Have you ever wondered how artists travelled in the past? How did they deliver their artworks, and how far did they go? The time of the Renaissance was marked by travelling, Great Geographical Discoveries, and the rebirth of Classical antique art. It’s surprising to find out how quickly one got to know artist’s work far away, even before the Internet or motor vehicles. But also how difficult it was for artists to travel. However, despite all the difficulties, those Renaissance artists were some of the first culture tourists in the world.
How travelling look like during the Renaissance?
Travelling long distances during history was often dangerous. People usually travelled in the most simple way, on foot. Rich could afford to travel on horses or other animals, which were expensive to keep because they needed care and a lot of food. They even had their own bodyguards.
The roads were often steep, rocky, and robbers waited along the paths. Mountains that stood in the way were difficult to pass and, if possible, avoided. Hence, they were a barrier between different regions.
Since the Middle Ages, travellers could rest or sleep over in the taverns along the roads. They were safe from bandits and bad weather, but the accommodation was usually poor.
In addition to walking, travelling by sea increased significantly in the early modern period. Merchants travelled the most, and many of them used the famous Road of silk that connected Europe with Asia.
However, at the time, Ottoman Empire took over the traffic in the area. That’s why Europeans had to take another route, by the sea. This helped big ports arise, caused maritime to vigorously develop, and allowed great geographical discoveries to happen. It was cheaper to travel that way. But, there were difficulties on the sea too, like storms or pirates.
Besides merchants, other people who travelled were pilgrims and students who continued the medieval tradition of moving to prominent foreign universities. In fact, people of all professions travelled for their business reasons, including artists.
Many were writing about their travel experience, giving advice and observations, which created a new genre in literature, called the art of travel.
⤷ Read more: History of travelling – How people started to travel
How have artists travelled in the past?
As the cities became wealthier during the Renaissance, travelling and the demand for expensive art increased. The most essential reason artists traveled was that they got orders from different places. Many of them were invited by foreign rulers or noblemen to come to their courts, or by churches to work for them.
Art was not considered just a decoration but an important symbol of class, power, intellect, or a medium in religion. As expected, they looked for well-known and skilled artists, who then got great opportunities to travel, see the royals and explore a different city, region or country.
Some artists lived and worked on a court for a long time, while others only made a one-time visit to carry out the order, for example, to paint a portrait of their client.
Young artists sometimes needed to travel to get their artistic education. They would move to a master artist’s place to learn from their mentor, whom they served under contract. Travelling was also welcome later on so that artists could get familiar with the works of other masters. Italian artists often travelled to Rome to study the magnificent ancient ruins, attracting northern European artists. It made a part of their art education and a way to keep up to date in art style, observe the local architecture, learn about Romans and enjoy the Mediterranean climate.
⤷ TIP: In the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, one whole gallery is dedicated Dutch artists who travelled to Italy and created paintings inspired by the Italian landscape. Check out the link here to see some of them.
Travels of Leonardo da Vinci around Italy and France
One of the most famous painters of all time, Leonardo da Vinci, travelled too. In his times, he was well-known not only on the Apennine peninsula but in other countries, too. Leonardo da Vinci moved from Florence and spent 18 years in Milan, on the court of Duke Ludovico Sforza. He painted The Last Supper on the wall of the ducal mausoleum.
In 1515, French King Francis I invited him to his royal summer home to be ‘The King´s First Painter, Engineer and Architect’. Even though Leonardo was over sixty years old, he took that opportunity. He travelled over the Alps by mule, carrying his art supplies and artworks, including the unfinished Mona Lisa! This is where he spent his final years. Da Vinci was buried nearby in Amboise after his wish, where you can see his tomb.
⤷ TIP: Visit picturesque Châeau du Clos Lucé to see the exhibition of Leonardo´s work in France
Venetian painters in Ottoman Empire
There are interesting examples of how even politics caused artists to travel. After the war between Venice and the Ottoman Empire, Sultan Mehmed II asked the Senate of Venice to send a few painters, especially ones skilled in portraits.
The painter Gentile Bellini was sent, and the sultan asked for a portrait in their western style. For that, Bellini used a new oil on canvas technique and painted Renaissance decorations. Like many other travellers from the time who were culture tourists, Bellini used the opportunity to explore the country he visited. Actually, he studied Ottoman art and clothes and made one of the first ethnographic studies in Europe. This was a cultural exchange between the two worlds.
The secret trips of Jan van Eyck
Jan van Eyck is a very famous artist who was a real traveller. Besides travelling for the art commissions, he was also a diplomat and even went on secret missions. It´s not sure what was the real reason for some of his trips and what are all the places he went to. However, art historians suggest a couple of them.
First, he moved across the Netherlands to became a court painter in The Hague. Then, he was employed by Burgundian Duke Philip the Good and even became a courtier. Thanks to the Duke who sent him on diplomatic trips, Van Eyck had more opportunities to travel to foreign countries.
One of these instances was a visit to Portugal where he painted portraits of Isabella of Portugal, the Duke´s bride to be. He also met the kings of Castile and Granada. Wherever he travelled, he observed the features of those places, including landscapes and architecture. On his famous Ghent Altarpiece, some palm trees are painted in the background, which he had seen in Portugal.
In the same way, we see a dome in a landscape that looks like the Old City of Jerusalem in the painting The Three Marys at the Tomb, often attributed to his brother Hubert. Because of paintings like this one, it is thought that Jan went on a far trip to Jerusalem as a pilgrim for his Duke. He could be called a world traveller for his time, as he also visited England, Spain, and possibly the Ottoman Empire.
The journeys of Albrecht Dürer
Another painter who travelled to several countries in Europe is Albrecht Dürer. That German painter visited the Netherlands and Venice. He even lived there for some time. Before coming, he was familiar with some Italian artworks through their engravings.
While being there, he observed and sketched curiosities he saw: different kinds of animals, people, beautiful watercolour landscapes, and according to a letter he sent, he didn´t look forward to leaving sunny Italy. He was influenced by Venetian softly painted portraiture he saw. One of the most influential German and European artists created his painting style thanks to travelling and engravings that were circulating.
The trips of Michelangelo
Interestingly, some great artists didn´t travel that far: Michelangelo mostly travelled from Florence to Rome. Rome was an art entre during the Renaissance, and most art commissions were happening there.
The Saint Peter’s Church has decayed, and the popes dreamed to restore its glory. This made famous regional artists compete in sending their designs for the church, and several moved to Rome, including Michelangelo. There he also made magnificent sculptures like Mourning of Christ, papal tomb, and painted the walls of the Sixtine Chapel with many others, like Sandro Botticelli.
Although he never left Apennine Penninsula, he was known abroad. However, the only one of his sculptures that left Italy during Michelangelo’s life went to Bruges in today’s Belgium. You can still see it today in the Church of Our Lady in that Flemish town.
⤷ Read more: Exploring Bruges’ Golden Age
How artworks were transported during the Renaissance?
What helped many painters to travel easier was a change in the material they used for their artworks. While the influence of Italian art was spreading elsewhere, the revolution in painting was happening in the northwest of Europe.
Until then, paintings were often made on hard materials like wooden planks that were heavy and difficult to transport, especially if the picture was big.
However, Jan van Eyck perfected the oil painting technique. Unlike tempera, it adds a unique shine and depth to the motives depicted, with soft colour transitions, details and elaborate textures. It also has more endurance.
Oil on canvas enables painters to use thin layers of colour, so it can be easily rolled and make canvas light to carry. This saved a lot of space and worries that the artwork would get damaged. Paintings were now much more suitable to travel. Soon, it was introduced elsewhere, so artists accepted that new technique.
The circulation of artworks
Even though travelling was so crucial for art development, there were other ways for artists to get familiar with foreign pieces of art. Woodcut and engraving in metal were invented in the early 15th century in Germany.
Once they were made, the artworks in this technique were easily multiplied, and many copies could be made in a short time. These copies could then circulate all around Europe, which spread the influence of specific artwork, especially if there was an invention in the way the figures were arranged. Other artists could use components like the pose of figures or facial expressions to inspire their new artwork. The best example of this is an engraving Battle of the Nudes, which an artist carved himself, and it has over 50 known copies! Today they´re in many museums around the world.
The engraving was also used in the book illustrating. A publisher could buy the original engraved plate to make as many copies as needed. Still, unfortunately, the plates got damaged after many times of use and often engraved over again, so the original engraved artworks were lost.
This is one of the reasons classical period art spread so quickly. Ancient sculptures excavated in the 15th and 16th centuries influenced many. They were copied many times in the form of drawings, engravings, paintings, statues or little figurines, so some artists could still see them even though they couldn’t travel.
Art in Renaissance flourished thanks to the general rise of mobility, the help of printing techniques and the development of wealthy cities. Thanks to travelling artists, mainly from Apennine Penninsula and Northern European countries, it spread throughout Europe. On their trips, artists certainly learned a lot about foreign countries and their features and recorded it in their art. By spreading it, the public could maybe learn something about new cultures in those times.
Photos: Cover photo (Photo by Jeremy Bezanger on Unsplash)