Renaissance Patronage of the Arts

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Lorenzo de Medici (1449-1492) by Agnolo Bronzino

It is regarded by many that Renaissance art only flourished in an atmosphere of patronage. Nonetheless this axiom still remains a vague notion. For example, the practice of patronage during the Italian Renaissance, even though similar to, bears dissimilarities to that extant in the Northern Renaissance. Further more, patronage showed varied practices and objectives. Underlying the phenomenon of patronage are to be found political, cultural, aesthetic, and religious considerations. Patronage implies a relationship. A relationship that is financial and economic – between patron and client. In addition patrons were often more than individuals, often they comprised corporate bodies and institutions.

Cultural patronage can be described as having these major characteristics:  (1) it is payment for a specific object or work of art – in effect a shopping operation; (2) it was also intentioned or deliberate support of an individual artists or his career – perceived in terms of potential or level of accomplishment. This had a special relevance if it was considered by a client that particular artists would remain stultified if not patronised; and (3) patrons supported artistic expression because they believed in its intrinsic value, or even for its own sake. This implies that there were not just aesthetic considerations but also perceptions of an ideological nature.

Patronage can be seen in terms of conditions of trade. During the 15th century a painting was viewed as embodying a social relationship. On the one side was the commissioning agent or patron – in Venice a broker – and on the other side, the artist. Patrons and the patronised worked within a conventionalised or institutionalised set of rules that encompassed the social, the religious, the perceptual, and often, importantly, the commercial. Such a relationship had important repercussions upon the style of the work commissioned. If the style of the paintings was determined by economic considerations combined with those of religion and the aesthetic then pictures from the time can be viewed as artistic fossils. Such paintings resulting from the system of patronage were thus created within a framework that considered a necessity such factors as current methods of costing materials and labour.

A patron was the man or body that requested, paid for, and had a purpose for the work of art. The second party was of course the commissioned artist or studio. The patron or client requested a work according to prior specifications whilst the artist agreed contractually to produce the desired work, or manufacture. The work, whether painting, sculpture, building, or fresco, was in reality a bespoke item. The relationship being of a commercial nature implies that money was an important factor in the production of art – a feature that imbues much of the history of art as a whole. For example Borso d’Este, the Duke of Ferrara, commissioned and paid on the basis of square footage of painting whereas other patrons paid artists for time, materials, and assistance.

An art work then was specifically designed and executed for the clients use or purpose. Again, there is a distinction between public and private patronage – that between commissions controlled by large or other corporate institutions (e.g., the Misericordia for Piero della Francesca or the Venetian Council of Ten employing Bellini) and individual men (e.g., the Medici’s, the Sforza’s etc). For example, Giovanni Rucellai – the façade of his Palazzo was designed by Alberti – actively employed Florentine artists – commissioning paintings from Uccello, Domenico Veneziano, Filippo Lippi, Verrochio and others.

Giovanni Rucellai offered several motives for his patronisation, which Baxandall (1988) cites as (1) satisfaction of personal ownership, (2) it serves the honour of god, (3) it serves to honour the city of Florence, and (4) it served to commemorate Rucellai himself. On many occasions patrons, often accompanied by depicted relatives are to be seen as Magi, Madonnas and pious saints situated within the framework of a commissioned fresco or painting. Again, as Baxandall (1988) points out for Rucellai (a usurer by trade) who viewed patronage as a means to repay, as a donation charitable in nature, even payment of church taxes, or perhaps palliative to his conscience. Indeed, in view of the Renaissance preoccupation with matters of life and death, depiction of patrons was a form of immortality during whet were very uncertain times.

Five main motives emerge when considering the nature of patronage. Firstly, there is the pleasure of possession – which implies an aesthetic sense beyond mere ownership of a commodity. Secondly, commissioning was an active expression of piety – especially when one considers such artists as Fra Angelico and Masaccio. Thirdly, the patron commissioned in the spirit of civic consciousness and duty. Fourthly, he commissioned an insurance of his own commemoration. Fifthly, there is the aspect of self-advertisement – for some patrons, whether public or corporate, it was even seen as self-aggrandisement.

Patronage of artists often meant survival and recognition. Alterations in stylistic demand could thus condemn a once popular painter to obscurity. For example, Perugino whose style, once regarded as ‘old fashioned’ was condemned to retire back to Perugia. Similarly for Sandro Botticelli whose Medicean backers fall from power led to his loss of commissions. Another artist patronised by Giovanni di Cosimo de’ Medici was Filippo Lippi whereas the young Michelangelo was taken under the wing of Lorenzo de’ Medici. Regardless of whether public or private, the commission, its patron, controlled the artist. The artist was thus subject to a regulated relationship with the client. The patron initiated the wrok, chose the artist and saw the picture through to its completion. Having, at the outset, stipulated content, subject, amount and quality of pigment and which portions of the work had to be done by the artist himself and which of his assistants.

The whole commission was regulated by formal documentation – contracts which delineated all specifications and requirements. It is interesting that, despite its frequency, no standardised contractual form ever emerged. The transaction was, perhaps a reflection of Renaissance humanist ideals, seen as a highly individual process. Details varied from contract to contract but commitment to content was nonetheless viewed seriously. Always the contract specified (1) what the painter was to paint, (2) what the client of commissioning patron was to pay, and (3) the quality of colours to be used, especially with regard to expensive gold and ultramarine. Also the contract was often for a work often itself fell into an institutionalised form, e.g., the work requested was for an altarpiece, a family chapel fresco, a Madonna for a bedroom, or series of frescoes for internal decorative pleasure, even works to eulogise present and past nobles – eg., the Urbino’s, Medici’s. d’Este’s and Strozzi’s.

To some extent patronage was perceived during the Renaissance as a necessary virtue. For the artist the question could be asked concerning his view of individual creation. For the artist, as craftsman, to be recognised or even revered as an artist in his own right was a concept rooted in the Renaissance. For example the Portrait of a Young Man by Andrea del sarto were not stipulated by a contract but by the paint left over after another commission had been completed. Similarly, Titian embarked upon works of his own

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Portrait of a Young Man (circa 1517) by Andrea del Sarto.

inspiration using pigments unused from commissions. Certainly Leonardo da Vinci raised the issue of the artist in his own right as opposed to the straight-jacket – a nonetheless necessary one if poverty and obscurity was to be avoided – of patronage. Patronage can be therefore be seen in terms of trade and finance, a mercantile affair – and a phenomenon of the mercantile economics of the trading Renaissance Italian states. In this respect it is worth examining the issue of patronage in the Northern Renaissance, more especially Flemish art.

Economic links existed between the mercantile north (notably Flanders) and the merchants and bankers of Florence – especially those involved in the woollen trade. In the courts of northern Europe during the 15th century, especially that of the Dukes of Burgundy, there existed centres of art and artists. These courts employed artists, as did the Italian Renaissance courts, to create decorative arts for appreciation, memorial and pageantry. The rising northern and Flemish middle class of traders, merchants and entrepreneurs, allied to court functionaries, became important patrons of art. They quickly realised the commercial value of illusionistic panel painting. Their cities and commercial locales figure in the backgrounds of these paintings as a matter of pride and provenance. The northern burghers, as with their Italian counterparts, nurtured a self-awareness that they matched by works they commissioned painters to produce. The patrons awareness of themselves went hand in hand with the growing awareness of the artists themselves. The process was complimentary – two sides of the same coin.

In the north the small easel painting became a commodity somewhat distinct from the fixed Italian fresco. The commissioned northern panel became a moveable asset. May of which by Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden, and Hans Memling, found their way to the Duke of Milan’s, and others possession. In the north, therefore, the production of paintings became carefully controlled for commercial purposes. During the 15th century the northern artists, more readily than their Italian peers, began to paint speculatively for the pen market and vended at numerous fairs.  For a Venetian artist such un-patronised painting was regarded as a downward step – even Titian during early days feared the drop to speculative market painting.

Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden both produced works which reflect the commercial expertise of their locales and their patrons. Similarly in Italy Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi was not just a commissioned religious picture by Lorenzo di Piero Francesco de’ Medici. It also conveyed by means of the numerous portraits within it the grandeur of the Medici family.

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Adoration of the Magi (1475-76). Sandro Botticelli.

This begs the question as to the credibility of patronised Renaissance artists. In some respects they appear as hacks and bought men. Essentially unfair, such an assessment excludes the real truth. Patronised artists were contractually limited in scope, especially from truculent clients – as Titian found with the Venetian Council of Ten despite support from Manutius, Aretino, and Bembo – but nonetheless the greatness of teir art emerges in their paintings in spite of patronage. Renaissance humanism did contain within it the germ of the emancipated artist who arose furtively in the late 15th century, and who came to fruition in the 16th century. Patronage was inextricably interwoven with money, influence and power. The enlightened popes who followed the scandal of Alexander VI were great patrons as their increasing development of commissioned art bears testimony.

For the Renaissance economy an artists stood or fell according to patronage – if a patron fell so did his artists. Only the greats such as Titian, Leonardo da Vinci or Michelangelo rose beyond this but even for them patronage was an essential, if awkwardly cursed, means to innovate. For Leonardo da Vinci it was the Duke of Milan and eventually King Francis of France, for Bellini the rulers of Venice, for Botticelli, Michelangelo (for a while) and others it was the Medici. Nonetheless out of the Renaissance patronage there not only emerged great art and great artists, there also emerged the nascent idea of the independent artist in his own right. It was an internal contradiction of the economics and culture of the time. Only much later were those who followed the Renaissance innovators able to emancipate themselves as speculative artists. Even today, however, patronage is still a powerful mechanism in art and, just as in Renaissance Italy, still exerts its effects on taste, style, and saleability. It is a moot point as to how much social aesthetic expression determines what is patronised and what is not.

Sources consulted.

Baxandall, M.  (1988).  Painting & Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy.  OUP, Oxford.

Blunt, A.  (1983).  Artistic Theory in Italy 1450-1600.  OUP, Oxford.

Cole, A.  (1997).  Art of the Italian Renaissance Courts.  Everyman, London.

Harbison, C.  (1995).  The Art of the Northern Renaissance.  Everyman, London.

Murray, P. & L.  (1995).  The Art of the Renaissance.  Thames & Hudson, London.

Turner, A. R.  (1997).  The Renaissance in Florence.  Everyman, London.

Wundrum, M.  (1972).  The Renaissance.  The Herbert Press, London.

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