Italy is a country founded on art. It started in Rome, with the church. Art made to be resplendent, to glorify God was part of the identity of the church, which was itself a major component in the identity of Italy. As the Renaissance dawned in Florence, art became more realistic and more focused on aesthetic value, rather than being created solely for the glorification of God (and the popes). Along with the academic focus on art, though, came the political interpretation. Art was viewed as a way of demonstrating the power and wealth of a family, and the ability of a statesman to become the patron of an artist showed exactly how powerful they were. Due to this, art became a competition, both between artists and between states. Artists would compete to see who could develop the most revolutionary technique, who could create the most beautiful pieces, who could sign on with the most impressive patron. This competition extended from those who could never make a living with their art to those who became famous. The famous doors on the baptistry of the Cattedrale de Santa Maria del Fiores is a perfect example of this.
The Doors to Paradise, so dubbed by Michelangelo for their beauty and the fact that they opened onto the open area between the baptistry and the front doors of the cathedral, a place sometimes called the “paradise” of the church, were the site of an extremely fierce competition between artists. In the end, both Brunelleschi and Ghiberti were granted the commission, as their works were equally splendid, yet Brunelleschi’s pride wouldn’t allow him to work with another. This hugely fierce competitive spirit between these artists was due to the fact that their art was their identity, their legacy. They couldn’t afford to share it with others or to be beaten.
Art wasn’t important only to the creator, though. Far from it. Italy was never truly unified as a nation until the mid-eighteen hundreds. Instead, the Italian peninsula was composed of many states, such as Genoa, Naples, and Florence. These states were understandably almost constantly in direct competition with one another, even when cooperating to achieve a shared goal. As the renaissance came into bloom and both money and artists became available, it became a huge status symbol to have an artist working for you. As states accrued artists, it became important to have the best artist, the most beautiful art in your possession. The competition only escalated from there, and it certainly didn’t stop at the nobility.
The Renaissance was not an aberration in history. You will never see me ever truly criticize it, as I am utterly infatuated with the Renaissance. The ideas which arose from this period – the advances in art, the beginning of true science, with to doorway to greater advancements opened wide, the start of individuality, of humanism, the idea that ‘man is the measure of all things’ – are absolutely astounding, and are definitely the cause of my fascination. However, it would be totally wrong to talk about a time period which focuses on the truth and ability of humanity without looking at humanity during this time. Now, throughout almost all of history there has been a socioeconomic abyss between the extremely rich and the extremely poor, and, as I previously stated, the Renaissance is no aberration from that pattern. In Florence, the city where the rebirth was born, there is a river, the Arno, which divides the city. On one side of this is the Palazzo Vecchio, il Duomo, and the Uffizi. It was the hub of culture and art in Europe. The other side was named the Oltr’Ano – literally ‘across the Arno’. It was nothing when compared to the main side of Florence, and the conditions reflect this. Crossing the Ponte Vecchio, the bridge which connects the two sides of the city would have been like walking through a wormhole. On one side was splendor and majesty, art in the streets and magnificent clothing. On the other was squalor and poverty, filth in the gutters and rampant disease.
The poor who lived in these states had no possessions. They had no status whatsoever to brag about, so even if they could afford the simplest piece of art, the smallest scrap of beauty, it would give no measure of their power. Yet they still had what could be compared to national pride. Or perhaps a sense of competition gives a better idea of their mindset. They accepted that their way of life was often miserable, yet often regarded those in the neighboring cities as worse off than themselves. It’s obvious that the art of the city was much, much less important to them than it was to those who had the luxury of owning it themselves, and yet it could be used as a way of measuring the prosperity of their state.
As time advanced, art receded into the background, at least for a time, yet it was always present – it had to be, as it was at that point woven into the tapestry of the history of Italy. The museums are absolutely filled to bursting with the most splendid works of art, the churches are adorned in the most magnificent way, and UNESCO is very present in the country. Yet is it possible that art has lost its importance for the people? After all, surely the constant exposure could easily reduce the perception of art in the Italian mind, make it seem much less important. Is it still so present in their lives? I’m reminded of a story our guide Alessio told us when we were standing outside of the Palazzo Vecchio.
He brought our attention to a small etching in a wall, the sketch of a face and asked ‘Why was that not destroyed? It has been there for hundreds of years, survived restorations and wars. How is it still present?’ The correct answer is simple, the only one which makes sense – it was drawn by Michelangelo. A sketch by Michelangelo, a graffiti on the side of a building in the middle of a piazza might seem absurd, but only if the human side of the Renaissance is forgotten. After all Michelangelo was a human above all else – and a particularly arrogant one at that. He made a bet with some friends, on the day of an execution, that he could perfectly carve the likeness of the condemned on the wall with his hands tied behind his back. How much of that is true I’ll leave to the reader to decide, but, at the end of the day, the face is still there.
So has art been forgotten in modern Italy, left simply as a legacy from the past? I am pleased to be able to say that that is not the case. The Italian people have not left art in the past. Michelangelo may not be walking the streets, but the dream is carried forwards. The people are fiercely and wonderfully proud of their art and their legacy. It is not left in the past but carried forward into the present, both in memory and in action. The memory of past art is strong in Italy – how could it not be, with the legacies of Michelangelo, of da Vinci, Botticelli, Brunelleschi, and many, many others. But just as importantly, art is still practiced everywhere, even in the streets. Everywhere one can see graffiti – but not just words scrawled out. There are paintings, either as symbols of hope and perseverance or ‘simply’ as visually pleasing pieces, coating the walls. Alia and I had a competition to see who could find more pieces done by an artist known as ‘Blub’. In the end, we had 36 combined. This art was not scarce, it was common and beautiful, accessible to the people.
Now, I won’t deny the existence of vulgar and ugly graffiti. We spent over an hour painting a street to cover over all the markings. It’s like the renaissance, though. There are sides of it which are not appealing in any sense, yet the beauty which springs forth, the ideas which are sent forward, while not negating the ugliness which can be found, are, in my opinion, worth it all. What is important, in the end, is that art is still extremely important to the Italian people. It is the source of pride and of continual innovation. In the end, art is still alive today.