Patrons

Peter Burke

  • Patronage, Art and Society in Renaissance Italy edited by F.W. Kent and Patricia Simons
    Oxford/Humanities Research Centre, 331 pp, £35.00, June 1987, ISBN 0 19 821978 4
  • Pienza: The Creation of a Renaissance City by Charles Mack
    Cornell, 250 pp, $43.95, June 1987, ISBN 0 8014 1699 X
  • Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice: Bellini, Titian and the Franciscans by Rona Goffen
    Yale, 285 pp, £30.00, July 1986, ISBN 0 300 03455 5
  • Venetian Humanism in an Age of Patrician Dominance by Margaret King
    Princeton, 524 pp, £42.90, April 1986, ISBN 0 691 05465 7
  • The Venetian Patriciate: Reality versus Myth by Donald Queller
    Illinois, 386 pp, $29.95, September 1986, ISBN 0 252 01144 9
  • Tradesman and Traders: The World of the Guilds in Venice and Europe, c.1250-c.1650 by Richard MacKenney
    Croom Helm, 289 pp, £35.00, January 1987, ISBN 0 7099 1763 5
  • Florence, Rome and the Origins of the Renaissance by George Holmes
    Oxford, 273 pp, £25.00, November 1986, ISBN 0 19 822576 8
  • From Humanism to the Humanities: Education and the Liberal Arts in 15th and 6th-Century Europe by Anthony Grafton and Lisa Jardine
    Duckworth, 224 pp, £29.95, January 1987, ISBN 0 7156 2100 9
  • Renaissance and Revolt: Essays in the Intellectual and Social History of Early Modern France by J.H.M. Salmon
    Cambridge, 306 pp, £30.00, June 1987, ISBN 0 521 32769 5

‘Patrons are patrons,’ a citizen of Florence wrote to the Grand Duke, Ferdinando de’Medici, in 1602: ‘the patron is accountable to no one.’ But what exactly was a patron in Florence or elsewhere in Renaissance Italy? Despite the existence of a large literature on art patronage, the question received few direct answers till the publication in 1981 of a book focused on England: Patronage in the Renaissance, edited by Guy Lytle and Stephen Orgel. Taking their cue from Lytle and Orgel, F.W. Kent and Patricia Simons have turned the proceedings of a conference held in Melbourne in 1983 into a valuable volume of essays on patronage in Renaissance Italy. What is particularly interesting about both collections is the fact that they discuss two kinds of patronage and, at least on occasion, the relations between them. The traditional investigation of artistic patronage has been juxtaposed with the study of ‘social patronage’ – the networks of ‘friends of friends’ familiar to social anthropologists (and indeed to classicists), but neglected till recently by historians of Italy.

As this volume shows, the study of social and artistic patronage has given rise to rather different kinds of debate. In the case of the arts, the emphasis has fallen on the motives of patrons, especially the desire to maintain or improve their status, and on their influence on the form of the finished product, with particular attention being paid to conflicts between patrons and artists, exemplified on a heroic scale by the clash between the irresistible force, Pope Julius II, and the immovable object, Michelangelo. In the case of social patronage, historians have concentrated on the reconstruction of networks of alliance between patrons and clients, and the calculation of the benefits to both sides. The Kent-Simons volume, almost entirely the work of the younger generation of Renaissance historians, makes some valuable contributions to both debates, and the links between the two are made visible from time to time, as in the brief discussion by Dale Kent of the effect on the artistic patronage of the Pazzi and Rucellai families of their position as clients of the Medici. Some contributors, like Richard Goldthwaite (on consumer demand) and Bill Kent (on ties of neighbourhood), write well about topics on which they have already written elsewhere. Others break new ground, notably Ronald Weissman on ‘Mediterranean Values and Renaissance Society’ and Richard Gaston on the social history of the liturgy.

Taken as a whole, the most serious limitation of Patronage, Art and Society in Renaissance Italy is its concentration on Florence. Charles Mack’s magnificently-illustrated volume comes as a welcome reminder of the importance of other parts of Tuscany, as well as a spectacular example of what could be done by a patron who was in a position, unlike the patricians of Florence, to display his magnificence without any inhibitions. Pius II was only Pope for six years, 1458-64, but this was time enough for him to transform his birthplace, Corsignano, into a miniature Renaissance city, fitted out with a cathedral, a new main square and a palace (complete with hanging garden).

To escape the effects of what Kent and Simons themselves diagnose as ‘Florentinitis’, however, the obvious refuge is not Pienza but Venice. Two recent studies, by Rona Goffen and Margaret King, reveal some of the distinctive forms of cultural patronage in that city. Goffen’s Piety and Patronage concentrates on three works painted for the Franciscan church of the Frari: Giovanni Bellini’s triptych, Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin and his Pesaro Madonna. An art historian by training, and somewhat less at ease with texts, Professor Goffen is at her best when, following the example of David Rosand, she discusses the relation of the paintings to their physical context in the Frari, emphasising what it might be convenient to call their ‘intermonumentality’: in other words, the way in which they echo, quote or refer to other images in the same church. She also takes care to place the paintings in their theological context, suggesting (as Erica Tietze-Conrat and others had done before her) that the Pesaro Madonna refers to the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, and, with more originality, that the Assumption makes reference to the split between the Conventual and Observant wings of the Franciscan order.

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