Two starters and two glasses of wine are ordered as the only course. A glass of Bianco di Custoze and a glass of Valpolicella Ripasso accompany the two compact dishes: a potato carpaccio and four or five tortelli di zucca (pumpkin ‘dumplings’).
If the chef of Osteria Veneta is an artist, as he seems to claim he is, then how should we judge the quality of this ensemble? The fresh, yellow, thin slices of potato fan out in carefully arranged circles. And the pale tortelli are decorated with a singed branch of sage.
It is food, but the chef seems to believe there’s also more to it than that.
We should be more accurate. The chef did not call himself an artist. In that framed newspaper review, which hangs on the way to the restroom in the Osteria’s shrine to its favorite critics, he says only that Italian food itself is an art. It is art, he says, because it keeps on inventing itself afresh and is never boring.
Is it possible to separate the art from its artist? Suppose you decide to make the tortelli yourself. You need Hokkaido pumpkin, mostarda di frutta, parmesan and perhaps some amaretti biscuits to make the filling. You must exaggerate the flavors of the filling because they will be muted by the heat transmitted through the achingly thin pasta shell. You follow the recipe and your gut and it turns out well. The tortelli taste fine. You’ve made the same food. But is it art according to Lionello Zaccaron’s definition?
At what point do you graduate from doing something to being someone? How often do you have to make the tortelli before you are able to re-invent them afresh? Can you be an artist if you only cook for yourself or should you invite a critic to provide independent judgement? Is it enough to invite them once? How will you keep your audience interested over time?
The 16th century in Italy was ripe with art and artistic innovation. If there was ever a time when art was invented afresh, it was then. New ideas about proportion, perspective, anatomy and color were brought to canvas and artists became critics.
In the early run-up to the Cinquecento, in 1435, Leon Battista Alberti, a writer turned architect, published a comprehensive treatise on the theory and practice of art. Della Pittura contains the earliest surviving theory of art by a western renaissance humanist. It starts with the basics: “I will take from mathematics those things with which my subject is concerned,” he wrote. “When they are understood, I will enlarge on the art of painting from its first principles in nature…
In Alberti’s account, mathematics gives birth to painting and yet calculation is just a frame. Just like a cook does not spend all his time studying the properties of an aubergine, a painter does not spend all his time studying points, lines, angles and planes.
Alberti drew the line between mathematics and art as follows: “Mathematicians measure with their minds alone the forms of things separated from all matter. Since we wish the object to be seen, we will use a more sensate wisdom.”
The study of art is the study of how ingredients emerge from the mixing bowl of ‘sensate wisdom.’ Alberti describes three distinct phases of the process. First comes disegno, the design of an idea on the page. The artist brings out his subject’s position in space, drawing contours, mapping and scoping out the problem. Second, once the elements of an idea are circumscribed, the sketched ideas must be composed into a whole; elements must be connected and weighted, commensurate to their contribution to the overall architecture of the painting. Third, when everything is in place, the artist fleshes out his forms with the effects of light and color.
Alberti’s treatise was not a how-to guide, it wasn’t about doing art. This was guidebook to the subject of painting, a book for the aspiring humanist or critic, not for the aspiring painter.
A couple of years before Alberti’s treatise, Cennino Cennini published Il Libro dell’arte (translated into English as The Craftman’s Handbook). This was a how-to guide. Cennini gave recipes for painters to follow that have remained popular with forgers of old-master paintings to the present day. Cennini begins his recipe book by introducing himself and his place as a painter:
I was trained in this profession for twelve years by my master, Agnolo di Taddeo of Florence; he learned this profession from Taddeo, his father; and his father was christened under Giotto, and was his follower for four-and-twenty years; and that Giotto changed the profession of painting from Greek back into Latin, and brought it up to date; and he had more finished craftsmanship than anyone has had since.
Cennini is a craftsman and his book is about the methods of his craft. It’s about what you have to know to be a painter like him. Unlike Alberti, he doesn’t worry about theory and what painting is. It is enough to be part of a tradition that is larger than life. And so the most important thing for an aspiring artist is to find a master: “begin to submit yourself to the direction of a master for instruction as early as you can; and do not leave the master until you have to.”
The novelty of Cennini’s treatise was that it made the recipes you would usually only hear about from a master accessible to a wider audience. For example:
The basis of the profession, the very beginning of all these manual operations, is drawing and painting. These two sections call for a knowledge of the following: how to work up or grind, how to apply size, to put on cloth, to gesso, to scrape the gessos and smooth them down, to model with gesso, to lay bole, to gild, to burnish; to temper, to lay in; to pounce, to scrape through, to stamp or punch; to mark out, to paint, to embellish, and to varnish, on panel or ancona. To work on a wall you have to wet down, to plaster, to true up, to smooth off, to draw, to paint in fresco. To carry to completion in secco: to temper, to embellish, to finish on the wall. And let this be the schedule of the aforesaid stages which I, with what little knowledge I have acquired, will expound, section by section.
The movement of the renaissance can be thought of as a movement from recipe-book to reflection, from doing to doing and being. In contrast to Cennini’s recipe book, Alberti’s work wasn’t aimed at artists. His treatise was for the philosophers and spectators, for the people with an interest in being close to art but not necessarily with any specific talent in doing art.
The tension between doing and being is fundamental in human affairs. Some people pride themselves as pragmatic doers, while others enjoy abstraction. “It’s about doing something, not being someone,” said Theresa May at a conservative party conference. She is more of a medieval craftsman than a reflective renaissance humanist.
In around 1450, Lorenzo Ghiberti, an artist turned writer, published a three-part treatise, I commentarii. The treatise included comments on sculpture and material on optics. In between was the most important part: a historical perspective. Ghiberti agreed with Cennini on the importance of Giotto. To Ghiberti, Giotto was the turning point from the roughness of Byzantine art to the mature art of Tuscany. And here he saw himself, his designs and his sculptures as the pinnacle: “Few things have been done in importance in our land that have not been drawn and ordered by my hand.”
The Italian renaissance was now firmly under way. The medieval artist had a narrow focus on doing; he worked in a guild and a guild had recipes to be followed. Now the focus shifted to the relationship between doing and being. Artists began to re-invent the traditional recipes, they developed their own signature styles. The renaissance artist was dynamic, constantly working to keep his art afresh.