The Renaissance Workshop

When I think about what is probably my favourite era of history; the Renaissance period, aside from the superhuman skills and mastery of most of the artists alive in that era, one of the things that I find the most inspiring is the concept of La Bottega, or the workshop.

The Renaissance was undoubtedly one of the most profound moments of enlightenment, discovery and achievement in human history and a big part of me thinks that something that helped enhance the creativity of this period was the workshops.

Raphael - The School of Athens - 1509-11
Raphael – The School of Athens – 1509-11

I know myself from spending time in art college that when you stick a group of creatives together; no matter their background and differences in gender, culture or anything else, the common ground shared by the love of creating gives inspiration and encouragement to all involved. People work together, mix ideas and share thoughts, compete and excel in their craft and ultimately inspire each other to achieve greater work. That is first hand experience from spending just two days a week working around other creative people for 8 hours each day; the workshops of the Renaissance were open six to seven days a week and often the apprentices lived together as well.

Before taking a closer look at the workshops themselves, let’s look at the chief reason behind such an arrangement.

Guilds:

Throughout most of Europe in the Middle Ages, Trade Guilds were responsible for the government of professions and crafts; they set the rules and limitations of craftsmen within their territory, controlling trade, limiting outside competition and establishing standards of quality. Without becoming a member to the appropriate guild for their craft, an artisan was not allowed to practice their trade. With that said, it’s clear that guilds were an extremely important part of life in this period of time. Guilds protected their workers and consumers as well as performing services for their members and the communities within their territory.

By the time of the Renaissance Era, becoming a guild man consisted of three stages –

  • Apprentice
  • Journeyman
  • Master

Apprentice – Apprentices were subject to their master and during the time of their apprenticeship they were usually not allowed to marry, an apprenticeship often lasting between two and seven years, depending upon the trade. The apprentice often started at at around the age of twelve years old; although in some cases they begun at ages as young as six or seven years old.

Journeyman – At the stage of Journeyman, the worker was entitled to earn a daily salary and although still subject to their master in day to day work, they also begun working on their own projects as well; working towards creating their own masterpiece and moving onto the next and final stage. This was easier said than done though as the masterpiece had to be recognised as such by the guild master, and once that had been done, the worker would become a Master in his own right and be accepted as a member of the guild.

Master – With the first masterpiece completed and accepted by the guild, the Master is now a member of the guild and can serve their own patrons, open a workshop of their own and hire apprentices. Once master status had been achieved, the rest was down to the success of their own craft and trade.

40-03-05/19
Jan Gossaert – St. Luke Painting the Madonna – C. 1520/25

In early modern Europe, the most common name for a city guild for artists as well as doctors was the Guild of St. Luke; a patron saint shared by both artists and doctors.

Artist Workshops:

The artist workshops of Renaissance Italy, especially Florence offer such a valuable insight into the life of an artist at that time and seem to have been the perfect provision for artists; apprentices and masters alike. Now, in modern times we could do with bringing these workshops back, I know that there are Ateliers throughout Europe and the USA and although a similar method of learning is involved, it’s not the same thing; it’s also a very costly way to learn the trade.

During the Middle Ages, artists were a trade, offering their services to wealthy patrons and carrying out works to the specifications or brief given by the patron; unlike today, where artists most often create works of their own desires and sell them on.

As noted before, an apprentice would begin his career at a young age, usually about twelve years old; they would be sent to a master’s workshop by their parents to begin work as an apprentice. The parents of the apprentice would usually pay the master keep for their child, but the master was also obliged to pay the apprentice a wage which increased as their skills grew.

The early stage of the apprenticeship would mainly consist of humble, menial tasks such as running errands, sweeping and cleaning the workshop, grinding and mixing pigments, and preparing panels; slowly working their way up as their skills grew over the course of time.

The apprentice would eventually begin copying their masters drawings and sketches and perhaps those of other artists, especially copying the work of celebrated artists in their cities and towns. Sometimes the more skilled apprentices would accompany their masters to carry out their commissions in distant other cities and would gain practical experience as well as find inspiration and learning when exposed to new influences prevalent in other places.

Different cities and workshops had different set times for each stage of learning for the apprentice, and in some cases I’d imagine it would be down to the skill of the apprentice in question as to when they progressed to the next stage.

After becoming proficient with copying the sketches and drawings of their master, the apprentice would move on to drawing from casts and statuettes, learning to transfer a 3 dimensional object onto a flat piece of paper whilst retaining the illusion of it being 3 dimensional. The aspiring artist had to learn to do this with a static or inanimate object before later moving on to drawing the figure from life. Classical sculpture would have been very appreciated for this stage, as well as the contemporary sculpture springing up all over the place during this golden age of the arts.

Still drawing at every opportunity, the student would move onto painting, copying and learning their masters style, copying the painting of other artists and becoming more proficient with every stroke of the brush. As they became more skilled, the apprentice would help to execute parts of the master’s important commissions, beginning with the less important parts of a composition such as the background or minor figures and in some cases when their level of skill was of a good enough quality, the central figures as well.

Andrea del Verrocchio and Leonardo da Vinci - The Baptism of Christ - 1472-75
Andrea del Verrocchio and Leonardo da Vinci – The Baptism of Christ – 1472-75

This piece of work, completed in Verrocchio’s workshop is a piece that was commissioned to Verrocchio; the angel to the left is recorded as being painted by a youthful Leonardo; some art historians have discerned the hands of other members of Verrocchio’s workshop in this painting as well. 

After the period of an apprentices training in the workshop, and once the master made the decision that the apprentice was skilled enough, they could move onto journeyman status.

As a journeyman, they would still collaborate towards the completion of important commissions, but they could now also begin working on a piece of their own work that would show their mastery of the craft; the masterpiece. Once the masterpiece was submitted and accepted by the guild, they would be awarded master status and they could then open their own workshop, hire apprentices and accept commissions.

Afterthoughts:

As with everything in life, every system of education, working and so forth, there are advantages and disadvantages; I won’t go into that here in this post but I will say again that the system of guilds and workshops certainly worked well and played its part to perfection for that particular time in history.

Resulting from these workshops we became acquainted with the great master artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Lorenzo di Credi, Sandro Botticelli, Michelangelo and Raphael just to name a few. Also borne out of the provision of this system came the greatest age in the history of art, the Renaissance.

JGlover

Featured Image: Giovanni Stradano – La Bottega Del Pittore (The Painter’s Workshop)

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