Patrons and Artists of the Renaissance

Painted portraits were often donor to sitter. Renaissance man was now the centre of interest. Paintings reflected his world and buildings were planned to his measure. Literature celebrated his achievements, his qualities and his activities. There was a growing awareness of human beings and an increased sense of individualism.

The donor was no longer painted humbly outside the holy event – the patron himself was now placed firmly in the centre of the picture. For example, Jan van Eyck’s  Madonna and Child with Chancellor Rolin,  (1433-1440), Louvre, Paris. Rolin kneels, taking position vis-a-vis the Virgin. Staring more than adoring, his powerful personality projected from strong features with penetrating eyes and stubborn lines between eyes and nose. The Virgin is suave, precious and beautiful. However, she still belongs to the world of Gothic imagery. Rolin, though, is wholly within the realistic world of Renaissance portraits. He is no longer simply the donor – he is the subject.


Jan van Eyck.  Madonna and Child with Chancellor Rolin (1433-

After the second decade of the 15th century portraiture blossomed in Flemish  painting in a series of masterpieces that paid close attention to realistic details kept in check by sober backgrounds. For example, Jan van Eyck’s Man in a Red Turban (1433), National Gallery, or his Madonna with Canon van der Paele (1436), Bruges, ­both of which are examples of the early realism.

Red Turban

Jan van Eyck.  Man in a Red Turban (1433).

Eyck madonna with canon

Jan van Eyck.  Madonna with Canon van der Paele (1436).

Contemporary works by Rogier van der Weyden and Petrus Christus include Rogier van der Weyden’s Portrait of a Lady (1435-40), Berlin, and represent more idealised ‘classical realism’. The term ‘classical’ in its general meaning means a composition based largely on horizontals and verticals so regularly presented as to achieve serenity and equilibrium.


Rogier van der Weyden.  Portrait of a Lady (1435-40).

Rogier van der Weyden’s  Portrait of a Woman (c. 1430), National Gallery, is a wood panel measuring 36.2 x 27.6cm. Each natural shape is represented with its perfect geometric equivalent. The picture is endowed with a more detached, almost abstract, quality, than Jan van Eyck’s works, which does not undermine its realism. From the horizontal of the woman’s red bodice to the triangular and pyramidal folds of her headgear and camisole, all frame with geometric  precision the mobile oval of her face and forehead. There is a sense of volume so strong that one wants .to touch it. Her features all balance perfectly around the centre of the picture to give it serenity and timelessness.


Rogier van der Weyden.  Portrait of a Woman (c. 1430).

The Flemish School of portraiture presented – for the first time in the history of art – images of men and women which focussed more and more on their aesthetic, spiritual and physical qualities.

Artists and Patronage

It is axiomatic that Renaissance art and culture flourished in an atmosphere of patronage. This remains a vague notion without qualification. Not only does the function of cultural patronage – clientage being regarded as social and political ­remain inadequately charted its nature is still obscured by misleading glamour. There are three forms of cultural patronage. These are: (1) paying for a specific object because convention called for it – a painting, Latin verse set, grander house – and which was a simple, discriminating shopping operation; (2) the deliberate support of an individual’s career because he represented a potential accomplishment – that might otherwise be stultified; and (3) support of some form of cultural expression because of a belief in its value for its own sake.

Giovanni Rucellai (1475-1525) was a Florentine courtier and dramatist noted for his tragedies Rosamunda and Oreste who also wrote Le Api (The Bees) a version of Virgil’s Georgics. As a patron he was an active employer of painters in Florence with noted works in his house by Domenico Veneziano, Filippo Lippi, Verrocchio, Pollaluolo, Andrea del Castagno, and Paolo Uccello, In 1457 Filippo Lippi painted a triptych for Giovanni di Cosimo de’ Medici as an intended gift for King Alfonso V of Naples as a minor ploy in Medicean  diplomacy. Filippo Lippi worked in Florence and kept in touch by letter. Lippi repeats the stipulations for the triptych and refers to the gold and silver required. He states he received 14 florins of the calculated 30 for expenses due to the painting’s rich Ornament. He asks for 60 florins to cover materials, gold, gilding and painting. Lippi asks for Bartolommeo Martell’ to act as Cosimo’s agent. He promises to finish by August 20th and sends his drawing of how the triptych will look and further asks for 100 florins for the labour to make it. The letter is written and dated 20.7.1457.

Painters often differed from sculptors in their relationship with patrons. Sculptors worked for large communal institutions or enterprises. For example, Donatello worked for a long time for the Wool Guild’s administration of the Cathedral works in Florence – where lay control was less personal and less complete. The painter was more exposed than the sculptor.

There was no fixed form to contracts but one less typical was between Domenico Ghirlandaio and the Prior of the Ospedale degli Innocenti at Florence. This was the contract for his Adoration of the Magi of 1488. The contract contained three main themes and which both parties signed: (1) it specified what the painter was to paint; (2) it is explicit about how and when the client is to pay, and when the painter is to deliver; and (3) it insists on the painter using good quality of colours, especially gold and ultramarine. Commitment was usually a serious matter. For example, Fra Angelico’s altarpiece of 1433 for the Linen Makers Guild – the Tabernacle of the Linen Makers and now in the Museo di San Marco, Florence. He was bound not to deviate from his drawing.


Domenico Ghirlandaio.  Adoration of the Magi (1488).

Filippino Lippi painted the Life of St Thomas (1493), for Santa Maria sopra Minerva at Rome. Cardinal Caraffa gave him 2000 ducats for his personal part and paid for assistants and ultramarine separately. The two headings of expenses and of painter’s labour were the basis for calculating payment. Again, there was contractual flexibilty. Ghirlandaio was paid 115 florins for his predella for the Innocenti Altarpiece but received an extra 7 florins.

The Early Medici as Patrons of art

A patron according to the OED definition is “…one who offers his influential support to advance the interests of a person, cause, art etc…also, in tradesmen’s language, a regular customer.” Patronage was one of the chief instruments of Medici policy during the century when they had no legal right to authority. They were always expected to “…offer their influential support to advance the interests of a person.” – according to Marcello del Piazzo in his Protocolli del Carteggio di Lorenzo it Magnifico, Florence, 1956.

The Medici rarely refused to intervene on behalf of anybody who might be won over to their camp. Nobody felt too humble to ask for intervention. The emergence of the patronage of ‘art is impossible without an idea of art. There were three types of patronage offerred by Cosimo, Piero, and Lorenzo de’ Medici. The first appearance of the Medici in their role as patrons was their activity that fitted into the age old traditions of communal religious life.

Cosimo de’ Medici (1389-1464) called Pater Patriae (Father of his country) first appears as a patron in a collective exercise – the erection of statues to patron saints of the Florentine guilds. In 1419 wealthy bankers felt it necessary to act on this scheme. Another pious foundation of the Medici brothers was the commissioning from Ghiberti to make a shrine for the martyrs Hyacinthus, Protus and Nemesius. About the same time Cosimo saw to the restoration of the Franciscan church of San Francesco al Bosco – a traditional design with rural simplicity. Vespasiano wrote about Cosimo’s foundation and rebuilding of the monastery of San Marco. In some respects – to escape the  stigma of usury – it was attempted to return it to the poor. There is evidence that this is what Cosimo tried to do. It had nothing to do with the  direct patronage of art. Of Cosimo’s spending all monies remained within the economy of the city. Therefore Cosimo was under economic and moral arguments and pressures to act. Not everyone was appeased by Cosimo’s donations. In his monasteries and churches Cosimo modelled his magnificence on divine excellence. The Medicean coats of arts were displayekl on all Cosimo’s ecclesiastical foundations and resemble more a lust for glory than divine worship.

It was Cosimo who founded the Platonic Academy in Florence in 1450. He also patronised the painters Fra Angelico and Fra Filippo Lippi, the sculptors Donatello, Luca della Robbia, and Ghiberti, as well as the architect Brunelleschi

During the 15th century the work of art belonged to the donors. For example, the Coronation of the Virgin by Filippo Lippi. In the painting an angel points to a kneeling mink with the words ‘iste petfecit opus’. It is now accepted the angel points to the donor and not the artist’s self-portrait.This situation changed during Cosimo’s lifetime. Filippo Villami and Alberti, amongst others, were busy propagating the `liberal’ status of painting. In the Renaissance only one humanist included the names of artists among Cosimo’s beneficiaries – thus Antonio Benevieni in his Encomium said Cosimo thus “…bestowed both honours and countless rewards on Donatello and Desiderio, two highly renowned sculptors.”

Another example is the San Marco Altarpiece by Fra Angelico, of around 1438-40. This was a Medici commission for the main altar and is a wood panel measuring 220 x 227cm and now in the Museum of San Marco in Florence. Ordered in 1438 it was completed in 1440. Its elaborate predella is now separated from the main panel and amongst other collections.


Fra Angelico.  The San Marco Altarpiece (1438-40).

The altarpiece is called Virgin and Child Enthroned with Angels and Saints Cosmas and Damian, Lawrence, John the Evangelist, Mark, Dominic, Francis, and Peter the Martyr. in the picture the doctors ­e.g., Cosmas and Damian represent the Medici with St Cosmas a thinly veiled portrait of Cosimo de’ Medici. The Convent of San Marco was rebuilt under Medici  patronage after 1437 by the architect Bartolommeo Michelozzo. The cloisters and cells were painted with frescoes by Fra Angelico and others.

Lorenzo de’ Medici (1449-1492) was called II Magnifico – The Magnificent ­and was the grandson of Cosimo and most famous of all the Medici. The son of Piero de’ Medici he wrote Petrarchan and other verses, sacred drama, and literary criticism, as well as being a leading patron of art and scholarship during the  Renaissance. Lorenzo was the patron of the humanist philosophers and scholars Marsilio Ficino, Giovanni Pico delta Mirandola, Luigi Pulci, and the humanist poet Angelo Poliziano known as Politian. He patronised the artists Botticelli, Michelangelo, Ghirlandaio, Leonardo da Vinci, Filippo Lippi, and Verrocchio amongst others.

On the death of Lorenzo in 1492 the centre of patronage shifted from  Florence to Rome – in particular pope Julius It was adept at employing artists on projects that both advanced the cause of religion and helped the Church compete with the growing power of secular government. Julius II is best known for his patronage of Michelangelo. Two of the most celebrated Renaissance popes – Leo X and Clement VII – were members of the Medici family. Giovanni de’ Medici (1475­-1521) the youngest son of Lorenzo reigned as pope Leo X between 1513 and 1521, and Guilio de’ Medici (1478-1534), nephew of Lorenzo was pope Clement VII between 1523 and  1534. Clement VII  patronised  the  sculptor and writer Cellini.

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