Wall Power

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

by Randolph Starn and 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.


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