Saturday, September 28, 2013



1) First, Italy itself is just a beautiful place. The coastal waters, mountains, and fertile plains combined with a mild climate inspired many artists to imitate the colors and shapes of the landscape.



2) Florence was an intimate society in the 1400's; people knew each other by first name and even nickname. Alberti refers to five artists by nickname in his Treatise on Painting in 1436:

Pippo -Filippo Brunelleschi  - architect of dome of Florence Cathedral (1420-36) and inventor of one-point  perspective (1409)
Nencio - Lorenzo Ghiberti (enzo becomes nencio) -bronze sculptor of Baptistery doors (1403-25 and 1425-52)

Masaccio - Big, ugly TOM - 1st painter to use one-point perspective; painter of Brancacci Chapel (1424-27) in Florence

Luca - Luca Della Robbia - stone sculptor who carved the Cantoria (1431-38) for the Duomo

Donato - Donatello -stone sculptor who carved the Cantoria (1433-39) for the Duomo

The fact that Alberti can use those nicknames and know they would be understood by the reader shows how familiar these men were with each other. While that intimacy meant rivalry and competition for commissions (such as the Baptistry panel competition), it also fostered pride in individual work and meant that groups of artists gave support to one another. The influence of great men spread more easily in such an intimate setting and their reputation drew other wonderful artists in from outlying areas. The political power of the guilds made up of wealthy merchants contributed to the pride of the individual artists hired by them.

3) In 1401 the Arte di Calimala held a competition for decorating the north and east doors of the Florentine Baptistery; many competed but only 2 were finalists, Ghiberti and Brunelleschi. Their competition panels still exist (Bargello) and can be compared (another blog entry). This contest inspired other artists to create their best work. Competition instilled excellence in the artists in general.

4) Florence had always been, even in ancient times, a center for the dyeing of cloth. (Ancient Roman vats discovered when Piazza Signoria was dug up in the 90's still had traces of dye on them). The river Arno was used for treating cloth in the Roman period and the dyeing practices of the 1400's in the city were considered state secrets not to be transported outside of Florence. In this way Florence could retain its monopoly on the European cloth trade. Wool would be shipped down from England in raw state to Florence; it would be refined and dyed, then shipped back to Europe as full cloth. The process of dyeing meant that Florence was a color center, primed for artists to learn about pigments for their own arts from the major industry, the cloth trade. The rules about state secrets meant that Florentines regarded their cloth and color knowledge with city pride. The same pigments used in the dyeing of the cloth were used by painters for panels and frescoes.
pigment jars in Florence                       Ghirlandaio, Three Magi, 1485-88

5) In the 15th century the Medici family became the bankers for the papacy. What this meant, in essence, was that they were in charge of the income from the taxation on 2/3 of the real estate in Europe, no small amount. At the same time the church relaxed its restrictions on usury, so the Medici had great interest, literally, in supporting the church.

6) Unlike some other city-states, Florence made a law in the early 1400's that patrician families had to own at least one residence in the city walls for tax purposes; what this meant was that the money stayed within the city walls and was available for architects to build lavish palaces and for painters and sculptors to decorate them. What it meant also was that the aristocrats built parish churches to worship in while they were in town. Many artists were employed for the altarpieces for those churches as well as for the secular paintings for the town palaces. (Medici palace by Michelozzo, 1445, Procession of the Magi, painted in the palace chapel, 1459 by Benozzo Gozzoli)

 Filippo Lippi's Annunciation, 1440,
made for chapel in Brunelleschi's San Lorenzo, parish church of the Medici (interior shown) - 1419-21.

7) The peninsula of Italy was already the site of Ancient Rome and ancient statuary and architecture. Artists did not have to go far to learn from the classical past.
 Uccello's Hawkwood, 1436/
Ancient bronze statue of Marcus Aurelius, 175 CE.

 Masaccio's tax collector in The Tribute Money, 1424-47, and Roman statue of Antinous, c. 130 CE, now in Naples, in Farnese collection before.

8) The pharmacists who dispensed pigments to painters were also notaries who were required to know Latin and Italian; they were able to help artists understand ancient texts for the stories they were painting.

9) In 1406 Florence won the city-state of Pisa and with it the alum mines of Volterra. Since alum was used to fix color to wool, it was a victory for the cloth industry of Florence, the major industry. The alum helped artistic output as well, especially in altarpieces where it was used to adhere color to the wood surface.

10) In 1409 Brunelleschi's two presentation panels (now lost) of one-point perspective showed painters how they could mirror reality by using his system of receding diagonal lines that converged at one point. That invention allowed for naturalistic representations of space and figures on walls and in panel paintings. 
Baptistery                                  Palazzo Vecchio


11) In 1427 Florence instituted the catasto, a personal income tax system where each household was required to pay taxes according to how many mouths (bocche) they fed and how much income they generated from land and from work.  The written documentation in Italian of contemporary lives generated interest in artists for documenting contemporary lives visually.

12) The quarries of Maiano and Fiesole, close by Florence, as well as Carrara, further away, provided not only pietra serena for the building of palaces, churches, and civic buildings, but stone for sculptures as well.
Are those twelve reasons? Yes. And a thirteenth
13) the je ne sais quoi of the Arno River Valley? If beauty is nourishment, which I believe it is, the natural setting for the city was a perfect three-course meal of valley, river, and hills.

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