The Conception and Status of the Artist

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In the Middle Ages all learnable skillsincluding what we today call "art"were classified either as liberal (intellectual) or mechanical (manual). The seven liberal arts were divided into the trivium (three approaches) and the quadrivium (four approaches). The trivium comprised grammar, the study of language; rhetoric, the art of persuasion; and dialectics, the pursuit of philosophy, while the quadrivium included the mathematical disciplines of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. The much less prestigious seven mechanical arts (today known as vocational pursuits) consisted of weaving, making armor, navigation, agriculture, hunting, medicine, and the living arts, or sports.

In early Renaissance Italy, an individual's standing in society depended on a number of factors, the most important of which was the rank attached either to birth or occupation. One's occupation was always evaluated on the basis of its proximity to, or distance from, physical labor. Even in antiquity the visual arts had belonged to the category defined as manual and hence in the Middle Ages were placed among the lowly mechanical arts. Poetry's greater intellectual prestige was based on its alliance with rhetoric in the trivium, while music was included in the quadrivium. Indeed, both poetry and music were included in the university curriculum, whereas instruction in the visual arts was confined to craftsmen's workshops until the rise, later, of the academies. Thus, what we think of today as the creation of art was defined as the fabrication of artifacts, and the artist was characterized as a craftsman with a concomitantly low standing in society. The status of architecture was higher than that of painting and sculpture in that it was self-evidently based on the liberal arts of arithmetic and geometry and also required the greatest supervision of labor, which automatically made it the most socially acceptable. In short, the early history of the "artist" consisted in his struggle to get his manual craft accepted as sufficiently intellectual to be included among the liberal arts and, hence, to obtain a higher social standing. (The artist is here figured as exclusively male.)

Leon Battista Alberti (14041472) was the first to articulate in writing the case for the elevation of the visual arts above the level of the mechanical arts in his 1435 treatise On Painting. The visual arts needed, he thought, a firm theoretical foundation, by which he meant the mathematical disciplines of the quadrivium. The painter has to be as learned as possible, he said, "but I wish him above all to have a good knowledge of geometry." In order to demonstrate the "scientific" basis of painting, Alberti gave priority to mathematics, geometry, and the theory of proportions, and codified a method of one-point perspective that could be mastered by the practicing craftsman for whom he translated On Painting into Italian. Leonardo da Vinci (14521519), the most persistent advocate for the elevation of painting to a liberal art in his unpublished writings, also agreed that the "scientific" nature of painting lay in its mastery of the rules of linear perspective based on the laws of geometry.

The two components underlying the creation of a painting or sculpture, conception and execution, were characterized around 1400 by Cennino Cennini (c. 1370c. 1440) as fantasia (imagination) and operazione di mano (handiwork), and by Giorgio Vasari (15111574) in 1568 as il mio pensiero (my considered judgment) and le mie mani (my hands). Renaissance society focused on the second component, the arte or, in Latin, ars, that signified the skill of hand or mastery of illusionism required to execute the work, a skill that could be mastered by practice. The artists themselves, on the other hand, emphasized the ingegno or ingenium, the inborn talent or creative power needed to conceive the work in the first place, that could not be learned. For Vasari, a key element in the intellectual component of art lay in disegno (planning/drawing) which underlay the three "arts of design" (painting, sculpture, architecture). These principles were incorporated into the Florentine Academy of Design (founded 1563) which, although it did not replace the apprenticeship system, did much to elevate the status of artists.

One strategy in the artistic community's campaign to reclassify art as liberal was to deny the role played by manual execution in its creation. "Painting is a mental occupation" (pittura è una cosa mentale), wrote Leonardo da Vinci, and Michelangelo Buonarroti (14751564) stated equally firmly, "We paint with our brain, not with our hands" (si dipinge col ciervello et non con le mani). Leonardo laid down the correct sequence in the creative cycle: the painter must work first in the mind (mente), then with the hands (mani). Promoting this union of ideation and labor, Vasari maintained that the trained hand mediated the idea born in the intellect, or, as Michelangelo put it in a famous sonnet, "the hand that obeys the intellect" (la man che ubbidisce all'intelletto), that is, the hand as an extension of the mind. It was not until the 1590s that one (highly idiosyncratic) artist felt sufficiently self-confident to mention the manual labor involved in artistic creation without first having recourse to its intellectual principles: "We must speak with our hands" (habbiamo da parlare con le mani), Annibale Carracci (15601609), founder of the Carracci Academy in Bologna, is reputed to have said, equating the artist's hand with the poet's voice for the first time. The writing of treatises was another aspect of the campaign to improve artistic and social status and, in the mid-sixteenth century, artists themselves not only wrote treatisesPaolo Pino (1548), Anton Francesco Doni (1549), Vasari (1550), Benvenuto Cellini (1560s), Pirro Ligorio (1570s), and Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo (1580s)but some (Michelangelo through Ascanio Condivi in 1553; Cellini, and Vasari) also wrote autobiographies.

The speed of progress of the artistic community's long-term struggle for professional and personal betterment differed from country to country in early modern Europe. In Italy artists had, by the seventeenth century, succeeded dramatically in renegotiating the standing and value of both artifact and maker. The idea developed that skill should be rewarded, and rates of pay accordingly improved. Many of the artifacts, taking on a heightened aesthetic character and a mystique of greatness, were redefined as "art," and a number of craftsmen succeeded in reinventing themselves as "artists" to be venerated for their godlike powers. The example of Albrecht Dürer (14711528) in the North and the "divine" Michelangelo in the South, both of whose works were perceived by contemporaries and successors as belonging to a new realm that transcended ordinary cultural production, were especially important in bringing about this profound shift in the cultural values attached to the visual arts.

See also Academies of Art ; Cellini, Benvenuto ; Dürer, Albrecht ; Leonardo da Vinci ; Michelangelo Buonarroti ; Vasari, Giorgio.


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Joanna Woods-Marsden

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The Conception and Status of the Artist

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