What is Italian Renaissance art? Before attempting to answer the question it is important to consider what we mean by early Italian Renaissance. Unlike many periods in history the Renaissance has no obvious start and end dates, for the purposes of this assignment I will define the approximate period within which to look as about 1390 to about 1520. The time around 1520 represents when Raphael died this was followed closely by the death of Pope Leo X, the second High Renaissance pope. It is after their deaths that the creative and optimistic mood in Italy began to fade. The decade ending 1520 saw Leonardo DaVinci leaving for France and then dieing there in 1519. In the beginnings of the Renaissance painting was seen very much as a craft performed by members of the artisan class and not a liberal art'. In fact the term artist was not used, as it is today, as a general term meaning painter and sculptor. Artista' was a term already in use by Dante, but it was used in reference to a University level graduate of the liberal arts', it is not until the beginning of the sixteenth century that it is used in a context resembling today's usage. The lower status of painting at the beginning of the Renaissance is reflected in the fact that members of the aristocracy or learned class did not generally practice it. A member of the Milanese aristocracy, Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio's epitaph stressed that although he was a painter, he was an amateur, because if it were thought that he made his living from painting it would significantly lower his social status. It is for this reason that few people in the early Renaissance would see painting as a method of social advancement or to demonstrate intellectual ability. This did not however stop many painters having aspirations for higher social and intellectual status, despite their background and education rarely supporting this aspiration.
The majority of painters were brought up in the artisan class; this meant that painters seldom went to Grammar school or University. Most painters' education was limited to the basic training provided by the abacus school. There are however exceptions to this trend, perhaps most notably Alberti. He attended Grammar school and graduated in law from University. Similarly Leonardo DaVinci was gifted in mathematics, as Vasari tells us; he "began to learn arithmetic and after a few months he had made such progress that he used to baffle his master with questions and problems that he raised." Even Leonardo did not have knowledge of Latin. The study of Latin was not part of the abacus school curriculum. When Pietro Lorenzetti needed a text of the life of St Savinus for his alter piece in Siena Cathedral; he paid a grammar school teacher to translate the text from Latin for him. Proficiency in Latin was a prerequisite to be considered a literate man in higher social circles. The lack of a humanist education on the part of the artist perpetuated the view of painting as a craft. Leonardo admitted in the last decade of the fifteenth century that he was not a man of letters' he was saying he did not have a command of Latin "I do not have literary learning but my concerns are better handled through experience rather than bookishness." Despite this statement it is obvious from an analysis of the books in his library that he attempted to learn Latin. A gradual increase in the number of Latin texts suggests he gained in proficiency in later life. Leonardo's library was certainly not typical of the early renaissance artist's. The size and scholarly character of it was unheard of amongst his contemporaries. This effort on the part of Leonardo is evidence of his desire to advance his position within society. Leonardo did much to improve the view of artists, and himself became a courtier. Dürer thought that it was important for young artists should be taught how to read and write Latin in order to be able to understand certain texts.
The style and quality of the...
Cited: Alberti, L. B., Leon Battista Alberti On painting and On Sculpture, ed. and trans. C. Grayson, London 1972
Ames-Lewis, F., The Intellectual Life of the Early Renaissance Artist, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2000.
Burke, P., The Italian Renaissance: Culture and Society in Italy, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1972.
Kemp, M. and M. Walker, eds, Leonardo on Painting, New Haven and London, 1989.
Vasari, G., trans Bull, G., Lives of the artists, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1987.
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