October 16, 2016

A historical look at how the nouveau riche have justified their wealth through art patronage (part 2/4)

medicivs.sforza Francesco II Sforza (1495-1535); Lorenzo de’ Medici (1449-1492)

(For the introduction to this series, see here)


As discussed in the previous post of this series, the success of the Medici family in securing their position as tastemakers of the Renaissance was an impressive feat, given their low-born status among the feudal elites. But how did they achieve this recognition, over every other prominent family?

Not only was their competition with the established nobility difficult, but their task to turn Florence into a cultural centre proved challenging as well. Far from the picturesque attraction that it is today, Florence in the late 14th century was an unlikely location for such an explosion of artistic genius. Like Giovanni de’ Medici, it was born disadvantaged and poor. Landlocked, it was bereft of any ports, which cut off trade prospects. And, unlike Milan, which was known for its military might, Florence was vulnerable to its occasionally bellicose neighbours because of its weak army. Other city-states seemed to have higher chances of turning out more talent, either because they boasted larger populations, like Venice, or because they had more respected universities, like Bologna and Rome. And yet it was still in Florence that the greatest Renaissance masters were discovered. Why?

Because they were found by a family that truly understood what good patronage meant. During a time when artists were still considered ‘hands,’ the Medici respected their artists individually and cultivated a civic pride that treasured them. Not only did they have an eye for talent, but they also had the managerial skills to nurture it properly: while they demanded innovation and were scrupulous supervisors on the one hand, they were also generous with their artists and gave them enough freedom to fully express themselves on the other.

But all these praiseworthy practices could not be taken seriously if viewed in isolation. Thus, to gain a deeper understanding of how superior the Medici were in fostering artistic growth, we must compare them to at least another leading family that famously patronised the arts: the Sforzas.

We’ll begin with Galeazzo Maria Sforza (1444-1476), who, when not tormenting his subjects with tyrannical cruelty, supported several Lombard artists, such as Bonafacio Bembo, Cristoforo Moretti, and Vincenzo Foppa. While he was certainly not the most tasteful or interested of the Sforza patrons, Galeazzo’s patronage style is worthy of examination because his account is perhaps the most reliable one. He left behind a long and extant paper trail that provides us with the necessary evidence to properly assess his management abilities. The surviving correspondences between him and the aides who acted as his artist liasons, as well as the exchanges between those aides and the artists themselves, are plentiful and altogether paint a picture of a man who rarely interacted with his artists.

In many ways, he could afford to distance himself and do without the personal selection and supervision of talent because his tastes were so predictable. His surviving commissions, such as the illuminated New Testament in Turin, as well as his stated preferences, show that he consistently preferred the decorative luxury, realistic portraiture, and heavy use of gold that was typical of Lombard painting and sculpture at the time. He was not fond of innovation, as shown by his support of the traditional styles of Bembo and Moretti, and only he used the more creative Foppa in conjunction with the former two. Even the subjects of his commissions were predictable: although two different groups of artists were employed to paint the ground floor chapel in the Castello di Porta Giovia in Milan and that in Pavia, the style and subject matter of the frescoes are virtually identical, depicting the Annunciation, Resurrection, and God the Father against a starry blue background. Still, despite his prescribed preferences that championed the Lombard style, Galeazzo was not entirely unaffected by the Renaissance that was blooming in Florence by this time and liked the Medicean baptistery so much that he intended to copy it for his own memorial church. This plan in itself can be read as an acknowledgment of the status that the Medici had attained as the supreme arbiters of taste.

All of these actions point to an attitude that directly contrasts the Medici style of patronage. Far from predictable, they craved new representational strategies calibrated to the changing times and their personal visions for them. An example of this can be found in a commission by Galeazzo’s contemporary, Piero de’ Medici (1416-1469). When Piero asked Benozzo Gozzoli in 1459 to paint the Adoration in the small, private chapel of the Medici palace, he closely supervised the painting’s day-to-day progress and, together with Gozzoli, tailored the religious subject matter to suit his family’s dynastic ambitions under the guise of his spiritual ones. While at first glance the painting seems to mimic any other depiction of the Magi paying tribute to Christ, closer inspections and comparisons with surviving Medici portraits have revealed that certain male figures in the scene were modeled after Piero, his male family members, and their affiliates—some of whom would turn against him in the wake of the painting’s completion. Even Galeazzo, an important ally, is shown riding a white horse next to Cosimo de’ Medici.

Piero’s insertion of himself and his support network into the formula of a well-known biblical scene is both indicative of his own artistic creativity as well as his close involvement in production, which at times verged on micromanagement. And, read in the greater context of his family’s patronage history, these two characteristics demonstrate how personally invested the Medici were in their artwork. Piero’s son, Lorenzo (1449-1492), perhaps most exhibited this quality in his discovery and supervision of many Florentine artists, including Michelangelo, who he handpicked at the age of fourteen.

Even Galeazzo’s brother and successor, Ludovico (1452-1508), who commissioned the Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci and was far more interested in art than his brother, recognized how skilled the Medici were in managing their art commissions. When searching for artists to paint the great monastery of Certosa in Pavia, he asked his agent in Florence to only consider the artists who had been employed by Lorenzo to decorate his villa at Spedaletto. This request, coupled with Ludovico’s hiring of Leonardo for various projects around Milan, attests to the reliance that aristocratic families like the Sforzas eventually had on Medici discernment.

Although the four examples above only concentrate on the management styles of two members from each family, they sufficiently highlight the characteristic personal involvement of the Medici in their commissions, as juxtaposed with another leading family’s style of patronage. Such devotion to their artists indicates from where the Renaissance artists in Florence drew their strength. Yet it is any wonder still that other patrons did not seek to replicate this management scheme for themselves. Instead, they preferred to hire artists who had already been discovered by the Medici rather than finding and nurturing their own local talents. Above all, the nobility’s gradual dependence upon Medicean taste was symptomatic of their overall deference to that family once the clan had garnered so much influence they could no longer be ignored by high society.

Next (part 3/4): Mughal Art as a Governance Method



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