Living in an age of museums and exhibitions, and when interest in the history of art is widespread, one easily forgets that until a couple of centuries ago what mattered to critics and the wider public, as well as to artists, was contemporary art. The art of earlier periods that retained its prestige was usually regarded as directly relevant to current artistic practice and taste. This was most obviously the case with classical sculpture, which was eagerly collected and extravagantly admired from the latter part of the fifteenth century, and which, at least until the nineteenth century, was considered as embodying an unchallengeable standard of excellence. But relatively little post-classical art was accorded this kind of respect.
Thus within half a century of the publication in 1568 of the first modern collection of artists’ biographies, Va-sari’s Lives of the Artists, most of the painters whom he discussed were almost universally thought to be of only marginal interest. This was true of all the masters of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, from Cimabue and Giotto to Fra Angelico and Perugino. But even among the artists active after 1500, the period in which the arts, according to Vasari, had achieved perfection, only a small group retained their prestige among artists, critics, and collectors into the seventeenth century. Chief among them was Raphael, whose many works, widely available in reproduction, were regarded as unsurpassed models for the representation of narrative subjects.
Scarcely less influential were Titian and Correggio, who were admired for their brilliant use of oil paint, as well as for their treatment of mythological and religious imagery, while a number of other painters of Venice and northern Italy were also eagerly collected, not least because they worked predominantly on canvas rather than in fresco. Leonardo, who had supposedly died in the arms of Francis I of France, also continued to be admired, but more for his writings on art, which circulated widely in manuscript and were published in 1651, than for his pictures, few of which were known. Michelangelo was generally thought to command great skill but also to be a dangerous model to follow, largely be-cause his preoccupation with nude figures was seen as morally questionable. Most of the other artists of the generation after Raphael, including Vasari himself, were treated with almost complete indifference or even contempt. This was so even in Florence, where, despite the continuing respect accorded to Andrea del Sarto and to some degree to Fra Bartolomeo, after 1600 collectors and patrons preferred the great Venetians or more fashionable modern masters such as Luca Giordano and Pietro da Cortona, neither of whom owed anything to the Florentine tradition.
No dramatic changes in taste occurred until the end of the eighteenth century, when the authority of tradition, in art as in so much else, came under challenge. At this period the sculpture of ancient Rome was increasingly seen as a debased variant of the lost masterpieces of Greece, while the standards that had governed painting ever …