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Artisan Culture in Renaissance Florence

St. Peter Healing with His Shadow, Masaccio and Masolino, c. 1425.

St. Peter Healing with His Shadow, Masaccio and Masolino, c. 1425.

The Artistic Importance of Urban Florence

The urban atmosphere in Renaissance Italy was one of incredible vibrance. People were gaining new information and ideas at a rapid pace and these ideas were being shared across class boundaries, neighborhoods, cities, and disciplines. Such cross-pollination was particularly evident in the profusion of stunning artwork created during this period in Florence. In fact, I believe the city life in Renaissance Italy provided the social and political environment necessary for so many talented figures to display their gifts so completely. That fast-paced urban culture of information-sharing, style assimilation, and heated competition, particularly in the city of Florence, was the perfect recipe for the birth of creative genius.

What Is Artisan Culture?

Artisan culture mainly applied to the arts of painting and sculpture. These were considered the ‘major’ arts. Painters, sculptors, and many others worked in guilds, which were close-knit urban professional and social communities. These guilds provided members with the opportunity to benefit from the group's accumulated knowledge and skill and to utilize strong business networks.1 Artists worked together in shops whose members belonged to the guild. Younger shop members trained under a master who ran the workshop. Projects often involved the entire workshop, and sometimes several workshops. The outpouring and inspiration of creativity induced by these guilds was unprecedented.

The City of Florence, Italy

Urban Life and Artisan Culture

Such guilds were possible in Florence and elsewhere because of a densely populated environment. Urban life was the core of Renaissance Italy. The size of the cities reflected their centrality. Before the coming of the Black Death in 1348, Italy had four of Europe’s five largest cities: Venice, Milan, Genoa, and Florence. Each of these had populations over 100, 000.1 Such an environment was buzzing with action. A single city included diverse industries such as banking, manufacturing, skilled and specialized trades, and professionals like shopkeepers, retailers, teachers, lawyers, and notaries.1 The streets were filled with men of all stations, as well as middle and lower class women doing business, chatting, showing off, working, and gossiping. It was in this lively background that some of the most stunning Renaissance art was created.

Artisan Guilds and the Florentine Government

Florence, in particular, was a city of action and refined culture. In name, it was a republic, though in reality it was a tight oligarchy which came solidly under the control of Cosimo de’ Medici in the 1430’s. However, Cosimo’s authority was not absolute. He was an extremely prominent and influential citizen whose supporters controlled many of the most important political offices,2 but his rule left room for a great deal of political and social maneuverability for other enterprising families and groups. The Medici regime allowed for guilds that gave members protection in the form of a political presence and limited participation in government.

Masaccio's Baptism of the Neophytes.

Masaccio's Baptism of the Neophytes.

Artisans and the Local Community

The nature of the Florentine government was representative of the city’s character; close-knit communities of elites reflected the social norm. Florence was not a large anonymous entity, but a city of smaller, closely-intertwined communities. One type of community every artisan came into close contact with was his neighborhood. In fact, the lives of most Florentine artisans were deeply intertwined with a particular parish or neighborhood through social bonds of family, marriage, friendship, and business. Many lived their entire lives in the same area as their parents and grandparents, forming and maintaining social bonds over generations.2

The neighborhood would have provided artists with a great deal of subject matter and inspiration. Such a close-knit community offered ample opportunity to study everyday life. One can easily imagine Donatello closely observing the facial expressions and gestures of those around him. His grave St. John may have reflected the face of a somber local priest, or his David a daydreaming servant boy. In St. Peter Healing with His Shadow, Masaccio and Masolino show us a city street similar to the ones they experienced on a daily basis. In the Baptism of the Neophytes, the figures shiver with cold, stare into space, and converse with one another as real people did at the local church. In such a community-based artistic environment, people in religious scenes began to look like realistic, natural human beings.

Artisans and the Workshop

Another type of community that was deeply influential to Florentine artists was the workshop. The typical workshop structure included a master craftsman at its head and artisans-in-training working under him.3 The workshop would produce smaller art pieces of lesser quality made by the artisans-in-training to sell for regular income while working on major projects for religious institutions or wealthy patrons at the same time. Sometimes the master craftsman was contractually obligated to work on such major projects with his own hand (rather than leaving the brunt of the work to his more skilled students). The text of the commission document for the Santa Barbara Altarpiece is a perfect example: “Matteo di Giovanni, painter of Siena, here present, to make and paint with his own hand an altarpiece for the chapel of St. Barbara.”4 However, he still relied on his workshop students for basic tasks, even if the painting or sculpting was done by him personally.

The workshop was a place of learning and collaboration for both the apprentice artisans and the master craftsman. Apprentices learned the skills and techniques they would need to succeed in their profession. Master craftsmen were given more freedom to concentrate on big, important commissions. And all members of a workshop worked closely together. New ideas, styles, comments, and criticism were readily available in the work place, and could be traded back and forth between educated artisans, or blended together on a collaborative project. Workshops were the ultimate energized art collective.

The sculpture of St. Mark by Lamberti commissioned for the Florence Cathedral facade.

The sculpture of St. Mark by Lamberti commissioned for the Florence Cathedral facade.

The Artisan Community

A third, deeply important urban community for artists was the artisan community as a whole. Craftsmen often engaged in collaborative efforts that involved other artists, and even members of other professions. For example, sculptors Nanni di Banco and Donatello came to prominence for their decorative work on the Florence Cathedral, an architectural project.3 In 1408, the Arte della Lana (the Florentine Wool Guild) commissioned Nanni di Banco, Niccolo Lamberti, and Donatello to each create a sculpture for the façade of the cathedral.3 Artists not only collaborated with each other, but almost always with other craftsmen. Goldsmiths added decoration and detail to both sculpture and painting. Apothecaries mixed paint to be used on frescoes, altarpieces, and other projects. Architects designed the buildings to be adorned by sculpture and paintings. All these artisans would have been in constant contact with one another, sharing materials and discoveries: new types of paint allowed painters to develop new techniques. Advances in gilding and gold leaf change the way altarpieces were made. And more excitingly, advances in medicine and the study of anatomy, the mathematical application of optics, and the development of perspective rocked the artistic world.

In fact, many of the Renaissance art types were so deeply intertwined with one another that great masters could switch between styles and mediums and use techniques interchangeably. Sculptors were often also skilled painters and architects, and vice versa. Filippo Brunelleschi and Lorenzo Ghiberti, for example, were both trained goldsmiths and skilled sculptors,3 and Brunelleschi was a brilliant architect besides. Only a tightly-linked artisan community could provide artists with the opportunity to receive such diverse training and the ability to exchange ideas and techniques so easily with peers.

Details from the Ospedale degli Innocenti (the Foundling Hospital) designed by Brunelleschi.

Details from the Ospedale degli Innocenti (the Foundling Hospital) designed by Brunelleschi.

The Function of Art in the Urban Renaissance

Another feature of the urban environment, especially in Florence, was the unique function of art itself. Art became a way of demonstrating civic identity, which was deeply important to Italians during the Renaissance.3 Most self-identified as products of their city and felt a deep sense of civic pride.1 The art of the time clearly reflected this pride; cities developed their own styles and representative art and iconography. In fact, one of the main uses for artwork was to beautify and bring prestige to the city. The artwork itself served as a venue for honoring the city and the patron who paid for its creation. Beautiful civic works of art also brought fame to the master who created them.

Another function of art was to demonstrate religious devotion. It could be used as an outward display of compassion, as with the richly decorated Foundling Hospital designed by Filippo Brunelleschi. He was commissioned to work on the orphanage in 1419 for the Arte della Seta (Silk Manufacturers’ and Goldsmiths’ Guild).

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Art could also be used as a less ostentatious devotional item, and was considered to be sacred when installed in a church or other religious building. In fact, the act of installing altarpieces and statues in a church or other religious structure was believed to consecrate them.4 This transformation of art into a holy object gave the artist a claim to divine inspiration as well as pious devotion to the church. It also meant that the physical art was tied into the organization of the Catholic Church, and the beautification of religious institutions was a matter of both civic and spiritual pride.

Renaissance Art Commissions and Contracts

While the art was being created, though, it was just another aspect of the city’s vibrant economy. Artists and patrons haggled over prices, debated materials and styles, and generally treated art commissions like commodities.4 Contracts were often incredibly specific, dictating how much gold or blue paint (the most expensive paints) were to be used, or which religious figures were to be present and how they should be situated. Patrons often stipulated the time in which the artist was expected to finish, and the amount of money he was to be paid, among other details of the transaction. However, these obligations did not dampen the artists' creativity; experimentation and variations in style were permitted and encouraged.4 Indeed, such contracts provided artists with a useful framework to display a personal style that could be examined against other iconographically similar pieces by other artists.

Donatello's bronze David, commissioned for a garden courtyard of the Medici Palace.

Donatello's bronze David, commissioned for a garden courtyard of the Medici Palace.

The Patronage System

The patronage system of art production was another uniquely urban advancement. At this time, art was made to suit the needs of a buyer, not as an act of personal artistic demonstration.3 The buyer's needs might include family propaganda, devotional images, or pieces that praised the glory of the city. Each of these types of artwork were purchased to bring glory to the patron, enhanced his reputation, and aggrandize his public identity. In essence, art constituted a uniquely Italian visual language of competition and prestige.3 The art produced in this environment provided a way in which the elite could convey their ideas and values in an urban context.

Cities provided the economic possibilities necessary for patrons to fund great works of art via trade and commerce. In Florence, Cosimo de Medici, who built up his fortune through banking and other financial endeavors, was a particularly revered patron of artists and artisans. He funded works by Filippo Brunelleschi, Donatello, Fra Angelico, Michelozzo, Fra Filippo Lippi, and many others. Some major projects he and his family commissioned included the sacristy for the Church of San Lorenzo, rebuilding the monastery of San Marco, the Medici Palace itself, Donatello’s David, and numerous frescoes and paintings for the Medici Palace and family Chapel including the Adoration of the Child by Filippo Lippi and others.3 This use of art allowed Cosimo de Medici to make a show of his wealth and generosity while demonstrating his reverence for the church through religious projects and in the family chapel. It also allowed him to beautify his home city, Florence, and express dominance in a very immediate visual way through intimidating artistic feats and construction.

A panel from the Florence Baptistry doors completed by Lorenzo Ghiberti.

A panel from the Florence Baptistry doors completed by Lorenzo Ghiberti.

Competition in Renaissance Art

In this type of intimate environment, artists and artisans would have come into contact with the works of one another on a regular basis. In the case of the architectural monuments, people could even watch them being built. Seeing the works of others must have inspired artisans with new ideas. Watching others work and coming into contact with visually stunning works of art on an everyday basis would have provided artists with a wealth of inspiration and allowed for a choice of styles to incorporate into their own work.

Another side effect of a setting with such a prolific and striking visual culture was fierce competition. With so much art and so many artisans, one had to be truly exceptional in order to make a name for himself. A good example of the competitive atmosphere is the rivalry between Lorenzo Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi to win the commission for the doors of the Florence Baptistry. Ghiberti eventually won the commission, but Brunelleschi’s biography claimed it had, in fact, been a tie: “they came to a decision and made the following report… they were unable to put one ahead of the other, and… they should commission it to both equally and they should be partners,” a partnership which Brunelleschi refused.3 In such a competition, the artist’s reputation was also at stake, making it absolutely necessary to put forth his best work.

Works Cited

  1. Najemy, John. Italy in the Age of the Renaissance. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
  2. Brucker, Gene. Giovanni and Lusanna. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.
  3. Paoletti, John T., and Gary M. Radke. Art in Renaissance Italy: Third Edition. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2005.
  4. Cole, Bruce. The Renaissance Artist at Work: From Pisano to Titian. New York: Westview Press, 1990.


Joe on October 22, 2019:

I love you

Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on March 21, 2015:

What a great hub about the Artisan culture in Renaissance art. Very interesting and full of facts about the art history in that time period. Voted up!

Anne Harrison from Australia on September 03, 2013:

One of my favourite loves... thanks for a wonderful and informative hub, I look forward to reading more

Dbro from Texas, USA on May 13, 2013:

Thanks for this Hub, Christy! Such a wealth of interesting information about the artisan culture in Florence. As an artist myself, I am hugely inspired by the work of the great Renaissance artists. What a fabulous, rich culture of beauty and creativity! It's a strange dynamic between competition and collaboration - something I wish we experienced more in today's culture. Loved this article! Thanks again!

Mary Craig from New York on May 13, 2013:

If only we had an Artisan Culture right now! Look at the beautiful works accomplished through their Guilds, Apprenticeships, etc. This was very interesting.

Voted up, beautiful, and interesting.

Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on May 12, 2013:

Beautiful and interesting hub! Just imagine if this community would have had the Internet back in their day. :)

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