From dutiful craftsmen to creative superstars

New research from Leicester’s Professor of Art History documents the Renaissance artist’s rise to power.

From the 13th to the 16th century, it was almost a rite of passage for painters and sculptors to create a church altarpiece. Leonardo did, as did Titian, Michelangelo and countless others. While history has documented these works, exploration has hitherto been piecemeal.

New research by a University of Leicester Professor, completed over a three-year sabbatical supported by a Leverhulme Trust Major Research Fellowship, traces the evolution of a large body of Italian Renaissance altarpieces. The resultant book will be published in 2013. It investigates the stories these altarpieces depict, the formats they take, and the lives of the artists that produced them.

To understand the magnitude of Professor David Ekserdjian’s research project one must realise that, during the period under investigation, it was customary for every artist to produce at least one altarpiece and often many more. Then consider that Professor Ekserdjian’s project aims not to focus just on a certain region, but to, in his words, “swallow the whole blue whale in one gulp.”

Professor Ekserdjian’s book questions the changing structure and style of these altarpieces, documenting the move from what he jokingly calls “advent calendars” – multiple images, each representing a different character or saint, usually against a gold leaf background – to a single image uniting a number of characters against a more realistic backdrop. The narratives depicted in these paintings become increasingly complex and imaginative throughout the period.

An Unexpected Connection: The altarpiece in front of which Professor Ekserdjian is shown standing is in a church in Cremona. It was signed and dated by an extremely obscure local artist called Bernardino Ricca, but he was copying a brand-new print made in Rome after a design by Raphael (illustrated right).
©The Trustees of the British Museum. All rights reserved

Professor Ekserdjian argues that these changes mark a shift in power from commissioner to painter. “Artists move from being dutiful craftsmen to being creative superstars,” he says, adding: “They didn’t make altarpieces on spec; commissions would very specifically state which saints and stories should appear and how they should be painted. But in this period, some artists definitely depart from the patron’s template. They began to express opinions and make suggestions. This marks the growth of creative collaboration. The artist starts calling some of the shots.”

This, among other conclusions, is the culmination of decades of research, including a 1988 PhD on the altarpieces produced by the artist Correggio and
an affiliated eight-lecture series, which Professor Ekserdjian gave at Oxford University in 1989-90 and 1990-91. “I’ve been larking about with altarpieces for
over 30 years,” he says.

For today’s research to have real-world impact and produce resources for both our students and art scholars and enthusiasts worldwide, Professor Ekserdjian embarked on an innovative collaboration with the University’s Department of Computer Science. “We are producing an online ‘thinking’ database of altarpieces,” he says.

José Fiadeiro, our Professor of Software Science and Engineering, explains: “Technically, these are called ‘ontologies’, which enhance databases with the power of the Semantic Web, allowing them to be connected with other ontologies and generate new knowledge. For example, the ontology of altarpieces could be linked to that of a social historian and, thereby, establish that a given altarpiece depicts a nobleman whose wife was the daughter of the owner of another chapel in the same church with an earlier altarpiece, thus establishing links between the patronage of the two families.”

This is work in progress but, when complete, it will be the first and only comprehensive compendium of altarpieces. The trends it documents, and the arguments Professor Ekserdjian puts forward, could change perceptions of Renaissance altarpieces and challenge art historians’ understanding of their significance.

Professor Ekserdjian was Head of Art History and Film at the University of Leicester from 2004 to 2008. He is currently a Professor at the University, and a Trustee of both the National Gallery and the Tate.

This article originally appeared in LE1 Spring 2012/Annual Report Edition 2010/11.

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