Laura Morelli holds a PhD in art history from Yale University, where she was a Bass Writing Fellow and Mellon Doctoral Fellow. She authored a column for National Geographic Traveler called “The Genuine Article” and contributes pieces about authentic travel to international publications. Laura Morelli is the author of the Made in… and the Laura Morelli’s Authentic Arts guidebook series. The Gondola Maker, an award-winning historical novel about the heir to a gondola boatyard in 16th-century Venice, is her first work of fiction. To learn more about Laura Morelli as well as the subject of authenticity in the arts, you can visit Laura Morelli’s web site and blog at www.lauramorelli.com.


My shelves overflow with art history textbooks filled with images of great Italian painters, sculptors, and architects of the past: Michelangelo, da Vinci, and many others. What’s missing from these books? Goldsmiths, mosaicists, potters, blacksmiths, weavers, woodworkers, leatherworkers, and many more “artisans” whose centuries-old traditions are not just historical but also living.

In order to understand where we got our notions of an “artisan” (versus an “artist” who might be found in an art history textbook), you have to go back to the Middle Ages. Prior to about 1300, stonemasons, goldsmiths, painters, and other “makers” were organized into a strictly regulated guild system. The master, following a set of guild statutes, ensured that apprentices and journeymen worked their way up the ranks over many years of practice and well-defined stages of accomplishment. Customers regarded these “makers” collectively rather than individually, even though their works—from gold jewelry to paintings—were valued for their beauty and symbolism of social status. A veil of anonymity characterized these medieval makers, even those who created the most impressive works destined for churches and civic buildings.  The patron who commissioned and paid for the work—whether it was a fine chair, a stone sculpture, a gold necklace, or even an entire building—was more likely to get credit for it than those who designed or constructed it.

All of that changed around 1400, when, for the first time, people began to regard painters, sculptors, and architects in a different class from, let’s say, a goldsmith or a hat maker. In Florence, a new cultural ideal that would later be called “Renaissance humanism” was beginning to take form. Florentine intellectuals began to spread the idea of reformulating works of classical Greece and Rome, and to place greater value on individual creativity than on collective production. A divide appeared between those who valued such novelty and those who sought to maintain tradition. A few brave painters—who for many centuries had been paid by the square foot—successfully petitioned their patrons to pay them on the basis of individual artistic merit instead. In the course of a generation, the work of some painters, sculptors, and architects rose from the status of “artifact” to “art.” And while the makers of traditional objects such as candlestick holders, ceramic vessels, gold jewelry, or wrought-iron gates continued to be seen as faithful laborers recognized communally in trade guilds, a few of their counterparts—virtually all of them painters, sculptors, or architects—rose to international and lasting fame as the rock stars of the Renaissance.

Paradoxically, the new concept of “art” did little to stem the demand for those old-fashioned ceramic vessels, gold jewelry, or wrought-iron gates. In fact, Italian cities and towns continued to boast some of the strongest guild systems in all of Europe, and they continued to flourish well into subsequent centuries. In fact, ruling families such as the Medici of Florence counted themselves among history’s greatest supporters of the so-called “minor arts,” offering legal protections for goldsmiths, leather workers, and other craftspeople. 

Today in Italy, many of the trades of the past remain living traditions. The medieval guilds may be long gone, but their arts, their techniques, and their soul still thrive. The skills, the forms, the knowledge, and more importantly, the spirit of the past, is kept alive in the hands of a small number of individuals who take pride in their own towns’ and cities’ unique visual essence. These living traditions are passed down verbally—and through hands-on practice—from generation to generation.  In this way, each work acts as a historical document as valuable as anything written on a piece of paper.  

In this context, the role of historical reproductions is critical. A "reproduction" does not have to mean a slavish, dull copy of an artifact from long-ago glory days. If those artisan studios carrying on the traditions of their ancestors suddenly all disappeared, think how barren Italian towns and cities would be. These works would be shut away in museums, and the streets would be reduced to chain fashion stores with no individual character. Today’s master artisans continue rely on the skills they learned watching their parents, grandparents, and the master craftspeople to whom they were apprenticed turn out small wonders day after day. In artisan studios across Italy, production remains limited, quality high, and a sense of carrying the torch of tradition stronger than ever. 

© Laura Morelli

For further reading by Laura Morelli, visit www.lauramorelli.com.


To explore more about "art versus craft," check out Laura Morelli’s lesson for TED-Ed below, and let us know how you interpret the terms art, craft, artisan, artist in the comments. 

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