Painting in 15th-Century Italy: This Splendid and Noble Art 
by Diane Cole Ahl.
Yale, 320 pp., £55, October 2023, 978 0 300 26961 1
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Florence has always​ been at the heart of any history of Renaissance art. The two most obvious reasons for this are the survival, especially in the city itself, of a very large number of works of art from that period, and the influence of Vasari’s Lives, which is mainly about Florentine artists. For the 15th century, the period of Masaccio, Botticelli and the young Leonardo da Vinci, the other major city in Italy which has received most attention from art historians is Venice, but until the last third of the 15th century the survival rate of paintings there seems to have been much less, and partly for that reason Venetian art before 1500 has traditionally occupied a secondary role. Diane Cole Ahl, who is well known for earlier studies on Florentine painters of the 15th century, while conceding that the pre-eminent role of Florence is justified, has now provided an overview of painting of the period in most of the Italian peninsula. Her book consists of eight chapters, each devoted to a different city or region, starting with Venice and Milan and ending with Naples and Sicily. On this geographical basis Florence is in Chapter Five, preceding Siena and Rome. The approach to such a vast subject is necessarily selective, yet almost all readers will not only be impressed by the range of paintings included, but will also encounter individual works of art which are unfamiliar to them. Camerino, in Le Marche, for example, is not much visited, and an altarpiece of the Annunciation in the local museum by Giovanni Angelo d’Antonio is no better known than the painter himself, but it is distinctive and very beautiful.

The main attraction of Cole Ahl’s book is its geographical range, but the coverage of the different areas is inevitably uneven. In Naples and Sicily there are few surviving works to choose from, and those have little in common with one another, whereas the chapters on Florence and Siena present a far more comprehensive and coherent image of the kind of painting that was produced in those cities in the course of the 15th century. Cole Ahl stresses in particular two aspects of her research: the extent of travel by individual artists and the development of new techniques of painting as revealed by recent conservation studies. Unfortunately, the structure of the text and the very selective use of examples doesn’t clarify the presentation of these topics. Thus we are told about Masolino’s work in Florence and Rome, but not about his impressive frescoes at Castiglione Olona, near Milan, nor is there any reference to Mantegna’s work in Rome, perhaps because this no longer survives. Again, an overview of the technical evidence provided at various points in the text would have been helpful. It is a pity there is no concluding chapter, summarising the main arguments and outlining the rationale for the choice of artists and works discussed.

For a general reader it would also have been good to have been told what painters were required to do in the 15th century, and why some individuals or groups of people were prepared to pay very large sums for their services, in ways that seem to have varied greatly from place to place and over time. The vast majority of paintings produced at that period were of course religious, as any reader will soon discover, and most of them were for churches. To judge from later and better documented periods, most people would also have had one or more religious pictures in their house, usually of the Madonna or Christ and often of very modest artistic quality, so the evidential value of surviving pictures of this type for the state of painting in particular centres is limited. There was also a substantial amount of painted decoration in public buildings, such as town halls, almost all of it edifying and only some of it religious. And finally, in the last two or three decades of the 15th century, there was a very limited amount of non-religious art for private patrons, of which the main category was portraiture, an innovation apparently prompted by Flemish art. Not surprisingly, the fame of individual painters, if one can use such a term about those whose names were likely to have been known only to a small group of wealthy patrons and to other artists, seems to have gradually increased in the course of the century. However, the names of living painters almost never appear in early printed books.

A question that obviously arises is why in some cities and areas the production of public religious painting seems to have been much higher than in others. If this is not just the result of chance survival, it can hardly be due to differences in piety or doctrine, but differences in social organisation could well have been a factor. It’s important to bear in mind that religious images, whether painted or carved, were not and never have been a requirement in churches, and there was certainly no obligation (doctrinal, liturgical or otherwise) to display them above altars at which mass was being said, which is where the most expensive and impressive examples were located. It is often supposed by art historians that the content of altarpieces had some strong connection to the celebration of the mass, but there is nothing in Catholic doctrine to justify this belief. There is only one moment in the mass when it would have been appropriate for the officiating priest or the congregation to direct their attention to the figures most commonly represented in altarpieces, that is to say the Madonna and saints, and that was at the Memento, when those present were supposed to remember and pray for the souls in purgatory. Most altarpieces were provided by private individuals or groups such as confraternities or trade associations at their own expense, and the great majority were placed in private chapels or above side altars. Many of them include portraits of the patron and other relatives, and sometimes of the painter, to remind the living to pray for them, although portraits of the painters gradually gave way to signatures. The rights to altars in architecturally distinct chapels or at the sides of the nave were sold to individuals or groups as a means of financing the construction or maintenance of the church, and masses were said very rarely at such altars, because the owners had to pay for this service, although they were not obliged to be present. The main incentive for the owners in acquiring chapels or altars is that they would normally obtain burial rights nearby for themselves and their relatives. Other wealthy individuals preferred to pay for the right to be buried in proximity to the high altar, which, like all other fixed altars, contained the relic of a martyr.

The idea of a church as a place for the dead as much as for the living has now largely disappeared, but it was central to religious thought and practice in the Renaissance and later. The living prayed in church for the souls of their dead friends and relatives in purgatory, while hoping that the dead were praying for them, as they were encouraged to believe. The images around the church of the saints and especially of the Madonna provided consolation and reassurance. In this context, the provision of an altarpiece was often only one element in what was in effect an investment in the afterlife for the patron and his family, and certainly not the most important. On occasion, altarpieces could have been commissioned much later than the purchase of a chapel, as funds became available, even if the church authorities regarded the provision of an impressive picture as a desirable addition to the building. This is probably one reason that altarpieces in Italian churches often date from very different periods. Since many of them were above altars not often used, the implication is that they were not primarily intended for the edification or aesthetic pleasure of the general public. They were meant to honour the saints represented, primarily on behalf of the deceased; similar figures, of whom the most common was the Madonna, also often appear on elaborate tombs. Of course, some altarpieces and other religious pictures were commissioned by religious orders, but this phenomenon was usually limited to high altars and the basic purpose was just the same: to honour the patron saint of the church and to encourage devotion to the other figures represented, like every other image. It is surely not just by chance that the production of new altarpieces in Italy came to a virtual halt around the time that church burial was forbidden in 1806, although many churches were built after that date; the ban has subsequently been disregarded only for members of the Italian royal family and some high clerics.

If we ask why there was so much more religious painting on display in Florence or Siena (and, slightly later, in Venice) than, for example, in Naples, various factors could have been relevant. Most important was the fact that Florence and Venice were probably the richest cities in Italy, and in the 14th and 15th centuries Siena was rich too. They were all republics with a large class of prosperous families. In Florence, the wealthiest had made their money through banking – in other words through usury – and that is one reason this group of patrons had a particular enthusiasm for images showing the Three Magi, who presented the infant Christ with lavish offerings, including gold. In Naples, by contrast, ruled by kings, the wealth was largely in the hands of a small group of noblemen with a preference for elaborate and costly tombs. Then there is the obvious fact that there seem to have been very few native Neapolitan painters in the 14th and 15th centuries, so there would have been little scope for the training of local artists. In the 15th century even much of the sculpture, in the form of tombs, was imported and, as Cole Ahl explains, many of the paintings were provided by Spanish artists.

Another notable difference between the places discussed in the book is the extent of civic patronage, whether by quasi-official bodies such as the major guilds in Florence, or by the city government there and in Venice and Siena. Civic bodies typically provided the administrative continuity and finance essential for the construction of major buildings, whether town halls, hospitals or cathedrals, and also commissioned schemes of painted decoration for them, much of which has disappeared, for example, in major fires during the 1570s at the Palazzo Ducale in Venice. Here, too, religious imagery was very important, as in any public building of the period, but allegory was also used in Siena and scenes of Venetian history in Venice. The preferred medium in the 14th and early 15th centuries was fresco, even in Venice, where the leading painters involved were all from other cities, perhaps because local expertise in the medium was limited. The sea air was thought to be unsuitable for fresco, but it continued to be used extensively for decorating the outside of buildings. Whatever the reason, the frescoes in the Palazzo Ducale began to deteriorate within a few decades and from the 1470s were gradually replaced with painted canvases.

The other sections of the book are devoted mainly to areas under royal or quasi-royal rule, such as Milan under the Sforza, Mantua under its marquises, Ferrara under its dukes, Urbino, also ruled by a duke, and of course Naples, with its kings. What all these rulers had in common was the need to proclaim the legitimacy of their position, especially as most of them belonged to families that had achieved their status through violence, usually then receiving titles from the Holy Roman Emperor or the pope. In addition to the obvious need to build castles or other forms of fortification, they all engaged in display that emphasised the gulf separating them from their subjects, whether in terms of palaces, costume, servants or art – especially painting. In the 15th century, this was a relatively new form of conspicuous consumption, but one that was to become increasingly attractive to rulers throughout Europe.

Unlike the art​ to be found in churches and town halls, which was almost exclusively edifying, in the palaces of rulers it was soon associated with notions of culture and aristocratic taste. This was almost certainly inevitable and need not be taken too seriously, since the taste of rulers was and always has been by definition refined and sophisticated. Cole Ahl claims, on the basis of an extensive but damaged scheme of non-religious frescoes in the palace of the ruling Trinci family at Foligno, with inscriptions in three languages, that the patron was cultured. In fact, the decoration shows only that this is how he wanted to be regarded. The work of Renaissance painters for rulers, although greatly admired today, was often less influential in the short term than that for less exalted patrons, because the latter was more easily accessible. Mantegna is now famous for the paintings he produced in Mantua for the Gonzaga family, but few artists seem to have seen these or chosen to imitate them. Far more important to contemporary painters were his more accessible early frescoes in Padua, as Cole Ahl points out. Likewise Piero della Francesca’s paintings for the Duke of Urbino were not mentioned in texts of the time, whereas his frescoes of the True Cross cycle in the Franciscan church of Arezzo were hailed as one of the finest works in Italy.

Rome was a very different environment for artists from anywhere else in the peninsula. With the removal of the papacy to Avignon in the early 14th century, Rome had become a relatively unimportant backwater, poor and underpopulated. The popes only returned there on a permanent basis some time after 1450, although Martin V had spent some years there in the 1420s. The city was without any substantial or sustained local tradition of painting and so the main artists were mainly from the papal states of Central Italy and from Tuscany, particularly from Florence, which also played a crucial role, through banking, in the papal economy. In the latter part of the 15th century, Roman painting was unsurprisingly very largely an extension of Florentine, and the pattern did not greatly change in the following century, with the arrival of Michelangelo. No outstanding Venetian painter worked in Rome in the 15th century, and only one for a significant period in the first half of the 16th century, Sebastiano del Piombo.

If the strongly Florentine character of art in Rome after 1450 is easily explained, developments in painting elsewhere in Italy during the 15th century, sometimes closely correlated in time and sometimes not, depend on the travels of individual artists, which are not always fully documented or properly understood. Cole Ahl rightly emphasises the importance of this phenomenon, which was not new. In the previous century, Giotto had worked in Padua, Assisi, Rimini, Rome and Naples, as well as his native Florence, and Simone Martini, from Siena, spent time in Assisi, Naples, Pisa, Orvieto and Avignon, where he died. These two artists were well established when they undertook most of their travels and the mature works that they left outside their native cities had an impact on other painters, whereas artists who travelled to large cities to obtain an artistic training were probably often reluctant to return home, if they were ambitious. But it is far from clear how the reputations of outstanding artists preceded them, as Giotto’s evidently did. By the beginning of the 15th century it must have been widely known that in some cities, notably Florence and Venice, there were many skilled painters, and it would not have been difficult to discover who were the leading ones. Whether or not they were willing to travel elsewhere, temporarily or permanently, obviously depended on their ambitions and interests. A gifted painter based in a small town, such as Piero della Francesca, faced different choices, since the opportunities, both artistic and financial, were so much more limited there.

While stressing the importance of travel by artists, Cole Ahl claims that her book ‘challenges the restrictive binaries of centre and periphery, replacing them with an emphasis on local style and campanilismo (intense pride rooted in local traditions and identity)’. However, the evidence of a lack of openness to new styles of painting on the part of patrons, or a preference for one style over another, is not very strong, whether in small centres or large. When patrons commissioned altarpieces they presumably did so not on the basis of their own taste, if that concept had any meaning to them, but, so far as their resources allowed, chose artists whose works were considered particularly admirable and accordingly commanded the highest prices. It was the artists themselves who established a hierarchy of excellence, especially as it was they who were called on to provide valuations of the works of their colleagues. In the 15th century, knowledge of even the names of the leading painters does not seem to have been very wide or to have been considered a mark of sophistication. The first sign of this development comes only in 1528, in Baldassare Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier, which seems to have made a degree of knowledge and appreciation of the visual arts a desirable social skill in court society. The first reference in print to Giorgione, for example, appeared in this book, in which he was named as an outstanding painter with a distinctive style, together with Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael and Mantegna. How many of Castiglione’s early readers would have heard of these artists, let alone would have knowingly seen their work, is open to question. Since we now automatically associate works of art with named artists it takes a real effort to understand a culture in which this was not the case.

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