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Art and visual culture: medieval to modern
Art and visual culture: medieval to modern

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Art and ‘ars’

The Latin word ‘ars’ signified skilled work; it did not mean art as we might understand it today, but a craft activity demanding a high level of technical ability including tapestry weaving, goldsmith’s work or embroidery. Literary statements of what constituted the arts during the medieval period are rare, particularly in northern Europe, but proliferate in the Renaissance. They deliver the odd surprise. In 1504, the Netherlandish writer Jean Lemaire de Belges wrote a poem for his patron Margaret of Austria, sister of the ruler of the Netherlands, in which he listed prominent artists of the day. In addition to painters, he mentions book illuminators, a printmaker, tapestry designers and goldsmiths (Stechow, 1989 [1966], pp. 27–9). Giorgio Vasari (1511–74), the biographer of Italian artists, claimed in his famous book Le vite de’ più eccelenti pittori, scultori e architettori (Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects; first edition 1550 and revised 1568) that the architect Filippo Brunelleschi (1377–1446) was initially apprenticed to a goldsmith ‘to the end that he might learn design’ (Vasari, 1996 [1568], vol. 1, p. 326). According to Vasari, several other Italian Renaissance artists are supposed to have trained initially as goldsmiths, including the sculptors Ghiberti (1378–1455) and Verrocchio (1435–88), and the painters Botticelli (c.1445–1510) and Ghirlandaio (1448/49–94). The design skills necessary for goldsmiths’ work were evidently a good foundation for future artistic success. All of this calls into question the subsequent academic division between the so-called arts of design and crafts, and not least the relegation of goldsmiths to the realm of craft.