As we saw in the last chapter, there are limits to the utility of discussing ‘Renaissance man’ in the abstract. As with Italian Renaissance culture in general, identity-formation in Italy was geographically, or geoculturally, inflected. Class also fundamentally influenced identity formation, as did gender, age, profession, religion, military status. A basic division existed between clerical and lay identities, but there were also salient distinctions between the secular and monastic clergy, and, within the latter category, among the different orders of monks, canons, and friars. Similarly, in the lay world, a Ferrarese courtier might have quite different cultural values from a Venetian patrician, a Bolognese university professor, a Neapolitan artisan.

To give some sense of the diversity of Renaissance identities, the present chapter will be devoted to considering three important and characteristic Italian Renaissance social types, based on the criterion of profession: the merchant, the courtier, and the artist, with the last term understood in the broadest possible sense, including all skilled professionals within the creative and performance arts. These three categories of ‘Renaissance man’ are, of course, far from exhaustive, but a discussion of them will help give a sense of how class and professional context inflected identities more generally. It will also provide useful insight into the ways in which initially low-status social groups succeeded in engineering themselves an enhanced social standing across the course of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Looking back from the vantage point of modern, Western societies, Italian society at this time looks markedly hierarchical, with a high degree of what social anthropologists call ascriptive inequality (i.e. inequality determined by individuals’ ‘ascribed status’, the social status into which they are born). This is true to a large extent, but it is also true that the precocious rise of urban, commercial economies in Italy made for some degree of social mobility. A literate, urban, skilled worker was in a far better position to improve his status through his own agency (‘achieved status’) than an uneducated peasant.

A useful instrument in investigating professional identities such as those that interest us here is what the literary scholar Thomas Greene termed ‘institutes’: prescriptive writings defining the human qualities and virtues necessary for a successful practitioner of a given trade.1 The institute was a much-practised genre of writing in this period, taking its cue from classical writings such as Cicero’s On the Orator and Quintilian’s Oratorical Education, which set out to define the attributes and intellectual formation of the perfect orator. We have texts from this period crafting the perfect citizen (Matteo Palmieri), the perfect cardinal (Paolo Cortesi), the perfect ambassador (Ermolao Barbaro), the perfect courtier (Baldassare Castiglione and several others), even the perfect courtesan (Pietro Aretino, parodying Castiglione and the whole genre). Treatises forming the perfect prince, often called ‘mirrors for princes’, are so common as to rank as a genre in themselves. Although obviously idealized—by definition—such writings have much to offer to the study of Renaissance identity-formation. Generally written by insiders (with the exception of works on princes and cardinals), they can give us a good sense of how at least the most reflective practitioners of a given profession wished to be regarded, and how they socially positioned themselves and their trades.


One of the most characteristic professional types of Renaissance Italy was the merchant: a ubiquitous figure in the late-medieval and early modern urban landscape, especially dominant in republican contexts. Much of the vast wealth Italy generated between the thirteenth and the sixteenth centuries derived from commerce and from banking—the latter virtually an Italian invention—and merchants played a notably more significant role within Italian social and political life than they did elsewhere in Europe, with the exception of the Low Countries and perhaps Germany. Much social snobbery surrounded the practice of trade, in Italy as elsewhere, and Italian aristocrats felt free to sneer at merchants’ ink-smeared fingers and preoccupation with lucre. Nonetheless, the wealth-creating power of the Italian commercial and financial sectors, over a long period, lent the figure of the merchant much cultural capital, especially if he was engaged in banking and in large-scale international trade. The Medici, until the 1430s one wealthy Florentine merchant-banking family among others, were de facto rulers of Florence by the later fifteenth century and formal rulers of the city by the early sixteenth. By 1600, the family held the title of grand dukes of Tuscany, and had produced two popes and two queens of France.

Internationalism was characteristic of Italian commerce and banking in these early centuries of ‘merchant capitalism’. Italian merchants, often generically referred to as ‘Lombards’, were a familiar sight in cities throughout Europe by the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, and Italian merchant-bankers played a vital role in supplying the rulers of Europe with loans (which they did not always repay). Especially dramatic is the history of the so-called ‘super-companies’ of early fourteenth-century Florence, run by the Bardi and Peruzzi families, which flourished in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries before collapsing dramatically in the 1340s, just prior to the Black Death. The Peruzzi family, which traded in textiles and grain, as well as financial services, had 14 international branches in addition to its central office in Florence, ranging from Paris, London, and Bruges in the north, to Majorca in the west, and Cyprus, Rhodes, and Tunis to the east and south. The Bardi operation was even more geographically expansive, with branches in Seville, Constantinople, and Jerusalem.

Merchants were generally educated to a high level, predominantly at ‘abacus schools’ geared specifically to practical commercial skills. They formed a highly literate social group, although, unlike notaries, lawyers, and clerics, their culture often leaned towards the vernacular, rather than Latin. Writing was a key element in the merchant’s skill-set. The merchant Giannozzo Alberti in Leon Battista Alberti’s dialogue On the Family advises the aspiring merchant that he should always have his fingers stained with ink.2Florentine merchants, in particular, left an impressive legacy of practical writings of all kinds, often referred to by the generic terms ricordi or ricordanze. These encompass account books and annotations of business techniques, but also autobiographical jottings, genealogical information, notes on public affairs and civic history, moral and political axioms—essentially, the encapsulated patrimony of professional and personal experience a merchant wished to hand on to his heirs. The educational impulse in these writings justifies us in seeing them as a kind of dispersive ‘institute’, collectively delineating the knowledge base and the moral qualities of the ideal merchant. A more formal merchant institute is Benedetto Cotrugli’s On Trade and on the Perfect Merchant, written in 1458 and printed for the first time in 1573.3

The merchant identity that emerges in these writings is a distinctive one, forged in part to counter negative cultural stereotypes of the merchant as grasping and avaricious, or as sordid—and potentially even sinful—in his focus on monetary gain. The late-medieval Italian church had made its peace with mercantile activity, condoning the search for profit when it could be seen to be of benefit to the common good, and to result from industriousness and prudence on the part of the merchant. Classical moral philosophy reinforced this culture of virtuous merchant capitalism through the notion of ‘magnificence’. This encompassed religious charity, civic philanthropy, and architectural patronage, which was seen as contributing to the public good of a city through embellishment, even if the buildings concerned were intended for private use. More broadly, as Cotrugli notes in his discussion of merchant ethics in the third book of On Trade, mercantile activity benefits cities by importing goods necessary for their physical survival and comfort, by stimulating the arts through the export trade, and by augmenting the public coffers through tax.4Merchants grow cities and expand their wealth through their ‘glorious industry’, whereas aristocrats and rentiers practise mere sterile consumption and see their fortunes decline over time.

Especially within republican cultures such as Venice, merchants were praised for combining this kind of civic-directed magnificence with a certain degree of personal austerity. Cotrugli represents the merchant’s life as an arduous and physically exacting one, requiring him to undertake long journeys, work long hours, and sometimes go without food or other physical comforts. Sobriety and temperance figure high on Cotrugli’s list of the virtues proper to the merchant: he should be chaste, modest in his speech, sparing in his consumption of food and particularly wine, and he should shun all extravagance in dress. Revealingly, in one passage, Cotrugli refers to the merchant’s body as an instrument or tool, essential to his profession in the same manner as a hammer to a blacksmith.5 A similarly instrumental view underlines the global thesis of good management (masserizia) that Alberti gives to his speaker Giannozzo in On the Family. In its original and literal meaning, the term masserizia applies to the frugal management of material resources within a household, but Giannozzo extends it to apply to the management of the merchant’s three great personal resources of mind, body, and time.6

The medieval merchant mentality has sometimes been caricatured in the past as secularizing and rationalistic, in a manner that prefigures modernity. This captures some aspects of mercantile identity, most obviously in respect of the value accorded to worldly goods, which stand unashamedly at the centre of the merchant’s activities. However, to suggest that this worldliness signifies a diminution of religious sentiment is anachronistic. The Florentine silk merchant Marco Parenti opened what is effectively an account book in 1447 with an invocation to God, the Virgin, and Saints Nicholas, John the Baptist, John the Evangelist, Peter, Paul, Mark, Mary Magdalene, Catherine, ‘and all the Evangelists, and Apostles, and saints, male and female’, devoutly auguring that all he inscribes in the book will be to their honour.7 Benedetto Cotrugli devotes a full quarter of his treatise to instructing the merchant in his religious duties (including an interesting section on issues of conscience arising from business). Cotrugli concludes the work by sternly warning that no merchant should continue in his profession after the age of 50; rather, he should at that age retire to the country and devote himself to preparing his soul for death.8

An interestingly pragmatic attitude to the role of religion in the merchant’s life is evinced in a passage of the Ricordi of the Florentine wool merchant Giovanni Morelli, written between 1393 and 1411. Describing his revered and long-dead father, Morelli notes that he devoted his energies in the early years of his business career to winning ‘the love of God’ through his charity and good works, as well as ‘the friendship of good and respected and powerful men’.9 This investment in the spiritual capital of human and divine good will then enabled him to survive harder times. God figures here as an actor in the social world, participating in laws of amicitia similar to those that bound human patrons and clients. The calculation is certainly a rational one, but it may hardly be characterized as secularizing on that account.

Although the practice of trade—and often, in the republics, governmental service—naturally occupied the main energies of merchants, there is much evidence that they participated with interest in the broad culture of humanistic learning. While few practising merchants were ‘literary humanists’, to use a term recently introduced by the historian Brian Maxson to signify those who engaged with classical study in a concerted, quasi-professional manner, numerous merchants qualify for Maxson’s category of ‘social humanists’. In Maxson’s definition, these were men who showed an interest in classical culture; who had contacts with the learned world of the literary humanists; who owned or read classical and humanistic texts, in the original or in translation; and who sometimes acted as patrons of humanistic learning, or received dedications of humanistic works.10

A recent study of two fifteenth-century vernacular works transmitting Aristotle’s teachings on ethics, addressed to two Venetian merchants of the patrician Giustinian family, allow a glimpse into this lively divulgatory culture of humanism, which has been relatively little studied to date.11The two works, one from the 1430s, the other from the 1460s, differ in the level of intellectual engagement they require of their readers: one is a translation, via the Latin, of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics; the other, a translation of the much briefer and simpler pseudo-Aristotelian Book of Virtues and Vices. The latter text, in particular, through the translator’s notes, makes a marked effort to relate its teachings to the dedicatee’s professional culture, alluding, for example, in the discussion of prudence, to the widespread custom among merchants of sending their sons for a stint at a foreign branch of their firm, in the interest of broadening their knowledge of the world. The note continues with a literary analogy that seductively glamourizes and classicizes the Venetian merchant lifestyle; the apprentice merchant is compared to Homer’s wandering hero Ulysses, who sees ‘many cities and many customs of men’.12 This vision of the merchant as ‘universal’ and broad in experience and competence finds a match in a passage in Cotrugli, where he notes that ‘the grave and worthy merchant should not be like the needle, which is a base tool, since it knows how to do nothing but sew’.13


Although it is coherent to speak of a ‘Renaissance merchant’, particularly with regard to patronage, personal style, and learned interests, the social type of the Renaissance merchant has deep medieval roots. The twelfth and especially the thirteenth centuries saw merchants and guildsmen rising to prominence within the central and northern Italian republics, where they established themselves ultimately as the dominant political class. The thirteenth and fourteenth centuries also saw the development of some of Italian business culture’s key technical instruments, such as double-entry book-keeping, mercantile insurance contracts, letters of credit, bills of exchange. Boccaccio, whose father worked for the Bardi bank, and who himself started out as an apprentice in the bank’s Naples branch, gives a vivid portrait of fourteenth-century mercantile life in his Decameron, to the extent that the Boccaccio scholar Vittore Branca termed the work ‘the epic of the merchants’.14

By contrast, the figure of the courtier, another key protagonist of the Renaissance, emerged as a defined social type much later. The Italian city-republics had already begun to give way to signorie by the later thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, but the courts of these early signori were relatively modest entities, consisting of little more than the immediate famiglia or household of the lord. The only exception, to the south, was the royal court of Naples, ruled by the French Angevin dynasty, and an important conduit for French cultural models. It was in the later fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, as the precarious signorie of the centre and north of Italy began to consolidate their power, that the courts began to grow in size, splendour, and ambition. An expansionist development of this period was the tendency for courts within courts to proliferate; in Ferrara, by the time of Ercole I d’Este, who ruled from 1471–1505, besides the duke’s own court, which amounted to over 500 employees, his wife Eleonora d’Aragona, and his three brothers and four sons all had their own substantial entourages, ranging from 25 to 140 employees.15

As the courts rose in size and ambition, they assumed an ever-higher cultural status in Italy as centres of learning and artistic, musical, and dramatic production, coming to rival more established republican cultural powerhouses such as Florence. This was all the more so when the papal court returned to Rome from a long period of ‘exile’ in Avignon in the early fifteenth century, and successive popes set themselves to rebuilding Rome as a great cultural capital. Accompanying these material changes, we see the court assuming an increasing discursive salience across the course of the mid-fifteenth century, as shorthand for a particular way of living, of speaking, of styling oneself: ‘a main reference point in the organization of upper-class consciousness’.16 Often, the court was presented negatively, as a place of corruption and insincerity, continuing a medieval tradition of writing on the ‘miseries of courtiers’. A classic of this miserabilist genre is Enea Silvio Piccolomini’s treatise De curialium miseria of 1444. More innovatively, the Florentine humanist Lapo da Castiglionchio, in his De curiae commodis (On the Benefits of the Court), 1438, uses the dialogue form to dramatize the contradictory reality of the papal court: from one perspective, a sink of sensuality and corruption; from another, a cosmopolitan and innovative environment, magnetically attractive both for its sophistication and the possibilities it holds out for material advancement.17

The salaried members of Italian courts, in their mature, fifteenth-century incarnation, included practitioners of a wide range of professions, ranging from musicians and dance masters to cooks, stablemasters, secretaries, and accountants. A fundamental division was between non-noble professionals and service staff and aristocratic courtiers closer in status to the ruling lords. The latter were traditionally conceptualized as ‘companions’ (comites) to their lords, although by the sixteenth century the status gap between princes and even their most elite courtiers was beginning to become too extreme for this traditional designation to have much real force. Princes’ most distinguished followers were often minor lords themselves, with feudal estates and titles, and their aristocratic prestige lent them value as representatives of the prince, whether as governors, military commanders, or diplomats—the latter role increasingly important as the practice grew of maintaining resident ambassadors at other Italian and foreign courts. Many of these humanistically educated noble courtiers took a leading role in the literary life of the courts, although this did not exempt them from more mundane duties. The greatest Italian poet of the early sixteenth century, Lodovico Ariosto, complains bitterly in his Satiresthat his Este masters in Ferrara cared nothing for his poetry, rewarding him only for more utilitarian services such as scurrying across the country on diplomatic errands, or serving as governor in the remote and mountainous province of Garfagnana, assailed on all sides by ‘thefts, murders, hatred, vendettas, rage’.18

It is the ethos and persona of the aristocratic courtier that is the chief concern of Baldassare Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier, justly the most famous Italian Renaissance ‘institute’, and a work of vast, European diffusion, after its publication in 1528. The work takes the form of a dialogue on the perfect courtier, and the perfect court lady, held among a group of predominantly noble courtiers in the court of Urbino, in the Marches, in 1506. As befits its subject-matter, The Courtier is an immensely urbane work, with none of the earnest didacticism of a treatise like Cotrugli’s On Trade. The task of discussing the perfect courtier is presented as an after-dinner ‘game’, pursued across four evenings in the apartment of the duchess of Urbino, and punctuated by dancing. Consistently with the game format, much laughter accompanies the dialogue, and the discussion is vivified by wit and sex-war banter among the male and female courtiers. The work’s considerable classical erudition is worn lightly. When one of the speakers begins to employ technical Aristotelian philosophical terminology in the course of a discussion of gender difference, he is reprimanded by the sharp-tongued mistress of ceremonies, Emilia Pio, who tells him to speak in a language all can understand.19

Castiglione’s analysis of the virtues and qualities of the courtier gives us a term to describe the work’s deliberately (and deceptively) casual and ‘light’ air: sprezzatura. This, we learn half-way through the first evening’s discussion, is the secret of attaining the prime quality of the perfect courtier, ‘grace’.20 The literal sense of the word is something like ‘a disdaining’ (from the verb sprezzare, to disdain). What is disdained is effort, difficulty, labour; the ideal is to perform every courtly activity, from dancing to public speaking, swordplay to lute-playing, with perfect ease, as if it were something entirely natural, acquired without practice or thought. The ideal derives from rhetoric; Cicero advises in his Orator that the orator cultivate a certain ‘diligent negligence’ (negligentia diligens), to lessen his listeners’ consciousness of his craft and hence their suspicion of being manipulated.21 Castiglione carries the ideal of sprezzatura into effect in his writing. Manuscript evidence shows that he worked intensely on The Courtier from 1508 to around 1524, revising the work minutely at every level from structural edits to word-by-word fine-tuning, yet in the dedicatory letter he speaks of having written the dialogue in a few days (pochi giorni), following the death of the duke of Urbino in 1508.

The notion of sprezzatura, and the disdain for any semblance of hard work it implies, serve accurately to measure the distance that separates the human ideal of the courtier from that of the merchant. In the formulae of theorists like Cotrugli and Alberti, and in the writings of merchants themselves, the merchant’s outstanding qualities are defined as diligenzasollecitudineindustria (diligence, vigilance, industry). These are to be proudly placed on display, not disguised. Similarly, money, which stands at the heart of the merchant’s activities, whether in terms of accumulation or proper and virtuous expenditure, is banished from the discourse of the courtier. Although Castiglione’s anxious letters home to his mother in his years of court service show him to have been far from immune from monetary concerns, talk of money is entirely absent from The Courtier, except for a revealingly worded warning, on the first evening, that any man who engages in warfare for gain rather than glory is ‘not a gentleman, but the basest of merchants’ (vilissimo mercante).22

Another detail that can help reveal the cultural gulf between the identities of merchant and courtier is their very different attitudes to the body. Cotrugli requires good looks in the perfect merchant, as Castiglione does in the courtier, and both authors recommend sobriety of dress and dark colours, as conferring an air of gravity and dignity. Castiglione, however, allows his courtier to dress in more exuberant clothes at jousts and festivities, while Cotrugli’s merchant has a single, sober, and businesslike register. Indeed, Cotrugli expressly forbids jousting and dancing to the merchant, as lightweight and inappropriate distractions. Fundamentally, Cotrugli conceives of the merchant’s body in functional terms, as a tool of his trade (an ‘instrument’, as we saw), while the body of Castiglione’s courtier is aestheticized. Grace, agility, elegance are required of him because it is a crucial part of his job to give pleasure to the eyes. This is apparent in the initial discussion of the need for the courtier to excel in sports and physical exercises, especially the key gentlemanly and martial arts of swordsmanship, wrestling, and horsemanship, but also swimming, running, tennis, and vaulting on horseback. At first, the speaker relates the need for excellence in these pursuits to the courtier’s military career (consistently with medieval chivalric ideals, his ‘principal profession’ is assumed to be soldiery). Soon it is remarked, however, that military exercises and sports are often practised in peace time, and before audiences of civilians and of ladies and great princes. It is in these peace-time contexts that the aesthetic dimension of athleticism comes to the fore.23

Underlying all these differences in the merchant’s and the courtier’s ethos is their very different social positions. Important though relations with the powerful were to the Renaissance merchant, he was essentially an independent entrepreneur, dependent predominantly on his own efforts for success or failure. The courtier, by contrast, was a dependent, if a gilded one, reliant at a fundamental level on favour—the favour of his prince, most importantly, but, also of those figures analysts of the courts have called ‘threshold patrons’, men and women known to have the ear of the prince.24 The courtier also needed to win the respect of his peers, of the ladies of the court—presented in the dialogue as an especially exacting audience—and even of the ‘vulgar hordes’, the moltitudine, who attended some larger events, such as jousts. To perform successfully before such multiple and overlapping audiences, the courtier must possess an expert grasp of social dynamics. He must be hyperconscious of how others see him, and acutely aware of the means by which collective judgments are reached. These are not always rational, as Castiglione observes. ‘Just as in many other things, Fortune has immense power over men’s judgments.’25 A prince may arbitrarily take against the most talented of men and the entire court will swing behind his bias. Similarly, if the prince takes the most inept of men into his favour, he will instantly become the darling of the court.

In this treacherous environment, it is not sufficient for a courtier to possess substantive qualities, in terms of skills, education, and achievements. He must also be a master of appearances, capable of ensuring that his qualities are always seen in the best possible light. The advice The Courtier offers on this is sometimes controversial, as when the speaker on the second day advises that the courtier should attempt to orchestrate his acts of valour on the battlefield so that he performs them when he has the best audience, preferably directly before the eyes of the prince. Similarly, at jousts, he must attempt to ensure that he is among the first to appear in the lists, since the spectators’ attention will be keenest at the outset of the event.26 Most deviously of all, it is suggested that the courtier might make light of the skill in which he most knows himself to excel—say, dancing—and to pretend to set more store by another activity, perhaps music or jousting. This will allow him to startle those watching, when they see how well he performs in his second-string activity, and it may induce this audience to imagine him an even greater master in his ‘true’ art.27

The element of calculation and seduction in the courtier’s personality did not escape notice. Within Castiglione’s dialogue itself, certain of the speakers express qualms that the courtier’s rhetorical suppleness may sometimes amount to deception; and the stereotype of the wheedling, flattering, treacherous, backbiting courtier was a popular stereotype of the period. Despite these suspicions, however, the influence of the suave and polished model of behaviour Castiglione teaches in his treatise was considerable. Courts were key political and social environments in the entire early modern period, both in Italy and across Europe, and the glamour and prestige that attached to them guaranteed that cultural and social practices originating in them attained considerable diffusion elsewhere. The sociologist Norbert Elias, in an influential work, posited that the courts of Renaissance Europe were the principal loci for what he called ‘the civilizing process’, meaning the spread throughout society of a distinctive model of social behaviour characterized by high levels of self-consciousness, bodily self-control, and politesse.28 Although Elias’s claims have been questioned by medievalists, who push the origins of the civilizing process back in time and emphasize the role of monasteries in transmitting ideals of ‘civilized’ behaviour, few would doubt the role of the courts in diffusing polite manners, especially in the age of print. The reception of The Courtier confirms its purchase on contemporary readers’ imagination. The work was published more than a hundred times in the century that followed its first appearance, and it was translated into six languages (French, Spanish, German, English, Polish, and Latin).29


Both the courtier, as envisaged by Castiglione, and the merchant, as envisaged by Cotrugli, are unquestionably men of the social elite: the former, an aristocrat, the second, a wealthy patrician. In his exaltation of the merchant’s contribution to society, Cotrugli is careful to note that his paean relates not to ‘plebeian and vulgar’ merchants, but rather to what he calls ‘the glorious merchant’, the large-scale merchant or merchant banker engaged, like Cotrugli himself, in international trade. This distinction was one consistently maintained in Renaissance Italy, and it may be found also in Cicero’s On Civic Duties (‘trade, if small, must be considered sordid; if grand and copious … it must not be scorned’).30

What of the professional identities of lesser men, the ‘sordid’ and ‘mechanical’ smaller merchants, shopkeepers, and artisans? One group among these figures, visual artists—painters and sculptors—has been very thoroughly studied, and presents a striking case of a professional cadre whose status changed significantly across the period we are looking at here. Until the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries distinctly of the artisan class, artists began a long process of upward social mobility that saw at least the most successful artists enjoying remarkable material advancement and acclaim by the sixteenth century. At the very apex of the profession, it is possible to point to figures such as Raphael, who enjoyed such social prestige that a cardinal, Bernardo Bibbiena, was eager to offer him a niece in marriage, while Castiglione himself was proud to boast of him as a friend. Several painters purchased or were granted honorific noble titles; a few more substantial offices or benefices. Andrea Mantegna was made a papal count by Pope Innocent VIII in 1469; Titian, a Palatine count by the Emperor Charles V in the 1530s.31 Pope Clement VII appointed Sebastiano del Piombo to the lucrative office of keeper of the seal for papal correspondence (the nickname ‘del Piombo’ means ‘of the lead’ or ‘of the seal’). The sculptor Leone Leoni, another protégé of Charles V, built himself a magnificent palace in a noble quarter of Milan, with a life-size cast of the Capitoline equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius in its courtyard.32 Michelangelo was buried in Florence in 1564 in a ceremony ordered and funded by the city’s ruler, Duke Cosimo de’ Medici, and on a scale reminiscent of the exequies of statesmen or great military leaders.

Although, at a basic level, the elevation of the status of artists simply reflected market forces—artistic talent was in high demand—the process was accompanied by an ideological repositioning of art itself within the hierarchy of human activities. Because of the element of manual application involved, painting and sculpture had traditionally been classed as a ‘mechanical’ (or manual) craft, and been socially devalued accordingly. Across the course of the Renaissance centuries, these activities were gradually redefined as ‘liberal’ arts, arts worthy of the attention of gentlemen, or, in the original Roman formulation, of free men. Alberti’s treatise On Painting already argues the case for this in the 1430s, but the process of redefinition was a long one. Castiglione innovatively endorses painting and drawing as a suitable accomplishment for his courtier, but he prefaces this endorsement by having his speaker acknowledge that drawing ‘may today seem a mechanical art and ill suited to gentlemen’, before going on to note the far higher status accorded to the visual arts within the classical world.33

The fame attained by a few artists from non-artisan backgrounds (most notably Michelangelo, who descended from a Florentine family of government officials, and claimed more distant and improbable descent from the counts of Canossa, who welcomed the connection) helped bolster the ‘liberal arts’ credentials of painting and sculpture in the course of the sixteenth century. So also did the development of Neoplatonic models of art theory that located artistic creativity in the intellectual moment of conception of a work of art, rather than in its manual realization: a development, again, closely associated with Michelangelo and with intellectuals in his circle. The status of painting and sculpture as liberal arts was given a degree of formal recognition with the foundation of the first artistic academies, in imitation of the literary academies so popular in this period: the Accademia del Disegno in Florence in 1563, an academy of the same name in Perugia in 1573, and the Accademia di San Luca (St Luke was the patron saint of artists) in Rome in 1577.

Writings by artists, in which the Italian Renaissance is rich, give a vivid sense of a growing confidence in the status of their profession. As we saw in Chapter 3, Cennino Cennini already claimed in the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century that some painters were drawn to the profession not for the financial gain it could hold out, but through ‘nobility of spirit’ (gentilezza d’animo). The phrase echoes the notion developed by thirteenth-century intellectuals in the Italian city-republics that true nobility is defined not by birth but by qualities of mind. Lorenzo Ghiberti incorporates an autobiography, as well as a history of classical and modern art, in his Commentaries, probably written in the 1430s and 40s—a notably assertive gesture, at a time when the subjects of biographies were more usually intellectuals, statesmen, and generals.

Drawing on Vitruvius, Ghiberti prescribes an ambitious educational programme for the artist, incorporating literature, geometry, mathematics, history, medicine, philosophy, astronomy, and anatomy (the last an addition to his Roman source). It is unlikely that many artists attained such ‘universality’, but the figure of the artist-intellectual began to become familiar in the later fifteenth century. Prior to Leonardo da Vinci, the most salient example was Piero della Francesca, who was born into a reasonably moneyed merchant family in Borgo San Sepolcro, in the north-east of Tuscany, and probably received an early education in commercial arithmetic, like most merchants’ sons. In adulthood, Piero developed advanced mathematical interests and wrote three treatises on mathematics, geometry, and perspective, one of which, on polyhedra, was incorporated in the mathematician Luca Pacioli’s famous treatise On Divine Proportion (1490s; printed 1509). In the sixteenth century, while the connections between art and mathematics persisted, a tradition also began to emerge of artist-poets, notably in Florence and Rome, with Michelangelo and Agnolo Bronzino the most salient examples. Michelangelo’s standing as a poet was honoured in Florence in 1547 when the poet and intellectual Benedetto Varchi gave a lecture on a sonnet of his at Florence’s state-sponsored literary academy, whose sittings were mainly devoted to readings of classic verse by Dante and Petrarch.

Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, already discussed in Chapter 3, helped set the seal on the cultural redefinition of the visual arts. The project is in itself a strong statement of the cultural importance of painting, sculpture, and architecture, and the dignity of their practitioners. The Livescollects an extraordinary amount of detailed information (of varying degrees of accuracy) about the activities and legacy of artists from the thirteenth century onwards. The work was splendidly printed by the ducal printer Lorenzo Torrentino, and with an editorial team drawn from the Florentine intellectual elite. The philologist Vincenzo Borghini compiled a vast and detailed topographical index, extraordinarily state of the art for the time. The proem to the second book of the treatise compares the enterprise to that of political and military historians, and classes the Lives, like the works of such historians, as a ‘mirror of human life’:34 not merely a bare chronicle of events but effectively a work of philosophy, probing the hidden causes of the progress or decline of the arts, just as political historians probe civilizations’ rise and fall.

One of the great thematic threads of the Lives is concerned with the professional ethos of what Vasari fondly calls ‘his’ artists (i miei artefici), to the extent that the work may be read, among other things, as a kind of artistic ‘institute’, outlining the virtues and qualities a perfect artist requires. Vasari does this according to the classic rhetorical procedures of epideictic oratory, defined as the rhetoric of praise and blame; his biographies of individual artists emphasize admirable traits and strongly castigate undesirable ones. In general, Vasari approves a disciplined and professional attitude in his artists, not dissimilar in some ways from that of the merchant as described by Cotrugli. Industriousness and commitment are highly valued qualities, as is prudence and good financial management; one of the most negative biographies in moral terms is that of Botticelli, who made good money through his art but frittered it away, dying crippled and in poverty. By contrast, Vasari’s life of Pietro Perugino is prefaced by a homily on the value of poverty as a motivating force. Born into poverty and employed initially by a painter as an errand boy—formal apprenticeship required a payment to be made to the master for training—Perugino attained greatness as a painter partly on account of his ferocious work ethic, which led him to tolerate ‘cold, hunger, discomfort, hard work, and shame’ to attain his ambition.35 His life illustrates the fact that ‘one who is prepared to work continually, and not at nonsenses’ can attain ‘achievements, reputation, wealth, important contacts’.36

While the painter-businessman is a recognizable and lauded type in Vasari, other artists are constructed along more courtierly lines. Vasari’s portrait of Raphael is particularly close to the cultural model inscribed by Castiglione, as is appropriate given the two men’s celebrated friendship (Vasari’s biography ends by citing the Latin elegy Castiglione wrote to mourn Raphael’s death).37 Raphael is portrayed as courteous and generous by nature, modest, handsome, and mannerly, and universally loved. Vasari especially attributes to Raphael the key courtly quality of ‘grace’: he is first introduced as ‘the no less excellent than graceful Raphael Sanzio of Urbino’,38 praised for his ‘graceful social charm’ (graziata affabilità), and described as ‘the most graceful Raphael’ (il graziosissimo Raffaello). Raphael’s courtly graces, in combination with his artistic genius, ensures a remarkable and meteoric career for a man who died at 37; he finished his brief life the darling of Leo X’s Rome, living a lifestyle that Vasari describes as less akin to that of a painter than a prince.

Raphael’s ‘grace’ has something of a redemptive role in Vasari’s artistic theology. As he notes at the outset of the Raphael biography, prior to Raphael’s generation, artists very often had about them some element of ‘madness’ (pazzia) and ‘uncouthness’ (salvatichezza), which led them to be abstracted and eccentric (astratti e fantastichi), hence damaging their reputation, however skilled they were in art. Vasari’s accounts of fifteenth-century artists are rich in portraits of this eccentricity, in a manner that anticipates the later, romantic notion of the artist as a man outside social norms. For Vasari, unlike the romantics, eccentricity in artists is generally censured, although genius or good nature can occasionally excuse it, as in the case of Masaccio, who is said to have earned the pejorative suffix to his name (‘Sloppy Tom’) for his lack of attention to propriety in dress. A figure treated with particular severity is Piero di Cosimo, who, although he is credited with great intelligence and artistic originality, squanders the benefits of these gifts of nature through his personal oddities; from youth, he is seen to have a suspicious attachment to solitude and a dreamy and speculative mind, and, by his later life, he has become a positive recluse, lurking in his studio, unable to tolerate even the company of apprentices, surviving on an eccentric diet of boiled eggs, cooked up 50 at a time. Vasari twice speaks of Piero as ‘bestial’ or a ‘beast’, a term also applied to the spendthrift Botticelli. By contrast, Leonardo da Vinci and, still more, Michelangelo are said to embody man’s capacity to rise to the level of the divine.

In tracking the progress of artists’ manners, Vasari is of course to an extent recapitulating the macro-narrative of the rise in the status of the visual arts in general. More locally to Florence, however, he is also recording the implications for artists of the political change that had taken place in his city with the establishment of the Medici duchy. The fifteenth-century Florentine artist had naturally needed to cultivate relationships with patrons, within the city and beyond, but he was essentially an independent skilled artisan and small businessman, master of a bottega (workshop or shop), many of his key relationships being with his equals or inferiors. In sixteenth-century ducal Florence, by contrast, the ability to manouevre within the court system and to keep the favour of the ducal family and high-ranking court officials could be crucial to an artist’s career. Vasari himself perfectly exemplifies the type of the courtier-artist. The son of a potter in Arezzo, he was rapidly taken under the wing of the Medici acolyte and cardinal Silvio Passerini, and was educated in Florence alongside two young members of the Medici family, Ippolito and Alessandro, in the 1520s. After a period working in papal Rome and elsewhere, Vasari returned to Florence in 1540 and won his way into the favour of Duke Cosimo de’ Medici, who eventually entrusted to him the direction of most court-sponsored artistic and architectural commissions.

Looking back from these courtly heights, it is not surprising that Vasari found the fifteenth-century social type of the Florentine maestro di bottega distinctly archaic. Education, aspiration, manners, and social sense were increasingly key to a successful artistic career. Vasari’s frustration with those artists who failed to adapt to the new world is vividly apparent in his exasperated biography of his own master, Andrea del Sarto, who, in Vasari’s narrative, squandered an immense talent through timidity and lack of ambition. Vasari portrays del Sarto as pusillanimous and uxorious, sacrificing his social reputation through an ill-advised marriage to a manipulative woman, and preferring a quiet life in Florence with his wife to the possibility of celebrity and riches at the court of France, where he was invited by King François I. Art historians have questioned this long-influential version of del Sarto’s biography, arguing that the artist’s life choices were coherent and motivated, rather than resulting from ‘baseness of spirit’.39 In the Lives, however, the cautionary tale of Andrea serves to underline an important principle of Vasari’s artistic ethics. For an artist to fail to capitalize on his talent in material and status terms was an unforgivable sin.

Reading Vasari, one has a clear sense of the status of the Renaissance artist as precarious and in need of constant, energetic renegotiation. The projection of a dignified social ethos was a crucial life skill for such men, both for themselves as individuals and for the status of their professions in general. Vasari’s wrath at Andrea del Sarto’s failure to profit from his talent needs to be read in this light. At its most extreme, this preoccupation with status and ‘face’ could take a considerable psychic toll, as we see in the case of the Florentine sculptor Benvenuto Cellini, whose autobiography, written in 1558–66 (though not published until 1728), is one of the most remarkable works of the age. Cellini’s touchiness with regard to honour and status is one of the most marked traits of his generally extraordinary character, as the autobiography represents it, along with impulsiveness, violence, and an explosive and protean creativity that allows him quite literally to get away with murder. Although Cellini shows himself winning the esteem of popes, cardinals, dukes, and kings through his artistic genius, he also portrays his progress as continually thwarted by intrigues on the part of his rivals and ill-wishers. Especially memorable is his account of his time at the Medici court in Florence in the 1540s, represented as a treacherous labyrinth populated with malicious court officials and backbiting rivals: an environment where artistic excellence is sometimes trumped by flattery and manipulation, so that socially adept mediocrities thrive where a man of Cellini’s talent and volatility might fail.


The tale of the rising social status of practitioners of the visual arts in the Italian fifteenth and sixteenth centuries is a familiar and a fascinating one, made more so by the fact that figures like Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, Cellini are so alive to us still today through their artistic legacy. In reconstructing the cultural landscape of Renaissance Italy, however, it is useful to recall that painters and sculptors were not alone in this intriguing social trajectory; rather, it was common to an entire cohort of creative and performance artists, associated particularly with the courts. A recent study by the economic historian Guido Guerzoni speaks persuasively of a diffuse ‘artistic presence’ within Italian culture whose economic and social impact has been obscured by modern scholarship’s focus on the anachronistic category of the ‘fine arts’. This broader arts culture was impressive in its scale; Guerzoni’s study of the Este court in Ferrara concludes that around 35 to 40 per cent of the total expenditure of the Este dukes, duchesses, and cardinals went on artistic and architectural patronage (including military architecture), and on the commission or purchase of other luxury items. Of this total, in years when there was not some exceptional event requiring lavish staging, such as a dynastic wedding, only 0.3 to 0.4 per cent went on painting and sculpture.40

Substantial numbers of people in the sixteenth century were involved in feeding the Italian courtly elite’s insatiable appetite for beautiful objects and sophisticated diversion. Artists on the supply side included engravers, lapidists, goldsmiths, tapestry-weavers, ceramicists, intarsia workers, glass-makers, jewellers. Performers included actors, musicians, buffoons, dwarfs, professional dancers and dance masters (who also served as choreographers), and the multiple service staff associated with fine dining: chefs (cuochi), stewards (scalchi), virtuoso carvers (trincianti), cup-bearers (coppieri), and buffet-masters (credenzieri), who were charged both with serving and with managing the display of plate, glass, and napkins. Other skilled court professionals such as fencing masters, dog trainers, horse trainers, and falconers may also be placed in this broad category of skilled court professionals, as may the tennis coaches (giocatori de balla) we see employed in the fifteenth century by the tennis-mad Galeazzo Maria Sforza, duke of Milan.41

A backhanded tribute to the success enjoyed by professional court virtuosi of the type just described is the status anxiety we can see them awakening in their aristocratic ‘betters’. ‘What should I do?’ Ariosto laments in one of his Satires, noting the lack of reward his poetry has won him at court. ‘I can’t dismember partridges in the air on a fork, nor place a leash on a hawk or a dog.’42 The allusion to the carver’s privileged position echoes a passage in Juvenal’s fifth satire; yet the detail of ‘aerial dismemberment’ also references contemporary court reality: the showiest skill of the virtuoso Renaissance trinciante was to carve a piece of meat, such a roast fowl, aloft on a fork, slicing it thinly so that the meat rained down effortlessly on to the plates below. Castiglione takes care at various points in The Courtier to distinguish the figure of his ‘perfect courtier’ from men of lesser ascribed status. The notion of sprezzatura is first defined by distinguishing the aristocratic courtier’s easy dancing style from the highly technical virtuoso dance style of the Urbino court’s plebeian dance master ‘Messer Pierpaolo’, which would amount to ‘affectation’ if an amateur were to attempt it.43 Similarly, the discussion of the type of wit appropriate to the courtier lays great emphasis on the importance of maintaining a certain dignity while jesting, without descending to the level of professional actors or buffoons.44

Professional court virtuosi seem to have come from quite diverse social backgrounds, often closer to those of artists than of writers or architects or composers. Those of highest birth status tended to be practitioners of ‘gentlemanly’ activities such as falconry and horse training, along with some of the highest of the table officials, such as the scalco, the steward or seneschal. Whatever their birth status, however, like painters and sculptors, court virtuosi of talent could attain considerable fame and prestige through the exercise of their artistry. Bartolomeo Scappi, chef to popes Pius IV and Pius V, seems to have held the highly visible office of papal mace-bearer (mazziere) and the papal title of Count Palatine at the end of his life.45 The fifteenth-century dance master Domenico da Piacenza was given the papal title of Knight of the Golden Spur, while Fusoritto da Narni, trinciante to Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, could boast the title of ‘Royal Knight’ (Cavaliere Reale). Fusoritto’s predecessor, Vincenzo Cervio, who acknowledges himself to have been low-born (nato di umil famiglia), speaks of having been awarded an office in the papal chancery by Cardinal Farnese worth 800 scudi a year, a vast sum—although he also complains that such justly liberal lords are scarce, and that some Roman prelates attempt to skimp by offering skilled carvers a stipend fitted for no more than a stable-boy.46

Like the men we today call artists, the Italian court virtuosi of the sixteenth century left a fairly substantial body of literature explaining and promoting their arts. Already in the fifteenth century, we can see a few dancing masters and cooks beginning to write treatises on their arts, which circulated in manuscript. The most important of the early dance manuals were written by Domenico da Piacenza and by the Jewish convert Giovanni Ambrosio, or Guglielmo Ebreo (the father of Castiglione’s Messer Pierpaolo).47The most famous cook’s manual of this time was by Martino da Como, who made his career in the household of Cardinal Lodovico Trevisan.48 It was in the age of the press, however, in the sixteenth century that technical manuals composed by virtuosi rose to become something of a recognized genre. Some of the most important in the various fields are those of Cristoforo da Messisbugo (1549) and Bartolomeo Scappi (1570) on the art of the cook; Federico Grisone (1550) and Claudio Corte (1562) on horsemanship; Domenico Romoli (1560), Giovanni Battista Rossetti (1584), and Cesare Evitascandalo (1598) on the office of steward (scalco); Giovanni Francesco Colle (1532), Vincenzo Cervio (1581), and Evitascandalo again, on carving; and Fabio Caroso, on dancing (1581).49 Some of these treatises, like Grisone’s, Corte’s, Scappi’s, Cervio’s, and Caroso’s, went through multiple editions, and several, like Corte’s, Scappi’s, and Grisone’s, were translated into various other European languages. Scappi’s, in particular, is a physically impressive work, almost 500 double-sided pages long, and containing over 1,000 recipes. It is prefaced by an engraved author-portrait and followed by numerous illustrations, including an elaborate double-page spread depicting the ritual surrounding the serving of food to cardinals in a papal conclave, recalling Scappi’s own prestigious service at the papal court (Fig. 29).

Although scholarship on this genre of writings has to date been confined to specialists in the various fields to which these treatises relate (food history, dance history, etc.), this body of literature has considerable sociohistorical interest when seen as a whole. Several of the manuals produced by virtuosi of the table arts have something of the character of ‘institutes’, in that they do not limit themselves to giving technical instruction in a given art, but also devote some space to discussing the status of the profession and the ethos of its practitioners. The earliest of the writers, thetrinciante Giovanni Francesco Colle, candidly entitles his modest, 50-page volume Refuge of the Impoverished Gentleman (Rifugio del povero gentilhuomo), but he nonetheless emphasizes the dignity of the art, defining it in his dedicatory letter as ‘artful and COURTLY cutting’ (artificioso e CORTEGIANO tagliar). In the preface to the third book of his treatise, Colle makes a distinction between the crude and artless meat-cutting practised by butchers (beccai) and the choreographed and erudite cutting of trincianti, whose professional remit he pushes as far as to encompass a basic philosophical and medical knowledge of nutrition and diet.


Fig. 29: Table service during a papal conclave. Illustration to Bartolomeo Scappi, L’Opera (Venice: Michele Tramezzino, 1570). Hampers and crates of food and drink are carried to an inspection table, before being placed on rotating containers (back right) and served to the room behind.

Colle’s successors were still more assertive in social terms. Cervio begins his treatise by noting that the offices of trinciantecoppiere, and scalco are the noblest of the court arts having to do with the table, and that the post of trinciante is sufficiently honourable to attract the attention of noblemen, at least in theory, if not always in practice. Evitascandalo describes the office of scalco as the most important office of any noble household, above those of secretary and butler (maestro di casa), while Scappi opens his treatise with an extended analogy between the arts of the cook and the architect. Cervio goes as far as to suggest that gentlemen might wish to study carving at an amateur level, for recreational use, as Castiglione had recommended that the courtier study drawing. He illustrates this with an engaging anecdote about a Roman nobleman impressing his beloved at a summer dinner party by taking over a fork and knife from his carver and elegantly carving her a pheasant himself.50

Where professional qualities are concerned, Claudio Corte, the most ambitious of the virtuosi, insists that the horsemaster (cavallarizzo) must have a compendious literary education, such as he himself displays in the treatise, copiously citing literary sources in both the vernacular and Latin. Most of the others are less ambitious, insisting on more easily acquired qualities such as trustworthiness, cleanliness, and, in the case of the trinciante and coppiere, the confidence to perform publicly without self-consciousness and with a rock-steady hand. Some recommendations recall fragments of Castiglione’s advice. Evitascandalo and Romoli would have their scalchi dress soberly in black. Cervio advises that his trinciante, like Castiglione’s courtier, be neither too tall or too short. Scappi urges that the chef study the ‘nature and qualities’ of his prince, so that he may shape himself to harmonize with them as closely as possible. Several of the virtuosi recommend that the perfect practitioner of their art should be noble of birth, or at least noble in their manners—a sleight of hand that allows them to suggest a Castiglionesque social elitism while allowing for meritocracy in practice. Even Corte, who expresses a strong preference for his cavallarizzo to be noble, acknowledges that ‘there are those who, though born commoners, nonetheless have manners fit for the noblest of men’ (121v).51

It is not only in points of detail that these court art ‘institutes’ invoke the spirit of Castiglione and other authors of Renaissance conduct literature. The titles of Corte’s and Cervio’s treatises, Il cavallarizzo and Il trinciante (The Horsemaster and The Carver) seem deliberately intended to echo the title of Castiglione’s dialogue, which, although originally published as The Book of the Courtier, was more usually entitled simply The Courtier (Il Cortegiano) from around the 1540s onwards. Corte explicitly cites both Castiglione’s Courtier and Cicero’s On the Orator to justify his methodology in describing the perfect form of the cavallarizzo, despite the impossibility of attaining this ideal in practice.52 Domenico Romoli excuses the brevity of his chapter-long description of the office of the coppiere by noting that a full treatment would require no less time than was needed by ‘Count Baldassare’ to describe his perfect courtier.53

The use the virtuosi make of Castiglione in their writings points to a more general reception dynamic. Although one of Castiglione’s agendas in The Courtier seems to have been to erect a wall between ‘true’ gentleman courtiers and the mass of non-noble court professionals, this effort was doomed to failure in practice. The democratizing dynamic of print culture transformed what had originally been intended as an elite text, to be circulated in manuscript to a select, coterie readership, into a work that exposed the secrets of courtly self-fashioning to an expanding vernacular public extending to urban professionals, merchants, literate upper artisans—and, of course, the lesser virtuosi of the courts. Successive editors of the work facilitated its utility as a textbook for hasty readers who might have been frustrated by the elegant obliquities of Castiglione’s argument. Before long, the work was available in editions furnished with marginal notes and indices translating Castiglione’s carefully nuanced suggestions into something more closely resembling rules, while later conduct books such as Giovanni della Casa’s Galateo and Stefano Guazzo’s Civil Conversation provided behavioural advice in a more folksy and less intimidating manner. By the later sixteenth century, a literate court professional like Corte’s cavallarizzo might aspire to the same kind of cultural poise Castiglione required in his aristocratic courtier. Corte acknowledges this half-jokingly, having his interlocutor in the dialogue that occupies the third book of his treatise accuse him of making his horsetrainer ‘brother to the Courtier’ (fratello del Cortegiano).54


As the evidence examined in the previous section suggests, traditional social distinctions were beginning to blur in some respects by the later sixteenth century. The Italian elite’s vast investment in art, in the broad sense defined by Guerzoni, resulted in an enhanced appreciation of virtuosistic skill and ingenuity, in whatever form it manifested itself. This had consequences for a broader segment of society than the traditional focus on painters and sculptors would suggest. In addition to the examples considered so far, of practitioners of the fine and decorative arts and the table arts, we should also take into account skilled artisans in trades such as weapon-making, armour-making, and the manufacture of mathematical and scientific instruments—all apparently utilitarian crafts, but in fact often practised in Renaissance Italy with a high degree of aesthetic and design skill, in addition to marked technical ingenuity.55 The ever-increasing material sophistication of Renaissance society gave rise to many new specialist professions in this period, such as that of damasceners within the internationally famous Milanese arms industry (‘damascened’ swords and armour, decorated with precious metals inlaid into a dark background of oxidized steel, were some of the most prized ‘art weapons’ of the day).56

Elite interest in the mechanical arts was, of course, for the most part limited to patronage and connoisseurship, but we even in this period find some evidence of a practical interest in ‘mechanical’ activities on the part of aristocrats. The most striking example is Alfonso I d’Este, duke of Ferrara, who is known to have practised metalwork, gun casting, and majolica work, as well as turning wood on a lathe. Alfonso was unusual in the extent of his practical craft interests, but a few manual arts gained reasonably broad aristocratic constituencies, particularly wood-turning,known as the ars tornandi. The Milanese turner Giovanni Ambrogio Maggiore, who had discovered a technique for turning one ivory ball inside another, was summoned to the court of Bavaria in 1573 by the heir to the dukedom, who had practical interests in the art.57 Besides these instances of aristocratic amateur interest, we also find men of relatively elite status engaging with the mechanical arts more professionally. A prominent example is Vannoccio Biringuccio, son of a civil engineer in the employment of the Sienese government. An expert on mining and a renowned cannon founder, Biringuccio wrote a wide-ranging treatise on the ‘arts of fire’ (La pirotechnia, 1540), encompassing iron founding, ceramics, metal-working of all kinds, brick-making, even explosives and fireworks. Another ‘gentleman mechanical’ was Cipriano Piccolpasso, descended from a prominent patrician family from Bologna, though born in the majolica-making centre of Castel Durante in the Marches. Piccolpasso worked as a military engineer for some time, but he also ran a majolica workshop and composed the first monographic treatise on the ceramicist’s art, The Three Books of the Potter (1548).

The very fact of the inscription in writing of craft techniques that had previously been passed on orally from father to son, or from master to apprentice, was a sign of the rising cultural status of such professions. Writing, analysis, theory all served to draw the mechanical arts into the sphere of the rational and discursive, and to underline the fact that these arts were not purely manual, but encompassed an intellectual dimension. The writers of technical treatises also emphasized this explicitly. Biringuccio consistently identifies ‘good judgment’ (buon giudicio) and ‘talent’ or ‘intelligence’ (ingegno) as core to successful craftsmanship. Another key element is disegno, ‘the key that opens the door to all crafts’ as Biringuccio defines it at one point.58 The art of the ceramicist, for example, is said to be made up of a combination of disegno and alchemy (alchemy in respect of the importance that chemical formulae such as lustres and glazes played in the art).59 Disegno was a charged term in Renaissance art theory, used by Vasari to designate the conceptual element in artistic ideation, as well as the material drawing in which the artistic ‘idea’ began to be sketched out in practice. Biringuccio uses the term in a more inclusive sense, signifying a capacity to inform and craft a material object, as well as conceiving of it—an ‘organic’, ‘embodied’ conception of creation, in which hand, mind, and eye worked in an integrated, non-hierarchical manner.60

The democratizing thrust of Biringuccio’s treatise is most apparent in his treatment of the art of the blacksmith. This he initially speaks of with an air of disparagement, emphasizing the hard labour the craft involves and the filthy environment of the smithy. It is principally practised by ‘people without disegno’, ‘crude and rustic folk’.61 Across the course of his chapter, however, Biringuccio’s tone changes, and a note of admiration creeps in. ‘If this were not such a toilsome and indelicate exercise, I would think it most praiseworthy; when you consider that these masters turn out their pieces without any mould or plan, just relying on their eye and good judgment, shaping them and making them graceful just by force of beating, it seems a remarkable thing.’62 Later in his discussion (288v), Biringuccio speaks of blacksmiths’ skill levels as a factor in determining the nobility of their craft, along with the extreme utility of their products. The word he uses is sapere, a word usually employed to designate purely intellectual forms of knowledge or wisdom. In this context, it picks out a kind of practical, operative intelligence that can ennoble even the most physical of trades.

Similar instances of semantic drift are apparent in some of the discussions of the practical arts in Leonardo Fioravanti’s 1564 Mirror of Universal Knowledge (Specchio della scienza universale), already cited in Chapter 3 for its celebration of the democratizing effects of print. Fioravanti’s title is already significant; where the term scienza was generally reserved for theoretical bodies of knowledge, Fioravanti implicitly extends it to the practical arts, opening the work with a discussion of the liberal and mechanical arts, the latter including carpentry, weaving, mirror-making, shoe-making—any human activity that incorporates a body of technical knowledge, or ‘secrets’, in the language of the day. Similarly, in his individual chapters, Fioravanti appropriates language generally associated with learned contexts to describe artisanal, skill-based knowledge. The Venetian tailor Maestro Giovanni is praised, for example, for his stupendous esperienza and dottrina; his Treviso counterpart Maestro Cesare Vaghetto for his scienza and esperienza.63 Esperienza in both cases indicates practice, but dottrina (‘doctrine’) and scienza generally have cognitive-intellectual associations. Fioravanti identifies good judgment and disegno as two of the main constituents of the tailor’s art, along with the more manual element of sewing and its associated skills. His treatment presages the still more intellectually ennobling discussion of the profession that we find in the Venice-based tailor Giovanni Pennacchini’s 1650 The Nobility and Antiquity of Tailors, where geometry and colour semiotics are added to the tailor’s necessary skills.64

Although no tailor-authored treatise such as Pennacchini’s survives from the sixteenth century, Fioravanti represents tailors themselves as having a robust sense of the dignity of their profession, to the extent that he feels himself called on to deliver a moral lecture warning them not to ‘glory so much in their art’ since, ‘even though it is fine and elegant, … it is not of that ingenuity (ingegno) and status that they] think’.65 It is interesting to juxtapose this passage with the Lombard artist Giovanni Battista Moroni’s famous portrait of a tailor dating from the late 1560s or early 1570s, a few years after Fioravanti’s Specchio was published (Frontispiece). Moroni’s painting shows the artisan at work, preparing to cut a cloth and—in a brilliant conceit—eyeing up the viewer with an air of concentration as if to gauge his size for the garment he is making. The device seems calculated to dramatize the moment of disegno, before the moment of the garment’s material rendition, underlining the common element that the arts of painting and tailoring shared. The cloth Moroni’s tailor is cutting is black, indicative of the status of his clientele; black was much favoured by the Renaissance elites, and many of Moroni’s noble sitters sport sumptuous black garments. The tailor himself is also elegantly dressed, in a buff-coloured doublet, ‘bombasted’ (lined and stuffed) scarlet hose, and a white shirt frilled at the neck and cuffs. He even wears a sword belt with a sliding buckle, a notable mark of status, originally associated with the aristocracy, though increasingly appropriated by those of lesser rank. These were unlikely work clothes, even for a well-heeled master artisan, and Moroni has done nothing to detract from the posed nature of the portrait; there is no allusion to a workshop setting other than the props of scissors, cloth, and uncluttered table (perhaps that of his client, rather than his own). The tailor’s dress seems intended as an advertisement of his wares—or rather, perhaps, a proud exhibition of his artistry; yet they are a gentleman’s clothes, and Moroni portrays him modelling them with dignity and poise.

The process of democratizing rehabilitation of the mechanical arts that we see in Biringuccio and Fioravanti reaches a kind of apotheosis in a remarkable work of the late sixteenth century, Tommaso Garzoni’s La piazza universale delle professioni umane (The Universal Piazza of Human Professions), published in Venice in 1585. Unlike most of his predecessors, Garzoni was not a practitioner of the mechanical arts himself; rather, he was a cleric, a Lateran canon—improbable though that may seem, given the worldly, and even racy, character of many of his writings. The Universal Piazza is typical of Garzoni’s writings in its exuberant, proto-Baroque title and its encyclopedic pretensions; it forms a kind of trilogy with Garzoni’s Theatre of the Various and Diverse Brains of the World (1583) and his Hospital of Incurable Madmen (1586). While the Theatreattempts to codify the different types of human character, and the Hospital the various species of madness, the Piazza offers an overview of professional and trade identities: a semi-serious, semi-satirical, moralizing anthropology of late-Renaissance man viewed through the particular lens of work.

As recent scholarship has stressed, Garzoni’s Piazza makes an interesting comparison with traditional ‘vertical’ descriptions of society, with kings and emperors at the apex, the nobility below, and merchants, artisans, and peasants beneath.66 As the metaphor of the piazza suggests, Garzoni’s vision of society is essentially horizontal, with the social ‘estates’ jostling and elbowing one another in a single, crowded space. In this vision, birth into a particular estate is less defining of human value than the proper use of the talents with which one has been endowed. Nor does Garzoni fully maintain the traditional hierarchical distinction between the sciences and liberal arts on the one hand, and the mechanical arts on the other. On the contrary, some of the professions that emerge with most honour in his book are technical arts such as ship-building, printing, clock-making, and weaponry. Developing the logic of writers of technical treatises such as Biringuccio, Garzoni explicitly contests perceptions of the mechanical arts as purely manual in character, defining them instead as ‘arts that involve both the intellect (ingegno) and the hand’. Indeed, emphasizing the conceptual element in mechanical activity, Garzoni makes technological innovation part of the definition of the term. ‘Not all trite and commonplace artisans (artefici) can be properly called mechanicals, but only those who use their intellect to address immense emerging difficulties, in the interest of the common good.’67

This last criterion, of contribution to the common good, is fundamental in Garzoni’s treatise. While his chapter on mirror-makers includes a fascinated long description of the manufacture of glass mirrors at Murano, and while he acknowledges that the trade requires both ‘intellect and industry’, Garzoni is forced to dismiss it on moral grounds as a trade catering essentially to ‘worldly diversion’.68 The cooks, carvers, cupbearers, and other ministers to Renaissance gourmandizing discussed earlier in this chapter are similarly given short shrift. Moving down the moral ladder, Garzoni’s ‘professions’ include those of thief, prostitute, pimp, vagabond, charlatan, murderer, and professional idler (ozioso di piazza). These are the sections of the treatise where Garzoni’s satirical wit, and his anti-hierarchical instincts, are most apparent. The chapter on thievery does not simply encompass discussion of the kind of lower-class, often socially marginal, figures who tended to populate the gallows of Renaissance cities. Garzoni also finds room for princes, the prototypical thieves, in that their main profession consists of occupying the territories of others, and for writers, who freely plagiarize the works of their predecessors (surely a wry self-reference, given Garzoni’s own gargantuan indulgence in such ‘thieving’).69 Renaissance man, for Garzoni, is driven by a kind of promiscuous creative energy, capable of devising societally useful technological innovations on the one hand and ever-new schemes for trickery and mischief on the other. As moralist, Garzoni approves of the proper use of human ingenuity and disapproves of the improper. As writer, he seems to divert himself equally in exploring the secrets of both commendable and disreputable trades.


In an intriguing passage in Vanoccio Biringuccio’s treatise on the ‘arts of fire’, the author takes the pretext of a discussion of brick-making to embark on an extended meditation on the anthropology and psychology of material progress. Starting in the prehistoric world, Biringuccio narrates the way in which primitive man first slept like an animal under the open skies, before gradually acquiring the habit of manufacturing crude huts using natural materials such as rocks and earth and tree trunks. Having acquired a measure of comfort and security through this means, Biringuccio’s early man expands his ambitions to embrace ‘superfluity’ and ‘pomp’; still in his earthen hovel, he begins to dream ‘not of huts, but of houses and palaces and the greatest of cities’.70 This vaulting fantasy of ever-expanding luxury is presented as arising from an innate human impulse towards ‘insatiability’: ‘always wanting more than we have; never contenting ourselves with what we have’.71 In the case in question, the desire for ‘more’ leads primitive man to exert his intelligence and observational powers to work out what it would take to go beyond the building materials provided by Nature (earth, stone, and wood) and gradually to evolve the means to mix mortar and fire bricks.

Biringuccio’s narrative has humanistic roots, following in the tracks of classical writers such as Cicero, Lucretius, and Vitruvius, who represented the early history of humankind as one of evolution from an initial, primitive, quasi-bestial lifestyle to a civilized one. Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things is Biringuccio’s most likely source, since it encompasses discussions of primitive metallurgy and other early uses of fire. Biringuccio’s attitude to the urge to luxury is distinctive, however, differing sharply from Lucretius’s more moralizing stance. The desire for ‘pomp’ and ‘superfluity’ is not posited here as a late development in society and a harbinger of decadence and corruption; rather, Biringuccio presents the luxury impulse as something natural and innate in man from his hut-dwelling days, and, moreover, as something commendable. Biringuccio describes the brick, the end result of primitive man’s dreams of future cities, as ‘an invention … more divine than human in its effects’.72

This positive attitude to material progress and to the psychological drives that produce it is characteristic of Biringuccio’s treatise as a whole, even if he shows a degree of understandable ambivalence when discussing recent advances in weapons technology towards the end of the book. At the beginning of the treatise, Biringuccio justifies the fact that the work will reveal ‘secrets’ previously jealously guarded by craftsmen, on the grounds that this provision of ‘fresh knowledge’ will help generate ‘fresh inventions’, which will supply further ‘fresh knowledge’ in turn.73 As Pamela Long has underlined, this tradition of technological innovation within the mechanical arts importantly presages the development of experimental science in the seventeenth century. The hierarchical division between techne (technical or craft skill) and episteme (theoretical knowledge) here begins to break down, as ‘mechanical’ labours are credited with the ability to generate new forms of theoretical knowledge.74

A celebratory attitude to technological progress similar to that which we find in Biringuccio underlies the decorative scheme of the study (studiolo) that the alchemist-prince Francesco I de’ Medici constructed in his Florentine palace to house his cabinet of curiosities in the 1570s, one of the most strikingly original pictorial schemes of the age.75 The theme of the studiolo scheme is bifold: a celebration of the creativity of Nature and of man, articulated into four sections themed to the four elements, earth, water, air, and fire. Alongside mythological scenes relating to the marvels of nature (such as Vasari’s beautiful Perseus and Andromeda, illustrating the origins of coral, from the blood of a slaughtered sea monster), the studiolo also includes paintings celebrating technological inventions, either ancient (purple dye, glass) or modern (gunpowder), and others figuring technological spaces, such as a wool factory, a bronze foundry, a diamond mine, and a goldsmith’s workshop (Fig. 30). Francesco had himself portrayed several times in the sequence: once in an alchemist’s workshop, sleeves rolled up and indistinguishable from his assistants, in terms of dress; the other on the margins of Giovanni Maria Butteri’s The Glassworks, where he is seen scrutinizing a recently made goblet. This spectacularization of technology, while unusual, was not quite unique to Francesco’s studiolo. Among the entertainments laid on for the French king Henri III during a state visit to Venice in the 1570s was a temporary glassworks mounted on piers in the lagoon, with Murano glass-makers performing their skills in public, leaving their noble audience ‘astonished and filled with delight’. The spectacle was illuminated, allowing the glass-making to be watched after dark, a significant technological achievement in itself.76

These points are worth underlining, as a long-rooted scholarly cliché sees late sixteenth-century Italy as a backward-looking, static, elitist culture, increasingly rigid in its social hierarchies and in a state of economic decline. Italian historians have often described this period as one of ‘refeudalization’, reaching back beyond Italy’s vibrant early-Renaissance commercial culture to a distant, aristocratic, landed past. In cultural terms, one sign of this shift was the vogue enjoyed in the Italian courts by a genre such as pastoral drama: a form of comedy, or tragi-comedy, set in the fantastic ancient setting of Arcadia, with a cast made up of ‘aristocratic’ shepherds and nymphs, whose elegant loves are contrasted with comic business involving ‘plebeian’ goatherds and satyrs.77 Pastoral has its roots in the classical mythological narrative that saw man’s origins in a simple, pastoral setting, during the so-called Golden Age, prior to such corrupting technological advances as the development of navigation, the rise of cities and commerce, the invention of money. Human material inventiveness of the kind celebrated by Biringuccio is demonized in this alternative narrative of human origins, which paints technological and material progress as inevitably accompanied by a concomitant moral decline.


Fig. 30: Alessandro Fei, The Goldsmith’s Workshopc. 1570. Studiolo of Francesco I de’ Medici, Palazzo Vecchio, Florence.

Although critics have often seen pastoralism’s nostalgia and its fastidious distaste for the modern, urban, money-driven world as representative of later sixteenth-century aristocratic attitudes in general, it is important to recall that this set of attitudes co-existed with other, very different, even antithetical value systems. Within the increasingly articulate culture of the mechanical arts and their gentleman admirers, man’s material powers of invention were celebrated, not reviled. Nor did social status depend entirely on ‘feudal’, ascriptive factors, such as those that divided noble shepherds from base-born goatherds in pastoral; a respectable social standing might rather be achieved through exertion and talent. Even within the princely courts, which have often been stereotyped as the prime loci of ‘refeudalization’, these two cultures existed in parallel. Indeed, as Guido Guerzoni has argued, the culture of ‘magnificence’ and conspicuous consumption that dictated such a high percentage of expenditure in the courts, rather than sapping the Italian economy, as traditional models have sometimes suggested, served instead to stimulate that economy’s thriving and innovative luxury goods sector, which Guerzoni sees as having laid the basis for Italy’s modern-day, technological-aesthetic investment in design.78

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