Italian Renaissance Art
For Cennini, the art of painting is a Divinely inspired aspiration, which is inseparable from the spiritual, philosophical, and psychological aspects of the individual artist. As such, Cennini’s theories of painting presented for his contemporary times both a traditional and radically new way of viewing the artistic process. On the one hand, Cennini views the art of painting as a natural outgrowth of the Biblical Fall of man: “God became angry with Adam, and had him driven, him and his companion, forth out of Paradise” (1960, 1) and simultaneously as the creative expression of the artist at a purely personal level: “the painter is given freedom to compose a figure, standing, seated, half-man, half-horse, as he pleases, according to his imagination” (1960, 2). Cennini views the art of painting as a spiritual geas, a form of labor with which God has chastised humanity:
Adam, recognizing the error which he had committed, after being so royally endowed by God as the source, beginning, and father of us all, realized theoretically that some means of living by labor had to be found. And so he started with the spade, and Eve, with spinning. Man afterward pursued many useful occupations
What is conspicuously missing from Cennini’s Biblical basis of the theory of painting is any sense of brooding guilt or hellfire. Quite interestingly, Cennini’s treatise of the art of painting reads with a great deal of enthusiasm, optimism, and seems to encourage a great deal of individual liberty and individual ambition right along with its ever-present hallowing of tradition and the past. While there are some who aspire to become painters out of greed, Cennini writes, the vast majority are actually inspired by “a lofty spirit” (!960, 2) which Cennini may be trying to link ironically with the vanity of Lucifer which originally occasioned the Fall.
If so, Cennini seems to take such a personal (and universal) confession of humanity’s innate hubris very much in stride. If there is a purpose for painting which lies outside fulfillment of the Biblical geas of labor, that purpose is reflected in the painter’s ability to, “to discover things not seen, hiding themselves under the shadow of natural objects, and to fix them with the hand, presenting to plain sight what does not actually exist.” (1960, 1) Such an assertion reads with an oddly modern sensibility when contrasted with the Biblical basis quoted above. That Cennini views the artist as a discoverer of the unknown, able to strip past the Platonic world of shadows to true forms, seems very much a likewise notion to later psychological paradigms of creativity forwarded by Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud.
While Cennini evidences a great reverence for the past, radical notions — and seemingly spontaneous notions — punctuate the technical aspects of the treatise. It is quite possible that many of the technical aspects covered in the treatise were, at the time, as radical as many of Cennini’s theoretical ideas, perhaps even more so, but when viewing the extensive technical data through contemporary eyes it is impossible to know just how radical some of the techniques and processes described in detail by Cennini actually were. What is obvious is that Cennini is willing to embrace new ideas, although he seems powerfully drawn to a sense of tradition, also. To demonstrate this duality in Cennini, which seems ubiquitous in his treatise, the following example he gives on how to paint wounds is quite instructive: “to paint, a wounded man, or rather a wound, take straight vermilion; get it laid in wherever you want to do blood. Then take a little fine lac, well tempered in the usual way, and shade all over this blood, either drops or wounds, or whatever it happens to be” (1960, 95) So while describing a very specific, quite linear method by which wounds should be done, Cennini simultaneously leaves plenty of room for individual whim or caprice. Such is demonstrative of his attitude, as a whole, to tradition and experiment, past and future.
For Cennini, the process of being an artist was an holistic process: it shaped one’s manners, one’s work, one’s imagination, and even one’s morality. As he remarks, “”Your life should always be arranged just as if you were studying theology, or philosophy, or other theories, that is to say, eating and drinking moderately[…] and sparing your hand[…] from such strains as heaving stones” (1960, 16). So the artist is not merely a tradesman or a craftsman, but “the most perfect steersman that you can have” (1960, 15) at both an aesthetic and moral level, to some degree a custodian of the public’s imagination and moral fortitude.
As a guide to practical painting, it is difficult to imagine a more comprehensive and also direct and thoughtfully succinct primer on techniques and theories for painters of the middle ages. Reading over the treatise, the modern reader simply stands in awe of Cennini’s breadth of knowledge and his willingness and ability to both divulge and technically describe important processes which help to form any painters metier — even into modern times, one would suppose. From the specific manner in which one should cut a goose quill “get a good, firm quill, and take it, upside down, straight across the two fingers of your left hand” (1960, 8) to how to create good flesh pigment “you should take […]half an ounce of coarse white lead; and less than a bean of vermilion. And you should grind everything together; and temper in the regular way described above.” (1960, 12) Cennini’s treatise offers a comprehensive primer into everything an aspiring painter in the Middle Ages might have lost months or years searching for themselves (Hartt). It would appear that in addition to offering a spirited and rather unique vision of both human spirituality and aesthetics, Cennini’s treatise also offers a wealth of practical, technical information which, even to modern readers, still stuns with its scope and detail, as well as its unified resonance with theories presented by Cennini as the “backbone” of the individual techniques themselves.
1960. The Craftsman’s Handbook: The Italian “Il Libro Dell’Arte”. trans. Thompson, Daniel V.
New York: Dover.
2006. History of Italian Renaissance Art. Hartt, Frederick. Prentice Hall.