Italian Art, 1250-1550: The Relation of Renaissance Art to Life and Society

Italian Art, 1250-1550: The Relation of Renaissance Art to Life and Society

Italian Art, 1250-1550: The Relation of Renaissance Art to Life and Society

Italian Art, 1250-1550: The Relation of Renaissance Art to Life and Society

Excerpt

Most of the books written on the history of Italian Renaissance art place the works of individual artists in chronological sequence and then arrange the artists by date. This organization helps us understand a certain linear development, and it makes orderly the large numbers of surviving Renaissance paintings and sculpture.

Such an arrangement, however, distorts as much as it clarifies, for it imposes a framework upon the works alien to the way Renaissance artists and patrons regarded the paintings and sculpture they made and bought. In truth, most Renaissance artists thought little about the chronology, the stylistic influences, and the progressions of style and content with which we now burden their work. Instead, they thought about type and function. As they considered the commission at hand, they attempted to fulfill all the many requirements of type and function necessary and traditional for the object they were about to make.

How did this process work? Let us hypothesize that an artist -- the Florentine Sandro Botticelli, for example -- was commissioned by an important family of his city to paint a panel [1].

As he thought about the work, Botticelli probably first considered the type of object commissioned -- in this case a spalliera, a popular type of Renaissance painting usually destined for insertion in the paneling of a room in a large home. A spalliera had a specific function, form, and size; in fact, almost all the paintings and sculptures which survive from the Renaissance can be classified by type. Today most art is decorative, philosophical, aesthetically interesting, or novel; but in the vast majority of cases it is not made as a certain well-defined type with a specific purpose in mind.

This was not true in Botticelli's time. The spalliera, for in, stance, usually had a specific shape (rectangular), a specific location (a room in a Renaissance palazzo), and a specific range of mythological subject matter. Even the artist's composition and style often were adjusted to the type at hand.

So, when Botticelli began to ponder his commission, he recalled the spalliere he knew. He considered the shape, style, and . . .

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