‘...the traditional notion of art is unhelpful. Any visual source belonged to a wider category of goods, one which included liturgical and household furnishings, clothing, embroidery, maps, clocks, scientific, and musical instruments – objects which all contributed to a general sense of a contemporary visual culture’. [Evelyn Welch, Art in Renaissance Italy (Oxford, 1997), p. 133]
The importance of the patron. It was the patron who was the real initiator of the architecture, sculpture, and painting of the period. He (and sometimes she) played a significant part in determining both form and content. Patrons were not passive connoisseurs: they were active consumers. Until the sixteenth century, it was the patron, and not the artist, who was seen by his contemporaries as the creator of his/her project and this gave them the strongest possible motive for controlling its final appearance.
What types of patron were there? Corporate patronage: the Church (individual churches as well as religious orders); the government; guilds; confraternities Private patrons (families, brothers, husbands and wives, individuals)
Religious motives There were genuinely pious motives. People wanted to glorify God. Images could inspire the faithful. Images could also instruct the illiterate.
‘Remember me’ For those who wanted more than the salvation of their souls, art offered something else. Giovanni Rucellai wrote that men do two important things in life: procreate and build. Both confer a form of immortality.
Political motives The political situation in Italy from the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries was complex and changeable. There were multiple forms of rule on the peninsula, ranging from kingship, ecclesiastical control, and communal republicanism to the many small-scale, often illegitimately acquired lordships known as signorie. During this period artists of every type were intimately involved in the creation of images of good and bad goverrnors and government. Art helped to create authority.
Social motives The Italian states were socially as well as politically unstable. The fortunes of families rose and fell. There could be economic reasons for this. There were also political factors, with the threat of exile always present. In response to this instability, families and individuals needed to demonstrate their status. Patronising the visual arts was one way in which they could achieve this. Such patronage is associated with the concept of magnificence.
NB The physical relationship of visual sources with the viewer has changed dramatically over the years. Paintings, statues, and goldwork were rarely seen in static, unchanging circumstances. While some paintings did hang openly on the walls of churches, homes, and town halls, others were hidden away and only shown on very special occasions. We need to ask ourselves a series of questions. Where were these objects located? Who could have seen them and when? How were the viewers supposed to behave in front of them and how did they actually behave?
The ‘Period Eye’ Michael Baxandall, Painting and Experience in Fifteenth- century Italy, 2nd ed. (Oxford, 1988), Chapter 2. Stuart Clark, Vanities of the Eye. Vision in Early Modern European Culture (Oxford, 2007) Bob Scribner, ‘Ways of seeing in the age of Dürer’, in Dagmar Eichberger and Charles Zika (eds), Dürer and his Culture (Cambridge, 1998), pp. 93-117. Visual Interests: The Intellectual Legacy of Michael Baxandall (videos of a conference which discusses the 'period eye') Visual Interests: The Intellectual Legacy of Michael Baxandall
What questions can we ask of visual sources? Susan Hilligoss, Visual Communication: A Writer’s Guide (London, 1999), pp. 32-35.
Rhetorical Purposes Where does the visual source appear? [Where was the visual source located? Who had access to it?] What is the visual source’s purpose? Does it document a situation, event, or condition? Is it conceptual? If so, what is its point? Does it try to persuade the viewer? Is the visual source realistic, like a photograph or more stylized, like a cartoon or caricature? If the visual source is realistic, do you detect any types of distortion? Describe any features that may be distorted.
Rhetorical Purposes How polished or “professional” is the visual source? What tone does the visual source project? How seriously are we to take this visual source? Explain why. Who do you think are the intended viewers of the visual source? What features or context suggest this audience? Who do you think produced the visual source? Is the artist/creator stated? What would you say your relationship is to the producer or producers? Do you think they understand you, as a viewer?
Overall Design What draws your eye first? What does the dominant part of the visual source portray? What is in the centre of the visual source? What is shown in front and larger? What is behind and smaller? What is shown in the upper half? the lower half? Are portions more blurred? Are there very distinct parts in sharp focus?
Overall Design Is there “empty” space? What does the empty space frame? Are some areas or shapes very large? Are others very small? Describe the major shapes and lines created. Consider what effect the shapes and lines create. Describe the overall arrangement of parts. Are they ordered symmetrically or otherwise balanced against each other?
People and visual sources Who is portrayed? Describe your inferences from each feature of the person(s) - age, details of dress, gender, ethnicity, class, posture and stance, portions of the body shown, tilt of head, facial expression, gesture of hands. What is the person looking at? Follow his/her gaze or eyeline. Does he/she look toward something else in the visual source? or out of the picture? What do you make of the direction of the gaze?
People and visual sources If there are two or more people, what features suggest their relationship to each other? If there are two or more people, does one seem dominant? How is this expressed? From what angle are the people shown? Do you seem to look down on them, as if they were below the viewer? Look up at them? Look right at them?
People and visual sources Are people shown close up or far away? What emotional effect does this have? What do you consider to be your relationship as viewer to the person or people shown? Do you empathize with them or not? Explain why.
Setting If the visual source has a distinct background, describe it. How does it relate to the dominant focus of the visual sources, especially people, if any? What time and place does the visual source suggest? What is the effect of this setting? Is anything “out of place” in the visual source? What do you make of the incongruity?
Symbols and Signs Are there items or features in the visual source that might mean more than themselves? Consider connotations and associations of particular objects or features in the visual source. Relate them to the rest of the visual source.
Colour Describe the colours, or absence of colour, in the visual source. Where is colour applied? Is the colour realistic, in your view? If not, describe why you think it is not. How does colour, or its absence, make you feel about the visual source? What previous associations do you have with the colours used? How do those affect your understanding of the visual source?
Text If the visual source includes text, such as headlines, labels, captions, or paragraphs of explanation, relate the text to the visual source. In what ways does the text help you make sense of the visual source? Does it answer questions about the visual source, or only raise more questions?
Story Does the visual source tell a story? If so, what is the story being told? Consider the people and objects in the visual source and their relationships to each other, the viewer, the setting and the text. Who can relate to this story? Who may not find it believable or interesting? Who or what is excluded from the visual source? Why? What attitudes - social, political, economic, cultural - are suggested in this visual source? Who benefits from the attitudes shown? Who does not?
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