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Wednesday, 14 September 2011

The Patronage Game: Players and Rules in Early Modern Europe

Raphael, Portrait of Pope Julius II, 1511-12

The relationship between an artist and a patron during the Renaissance was a subtle one. Money can buy a lot of material objects, and in Renaissance Italy, it could buy even more important things, including status, respect and “the long lasting of [a patron’s] name and reputation, for which man’s desire is infinite.” (Nelson, Zeckhauser, 42.) All of these could be acquired by becoming a patron of the arts and commissioning a work that proclaimed one’s devotion to God, city, even oneself. Jonathan Nelson and Richard Zeckhauser in The Patron’s Payoff cite the example of the Florentine merchant and patron Giovanni Rucellai who “spent a great deal of money on his house, the façade of the church of Santa Maria Novella, the chapel and tomb in the church of San Pancrazio, and other projects.” These commissions, Rucellai said, brought him “the greatest contentment and the greatest pleasure because they serve the glory of God, the honor of the city, and the commemoration of myself.” While art patronage may be seen as a form of philanthropy, Nelson and Zeckhauser stress that “private patrons sought important benefits from their audiences in Heaven as well as those here on earth. … we build great works so as to appear great in the eyes of our descendants; equally we decorate our property as much to distinguish family and country as for personal display” (Nelson, Zeckhauser, 44-45.) This paper will examine how art in Renaissance Italy may have been shaped as much by the psychological needs of that society’s elite as by the visions of its greatest artists.

Filippino LIPPI
View of the Carafa Chapel
1489-91. Fresco
Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome
Patrons had a lot of power, Nelson and Zeckhauser note, and the art forms that emerged from Renaissance Italy were largely dictated by those who had the most power, influence and money, such as the Medici family. A patron hired an artist and specified what they wanted and how much they would spend on time and materials. Contracts between patrons and artists often determined the quality and quantity of more expensive colors like gold and ultramarine, though in Renaissance Italy, “patrons wanted value, but they were not hunting for bargains.” (Nelson, Zeckhauser, 38.) Lisa Jardine similarly writes that “an expensive and ostentatiously lavish work of art was part of prominent family’s attempt to broadcast its power and importance during the patron’s lifetime … the work of art was carefully orchestrated by the patron.” Jardine even goes so far as to state that “the artist himself played a minor role” (Jardine, 24.)
Prestige was clearly a prime consideration, but patrons actually desired two contradictory things from a commissioned work: It had to say both “we are wealthy” and “we are deeply religious people who know that material wealth is fleeting.” Simon Schama in The Power of Art noted that every Sunday in church, the wealthy would hear, “Do not forget the humble place from which you have come. Do not forget that today’s worldly pomp will be tomorrow’s dust and ashes.” Commissioned works, then, had to display a patron’s wealth and power but do so in a highly sensitive manner.
Commissions for religious works generally represented the high point of an artist’s career, boosting his position in the highly competitive Italian art market. The works also typically generated wide public interest, more commissions and higher prices for other pieces. For the patron, meanwhile, the high cost of the commissions “guaranteed that the works signaled status, and not merely wealth.” The challenge for commissioned artists was to meet the particular requirements and expectations of both their patrons and church authorities.
In The Patron’s Payoff, Nelson and Zeckhauser introduce information economics to the study of art. Using the concept of differential costs, the authors create an approach for evaluating the meaning of art patronage and present an extensive analytical framework for understanding the role of works of art in Renaissance Italy. They attempt to explain how members of the elite attained their desired social benefits, how certain payments were made and how the audience received the artists who created the commissioned works. More specifically, they examine how patrons used commissions to signal their wealth and status and how individual works influenced society, and they find that the requirement that artists meet patrons’ needs for self-promotion significantly affected the development of Italian art and architecture.
Filippino LIPPI
Triumph of St Thomas Aquinas over the Heretics
1489-91, Fresco
Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome
 Nelson and Zeckhauser’s analytical model provides art historians with a means of looking at the relationships between the players in the art commissioning game – patrons, artists and audiences – and understanding how commissioned art spreads information. The method demonstrates that each of the players had their own agenda. A patron spent money for a public good or service, bringing him prestige. (As Baxandall observed, however, each patron’s motive was somewhat different; some were satisfied simply to own works created by the best goldsmiths or sculptors in Italy, such as Lippi, Uccello, Veneziano and Verrocchio.) For an artist, of course, creating a work of art had a different goal – to demonstrate and promote his skills, a difficult task in a competitive market. For example, The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian (1475) was the most important work by the brothers Antonio and Piero del Pollaiuolo. It was commissioned by the Pucci family for their oratory of St. Sebastian in the church of Santissima Annunziata in Florence, which contains a relic of the eponymous saint’s arm bone. The work may have been a votive piece connected to the plague of 1466, since Sebastian was associated with protection against plague. The saint is depicted tied to a tree, while archers pierce his naked body with arrows. Clearly, the composition represents the artists’ skills in portraying the male nude. Such studies of muscular physicality, through drawings and engravings, were not only major contributions to Renaissance art but were also seen as part of the debate on the relative merits of painting and sculpture that became so popular around this time.  Moreover, works such as this demonstrate the shift that occurred in the 15th century from valuing materials in art to stressing the importance of skill and technical knowledge.

The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian
completed 1475, Antonio del Pollaiuolo and Piero del Pollaiuolo
The National Gallery, London
Jan van Eyck
Oil on oak panel of 3 vertical boards
National Gallery, London
 Lisa Jardine in A New History of the Renaissance suggests an analytical approach that has as its goal to “understand the Renaissance afresh.” Jardine stresses the materialism of the period, noting that “Early Renaissance works of art which today we admire for their sheer representational virtuosity were part of a vigorously developing worldwide market in luxury commodities.” (Jardine, 19) The culture of early modern Europe, she writes, was largely the product of consumerism and was defined by “a competitive urge to acquire” and the “entrepreneurial spirit.” (Jardine, 12, 34.) Jardine finds that the era was a “celebration of belongings – the possessions which advertise an individual’s purchasing power.” (Jardine, 11)
Goldthwaite's Wealth and the Demand for Art in Italy: 1300-1600 reflects on the roots of consumerism as a cultural phenomenon and the role that art played in this process. Goldthwaite offers an “enlargement of Jacob Burckhardt’s classic – and much-debated – vision of Renaissance Italy as the birthplace of the modern world; to his formulation about the Italians’ discovery of antiquity, nature, man, and the individual is here added their discovery also of things.” (Goldthwaite, 5) He theorizes that the “new attitude about goods that arose in Italy marked the first stirring of what today is called consumerism.” This is where the audience, the third player in the game, met its needs. Art, Jardine writes, was “a visual celebration of conspicuous consumption and of trade,” (Jardine 8) and by looking at works of art, the audience could absorb the marble, fabric, furniture and all of the other “triumphantly realistic objects.” By this interpretation, a work of art could be a kind of “mail-order catalogue.”
Art is often regarded as high-brow culture, a pursuit that is above the tawdry materialism that defines so much of society. If auction prices at Sotheby’s and elsewhere were not sufficient to dispel this notion, the arguments made by the writers referenced above surely are. Renaissance Italy was perhaps the Golden Age of artistic achievement, an era of grand masters who created works that are still celebrated centuries later. Yet, even here, the production of images and sculptures often had less to do with artistic vision, with expressing the inexpressible and examining the inscrutable, than with patrons showing off to their friends and to society. A piece of art during this time played the same role as a new car or a big screen TV might today. The only difference is that art is a better investment in one’s ego and legacy. Not only does a painting provide the appearance of intellectual respectability, it also lasts much longer than a Cadillac.


  1. A useful and well-conceived essay. The essay opens up some questions of interest about practical authority in the early modern period. Thanks!

  2. Patronage, in its broadest sense, has been established as one of the dominant social processes of pre-industrial Europe. While it has been traditionally viewed simply as the context for extraordinary artistic creativity, patronage has more recently been examined by historians and art historians alike as a comprehensive system of patron-client structures which permeated society and social relations. Focusing specifically on the city of Florence, this essay explores the understanding of Renaissance Italy as a 'patronage society,' considering its implications for the study of art patronage and patron-client structures wherever they occur.