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

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Patterns of artistic employment: workshop, guild and court employment

The pattern of artistic employment in the medieval period and the Renaissance varied. Traditionally, craftsmen working on great churches would be employed in workshops on site, albeit often for some length of time; during the course of their career, such craftsmen might move several times from one project to another. Many other artists moved around in search of new opportunities of employment, even to the extent of accompanying a crusade. Artists working for European courts might travel extensively as well, not just within a country but from country to country and court to court: Michael Sittow (c.1469–1525) is a case in point, working at the court of Castile in Spain and in the Low Countries for the Habsburgs. El Greco (1541–1614) moved between three different countries before finding employment not at the royal court in Spain but in the city of Toledo. Botticelli (c.1445–1510) worked almost continuously in Florence under the protection of the Medici family, but even he was sent to Rome by his patrons to work temporarily for Pope Sixtus IV. On the other hand, Jan van Eyck (c.1395–1441) and Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) were able to maintain fixed workshops while remaining in court employment, and Titian (c.1485–1576) remained based in Venice exporting work to clients such as Philip II in Spain.

A fixed artist’s workshop depended not only on local institutional and individual patronage, but often also on the willingness of clients from further afield to come to the artist rather than the artist travelling to work for clients. Simone Martini epitomises this range. It remains uncertain whether he travelled to Naples to paint the Saint Louis altarpiece for Robert of Anjou sometime around 1317, or whether the commission was placed remotely, and the panel painted in Siena and exported to Naples. For much of his career, before moving to Avignon in the 1340s to work at the papal court, he had an urban workshop in his native Siena, and received commissions from both civic and ecclesiastical authorities.

The professional benefits of a permanent workshop are reasonably clear in terms of the supply of artistic materials, the employment of long-term assistants and establishing a client base. Whether the advantage lay in urban employment within a guild structure or with employment at a princely court is less clear-cut. While upholding the importance of court employment, Warnke maintains the corollary that the guild structure was stifling to artistic freedom (Warnke, 1993, p. 38, and Baxandall, 1980, pp. 106–16). Like the role of court artist, this bears closer scrutiny, however. Although there were a few exceptions, notably the imperial free city of Nuremberg, most cities associated with craft industries established guilds sometime during the fourteenth or fifteenth centuries. A guild served three main functions: promoting the social welfare of its members, maintaining the quality of its products and protecting its members from competition. This usually meant defining quite carefully the materials and tools that a guild member was allowed to use to prevent activities that infringed the privileges of other guilds and for which they had not been trained, for example a carpenter producing wood sculpture.

It is the protection from competition that art historians have seen as eliminating artistic freedom, but it is worth pausing to wonder whether this view owes more to modern free-market economics than to the realities of fifteenth-century craft practices. In practice, it meant that indigenous craftsmen enjoyed preferential membership rates, but in many artistic centres foreign craftsmen were clearly also welcomed so long as their work reflected favourably on the reputation of the guild. The higher dues a foreigner had to pay were arguably a way of ensuring this: in order to pay the dues he (or more rarely she) needed already to have attained a level of success, suggesting a degree of skill that otherwise could not be verified given that the craftsman had trained elsewhere. The painter’s guild of Bruges may appear oppressively protective yet many illustrious Bruges painters were not native to the city and must in practice have been welcomed by the guild, among them Petrus Christus (c.1410–75/76), Hans Memling (1430/40–94) and Gerard David (c.1460–1523). The protectionism of the Venice guild of stonemasons, which included sculptors, was clearly directed at controlling the influx of itinerant craftsmen and imported works of art for sale; masons wishing to settle and work permanently in the city might do so much more easily (Connell, 1976, Chapter 6).

While some artists’ guilds lacked strength, such as the painter’s guild in Florence, there is ample evidence, particularly in northern Europe, of artists such as the Antwerp painter Quinten Metsys (1466–1530) making a substantial living through the guild system while retaining their professional independence. The powerful Antwerp artists’ guild was even responsible for a chamber of rhetoric, associating artists with literature in a manner quite independent of Italian art theory. As the debate about artistic status grew, the real disadvantage of the guild system for artists was not so much lack of freedom or profitability or even status so much as the connotations of manual craft attached to the guild system of apprenticeship as opposed to the ‘liberal’ training offered by the art academies.

It would be a mistake to accept uncritically the notion that one form of training and practice was inherently more advantageous to artists than another, just as it would be wrong to adopt the idea of artistic progress postulated by Vasari in his Lives. Instead, we have here sought to indicate the range and richness of visual culture in medieval Christendom and of some of the artistic developments associated with the Renaissance.