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The Patron’s Payoff: Conspicuous Commissions in Italian Renaissance Art
Published by EH.NET (February 2009)
Jonathan K. Nelson and Richard J. Zeckhauser, The Patron’s Payoff: Conspicuous Commissions in Italian Renaissance Art. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008. xviii + 234 pp. $39.50 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-691-12541-1.
Reviewed for EH.NET by Bernadine Barnes, Department of Art, Wake Forest University.
Much of Italian Renaissance art history is centered on the artist and how life experiences determine the appearance and meaning of art objects. This is a tendency with roots in the Renaissance (particularly in the writings of Giorgio Vasari) and carried on in numerous “life and works” books found on many a coffee table. The patron in these sorts of studies is often cast as the oppositional character in the drama of artistic creation. A test of wills ensues and (of course) the artist wins out, producing the great painting or sculpture that we now admire. Patronage studies — usually less glossy — attempt to balance the picture, and the best of them examine with subtlety how works of art convey the patron’s ideas about power and belief. However, this shifts our focus from the intention of the artist to the intention of the patron. Indeed, Dale Kent’s recent monograph on Cosimo de’ Medici’s patronage is even subtitled “The Patron’s Oeuvre,” suggesting a body of work that “expresses” the personality of the man who paid for the art, rather than its makers’ personalities.
Nelson and Zeckhauser take a different approach, one that avoids the two-player drama. They see the relationship of the patron and artists as more collaborative, and yet self-interested on both sides. The authors use game theory and the economics of information as frameworks to recast the relationships. In short, the patron is seen as the principal in a transaction, initiating the project and specifying certain desired outcomes; the artist, on the other hand, is seen the agent, charged with fulfilling these desires and financially rewarded for completion of the project. The principal/patron has a stake in the project because it is a visible sign of his/her status; the artist agrees to work on behalf of the patron to make products that will achieve this end while increasing his own value for future commissions. There are costs involved for both parties — not just monetary costs, but costs of effort and the possibility of failure. Finally, both artist and patron work within constraints — not only financial limits, but also limitations due to availability of prime locations and the best artists, and the more intangible constraint of decorum.
All this effort is aimed at an audience that is always variable and sometimes invisible, since some of the most important members of the audience are heavenly. While the choices made by patron and artist can be documented with some precision, the responses of the audience are, as the authors admit, almost always conjectural. Sometimes audience reactions are voiced in surviving letters, but usually these are filtered through the opinions of those who wrote treatises or biographies. In an age before incessant surveys, these really cannot be considered a cross-section of viewers who actually saw the painting, or even of the intended audience — which may be defined as a more restricted and knowledgeable group who could make sound judgments about the merits of the art or its message.
Nelson and Zeckhauser carefully explain game theory and the economics of information in the introduction, where they provide examples that draw from everyday experience (indeed they use their own project as one of those examples) and clarify how this approach differs from more typical patronage studies. The first and second chapters further define the players, costs, and constraints involved in “the patronage game”; the examples in these chapters are chosen from a wide array of Italian Renaissance commissions. The third chapter deals with signaling based upon the work of Michael Spence, who provides a forward to this book. Again, Renaissance ideals and practices provide examples, and they include discussions of magnificence in treatises, using fine majolica containers for pharmaceuticals, and the strategy of staging a triumphal procession for an aspiring duke. Finally in the fourth chapter, the authors discuss examples of signposting and stretching, wherein art serves to highlight positive or disguise negative messages about the patrons. Most of the examples in this chapter are portraits well-known to art historians, but they are given fresh interpretations when seen through the lens of these concepts.
The five concluding chapters present case studies. The first, by Nelson and Zeckhauser, considers the costs of acquiring and decorating private chapels in Florence, as well as costs for services like masses that can be considered “tie-ins” for these projects. Here the benefits to patrons come in the forms of social prestige and spiritual well-being, and the authors demonstrate how patrons made trade-offs depending on their position in Florentine society. In his essay on patronage by the fourteenth-century members of the Alberti family, Thomas Loughman explores how strategies meant to enhance prestige in republican Florence could extend through generations. Kelley Helmstutler Di Dio focuses on the sculptor Leone Leoni and the manner in which Leoni called attention to his wealth and learning in the design of his own home, while downplaying any reference to his (still not well appreciated) profession. (Although I couldn’t help but wonder if the predominance of sculpture on the facade of his remarkable house in Milan isn’t in itself a proclamation of pride in his profession.) In an interesting essay on Mantegna’s Madonna della Vittoria, Molly Bourne suggests that the “victory” proclaimed by the painting was questionable — the patron Francesco II Gonzaga used the imagery to “spin” his image to viewers who did not know the facts. The final chapter, by Larry Silver, is a broad-ranging test of the theories, using an assortment of examples including Rubens’s work for Marie de’ Medici, the status-conscious collecting practices of wealthy women in nineteenth century America, self-portraits of artists, and buildings like the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and Rubens’s house.
These are all well-written, interesting, well-researched essays, varying in chronological range and in geographical focus. Most of the authors see the patrons controlling the situation, although artists’ attempts to signal status are demonstrated in the essays dealing with self-portraits and artists’ houses. Art historians are very attuned to the ways paintings, sculpture, or architecture convey prestige, so it probably is no surprise that the authors of the case studies make use of signaling and signposting, rather than working through details of costs and constraints, and how each player — patron and artist — negotiates within these constraints. The framework that Nelson and Zeckhauser construct in the first chapters of the book suggests more can be done with cost-benefit analyses, and their own discussion of the Carafa chapel in Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome provides a good example. Here, Carafa’s choice of locations and his attempts to wrest Filippino Lippi away from his work for the wealthy Filippo Strozzi in Florence are documented in written sources, while changes to drawings suggest ways that the patron controlled the appearance of arrogance in the milieu of papal Rome. The close examination of this evidence points to the benefits of collaboration — not just between artist and patron, but between art historian and economist.
Bernadine Barnes is a professor of Renaissance art history at Wake Forest University. Her most recent book is Michelangelo in Print: Reproductions as Response in the Sixteenth Century (forthcoming, Ashgate Publishing, 2009).