‘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.
As for the social context, Goffen notes that the Bellini triptych as well as the Pesaro Madonna were painted for different, indeed rival branches of the same patrician family. Benedetto Pesaro, Captain-General of the Sea and commander of the Venetian fleet which captured Santa Maura from the Turks in 1502, commissioned not only the Bellini triptych but what his will describes as ‘a noble marble monument’ bearing a record of his deeds. His cousin, Jacopo Pesaro, who chose black rather than scarlet and became bishop of Paphos, commanded the Papal fleet in the same campaign as Benedetto, and commissioned two paintings from Titian to commemorate the victory, for which he felt he had never been given the credit which was his due. Thus the paintings in the Frari record a rivalry almost in the class of the one described a quarter of a century ago by Francis Haskell, between Francesco Morosini, the Venetian Captain-General of the Sea in the later 17th century, and Antonio Barbaro, his subordinate in the war of Candia, dismissed for incompetence, who used the façade of Santa Maria del Giglio, not far from Morosini’s palace, to make a statement in stone about his glorious military achievements.
Fifteenth-century Venetian patricians patronised scholars as well as painters, as Margaret King makes abundantly clear. Her collective biography of 92 Humanists (from patricians like Francesco Barbaro, author of a famous treatise on wives, to relatively low-status outsiders like Marcantonio Sabellico, author of a fulsome history of Venice), is what historians like to call a rich ‘quarry’ for future students of the subject. However, her introductory essay on the Humanists and their place in Venetian society is seriously flawed by her inability either to choose between two opposite views of the situation, or to make a synthesis between them. At times King seems to accept what might be called the ‘selfish’ view (whether cynical or simply realistic), according to which the Venetian ruling class supported Humanism for political reasons, appropriating it, managing it in the interests of their class, and using it to legitimate its goals. She goes so far on one occasion as to describe Humanist education (in terms apparently derived from Pierre Bourdieu) as ‘the agent of inherited power, the vehicle by which patrician culture can reproduce itself’. It would have been interesting to see this view worked out in detail, but the author lets the opportunity slip and elsewhere in the book she writes as if she accepts the rival ‘altruistic’ view according to which the patricians loved learning for its own sake, were committed to education, cherished teachers and treated patronage as a duty. This is what the Humanists say in their letters and dedications, addressed to their ‘second fathers’, ‘admirable friends’ and so on, but it is of course what their masters expected them to say. The patron-client relationship shapes the very documents which purport to describe it.
Unlike Margaret King, Donald Queller does not hesitate for a moment between the rival interpretations of the Venetian patriciate. According to him, the open book held by the winged lion of St Mark ‘is really a palimpsest’. ‘Beneath the official inscription, Pax tibi Marce, evangelista meus, can be discerned the real and enduring slogan of the Venetian Republic, Dayla, dayla, or “Gimme, gimme!”.’ According to Queller, the difference between the rival interpretations is the difference between ‘myth’ and ‘reality’. He has combed the archives for references to patricians who evaded public responsibilities, voted twice in elections, accepted bribes, dodged their taxes, or were guilty of what he calls ‘other uncivil behaviour’, a catch-all category extending from the exchange of insults, threats and physical violence to breaches of official secrecy by eavesdroppers such as the three nobles who made a hole in the roof of the Doge’s Palace in order to discover the news from Istanbul.
Those involved included the rich and the powerful as well as poor nobles such as the ‘Swiss’, political mercenaries who sold their votes to the highest bidder. Even Doge Agostino Barbarigo was posthumously accused of extortion, while Bellini’s patron Benedetto Pesaro, Captain-General of the Sea, was charged with falsifying his official journals. Queller’s catalogue of sins and sinners makes lively reading. It is a valuable corrective to what historians call the ‘myth of Venice’, the idea that the Republic had a perfect constitution and a selfless ruling class, an idea which Queller dismisses as the concoction of ‘sycophantic’ Humanists. The trouble is that his reaction against the conventional wisdom has led him to offer strings of examples in place of systematic analysis. What he has done is to give unconventional answers to conventional questions when it might have been still more illuminating to change the questions as well. In describing the Venetian patriciate as composed of a few ‘real crooks’ and a majority of ordinary selfish people, he assumes not only that human nature is always the same but that crimes and misdemeanours are too. He never pauses to ask whether ‘corruption’ had a different meaning from its current one in a society as firmly based on patronage and clientage.
One way to escape these categories might be to leave the Doge’s Palace and the two thousand-odd adult male nobles who attended, or failed to attend, the meetings of the Great Council, and to look more closely at what other Venetians were doing. To have done this is one of the great merits of Richard Mackenney’s study, which is concerned with merchants, craftsmen, shopkeepers and their families, who constituted about three-quarters of the urban population. These groups left fewer traces of their activities in the archives than the patricians did. All the same, by taking a long view, over some four hundred years or so, and by making judicious comparisons and contrasts with other parts of Europe, Mackenney is able to give us a vivid description of the economic, religious and political worlds of the Venetian guilds, both the craft guilds, or arti, and the religious confraternities, known locally as the scuole. He shows us their members walking in procession on feast-days, commissioning paintings from Carpaccio and Gentile Bellini, and trying to cope with the government’s demands for money and oarsmen for the defence of the city. However, the focus of the book is on economic life and it is in this area that Mackenney’s ideas are most original.
He attacks the stereotype of guild restrictiveness and argues that in Venice at least they supported free enterprise. What stifled enterprise in the long run was the Counter-Reformation Inquisition, suspicious as it was of all contacts with foreigners. The author also suggests that in practice the great religious holidays – whatever Protestant visitors may have thought – did more economic good than harm, since ‘festivals generated work, and they were also occasions when it was possible to advertise and sell.’ Mackenney’s well-informed and vigorous study, which carries the reader along despite its many technical details, can be read either as a celebration of trade unions or as a eulogy of the small businessman (on occasion businesswoman), for in this city there was no sharp division between the two. As the author plausibly suggests, the links between capital and labour, so much closer than was the case in Florence or the Netherlands, provide a more satisfactory explanation of the social stability of Venice than the altruism of its ruling class. ‘This unusual pattern of co-existence helps to explain why Venice can look modern in a medieval world, medieval in a modern one.’
It is the strength of George Holmes’s study of Florence and Rome, as it is of Richard Mackenney’s book on Venice, that it undermines stereotypes of medieval and modern. It is essentially concerned with the first stage of the Renaissance, the ‘outburst’ of Tuscan creativity in the first decade of the 14th century, the age of Duccio, Giovanni Pisano, and above all of Giotto and Dante. Holmes’s aim is not to explain this achievement (an enterprise he criticises as reductionist) but to make it more intelligible by describing its social environment. This environment includes the rise of the Franciscans in Central Italy as well as the political independence and growing riches of the Florentines (who, as Pope Boniface put it enviously, ‘seem to rule the world’). The author gives us a careful, precise, balanced, lucid and unpretentious account of all these developments. When it comes to making connections between them he plumps for patronage, like Kent and Simons and Goffen, noting, for example, that Duccio’s Maesta was commissioned by the commune of Siena, and that the two chapels painted by Giotto in the Franciscan church of Santa Croce in Florence were paid for by the famous banking houses of the Bardi and the Peruzzi. His most original suggestion, the refinement of a point he has been arguing for some years, is to emphasise the ‘interpenetration of a group of geographically distinct centres of patronage’, notably ‘the interaction of urban Tuscany and ecclesiastical Rome’.
The lively new study of Renaissance Humanism by two scholars separated by the Atlantic, Anthony Grafton and Lisa Jardine, has much in common with the other books discussed here, despite an attempt by the authors to distance themselves from what they call ‘the new social history’ and to concern themselves ‘not with context but with content’.
They discuss the Italy of Guarino of Verona and Lorenzo Valla as well as the Humanists of Northern Europe (notably Agricola, Erasmus, Ramus and Harvey). Like Margaret King, they are concerned with the social function of education, and describe the humanities without hesitation as ‘a curriculum training a social élite to fulfil its predetermined social role’. Like Queller, they want to tear the rose-tinted spectacles from the nose of the conventional wisdom, and present Renaissance education as the inculcation not of liberal values but of a ‘safe conformity’ and a ‘docile attitude towards authority’. The authors associate the view they reject with one of the leading contemporary specialists on Humanism, Professor Eugenio Garin, (whom they compare, more vividly than exactly, to F.R. Leavis), and their book may be seen as an attempt to answer, indeed to rewrite his L’Educazione in Europa (1400-1600), published in 1957. Garin’s study, a masterpiece of lucidity and concision, is a wide-ranging survey which focuses on educational ‘problems and programmes’. By contrast, Grafton and Jardine concentrate on educational practice, and offer case-studies rather than a general view. These case-studies utilise the authors’ earlier essays, on women Humanists, for example (emphasising the patronising attitudes of male scholars to these ‘miraculous’ phenomena), but rework them into a coherent book which argues for a shift from ‘Humanism’ in the sense of ‘the zealous faith in an ideal’ to ‘the humanities’ in the sense of an academic curriculum – from morality to grammar, from the ‘charismatic’ teaching of Guarino and a few others to the routinisation characteristic of institutions, whether universities or grammar schools.
It is hard to say whether the cracks and fissures to be found in this text run between its authors or within them, but the gap between limited aims and ambitious conclusions is obvious enough. Grafton and Jardine are at their most convincing when they are attempting to reconstruct educational practice from sources such as student notes. Unfortunately their argument about a long-term shift from Humanism to the humanities, as opposed to a recurrent conflict between precept and practice, is one which cannot be justified by case-studies alone. As for their assertion that Humanist education served what they call, rather too vaguely, the ‘Establishment’, it can only be tested by practising the kind of social history from which they distanced themselves in the first place. If they are making a point about the consequences of this type of education, then an analysis of the later careers of students would have been welcome. If, on the other hand, they are concerned with intentions, they might usefully have devoted some of their space to the patrons of Humanism and the founders of colleges, as scholars such as Eugene Rice and George Huppert have been doing in the case of Renaissance France.
It may also be instructive to compare what the authors say, and do not say, about the place of Cicero in the Renaissance curriculum with the precise and careful essay on ‘Cicero and Tacitus in 16th-century France’ in J.H.M. Salmon’s collection, which notes some of the ways in which religious and political conflicts affected the reception of a writer who was seen not only as ‘the father of Latin eloquence’, as one Humanist called him, but as the defender of Roman liberty. It is at once the merit and the defect of From Humanism to the Humanities that it raises far more questions than it answers. Grafton and Jardine have written a book which is provocative, ambitious, unfair, sardonic and readable. It is a breath of fresh air in a stuffy classroom.