Venetian Narrative Painting in the Age of Carpaccio
Large numbers of pictures were produced in Italy from at least 1300, but Italians began to write extensively about art only in the sixteenth century. This development coincided with the growth of private collections, particularly the princely galleries of painting and ancient sculpture that were the predecessors of modern museums. The qualities that collectors and critics then admired in works of art are easy enough to discover, both because the criticism is so abundant and because it is relatively consistent in character. A much more difficult task is to establish what Italians thought and said about paintings in the fifteenth century. Certainly they expected pictures to be beautiful, and they admired artistic skill, but it is far from clear how they assessed such qualities.
Much of the most influential work on these questions has been done by Michael Baxandall, whose first book, Giotto and the Orators, was concerned with one special group of texts, the few passages on contemporary art written in humanist Latin, of which the longest and best known is Leon Battista Alberti’s treatise On Painting. Composed in 1435, this is the only extended treatment of the subject to survive from the fifteenth century. Unfortunately for art historians, what Alberti and later humanists wrote about art was conditioned not so much by a desire to make judgments about the works they could see as by a wish to revive classical Latin. The forms of the language itself and of the literary texts that they sought to imitate limited and directed what they could say. So it comes as no surprise to discover that in his treatise Alberti mentioned not a single fifteenth-century artist or work of art, indeed only one modern painter, Giotto, and then in the briefest terms.
This does not mean that Alberti was indifferent to the work of his Florentine contemporaries. In the preface to his own Italian translation of his treatise, written in 1436, he mentions his admiration for the achievements of the leading artists of the city, such as Masaccio, Ghiberti, and Donatello; and there is little doubt that his advocacy of a particular kind of painting, narrative compositions—or stories, as they were called at the time—depicted with clarity and economy of means, would have been impossible without the experience of seeing works like Masaccio’s frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel. But there is little basis for supposing either that Alberti had much direct influence on his contemporaries or that the reasons he provided for championing this type of painting would have been widely shared by artists or patrons. At this period other humanists, drawing on different literary models, such as that of the rhetorical exercise called ekphrasis, advocated an entirely different type of painting, richly naturalistic and full of picturesque detail which lent itself to this type of descriptive prose.
Interesting though the humanist texts may be, they tell us very little about the attitudes of most educated Italians who paid for or simply looked at works of art …