Palma il Giovane, "Self Portrait" (c. 1590 – 1599) oil on canvas 49.6 inches by 37.7 inches (image courtesy and via Wikimedia Commons)

In recent years there has been a growing interest in collectible digital art. This development is due to major changes in ways we understand art and due to particular art collections. Aside from online galleries, which aim to sell works in traditional media such as painting and sculpture, there are platforms aimed at selling digital visual works that can only be displayed on digital screens.

David OReilly, “Mirror Walker” (2020) a work by one of the best-selling artists in the crypto art scene

A new generation of artists and creatives who grew up in an era of ubiquitous digital technology (so called digital natives) assume that their work should not be limited to a single exhibition space. Accustomed to digital communication, they produce works that collectors, can take anywhere they want. This approach to art making comes about in response to recent developments in the art market and deeper changes in contemporary society.

In fact, the creation of digital artworks made to be displayed anywhere is the latest development of a process begun hundreds of years ago. We can trace the earliest steps to one of the cradles of the modern market society: 16th-century Venice.

Palma il Giovane, “Doge Francesco Venier Presents the Subject Cities to Venice” (1595) (image courtesy and via Wikiart)

In the late 16th century, the Republic of Venice was at its economic and political height. A thriving merchant city for centuries, its population reached the record of 175,000 people, an incredible number compared to the number of Venetians counted in 2018: about 53,000. It was one of the richest cities in Europe thanks to economic and political agreements with West Asian and Far Eastern countries. Venice was an aggressive power which conquered the European? mainland and erected colonies on the coasts of the Mediterranean Sea. Venetian merchants were among the wealthiest in Europe — a fact that played a big role in the decision of many of the most popular artists and artisans of the time to transfer their workshops to the Venetian lagoon. In the span of a few decades, we see important artists as Titian (1490–1575), Jacopo Tintoretto (1518–1594) and Paolo Veronese (1528–1588) working in a relatively small city for the same rich, educated, middle class, producing works that still attract millions of museum visitors around the world.

Palma il Giovane, “Self Portrait” (c. 1590 – 1599) oil on canvas 49.6 inches by 37.7 inches (image courtesy and via Wikimedia Commons) (image courtesy and via Wikimedia Commons)

It was in this context that canvas became the most efficient support material for oil painting. Venice-based painters were well aware of the experiments with oil painting carried out on wood panels by Northern European artists as Jan van Eyck (1390–1441) in the previous decades but they couldn’t use wood in the same way because of an insurmountable obstacle: the humid air of Venice. The city, built on hundreds of small islands, features a microclimate that affects the way oil painting dries on a surface. If in Northern Europe wood panels represented the first choice for artists and artisans, the humid Venetian weather didn’t allow the local painters to use it with the same ease as their Northern colleagues.

An unexpected solution came from the city’s arsenale, where hundreds of boats and ships ready to cross the Mediterranean Sea under the Republic of Venice’s coat of arms were built. The sails were made from linen, a poor material that was nonetheless ductile and fit for oil painting. In the previous decades, other Italian artists experimented with linen canvas as support material, notably Paolo Uccello (1397–1475) for his masterpiece Saint George and the Dragon (1470), but wood panels remained the preferred option for artists and more importantly commissioners. Linen canvas became the favourite material in Venice because it allowed painters to produce works on a material that would allow oil paint to dry despite the humid weather and cost less than other materials such as wood panels.

Paolo Veronese, “The Wedding Feast at Cana” (1563) (image courtesy and via Wikiart)

Moreover, oil on canvas paintings granted the freedom to transport and place the work easily wherever artists or commissioners wished. Thanks to this technological innovation, artworks weren’t site specific anymore; they could be moved, sold, exhibited with such liberty that it is difficult to find anything similar in terms of transportability and practicality before then.

The adoption of linen canvas in art supported the lifestyles of the newly rich middle class which, had to be always on move, travelling from city to city trading and selling goods. It was an adventurous life: There weren’t many others who could travel as often so it made sense for those merchants and bankers to privilege artworks that would testify to their taste and wealth, and could be transported wherever their business took them next. In other words, canvas was the perfect material for a rising social class whose success was defined by mobility.

Frederic Duquette, “BROKEN_BEAUTY” (2020) sold online for more than $12,000 only 24 hours after being published.

Mobility is also the cornerstone of the appeal of contemporary digital art. One of its most defining aspects is that it is made to be displayed on any digital screen — which, in 2020, means that it can be exhibited almost anywhere without particular technical limitations. Collectors can display the works on their personal smart phones, tablets, and digital screens, devices that are built to offer users the option to customize their appearance, to personalize the functions, and choose the apps to run in a way that give them the feeling these images reflect their character and life style. In this context, the collection of digital works must be understood within the broader context of contemporary self-representation strategies: A digital work that can be displayed on one’s phone or TV screen represents the lifestyle of the collector in the way that particular wallpapers and apps do. To buy the latest work released by a popular digital artist and be able to show it whenever you want on any of your screens means that you have a tangible proof of your taste as easy to access as the pictures of your last holiday or your favorite music playlist. It makes sense, then, for artists to make it possible for collectors to treat unique art works in the way that they select apps, songs, and pictures to represent what they think make them unique. Furthermore, collectors who research and buy contemporary digital works also understand the value of art by economically supporting living artists who might otherwise be cut out from the traditional art market.

Esteban Diácono, “Calisthenics” (2019)

The Venetian merchants taking their loved paintings with them across the known world changed the history of Western art. It is simply impossible to look at what happened in the last five centuries in art without considering the major role played by canvas. Thanks to its relatively cheap cost and ductility, it became a pervasive support material that followed the trails traced by European merchants and kingdoms, wherever emerging civilizations went. It is light, relatively easy to transport — decisive factors that, as we have seen, still influence the way artists make works for a market of collectors.

Filippo Lorenzin is an independent art writer, teacher, and curator. Originally from Italy, he worked for the Victoria and Albert Museum, Goethe Institut and Paris College of Art. He writes about media...