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liberal arts

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In the context of Renaissance art, a term applied to pursuits that were considered primarily as exercises of the mind rather than of practical skill and craftsmanship. The concept of a distinction between ‘liberal’ (worthy of a free man: Lat., homo liber) and ‘vulgar’ arts goes back to classical antiquity, and survived in one form or another up to the Renaissance, forming the basis of secular learning in the Middle Ages. In the early Renaissance the lowly position accorded to the visual arts was increasingly contested, providing a theoretical basis for the social struggle that took place to raise them from the status of manual skill to the dignity of a liberal exercise of the spirit. The most formidable champion of the visual arts was Leonardo, who more than anyone else was responsible for creating the idea of the painter as a creative thinker. By about 1500 painting and sculpture were generally accepted as liberal arts by Italian humanists (significantly so in Baldassare Castiglione's influential Book of the Courtier of 1528, which was translated into English in 1561). However, as Anthony Blunt points out (Artistic Theory in Italy 1450–1600), ‘As soon as the visual arts became generally accepted as liberal, the protagonists began to quarrel among themselves about which of them was the noblest and most liberal.’ The acceptance came later in other parts of Europe than in Italy.

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