Conference Review: The Art of the Poor in the Late Middle Ages and Renaissance

Image: Francesco Bassano, Market Day, Late sixteenth century, oil on canvas, current location unknown (photographed at the Trafa

An exciting and groundbreaking conference was held at the University of London’s Warburg Institute on June 14 and 15, 2018. The Warburg represents one of the world’s leading centers in the study of images and culture, and its reputation for cutting-edge scholarship made it the ideal place to hold a forum around the theme of The Art of the Poor in the Late Middle Ages and Renaissance. The conference was conceived and organized by Dr. Rembrandt Duits, who is the Warburg’s Deputy-Curator of the Photographic Collection. He commenced the event by announcing that we were about to venture beyond the “comfort zone of many art historians,” and, in a sense, blaze new trails. Together, conference participants worked to define and propose methodologies for a new field in the art of the medieval and Renaissance world: art for the impoverished members of society. Art historical studies of the period tend to marginalize art produced for the poor or to even claim that the poor did not have art. The conference instead brought the artworks commissioned and viewed by members of the humbler social groups to the forefront and worked to consider the objects on their own terms, perceiving them through the eyes of their patrons and their audiences. Furthermore, the wide-reaching geographical scope of the conference allowed us to witness the particular local and regional iterations of the art of the poor. Papers touched on artwork produced in the Netherlands, Venetian Crete, Malta, England, Italy, Germany, and Scandinavia.

The first day of the conference primarily focused on the medium of painting and several of the papers challenged previous scholarly assumptions about artwork produced for the poor. Following his opening address, Dr. Duits set the stage for the conference with a paper that asked the central question, “Did the Poor Have Art?” Throughout his presentation, he continued to lay out other fundamental questions that persistently resurfaced in the discussions that occurred over the next two days: Who were the poor? What evidence do we have for the art of the poor? Why should we study their art? The challenge of ascertaining exactly who fell into the socio-economic category of the “poor” is certainly a complex one; several factors determined each individual’s financial fortunes, which could ebb and flow throughout one’s lifetime. As a result, Dr. Duits proposed that, for the purposes of the conference, we consider those individuals who were “poor in an art-historical sense,” since even commissions made by property-owning artisans in Florence have been largely ignored by art historians. He called attention to the fact that art history’s tendency to focus on the patronage of the wealthy five percent has considerably limited our knowledge of the variety of “aesthetic preferences” that existed in society. Studying the art of the poor is therefore crucial, since it significantly widens our understanding of art history during this period.

The first session continued with Dr. Tom Nichols (University of Glasgow), whose paper entitled “Jacopo Bassano and the Painting of Poverty” examined representations of the poor in paintings made for the elite. Bassano’s representations of the urban poor moved viewers to acts of charity, and stood in stark contrast to his lush rural landscapes inhabited by hard-working farm laborers. Dr. Nichols argued that such idealized images of country life worked to reinforce and justify the class structure that allowed the urban elite to cull a large portion of their wealth from the hinterland.

The second session began with a presentation by Dr. Samuel Cohn (University of Glasgow), whose paper, “Material Culture without Objects: Artisan Artistic Commissions in Renaissance Italy,” championed a new type of art history that relies primarily on documentation, rather than on surviving artworks. One of the primary challenges facing scholars working on art for the popular classes is the lack of extant objects. Dr. Cohn’s study provided an example of how such limitations could be overcome by consulting descriptions of artwork in surviving records, which, in his case, were commissions for panel paintings made by artisans in their last wills and testaments. Next, Dr. Annick Born (independent scholar) presented “The Adoration of the Magi: Piety and Fashion for Each and Everyone in Early Sixteenth-Century Antwerp,” which took a more object-based approach and considered issues of copying and craftsmanship to shed light on the art market in Antwerp. She focused in particular on small workshops that produced anonymous works replicating compositions that were “fashionable” at the time.

Following lunch, the next panel commenced with Dr. Thomas Schweigert (University of Wisconsin), whose presentation, “On the ‘Slipshod’ Nature of Carpaccio’s Saint Tryphon Tames the Basilisk in the Scuola degli Schiavoni,” challenged scholars’ dismissive attitude toward an oil painting by Carpaccio; earlier assessments of the image judged it as inferior to Carpaccio’s other works. I then presented a case study of a miracle-working fresco located on an abandoned prison in the Tuscan town of Prato. My paper, “Miracles in the Margins: The Popular Piety of the Miraculous Image of Santa Maria delle Carceri in Prato,” demonstrated how the image’s location, its particularly localized appearance, and its miracle stories all worked to distance the cult from the Medici family and instead make the image more relatable and accessible to the people living on the periphery of society. Next, Dr. Angeliki Lymberopoulou (Open University) presented a paper entitled “‘…κέ παντός του λαου τοῡ χορίου τ(ης) Μάζας…’ (‘…and all the people from the village of Maza…’)

Communal Church Decoration from Rural Venetian Crete.” Her study of a series of small churches in Crete considered how villages with limited financial means could afford to embellish their religious sites. For each church, the entire local community financed the frescoes adorning the church interiors, as attested by the inscriptions found on the church walls, which record the various named and unnamed local inhabitants who donated money toward the projects.

The presenters for the final session of the day were unable to attend the conference; thankfully, however, we didn’t miss out on hearing about the research conducted by two of the participants. Dr. Nicoletta Usai (University of Cagliari) submitted a pre-recorded video of her presentation, “The Rich and the Poor: Devotional Icons and Echoes of Giotto in Sardinia in the Late Middle Ages.” Her study examined a fresco cycle recently uncovered in a Sardinian church, and she argued that the iconography and style of the paintings were modelled on Giotto’s works for the Arena Chapel in Padua. Next, Lorenza Gay (The Warburg Institute) read a paper by Dr. Charlene Vella (University of Malta), whose research focused on “The Native Art of the Maltese Islands in the Late Medieval and Renaissance Periods.” Dr. Vella’s paper provided an informative survey of the sculpture, architecture, and paintings produced by the non-elite inhabitants of Malta, focusing on the ways in which such works reacted or related to the artistic commissions of the ruling classes. Following Dr. Vella’s paper, the first day of the conference wrapped up with a lively group discussion about the evident problems that occur when art historians attempt to make judgments concerning the artistic “quality” of works produced for the humbler social groups.

The second day addressed a wide variety of objects that people interacted with on a daily basis. Anne-Kristine Sindvald-Larsen (Aalto University) kicked things off with an introduction to her dissertation, which studies how dress, textiles, and accessories spread throughout the artisan orders of Denmark in the early modern period. Her paper, “Dressing the Poor: Artisans and Fashion in Sixteenth and Seventeenth-Century Scandinavia,” outlined the various sources available for the study of dress and also described her plans to use technology to reconstruct surviving artifacts. Sindvald-Larsen’s research is part of a larger initiative funded by the European Research Council. The project entitled Re-fashioning the Renaissance: Popular Groups, Fashion and the Material and Cultural Significance of Clothing in Europe, 1550-1650 is being overseen by Dr. Paula Hohti (Aalto University), the next presenter, who spoke on “The Art of Artisan Fashions: Moroni’s Tailor and the Changing Culture of Clothing in Sixteenth-Century Italy.” Her analysis of Giovanbattista Moroni’s The Tailor pushed against the scholarly assumption that tailors and other artisans dressed in functional rather than stylish clothing. Instead, her research revealed how artisans used fashion to contest social boundaries, since they frequently disobeyed sumptuary laws that forbade them to wear clothing deemed inappropriate for their social status.

The second session of the morning commenced with a paper by Jacqui Pearce (Museum of London). Her presentation, “An Art for Everyman: The Aspirations of the Medieval Potter,” examined pots made for the poor and strove to view the works through the eyes of their owners, rightly treating them as aesthetically interesting objects, several of which were playful and fanciful in nature. Dr. Clarisse Evrard (University of Lille 3, École du Louvre) continued the discussion on pottery, specifically majolica, which is traditionally considered a type of object primarily enjoyed by the intellectual elite. Her paper entitled “Italian Tin-Glazed Earthenware: Silverware for Poor People?” introduced compelling evidence to suggest that certain examples of majolica could also be afforded by people with more modest financial means. Finally, we heard from Dr. Roger Blench (University of Cambridge), whose research on “Elite and Popular Musical Instruments in Iconography and Archaeology in the Medieval and Renaissance Period in Europe” aims to create a “popular instrumentarium,” since few representations of popular instruments can be found in late medieval and Renaissance art. His paper suggested several sources from which scholars can ascertain information regarding popular instruments; such sources include the paintings of Swedish artist Albertus Pictor, recent archaeological finds, and folk traditions that still survive today.

Following lunch, the conference reconvened for the final two sessions. Dr. Ruth Atherton (University of Birmingham) started off the afternoon with her paper, “Visual Pedagogy: The Use of Woodcuts in Early Modern German Catechisms,” which examined a series of images depicting religious rituals and argued that the woodcuts spoke to local confessional identities in Post-Reformation Germany. Dr. Peg Katritzky (The Open University) presented on “Shakespeare’s ‘Picture of We three’: An Image for Illiterates?,” discussing the emblematic image of We Three and its viewership. Found in various popular media throughout Europe, the image always depicts one or several fools and is accompanied by text, which jokingly implicates the beholder as the other fool. The session concluded with a paper by Meriel Jeater (Museum of London) on “The Art of Popular Piety: Pilgrim Souvenirs from the Museum of London Collection.” Her presentation discussed how pilgrims’ badges were accessible to all levels of society, since they could be mass produced and made from a variety of materials, including inexpensive lead tin alloy. Such objects therefore allow insight into the religious practices and beliefs of the poor.

The conference closed with a panel focusing on the decorative arts. Anne-Clothilde Dumargne (University of Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines) offered a paper entitled “An Ordinary Object for Priceless Lighting: Copper Alloy Candlesticks in Late Medieval and Early Modern Society,” where she worked to determine the types of candlesticks found in non-elite homes. Lucinda Timmermans (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam) continued the discussion of fire in domestic spaces with her paper on “Dutch Fire Screens and their Iconography.” Her research shed light on fire screens, an understudied group of mass-produced objects decorated with highly political subject matter.

As was made evident by the conference, scholars of the art of the poor have a tough, yet an immensely worthwhile job ahead of them. When searching through the archival documents for the opinions of the less privileged social groups on the subject of art, we are met with – if not silence – at the very most, a whisper. To further complicate things, the artworks of the poor that have managed to survive are typically difficult to locate, since many of the objects are housed in small local museums and churches and cannot be easily found in databases or published catalogues. Rather than viewing these challenges as roadblocks, however, we should instead see them as potential catalysts for change within the field. By stepping into the realm of non-elite art and culture, we will be compelled to devise new methodologies, experiment with new sources, and ask new questions about the discipline in general.

One crucial issue raised by many of the conference papers was the need to reformulate our notions surrounding the category of “art.” Many of the works that were discussed in the presentations have been labeled by previous scholars as “derivative,” “crude,” or “provincial,” while other works are relegated to the archaeological collections of museums. Dr. Duits noted that objects, such as a beer mug or a candlestick, that we initially may tend to label as utilitarian objects, rather than as works of art, may have represented some of the few display pieces that a person with a lower income could afford to have in his or her home. If we study the aesthetic value of an object through a more objective lens, we will tap not only into its practical functions, but also into the emotions and social relationships that it may have engendered for its viewers and owners. For instance, prior to the recent work by Megan Holmes and Robert Maniura, miracle-working images, such as Santa Maria delle Carceri in Prato, were marginalized by art historians, due to the images’ “stylistically outdated” appearances. By considering the fresco in Prato as an object of serious art historical study, we find that the image’s particularized iconography embedded the fresco in its local community and reinforced its role as a locus of comfort and even empowerment for devotees suffering from poverty and infirmity. If we set aside value judgments and study artwork previously neglected by the discipline, we will have the opportunity to receive insights into the beliefs, struggles, and concerns of the humbler social groups.

The conference proved that studying the cultural production of the elite can only take us so far in our understanding of art and society until we hit a wall. The Art of the Poor started a conversation that needs to continue within the field. As scholars and as educators, it is essential that we encourage research and discussions in the classroom that revolve around questions concerning the less privileged members of the population and the role that art played in their lives.

By: Shannon Emily Gilmore, PhD Candidate, Department of History of Art & Architecture, University of California, Santa Barbara