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The Patron’s Payoff: Conspicuous Commissions in Italian Renaissance Art by Jonathan K. Nelson and Richard J. Zeckhauser

Posted By Judith Harris On February 4, 2009 @ 12:22 pm In Art,Economics,History,Italy,Non-Fiction Reviews | No Comments

The Patron’s Payoff: Conspicuous Commissions in Italian Renaissance Art
by Jonathan K. Nelson and Richard J. Zeckhauser
Princeton University Press, 256 pp.
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When Money Meets Art

Visitors to Florence, from sober scholar to grand tourist and backpacker, can hardly help but ask what brought about the city’s explosion of magnificent creativity between the years 1300 and 1600. In The Patron’s Payoff, art historian Jonathan K. Nelson and economist Richard J. Zeckhauser have harnessed their separate disciplines into a new analytical key for understanding the linked motivations of patron and artist or architect in conspicuous commissions. In this study of patronage patterns and how the arts functioned in Renaissance Italy, the two authors were flanked by four eminent art historians whose essays comprise the final third of this fascinating book, Thomas J. Loughman, Kelley Helmstutler Di Dio, Molly Bourne and Larry Silver.

Whereas most works of art history provide only partial answers because they tend to the narrow, as in studies of a single artist or town like Florence or Venice, this has a larger canvas and hence broader implications, down to and including America’s Gilded Age patrons such as Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner, discussed by Professor Silver.

The team representing separate disciplines—Zeckhauser is an economist at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Nelson an author and art historian with Syracuse University based in Florence—first had to devise their own system of communication. They then applied to art history the recent development in economics of game theory, in which the players seeking remunerative messages are identified. The boss (patron) is the principal, the employee (artist) is an agent. Together they are a creative duo able to take advantage of their “interactive social payoffs.”

Boastful, money-driven art patronage during the Renaissance affected all of Italy—Milan, Ferrara, Venice, Mantua and Rome as well as Florence and other cities—and many fields of enterprise. Besides paintings and architecture, the partnership between patron and hireling took the form of tapestries sporting coats of arms, of spectacles in the piazzas, of banquets at which the public watched from sidelines, of religious processions, musical performances and formal gardens, as well as advances in science and engineering.

No less than the American financier who donates a museum wing on condition it bears his name, or the merchandiser who endows a university institute named for him, the results of Renaissance patronage had to be, first of all, highly visible. “Reputations, and the ways to build them through the commissioning of great (and expensive) art, is what this book is all about,” synthesizes Nobel Prize-winning (2001) economist Michael Spence, in his foreword to the book he quite rightly calls “wonderful.”

But in the Renaissance patronage system mere wealth was not enough, for countless other forces were at work, including mobility and status. The peculiar nature of the Roman Catholic Church rulers was a major factor: when a pope was elected, his family members and supporters could not know how long he might live and therefore how long their elevated status would bring them papal gifts in the form of cardinalships for their sons and other income sources. Papal sponsorship thus held a degree of urgency for the great families, who did not postpone dispensing contracts for projects that would communicate their status to others in their own elite group, to the crowds in the streets, and perhaps especially to the other (potentially rival) elites. In the economic terms utilized by the authors, these elites relied upon the “patronage signaling model,” in partnership with the artist or architect.

In addition to being a cause of dynamism in the system, the Church controlled vast numbers of public spaces crucial for the “signaling” so the elites desiring dynastic showcases required Church benevolence. This Church control of public spaces was a winnowing factor, and if a local potentate did not command sufficient prestige, if he failed to adhere to what the authors call the “unwritten rules of decorum,” he was unlikely to be granted the right to make over a family chapel in an important church.

When names were carved in stone for altar pieces, tombs, church façades and chapels, the result was enduring, as the patrons knew well. In addition, such sponsorship of works of art was extremely economical, with an enormous public relations return on what was demonstrably a modest investment.

An example is the Carafa Chapel in Rome’s Domenican church Santa Maria sopra Minerva, where two later Medici popes were buried. Neapolitan Cardinal Oliviero Carafa had commanded the papal fleet in battle against the Turks in 1472. A candidate for the papacy himself, he was eager to hone his image, and bought a chapel space in the Minerva in 1485. An elegant marble arch, perhaps the work of Bramante, set the chapel apart from the rest of the church, and Carafa had his named carved atop in a keystone-like plaque. Four years later he hired the Florentine artist Filippino Lippi to decorate the vaulted chapel which included his own burial space. The cost: circa two thousand ducats, according to Vasari.

Carafa Chapel, Filippino Lippi, Church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome

But again, it was not all about money, for the hiring of Lippi, already committed to the Strozzi in Florence, came with the political baggage of do ut des (give so you may receive), and a special agreement had to be worked out between the Strozzi and Carafa for Lippi to be loaned to Rome for the project. In the splendid completed fresco of the Annunciation that is the centerpiece of the chapel, Carafa appears kneeling while being presented by St. Thomas Aquinas to the Virgin, “who seems to turn and acknowledge the patron” (!) To make sure this did not go unnoticed, indulgences were granted to worshippers visiting the chapel for the feasts of the Birth of the Virgin and of Saint Thomas. Indeed, on the occasion of the feast of Saint Thomas the pope himself conducted mass at the high altar of that chapel in the presence of the College of Cardinals.

No spin doctor today, no Karl Rove nor Mad Man could have done it better, or more cheaply. We remain the beneficiaries.


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