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Here we are again to speak about art.
In the previous post (check it out if you haven't done so yet!) I started from a question asking session on the importance of art as such. I brought up an example of stunning frescoes painted by Domenico di Ghirlandaio in Florence for a the banker Francesco Sassetti. Thanks to the painter's art the memory of the man and his family survived and reached us through more than six centuries.
Quite a privilege... don't you think?
Privilege? Yes. I said it on purpose. For a long time art has been considered a privilege. It is a privilege to own an important work of art or to commission and pay for one: how about hiring Leonardo da Vinci to paint your portrait?
During my tours people often tell me that I am a privileged person because I see stunning examples of art every single day and I have keys to UNDERSTAND them.
So I am asking whether art is something that only specialists create and understand? Is it something only very rich people can afford? Or is it something for everybody to reach out for?
I like to believe it IS for everyone. The joy of looking and being inspired by the beauty IS for everyone to experience.
Creating art is a different issue. Not everybody can paint or sculpt. In childhood we all were creative and sensible to beauty. It is later that the adults tought us to judge ourselves, feel incapable of making art, or even worse, label ourselves as lacking talent.
Those of us who don't get discouraged, go on learning and believe to have talent will become
How beautiful does it sound: he/she is an artist. The artist's figure is surrounded by some sort of light that shines upon this person only.
But... nowadays, if someone who defines him/herself a full - time creative, people think he/she must be damn lucky to constantly do fabulous things dedicating him/herself to what he/she loves and not needing to work, right?
I can literally hear it: "Ah, so you are an artist! Great. But.. what is your job?".
This said, our modern times are most probably the most difficult ones EVER for an artist to survive with his/her art. It is a privilege. This is why there are not so many left. Creative professionals - yes, there are some. But artists? There are not many around, believe me. Not as many as there used to be because the ground for them to develop is not fertile.
But what about the past? Let's say the glorious past?
Jump on a time machine with me and let's go to XVth century Florence. I am taking you back to the Renaissance.
Florence in these years is one of the biggest European states and its ambitions certainly match its dimensions. The fourteen hundreds are also the period of the rise of the Medici family that within few years manages to spread its loving bankers' arms around the flourishing city. Out of all the things power makes possible for the Medicis, they want... A R T.
Art that will speak about them up until our XXIst century.
The number of artists that work and create masterpieces in Florence is astonishing. Moreover, their role and status in the society changes dramatically within only one hundred years.
What does it mean?
In the Middle Ages (dark times, remember?) being an artist was no fun. Nobody would want to neither remember your name nor care about your existence. If you were very lucky, your superb painting of a Virgin Mary, a Saint or Jesus on the Cross, would survive until the XXth century. It would then be placed on a white wall of a museum and would be given a NUMBER. Just a number. Because seven hundred years prior to that nobody took care of writing your name down... You were an artISAN in those times. A manual worker with good manual skills. More or less like a shoemaker or a carpenter. Fullstop.
That of an artist was not a distinct profession but... (Surprise, surprise!) you had to pay your taxes. So the medieval Florentine society would kindly ask you to join one of the existing professional associations, called the guilds. Artists did not have one of their own. A painter was listed together with physicians and pharmacists (because the pharmacies sold the pigments and all the painting materials). A goldsmith would find himself as part of the silk merchants guild etc, etc.
An artist was a nobody but the taxes were still to be paid.
In the XV century the art, the artist, the meaning of art finally change. It's the Renaissance and Florence must have been a a freakin' mad place to be for an artist! It was full of wildly talented, extraordinary people, all born and raised in the same years in one tiny town. They learned together, grew up together, competed for the appreciation of the rich against one another, invented new techniques etc, etc. Every street was home to tens and even hundreds of workshops of painters and sculptors.
THEY turned Florence into what we love it for today: the Cradle of the Renaissance. Of course the money came from bankers and merchants. But bankers, like Cosimo de' Medici or Palla Strozzi, did not know how to paint, sculpt or design a church or a palace. They were hungry for glory and beauty and their appetite and ambitions met the talent of the numerous artists present in town. The chemistry functioned and lead to an explosive reaction:
Who are the artists in the XVth century Florence? Let me just name a few and do not be scared if some names sound new or strange (pssst... you can google them!):
Lorenzo Ghiberti, Donatello, Michelozzo, Leon Battista Alberti, Masaccio, Rossellino, Desiderio da Settignano, Pollaiolo, Beato Angelico, Benozzo Gozzoli, Filippo Lippi, Paolo Uccello, Piero di Cosimo, Leonardo da Vinci, Piero della Francesca, Filippo Brunelleschi etc etc etc etc etc. The list is already long so I'd rather stop at Brunelleschi.
Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446) is most famous for the construction of the immense dome for the Florentine Cathedral. This one:
Florentine Cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore with Brunelleschi's incredible dome.
Photo by Jonathan Körner on Unsplash
It dominates the city and it is really difficult to totally lose it out of sight! The construction took almost twenty years and was finished in 1436.
Until today it is the biggest brick dome on the Planet.
In 1434, the author of the masterpiece of engineering ends up in jail for disobedience. He refuses to pay his taxes to the Stonemasons and Carpenters Guild he officially belongs to! He will be released the day after but the importance of this act is immense! For the first time an artist lifts his head up high to say: I am not an artisan. I am much more and I do not like the fact that this society does not recognize my importance and my profession.
Together with Brunelleschi artists become more and more aware of WHAT being an artist means.
In 1436 Filippo's good friend and colleague Leon Battista Alberti (1404 - 1472) will write a treatise called De Pictura ("On Painting") where he will celebrate the painter's work as the highest form of art on Earth!
You must be questioning yourself: why? What's the fuss about some colors and paintbrushes?
Well, Alberti has the answer. In order to paint properly you need to know geometry and mathematics, understand optics and perspective, study medicine and human body, understand the movement, know poetry and rhetorics. In this perspective painting is so much more than canvas, color and brushes, right? And it gives life to those who lived long time ago.
"Painting contains a divine force which not only makes absent men present, as friendship is said to do, but moreover makes the dead seem almost alive. Even after many centuries they are recognized with great pleasure and with great admiration for the painter." [L.B. Alberti, De Pictura, book, 2]
Wohoo! Finally we read the word admiration and... with Alberti we shall see the talent to be considered a necessary component of artists' personality.
Here we come to another, probably the most famous man of the XVth century: Leonardo da Vinci (1452 - 1519). We all know about his Gioconda in the Louvre and the fantastic futuristic machines the genius worked on. But he also wrote a lot and some of his writings were published after the artist's death under the title: "Treatise on Painting". It is an absolutely stunning and illuminating thing to read, believe me.
For Leonardo, like for Alberti, painting is the highest of all arts.
It needs science and observation. Every painting begins with an idea in the painter's mind and is born through an attentive study and verification through experience. The idea then turns into reality through the work of the artist's hand.
Painting is higher than science because the ability to paint is a gift from above. Painting, is higher than poetry. It is a language that needs no translation, for it speaks to everyone's eyes directly.
Painting has a higher purpose to imitate Nature (i.e. the Divine) and uncover its laws.
This is Leonardo's "Annunciation".
This painting hides so many mysteries that cannot really be explained in a few words. Want to know about them? Click here!
Within less than a century of time, less than three generations, the artist's figure has gone through a mind blowing metamorphosis. He is not a member of a lower social class anymore. He is an intellectual, the one who studies and knows. The powerful people from all over the place are looking for him, they fight to get the artist work for them! They let him step into the "high" society and start treating artists as equal.
Lorenzo the Magnificent, the head of the Medici bank and the ruler of Florence was so broke to find out about the death of one of his favorite artists, Filippo Lippi, he commissioned and paid for the artist's tomb personally. Agnolo Poliziano, Lorenzo's friend and poet, wrote the epitaph in verses.
What a privilege. What an honor for an artist.
But the story does not end here. The XVIth century will see the genius of Michelangelo Buonarroti and with him the ARTIST's work and dignity fly up to an even higher level.
This is to be continued... :)
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This one seems like a big question and.. let's be honest, I am not the first person in the world to puzzle myself with it. Remember Mr. Wilde's pill of wisdom: "All art is quite useless"? Yes, great artists, writers and philosophers have tried to give an answer multiple times and left endless pages on the subject.
Let's take Wilde's conclusion as the starting point here. If art is useless then why on Earth, whenever we travel, we end up visiting "historical" city centers filled with masterpieces of architecture or museums like Uffizi, Vatican, National Gallery or Prado? What are we looking for in the dusty past? Or maybe it is not all that dusty? Huh?
The question is urging to me because my primary work is to take people through the masterpieces and help them read and understand art. Botticelli's Venus and Springtime, Micheangelo's David and the Prisoners.
Why? Why do people need them? And honestly.. do they?
To live and survive there is absolutely no need in paintings and sculptures, novels and poems, music and theatre. And yet, since the earliest times of our existence as a species we have been trying to leave a trace, send a message, make sure we'd be remembered.
Well.. let me cut the whole thing short and just tell you a story:
Imagine Florence in the years 1482-1485.
In terms of art history timeline these dates fall into the glorious Renaissance period. Of course.
The Florentine state is held by the tremendous and tremendously powerful Medici family. Lorenzo, better known as Lorenzo the Magnificent, is the head of the Medici Bank that has already expanded its influence all over Europe with active branches in Pisa, Milan, Venice, Avignon, Bruges, London, Lyons, to name a few. Not bad for a family business, is it?
And by the way, in the French town of Lyons the head of the bank's branch is a man with a funny name Sassetti (which translated into English means "little stones"). Let me tell you a secret: the "Littlestones" family is not remembered because of the bank. Much more for the fact that they have left us a masterpiece that we can still admire in Florence:
The Sassetti funerary chapel at the Holy Trinity church.
The chapel is a breathtaking example of the art of fresco panting and of course Francesco Sassetti did not paint it himself. He was a skillful money maker but a very poor painter. Therefore the only solution for him was to hire a master for the job. Which indeed he did.
Domenico di Ghirlandaio (an incredibly talented artist and Michelangelo's very first teacher) got the commission and painted THIS fresco exactly in the years 1482-1485:
It's just a fragment of the fresco and I shall limit myself to this one for now.
Well, just imagine it occupying an entire wall above your head with the human figures being almost natural size.
You literally have an illusion of an open space that unfolds beyond the wall. In the background you see the Signoria Square with the people moving through their everyday life. In the middle - the kneeling figure of Saint Francis (the patron of Francesco, just by chance) receiving the approval from the Pope. Or, to be more precise, the Confirmation of the Rule.
And in the foreground? Two groups of people on the sides and a strange staircase showing up from under the ground with adults and children walking up the steps. THIS IS the stunning part of Ghirlandaio's creation! All these guys wearing red and blue precious fabric are members of the Medici and Sassetti families.
They're still there to tell us what they looked like, what they dressed like, what their status and life were all about.
In one way or another Ghirlandaio's art and skill served a very precise purpose: to survive through the time and give a message to everyone who's still to come. Nothing lasts for ever, we shall all pass and only art will keep the image and the name immortal (or at least for as long as it exists).
The Sassetti Chapel has a complex iconography and multiple stories that unfold in the images all together and I promise, I am creating an in-depth post on that.
In this case I just used it as an example to give one possible answer to the question in the title of this post. Art, as the application of human capacity to create and generate beauty, serves us to survive and live beyond our lives. The Sassettis send their images into the future and they did not pay Ghirlandaio just for his work. Nope...
Not only. I somehow think they paid for a chance to go on living on Earth in people's memory. And, hell yes, they do! Every day, during my Florence Walk tour I take my guests into Sassetti chapel and let their story live again and again and again.
I added some more Sassetti Chapel images for you to enjoy in the gallery down below.
I hope you enjoyed the post. Share your ideas, respond and if you want, please feel free to like and share!