A City of Art

The history of Florence is the history of Renaissance art. Producing many of the finest artists the world has ever known, the Italian city' s impact on European culture is unrivalled.

Ever since at least the eighteenth century, when English aristocrats would flock there as part of their European 'Grand Tour' , Florence has been a magnet for tourists of all kinds. In the nineteenth century many British, such as the poets Elizabeth and Robert Browning (now buried in the well-known 'English' graveyard) actually went to live there, and it was largely they that created the magical aura the name 'Florence' has today. For them, Florence was a symbol of perfect civilization, where ideals matter, human emotions are understood, and poetry is not just 'poetry' , but the stuff of everyday life.

For us, though, it is above all a city of art. Even leaving aside Dante, Machiavelli, and the architects, Florence spawned enough great artists during the fifteenth century to amaze every other city in Europe. But how did this come about? As one might expect, most of the reasons for this glorious flowering were not so flowery, but rooted in plain economics and the struggle for political power.

Money and power

Fifteenth-century Florence was a very rich city (at that time the banking and financial centre of Europe) but it was also a city in political confusion. The previous, 'communal' government was being threatened by the rise of super-rich business families, who each wanted to dominate the city through their power and wealth and huge patronage networks (networks not so different from those of the mafia in Italy today). Among these competing families, only the Medici, a banking family, held power long enough to reach the history books.

Art, for the Medici and for other families with political ambitions, had clear strategic uses. At a time when there was no television, newspapers, or any other modern media, paintings and statues were a way of advertising their money and influence. For much of the fifteenth century, paintings were often valued according to the amount of gold paint that had been used in the painting, simply because everyone knew that gold paint was extremely expensive. Anyone who could afford to pay for a lot of gold paint in a painting, therefore, was sure to command respect. By commissioning religious works, influential families tried to demonstrate that as well as being rich and powerful, they were also pious and responsible, and so paying for a religious painting was a good way of making oneself popular with the people. To make sure there was no mistake about who had paid for the painting, patrons would often require that their own portrait be used for one of the characters in a biblical scene.

Because of the social and political competition among the rich and important, there was a lot of demand for paintings and sculptures in renaissance Florence, and there was also the money to pay for them. This made the city a magnet for many young apprentices, among them Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael.

Optical illusions

But in other ways, too, Florence became the ideal place for an up-and-coming artist. About halfway through the fifteenth century, the fashion in the painting industry began to change. Gold paint, for example, began to be seen as rather too showy, and an example of bad taste. Instead of gold, the amount of 'skill' in a painting became important, and patrons would now pay only for the cleverest optical illusions, and the most realistic images of the human form. This change in fashion stimulated study and expertise, and Florence attracted many students. Practising painters in Florence had studios where they would teach young apprentices their techniques; in return the apprentices would do the boring jobs, like washing brushes and preparing canvases. Apprentices also did a lot of the boring parts in the paintings that the studio produced, like backgrounds or crowd scenes. Even Lorenzo di Medici himself, (known as Lorenzo the Magnificent) set up a school to train his own personal artists, and this is, in fact, where Michelangelo studied for quite a while.

Although the money and work was there, what we think of today as 'individual artistic freedom' certainly wasn' t. No one painted unless somebody commissioned him. Paintings and sculptures were ordered, the way we might order wall-paint or curtains today. A patron, if he wanted, could stipulate in the contract exactly how he wanted his painting to look; if he didn' t like the finished product, he might even refuse to pay. Painting studios usually worked together on paintings, and sometimes a maestro would leave most of the work to his apprentices, and paint only the most important bits himself, such as the face of the man who had commissioned the work. In those days, individual artistic freedom would have seemed a ridiculous thing for a painter to demand.

Universal language

Besides, there was no social status in being an artist. In the fifteenth century, painting and sculpture were seen as manual jobs, on a level with building or masonry. Painters and sculptors were not noble, nor even educated, and so they couldn' t hope to be respected like 'nobles' , or even like 'lettered' people, such as poets or priests or philosophers. Both Leonardo and Michelangelo, made brave by their success, fought to raise their social position. Michelangelo insisted that a painting or a sculpture, just like a poem, began in the mind, inspired by some idea, and was not manual work any more than a poem was. Leonardo went even further: a painter, he claimed, was not just like a poet - he was even greater than a poet, because while a poet can only write in one language, the language of paint is universal....

Today, we all think like Michelangelo and Leonardo, which shows that, in the end, they made their voices heard. But not many people realize what a fight they had to be recognized as 'artists' , and to be properly honoured both in their mother city and throughout the world.