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The function of art in the Early-Renaissance*

Wackernagel notes that in 1472, the Confraternity of St Luke in Florence listed 42 members, 32 of
whom specialised in figurative painting. He also notes that a survey conducted in Florence by the merchant Benedetto Dei, in 1470, provides some indication of the number of workshops specialising in related crafts; according to Dei, there were 54 workshops specialising in marble and stone decoration and 44 gold- or silversmiths. Creighton Gilbert has published an extract from this document which cites 30 painters, 22 sculptors and 14 masters of perspective. The same survey provides information about the number of individuals serving daily material needs, revealing, for instance, that there were some 70 butchers and 66 spice merchants operating in Florence at that time. This information suggests that, unlike in our own society, where art objects are luxury goods directed at a small market, the demand for art in fifteenth-century Florence - and, presumably, in Italy as a whole - was almost as great as the demands for basic everyday commodities.

When one speaks of the "demand for art", one should of course bear in mind that in the
fifteenth century art and craft were not yet considered to be separate entities. The idea that "art"
is the product of creative inspiration, while "craft" is the production of useful items, would have
meant little to the Quattrocento individual. Although the notion of the artist as a gifted individual was beginning to emerge, most painters and sculptors did not yet command a greater degree of respect than any other craftsman, nor was he any more wealthy.

Furthermore, art objects had both an aesthetic and a functional role. An altarpiece, for example, was regarded as a material commodity when it was produced in the workshop, but, as Cole suggests, once it was placed on the altar table along with the host and sacred wine, it was
considered to be imbued with an almost magical significance. If the host and sacred wine were transformations of the body and blood of Christ, so too were the holy figures represented in an altarpiece regarded as being potentially capable of transformation from paint to flesh. Cole writes:

"In a society based on sacred premises, almost all that occurred was viewed as a manifesta-
tion of Providence. Every painted and carved figure or narrative carried with it miraculous
overtones. Thus the modern visitor to the Renaissance chapel must continually remind
himself that during the Renaissance people did not stand in front of these objects with
guidebook in hand, nor did they discuss their place in the history of art, nor read about them
in art history texts. Rather, the worshippers regarded images as vital forces in their own
lives. The world still saw paintings and sculptures as supernatural."

The capacity of religious images to inspire religious devotion seems to have rested on the
belief that such devotion could be evoked more effectively through the visual image than through
the spoken or written word. In a sermon published in 1492, Michele da Caraca, a Dominican friar,
explained this issue:

" .. images of the Virgin and Saints were introduced for three reasons. First, on account of the
ignorance of simple people, so that those who are not able to read the scriptures can learn by
seeing the sacraments of our salvation and faith in pictures ... . Second, images were introduced on account of our emotional sluggishness; so that men who are not aroused to devotion when they hear about the histories of Saints may at least be moved when they see them, as if actually present, in pictures. For our feelings are aroused by things seen more than by things heard. Third, they were introduced on account of our unreliable memories ... Images were introduced because many people cannot retain in their memories what they hear, but they do remember if they see images. "

Visual images also served a civic function. The Florentine merchant and patron, Giovanni
Rucellai, indicated that one of the reasons he commissioned artworks was to serve "the honour of
the city". This type of patriotism infuses writings about art. For instance, in his poem, On Giving Praise to the City of Florence (1488), the Florentine, Ugolino Verino, wrote:

" But now if [the Greek poet] were to see all the painters of this age,
How Greece would have sung their praise, when Florence bore as a parent, in one century,
These whom I choose to equal with the Greeks. "

Frederick Hartt has indicated that the vast number of impressive public artworks in Florence
served to arouse feelings of patriotism and thereby galvanised the people into giving their
support in the struggle against Milanese aggression. This type of support was frequently also shown in the subjects depicted in works. According to Bruce Cole, for instance, Florentine images of David - the young shepherd boy who defeated the giant, Goliath - alluded to Florence's battle against Milan, a foe that was regarded as being both powerful and tyrannical.

The capacity of images to inspire a sense of religious devotion as well as promote patriotic
sentiments should not be seen as contradictory. Civic and religious activities were strongly
interrelated in both belief and practice. As Cole notes:

" ... there was, in fact, no real separation between the secular and sacred world, and,
consequently, no division between Church and State. Town halls, courts of justice, police
headquarters, and other government buildings were furnished with altars and altarpieces
before which religious rites were performed frequently. The walls of town halls and palaces
of princes were decorated with Christian stories and images. Conversely, public funds were
used to erect and embellish churches, especially the great cathedrals (built under civic
supervision and management) that were the pride of many Italian cities ... . Almost every
sphere of human experience was infused with religion, so much so, in fact, that one cannot
speak with accuracy of either a truly secular or a wholly religious sphere of activity. "

One area where religious belief and secular practice did, however, run into conflict was the
financial one. In the late Middle Ages, Florence emerged as a major banking centre, one where a
numbe of individuals made their fortune through moneylending. Moneylending (usury) was not
condoned by the Catholic Church, and its practitioners were considered to be destined for hell
unless they redeemed themselves through good works. The use of funds earned through money-
lending to commission a religious artwork was regarded as a form of recompense for this sin.
Thus the patronage of art could function as a means of reconciling conflicting secular and
religious demands.

Artworks also provided their owners with a certain prestige. Corporate bodies and individuals realised that an impressive work of art would be seen as a reflection of their wealth, good
taste and social standing. Furthermore, the fifteenth-century citizen was not simply concerned
with, the afterlife, but was intent on ensuring that his deeds be remembered on earth. Coats of
arms, family symbols, name saints and painted or sculptured portraits provided a means of
ensuring an individual, family or group some degree of recognition or fame.

Of course, artworks also provided their owners with a good deal of pleasure. Lorenzo de Medidci in fact indicated that the choice of subject in a work should accord with the personal interests of the client:

" ...some people take pleasure in merry things such as animals or greenery or dances or
similar merrymaking, others would like to see battles, either on land or on the sea, and
similar martial wild things, still others landscape buildings, and foreshortening and proportions of perspective, others some other different things, and so, if a painting is to please completely, this part is to be added, that the thing which is painted please in itself. "


* Drawn from notes compiled by E.A. Maré for the University of South Africa | Contact Us | List Your Art | List Your Art Gallery | Site Map

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