September 1, 2016

A historical look at how the nouveau riche have justified their wealth through art patronage

mariaMaria de’ Medici, Bronzino, 1551

Part 1/4 : Introduction

After coming back from Tuscany, home to Florence and the Renaissance masters, I’ve been thinking about art patronage as a means of justifying newfound wealth. Without the patronage of the Medici family, it is doubtful that Florence would have achieved its status as the cradle and beacon of the Renaissance. Yet the family that was responsible for ensuring its greatness was neither descended from noble stock nor charged with responsibilities of the church—a noteworthy detail, given that the two most traditionally powerful patrons of the arts at the time were the aristocracy and the Catholic institution. Instead, their dynasty was founded on the banking that propelled the patriarch of the clan, Giovanni de’ Medici, to far-reaching financial success. So what reasons, apart from genuine enjoyment, did Giovanni’s son, Cosimo, and his descendants have in being such ardent art patrons?

One likely explanation is in the fact that, as private citizens, the Medicis possessed none of the noble titles needed to impress those with whom they negotiated on behalf of the republic. However, by gracing the city with celebrated works of classic and contemporary art they showed that they belonged in the company of the most important feudal lords. They were supported in this endeavour by the Florentine public, who also sought to promote its leading family based on the understanding that the reputation of their city was tied to the outside honour paid to the Medicis. Painfully aware were the Florentines of their lack of hereditary pedigree, and the pageantry of their artistic projects was in large part an expression of their cultural insecurity.

In short, through their patronage, the Medicis were able to overcome the age-old problem of ‘new money.’ Ever since the notion of taste was invented, the nouveau riche have never had a favourable image among the elites of society, leaving them with the conundrum of how to convince ‘the right people’ that they, too, belong. After all, a reputation as a cultured arbiter of taste is not so easily bought as the items used to advertise a person of great means. This is because ‘taste’ relies upon the exclusivist idea that persons of a higher calibre possess certain trained parts: a trained eye, a trained ear, a trained manner of speech and handwriting, the entire training process to which only few are given access from childhood and encouraged to accept as the only hallmark of respectability.

And so we history buffs are left with a long global history of newly rich members of society seeking to demonstrate their ability to discern the fine from the crude by supporting the arts. As such, this series will explore three cases in which important historical figures from India, Japan, and Italy became benevolent art enthusiasts after their quick ascension to wealth and power.

Next (part 2/4): Medici vs. Sforza Patronage Styles

 

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