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Wall Power

Arts of Power: Three Halls of State in Italy, 1300–1600

by Randolph Starn, by Loren Partridge
University of California Press, 374 pp., $65.00

In Italy panel paintings and frescoes were first used to decorate churches, then town halls and the palaces of rulers, only later becoming commonplace in the houses of private families, especially the well-to-do. Painting was therefore an art directed at a wide public, an instrument of power. Yet from its ancient origins in Pliny and its Renaissance revival in Vasari, the history of art has usually been treated as a history of style, a record of the achievements of individual artists who created a stock of technical discoveries, formal devices, and iconographic formulas to be exploited by their successors. Vasari, of course, had a good deal to say about patrons, but he saw them as enabling rather than determining the activity of artists, who remained for him the principal initiators of change.

In recent years there has been a reaction against this approach, and attention has increasingly been directed toward the use of art as a vehicle for political or ideological statements, or, to use a common but much abused term, art as propaganda.1 Given its employment for such purposes by many twentieth-century regimes, and most obviously by authoritarian ones such as those of Stalin or Saddam Hussein, this development is understandable enough. But scholars have generally supposed that the relationship between art and politics was less straightforward in the Renaissance, even though they disagree markedly on how it functioned. Thus some have supposed that subtle political allusions were commonly encoded even in religious narratives, while others have seen the commissioning of impressive works of art, regardless of subject, as primarily an assertion of status and power. Certain works of Renaissance art, of course, carried overt political meanings, and these have been much studied. Less attention, however, has been paid to the ways in which explicitly political art changed over time, and the reasons why it did so.

Arts of Power is a detailed and often very perceptive examination of three separate schemes of secular decoration for public or semipublic contexts: the frescoes by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, commonly known as Good and Bad Government, painted in the town hall of Siena in 1338–1340; Mantegna’s so-called Camera degli Sposi in the Castle of Mantua, dating from 1465–1474; and two related projects of the 1560s for the duke of Florence and Siena, Cosimo de’ Medici, Vasari’s paintings in the Sala Grande of the ducal residence, the Palazzo Vecchio, and the decorations for the State Entry of the Habsburg Archduchess Joanna of Austria into Florence in 1565.

These examples from different centuries, promoted by regimes of different political character, allow the authors to explore the often complex relationship between the political ideas of the patrons and the visual language developed by major artists to proclaim them. Given that their book appears in a series entitled “The New Historicism: Studies in Cultural Poetics,” it will come as no surprise that the text is laced with current academic jargon of a sometimes impenetrable kind, but this does not seriously detract from its interest.

One major problem for the authors is the unevenness of the surviving evidence about the genesis and intended significance of the commissions they have chosen to examine. Those for Cosimo de’ Medici are among the most fully documented of the entire Renaissance. We know who devised them, how they evolved, and what part Cosimo himself played in this process; in addition there are countless inscriptions which clarify their meaning. The information available about the other two projects is much more limited. The Lorenzetti frescoes are wholly undocumented and somewhat damaged, even if by way of compensation they are full of explanatory inscriptions. The Camera degli Sposi is mentioned in a handful of contemporary documents and incorporates only a couple of inscriptions recording Mantegna’s authorship. Not surprisingly, this last work is the one whose significance and purpose are most difficult to establish.

The messages which these schemes seek to convey, and the means by which they do so, are entirely different. The Siena frescoes come almost at the beginning of a long tradition of painted decoration of secular public buildings, and here Lorenzetti and his patrons tried to display a complex political message with diagrammatic and, by comparison with later examples, naive clarity. On one wall there is a huge figure of Tyranny, accompanied by vices such as Avarice and Cruelty, while Justice sits bound down below. Beside this group is a panoramic view of a city and the adjoining countryside, where the baleful consequences of this type of regime are illustrated by ruined buildings, neglected agriculture, and episodes of robbery and violence. On the adjacent wall, as a counterpart to Tyranny, is a personification of the Comune flanked by appropriate virtues, of which the most prominent is Justice, between Wisdom and Concord, who holds a cord linking a procession of twenty-four councilors. Finally, a third wall is given over to another panorama, this time showing the flourishing city of Siena and its territory under the benign figure of Security.

There has been much discussion about the precise sources for the particular combinations of virtues and vices and their interrelationships, but it is evident that these draw on a range of political and moral ideas in quite wide currency in Siena during this period. Partridge and Starn rightly stress that the specific details of the iconography are not the most revealing aspect of the decoration. What Lorenzetti’s frescoes show most clearly is a distinctive way of thinking about political issues and a somewhat unsophisticated approach to the problem of giving them visual form. As the authors point out. “With the inscriptions in place we could practically dispense with the pictures and still ‘read’ the vision of an ideal republic.”

The kind of schematized, diagrammatic method of illustrating abstract ideas found in the Siena frescoes often coincides with a relatively undeveloped tradition of monumental painting. It is common enough in medieval manuscripts, and there exists a group of English iconographic schemes from the reign of Elizabeth I which reveal exactly the same characteristics.2 It says a great deal for Lorenzetti’s talent that he was able to make anything at all of such an unwieldy program, but it is no accident that the most memorable and effective parts of his decoration are the panoramic views of city and countryside. Anyone can see at once the evil effects of tyranny and the benign influence of good, communal government; but when Lorenzetti tried to depict the nature of that government, he showed a bureaucratic nightmare. In later schemes of republican imagery, in Siena and elsewhere, lectures in political theory, however well meant, were understandably rejected in favor of a much simpler type of rhetoric. Idealized visions of the well-governed state likewise fell out of favor, perhaps because they could prove embarrassing in times of trouble. The regime that had employed Lorenzetti, indeed, was overthrown soon after the Black Death. Over the next two centuries a pictorial language more appropriate to the expression of abstract ideas was developed, but this went hand in hand with a recognition that the range of ideas which could be effectively represented was strictly circumscribed.

In schemes of decoration favored by republican regimes this meant the almost universal adoption of a very specific type of imagery, namely the depiction of individuals and events from history—and overwhelmingly, from ancient history—exemplifying republican virtues. One of the first instances of this occurred in Siena in the early fifteenth century, when Taddeo di Bartolo painted a series of heroes of the Roman republic. Still faithful to the Sienese taste for didacticism, he provided them with long inscriptions in both Latin and Italian. Here too, and most unusually, were a couple of negative examplars, Caesar and Pompey, whose quarrel brought about the fall of the republic. Toward the end of the century, in the town hall of Florence, Domenico Ghirlandaio likewise depicted a row of famous republicans, including some of the same ones as Taddeo, and once more adding inscriptions, this time only in Latin. But it was not until the next century that the genre reached its spectacular culmination, again in Siena, in a ceiling painted by Domenico Beccafumi between 1529 and 1535. In the center of the vault are personifications of Justice, Mutual Benevolence, and Patriotism and, below, scenes from ancient history exemplifying these particular virtues. Many of the episodes illustrated here, taken from the most obvious reference book, the Facta et dicta memorabilia of Valerius Maximus, reappear in town halls throughout Europe. Thus the basic content of this type of decoration became fixed at a relatively early date, but the mode of presentation varied with changes in artistic taste.

Instead of exploring this republican tradition, for their second case study Starn and Partridge chose a room of a much less overtly political character. The decoration of Mantegna’s Camera degli Sposi consists of a couple of group portraits of Ludovico Gonzaga, Marquis of Mantua, with his family, his close associates, and his favorite horses and dogs, in a trompe l’oeil architectural setting of exceptional splendor. Incorporated in the architecture are fictive busts of Roman emperors and painted reliefs of scenes from classical mythology, but there are no personifications and no explanatory inscriptions. There has been a good deal of speculation about whether some precise historical event was represented in the portrait groups, but if this was of real significance we would surely have been given more guidance by the artist.

The authors are obviously right to stress that the main theme of the frescoes is an idealized vision of a Renaissance princely court. In some of the best pages of the book, they demonstrate the subtle way in which Mantegna indicated the relationships and distinctions of rank between the various figures, creating not just a family group, but a nuanced social world; and they emphasize that such features would have been precisely the ones to which courtiers and visiting dignitaries would have been particularly sensitive. Equally convincing is their analysis of the way in which Mantegna himself participated in this courtly game. He had called this fictive world into being, and its opulence and artfulness is a major part of its meaning. His genius brought prestige to his employer Ludovico, whose appearance he immortalized in an appropriately idealized form, just as Apelles, the most famous painter of antiquity, had reputedly once immortalized Alexander the Great.

Ludovico was not the only Italian ruler at this period to have himself painted with his family and courtiers. Galeazzo Maria Sforza, for example, commissioned two large series of frescoes with this kind of imagery for his residences in Milan and Pavia, but these no longer survive. However, there still exists part of an enormous fresco cycle in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, showing the duke, Borso d’Este, accompanied by courtiers and carrying out his duties throughout the year, while subsidiary figures undertake activities appropriate to the season. Above them are the signs of the zodiac, each with a trio of exotic astrological deities called decans, and at the top are more familiar classical gods and other figures whose significance has never been completely explained. The lowest section thus shows us a well-ordered state, in much the same way as the Lorenzetti frescoes, but this time under the active care of the duke, while the rest provides an impressive, if partly impenetrable, display of erudition and culture.

  1. 1

    An important recent study of Renaissance political imagery, notable for the author’s common-sense approach to recondite interpretations and his skeptical attitude about the utility of the concept of propaganda, is Sydney Anglo’s Images of Tudor Kingship (London: Seaby, 1992).

  2. 2

    See, for example, David Evett, “Some Elizabethan Allegorical Paintings: A Preliminary Enquiry,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 52 (1989), pp. 1,400–1,466.

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