The idea of “modern art” in Renaissance Italy

Essay by Robert Brennan

The Italian Renaissance has long been studied as a point of origin for “modern” ideas about art. This approach, which can be traced back to figures like Giorgio Vasari and Jacob Burckhardt, remains central in scholarship on Renaissance art to this day. For example, on the first page of a recent textbook on Italian Renaissance art, Stephen Campbell and Michael Cole begin by laying out two contrary views of the period. To Renaissance writers like Lorenzo Ghiberti, they explain, the Renaissance meant the rebirth of classical antiquity; “to others, however, it has seemed that the importance of Italian art after about 1400 lay not in its return to origins but in the emergence of something entirely new and characteristically modern – the idea of art itself.”1

In recent decades one of the most widely influential representatives of this latter view has been Hans Belting’s classic book, Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image before the Era of Art, in which the Renaissance marks a period of transition from “the era of images” into “the era of art.”2 In the Middle Ages, Belting argues, a principle function of images was to embody the unmediated presence of the sacred, but this function was disrupted by the Renaissance and Reformation, when images instead came to be treated as works of art, governed by conventions of authorship and aesthetic interpretation. 

While this outlook has certainly made a lasting contribution to Renaissance art history, it has also given rise to certain blind spots and misconceptions in the field. For example, it is often assumed that the word “art” underwent a radical change of meaning in the Renaissance, anticipating the later, post-Enlightenment notion of the “fine arts” as an autonomous field of creative activity.3 However, close readings of period texts often suggest the opposite. Michael Cole, for example, drew this conclusion in his important study of the Florentine sculptor Benvenuto Cellini: “Cellini’s art and writing suggest that the kind of practical reason that Aristotelian tradition had long associated with the mechanical arts is the kind of thinking that really matters.”4 Hans Belting made a similar observation about Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists (1550/68), the most canonical history of art written during the Renaissance. In Vasari, Belting writes, the Italian word arte “carries the double meaning of a learnable craft and an objective science”: in other words, it continues to operate within the established, medieval scheme of mechanical and liberal arts.5 For this reason, Likeness and Presence was explicitly not about the “idea” of art, but rather the “function” of art: Belting’s argument, ultimately, is that the Renaissance began to treat images as art before it was possible to describe them fully as such.6

My recent book, Painting as a Modern Art in Early Renaissance Italy, takes a different approach to these traditional themes. Rather than seeking out correspondences between Renaissance and modern ideas about art, it accepts the definition of “art” (ars) found in Renaissance sources, and strives to understand how artists and writers of the period themselves thought about the prospect of “modern art” (ars moderna). Focusing on a group of sources written between the 1390s and 1440s, it finds that throughout this period, the idea of art remained remarkably consistent with standard definitions passed down from medieval times. That is, art continued to be conceived as recta ratio factibilium: a phrase that can be translated loosely as “the right way of making things” – the surest, straightest path to the best results.7

Art historians have traditionally dismissed this concept as irrelevant to the analysis of painting and sculpture, arguing that it defines art as a mere means to an end, encompassing what would today be classified as “skills,” “crafts,” “technologies,” and scholarly “disciplines,” rather than singling out the distinctively “aesthetic” qualities of painting or poetry.8 These objections are valid to an extent, but they fail to recognize the intricacy of the medieval concept and its centrality to the practice of painting in the period. While it is true, for example, that virtually any field of productive activity could be conceived as an art in the Middle Ages, boundaries still existed between art and non-art, such that it was possible to paint with or without “art,” and similarly, to evaluate paintings with or without the criteria specific to “art.” 

In Painting as a Modern Art, I argue that this type of distinction meant a great deal to Italian artists and scholars in the early phases of what we now call the Renaissance. To see this in practice, we can compare two sources written in Italian around the 1390s, one by a painter, Cennino Cennini, and the other by a literary writer named Franco Sacchetti. Both discuss the historical legacy of Giotto, the famous Florentine painter who died in 1337, and both situate Giotto’s legacy in relation to “modern” developments in painting. However, they do so in starkly different ways.

Cennini describes Giotto as the founder of a modern “art”: in his words, Giotto “changed the art of painting from Greek into Latin and made it modern.”9 He makes this statement in a handbook on painting that is largely concerned with practical instructions, such as how to grind pigments, how to prepare a panel, and how to apply paint. As I show in my book, however, the form and conceptual parameters of Cennini’s text are the same as those in a wider genre of medieval handbooks on the “arts” (artes), and within this genre, there was already a well-established sense of what it meant for an art to be “modern.” Within this paradigm, to make an art modern was to put it on a new foundation in “science” (scientia) and rationalize its procedures accordingly, aligning the step-by-step process of production with the same underlying chain of cause and effect that lent structure and order to the workings of nature itself.

Cennini explicitly presents Aristotelian color theory as a foundation for the art of painting.10 The difference he describes between the “Greek” and “modern” art also corresponds with a concrete, step-by-step difference in the application of color, as becomes evident on comparison with a recently rediscovered fragment from a Byzantine treatise on painting.11 In the case of painting faces, for example, the Byzantine method distributes a variety of subtly contrasting hues across the shadows and highlights, as if to evoke the shifting, contingent appearance of a face in everyday conditions of ambient and reflected light. By contrast, Cennini’s method aims to paint how color ought to behave according to science – a pure, harmonic relation of hues, uncorrupted by the contingencies of perception. The difference thus reflects the way Cennini defines the “task” of painting in his prologue: “to discover things not seen, hiding themselves under the shadow of natural phenomena, and to fix them with the hand, presenting what does not actually exist.”12

A very different view of modern painting arises in the second source on Giotto’s legacy mentioned above: a short story (novella) written by Franco Sacchetti in the 1390s.13 Sacchetti recounts a debate held among the leading Florentine artists of the mid-fourteenth century as to who the greatest painter had been aside from Giotto. Alberto Arnoldi, a prominent sculptor of the time, “resolves” the debate by arguing that a group of “modern painters” had in fact superseded Giotto: the women of Florence, experts in their use of makeup. In support of this claim, Alberto embarks on a long, detailed description of the feats of modern makeup: the improvement of complexion, the straightening of the nose, the reshaping of the eyes, the softening of the chin line, and so on. 

As I show in the book, each and every one of these cosmetic transformations corresponds with a conspicuous visual difference between “Greek” and “modern” paintings – a correspondence that has to be understood in light of the broader trajectory of painting in this period. Before Giotto’s lifetime, for example, the Virgin Mary had typically appeared as a venerable old matron, her neck, hair, and forehead hidden behind hoods and undergarments in the traditional Byzantine manner. Giotto was among the first Italian painters of his time to reveal her hair, and in his wake, the Virgin was increasingly represented as an attractive young maiden. Indeed, by the middle of the fourteenth century – when Sacchetti’s story was set – the costumes of fashionable young ladies in paintings had become virtually indistinguishable from those of the Virgin herself. Against this background, Alberto’s speech amounts to a fairly accurate description of one prominent aspect of modern painting. As he puts it, painting was getting better and better simply because it was depicting more and more beautiful people: people with better-shaped faces and blonder hair. 

In Sacchetti’s story, the leading painters of Florence all react to this view as a ludicrous joke – an utterly laughable way of looking at modern painting. The speech must therefore be understood as ironic, targeting a certain way of seeing and understanding modern painting, rather than the achievements of modern painters themselves. The implication is as follows. If modern painting was merely a matter of physical beautification, then recent, more “modern” painters could in fact be considered superior to Giotto. By the same token, however – and this was truly deplorable in the eyes of a misogynist like Sacchetti – modern painting would amount to little more than cosmetics. In the end, the object of Sacchetti’s criticism is an outlook that conflates the beauty of paintings with the beauty of the people that they represent, failing to recognize the intrinsic character of painting as an “art.”

What divides these two accounts of Giotto, then, is the concept of “art” itself: Cennini sees Giotto through the lens of “art,” whereas Sacchetti parodies a way of praising him that leaves “art” entirely out of the equation. A historical relationship between art and modernity thus emerges from these sources that has nothing to do with the birth of a new, distinctively modern idea of art. Rather, in both cases, it is the medieval concept of art as recta ratio factibilium that shapes and conditions what it means to be “modern.” For in this period, as throughout the Middle Ages, the word “modern” was still commonly used in an entirely prosaic way, synonymous with words like “recent.” In this sense, by 1350, the figures in more recent paintings really did look more charming, more fashionable, more beautiful than in Giotto. To insist that Giotto remained “modern” for decades and even centuries after his death was to cut against the grain of the word, prolonging the present that it encompassed. Cennini achieves this by locking Giotto’s legacy into what we might call an artificial present – a present palpable only to those familiar with the terms of the art. 

Further reading: Robert Brennan, Painting as a Modern Art in Renaissance Italy (London: Harvey Miller, 2019) 

Editorial Peer Review
Rights: CC-BY 4.0 

Citation: Robert Brennan: The idea of “modern art” in Renaissance Italy, in: Figurationen des Übergangs, Jg. 2021, S. 1-5. DOI:10.25598/transitionen-2021-2. <>


  1. Campbell, Stephen and Michael Cole: A New History of Italian Renaissance Art, London: Thames and Hudson, 2012, p. 10. []
  2. Belting, Hans: Bild und Kult. Eine Geschichte des Bildes vor dem Zeitalter der Kunst, Munich: C.H. Beck, 1990; id.: Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image before the Era of Art, trans. Edmund Jephcott, Chicago/London: University of Chicago Press, 1994. []
  3. E.g. Kristeller, Paul Oskar: “The Modern System of the Arts: A Study in the History of Aesthetics (I)”, in: Journal of the History of Ideas 12.4 (October 1951), pp. 496-527, and “The Modern System of the Arts: A Study in the History of Aesthetics (II)”, in: Journal of the History of Ideas 13.1 (January 1952), pp. 17-46; Shiner, Larry: The Invention of Art: A Cultural History, Chicago/London: The University of Chicago Press, 2001. []
  4. Cole, Michael: Cellini and the Principles of Sculpture, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002, p. 159. []
  5. Belting, Hans: The End of the History of Art?, trans. Christopher Wood, Chicago/London: The University of Chicago Press, 1987, p. 74. On this point, see further Rubin, Patricia: Giorgio Vasari: Art and History, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995, pp. 234-48. []
  6. Belting’s hesitation on this issue is evident in the “Forward” of the book. See Bild und Kult, 1990, p. 9: “Die ‘Kunst,’ wie sie der Autor hier verstehen möchte, setzt die Krise des alten Bildes und seine Neubewertung als Kunstwerk in der Renaissance voraus,” followed by the qualification: “Schon im 11. Jahrhundert besaß man in Byzanz eine philosophische Ästhetik des Bildes, wie sie der Westen erst in der Renaissance entwickelte.” In the English edition, by contrast: “Art, as it is studied by the discipline of Art History today, existed in the Middle Ages no less than it did afterwards. After the Middle Ages, however, art took on a different meaning and became acknowledged for its own sake…” (Belting, Likeness and Presence, 1994, p. xxi). []
  7. For a representative overview of such medieval definitions, see Merle, Hélène: “Ars: Usages du mot ars de l’Antiquité classique au XIIIe s.”, in: Bulletin de Philosophie Médiévale 28 (1986), pp. 95-133. []
  8. E.g. Schapiro, Meyer: “On the Aesthetic Attitude in Romanesque Art” (1947), in: M.S.: Selected Papers: Romanesque Art, New York: George Braziller, 1993, p. 24; Ackerman, James: “On the Origins of Art History”, in: J.A.: Origins, Invention, Revision: Studying the History of Art and Architecture, New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 2016, p. 21. []
  9. Cennini, Cennino: Il libro dell’arte, ed. by Fabio Frezzato, Vicenza: N Pozza, 2003, p. 63; id.: The Craftsman’s Handbook, trans. by Daniel V. Thompson, New York: Dover Publications, 1960, p. 2. []
  10. Cennini, Il libro dell’arte, ed. Frezzato, 2003, p. 88; Cennini, The Craftman’s Handbook, trans. Thompson, 1960, pp. 20-21; see Brennan, Painting as a Modern Art, 2019, pp. 61-66, and passim. []
  11. Parpulov, Georgi R. (i.a.): “A Byzantine Text on the Technique of Icon Painting,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 64 (2010), pp. 201-16. []
  12. Cennini, Il libro dell’arte, ed. Frezzato, 2003, p. 62; Cennini, The Craftman’s Handbook, trans. Thompson, 1960, p. 1. []
  13. Sacchetti, Franco: “Novella 136”, in: Il Trecentonovelle, ed. by Davide Puccini, Turin: UTEP, 2004, pp. 412-15; transl. in: F.S.: Tales from Sacchetti, trans. by Mary G. Steegmann, London: L.M. Dent & Co., 1908, pp. 114-16. []

“Art and Defects” in the Eye of a Beholder

Conference Report by Bob Muilwijk

The conference „Kunst und Gebrechen“ („Art and Defects“), which was scheduled from March 19th to March 21st and then postponed due to Covid-19, finally took place from November 5th through to November 7th. The second lockdown of the year in Austria demanded an altogether different setting than originally intended by the organizers Hildegard Fraueneder (Universität Mozarteum)Nora Grundtner and Manfred Kern (Paris-Lodron-Universität Salzburg). Luckily, the online environment they provided for the conference proved an excellent alternative framework, save for the occasional turned off microphone giving the fitting illusion of mute speakers or deaf audiences.

The conference had a clear biographical focus: Most of the fourteen presentations sought to disentangle the influence any clear “defects” artists might have had on their work or their reception. Of course, this already poses a problem that many of the speakers addressed: the idea of “defects” presupposes a teleological norm, be it physical, mental or concerning age or gender, from which it is possible to deviate. A defect is a defect first and foremost in the eye of the beholder and, as Manfred Kern mentioned in his introduction, it can be seen not just as an impediment, but as a catalyst for artistic expression, too. As Dutch footballer Johan Cruijff once succinctly put it: “Every disadvantage has its advantage.”

Regarding deviation from a physical norm Nelly Janotka (Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte München) started out by discussing performances and works by Lisa Bufano, Mari Takayama and Stelarc in her opening presentation. By integrating prosthetics into her performances, which purposefully do not conform to the normative “whole” body, Bufano questions the necessity of such a norm, while Takayama creates self-portraits without any prosthetics and thus seems to ask a similar question: Must the “incomplete” body complete itself? Australian-Cypriot Stelarc, finally, with his attempt to permanently attach a prosthetic third arm to his body, seems to go above and beyond any possible norm for the human body.

Janotka’s presentation laid out three main variables that would define the following presentations: 1. What genre of art are we discussing? 2. What kind of “defect” is in play? 3. Is the “defect” positively or negatively connotated? 

Occasionally, presentations neatly clustered themselves with regard to these variables. This was, for example, the case with the literary and filmic depictions of blind female composer Maria Theresia Paradis and the sculptural and graphic depictions of deaf male composer Ludwig van Beethoven discussed by Julia Hinterberger (Universität Mozarteum) and Max Pommer (Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena) respectively. While Paradis’ rise to musical fame was facilitated by her blindness, which made her eligible for financial support by empress Maria Theresia and an ensuing musical education, being both a blind and a female composer also rendered her something of a curiosity. (Such links between gender and reception were also the subject of Romana Sammern’s  (Paris-Lodron-Universität Salzburg) presentation on the biographies of female artists from the Renaissance up to now.) Klinger’s 1902 Beethoven sculpture, in a similar vein, bears testimony of his interpretation of the composer’s deafness as a final step in an artistic apotheosis, which is meant quite literally. In this, the sculptor draws on a long 19th century tradition including Schopenhauer, Wagner and Nietzsche, who all see Beethoven’s deafness as enabling rather than disabling: losing his hearing allowed him to “turn his eyes inwards”. As such, his “defect” places Beethoven not below, but above the normative “whole” man – the artist and his art start to transcend humanity, as portrayed by Joseph Adolf Lang in his 1905 aquatint “Beethoven in den Wolken thronend” (“Beethoven enthroned in the clouds”).

At this point, it should be pointed out that positively connoted “defects” seem more common in the discussed artists than negatively connoted ones, which probably has to do with a survivorship bias with regard to artistic reception. We simply do not notice those artists who failed to make it to the big league because of their “defects”.

This was made clear, too, by Peter Deutschmann (Paris-Lodron-Universität Salzburg), who, starting out from Nikolaj Gogol’s short story Šinel’ (The Overcoat), discussed the three stuttering Russians Jurij Lotman, Michail Gasparov and Vladimir Sorokin. Lotman’s adage that “the best speaker is a bad speaker” because a bad speaker has to constantly think about what he is saying, surely makes sense in his particular case, but does not, for example, hold true for the classical philologist and verse theoretician Gasparov, whose lectures Deutschmann had attended in Moscow with no little amount of astonishment that the university let this man teach at all. In reciting verse, however, Gasparov’s stutter disappeared all but completely, which supports a hypothesis that his “defect” led him to grow to such great heights as a scholar of literature. 

One is tempted to say that if someone achieves something while suffering from a “defect”, we (both the artists or, in this case, the scholars themselves as well as their audience) reflexively fall back into the assumption that every part of a story should have a narrative function – indeed, we fall back unto Nietzsche’s problematic quote, that “[t]hat which does not kill us makes us stronger.”

That such a reflex has a long tradition was illustrated by Georg Danek’s (Universität Wien) presentation on poets as seers in the epics of Greek antiquity. In the Odyssey, the blind singer Demidocus is portrayed as having received his talent for singing from the gods, who also (but not in turn!) robbed him of his eyesight. A similar binary opposition is present in the lame god Hephaestus, who nevertheless is the most fabled artist of all gods. This link between good and bad “gifts from the gods” becomes explicit in the Homeric figure of Tiresias, whose blindness is not just juxtaposed with his ability as a seer, but paradoxically connected to it in some sort of an exchange deal. Regarding Homer himself, who is traditionally portrayed as blind, too, a similar mechanic seems to be in play: the poet becomes a vātes – through his blindness. 

Dorothea Weber (Paris-Lodron-Universität Salzburg) consequently picked up the thread with Lucretius, while highlighting for example Democritus’ self-blinding in order not to impede his mind’s eye with his physical ones, as well as the link between poetry and philosophy on the one hand and insanity on the other made by Saint Jerome in his comments on Lucretius. This “knowledge” of Lucretius’ insanity, although first purported nearly five centuries after his death, influenced his reception: the poet-pilosopher was both admired and dismissed for being insane.

With their presentations both Gregor Schuhen (Universität Koblenz-Landau) and Jana Graul (Universität Hamburg) stayed in the realm of reciprocity between artistic genius and “defects”. Schuhen bridges the apparently wide chasm between Don Quixote and Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus: Both in Cervantes’ early 17th century novel as in Mann’s adaptation of the Faustian story, Schuhen highlights a process which he calls “genius through insanity” – Mann has his protagonist Adrian Leverkühn purposefully infect himself with syphilis, which is referred to in the novel as the “genius-bestowing disease” [1]-. (This matches Mann’s view that physical discomfort is a boon for artists, which he expressed in several theoretical writings.) Here the intentional seeking out of a “defect” in the hopes for artistic productivity sets these works apart from others, whilst clearly placing them in a tradition that is already familiar with the positively connoted “defective artist”. Offering a third glance at this tradition after Danek and Weber, Ronny F. Schulz (Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel), while not causally linking artistic skill and “defect” to one another, pointed out the prevalence of physical disability as a sign of poetic potency in 13th century German language poetry –  even when, similar to Mann’s Leverkühn, such “defects” are achieved by automutilation, as is the case in Ulrich von Lichtensteins Frauendienst (Service of Ladies).

Graul on the other hand reflects on both negative and positive consequences of the constant exposure to the risk of wavering health for artists in the early modern period, like Michelangelo. One can compare this mechanism to Thomas Bernhard’s excessive productivity, which he himself attributed to his ever impending death caused by his chronic lung disease.

Céline Roussel (Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München) finds a similar positive twist to the “defect” of blindness in the works of blind authors Jacques Lusseyran, John Martin Hull and Georgina Kleege. Their “defect” is no totally inhibiting hindrance, but adds new dimensions to their literary work – they not only normalize blindness, but draw artistic force from it. 

Subsequently, Daniel Ehrmann’s (Paris-Lodron-Universität Salzburg) presentation, which focused mainly on Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, Friedrich Schiller and Adalbert Stifter, was something of an anomaly, because none of these three suffered from any “defects” that normally would have hindered them in their mode of artistic expression. That Lichtenberg suffered from quite serious physical deformities and that Schiller got severely ill, but survived, did not impede their possibility to write, but nevertheless limited their choice of genre (Lichtenberg’s decision for the aphorism, for example, in the eyes of Goethe) or influenced their productivity (Schiller’s increased output after his disease). Stifter’s case is particularly unusual, because in keeping a meticulous diary on his perfectly fine health, which he mostly describes as “good” or “very good”, he begins to perceive himself through this own writing as generally unhealthy: the non plus ultra of his self-diagnoses is not “healthy”, but “as if I were healthy”. That Stifter eventually commits suicide leaves Ehrmann and us in an interesting reversal to wonder not whether a “defect” influenced his writing, but if his writing himself created a “defect”.

An opposite view with regard to a reciprocity of artistic genius and “defects” was also offered. In his presentation on Spanish painter Francisco Goya, Andreas Emmelheinz (Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main) resists such assumptions – in Goya’s case, of a correlation between his concept of artistic melancholy and his sickness and conditions of old age. These do not heighten his productivity or raise the quality of his work – he simply “keeps growing older, but continues to learn”. The frequently made link between Ingeborg Bachmann’s “defects” and her work, too, was problematized by Marlen Mairhofer (Paris-Lodron-Universität Salzburg). The reflex-like reading of Bachmann’s works as “pathotexts”, Mairhofer professes, deprives the author herself of her voice (which becomes replaced by the voices of any possible “defects”) and the reader of an adequate reading of her work. Emmelheinz and especially Mairhofer thus offered a refreshing counterpoint to seeing artists’ “defects” as a primarily positive influence on artistic expression on the one hand and at least as an indispensable tool to understanding their work on the other.

The conference thus spanned multiple artistic genres and offered plenty of different approaches to the subject. While broadening its scope even more might not have been beneficial, there were several i’s that remained undotted: I am thinking here, for example, of the categories ethnicityclass and perhaps religion. Concerning the first category one could discuss Polish poet Julian Tuwim, whose mastery of the Polish language is occasionally connected causally to his Jewish heritage: that he was no “real Pole” allowed him to write in ways “real Poles” could not. Such a trope is problematic, because it is generally agreed upon nowadays that ethnicity cannot be “defective”, but these mechanisms nonetheless are reminiscent of those discussed over the course of the conference and have been at play in the reception of artists for centuries. One could make a similar case about late Danish poet Yahya Hassan, who, being of Palastinian descent and raised in one of Denmark’s poorer neighborhoods in a Muslim family, deviates the literary establishment’s “norm” in more than one. Here, as, for example, with Maria Theresia Paradis, intersectionality enters the picture. In any case: while focusing on the artist’s “defects” can be productive (especially in regard to an artist’s reception), this also carries in itself the risk of clouding a perhaps clearer view of the artist’s work, which, in the end, is autonomous, too

Being organized in the framework of the cooperation between the Universität Salzburg and the Universität Mozarteum entitled “Wissenschaft und Kunst” (“Knowledge and the Arts”), such autonomous art was also originally intended to be an equally important part of the conference as the presentations. In this case, too, Covid-19, threw a spanner in the works. Although this “defect” could not be remedied, the conference, which took place under difficult circumstances, definitely met the high expectations it had raised.



[1] Thomas Mann: Doctor Faustus. Translated from the German by John E. Woods. New York, Vintage 1999, p. 248.

Editorial Peer Review
Rights: CC-BY 4.0

Empfohlene Zitierweise: Bob Muilwijk: [Tagungsbericht] “Art and Defects” in the Eye of a Beholder. Bericht zur Tagung „Kunst und Gebrechen“ [Veranstaltung des Programmbereichs “Figurationen des Übergangs”, interuniversitäre Kooperation “Wissenschaft und Kunst” zwischen Universität Salzburg / Universität Mozarteum, 5.-7.11.2020, Salzburg], in: Figurationen des Übergangs, Jg. 2021, S. 1-5. DOI: 10.25598/transitionen-2021-1 <>

Suche in OpenEdition Search

Sie werden weitergeleitet zur OpenEdition Search