• Email
  • Print

Going for Baroque

Patrons and Painters: A Study in the Relations between Italian Art and Society in the Age of the Baroque

by Francis Haskell
Knopf, 454 pp., $15.00

This is a fascinating book, on a fairly special subject. To read it, one has to possess a developed curiosity about historical causes and effects, and know something about artists of seventeenth-century Italy like Bernini, Pietro da Cortona, Poussin, and Claude Lorrain. Starting from that base, the author’s Part One ties the careers and the styles of painting of these artists and others to the interests of the patrons who made them prosperous. The motivations of the Popes are the chief key: the violent shifts of taste when a new Pope appeared, the urgent need to create images of power quickly during a single reign, the preference for artists from the Pope’s home town, the relative submissiveness of the Jesuits and other religious orders, all fall vividly into place. Some of the trends which Mr. Haskell illuminates and most of the facts are known to investigators of Baroque, but many items are the author’s own finds, and his synthesis offers much that is new to the deepest specialist. Each of his criss-cross presentations dovetails beautifully.

Rome in this century had far more than its share of the best artists from everywhere, but its political history, in the long view, was trivial and therefore is unfamiliar. The opposite is true of Richelieu’s France, Cromwell’s England, or the Germany of Wallenstein and Gustavus Adolphus. To tie those potent figures to the dim art around them would be anticlimatic. But in Rome the historian can illuminate remarkable paintings by their connections with people who made no impact on the future, but did have tremendous local power and willful and distinctive personalities. This combination of major art and unfamiliar background is Mr. Haskell’s luck. The deepened understanding of the paintings occurs in a context of lively character sketches, and the paintings are worth it.

The only significant complaint I have about this first part is less the author’s fault than a general human failing. Phenomena which he calls typical of this seventeenth-century society often, in fact, existed a century or more before, in the Italy of the Renaissance. There was, after all, no big shift in habits of living. There are merely fewer records from the earlier period, a lack that happens to be reinforced by the author’s naturally greater knowledge of the later period. Thus he says that it was “new” and “most exceptional” in the earlier period, to give artists noble titles, but without hunting I can increase Mr. Haskell’s two earlier exceptions to seven, most of them never held in awe as particularly great (for example, Baccio Bandinelli). The graph does go up later, but not at so steep a rate as he thinks. On a larger point, he reports that artists, once they were assigned a subject, had “surprising” freedom in the actual look of the resulting painting. His conclusion rightly surprises him, not because it contradicts the data assembled before, but only, I am afraid, because it contradicts a well-worn convention in art historical research. Our detailed symbolic interpretations of paintings lead us to deduce that patrons specified them, and it is common to assume that this was the standard practice. Yet evidence is very sparse, and cases to the contrary are perhaps more frequent even earlier. Not only was Michelangelo asked to produce any theme he liked, but Vasari informed his Duke what the symbolic picture would be like that he was preparing for him, and still earlier in Venice Giovanni Bellini turned down a commission from a too instinctive Duchess. She seems to have had a more exceptional attitude than he. On another related point, the author finds it an innovation that certain pictures were not commissioned at all, but painted and put on sale to the public. But Carpaccio was doing this a century before, and the practice probably was quite widespread. Such amendments, though, do not really affect the quality of this book, since this is an area outside its particular theme.

Mr. Haskell has intentionally written his two main parts in quite different ways, because the data are different. This is fitting, but it will make the second part less attractive to many readers. The first is tightly constructed. The focus on the Popes provides a constant. The Popes follow one after the other, without a gap: most other patrons are affected by papal attitudes as much as the painters are. But in eighteenth-century Venice, the subject of Part Two, there are only individual private patrons. They overlap at random, and mainly collected what was available instead of influencing what was produced. The absence of government patronage creates an unusual condition, but cannot go far as a thematic device. The Venetian patrons formed no network, but only a scattering of more or less connected, more or less socially typical or eccentric, individuals. The situation in Part Two reminds us more of those more ordinary books on the history of collecting that titillate us with characters. About-the patron whom Mr. Haskell rightly considers the most important, the only one to rate a whole chapter, he concludes that he wavered in taste according to whatever stronger influences happened to be nearby. In any case the story is more familiar. We are more likely to know about Canaletto’s trip to England and Tiepolo’s to the Prince-Archbishop’s palace in Germany than about the troubles of the Roman Jesuit leader, Oliva, in getting artists for his church. Yet if the reader is less impressed here, it is really to the credit of Mr. Haskell, who has told the story as it happened, more fully and with more balance than has been done before.

Between these two main parts there is a brief section on patronage of Italian artists in other cities and abroad. I would like to take from it a slightly more detailed sample of what Mr. Haskell accomplishes, and use the same point for my major criticism. He has found one truly important patron in this area, the Grand Prince Ferdinand of Tuscany. He was a belated Medici who died at fifty before succeeding his father as ruler in Florence, but he had, in almost complete cultural isolation, discovered modern art, in the sense of a non-formal, impressionist, witty painting, a prophecy of rococo. In particular he brought two painters to Florence in 1704-09, Riccl and Crespi, giving them their first chance and effectively drawing them out of their provincial surroundings. This opportunity had the effect of stimulating them to do more remarkable work for Ferdinand than they had been doing when they first came to the Prince’s attention and this stimulus lasted them throughout lives in which they were never to find a patron like him again. He knew the special kind of painting he was encouraging, and they have a genuine claim to be “the two most interesting artists of their period, both of whom were pioneering a break with late Baroque conventions,” and this makes the Grand Prince Ferdinand very impressive. He was the rare patron who had a positive effect on a whole movement in painting, and Mr. Haskell has retrieved him from obscurity.

And yet he may have missed some more. Many people would say there is a third most interesting young painter of the period, Magnasco, who also was informal, impressionist, and witty. Magnasco was in Florence too in 1703-1711, a peculiar choice for his one venture outside his provincial home territory, and for him too Florence was the great stimulus to his maturation. His biographer in Genoa sixty years later said he had worked in Florence for the Duke Gian Castone, Ferdinand’s younger brother who inherited the title. Even if he has not confused him with the forgotten Grand Prince, it establishes a contact. Mr. Haskell does not mention Magnasco at all, perhaps because the starting point of his researches was not the artists but the buyers—his book is not called “Painters and Patrons.” Yet even if the addition should turn out to be justified, it would only be another consistent item added to the framework he has established.

This is a very British book. Its attractive typography can be spotted at once, now oddly encased in the usual Knopf binding, a sort of heavy General Grant-type version of Baroque. It is written with urbane grace, though to be sure the occasional error in grammar is disconcerting in a Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge. (“The quality of the drawings…justify enthusiasm.”) But altogether its lack of either evangelical pleading or muddy plodding distinguishes it refreshingly from most American books on similar topics.

Beyond that we should cite the English publisher, who was ready to bring out a book of such original investigations and not restrict himself to duplicating the usual elementary primers on Great Artists. He has provided a really full index, which doubles the book’s usefulness. He even understood that, for readers of a book like this, the footnotes are pleasanter and smoother on the same page than at the back, not just for pedants but for people. Do American publishers lack such initiative because they still believe more books are sold per capita in England, a belief now revealed in England as a myth? It is true the British publishers have the special stimulus that London is now filled with bright young art historians. In fact it is the point of most intense focus for such work just now anywhere. This book is flanked by Ellis Waterhouse’s history of Italian painting in the seventeenth century, just issued, and Michael Levey’s book on eighteenth-century Venice, a deserved success about five years ago. Mr. Haskell, who is thirty-five and whose first book this is, may be studied like the people in his book. He is involved in a competition of brilliance, focused on Baroque Italy, because it was urbanely brilliant too, because both cultures show us the phenomenon of art collecting as a profession, and because of the huge stores of Baroque paintings in England. This context continues to produce new generations of talent.

  • Email
  • Print