The High Renaissance in Italy looms disproportionately large as the greatest age of art patronage. Such is the princely glitter, still, of the Medici. Then baronial wealth and churchly wealth vied--and often combined, in the single figures of the Medici Popes--in commissions for great artistic projects. It was much simpler then. There were no museums, no art dealers. If you had a lot of money and a strong taste for art, you went directly to the artist in his bottega and you bought it or ordered it. And then you had art's satisfactions, not the least of which, then as now, was prestige.
Actually, there has always been a lot of art patronage--a surprising amount, indeed, considering how little real general knowledge there has ever been as to what art is all about. There have been lulls when interest has turned to the past. There have been bad times when optical machines have been invented to do part of the artist's work: the camera for portraiture, the stereoscope for three-dimensional "scenery," the cinema to dramatize history. But the artist has always found something new, and probably better, to do; has found it, often, before the machine was even invented. Then there would be a new movement that would be ignored until it could be ignored no longer; taste would finally catch up and make amends. One of the great facts of art history is that the layman, proudly practical as he may be, is eternally fascinated by art and by the artist. This fascination runs deeper than a side- show interest. A bearded lady and an eight-foot man are patent, even if engaging, facts, and are so looked at. But art is the kind of fact that language is, which is more than a mere collection of sounds: it challenges understanding.
It happens today that we have an art that, more than ever before, challenges understanding. We have, too, some pretty