What Did the Renaissance Patron Buy?

By Gilbert, Creighton E. | Renaissance Quarterly, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

What Did the Renaissance Patron Buy?


Gilbert, Creighton E., Renaissance Quarterly


. . . the absurdity so current in romantic art history, of taking it for granted that it was the painter or sculptor who was responsible for the subject matter of the work. The employer . . . gave his orders as he would to a carpenter, tailor or shoemaker. The artist could be creative and personal to the extent of his natural and acquired capacity, but always within the conditions imposed by the person who gave the order.

- Bernard Berenson(1)

Patronage study is an active subcategory of current work in art history. A 1994 issue of a journal devoted to it cites recent conferences on the subject in Washington, Melbourne, and Hamburg.(2) It postulates that the reasons for the subjects of works of art are clarified when we have detailed knowledge of a patron's interests. Berenson is an interesting advocate for this approach because his own work is very different. It is part of the social history of art, which in a pure form (probably never actuated) might treat the object of art as an item of production and exchange, much as wool textiles might be treated in the case of Florentine merchants. More commonly, the work is viewed as a product of two energies in which the artist articulates, by rendering shapes, the message assigned by the patron. This most often makes the patron the more interesting figure, as one sees in the greater intensity of analysis of his part. A difficulty - which seems generally understood but, regrettably, little articulated - is the uniqueness of each work of art, unlike a bolt of cloth, so that with each commission the two persons concerned address a new problem. Hence the social history of art seems less successful than other social histories in building up findings about large trends seen in objects, except when it focuses on popular production, mass art, or to use a new term assigning more prestige to it, "low art." Yet when, as is more frequent, the social history of art deals with what investigators consider aesthetically admirable, and they have to investigate all patrons, the information about them may indeed not be much trouble to collect, but is often harder to connect with the works they bought.

For Italian Renaissance painting and sculpture, the chief overt source of patron desires is in contracts, which are their purchase orders. Collections of these have been published in books on art and society, notably about fifty precis selected by John Larner and about twenty-five full texts by David Chambers.(3) This material seems disappointing. Meyer Schapiro, the notable social historian of art, found that Chambers's cases rarely extended beyond specifying pigments, sizes, and delivery dates - quite like what we might have found for bolts of cloth, and unchanging for most items in a given medium, in this case movable paintings.(4) The one variant in each contract is the subject matter, but it too is limited to a standard formula such as "Saint Jerome" in the case of a figure, or for a narrative "The Adoration of the Magi," i.e., a short title of the same kind that today we adopt for captions under the illustrations in art history books. The one further specification found fairly often is the relative placing of such elements, to the right or left of others or the like. Because we are much interested in the individual differences between one Adoration of the Magi and another, and in our present context postulate patron control over those differences, such contracts are of little help, nor do other, rarer, documents often do more. Hence it has become usual in patronage studies to turn to looking at the works, noting special distinctions of props, gestures, or facial expressions, and then assigning these to patron instructions.

Because there seems little evidence for this, one might question the foundation of these studies. The general lack of any statement of theory by social historians of art is a further difficulty. A rare presentation of one theory by Leopold Ettlinger is thus welcome, the more so in that it appears in a well-qualified study of a particular monument. …

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