Before the 15th century in Florence, the guilds had their own highly developed hierarchy with artisans fairly near the top. Visual artists were higher-grade craftsmen, and their work was considered a kind of manual labor. As religious and secular demand for art increased, and conscious reflection on the idea of art started to develop, the Renaissance artisan began to ascend in social rank and art began a transition from rough trade to something worthy of study. Over the decades, the arts would slowly be liberated from the guilds, which regulated most of the business activities in the city, and begin to develop independent professional roots.
“The Origin of the Florentine Style” recently arrived at Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art after an earlier appearance in Tokyo. It gives both a period survey of Renaissance Florence and illuminates developing trends in art and craftsmanship through about 100 works from about 30 or so Florentine galleries and collections.
The Renaissance gave rise to a particular tension between painting and sculpture. Pisano’s shallow sculptural reliefs from the early 14th century are like paintings in that they are relatively two-dimensional, site-specific and are viewed in the way paintings are. And painting, in the service of new-found perspective, makes objects appear as if they are in sculptural relief. Leonardo da Vinci had noted that, “The first object of the painter is to make the flat plane appear as a body in relief and projecting from that plane.”
The crux of the issue lay in separating sculptural values from those proper to painting. Especially in the late Renaissance, and, particularly with Michelangelo, sculpture was to be a physical object, not a visual image. This tension would later come to a head as a rivalry between the Renaissance’s two artistic giants, Leonardo and Michelangelo, about which of the two, painting or sculpture, was the more noble.
Roman antiquity was being dug up during the early Renaissance, and the unearthed sculptures provided stylistic models for sculptors. There are a handful of famous works here, the best being from the later years of the Renaissance, like Andrea Verrocchio’s “Putto holding a dolphin” from 1480, originally a fountain figure for the Medici villa at Careggi. Winged infants were messengers of profane love, and this bronze gives a good indication of one of the favored themes of the early Renaissance, that of picturing little children. Another sculpture to linger over is a wooden statuette by Michelangelo of Christ crucified, (1495.) One more, displaying superb technical ability, is a bronze model for “Perseus beheading Medusa” by Benvenuto Cellini (1545-54).
Painters had no early Roman models available to imitate, and so painting of this time is not so much a “rebirth” as an originality of artistic inquiry. A delightful pre-perspective cassone (wedding chest) painting by Apollonio di Giovanni of the early to mid-15th century places the figures in a town out of all proportion to the architecture, such that they almost bump their heads on the second stories of the surrounding buildings. The picture looks odd because there is no perspective organization, and so it ends up more like a pictorial summary of who and what lies where around town, like tourist sightseeing maps.
Jacopo del Sellaio’s late-15th century painting has perspective under better control. The Renaissance development of perspective exerted a powerful influence on painting to the degree that for the next 400 years through to the beginning of the 20th century, every “competent” painting was a perspective painting.
Elsewhere in the exhibition is a kind of stylized portrait type that began after the discovery of Roman coins bearing the heads of emperors, as in Pollaiolo’s “Portrait of a young woman” from 1475, or another portrait of a young woman by Botticelli, dated 1485. These profile portraits indicate a growing desire to represent individualized humanity.
One final feature of the exhibition are the works by botteghe, which were artisan-run workshops. These botteghe produced all manner of goods, including armor, jewelry, drapery, costumes, cassone and pictures of saints for domestic religious shrines. An artist in a bottega served a long apprenticeship from an early age, which was the fundamental education for many of the Renaissance’s great artists, like Leonardo’s tutelage under Verrocchio from the tender age of 14. Becoming a master in one’s own right required the submission of a “masterpiece” to a guild, which gives us the origin of our current concept. Some of the sculptural insignia of these guilds are also on display.
The Italian Renaissance appears as an age more confident in its characterization of art than our own partly due to a rigorous examination of art and the natures of its different mediums. It is much as the contemporary British artist David Hockney has said: “The perspective that gave order to them, will not give order to us.”
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.