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Anthony Blunt, "The Social Position of the Artist,"

from Artistic Theory in Italy 1450-1660

Although originally published in 1940, Anthony Blunt's Artistic Theory in Italy 1450-1660 is still accepted as a foundation in Renaissance studies. As the director of the prestigious Courtauld Institute of Art in London and Surveyor of the Queen's Pictures, Blunt represented the art historical establishment from the 1940s to the 1970s. But in 1979 it was revealed publicly that he had been a member of the so-called Cambridge Five, a group of spies for the Soviet Union from the 1930s to the early 1950s.

p. 48: Mention has already been made in connexion with Leonardo of the struggle of painters, sculptors, and architects to attain recognition of their professions as liberal arts. With their new scientific methods they began to claim superiority over mere craftsmen, and tried to establish for themselves a better social position.

In practice the position of the artist was considerably higher in the fifteenth century than it had been before. Ghiberti and Brunelleschi both held important administrative posts in Florence, the latter being even a member of the Signoria. In general the public respect for artists had increased immeasurably and was to become even greater in the sixteenth century when the adjective divine was applied to Michelangelo. However, there continued to be theoretical opposition to the admission of painting and sculpture among the liberal arts. In the middle of the fifteenth century Lorenzo Valla excludes them from his list, and much later both Cardanus and Vossius class them as mechanical. Pinturucchio leaves them out in his frescoes of the liberal arts in the Borgia apartments of the Vatican, painted in the last decade of the fifteenth century. It is hard to realize the importance attached to these disputes about the liberal arts, but it is brought home to us by a story told by Baccio Bandinelli, who records in his Memoriale a duel fought between his cousin and the Vidame de Chartres because the latter accused the Florentine nobles of practising manual arts in that they took an active interest in painting and sculpture.

The claims of artists to better social position sometimes simply take the form of showing that in earlier times the /p. 49: art of painting had been held in great respect. Theoretical writers on painting in the fifteenth century searched out every instance in antiquity and in more recent times of favour shown to painters by kings, princes, or popes. The greatest value was attributed to cases in which it could be found that a great man had actually practised painting. For the distinction between the liberal and mechanical arts was that the former were practised by free men, the latter by slaves; an art acquired much reflected glory from being practised by a royal artist.

In general, however, the principal aim of the artists in their claim to be regarded as liberal was to dissociate themselves from the craftsmen, and in their discussions on the subject they make it their business to bring out all the intellectual elements in their art. In later fifteenth-century theoretical writings it becomes a commonplace that painting depends on a knowledge of mathematics and of different branches of learning. The early critics argue this matter in quite general terms, but later their claims become more precise and exaggerated.

The part which mathematics played in the painting of the Early Renaissance has already been discussed. In the form of linear perspective it provided one of the most important scientific weapons for the study of nature, and it is as a learned science that the theorists appeal to it. Mathematics was included in the narrow circle of the liberal arts, and if the painters could show that their art involved a knowledge of it, this would be a strong argument for their own art to be considered to be liberal. Alberti and Ghiberti explain the kinds of mathematics of which a painter must be master, but they do not explicitly connect the matter with the question of the liberal arts. Leonardo is the earliest writer to do so. He first of all says in general terms: "Practise must always be founded on sound theory, and to this perspective is the guide and gateway; and without this nothing can be done well in the /p. 50: matter of painting. But in another passage he alludes directly to the ennobling qualities of mathematics in connextion with perspective: 'Among all the studies of natural causes and reasons light chiefly delights the beholders; and among the great features of mathematics the certainty of its demonstrations is what pre-eminently tends to elevate the mind of the investigator. Perspective therefore must be preferred to all the discourses and systems of human learning.'

The emphasis which Leonardo here lays on the certainty of mathematical demonstration is typical of the use which painters of the Quattrocento made of perspective. As has already been said, it was by means of perspective that they got beyond the naive and tentative imitation of the natural world and were able to reconstruct it with the sureness which comes from reliance on absolute rules.

In their claim to knowledge in other branches of science the painters were probably urged on to greater audacity by the rivalry which they felt with the architects. Vitruvius /p. 51: had claimed that the architect must be acquainted with many branches of knowledge, and Renaissance writers from Ghiberti onwards repeat his demands. The painters could not allow themselves to be beaten by this claim, and they simply incorporate the sciences which Vitruvius mentions into their list of requirements for the painter. They do not evolve their full list till the end of the Mannerist period, but the tendency to exaggerate their claims appears earlier. Cellini, for instance, maintains that a sculptor must know about the art of war and must be himself a brave man if he is to make a successful statue of a brave soldier. In the same way he must know about music and rhetoric to represent a musician or an orator. To this demand, which can be extended indefinitely, he was probably provoked by an opinion expressed by Plato, who argues that the painter is a mere illiterate imitator: ' The painter will paint a shoemaker, a carpenter, or any other craftsman, without knowing anything about their trades; and notwithstanding this ignorance on his part, let him be but a good painter, and if he paints a carpenter and displays his painting at a distance he will deceive children and silly people by making them think that it really is a carpenter [Republic, X 598b] .' This scornful opinion clearly offers the painter an opportunity to retort in the way suggested by Cellini, whose view is otherwise hard to explain.

But the painters and sculptors did not content themselves with a general claim to learning; they explicitly demanded equality with the poets. Poetry and rhetoric were accepted as liberal arts, and the painters and sculptors evidently felt that, if they could show that their arts were as noble as that of the poets, they would have proved their claim to be liberal artists also. The first difficulty which they had to overcome was that painting and sculpture seemed to be more manual /p. 52: than literature. Equicola, for instance, say: 'Therefore, however worthy of praise painting, modelling and sculpture may be, nevertheless they must be considered far inferior to poetry in dignity and authority. Painting is a work and a labour more of the body than of the mind, and is, more often than not, exercised by the ignorant.' Leonardo, however, has a reply ready for this kind of argument; and in defence of painting he says: 'If you call it mechanical because it is, in the first place, manual, and that it is the hand which produces what is to be found in the imagination, you writers also set down manually with the pen what is devised in your mind.'

Having dealt with this attack, Leonardo goes on to claim that the painter can achieve no less than the poet. Painting can represent an action as completely, more completely even, than poetry; and, in particular, painting can attain the same moral ends on which poetry prides itself:

And if a poet should say: 'I will invent a fiction with a great purpose', the painter can do the same, as Apelles painted Calumny [see Book 3 of the Alberti excerpt]....If poetry deals with moral philosophy, painting deals with natural philosophy. Poetry describes the action of the mind, painting considers what the mind may effect by the motions [of the body]. If poetry can terrify people by hideous fictions, painting can do as much by depicting the same things in action.

Painting, that is to say, can attain its moral end by showing human action through the use of gesture and facial expression, and Leonardo is therefore able to press his favourite theory of expression into the defence of his art. But his argument was not always accepted. Equicola still decides against painting on the grounds that it cannot go beyond the simple imitation of nature: 'Painting has no other concern /p. 53: except with copying nature with various appropriately chosen colours.' And Castelvetro later repeats the same argument: 'That which in poetry is first and of most account, the imitation of a human action, as it ought to be, is the last in painting and of no account, namely, that which painters call history.' It was, we may imagine, against arguments of this type that Leonardo was directing one of his notes which refers to the phrase traced back to Simonides which describes painting as muta poesis and poetry as pictura loquens: 'If you call painting dumb poetry, the painter may call poetry blind painting. Now which is the worst defect? to be blind or dumb?'

As soon, however, as the visual arts became generally accepted as liberal, the protagonists began to quarrel among themselves about which of them was the noblest and most liberal. Leonardo, in particular, was much concerned with defending painting from the attacks of the sculptors, and many of his notes deal with this question. In these Leonardo first argues, as he did with the poets, that painting can give a more complete description of nature than the rival art. To this the sculptors reply that their art actually creates objects in three dimensions, whereas painting merely gives the illusion of the third dimension. Leonardo, however, turns this argument to his advantage by showing that this illusion is created by intellectual means, whereas the three-dimensional quality of sculpture depends simply on the /p. 54: material: 'Sculpture shows with little labour what in painting appears a miraculous thing to do; to make what is impalpable appear palpable, flat objects appear in relief, and near objects seem distant,' all this being achieved by means of linear and aerial perspective.

An argument of the same kind occurs later in one of the Lezioni of Benedetto Varchi, who tried to settle the rivalry between the painters and sculptors by collecting the opinions of a selected group of masters and combining them into a single discourse of his own. He succeeded in showing that painting and sculpture are equally noble arts, because fundamentally their aims and methods are the same. During his exposition, however, he mentions the argument put forward by the sculptors that their art is more difficult. But, following a suggestion of Bronzino, Varchi distinguised between the two kinds of difficulty: manual and intellectual. He admits that the sculptor has more manual or technical difficulties to deal with, by reason of the material in which he works, but he regards this as an ignoble kind of difficulty. The only noble difficulties are intellectual problems, such as those wich confront the painter when he has to deal with proportion or with the two perspectives.

Implicit in these arguments is a belief in the superiority of the intellectual over the manual or mechanical, which corresponds to the desire of artists at this time to shake themselves free from the accusation of being merely craftsmen, manual labour being considered in the society of the Renaissance as ignoble as it had been in the Middle Ages. The pride which artists took in not being involved in much manual labour appears in the contrasted description which Leonardo gives of the sculptor and the painter. The former /p. 55: goes through an exhausting labour with hammer and chisel, is covered with dust and sweat so that he looks like a baker and not like an artist, whereas 'the painter sits in great comfort before his work, well dressed, and wields his light brush loaded with lovely colours. He can be dressed as well as he pleases, and his house can be clean and filled with beautiful paintings. He often works to the accompaniment of music, or listening to the reading of many fine works. All this can be heard without being drowned with the sounds of hammering or other uproar.' This gentlemanly kind of painting recalls the representation of the arts on the Campanile bas-reliefs in Florence in which the calm and dignity of every profession are the qualities which the artist seeks to render.

The upshot of all these disputes was the painter, sculptor, and architect obtained recognition as educated men, as members of Humanist society. Painting. sculpture, and architecture were accepted as liberal arts, and are now grouped together as activities closely allied to each other and all differing from the manual crafts. The idea of the 'Fine Arts' comes into existence this way, though a single phrase is not attached to them till the middle of the sixteenth century, when they come to be known as the Arti di disegno. At the same time critics begin to have the idea of a work of art as something distinct from an object of practical utility, as something which is justified simply by its beauty and which is a luxury product.

The arguments about the liberal arts were, therefore, the theoretical side of the artists' struggle for a better position. The practical side of this was a struggle against the old organization of the guilds, by which artists felt themselves tied. By the end of the fifteenth century they had almost thrown off restraint, and the painter had become a /p. 56: free, educated individual co-operating with other men of learning.

In his new freedom the artist was no longer a purveyor of goods which every one needed and which could be ordered like any other material goods, but an individual facing a public. Both Alberti and Leonardo talk of the importance of pleasing the public. 'The painter in his work seeks to please the crowd (tutta la moltitudine)', says Alberti, and Leonardo recommends the artist to take the advice of all his friends, who can at any rate judge of the likeness of the painting to nature. Leonardo, however, still has in mind only an educated public, for in a passage already quoted he speaks scornfully of those painters who aim at pleasing the ignorant. His view of the right of those who do not paint to judge painting is of only limited democracy. But by the beginning of the sixteenth century it became a generally accepted idea that the educated layman could give a useful opinion on the arts, and there was even a small outcrop of treatises on the arts written by laymen....

The artist was now faced with a wide public consisting of educated people, not merely of Church officials and a few princes, which he attempted to attract by his art; and in this spirit of competition he began to carry out works other than those directly commissioned. We are here at the beginning of those modern ideas which make of the artist a creator who works for himself alone, but in the Cinquecento these views were only in their infancy. The artist was still closely tied to his public, and most of his work was commissioned. The days of exhibitions were yet a long way off.

But once the old organizations were abandoned as out of date, it became clear that artists needed some sort of institution for guarding their interests and training young artists. /p. 57: Consequently in the second half of the sixteenth century there began to grow up academies which were later to form the whole structure of artistic education. The earliest was the Accademia del Disegno, founded by Vasari in Florence in 1562, but this was soon followed in Rome, where the Guild of St. Luke was transformed into an academy in 1577. The essential difference between the guilds and the academies was that the latter treated the arts as scientific subjects to be taught theoretically as well as practically, whereas the guilds had mainly aimed at fixing a technical tradition. In the early days the academies allowed individual competition and did not crush every rival as the guilds had done, but later they in their turn became tyrannical.

The guilds were defeated, but there is one curious instance of their attempt to reassert their rights. As late as 1590 the Guild of Genoa tried to prevent Giovanni Battista Paggi from practising painting in the city because he had not gone through the regular training. Legally they were perfectly justified, but the decision went against them, and this case became a sort of legal admission of the artist's new status and freedom.