Italian Renaissance: Phases of the Artist and Social Change

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Table of contents

  1. Provincialism (Rivalry & Debate)
  2. Humanism (Phase & Rivalry)
  3. Conclusion

Illustrating the different phases of the rise of the artists’ cultural and social status throughout the Italian renaissance requires the understanding that a phase defines “any stage in a series of events or in a process of development”. From the turn of the fourteenth century through the latter decades of the sixteenth, the Italian Renaissance was a period that witnessed both significant revalidation of the classical past and the development of new, vernacular, and increasingly secular views. Interestingly, during the Renaissance the term artista applied only to the student of the seven liberal arts. This explains how the blend of different artistic skills and disciplines must have played a vital role in the workshop environment of artists such as Georgio Vasari (1511-74). Artists’ were placing foundations of the idea of cultural rebirth, strongly linking visual arts as an index of progress and change, which became an integral part of the social and cultural structure of the disunited Italian states at the time.

Humanism, provincialism and individualism are phases that provoked technical rivalry and cultural debate on a grand scale, between artists, their patrons and audiences. Thousands of dialogues were produced throughout the Renaissance because writers were able to offer the reader both questions and answers. The neo-latin language used by Leon Battista Alberti, Giovanni Pontano and Leonardo Bruni facilitated this objective rise in the status of dialogues, as it illustrated writings of artists in the vernacular. Alberti asserted the necessity of being understood by all. As a result artists were becoming conscious of their own status through high degree of self regard and devotion, the autobiographical features of individualism were translated through painting, sculpture and language. Therefore the range of different artistic expressions and movements presented artists of the Italian Renaissance with an opportunity to spark constructive technical rivalry and cultural debate, as the Italian social and cultural archetypal hierarchy appeared vulnerable. Due to the scope of different phases and debates that illustrate the rise of the artists’ cultural and social status, architectural theory and comparison will not be discussed.

The two concepts of individualism must be cultivated simultaneously and continuously to ensure the existence of both. Niccoló Machiavelli used the example of the Roman Empire to explain “how the action of particular men contributed to the greatness of Rome and produced in that city so many beneficial results.” Without great individuals, there would not be Rome, yet without Rome, there would not have been great individuals. However, to completely agree with this concept would be a mistake. Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio is an arguable exception to Machiavelli’s concept of co-existing concepts and potentially represents the end phase of individualism. Once artists’ behaviour influences this debate, it would be wrong to ignore the self-absorbed nature of artists such as Vasari or Vicelli. Thus, their self-righteous goal of being remembered during this intrinsic cultural shift, affected the favourable social standing. As a whole, the identifiable drive for a rise in social status does allude to the concept that artists’ had to achieve both; status autonomously through practice and perfection, as well as ascribed status from powerful patrons. This illustrates that Alberti, Vasari and Titian shared a similar goal, which ultimately allowed the artists’ social status to collaboratively rise throughout the Italian states. Re-evaluating the entire set of different phases illustrated in the investigation of the rise of the artists’ social and cultural status, individualism has highlighted itself as the most controversial and notable phase. Renaissance is deemed as the rediscovery of the human—that man is a capable being, with the power to direct one’s own destiny. The best illustrator of sed argument is Caravaggio.

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Provincialism (Rivalry & Debate)

“Tuscan intellects have always been exalted and raised high above others because they are far more devoted to the labours and studies of every skill than any other people of Italy.”, a quote by Georgio Vasari. While Rome and the Catholic Church held most of the power throughout the territories of Italy, Florence refused to be subjugated by Rome or other dominant cities such as Milan or Venice. With the self-governing and intellectual people of Florence, such as Vasari, standing firm in their opposition to their larger and more powerful neighbours, provincialism became a prominent catalyst of the rise of artists’ social and cultural status. The dynamics of regionalisation illustrate numerous developments of rivalry between artists within Italy. Significant examples of technical rivalry link to the concept of the hierarchies of artistic value changing between a city and a wider territory. This concept of “peripheralisation” was, either deliberate or intransigent provincialism had become a recognisable phenomenon by mid-century. Different phases of the rise of the artists’ cultural and social status did correlate with the cultural debate surrounding artistic geographies, more There is a cultural debate that can be extracted/elucidated when Venice as a province arguably held the most critical opposition to Vasari

Humanism (Phase & Rivalry)

Humanists initially gave no particular priority to theoretical issues, yet this phase had a powerful presence throughout the Italian Renaissance. They were a collective mindset that devoted themselves to the concept and project of patterning culture and society, through resurrecting the texts that kept the memory of the ancient world alive. For example renaissance theorists who used comparisons to philosophy or poetry as a way to elevate art were following the arguments, of ancient authors such as Pliny, Lucian, and Cicero. In that sense, humanism was essential to the intellectual climate that facilitated the elevation of artists’ social and cultural status. That does not mean, however, that artists were generally able to attain the degree of learning acquired by these ancient poets or philosophers, most stopped formal schooling as young boys. Instead, artists relied on their patrons which heightened their access to establishing cultural power whilst increasing social relevance in the higher classes. The humanists suggested suitable subjects, coordinated iconography, and supplied details of character, setting, and action to their commissioners.

All the while the different centres of Italian humanism would be gathered together by their respective ruling class; the Medici in Florence, the Maggio consiglio in Venice, and the cardinals and popes in Rome, would go on to use humanism as a decisive weapon. Thus, the value and success of this fifteenth-century humanist phase was mainly down to the support of the fifteenth-century power-brokers. The talents of many great artists such as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, could not have been developed had it not been for the obligation of civic duty expressed by humanist thought, imposed on their patrons. This does attack the artists’ integrity however, does not harm their rise to a higher social and cultural status. The rise of artists’ social and cultural status can be introduced in two different ways; as achieved status, and ascribed status. The words status refers to social stratification on a vertical scale. Artists’ presence and active participation in the life of influential Italian courts was a factor in their rising social standing and cultural relevance.

An example of achieved success was Tiziano Vecelli, who earned his fortunes from the exercise of his art. Vecelli’s maturity and commitment to his artistic practice, teaching and skill was critically regarded as an achievement within itself. Being the most important member of the 16th-century Venetian school, Vicelli’s works such as Assunta (1516-1518) and Bacchus and Ariadne (c. 1520-1523), regarded him as the undisputed master of Venetian painting. The recognition and admiration of Vicelli’s versatility and use of vivid colour consequently improved the overall respect and status of the profession whilst improving his social status within the Republic of Venice. Vicelli is an artist who can be regarded as having achieved a higher social status through his workshop and painting, which was proven through the later title of count from Charles V. Vecelli’s cultivation of remarkable technical artistic skill would be seen by his peers as a boost in individual achieved status, as he continuously searched and penetrated human character and recorded it in canvases of pictorial brilliance.

Language was an aspect where humanists artists’ regained autonomous/creative control because they were able to convince patrons of it’s vulnerability. Humanists had successfully established humanist Latin as the language of intellectuals. As a result of this dynamic shift in language and the social circles, the social classes became less distinct as the Italian Renaissance progressed. This dynamic phase of humanism that combined classical elements and vernacular sentiment, led to an increase of rights for individuals and the artista. Interestingly this phase did not shift the class system in Florence. Although artists’ were placing foundations of the idea of cultural rebirth, strongly linking visual arts as an index of progress and change a rivalry could not be avoided. The emerging landscape of language that humanism renewed, was disputed by Leonardo Bruni who proposed the argument.


To summate, the volume of social and cultural change throughout the Italian renaissance still exercises a powerful hold on scholarly inquiry today. Which explains why one can easily over-analyse the phases that supported the improving social and cultural status of artists. Yet the ongoing technical rivalry and cultural debate between artists themselves did significantly contribute to the competitive relationships they had.

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