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Review of Bailin, S., 2006. Invenzione e Fantasia: The (Re)Birth of Imagination in Renaissance Art.


This article offers explores the development of the idea of imagination through history. The premise is that the complex of concepts and expectations that constitute what we accept as creative imagination have evolved from a previous set of cultural assumptions that we do not have now.

“A work of art arises from the imagination of an artist is thus taken to mean that the work is a reflection of the person’s individuality, an authentic product of the artist’s inner being. [As such it is original] since each person is unique. There is [a] belief that external constraints on the imagination of the […] are inhibiting and that they should be free to express their vision or emotions. Imaginative works are genuine products of the artist’s imagination.”

This comment would seems natural and true to our contemporary perspectives, but this has not always been the case. The author demonstrates that these values can change radically in response to cultural and technological change.

The article looks at the changeover from medieval to early modern and renaissance modes of art production. In the medieval worldview an artist was given the status of a highly skilled craftsman who learned their trade from a master and was motivated to work by a customers request. The content of medieval art was almost uniformly religious, symbolic and iconic. Notions of originality, invention and artistic genius did not exist.

The Renaissance period saw big cultural shifts which the author sub-categorises influences from:

  • Economic/social Context
  • Intellectual and philosophical
  • Artistic/Technical innovation.

His main argument is that improvements in economic conditions in places like Florence had a liberalising effect. The increased wealth also provided strong demand for skilled artworkers, leading to a situation where collegiate clusters of highly skilled people were interacting and learning from one another. This combined with a shift in philosophical outlook away from religious authority towards Humanism. The loss of religious authority also led people to look back to Classical sources for authenticity.

These factors combined to create an interest in naturalistic art that mimics nature and this in turn, in the hothouse of the Florentine artists guilds, drove innovations in the methods and techniques of depicting nature convincingly.  E.g. Oil paints, the study of anatomy, linear perspective.

There is a suggestion that the use of perpective enforces a single point of view on the viewer, the artists chosen point of view, and that this allowed a conceptual shift in creative authority from the customer to the artist. The levels of skill required to produce these new kinds of artwork meant that the level of education artists needed was much greater. They were professionalised and moved in erudite and powerful circles. Hence their expectations and demands grew.

The author comments that self-portraiture begins to be used for new purposes including self-aggrandisement and as a promotional tool for the artists practice. It is telling of the shifts in society in those times that Durer depicted himself as Jesus. Effectively deifying himself.

Importantly, portraiture in this period started to represent the idea of an individual personality self-consciously located in the world addressing posterity. This was a novel idea after the medieval sense of self, and in many ways defines the Modern mind. The personality is placed in history and asserts the person historical status.

The article looks at Florence, but very similar cultural shift were at play in England in the 1500s and 1600s, and this  relates to Elizabethan portraiture, in that the function of portraits changed was to create cult images of the leaders of that age.In England the cultural authority of the church had been jolted by Henry VII. Subsequent rulers took the opportunity to place themselves in the mental space that religious authority once occupied. Portraiture was used to create virtual personas that were used to demonstrate power, wealth and hence authority. It was also used to assert the centrality of person in the great scheme of things.


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