Freedom and the humanities - The freedom of the artist


Institutional Communication Service

2 May 2022

The interview series "Reflections on Freedom. A look at the humanities" in collaboration with ISI, USI Institute of Italian Studies, continues. Carla Mazzarelli, professor of History of Modern Art at ISI and professor at the Institute for the History and Theory of Art and Architecture at the Academy of Architecture, talks about the relationship between the artist and freedom.


Professor Mazzarelli, the artist's freedom is multifaceted, even in the collective imagination. Is it possible to draw up a sort of "process"? For example, starting from the freedom of invention? 

Artists, since the Renaissance, have tried to express their freedom in many ways. One could tell the history of modern art and architecture as the story of continuous research carried out on a thin line: the respect for fundamental models, first of all, the ancient and nature, and the need to find an autonomy from those same models to define a new form of originality. "Because in the novelty of such beautiful frames, capitals and bases, doors, tabernacles and tombs, he deviated from the measure, order and rule of the common use (...). This freedom has given a great impetus to those who have seen his work to imitate him (...) so that the artisans have an infinite and perpetual obligation to him since he has broken the bonds and chains of the common ways". This is how Giorgio Vasari defines the freedom expressed by Michelangelo in the Sacrestia Nuova of San Lorenzo in Florence: freedom that generates new fantasies, not exempt from the 'danger' of making mistakes. But this is the risk of invention. Francesco Borromini explicitly refers to this freedom expressed in his time by Michelangelo when, in the middle of the seventeenth century, he reminds his clients that "I certainly would not have entered this profession to be only a copyist (...)". 


Artists need clients. Can they remain free before their patrons? 

There is no doubt that the art system is based on the artist-patron partnership during the modern age. Still, it is equally valid that the history of Renaissance art has provided us with essential elements useful for reconstructing the need, increasingly stressed by artists, for their creative freedom with respect to their patrons' pressing and often invasive requests. Baxandall recalled how the low consideration that Piero della Francesca shows to have towards the contract signed with the brotherhood of Mercy for the Polyptych today in Borgo San Sepolcro was the sign of a new conquered social and cultural status of the artist. It took him almost twenty years to deliver the work, even though the contract provided for its completion in three and the complete authorship. Evidently, in the middle of the 15th century, Piero could already afford "licenses" to others, indeed not granted in those same years. 


Is it better to defend one's creative autonomy "without ifs and buts" or to give in to the lure of a sure profit? 

Some of the artists called by Isabella d'Este to decorate her studio in Mantua, where the cultured patron dedicated herself to her pastimes, reading, studying and correspondence, were no different. The binding and detailed conditions imposed on her artists, including Leonardo, Mantegna and Giovanni Bellini, generated responses that were anything but unanimous. Giovanni Bellini declined the commission, revealing his disappointment in responding to such detailed requests that left little room for the painter's autonomy. Perugino, on the contrary, then active in Florence, for the work with the Fight between Love and Chastity, followed step by step the instructions of the patron and his advisers. First, the artist informed Isabella about any independent choice he had made, with respect to the requests, even if it was an extra figure or a scantily clad Venus. Then, she, pen and paper in hand, immediately reprimanded the painter. Although the painting was finally delivered, it is still not considered among the most successful of the Umbrian painter. Nevertheless, the freedom of the artist was already then, as today, a matter of individual choice. 


From the free work to freedom as a necessity of the work 

"But if there is room left in the painting, I will adorn it with figures, according to inspiration". This is how Paolo Veronese put it bluntly when summoned in 1573 before the tribunal of the Inquisition. The reasons the painter reaffirms the value of his creative choices with respect to the rules imposed by censorship give us evidence of a topical theme—the artist's freedom despite the authorities. 

On the other hand, it should not be forgotten that art has often assumed political meanings throughout the centuries, also becoming an instrument of the most distorted ideologies. 

The 'forms' are bearers of identity values (or "disvalues"). It is no coincidence that the destruction, vandalism, and reappropriation of artistic and architectural heritage have often accompanied revolutions or wars of conquest. During the French Revolution, the link between art and politics was a burning issue in public debates and in the iconographic choices made by the artists themselves: this is the case of Jean-Louis David, who captured with his brush the "martyrs of liberty" such as Marat. 

Even more than the word, the image has a strong persuasive power: it is direct, and even though it is "silent", it can shout and thus be engraved in the viewer's imagination. So often, the only trace left in every war, every abuse of power, is of the art that denounces, the art that resists. Faced with the triumph of inhumanity, "acting" is our "art", as Hannah Arendt recalled. Freedom thus becomes a necessity of the work, whether it be street art graffiti in a degraded suburb or the implacable lens of a photograph which, as Susan Sontag wrote, forces us not to look away from "the pain of others".