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Painting and Patronage

In response to:

Wall Power from the March 25, 1993 issue

To the Editors:

In his review of my book, Painting, Power and Patronage: The Rise of the Professional Artist in Renaissance Italy [NYR, March 25], Charles Hope admires the boldness of the attempt, confirms that such is needed and is positive about the first part, but criticizes the second, mainly for its generalizations. I am very grateful for his review, but the way he discusses three examples to illustrate his criticism with regard to my interpretation of documents calls for some corrections.

First Hope states that the interest which I ascribe to ecclesiastical authorities in the choice of subject matter is only derived from “just three items.” However, throughout the book I stress their continuous care, from Gregory the Great until after the Council of Trent. Within their ongoing preoccupation as authors, preachers, advisors, and not the least as patrons, I mention archbishop Antonino. He acknowledged that painters were paid according to their “expertness in art” but criticizes those who follow their own professional interest too much and produce images, “which have no value in stimulating devotion.” So the archbishop’s statements are not an “isolated comment” and they illustrate the prelate’s interest in art.

Secondly Hope quotes from the first part of a sentence (omits the relevant second part) from my book, that summarizes what has been said before and refers to a similar conclusion by the author mentioned in the note, who also provides an additional document. This deals with a commission that has been financed by members of a confraternity who formed a committee of which ecclesiastics were a part. Lay patrons and priests first decided among themselves, before telling an artist what figures to depict. So I did not omit relevant information and one cannot conclude “This episode therefore tells us nothing at all about the behavior of lay patrons” or refer to “Lapses of this kind.” In both cases Hope’s rhetoric of falsification is not justified by the facts.

Thirdly he questions my interpretation that the early Medici were representatives of “a much larger group.” My analyses of the many families that commissioned works from famous and less famous artists (as in the preceding chapter on Siena I did not forget them at all) shows that the Medici made themselves unique, most notably in retrospect through the patronage of Cosimo I. The way this specialist has passed his judgment is by no means uncommon in discussions about books of a larger scope and different perspective than usual. The three cases that Hope has singled out do not demonstrate that my reading of documents is misleading. Nonetheless, I couldn’t agree more with his warnings about the risk of generalizations and the bias caused by a focus on famous works of art. Yet, someone has to take that risk, especially when the dominant scholarly tradition seems to be so scared of synoptic surveys and analyses of the wider social context.

Bram Kempers
University of Amsterdam
Amsterdam, Netherlands

Charles Hope replies:

Professor Kempers does indeed claim that ecclesiastical authorities were continually exercised about the choice of subject matter of Renaissance art, but he fails to provide the evidence to substantiate his contention. The main statement of his position comes on page 21 of his book, and reads as follows: > Who should choose the subject to be depicted [in pictorial representations in churches] was a matter of great concern to the clergy, who wished to secure for the Church of Rome what amounted to a monopoly on communication in word and image. They took a keen interest in the relationships between clients, advisers and artists—the machinery, in effect, of patronage—and urged that his or her subject matter was not for the painter to choose but that the prime basis for such decisions must be the morality and beliefs of the Church.

To justify this assertion he cites a single passage written by Sant’ Antonino, the fifteenth-century Archbishop of Florence, who criticized artists for painting things “contrary to the faith.” Savonarola of course made similar complaints (“You make the Virgin Mary seem dressed like a whore,” etc.). Clerics have always taken exception to heterodox or indecent religious images, but it does not follow that during the Renaissance they were greatly concerned about who chose the subjects to be depicted, let alone that they wanted to secure any sort of monopoly, except in matters of doctrine.

In the rest of the paragraph Kempers refers to the interrogation of Paolo Veronese by the Venetian Inquisition in 1574 (after the Council of Trent) and concludes as follows:

Between the years 1200 and 1600 prelates reiterated, expanded and in places adjusted their view of pictorial images as a means of disseminating religious beliefs; it was a theme upon which a great many variations were played.

Here he cites only the famous treatise by Cardinal Gabriele Paleotti (1582) and a discussion of it by Boschloo (1974), which, as Kempers observes, “also mentions several other texts that stressed that the desired effect of church images were…to delight, to instruct or to move.” The other texts written by prelates mentioned by Boschloo were those of Johannes Molanus (1570, 1594), Carlo Borromeo (1577), and Federico Borromeo (1625). In my review I made an entirely conventional distinction between the attitude of the Church before and after the Council of Trent, and I leave readers to draw their own conclusions from Kempers’s dependence here on post-Tridentine texts.

On his second point, the sentence of which I provided an extract reads in full, with the part previously omitted given in italics: “Donors and clerics would already have met for extensive consultations on any new work to be ordered before calling on the services of a painter, and formal records were sometimes kept of their talks.” Kempers then gives a reference to pp. 62–64 of the 1965 doctoral thesis by Hannelore Glasser entitled “Artists’ Contracts of the Early Renaissance,” where the record of a meeting held by the confraternity of the Trinity in Pistoia to discuss the commission of an altarpiece is partially transcribed. Glasser gave as her source an article by P. Bacci, in Rivista d’Arte, Vol. 2, 1904, pp. 160–177. If Kempers had consulted this article, or had read the translation of the document in a book by Gilbert which he often cites, he would have discovered that the membership of this particular confraternity was confined to priests. Glasser herself had no occasion to mention this fact, but far from coming to “a similar conclusion” to Kempers, she did not suggest that this episode could be taken as evidence that members of the laity consulted with clerics before commissioning works of art. The statement in Kempers’s letter that the document “deals with a commission that had been financed by members of a confraternity who formed a committee of which ecclesiastics were a part” is doubly misleading: the document records a meeting not of a committee, but of the entire confraternity, which consisted exclusively of priests. I would maintain that my remark that “This episode therefore tells us nothing at all about the behavior of lay patrons,” far from being “rhetoric of falsification…not justified by the facts,” was quite legitimate.

Kempers’s last point concerns my comment that “patrons such as the Medici, whose situation was unique, are seen as typical representatives of a much larger social group.” He now claims to have demonstrated that “the Medici made themselves unique, most notably in retrospect through the patronage of Cosimo I,” but this does not address my criticism, which was directed at part three of his book, entitled “Florentine Families” and concerned almost exclusively with the fifteenth century. In this section a disproportionate amount of his material concerns the Medici; but given their exceptional wealth and above all given that for most of the period they were the de facto rulers of Florence, their status in that society was surely unique.

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