This essay compares the earnings of various painters included in the recent exhibition The Genius of Rome with wages of common workers, incomes of the middle and wealthy classes, and the cost of living in Rome, particularly the basic expenses of food and rent. The criteria for pricing paintings, which usually were negotiated in scudi, and the cost of making paintings also are discussed. The results suggest that the established painters from the time of Caravaggio and the Carracci until the election of Urban VIII (1623) belonged to a surprisingly lucrative profession.
Long snubbed by art historians as an ill-matched couple, art and economics have enjoyed a good relationship lately, especially at international conferences where no one thinks that talk about money sullies art.1 Much of the growing interest in the economics of early Italian painting focuses on the demand rather than the supply side of exchange, because throughout the Renaissance and most of the seventeenth century a system of elite patronage, particularly in Rome, curbed the development of an open market in which the artist rather than the buyer initiated production.2 Given its premier standing in Italian studies and its unusually rich archives, Renaissance Florence has received much more attention than any other Italian city (Venice being a distant second), but even then rarely have artists' earnings been the subject of discussion.3 The economics of painters working in seventeenth-century Rome has been little examined, despite the groundwork laid by Francis Haskell in his pioneering book on Italian Baroque patronage.4
The focus of this essay was determined by a simple yet neglected question raised by the recent exhibition The Genius of Rome: 1592-1623 (held at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, in 2001): What can be said about the socioeconomic status of the artists included in the exhibition? More specifically, how did their earnings compare with those of the larger Roman population, and what would their payments have bought at the time? For instance, when Giulio Mancini, Caravaggio's early biographer, reports with dismay that the artist, newly settled in Rome, was paid only 1 1/2 scudi for his Boy Bitten by a Lizard and only 8 scudi for his Fortune-Teller5-an account invariably cited in the literature but without analysis-what did those sums mean? As I hope to show, notwithstanding their frequent complaints about money and the post-Romantic notion of the starving artist coping with life from a garret, the painters who established a reputation in Rome, including the protobohemian Caravaggio, belonged-or, if they knew how to manage their money, should have belonged-to the economic elite.
To seek a conclusion by analyzing data sampled from payments to various artists in The Genius of Rome can be justified on two accounts, regardless of the economic variables mentioned below. First, most of the leading painters in the papal capital from the time of Caravaggio and the Carracci until the election of Urban VIII in 1623 were represented in the exhibition, even if their assistants, other minor painters, and the failed hopefuls who disappeared from record, of course, were not. Hence this essay, conceived as a bozzetto for correction and enlargement, is limited to successful painters at work in early-seventeenth-century Rome.6
Second, the period from around 1590 to 1623 saw relative economic stability in Italy. It coincided with a leveling off of growth and inflation and preceded a gradual but serious economic decline due to weaknesses in Italy's export markets, the availability of less expensive foreign goods, especially textiles, stiff maritime competition, foreign protectionism, high labor costs, and resistance to technological change.7 But just as Rome's economy suffered less than the maritime, textile, and agricultural economies of Venice, Genoa, Florence, and Naples,8 so Rome's artists remained in demand because, as of yet, there …