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Painting as a "Modern Art" in Early Renaissance Italy

Robert Brennan

Giotto: Ognissanti Madonna, ca. 1310. Gallerie degli Uffizi, Florence

Giorgio Vasari wrote of Giotto as the founder of "modern art" (arte moderna). In doing so, was he merely projecting a sixteenth-century concept into the distant past, or were the early protagonists of his narrative themselves guided by some notion of modernity as well?  Discussions of "modern art" were in fact widespread in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, according to a broad, medieval definition of "art" (ars) that encompassed activities as diverse as arithmetic, poetry, carpentry, music, and preaching. Within this discourse, to make an art "modern" meant setting it on a new foundation in "science" (scientia) and rationalizing it accordingly. The same principle, I argue, was applied to Giotto in sources such as Cennino Cennini's Libro dell'arte and Franco Sacchetti's Trecentonovelle, both written around 1400, and can thus shed light not only on the work of Giotto and his followers, but also on the way Giotto's legacy shaped the prerogatives of early Renaissance artists.

 

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