Princely Courts and Patronage

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Princely Courts and Patronage


Princely Magnificence. For Renaissance princes and monarchs, both north as well as south of the Alps, huge and costly public-works programs, palatial residences decorated in the latest style, extensive libraries, and collections of classical artifacts were the natural corollary of rulership. Fifteenth-century humanists rediscovered a classical ideal that envisioned great private wealth as a prerequisite of civic virtue. They expressed this ideal, in part, by the lavish expenditure of money for the public good as well as private pleasures. In purportedly republican city-states, such as Florence, merchant dynasties sometimes had to counter charges of princely ambition by downscaling their architectural projects. Such concerns probably prompted Cosimo de’ Medici to accept the more modest design for renovation of the palace proposed by Michelozzo di Bartolomeo instead of the imposing architectural plans drawn up by Filippo Brunelleschi. In princely states of northern Italy, lavish expenditures on art, architecture, and ceremony were rarely curbed by concerns about republican virtue, familial rivalries, or public censure. Humanist propagandists employed by princely houses defended extravagant artistic commissions as the purest expression of magnificentia, that search for majesty and immortality that inspired Roman imperial and senatorial elites to engage in grandiose building programs whose vestiges reminded Italians of the glories of the Roman Empire more than a thousand years later. In Machiavelli’s now classic redefinition of princely power, The Prince (1532), the Florentine writer argued that the defining characteristic of a successful ruler was the ability to command the obedience and assent of his subjects through the judicious mix of fear, clemency, and majesty. In his treatise, De re aedifictoria (Ten Books on Architecture, 1435-1436), Leon Battista Alberti urged humanist princely patrons to demonstrate their majesty by employing classical motifs, such as temple porticos, triumphal arches, and friezes, to impart noble or superior attributes to their architectural commissions. Princes and patricians often went a step further and inscribed public buildings and private residences with their personal emblems, initials, and coats of arms.

Chivalry. Princes from smaller Italian states, such as Urbino and Ferrera, often enhanced their financial and political fortunes by hiring themselves out as condottiere (mercenaries) to larger, principally Italian, foreign powers. Military prowess thus remained an important expression of aristocratic authority in northern Italy, and chivalric romance literature continued to be fashionable among Italian nobles. Nonetheless, the highest praise of the age was reserved for princes who were accomplished men of letters as well as military leaders. Pedro Berruguete’s Portrait of Federico da Montefeltro and his son Guidobaldo (1476-1477), which depicts Federico, the duke of Urbino, seated and solemnly reading at a lectern, incongruously dressed in full armor, clearly reveals the dual concerns with humanist learning and chivalric honor. A rich red tunic trimmed in ermine is draped over Federico’s armor, a reference to the chivalric Order of the Garter and Order of the Ermine to which the duke belonged. Poised on the lectern is a jewel-encrusted Persian hat that recalls Federico’s pivotal response to the Persian call for an international crusade against the Turks. At Federico’s knee is his young son, Guidobaldo, holding a golden scepter in his right hand as a sign of the duke’s victorious battle to secure dynastic control of Urbino. An endemic rivalry with the sumptuous courts of northern Europe, especially France and Burgundy, also encouraged northern Italian princes to commission works that employed the visual language of chivalry as well as of classical Rome. Italian princes continued to admire and collect French ivory miniatures and Flemish tapestries. They also employed artists trained in the International Gothic style, which often made the content of their art collections virtually indistinguishable from their northern counterparts. Leonello d’Este, who governed the small principality of Ferrara, for example, was an avid patron of the Flemish artist Rogier van der Weyden and owned Passion tapestries and a Deposition from the Cross by the artist. He especially admired the moving piety and elegant lines that defined the Flemish artist’s style.

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Nonetheless, echoing the sentiments of Quattrocento humanists, Italian nobles and the princely elite believed that the urbanity of Italian Renaissance culture rendered it superior to the essentially rural and rustic character of aristocratic life in the north.

Self-Representation. Portraiture was of pivotal importance in humanist and princely circles. Like gifts of books, the presentation of one’s own likeness was charged with profound moral, social, and political significance. The elite exchanged portraits as an act of friendship, as a bid for political authority, and as a guarantee of immortality. Renaissance portraits were more than representations of specific likenesses; they were also fundamental to the construction of social identities and the perpetuation of personal and dynastic power. Princes, popes, and patricians commissioned artists to reproduce their likeness in commemorative medals, plaquettes, portrait busts, and death masks, as well as in paintings. Commemorative medals were widely admired for their associations with classical antiquity and imperial prerogative, and were widely reproduced and given as gifts to favorites and visiting dignitaries from the mid fifteenth century onward. Sandro Botticelli’s Portrait of a Young Man (circa 1480), which depicts a handsome and courtly young man holding a commemorative medal with the profile of Cosimo de’ Medici, is a cunning marriage of the two most popular genres of Renaissance self-representation.

Gender. Portraits of women generally conformed to established literary conventions and gender roles. Artists were sent to foreign courts to render lifelike portraits of potential brides so suitors could deem their aesthetic suitability. Feminist scholars have shown how aristocratic portraits from the fifteenth-century courts of northern Italy represented their female subjects in profile, with a distant or lowered gaze, often dressed in clothes embroidered with heraldic symbols, all of which reinforced women’s traditional reproductive and domestic role in the perpetuation of family power and lineage. By the late fifteenth century, the growing popularity of female portraits, where the sitter directly faced the viewer, often represented extremely idealized images of female beauty based on the values of Petrarchan love poetry and Neoplatonism.

Artists and Patrons. Profound concerns about honor and decorum prompted aristocratic patrons to work in unusually close concert with artists. Patrons stipulated the quality of artistic materials to be used in commissions. They also specified themes and sometimes even the compositional structure of the commission. When Isabella d’Este, marchioness of Ferrara, decided to commission a painting titled Love and Chastity from the Italian artist Perugino, she detailed a complex iconographic program that tied the artist to a nearly impossible task. The ease with which she described the battle between Pallas, Diana, Venus, and Cupid revealed her familiarity with classical mythology and its allegories. The theme of love and chastity itself fit within the larger courtly tradition of genteel virtue. Isabella’s reputation as a connoisseur was enhanced by her ability to attract Perugino, considered the most famous artist of his generation, into her service and demonstrated her keen attention to the reciprocity of fame. By the mid fifteenth century, artists were often given permanent positions at court, where they were sometimes given honorific titles as valets in the inner household and sometimes even granted titles of nobility. They enjoyed these rewards, however, at a considerable loss of personal and artistic freedom. Talented artists remained extremely mobile, marketing their skills to several patrons. This traffic in artistic talent assured the rapid dissemination of the newest techniques and classical motifs throughout the courts of Europe.

Popes as Patrons. After the political and moral challenges to papal authority during the Avignon Papacy (1304-1377) and Great Schism (1378-1417), Renaissance popes were determined to reestablish Rome as the undisputed center of Latin Christianity. Envisioning Rome as the heart of a pax romana and pax Christi, the papacy affirmed its supreme temporal and spiritual power through classical history and myth. In his 1455 deathbed speech Pope Nicholas V described his vision for the urban renewal of Rome as a celestial Jerusalem seemingly made by the hand of God. Through such programs the power of the Holy See would be exalted and the authority of the Roman Church presented at its greatest throughout Christendom. The unlettered and weak of faith would be moved by such extraordinary sights and confirmed in their beliefs. Subsequent popes carried forward his vision in the form of expansive building programs of churches, palaces, and villas, as well as the urban renewal of city streets and squares according to classical principles of design. What some scholars have deemed the “imperial style” flourished most fully under Julius II (r. 1503-1513) and the Medici Popes, Leo X (r. 1513-1521) and Clement VII (r. 1523-1534). Bold commissions, such as the St. Peter’s Basilica allowed Renaissance popes to underscore the historic continuity of the papacy as well as conflate imperial and ecclesiastical power. Funerary monuments, such as the tomb that Julius II commissioned Michelangelo to design, reveal more temporal desires to achieve a measure of personal immortality. Michelangelo’s original plans, which were never fully executed, called for a massive three-story mausoleum with allegorical representations of victories that would recall Julius’s military campaigns and statues of the most heroic figures of Christian tradition, notably Moses and Paul. Julius planned to have his tomb strategically placed near the relics of St. Peter, from whom the popes claimed their authority by apostolic succession, in the new basilica.


Alison Cole, Virtue and Magnificence: Art of the Italian Renaissance Courts (New York: Abrams, 1995).

Ralph Goldthwaite, Wealth and the Demand for Art in Italy, 1300-1600 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993).

Catherine E. King, Renaissance Women Patrons: Wives and Widows in Italy, c. 1300-1500 (Manchester & New York: Manchester University Press, 1998).

Loren Partridge, The Art of Renaissance Rome, 1400-1600 (New York: Abrams, 1996).

Paola Tinagli, Women in Italian Renaissance Art: Gender, Representation, Identity (Manchester & New York: Manchester University Press, 1997).