If somebody was to ask you to name the most creative period of time in human history, an era where the arts excelled and gave inspiration and rise to innovation and invention, you would most like scream “The Renaissance” before they had finished the question.
Without a doubt, the Renaissance was one of the most profound moments of enlightenment, discovery and achievement in human history and cities like Florence were at the forefront of such growth and creativity.
This massive boom in the arts was no mere coincidence however, and one of the secrets of the Old Masters was the motivation and learning that they gained from ‘La Bottega’, or the workshop.
If you have ever been to art school, or spent time with like-minded creative people or art collectives, then you have an idea as to why the Renaissance workshops enhanced creativity so much.
Grouping creatives together, day in and day out, encouraged them to find their common ground shared by the love of the arts, share ideas and thoughts as well as compete against one another all of which boosts creative growth.
Another reason is that the artists and apprentices of a workshop would mostly be working together on artworks that lived up to the workshop Master’s vision and art style. Present day artists work hard to develop a unique and personal art style and this often takes a very long time to discover, let alone perfect. Back in the Renaissance, each student would be building upon decades of prior knowledge of a particular art style.
Before taking a closer look at the workshops themselves, let’s look at the chief reason behind such an arrangement.
Throughout Europe in the Middle Ages, Trade Guilds ran the show. They were responsible for the government of professions and crafts, they decided and set the rules and limitations of craftsmen within their respected territories.
Trade Guilds also controlled trade, limiting outside competition and establishing the quality standards for each trade.
Without becoming a member to the appropriate guild for their craft, an artisan was not allowed to practice their trade. With that in mind, it’s clear that guilds were an extremely important part of life in this period of time. Guilds protected their workers and consumers as well as performing services for their members and the communities within their territories.
By the time of the Renaissance Era, becoming a guild man consisted of three stages –
Apprentices were subject to their master and during the time of their apprenticeship they were usually not allowed to marry, remaining dedicated and focused on their Master.
An apprenticeship often lasted between two and seven years, depending upon the trade. The apprentice often started at around the age of twelve years old; although in some cases they began as young as six or seven years old.
At the stage of Journeyman, the worker was entitled to earn a daily salary and although still subject to their master in day to day work, they also begun working on their own projects as well; working towards creating their own masterpiece and moving onto the next and final stage.
This was easier said than done though as the masterpiece had to be recognised as such by the guild master, and once that had been done, the worker would become a Master in his own right and could be accepted as a member of the guild.
With the first masterpiece completed and accepted by the guild, the Master became a member of the guild and could serve their own patrons, open a workshop of their own and hire apprentices.
Once master status had been achieved, the rest was down to the success of their own craft and trade.
In early modern Europe, the most common name for a city guild for artists as well as doctors was the Guild of St. Luke; a patron saint shared by both artists and doctors.
The artist workshops of Renaissance Italy, especially Florence offer such a valuable insight into the life of an artist at that time and seem to have been the perfect provision for artists; both apprentices and masters alike.
During the Middle Ages, artists were a trade, offering their services to wealthy patrons and carrying out works to the specifications or brief given by the patron; this wasn’t always paintings or sculptures either, workshops covered a range of commissions and services.
As noted before, an apprentice would begin his career at a young age, usually about twelve years old; they would be sent to a master’s workshop by their parents to begin work as an apprentice. The parents of the apprentice would usually pay the master keep for their child, but the master was also obliged to pay the apprentice a small wage which increased as their skills grew.
The early stage of the apprenticeship would mainly consist of humble, menial tasks such as running errands, sweeping and cleaning the workshop, grinding and mixing pigments, preparing panels; slowly working their way up as their skills grew over the course of time.
The apprentice would eventually begin copying their masters drawings and sketches and perhaps those of other artists, especially copying the work of celebrated artists in their cities and towns. Sometimes the more skilled apprentices would accompany their masters to carry out their commissions in distant other cities and would gain practical experience as well as find inspiration and learning when exposed to new influences prevalent in other places.
Different cities and workshops had different set times for each stage of learning for the apprentice, and in some cases I’d imagine it would be down to the skill of the apprentice in question as to when they progressed to the next stage.
After becoming proficient with copying the sketches and drawings of their master, the apprentice would move on to drawing from casts and statuettes, learning to transfer a 3 dimensional object onto a flat piece of paper whilst retaining the illusion of it being 3 dimensional.
The aspiring artist had to learn to do this with a static or inanimate object before later moving on to drawing the figure from life. Classical sculpture would have been very appreciated for this stage, as well as the magnificent sculptures springing up all over the place during this golden age of the arts.
Still drawing at every opportunity, the student would move onto painting, copying and learning their masters style, copying the painting of other artists and becoming more proficient with every stroke of the brush.
As they became more skilled, the apprentice would help to execute parts of the master’s important commissions, beginning with the less important parts of a composition such as the background or minor figures and in some cases when their level of skill was of a good enough quality, the central figures as well.
This piece of work, completed in Verrocchio’s workshop is a piece that was commissioned to Verrocchio; the angel to the left is recorded as being painted by a youthful Leonardo; some art historians have discerned the hands of other members of Verrocchio’s workshop in this painting as well.
After the period of an apprentices training in the workshop, and once the master made the decision that the apprentice was skilled enough, they could move onto journeyman status.
As a journeyman, they would still collaborate towards the completion of important commissions, but they could now also begin working on a piece of their own work that would show their mastery of the craft; the masterpiece. Once the masterpiece was submitted and accepted by the guild, they would be awarded master status and they could then open their own workshop, hire apprentices and accept commissions.
As with every historical and modern system of work and education, there are pros and cons and who knows just how creative the Renaissance era would have been without the Trade Guilds and Workshops.
Resulting from the Renaissance Workshops in Italy we became acquainted with the great master artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Lorenzo di Credi, Sandro Botticelli, Michelangelo and Raphael just to name a few.
Today, many people have set up Ateliers that take a step away from conventional art schools and universities and try to focus on the realism and training styles of the Renaissance and more modern Academies. There are a great number of ateliers, and a great variation in price tags too.
There are also lots of resources out there for artists to learn from the works of the Old Masters by studying them, recreating them and analysing the process.
Are you looking for creative inspiration?
I recently wrote and published an article that digs deep into Studying the masters to find creative inspiration and the many benefits that come from doing so.
Some of the points covered throughout that article are:
- The definition of studying the masters
- The history of old master art studies
- The master study community
- Tools and equipment necessary
- How to choose an old master to study
- Where to find the works of masters for studying
- 8 Steps to study the art of an old master artist
- How studying the masters can inform your personal artwork
- Where to find more creative inspiration
There is an age old methodology for learning, increasing technical skill and finding creative inspiration that has proven by its use that it can effectively stand the test of time and consistently achieve great results. That methodology is studying the masters. In this article, we will look at how you can use the process of studying the masters as a way to find creative inspiration.
Featured Image: Giovanni Stradano – La Bottega Del Pittore (The Painter’s Workshop)
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