Are NFTs The Next Italian Renaissance?

Young Italian artists are at the forefront of the booming new crypto trade. Will it last?

Digital art NFT
Digital art exhibition in Tokyo, Japan. Photo: Note Thanun on Unsplash.

NFTs have recently taken the world by storm, making headlines with staggering success stories in a format and forum that has much of the world scratching its head. From American digital artist Mike Winklemann (aka ‘Beeple’), whose ‘Everydays’ collage of digital drawings sold for $69 million dollars at Christie’s last March to Seattle teenager Victor Langlois aka ‘FEWOCiOUS’ who has amassed a $26 million fortune as a collector, NFTs are everywhere. Even Melania Trump is going crypto with ‘Melania’s Vision’, a limited-edition watercolor of her eyes by French fashion artist Marc-Antoine Coulson: the January auction opened at close to €130,000 and though it failed to meet the target bid, certainly succeeded in drawing attention.

In Italy emergence of NFTs into the mainstream consciousness means that a Made in Italy crypto art renaissance is on the rise, engineered by trailblazing young Italian digital artists trading their works online with Ethereum, the blockchain on which the digital art market currently trades. Last July, Cambi Auction House hosted Italy’s first crypto art auction at its branch in Milan. The collection entitled Dystopian Visions, curated by Serena Tabacchi, Director and Co-Founder of the Museum of Contemporary Digital Art (MoCDA) featured Italian artists, mainly in their twenties and thirties, who were selling their artwork in digital format; or NFTs. However, contemporary art wouldn’t exist without controversies, and skeptics are convinced that NFTs are nothing but a fleeting fascination that will disappear as quickly as it emerged. But there’s something about NFTs, isn’t there? It might just be a bit of wishful thinking from the metaverse, but perhaps NFTs are just what young Italian creators need to push the envelope and bring about their own artistic revolution.

NFTs and art, explained

NFTs, or Non-Fungible Tokens, have become the biggest buzzword of the past year but if you’re not particularly tech-savvy or invested in digital trends, it may seem like just another acronym that will come and go. But if you’re familiar with Bitcoin, you’re already halfway there: NFTs are particularly important to artwork, which could be anything from a digital drawing, sculpture, music, video, photo or any combination of those mentioned. Each NFT has a unique digital signature that gives it monetary value as a collector’s item to be traded with cryptocurrency through online marketplaces such as SuperRare, OpenSea, and Solana. Think of them as the art world equivalent to trading cards that you might have collected as a child (or an adult): the rarer they are the better, and a signed card is always exponentially more valuable.

Following this logic, a buyer of the virtual art piece demonstrates proof of that ownership through that NFT signature that they purchase through the crypto market. However, as all of this takes place digitally, there isn’t one singular canvas or card that an owner can display above their mantle. As one of the original creators of NFTs, AnilDash, explained in the Atlantic, “when someone buys an NFT, they’re not buying the actual digital artwork; they’re buying a link to it.” However, as the world moves further onto digital platforms and cryptocurrencies become increasingly legitimized, the potential value of an NFT may just rival that of the Picasso hanging in the living room. Of course in the digital world things move quickly as just as famous works of art can be reproduced so too can these pieces, with the same profit potential for those who hold the copyright. When considering it in those terms, the potential for making money through digital images is mind-blowing, not just for collectors but for the artists themselves. Indeed, before he became one of the richest living artists in the world, Beeple had never made more than 100 dollars for a single piece.

The New world of the Italian NFT art scene

Attracting a new breed of digital art enthusiasts as well as traditional art collectors, Cambi’s auction in Milan last July signaled a seismic shift in the traditional art world, one that cannot but mean that NFTs are here to stay. The designs were bold and unconventional, created by contemporary artists who know that selling NFTs of their artwork catapults them into a global dimension that Italian artists in the not-so-distant past could only have dreamt of reaching. Italian art — and Italy in general — traditionally moves at a slow pace, and an artist could be working tirelessly on their art for decades and almost drawing their pension before they got to show a small collection in a local exhibition. But the world of NFTs moves with lightning speed. UK-based 3D and Motion Graphics artist Luca Viola makes the point perfectly: “Now, thanks to NFTs, artists can do what before was impossible for many people. It’s great to have this opportunity to create art that is alive and connects with the viewer.”

This is contemporary art with no limits, as Luca points out. Some of the most popular Italian digital art artists featured on Cambi Auction House’s Dystopian Vision catalogue back in July 2021 are Cagliari-based 3D artist Paola Pinna, who explores self-identity in the metaverse with her blue-haired avatar Hidden Miki. The project is also a reflection on the effects of lockdowns and mask-wearing over two years on the individual psyche. Twenty-two-year-old CGI and VFX artist Elia Pelligrini, from Rovigo in Veneto, gives viewers a window into the vision of a child with his surreal Grains of Time, referencing both the utopian and dystopian consequences of a lifetime of individual and collective choices.

Naples-born artist Giusy Amoroso, also a CGI and VFX artist, invites us to explore the human relationship with nature and how the human form may evolve to adjust to new, more hostile environments with Exoskeleton a virtual environment sculpture. As Art Director and Co-Founder of Ior50 Studio, her portfolio includes high-profile projects for Nike, Harpers Bazaar, and League of Legends. Also from Naples, 3D Graphic Designer Teresa Manzo created the female desert avatar Model_TI22 inspired by the fragile nature of humanity, which she juxtaposed with feminine strength by using titanium accessories with billowing fabrics against a soft desert backdrop. Her partner Catelloo instead presented a single frame NFT, restore.asimov: a faceless android tending blue flowers displayed in bomb cases that appears to have been influenced by Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring. These young artists, inspired by nature, science, anthropology, history, and technology, are reaching a wider audience than they might have ever been able to do otherwise and in the process are creating art for brands, developers, architects, museums, interior designers and studios around the world. If this is the future of Made in Italy, we might have a lot to celebrate.

Can it last? Implications for Italian NFT artists

The arrival of NFTs to trade art online appears to have opened the floodgates into a world that some may find dystopian by definition. Can digital art be considered ‘real’ art if it is only available in digital format? Does the circumnavigating of copyright mean that artists are also free to make ‘copies’ of their own work? Would that even make sense? What about being paid royalties? Artists might make thousands or millions of ETHs through an NFT sale but what happens when the value of the decentralized Ethereum falls? Is this system actually capitalism gone crazy? What about taxes (this one is particularly relevant in Italy)? Like much in the digital world, there are more questions than answers.

In Italy, the possibility that young artists could shortcut Italy’s traditionally sleuth-like or near non-existent career trajectories is a huge step towards an economic and cultural revival that the country desperately needs if it wants to remain a destination on the global artistic map. Being recognized and rewarded for creative talent is the best way to unleash the creativity and pioneering work that gave Italians a renaissance in the first place.

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