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Living Over the Store
Even the most successful artists today are prone to working out of their homes. It's convenient, more comfortable, usually more economical, and there are certain tax advantages. It's also traditional. Artists have been living "over the store," so to speak, for hundreds of years. The only difference between then and now is that the studio, or workshop, as it tended to be called, occupied a significantly larger proportion of the dwelling, perhaps more accurately we could say the "home" was in the workshop. A typical, well-established Renaissance artist, for instance, might live in a three story stone building, perhaps fifty to seventy feet square, built around a paved, open courtyard wherein was located a well, a small garden, and wooden steps leading to the upper levels. From this courtyard, arched openings led to the stables, the workshop, an office, and a passageway to the street. The buildings usually sat directly on the street, which, though paved, typically had an open sewer running down its centre. Often a family member would perch beneath an awning and sell small, inexpensive, art objects created in the workshop to passers by.

Food for the apprentices, the master, and even his family would be served in the workshop on trestle tables that could be removed between meals to make room for other activities. The artist and his family lived on the second floor in quarters that were often quite sumptuous while apprentices slept in much less commodious "cells" toward the rear of the structure, usually over the stables and hardly any more comfortable. The kitchen would often be on the third floor. Large chimneys were not a common feature in Italian homes at the time, so placing the kitchen on the upper level allowed the heat and smoke involved in cooking to escape more easily. Only the most palatial homes (palazzos) had much in the way of heated rooms and glass for windows, while not unknown at the time, was quite expensive so most windows were either open or covered by canvas screens; this in a country largely equivalent to the United States insofar as temperatures were concerned.

The workshop of an Italian Renaissance artist was quite different from what we might think of as an artist's studio today. Large wooden doors would be opened during the day to admit light and fresh air, not to mention all the neighbourhood bambinos, bugs, birds, cats, dogs, and miscellaneous vermin that might happen by. And the designation "workshop" was literally quite accurate. Even a painter's workshop would find the master and his associates involved with wood, plaster, and various metals, as well as grinding pigments, preparing canvases or panels, and perhaps producing engraved prints of the artist's work. All of this of course, was in addition to continuous instruction in drawing and painting plus the dozens of other associated skills a would-be artist had to know to be successful in the sixteenth century.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
5 March 1999


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