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Articles About Art - The Fifteenth-century artist's workshop

Art Information > Art Articles > The Fifteenth-century artist's workshop

The Fifteenth-century artist's workshop*

While twentieth-century artists tend, for the most part, to produce works in the solitary environment of a studio, fifteenth-century art was produced in workshops. The workshop - like the current art college - also functioned as a training ground for young artists.

The workshop was headed by a master. The master would be the recipient of commissions, and would oversee, and to a greater or lesser extent engage in, the production of works. He would also be responsible for the payment of rent for the workshop and salaries or allowances to his assistants and apprentices. The master could employ assistants on a relatively permanent basis
or he could enlist their help for specific commissions. Assistance was also provided by appren-
tices - individuals who entered the shop in order to receive training.

It must have been relatively expensive to establish a workshop, and there are instances when
young artists entered into partnerships to share these costs. Donatello and Michelozzo, for
instance, established a workshop together in the 1420s and 1430s and shared the profits
generated from the shop unti: each was in a position to work independently from the other. A workshop might also be run by members of the same family, as, for example, in the case of Antonio and Piero Pollaiuolo. Once and individual was established, however, he might well be sufficiently successful to run more than one workshop. Benedetto da Maiano, for instance, had no fewer than three different workshops in use at the same time.

Apprentices usually began their training between the ages of twelve and fourteen. According
to Cennini, the training period lasted about twelve years. He acknowledges, however, that this time span included a phase when the apprentice would have graduated to the status of an assistant. We can therefore assume that when an artist was sufficiently skilled to contemplate setting up his own workshop, he would have been between the ages of 24 and 26.

What kind of arrangement existed between the master and the apprentice? In his account
books, Neri di Bicci, a minor Florentine painter, indicates the terms under which Cosimo di
Lorenzo was apprenticed to him in his workshop:

" March 1, 1456, 1 record that on the above day I, Neri di Bicci, hired as a disciple in the art of painting Cosimo di Lorenzo, for a year beginning on the same day and ending on the same
day in 1457, with these agreements and procedures, that the said Cosimo must come to the
shop at all times and hours that I wish, day or night, and on holidays when necessary, to
apply himself to working without any time off, and if he takes any time off, he is required to
make it up. And I Neri must give the said Cosimo for his salary in the said year 18 florins,
paying him every three months, and this was agreed with the said Cosimo on the above day
in my house and so I have made this record at his desire and with his agreement."

There is also an indication in the account book that Cosimo had in fact been apprenticed to
artist for three years prior to the above agreement:

" March 1, 1456. I record that on this day I settled accounts with Cosimo di Lorenzo, my
disciple, he for three years has been with me in the past, and each and every thing we had to
arrange with each other. There is a balance to give of 45 pounds 2 shillings as appears on this
account ... "

These passages indicate that the pupil did not in fact pay tuition fees to the master, but, on
contrary, received a small fee for his labours. This fee would increase as the apprentice gained
more experience and skills, and eventually achieved the position of assistant rather than pupil.
Sometimes, however, the apprentice or assistant would be housed by the master, and part of the payment would take the form of material goods. A note from Neri di Bicci's accounts in 1458
indicate that an assistant, Giusto d'Andrea, received a new pair of stockings every year as part of
his payment.

The payment of pupils by the master suggests that even the most junior apprentice could
perform tasks that were of value in the workshop. There were also cases when masters were not
able to afford apprentices, and they received outside funds for this purpose. A document from
1421 indicates that the city of Siena provided the master of woodwork, Domenico di Niccolo, with
the funds necessary to employ an assistant:

" Siena, May 13, 1421. Lords and potent master priors and Captain of the People of the City of
Siena, it is reverently brought before you by your least servant, the master of woodwork
Domenico di Niccolo, who is making the choir of your palace, that it has been said to him
many times by some of the honoured citizens of our city and others too, that considering the
grace God has given him in carving and inlaying, as is known to all, he would do well for his
own honour and the city's good to have an apprentice with him who would see and learn
from his skill ... . But since it is known to your lordships that he is your poor servant, and his
family is unprofitable and a cost, as girls are, and they know that to keep apprentices to
learn, they ask for thirty and forty florins each a year, and he could not sustain such a
burden. Nevertheless if he were aided, he offers himself to your lordships as willing to keep
two or three apprentices with him, and teach them what he knows of his craft, and he wishes
to be bound to this if your lordships may please to provide him with a little salary so that
vour servant can support himself and maintain himself."

The document then indicates that the city provided Domenico with a salary of 200 pounds a
year on condition that he continuously trained two or three Sienese apprentices in his workshop.
This agreement seems to indicate that the officials of Siena were anxious to ensure that
individuals were trained in art making, and that they were willing to provide the necessary funds
out of the city's coffers for this purpose.

In addition to payments made to apprentices for their activities in the workshop, there is evidence of an occasional payment to a teacher for specialist training. A document exists in which a painter, Guzon, agreed to pay another painter, Francesco Squarcione, to teach his (Guzon's) son
certain perspectival techniques:

" October 30, 1467, Padua. Be it known and clear to whoever may read this writing that master
Guzon, painter, has agreed with master Francesco Squarzon [Squarcione], painter, that the
matter is to teach the former's son, Francesco and namely the principle of a plane with lines
drawn according to my method, and to put figures on the said plane ... in various places on
the said plane, and place objects, namely a chair, bench, or house, and get him to understand
these things, and teach him to understand a man's head in foreshortening by isometric rendering ... and teach him the system of a naked body measured in front and behind, and to put eyes, nose, mouth and ears in a man's head at the right measured places ... and this is agreed by both sides for four months from now, and he is to give me half a ducat every month as my fee ... , And I Francesco Squarcione wrote this with my own hand. "

Guzon would, in this case, be paying purely for the training his son would receive; his son would not, presumably, he expected to "earn" a salary by assisting Francesco Squarcione in his studio.

Little infomation exists about th specific activities carried out by the apprentices in a workshop. It is reasonable to assume that a junior apprentice performed basic tasks whilst more advanced pupils undertook,jobs that demanded greater skill. The nature of these tasks would of course depend upon the type of work being done irt the workshop, according to whether it specialised in painting, sculpture or woodwork. In a sculpture workshop, apprentices may have helped produce a full size clay model from a small model made by the master. They also no doubt assisted the master in the first stages of carving a marble block. In a painting workshop, apprentices probably helped prepare colours and binding, agents, and assisted with the application of gesso to panel surfaces. They may have undertaken the transfererence of the artist's design to a panel or wall, and, after some years of training, they no doubt undertook some basic painting.

In addition to assisting the master. the apprentice would have been required to develop his own drawing skills. It is not certain whether he would have been expected to produce drawings in
his free time, for example on Sundays, or if the master set aside a particular time for this form of training. Apprentices would propably have been expected to copy drawings of established masters, and only when they were reasonably proficient in this skill would they be allowed to draw actual objects.

 

* Drawn from notes compiled by E.A. Maré for the University of South Africa

 




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