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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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2. Renaissance Individualism. The Renaissance
artists' protracted revolt against the guilds was a fight
on several fronts: a fight for social recognition, for the
recognition of art as an intellectual rather than a man-
ual occupation; a fight for the inclusion of painting,
sculpture, and architecture among the disciplines of
the liberal arts; a fight, moreover, for the right of free
men to look after themselves and act as their con-
sciences dictated. In retrospect, it does not seem aston-
ishing that it was in Florence, the most advanced
city-state in Europe, where the individualized artist
showing many modern traits first evolved. The new
class of merchant patrons with their highly developed
individualism, their sense of liberty and enterprise,
their progressive and competitive spirit, found in their
artists an attitude towards life which they themselves
cherished. In this congenial intellectual climate artists
first insisted upon their rights as free individuals in a
manner that was somewhat unpredictable and not
always beyond reproach.

The first memorable case of a challenge of the guild
laws is that of the great Filippo Brunelleschi. He re-
fused to pay his dues and on 20 August 1434 was
thrown into prison (Fabriczy, 1892). But Brunelleschi's
self-assured disobedience ended in victory. He was
released after a few days and no interference in his
work at the cupola of Florence Cathedral is recorded.
This victory had symbolic significance; it was followed
by many others. A wealth of documents shows how
relentlessly and against what odds the artists carried
on their struggle for emancipation. In France the guilds
defended their rights stubbornly until Colbert's reor-
ganization in 1663 of the Académie Royale de Peinture
et de Sculpture
(founded in 1635), spelled an end to
their power. In England most painters remained low-
class tradesmen even longer than in France; as “face-
painters” they were organized in the Painter-Stainers
Company on an equal footing with coach-painters and
house-painters (Wittkower, 1968). Not until well into
the eighteenth century, when William Hogarth took
up their cause and the Royal Academy was inaugurated
with Sir Joshua Reynolds in the President's chair (1768),
did British artists achieve a freedom comparable to that
of their Italian confrères of 200 years before.

The process of individualization, first observable in
fifteenth-century Florence, has to be approached from
the viewpoint of the artist as well as the public. Early
in that century, the painter Cennino Cennini wrote
a basically medieval craftsman's manual entitled Il libro
in which he exhorted his fellow painters to
emulate the dignity and temperance of scholars
(Cennini, 1932). Otherwise Cennini's work contains


mainly technical recipes. But at the same moment in
time a new kind of literature on art written by artists
arose. Its first product, Leon Battista Alberti's On
(De pittura), written in 1436, a prophetic work
of great perspicacity, contains the program of the
modern emancipated artist. His art must be given a
firm theoretical foundation, for it ranks equal with
poetry and the theoretical sciences; and the artist him-
self has to be a man of immaculate character and great
learning. In addition, Alberti regards polite manners
and an easy bearing as marks of personality that elevate
the artist above the craftsman with his virtues of mere
industry and technical skill. Alberti's contemporaries
delved into theoretical studies with great eagerness and
many tried their hand in the writing of treatises. The
sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti composed a monumental
work on art and artists that contains the first autobiog-
raphy known to have been written by an artist (Schlos-
ser, 1912). This must be regarded as a phenomenon
of utmost importance, for an autobiography means
looking at one's own life as an observer; it requires
the distance of self-reflection, and introspection be-
came an important character trait of the new race of

The new ideal of artistic personality propounded by
Alberti adumbrated a conforming, well-adjusted, and
socially integrated type, an ideal that was in fact up-
held in academic circles through the ages. But at the
same time one can also observe the emergence of the
nonconforming, alienated artist, and it is this type that
is of particular interest in the present context. As early
as the fourteenth century a certain class of literary
production in Tuscany shows an anecdotal interest in
the behavior of artists. In Boccaccio's Decamerone and,
above all, in the Tuscan novelle, artists appear mainly
as the perpetrators of entertaining and burlesque prac-
tical jokes. For Boccaccio a painter was a man full
of fun, high-spirited, quite shrewd, of somewhat lax
morals, and not burdened by much learning. And in
one of Franco Sacchetti's novelle one finds a painter's
wife exclaiming: “You painters are all whimsical and
of ever-changing mood; you are constantly drunk and
are not even ashamed of yourselves!” (Sacchetti, 1946).
This remarkable statement sounds like a prophetic
definition of the Bohemian artist, and it is certainly
true that such anecdotes would have been neither
invented nor read if they had not echoed a popular
reaction to artists. But in contrast to the anecdotal topoi
in the Tuscan novelle (Kris and Kurz, 1934), the literary
image of the artist from the fifteenth century onward
loses its jolly and light-hearted connotations and pre-
sents us with serious problems of individualization.

Owing to the rich and, as time went on, steadily
growing literary production concerning artists, some
general observations regarding these problems can
safely be made. Instead of being subjected to the regu-
lated routine of the workshop, the Renaissance artist
was often on his own and developed characteristics
compatible with his freedom. Now periods of most
concentrated and intense work often alternated with
unpredictable lapses into idleness. The vacillation be-
tween obsession with work and creative pauses became
the prerogative of free individuals who felt that they
were ultimately responsible only to themselves. Vasari,
whose Vite de' più eccellenti pittori, scultori e architetti
(first published in 1550) was the accepted model of
historical writing on art for over 200 years, conveys
the impression that his Tuscan countrymen showed a
greater obsession with their work than others, and since
they were the proud and conscious pioneers of an
entirely new approach to art, he may not have been
wrong at all. The corollary to obsession with one's work
is indifference to dress, cleanliness, food, family, public
affairs; in short, to everything outside the object of the
fixation. Vasari's Lives abounds with this theme and
consequently many idiosyncratic personalities of artists
come to life. Masaccio is described as careless and
absentminded, entirely unconcerned about worldly
matters; Luca della Robbia, we are told, dedicating
himself day and night to his work, patiently bore phys-
ical discomfort; Paolo Uccello entirely disregarded the
affairs of the world and lived like a hermit, intent only
on unravelling the laws of perspective; Bartolomeo
Torri from Arezzo, a pupil of Giulio Clovio, had to
be turned out of the latter's house because he was so
enamored of the study of anatomy that he kept pieces
of corpses all over his room and even under his bed.
It matters little whether such tales are true or merely
anecdotes. For Vasari, his contemporaries, and suc-
ceeding generations such anecdotes helped to elucidate
individual character traits of artists of distinction.

The emancipated artist needed introspection, and
introspection necessitates pauses, often of considerable
length. Early reports about such unaccustomed behav-
ior in artists are not very frequent, but some are grati-
fyingly explicit. A contemporary of Leonardo has left
us a vivid description of the latter's procedure when
painting the Last Supper. According to this eye-witness
report Leonardo often stayed on the scaffolding from
dawn to dusk without putting down his brush, forget-
ting to eat and drink, painting all the time. Then, for
two, three, or four days he would not touch his work
and yet he would stay there, sometimes an hour, some-
times two hours a day wrapped in contemplation
(Flora, 1952). Similarly, Jacopo da Pontormo would
set out to work in the morning and return in the
evening “without having done anything all day but
stand lost in thought” (Vasari, VI, 289). The sculptor


Giovan Francesco Rustici, a remarkable individualist
who had studied with Leonardo, contrasted the daily
toil of workmen with the responsibility of the artist:
“Works of art cannot be executed without long reflec-
tion” (Vasari, VI, 600). Such a statement, that may
nowadays appear hackneyed, could not be experienced
and verbalized until the Renaissance emancipation of
the artist.

Introspection requires solitude, and solitude and
secrecy became the hallmark of many artists. Petrarch
as well as Erasmus attest that the intellectual recluse
of the Renaissance felt the pangs of isolation. When
artists aligned themselves with scholars and poets, they
developed symptoms, often to an excessive degree, of
the class they joined. Michelangelo never allowed any-
one, not even the Pope, to be near him while he
worked. Artists like Piero di Cosimo, Pontormo, and
many others behaved similarly. Leonardo justified this
kind of conduct. “The painter,” he wrote, “must live
alone, contemplate what his eye perceives and com-
mune with himself” (Ludwig, 1888). And Rustici gave
reasons why one should never show one's work to
anyone before it was finished (Vasari, VI, 600). A breach
of secrecy aroused Franciabigio to such a pitch of anger
that he damaged some figures of his fresco of the
Marriage of the Virgin (SS. Annunziata, Florence) with
a bricklayer's hammer. The result can be seen to this
day. Tintoretto, a pleasant and gracious person, was
of an extremely retiring disposition. He rarely admitted
friends to his studio, “let alone other artists, nor did
he ever let other painters see him at work” (Ridolfi,
1914). At the threshold of the romantic age Goya
talked persuasively about the “looking-into-himself,”
the spiritual monologue. This attitude would seem a
sure sign of a highly developed individualism. No one
reveals this more clearly than the most individualistic
artist of the Renaissance and maybe of all time,
Michelangelo Buonarroti. The essence of the problem
that moved him to the core is perhaps contained in
the three lines of a sonnet that remained a fragment:

Entire understanding none can have
Before he has experienced the immensity
Of art and life

(Frey [1897], lxxx, 2).

That experience can only be won in isolation, and
isolation spells agony. His suffering, his distress of mind
is the thread that runs through many of his letters. As
a man of seventy-four he writes to a friend: “You will
say that I am old and mad; but I answer that there
is no better way of keeping sane and free from anxiety
than being mad” (Milanesi, 1875). At the same period
he put the paradox differently in a famous sonnet:

Melancholy is my joy
And discomfort is my rest

(Frey [1897], lxxi).

There is no doubt that the agonized revelling in self-
reflection was, at times at least, a satisfying experience
for Michelangelo.

Michelangelo's personality hardly less than his art
has fascinated and puzzled people for close to 500
years. Every possible epithet has been attached to his
name, but in spite of the contradictory light in which
he appeared to his contemporaries as well as to poster-
ity, all agree that he was an eccentric endowed with
a most difficult nature. “He is terrible, as you can see,
and one cannot deal with him,” Pope Julius II once
said during an audience (Gaye, 1839). Michelangelo's
terribilità became proverbial, to indicate both the tor-
mented impetuosity of his character and the sublimity
of his art.

Eccentricity, however, was not Michelangelo's pre-
rogative, as many tend to believe. From the fifteenth
century onward it was regarded as a characteristic of
artists as a professional group. The cases of Piero di
Cosimo and Pontormo stand out among many others.
Both had misanthropic habits of the oddest kind. Piero
di Cosimo was held by many to be rather mad, and
Pontormo, “solitary beyond belief” was, as his diary
kept from 1554 to 1556 reveals, an almost insane hy-
pochondriac. Even minor artists such as Graffione
Fiorentino attracted attention because of their eccen-
tric behavior, while others led by a certain Jacone, a
pupil of Andrea del Sarto, went all out to épater le
As their contemporary Vasari (VI, 451) tells
“... under the pretence of living like philosophers,
they lived like swine and brute beasts... this misera-
ble existence of theirs... was held by them to be the
finest in the world.”