Letters of the Great Artists: From Ghiberti to Gainsborough

Letters of the Great Artists: From Ghiberti to Gainsborough

Letters of the Great Artists: From Ghiberti to Gainsborough

Letters of the Great Artists: From Ghiberti to Gainsborough

Excerpt

Artists' letters and other written self-revelations have fascinated their contemporaries, and posterity as well, ever since views on art began to be expressed and histories of art to be published. The Italians were -- in the person of Vasari -- the first to produce important works on art history, and the earliest biographies of artists were those devoted by Italian writers to such figures as Michelangelo and Tintoretto and printed either during their lifetime or immediately after their death. Thus it was that material relating to men of genius or talent was carefully assembled in Italy from a very early period, and published, from the eighteenth century onwards, in collections that retain their interest even today. The Italians also had a taste for anecdotes about artists, as was not unnatural in tie inventors of the short story. And at a much earlier period than elsewhere -- long before the Renaissance deliberately set the self-dedicated man of genius on his pedestal - they grew accustomed to artists who proudly signed their work and had no hesitation in talking about the difficulties and anxieties involved in creating it. One notable example of this attitude to found in the following pages is by Giovanni Pisano, who, in the century of Dante, set up in the pulpit of the cathedral at Pisa an inscription where he makes direct reference to himself and to his father, the great Nicola Pisano -- even addressing himself, in a surprisingly modern style, to the public and exhorting it to make a 'right judgment'. The earliest autobiographical composition by an artist, which also gives the earliest information about his spiritual ancestors, the artists of the previous century, is the 'Commentaries' of Lorenzo Ghiberti, the fifteenth-century Florentine sculptor and bronze-worker who in other respects belonged completely to the medieval tradition of tie craftsman working in his foundry. Textbooks and works of aesthetic theory next began to appear, followed by diaries and informative letters to friends, and soon it became the custom for artists to write about themselves with considerable gusto and with the intention of reaching out beyond their immediate surroundings; the letters written in later periods were almost always meant to be passed from hand to hand, read aloud and circulated to a wider public. Poetry too, was a popular means to this end; every educated or even half-educated man could turn his hand to . . .

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