The concept of art, as something rare and exquisite to enjoy in museums and exhibitions or to use for the lovely decorations of the most refined salons, has been introduced only recently. Most of the major constructors, painters, and sculptors of the past did not have the slightest clue of this concept.
Architecture, paintings, and sculptures were not considered pure works of art, but rather objects having a specific role. Their evaluation was based primarily on criteria of use. Images were not seen as simply something aesthetically appealing, but as objects that would make a strong impact on the viewer.
The entire history of art is therefore not the history of a progressive, technical evolution, but of the changes in criteria and needs.
Works of art have indeed reflected the elegance and sophistication of the trends of their times.
In order to produce a perfect pearl, the oyster needs a foreign body, such as a grain of sand or a small sliver, around which it may secrete its juice. Without this nucleus the pearl could become a shapeless mass.
As color and shape must crystallize into a perfect creation, the artist too needs a core, a well-defined task by which he may abundantly disseminate his talents.
In the remote past, the vital nucleus was the community and the pearl completely covered this nucleus.
And, it was the figurative tradition that introduced the fundamental grains of sand.
Read on to learn about the awe-inspiring string of pearls that you can see in Florence, ranging from Egyptian art to our days.
The Egyptian Museum of Florence, second in Italy after Turin’s, is housed inside the Archeological Museum of Florence.
In Egyptian art, reliefs and paintings which adorned the walls of the tombs were not works conceived to be admired, but served the purpose of keeping the king alive. Instead of real servants, the court of the powerful leaders consisted of paintings and images of various kinds, which served the purpose of providing the souls with companions who could help them in the afterlife.
Everything had to be presented from the most distinctive viewpoint and according to the rule by which all the details of the human figure considered important could be included in its depiction.
Hence we see the profile of a face with a flat eye and the front view of a torso, so that the arms attached to it can be shown.
In other words, the Egyptians depicted what they knew, and no one would have expected them to do otherwise.
The Collection of Ancient Statues at the Archeological Museum, at the Uffizi Gallery, and at the Archeological Museum of Fiesole
The Greeks studied and imitated the Egyptian models and learned from them how to construct the figure of a man standing and how to distribute the various parts of the body and the muscles that connected them.
However, they did not simply apply the formulas. They decided that what mattered was to observe with their own eyes.
These regions were not subjected to a single lord, but were the haven of adventurous men of the sea, of king-pirates, who travelled far and wide, accumulating enormous treasures in their castles and in port cities, thanks to commerce and incursions.
The sculptors of Greece invented new techniques and ways of representing the human figure, and each innovation was enthusiastically applied by others, who enhanced them with their own discoveries. Some carved wood; others realized that a statue looked more realistic when its feet did not rest firmly on its base; and others still, tried to give faces a more dynamic expression by creating an upward turning of the corners of the mouth.
These artists’ works no longer reflected what they knew but what they saw. The ancient canons had ceased to restrain their freedom.
The Mosaics inside the Baptistery of St. John
After the emperor Constantine had proclaimed freedom of religion, the Roman Catholic Church favored clarity in the display of religious artwork.
In sacred environments there were to be no statues too similar to pagan sculptures or idols condemned by the Bible.
Thus mosaic artists focused on the essential.
Islamic and Chinese art at the Frederick Stibbert and the Bargello Museums and at Villa di Poggio Imperiale
The religion of the Muslim conquerors was even stricter than Christianity in prohibiting images.
As a matter of fact, Mohammed turned the artists’ mind away from the real world and confined it in a dream world made of lines and color.
The artists unleashed their fantasy in playing with interlacing foliage, tendrils, or plain lines to create rhythmic patterns, thus creating the arabesque decoration.
The impact of religion on art was even stronger in China, as the great Chinese scholars considered art a means by which to attract the people.
However, the main impulse came from the influence of Buddhism. Oriental religions believed that nothing was more important than meditating, thinking, and pondering over words and things of nature for hours on end.
Devoted artists began depicting water and the mountains with reverential spirit to render the subject of profound thoughts. They painted on silk fabric which was then rolled up in precious containers and unrolled only during peaceful moments. The images could thus be looked at and meditated upon like a book of poems.
Western Art in the Middle Ages at the Bargello Museum
Various Germanic tribes, the Goths, the Vandals, the Saxons, the Danes, and the Vikings ravaged their way through Europe. Their craftsmen were skilled in working metals and carving wood. Their techniques were used to depict the contorted bodies of dragons and mysterious birds, arranged in such a way as to create the complex harmony of an artistic work. These images were used in magic rituals and to exorcise evil spirits.
Architecture, sculpture, and painting in the Late Middle Ages: the Basilica of San Miniato, the Baptistery of St. John, the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, Giotto’s Campanile, Palazzo del Bargello and the tower houses, Palazzo Vecchio, and the Basilica of Santa Croce
The bishops and the lords began establishing their power by building abbeys and cathedrals.
The church was often the only building made with stones within several miles and the only outstanding construction. Its campanile was a landmark for those who came from afar.
The contrast between the height of the church and the modest, primitive homes in which people lived their lives must have been overwhelming.
However, the construction of a church was an important event that made a city proud.
Cities had become centers thriving with commerce and their upper classes felt increasingly independent from the power of the Church and from their feudal lords. The nobles moved from their fortified manors to cities that offered comforts and a sophisticated lifestyle, in which they could show off their wealth to the courts of kings and emperors.
Artwork was no longer only commissioned for churches, but also for city halls, headquarters of guilds, palaces, bridges, and city gates.
Early Renaissance in Florence: Brunelleschi’s Dome, the Bargello Museum, the Brancacci Chapel, the Basilica of Santa Maria del Carmine; the Museum of San Marco and the Uffizi Gallery
The architect Brunelleschi discovered the laws of mathematics according to which the farther objects are from the viewer, the smaller they seem.
He was joined by the sculptor Donatello and the painter Masaccio in his investigation of the visual laws by which the human body in statues and human figures in frescos could be rendered with a statue-like solemnity.
The new discoveries caused a revolution throughout Europe. Painters and patrons were delighted to discover that artwork did not necessarily have to narrate sacred history in a touching way, but could reflect a fragment of the real world.
It would be the spirit of adventure that would mark the true separation from the Middle Ages. Art breaks up into many different schools, workshops where artists completed long and extensive training. Artists such as Fra Angelico, Paolo Uccello, and Sandro Botticelli emerged in this period.
At this point in history, art was no longer considered a means that could only convey the meaning of sacred history, but this power was also employed to transform a work of art into a vibrant exhibition of wealth and luxury.
The Nordic 15th century: the Uffizi Gallery
While in Italian Renaissance, which drew from Greek and Roman art, the human figure was idealized and constructed according to anatomy and to perspective laws, Flemish Renaissance artists (Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weiden, and Hugo van der Goes) depicted what they observed in real life, in terms of both landscape and figures.
Late Renaissance in Florence: the Uffizi Gallery, the Academy of Fine Arts Gallery, and the Palatine Gallery
The city was proud of the rivalry between nobles, merchants, and bankers to embellish edifices with the everlasting works secured from the best masters. This stimulated local artists to emulate them.
The most famous masters, who possessed unique and precious talents, were thus able to finally impose their own conditions.
It was now the artist who honored a rich prince or an authority by accepting to create a work of art.
An artist could even often choose the theme he preferred, without having to make his work conform to the whims and to the fantasies of his client.
The masterpieces of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo Buonarroti, and Raffaello Sanzio were produced in this context.
Nothing seemed beyond the bounds of possibility to these men, and perhaps this was the reason for which they were sometimes able to achieve the impossible.
Venice and the Early Cinquecento: the Uffizi and Palatine Galleries
The lagoon atmosphere, which seems to soften overly-sharp contours and blend colors into a diffused brightness, may have taught Venetian painters to use color with greater awareness and attention than other Italian painters had ever done.
What is striking about the paintings by Giovanni Bellini and Tiziano Vecellio is the pastiness and richness of the colors, even before noticing the subject depicted.
Germany and the Netherlands during the Early 16th century: Uffizi Gallery
The great achievement of the Italian Renaissance masters made a strong impression on the artists of northern Europe; among these, Albrecht Durer, master of the visionary and the fantastic, and Luchas Cranach, elegant and trendy painter.
A crisis in art in the Europe of the Late 16th century: Piazza della Signoria, Bargello Museum, and Uffizi Gallery
Painting had reached the apex of perfection. Michelangelo, Leonardo, Tiziano, and Raffaello seemed to be able to tackle any problem concerning their creations. No subject seemed too complicated. They had demonstrated that beauty and harmony could be combined with accuracy.
But, people can become weary of perfection. Once we become accustomed to it, our emotion dies and we feel attracted by that which is astounding, unexpected, and unthinkable.
Benvenuto Cellini loved being a “virtuoso” and being in high demand among princes and cardinals in a period of tension and frantic attempts to conceive something more interesting and original than the artwork produced by the previous generations.
The artists of this period wished to create something new and unexpected, even if this was to be to the detriment of natural beauty. So the first great modern painters emerged. They were artists who avoided the obvious in order to achieve effects different from the conventional beauty of nature.
Examples are the intense mystery expressed in the paintings by Jacopo Robusti, known as Tintoretto, and the arduous casualness of natural shapes and colors and the dramatic force of Dominikos Theotokopulos’s visions (artist know by the name El Greco).
Instead, in the north – in Germany, Holland, and England – many Protestants were against statues and paintings in churches, therefore painters lost their primary source of income: altar pieces. Basically, they were left with portraiture, a genre in which the admired Hans Holbein the Younger (court painter of Henry VIII) excelled.
The only Protestant country in which art survived the crisis of the reform was the Netherlands.
This was possible because instead of producing only portraits, Dutch artists specialized in all those subjects against which the Protestant Church could not object.
Furthermore, these artists were able to represent nature with rare perfection. They could faithfully depict a flower, a bird, a granary, or a flock of sheep and with great skill. Hence, genre painting was born.
Catholic Europe, first half of the 17th century: the Uffizi and Palatine Galleries
Guido Reni’s simple and harmonious compositions contrasted with Caravaggio’s deep shadows.
On the contrary, living beings, like the people he saw and loved, populate Ruben’s vast canvases. Not even the cold atmosphere of a museum can dampen the vitality of his masterpieces, filled with the furious energy which connects his figures.
Anthony Van Dyck – painter of the king of England, Charles I – differed from master Rubens on account of his languid and melancholic mood.
Diego Velazquez was the portrait artist working at the court of Philip IV. His works were defined by the brush stroke and a delicate harmony of colors.
Always observe nature with fresh eyes and discover and enjoy ever new harmonious combinations of colors and light. This became the painter’s basic belief.
This new enthusiasm made European painters feel closer to the great artists of the Protestant Netherlands, despite their political divisions.
The Dutch 17th century: the Uffizi Gallery
A master in the depiction of precious surfaces, Rembrandt was pleased with his talent for rendering the sparkle of gold or the effect of light on a collar.
The only opportunity that the minor artists had to make a name for themselves consisted in specializing in a branch or genre of painting. Painters of battle scenes; of moonlit landscapes; of fish, skilled in rendering the silvery vibration of wet scales; and of seascapes filled with clouds, waves, and ships (almost documents of historical value on the period of Anglo-Dutch expansion on the seas). These artists sometimes developed their skills to such a point of perfection as to become actual experts.
Examples were Peter Bruegel, Simon de Vlieger, Jan van Goyen, Jan Steen, and Jacob van Ruisdael.
The age of reason: England and France in the 18th century
Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, master of still life, renders the poetry of humble domestic scenes without investigating bizarre effects or witty allusions.
Late 19th century: Modern Arts Gallery
After the French revolution, artists felt free to choose their subjects among any which could draw attention and arouse interest.
Their indifference towards traditional subjects was perhaps the only element which successful artists had in common with the solitary rebels of those times.
The French revolution also gave great impulse to the interest in historical scenes and heroic subjects. Examples of artists who followed this trend are Giuseppe Bezzuoli, Luigi Sabatelli, and Stefano Ussi.
… because love for beauty must be cultivated like a precious pearl !