Welcome to the NFT Renaissance: How technology played as big a role in the European Renaissance as it does in today’s digital art movement
Many of us only became aware of NFTs on March 11, 2021, when venerable auction house Christie’s sold the artist Beeple’s NFT, “Everydays—The First 5000 Days,” in a bidding frenzy that began at $100 and ended at a whopping $69.4 million. That sale upended the traditional art market.
Shortly afterward, Joshua Rosenthal, a former academic historian and now a founder of a crypto-investing firm, appeared on the Bankless Podcast. He drew powerful comparisons between the technologies that catalyzed the European Renaissance and the technologies fueling today’s blockchain art fever. Rosenthal stated that our current global society has entered the early stages of a Digital Art Renaissance. The podcast immediately went viral and was translated into six languages.
“Everydays—The First 5000 Days” by Beeple
What did Christie’s auction and Rosenthal’s ideas suggest, and why did they ignite such enthusiasm in NFT circles and confusion in the art establishment?
This is not the first time that audiences have been confounded by novelty in works of art. During the 20th century alone, art transformed from object to environment to concept and idea. As a mirror and a record of what is valued, art evolves as culture evolves. At its core, art is essentially a given culture placing value in its aesthetic choices. Today, art and technology have merged into NFTs—unique certificates of ownership that live on the blockchain and represent pieces of digital media.
The analogy between the European Renaissance and today is a layered narrative of cause and effect. Both histories begin with the emergence of two new technologies unwinding established power structures. The result of these changes is a loosening in a hierarchy, thus creating a new, wealthy social class. This new class then expresses their status, taste, and identity with a new form of art.
The disruptive technologies of the European Renaissance
During the European Renaissance, the two disruptive technologies were the printing press in 1436, followed in 1497 by the accounting ledger that we now refer to as double-entry bookkeeping. Merchants and financiers were the new social elite that wrestled power away from princes and popes. The art they favored was more realistic, even domestic. They wanted art that reflected the aesthetics of home life instead of art that reflected the aesthetics of monarchy and church. These events were so interdependent that they caused a chain reaction. Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press allowed for a mathematician named Luca Pacioli to publish and distribute his new accounting system. Pacioli taught Leonardo da Vinci perspective. In turn, da Vinci created geometric illustrations for Pacioli’s book. The Medici family utilized Pacioli’s accounting method and nurtured da Vinci’s talent. Technology, art, and money cannot be separated.
“Portrait of Lorenzo De’ Medici, Duke of Urbino” by Raphael
Now, 500 years later, Emanuele Dascanio is an artist translating European Renaissance traditions into the digital NFT realm. He is certain that “If Raphael were alive today, he would absolutely be creating NFTs. With the NFT community, we have a chance to change the perspective, to change the paradigm in the art market.”
What Dascanio is saying echoes Rosenthal’s podcast: communities make historical changes happen through vectors of technology. Just as the art of the Renaissance reflected the taste and times of the mercantile community, today’s art reflects the global value system of NFT collectors. Values that espouse decentralization, open-access, participation, and self-autonomy.
If the internet is our printing press, then crypto-currency, with its public record-keeping system—the blockchain—is our double-entry bookkeeping. Together, these technologies are rocking long-established banking systems linked to traditional art markets (though too often opaque). The new wealthy class is made up of internet and crypto entrepreneurs. The art they like, which reflects their identity and taste, lives on the blockchain.
Hand-in-glove with this blockchain system is a radical dynamic that places the artist in the center of the enterprise. Artists can now upload their work and sell it directly to collectors. Bypassing the traditional gatekeepers—galleries and dealers who prefer to sell to an elite group of wealthy investors—virtually anyone who can log onto the internet can become an NFT patron. Furthermore, utilizing an NFT allows an artist to program an automatic payout into their product code, giving them a percentage on all future sales. For the first time in art history, artists can continue to accrue capital as their art accrues value.
In the same way that the printing press once facilitated the friar Martin Luther to circumvent Pope Leo X and birth the Protestant Reformation, blockchain technology empowers artists to connect directly with their audience (as well as their peers) and reap benefits every time their art is resold.
For artists, this is a paradigm shift, the game-changer igniting an NFT Renaissance.
But while during the Renaissance, the epicenter of economic and cultural resurgence was restricted to Europe, today, there is no epicenter. What is occurring is happening on a global scale: a decentralized market occurring with a velocity, speed, and spread that is historically unprecedented.
An Artist Between Worlds
Emanuele Dascanio’s artwork bridges the world of the European Renaissance and the current one. Though Dascanio has been creating NFTs for only one year, what sets his work apart is his extensive Renaissance art training. His realistic drawings, graphite portraits, and still-lifes take months, sometimes years, to complete. “My technique is very simple,” Dascanio says. Yet he believes this simplicity grants the viewer an experience of greater complexity. “A drawing is only black dust mixed with oil on a painting. But you don’t see the dust; you see the mind of the creator. The digital layer is the final layer that permits me to evolve my vision.”
Born in Milan, Italy, in 1983, Dascanio grew up visiting museums, mesmerized by the painters of the Italian Renaissance. He enrolled in the Academy of Brea but left shortly afterward. Eventually, he found his master. The artist Mario Donizetti taught him the centuries-old technique he still uses today, oil painting, and the slow accumulation of hatching lines to build up complex imagery.
One of Dascanio’s drops is a digital rendering of a drawing that he estimates took 2.5 years and 10,000,000 micro-hatched strokes of graphite to complete. Titled “The Natural Universe,” Dascanio created the composition of multiple spiral figures seen from below. The entire drawing, Dascanio says, is a celebration of a sentence located in the white vortex center but visible only through digital technology: “The world is made by events, not things” by C. Rovelli. Rovelli is an Italian theoretical physicist and writer. By placing Rovelli’s quote at the core of his work, Dascanio indicates that his drawing is more of an event—albeit one that took 2.5 years—not a thing. “Objects,” Rovelli has stated, “are just nodes of interactions.”
While the European Renaissance was the birthplace of the consumption and appreciation of art as a tangible thing, even though it is still early days, the NFT Art Renaissance is proving to be a re-examination of that proposition. Indeed, for a generation that grew up in the virtual world of the internet, maybe tangible things aren’t so important. Perhaps one key to understanding the paradigm shift that NFTs bring to light is illustrated in Dascanio’s artwork. An art object’s reality—its true value—lies beyond its physicality. It lies in the consolidation of the experiences and interactions that bring that work of art into being.
Gabrielle Selz is the award-winning author of Light on Fire: The Art and Life of Sam Francis. She has contributed to The New Yorker, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, More Magazine, and The Rumpus, among other publications. Her fiction has appeared in Fiction Magazine and her art criticism in Art Papers, Hyperallergic, Art & Object, and Newsday. She is a recipient of the New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Nonfiction and is a Moth Story Slam Winner.
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