(Consider this the opposite of "Physics for Poets".)
Wanna look like a real art sophisticate? Be able to completely flummox your supposedly art-loving friends while being totally geeky?
Most narratives about "artists" go something like this: found scratching remarkably precocious sketches in the ground at the age of 3, The Artist gets sent to the Big City to study under renowned NotsoGreat. Quickly mastering the limited style of the time, he goes on to have violent disagreements with the Academy, culminating in the once-celebrated, but now largely forgettable piece FirstPainting, which was shown to some acclaim in the Salon of (some year). At the same time, his wayward and bohemian nature expressed itself with a nearly limitless appetite for wine, sex, and whatever recreational drugs were available, holding forth in the cafes and bistros with such fellow rebels as Pictor, OtherPainter, Poet, and Novelist, as well as renowned salonneuse Crossdressing Lesbian. His subsequent career is marked by transgressive acts, leading either to professional failure, madness, and/or early death, OR a very long and lucrative career, dying at nearly one hundred, with his under aged current mistress holding his hand. No matter how badly he treats women, his creditors, or his patrons, he is supposed to be a Sensitive Soul, and everything in his artwork is supposed to relate to his then-current romance or drugs or something, in ways that seem farfetched, considering that you're supposed to get this out of four green blobs and a black rectangle.
Which is why learning to love the early Italian artists is kind of like dealing with another planet. As a matter of fact, it's quite possibly the most geek-friendly period painting has ever had, as you'll see, and a knowledge of their subjects and techniques will serve you well in appreciation of a lot of the art that's been produced since then.
If you're in any kind of a major city, you'll very likely find one or another early Italian painting at the local art museum, usually with people passing it on their way to the museum's pet Picasso, or Rembrandt or something. (For a good while, about 1880, up till about the Twenties, the "Italian Primitives" were all the rage for collectors.) Art appreciation professors in the local college tend to pass it by somewhat dismissively, somewhat like the first few courses of a Chinese banquet: the subject matter is limited, the style is not particularly lifelike, and it seems to have taken a lot of time to get perspective and human proportions right. Only at Christmas does this painting get its due (usually on Christmas cards at the Museum Gift Shop). You've half-seen it, like everyone else: it's that Madonna and Child, with gold halos, or perhaps with an entire gold background, painted with tempera on wood. In this guide, I'll give you a plan for not only eyeballing this piece of art like a pro, but being able to completely blow away both your artsy-fartsy emo friends and the local Dan Brown pundit.
What gives this painting, in fact the whole period, its geek factor is that early Italian painting is much closer to being a craft and/or a science than it is an art as such. You don't have to guess at the subject matter -- Mary is Mary, always wearing blue and a veil, the Christ Child is on her lap, if there are angels, they look like angels with halos and wings and all. If it's a Crucifixion, it's a guy on a cross. (Often, they will be Prophets or Evangelists, or other worthies, but I'll leave their identification till later.) Every so often, you'll see something that wasn't painted for a church, but you'll be able to tell what it's about from the label: "Marriage Chest with Dido and Aneas" or somesuch. You don't have to get into phony psychological/sociological games about "what was the artist thinking when he did this?" or "what does the posing of the angels have to say about the artist's attitude towards the Church at the time?" or "Is the subject matter indicative of Goddess worship surviving in Italy?" Although an historical appreciation of the period is helpful, it's not necessary....for the moment, forget about it!
What distinguishes quattrocentro painting is not subjects or deep emotional meanings, but a focus on training and technique. In the 14th century, an artist was considered not to be a tortured genius, but a workman on the level of a good H/V/A/C man, or to put it more bluntly, a plumber. Just as an office building needs air conditioning, heat, and clean bathrooms, churches, and often other people and places like town halls and palaces, needed paintings, and the way they got them was through commissions, which could often be quite exacting and detailed: for instance, a painting was to be of the Virgin and Child with John the Baptist, but with God the Father on the top of the painting, and angels on the sides. A painter submitting a painting just of the three major figures, with only one angel, storm clouds overhead, and John carrying the wrong symbol, would probably not be executed for blasphemy, but he might be made to take it down and do it all over again, at some considerable expense (to him). It would be like a plumber installing a bidet instead of a bathtub. So, it's not a case of censorship killing creativity, but simple contract law. (Besides, who wants a picture of someone's ex-girlfriend as a knife-wielding crazy?)
The place to start is the ground. Most paintings of the time were either frescos, meaning that they were painted on new plaster, or on panels made of planks of poplar wood, carefully fitted and held together. (You can still get poplar wood, I've been told, at Home Depot. Part of the fun of this stuff is how accessible everything is.) The paints available were rather thin, and the wood tended to drink the stuff up, so a layer of plaster (called gesso) was painted over the wood as primer, and sanded down to produce a perfectly flat, semi-porous surface without seams, cracks or bubbles. This work was usually done by the apprentices of The Master, who then took a piece of charcoal, or a stick of unfired red clay, and made a rough sketch on the plaster: here there were the central figures, there would be angels, this would be a throne, or fake architecture with other figures (Prophets holding scrolls? Local saints? Allegorical elements, such as the Madonna's foot casually crushing a knife-wielding crazy?) If there were to be low reliefs, they, too, were indicated. And then, the magic happened...
One feature of the Quattocentro is the prevalence of gold backgrounds. Gold was also used to model figures, as emphasis, and to paint gold objects, such as a crown or coins, but it was used in such profusion as to make many paintings a few figures floating weightlessly in a background of gold. This was for two reasons. First, it had become customary in the Byzantine period a few centuries past, to use gold mosaic on the inside walls of churches because most churches of that period were very dark places, having thick stone walls and very few windows. Using tiles faced with gold cut down on the number of oil lamps (no candles, yet!) needed, while keeping the place snug against the weather and secure against the stray invasion. The second reason was theological: since no one alive had seen Heaven, it was thought to be a completely alien place, where nothing terrestrial could be. Having a plain flat or figured gold surface allowed the pious worshipper to fill in with their own ideas as to how Heaven should "look like", in the same way that Zen (or manga or modern decorators) love blank space.
OK. So, to the technical bits. Gold, as a metal, is interesting in that it is almost infinitely malleable: that is, you can pound a piece of gold into a sheet that is only a few atoms thick. Meaning, that you can, with only a few specialized hand tools, beat a gold coin until it's a few feet of almost transparent metal called "leaf". Since you could see through it, the gesso was further primed with paint about the color of a flower pot, and the leaf floated onto the surface with glair, glue made of egg white (beat until stiff peaks form, pour off remaining fluid, discard foam). It was then buffed to make a dull or shiny surface, which was very slick and waxy -- paint wouldn't stick to it.
On to the actual painting! Egg tempera is one of the most durable painting media around, second only to porcelain glaze and encaustic -- it's effective life is something like 20,000 years. It's made of beaten egg yolk, vinegar, and ground, sifted, and carefully stirred-in pigments, which were anything from plain dirt, to bones, ground beetles and the stray mummy, to semiprecious stones from a mine in Afghanistan, called lapis lazuli, which, with some luck, made a striking deep blue called ultramarine. Because of the relative expense of the more striking pigments, cheaper colors (mostly brown and white) were used to build up hands and faces and less important elements, and to underpaint the others. Since egg tempera dries quickly only a few ounces were mixed at a time in little cups made of seashells, and applied with small brushes in tiny, crosshatched lines. In order to cover the hundred or so square feet of surface that might be needed for an altarpiece, a whole team of men would commonly work on a painting together, with the apprentices painting borders and architectural elements, the journeymen, perhaps, painting the robes and perhaps a hand or foot of a minor figure, such as an angel. The Master, of course, would do Mary and the Child. Since you can't blend colors or do shading in tempera, the way you do with oils, what light and shadow you can see is made up of layer upon layer of these same tiny brushstrokes, laid on with brushes that might have only so much as a single hair.
Which is what you ordinarily can't see in an art history textbook, but you'll be able to point out, handily.
It's he who would garner the praise of the local bigwigs "The tender beauty of Our Lady's lips and brow, the swell of Her bosom, and graceful sway of Her hips.." (If you are beginning to think that the ideal Madonna of late medieval Italy was less like, a nun or your own sainted mother, and more like Marilyn Chambers, the porn star, posing with a baby for an Ivory Snow box, you're right. God, apparently, had good taste in picking the cutest, most lovable, most adorable of all maidens for His Son...I mean, wouldn't you?)
By now, you'll probably have gotten the picture: there's little self-expression in these paintings, and most painters wouldn't expect that there would be. So what makes them interesting? For one thing, there's actually a lot of leeway: as long as the subjects were the correct ones, there was a lot of room for interpretation and artistic license. Also, there was at the time, a kind of arms race between Italian towns as to which town could have the best public art, the way we have sports arenas right now: you had the biggest altarpiece, but did yours have perspective? (You heard right. They actually liked innovation.) After awhile, gold backgrounds were considered tacky and old-fashioned: did your frescos have landscapes? portraits of donors or other celebrities? Every painting is like a step in a progression, from stylized and rigid, to soft and realistic. When oil painting comes in from Flanders, it's like night and day, and at the end of the period, you'll find painters taking all kinds of notes and sketches of animals and plants and rocks and skies, just so that the little lamb in the corner will have horizontal pupils and the flowers in the meadow are seasonal ones.
It's a fascinating time period, and one whose scholarship is still very much alive today. It was the period of Dante Aligheri, with his vivid word pictures of Hell and Heaven, the Black Plague, Romantic Love, saints, heretics, a weak and chaotic Papacy, and, of course, the setting of The Name of the Rose.
It was also the height of Goddess Worship in the West, though, not in the form that most people think of: yes, God-the-Father was still running the show, but Mary, his mistress and Mother of His Son was his "kitchen cabinet", so to speak. Less frightening than dealing with The Creator, infinitely sweet and tender-hearted, Mary was identified with countless flowers, jewels, places, and apparitions. She was said to have worked countless miracles for her devotees, from the tiniest (her very name was said to have caused one monk to taste honey every time he said it) to the most inexplicable (she was once seen jousting in a tournament). To test mortal man, she sometimes posed as a hitchhiker or beggar, and richly rewarded anyone who would help her. This wasn't a secret or heretical at the time: instead it was loud, overt, blatantly proclaimed as a living fact. Nowadays, we've kind of forgotten this...and the Secret lies in plain sight.
(Take that, Dan Brown.)
But it's not...romantic! It's not what you think of when you think of art! What about individualism? Struggle? Angst? Sex! Drugs! Fratboy drinking!
Oh, you're talking about Romantics and Post-Impressionists...next lesson, if I get to it...