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Friday, 23 September 2011

Style as Signal: Magnificence and the Italian Courts

Giovanni di Cosimo de' Medici.
Detail from the fresco by Benozzo Gozzoli,
in the Cappella dei Magi, at Palazzo Medici Riccardi

By Alexandra A. Jopp

The notion of magnificence is often associated with fifteenth-century Italian art, especially with monarchies and Italian courts whose art commissions were inspired by motives of commemoration, prestige, power, and fame. According to this context, magnificence consists of various series of expensive building projects. However, the theory of magnificence is more complex than that. In the traditional context, magnificence is considered in the context of religious endowment. Moreover, it is presented in Aristotle's Ethics and further reinterpreted by Saint Thomas Aquinas in Summa Theologiae. According to Aristotle, magnificence is a virtue that involves great cost that brings to the rich fame and prestige. The goal of magnificence, as of the other virtues, “is gratuitous, for the magnificent man does something great because it is beautiful in itself, because it is worthy, it is generous, content only with this, that he should do great things and in doing things bear himself fittingly.” (Gundersheimer 50) Aristotle further states that “Magnificence is an attribute of expenditures of the kind which we call honourable ... But great expenditure is becoming to those who have suitable means to start with, acquired by their own efforts of from ancestors or connections, and to people of high birth and reputation, and so on; for all these things bring them greatness and prestige.” (Aristotle 66) Thomas Aquinas similarly identified magnificence as a virtue, but placed an emphasis on spending money responsibly, for the honor of God and the public good (Rubin 41.) For instance, Galvano Fiamma used magnificence to praise splendid architectural and other displays of wealth and power by Azzone Visconti in the fourth book of the Chronicon Maius: “it is required of a magnificent prince that he build magnificent, honourable Churches, for which reason the Philosopher says in the fourth book of the Ethics that the honourable expenses which a magnificent prince should defray pertain to God ... for this reason Azzo Visconti began work on two magnificent structures, the first for the purpose of divine worship, that is a marvelous chapel in honour of the Blessed Virgin, and a magnificent palace, fitting to be his dwelling.” (Green 101) These, then, are the traditional arguments for magnificence that provide powerful and persuasive justification for the various architectural projects for which wealthy individuals served as patrons.
Louis Green argues that artistic and architectural patronage of the wealthy begins earlier than it has been recognized, stating that “early reference to the notion of magnificence appears in the letters of Nicola Acciaiuoli, written in 1356-57, containing instructions for the building of the Certosa as Galluzzo near Florence.” (Green 98) Focusing on the Visconti in Milan, Green argues that the display of magnificence through artistic and architectural patronage was appropriate to a ruler or distinguished citizen and was first revived in Milan between 1329 and 1339, and that its re-emergence was under the influence of late medieval Aristotelianism, rather than being a product of fifteenth-century Renaissance humanism.
Benozzo Gozzoli, Procession of the Youngest King (detail)
1459-60, Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, Firenze
Andrea Mantegna
circa 1496-1497
Paris, Musée du Louvre
In the game of magnificence, women of Italian courts occupied their own privileged niche. The dilemma of Isabella d'Este, as Rose Marie San Juan notes in her essay, opens up interesting questions regarding the role of women as collectors in the Renaissance. San Juan focuses on d’Este, a secular “avid art collector,” and examines her acquisition practices within Renaissance social structures. The article offers a very positive feminist approach while taking into account the misogyny sometimes found in modern scholarship. During almost half of a century, Isabella d'Este acquired works by painters such as Mantegna, Bellini and Perugino. However, the bulk of her collection consisted of bronzes, medals, gems, silverware and the like. While examining the standard assessment of Isabella d'Este as a patron and collector, San Juan emphases gender as a significant factor in social positioning, noting that “her art patronage is acknowledged as exceptional among her sex.” (67)

Andrea Mantegna (Isola di Carturo, circa 1431 - Mantua, 1506)
Minerva Expelling the Vices from the Garden of Virtue

Indeed, the early fifteenth-century Italian state produced official definitions of the roles of men and women. The government and political institutions “gave official standing to the variations and nuances of womanhood by vocation, age, marital status and social class.” (Stanley, Chojnacki 84) The image of a woman was very ambiguous, and this ambiguity reflected her status in early modern Europe. On one hand, in the context of common cultural values, a woman represented the negative pole of the hierarchy in the Christian world, serving as a source of disasters for man and a shelter of devilish forces. At the same time, though, women were dependent on men and were largely confined to the household. More positively, a woman was seen as an assistant to man who would carry out the functions of mother, housekeeper and wife. Or, as Jones stated in The Mirror, the Distaff, the Pen, “the ideal woman was represented as a complement to the kind of man she affirmed.” (12) Some women, meanwhile, preferred to save themselves for service to God, and remained virgins their entire lives.
Leonardo da Vinci (Vinci (Florence)
Portrait of Isabella d'Este
Musée du Louvre

Women, during this time, were withdrawn from the world, and their primary focus was on serving their husbands and family. They all shared the common problem of living in a society dominated and controlled by men. Therefore, official ideology tried to resolve the imbalance that existed between men and women by developing special roles and creating special stereotypes of values. Specifically feminine qualities were seen in such virtues as chastity, piety, obedience and silence. As a result, this society was especially hostile to women writer, “for a woman’s silence was interpreted as a manifestation of her chastity, whereas eloquence was equated with promiscuity.” (Brown and Davis 486)
While freedom was considered a natural human right, Italian Renaissance society limited educational opportunities for women, and the main purpose of education is to free the mind and liberate the individual. Despite this, some women did achieve great things, becoming known for their wisdom and original thoughts. The art collection and letters of Isabella d'Este are examples. In essence, despite Castiglione’s view, as described in the Book of Courtier, women of the Renaissance were not only housekeepers and loyal wives but also active creators of cultural values. D’Este, for example, helped to shape the cultural role of the Gonzaga court, making her, as San Juan states, “an anomaly among Renaissance patrons.” (67)
Evelyn Welch in “Painting as Performance in the Italian Court” explores the economic and social structures that underpinned the relationship of a painter to his or her court environments. (Welch 20) Renaissance courts were very hierarchical structures and, as Welch notes, “food, drink, housing and salaries were as stratified as the people who enjoyed them.” For example, Welch writes that “there were eight kinds of bread served in the Este household in the sixteenth century, ranging from softest white loaf to dog biscuits. There were four qualities of wine, meat, and fish, as well as a strict ranking of the types of fabric used to make courtiers’ liveries.” (Welch 20) Welch considers the relationship between artists at court and musicians and jesters, the questions being where in the court structure an artist fit and how he negotiated the hierarchy, since he lacked access to the elite court. Welch states that visual artists, unlike musicians and jesters, had problems with being permanently employed within the court, since their presence was not usually considered to be essential. Hence, she argues that artists needed to use the tactics of entertainers to gain face time with the court. Indeed, young artists who arrived in big cities such as Milan, Rome or Florence were largely unknown as artists, and they could not immediately count upon influential protectors who might have helped their careers to get off the ground. Artists striving for celebrity and riches had to fight for a place in the court that eventually that would lead to a more significant place in the Italian art scene and artistic independence. 
Andrea Mantegna (Isola di Carturo, circa 1431 - Mantua, 1506)
The Vase-Bearers
before 1506, probably after 1490
London, Royal Collection

In Mantegna’s Triumph: The Cultural Politics of Imitation “all’ antica” at the Court of Mantua 1490-1530, Stephen J. Campbell discusses the rising influence of the Gonzagas of Mantua in the art world.  Campbell’s discussion centers on the Triumphs of Caesar, a series of nine canvases by Andrea Mantegna. During this period, the work was one of the most famous in the world, comparable to Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel or the Stanza of Raphael. Campbell tells us that two central questions surround the work related to what sources inspired the work and issues of patronage and dating. There is little doubt that the patron of the work was a ruling member of the Gonzaga family, either the Marchese Ludovico, his son Federico, or Federico’s son Francesco. After apparently concluding that it is unknowable which Gonzaga was the patron, Campbell argues that the central decisions behind the work came primarily from Mantegna. Campbell contends that the decision to avoid the common symbols of the processions of triumphal Rome, as portrayed for example in Flavio Biondo’s Roma Triumphant, was made by Mantegna himself. Although his supposition seems plausible, Campbell does not provide sufficient background on the Gonzagas to convince the reader that the patrons of the work played no role in such a major decision about the character of the work, one that was clearly intended to be one of the greatest works of their patronage. Even if the reader finds it likely that “Mantegna [himself] drew directly on unabridged original texts … from Greeks Plutarch and Appian” (along with the Roman poet Virgil), the conclusion that the decision to forsake the traditional symbols of Rome was solely Mantegna’s does not necessarily follow. It is quite possible that the Gonzagas themselves wanted the work to represent Rome as a “transhistorical paradigm” – a notion that was not beyond the well-educated and sophisticated patrons (Francesco was married to Isabella d’Este) – without directly appropriating Rome’s common symbols, in order to portray Mantua as a rising spiritual descendant of Rome and not a mere copy. Campbell, however, argues that the decision to portray Roman triumphs anew was wholly Mantegna’s. As support, Campbell argues that Mantegna placed two allegories to Envy in the work, and that the decision to place the allegories in the work was Mantegna’s as evidenced by his references to Envy in other works, such as Battle of the Sea Gods. The artist, Campbell states, was “obsessed” with the theme. In the end, however, this example is unconvincing, as Campbell himself admits, since the theme of Envy was a common subject in works of the period. Moreover, it is merely a theme of two of the Triumphs of Caesar canvases. Even if this is an example of Mantegna’s influence in the work, it does not clearly support Campbell’s thesis that the basic character of the Triumphs was primarily Mantegna’s design. The additional fact that Mantegna used Julius Caesar on his personal seal is similarly unconvincing, as we learn that the Marchese Francesco Gonzaga was frequently compared to Julius and Augustus in poetry and prose. Thus, it is not clear who influenced whom.
Any suggestion that Mantegna came up with the idea for the theme of Caesar’s triumphs on his own in order to secretly immortalize his own artistic genius is surely fantasy. Again, the fact, pointed to by Campbell, that the work “makes no explicit identification” of the patron with Caesar is unconvincing, as such a direct reference to Caesar might have seemed too bold even to an illustrious patron. Mantegna’s borrowing from his work the Trial of Saint James in the Triumphs, however, is an example of the artist defining his own work. Whether this is an example of a self-quotation in which the “artist treats his own celebrated earlier work as a canonical source” or merely an instance of an artist finding it easier to repeat what he has done before, is not clear. What is clear, though, is that the type of triumphal vehicle used was not central to the theme of the work. While Campbell claims to explore “how Mantenga’s artistic self or persona assumes the form that it does in response to parallel but distinct ideological imperative on the part of the artist and patron,” the reader wonders how this can be done with scant investigation into the imperatives of the patron or patrons. Thus, while Campbell persuades the reader that Mantegna’s vision and desire to draw from the prisces fontes were pivotal in the creation of the Triumphs – and that he is not merely producing a hagiography to the artist – he fails to provide adequate support for his conclusion that “Mantegna’s enterprise enables his work to remain distinct from the ambitions of his employers.” Finally, Campbell contends that the Triumphs had a strong influence on the works of Correggio. Here he is more successful in his argument. Correggio, like Mantegna, drew heavily on sources such as Virgil in his works. Given their symbolic and stylistic similarities, it is apparent that Correggio’s style was a progression from Mantegna’s style, which became “a powerful regional challenge … to the modern manner of Rome and Florence.” Nevertheless, we again are left wondering how much influence came from Mantegna himself and how much came from their mutual patrons, the Gonzagas.
Magnificence was a central concept and a new virtue for the Renaissance. Originated with Aristotle, magnificence was suitable to those who were born into wealth and nobility and shows itself best in public celebrations such as religious works and architecture. It also was expressed in private homes that were meant to impress the viewer. As Galvano Fiammo writes in the description of the Magnificence of the Buildings: “Azzo Visconti … made up his mind to make a glorious for himself, for the Philosopher says in the fourth book of the Ethics that it is a work of magnificence to construct a dignified house, since the people seeing marvelous buildings stand thunderstruck in fervent admiration.” (Green 101) Great works had to be large in scale, of great cost and rare. For that it was the rarity that created long-lasting value.

Aristotle, David Ross, Lesley Brown. “The Nicomachean Ethics.” (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.)
Chojnacki, Stanley. “Daughters and Oligarchs: Gender and the Early Renaissance State.” In Gender and Society in Renaissance Italy. Ed. Judith C. Brown & Robert C. Davis. (New York: Longman, 1998), pp. 63-86.
Evelyn Welch, “Painting as Performance in the Italian Renaissance Court,” in Artists at Court: Image-Making and Identity, ed. Stephen Campbell (Boston: Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, 2004), 19-32.
Jones, Ann Rosalind, "The Mirror, the Distaff, the Pen." in The Currency of Eros: Women's Love Lyric in Europe, 1540-1620. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990.)
Judith C. Brown, Robert C. Davis, eds. “Gender and Society in Renaissance Italy.” (London and New York: Longman, 1998.)
Louis Green, “Galvano Fiamma, Azzone Visconti, and the Revival of the Classical Theory of Magnificence,” Journal of Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 53 (1990), 98-113.
Patricia Rubin, “Magnificence and the Medici,” in The Early Medici and their Artists, ed. Francis Ames-Lewis (London: Birkbeck College, 1995), 37-49.
Rose Marie San Juan, “The Court Lady's Dilemma: Isabella d'Este and Art Collecting in the Renaissance,” Oxford Art Journal 14 (1991) pp. 67-78.
Stephen Campbell, “Mantegna‟s Triumph: The Cultural Politics of Imitation „all‟ antica‟ at the Court of Mantua, 1490-1530,” in Artists at Court: Image-Making and Identity, ed. Stephen Campbell (Boston: Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, 2004), 91-105.
Werner L. Gundersheimer, “Art and life at the court of Ercole I d'Este: The 'De triumphis religionis'” (Geneva: Droz, 1972.)

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