Don't give up the day job, Michelangelo

The Intellectual Life of the Early Renaissance Artist by Francis Ames-Lewis (Yale University Press, £25)
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The Independent Culture

O tempora! O mores! On the one hand, we have the Italian painter Andrea Mantegna and his friends on an excursion to record classical inscriptions, during which they take a boat trip on Lake Garda, dressed as Roman consuls, all the while soothed by the tones of a zither. On the other, we have the British impresario Damien Hirst and friends (an actor and a cook) on a pub crawl, thrown out of the Groucho Club, clad in vomit-stained T-shirts, all the while belching their way through "Vindaloo"...

O tempora! O mores! On the one hand, we have the Italian painter Andrea Mantegna and his friends on an excursion to record classical inscriptions, during which they take a boat trip on Lake Garda, dressed as Roman consuls, all the while soothed by the tones of a zither. On the other, we have the British impresario Damien Hirst and friends (an actor and a cook) on a pub crawl, thrown out of the Groucho Club, clad in vomit-stained T-shirts, all the while belching their way through "Vindaloo"...

From the perspective of the dawn of the third millennium, Francis Ames-Lewis's elegant book reads like a fairy tale. He tells the story of how artists - mostly in Italy - attempted to increase their social standing by getting painting and sculpture accepted as liberal arts. He begins in the 1390s, with Cennini's feisty instruction manual for painters, The Craftsman's Handbook, and ends around the time of Castiglione's The Courtier (1528), with its stipulation that the ideal courtier should learn to draw and paint. In between, visual artists had done an inordinate amount of networking and grooming and had swotted up on geometry, poetry, history and all things antique.

Thematic chapters explore the things that Renaissance artists learnt, and the ways in which they showed off their learning. Although many clever boys from the artisan classes were taught to read and write, Latin was a preserve of the upper classes. Some of the most ambitious artists, such as Mantegna and Leonardo, did their best to get a reading knowledge of Latin, but most had to rely on scholars to devise inscriptions. By the late 15th century, however, artists could depict such inscriptions using Roman letter forms, and many could write to their patrons in a neat script. Refined handwriting was a crucial calling-card.

Among the most striking ways in which artists could show their learning were the use of perspective and the depiction of nude figures. The former demonstrated that they were skilled mathematicians, the latter that they understood anatomy. They used antique sculpture as a source of figure motifs in what often became a sophisticated form of name-dropping, with educated viewers playing "spot the famous pose".

Ames-Lewis has written an excellent introduction to an important subject; he but underplays the price paid for this intellectualisation. Once artists aimed for the social high ground, they began to worry that painting and, above all, sculpture were beneath the dignity of a brain-worker. The two great Renaissance artist-intellectuals, Leonardo and Michelangelo, were almost incapable of finishing work. The two great non-intellectuals, Raphael and Titian, were unceasingly productive.

Leonardo dismissed sculpture because it required too much manual labour, and faffed around doing cranky experiments. Michelangelo diversified into frescos, poetry and architecture. Art historians cite Benedetto Varchi's tedious peroration on Michelangelo as evidence of the great prestige of visual arts, but Varchi reserved his highest praise for Michelangelo's poetry, encouraging him to churn out yet more clichéd warblings for effete toffs.

And so the myth of the "Renaissance man" is born. More often than not, he is the jack of all trades whose day job may be art, but who expends his energy reading and writing and hanging out with mercifully forgotten princes and poets. Perhaps the saddest example is Velazquez. So desperate was that humble man for respect, that he all but stopped painting. Having got his knighthood, he took an administrative role curating the royal art collection. As a result of this snobbery, we have only around 60 autograph paintings by him.

Everything has changed now. Artists don't want to be intellectuals. They want to be men and women of the people. Instead of transcending art by writing poetry and dressing up as Romans, they transcend it by writing pop songs and flashing in public.

* The reviewer's book 'The World as Sculpture' is published by Pimlico

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