In European intellectual history, fine art has been regarded as a work of excellence, for aesthetic beauty or esthetic purposes, differentiating it from other decorative art or applied arts, which in turn must serve some functional purpose, like the production of ceramics or metalwork. In Europe, where works of art had been valued since antiquity, and where much of that art came from Italy, France and Spain, fine art traditions formed a significant part of society and helped shape attitudes towards aesthetics and society more generally. For example, Leonardo DaVinci’s remarkably realistic (some would say, childlike) paintings were seen as highly impressive, and his influence on future artists was huge. The Renaissance, with its emphasis on religious art and Gothic cathedrals inspired by medieval Europe’s glory, gave rise to an entire school of art dedicated to the repetition of Biblical stories of the earlier ages. In Spain, the Baroque art of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was particularly prolific, especially during the Counter-Reformation period, when many works from this school were displayed during the so-called Baroque exhibitions, in which popular works were juxtaposed against the older, more secular art of the time. It was this that led to the term ‘Baroque’ to be used to describe modernist art.
Early work from this school concentrated on portraiture and the replication of famous works by others. In paintings, this included the repetition of famous biblical scenes, often accompanied byologous images to reinforce the impact of the religious subject matter. Two typical examples of these are the Decorated Jesus and the Madonna and Child With Seven Angels. In sculpture, the Italian renaissance master Jan Van Eyck has given us the famous ‘Sistine Madonna’ in a highly coloured medium, which remains one of the best-selling pieces of modern fine art. Other great sculptors of the early Renaissance include Michelangelo, who produced perhaps his most famous work, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. It is this long history of European visual art which has led to it being regarded as a classic form of visual art.
From the Renaissance period, a new flowering of Italian fine art took place in the west, with the birth of the fine artist Luca Pacioli. His greatest paintings are still to be seen in the Musee Moderns in Florence, and the spectacular ‘The Battle of Verona’ is still visible in the British Museum. Another great Italian artist of the age was Palladino, whose art can be found in many private collections throughout the UK and is now displayed in the National Gallery in London. One of his most famous paintings is still viewable at the Saachi gallery in Tokyo. Other important artists of the Renaissance period, who produced some of the finest painted pottery, metal work and sculpture were frizzy-haired artists such as Sandro Botticelli, whose satins are still on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
Italian furniture and their remarkable attention to detail and attention to colour were heavily influenced by the works of the Renaissance, and you can still find examples today in modern day industrial design. The Vitra-maticus pottery found in the north of Italy is often said to have been inspired by the world’s first designer, Vitruvius. Much of the Venetian glass that we know today was created during the reign of the Medici family, who were equally skilled potters, and glass makers. Most of the examples of Venetian glass that you will see today have been recovered from the many ruined churches and monasteries of this era, many of which were destroyed during the Renaissance.
Italian pottery continued on from the Renaissance into the Baroque period, where there was a movement away from the highly detailed pottery of the earlier periods and towards simpler, more vivid colours and textures. The Baroque pottery was highly popular during the latter part of the seventeenth century with artists like Michelangelo and continued on into the nineteenth century with the arrival of mass-produced pottery products such as the Bakelite pottery of Germany. Italian pottery products, particularly the more personal pieces made by individual designers, are now highly valued by collectors around the world.
As discussed at the start of the article, fine art history is all about the study of culture through the ages. This article has taken a brief look at some of the most famous artists whose work you may be familiar with. However, the history of painting and art goes much further back than the examples we have looked at here. It would be interesting to explore some of the other areas of art history as well, such as ancient Greek and Roman painting techniques, Chinese painting techniques and Indian painting techniques. The art history profession is still very much a growing field, and new techniques, methods and forms are being developed regularly.