigments, the use of gold and painstaking labour, painting was a relatively low-cost option compared with the work of goldsmiths or embroiderers, for example. While prices were linked to the cost of materials, it was affordable by a much wider range of clients, and hence could not offer the social elite the exclusive cultural cachet they sought.
It was when artistic skill became a commodity to be appropriated by the elite that painting attained parity with the arts more traditionally associated with the very wealthy. It circulated in the following year in Italian, but this first edition appears to have been directed at the patron class as it was in Latin, with which the ordinary artist was unlikely to be familiar. They think it gives majesty. I do not praise it … for there is more admiration and praise for the painter who imitates the rays of gold with colours.
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The eventual success of the arguments should not blind us to the fact that painting was one art among many before this date. Its importance, however, was increasing. One example will suffice to illustrate the point. The legendary Medici family were self-styled rulers of Florence but not of noble, let alone royal, extraction, and hence the imperative of material ostentation was perhaps less powerful than it might have been, say, for a northern European king, and even inadvisable where the degree of magnificence was widely expected to correspond to social class see chapter 5.
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For this reason, despite their wealth, painting was arguably a medium in keeping with Medici status. The Battle of San Romano Plate 0. The second Plate 0. National Gallery, London, Acc. Uffizi Gallery, Florence. These three huge paintings were of a size and subject matter to warrant display in a public place as a commemoration of a famous victory and stimulus to Florentine patriotism. In fact, paintings of comparable secular subjects had been produced over a century earlier for precisely these motives, so the subject matter in itself does not signify a fundamental innovation.
The painter Simone Martini contributed to a series of wall paintings of Sienese castles in the Siena town hall in the s see chapter 3 , apparently as a record of the military might of Siena. The San Romano pictures were designed for private viewing, however.
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The Medici did not commission these battle scenes, however. They were originally owned by a wealthy Florentine family, the Bartolini Salimbeni. It appears that Lorenzo took advantage of his involvement in the division of the family property in to appropriate the pictures without the consent of at least one of the brothers. This in itself testifies to the value Lorenzo placed on adding the paintings to the Medici collection.
In , Damiano Bartolini Salimbeni brought an unsuccessful court case to get them back. Originally designed to fill the arch-topped walls of a room, the pictures were in effect vandalised by the Medici, who cut them down at the top and built them up at the corners to make three rectangular paintings that could hang side-by-side, rather like tapestries.
Battle scenes were a favourite subject for northern European tapestries, which may well have been too expensive to be within the grasp of the Bartolini Salimbeni family. The Medici could and did afford expensive tapestries imported from the Netherlands, so the fact that Lorenzo coveted these paintings appears symptomatic of the increasing enthusiasm for painting from the fifteenth century onwards.
In Italy, at least, the rising prestige of painting was linked to the prestige attached to ancient Greek and Roman culture, evident throughout the medieval period and particularly prominent from the fourteenth century onwards in what has come to be known as the Italian Renaissance. Alberti drew on a variety of ancient Roman and Greek texts to champion painting and painters, including comments by the ancient Roman writer Pliny the Elder 23—79 CE on ancient Greek artists in his Historia naturalis or Natural History 77 CE.
Alberti was certainly not the first to do so. Alberti pointed out that ancient philosophers and kings had enjoyed painting, including it as part of the liberal education of their children and even practising it themselves. Traditionally, a division had been drawn between the manual arts or crafts , undertaken to earn a living and depending on practical skill, and the liberal arts pertaining to the leisured classes and studied for their own sake.
Self-evidently, the distinction is a false one in that all artists needed to earn a living. To claim that painting was a liberal art narrowed the social gap between artist and patron, however, and put painting on a par with educated activities to do with reading and writing, such as poetry.
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For this too there were antique antecedents. Alberti himself had received a humanist education based on the study of ancient Greek and Roman culture, and he was not alone in pointing out that painting and drawing had been included in an ancient liberal education. Early fifteenth-century humanist educator Vittorino da Feltre, working at the Gonzaga court in Mantua, employed artists in the programme of liberal education he offered the sons of rulers.
Just as antiquity provided a model for the status of painting, so it provided a model for the relationship between illustrious patron and artist. Pliny described the esteem in which Alexander the Great held the painter Apelles, visiting his studio, allowing him liberties and even passing on to him his mistress. Famously, in , the renowned Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci — was invited to the French court of Francis I ruled —47 , perhaps not so much for the work that he might produce at what was then an advanced age, as out of admiration and presumably for the prestige that the presence of such a renowned figure might endow on the French court.
The advancement of artistic status is often associated with princely employment, for example by Martin Warnke in his seminal study of the court artist.
Maintained on a salary, a court artist was no longer a jobbing craftsman constantly on the lookout for work. Potentially, at least, he had access to projects demanding inventiveness and conferring honour, and time to lavish on his art and on study. Equally, however, court artists might be required to undertake mundane and routine work which they could not very well refuse see chapter 5.
Court salaries were also often in arrears or not paid at all. In the same letter in which Leone Leoni described Charles V chatting with him for two to three hours at a time, he complains of his poverty, while carefully qualifying the complaint by claiming he serves the emperor for honour and cares for studying not moneymaking. The lot of the court artist might appear to fulfil aspirations for artistic status, but it certainly had its drawbacks.
The pattern of artistic employment in the medieval period and the Renaissance varied.