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.

What all these schemes had in common was the emphasis on the person of the ruler, shown as the sole source of an authority which was exercised through an elaborate hierarchy of courtiers and servants. In this respect they provided a coherent and not unrealistic picture of the political structure of these states. But the Camera degli Sposi seems to have been exceptional in several ways. The paintings were, by common consent, of outstanding quality, and the room itself was relatively small and private. Indeed, it is by no means clear that this should properly be called a hall of state at all, and I suspect that the authors chose to study it in detail more on account of its beauty and comparatively good state of preservation than because of its relevance to their argument.

While Mantegna was at work Ludovico invariably called the Camera simply “our room,” and for many years afterward it was known as “the painted room.” Not surprisingly, the marquis enjoyed showing the frescoes to ambassadors and other important visitors, but whether the room had a specific ceremonial function is unknown.

Of course, Mantegna chose to show Ludovico here as he would like to be seen, and in the arrangement of figures emphasized his status. Even the Roman emperors on the ceiling could be taken as indicating that he took as exemplars not republican worthies but ancient rulers, while the reliefs of Hercules, Arion, and Orpheus add an implication of generalized culture and virtue. But there is nothing here to suggest that the principal audience for the decoration was Ludovico’s subjects, rather than the marquis himself. By contrast, the enormous scale of the Schifanoia frescoes and the numerous inscriptions planned for the Sforza decorations, as well as the crowds of courtiers in both schemes, show that they were intended for a much wider public.

If Ludovico did not feel the need to make such an assertive statement about his power and status, this may indicate his position was rather different from that of the rulers of Milan or Ferrara. But it seems likely that the motives behind his commission were not quite the same as those of Borso and Galeazzo Maria. In particular, it is difficult to believe that he would ever have behaved toward Mantegna as Borso treated his painter Francesco del Cossa, who left in disgust after being paid for his frescoes by the square foot, like “the poorest apprentice in Ferrara,” as he put it. Ludovico, by contrast, was well aware of his good fortune in having Mantegna in his service, and always treated him with respect. He set himself apart from his fellow rulers by choosing quality rather than quantity. This is not to say that he did not hope to impress his contemporaries, merely that he sought to do so as the privileged patron of the foremost painter of the age. Among later rulers, of course, this kind of lavish but discriminating patronage of the visual arts was to become almost obligatory.

All these North Italian frescoes certainly tell us something about the situation of the rulers in question, and the basis of their authority, but they should also remind us that a visual language capable of asserting power and status in a less than literal way had not yet been created. This was the achievement of the sixteenth century. Just as Beccafumi in Siena modernized the tradition of republican rhetoric by a combination of narratives and personifications, much the same thing happened in countless princely palaces, regardless of the precise rank or circumstances of the owner. A whole army of personifications was called into being, from Abundance to Zeal. Sometimes these figures crowded round the patron or his ancestors, but more often they pointed out the moral of exemplary narratives from ancient or modern history. And whereas we have no significant evidence of widespread scholarly involvement in the planning of fifteenth-century decorations, such involvement certainly occurred very often in the following century, when learned antiquarians, often consulted by the artists rather than their patrons, devoted long hours to selecting suitable historical subjects, devising ingenious attributes for the personifications and composing elegant inscriptions.

Predictably enough, one of the major patrons of this new type of decoration was Cosimo de’ Medici. By the middle of the sixteenth century the association of artistic patronage and aristocratic taste was widely accepted, especially in Florence, the first modern European state in which the activity of its artists was regarded as a supreme and distinctive cultural achievement. A striking instance of this is provided by the temporary arch set up by the Florentine community in Antwerp in 1549 for the state entry into the city of Prince Philip of Spain. In a conventional enough way, the arch included a number of images of famous Florentines, but for the first time ever on such an occasion these included not just warriors and writers, but two artists, namely Giotto and Michelangelo, the presence of the latter being all the more remarkable in that he alone among the celebrities depicted was still alive.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the public image of Cosimo should have been linked with the patronage of painting and sculpture to a degree unsurpassed among the rulers of his day. Starn and Partridge characterize the visual rhetoric of this period as triumphalist, and see its most typical manifestation as the triumphal entry of a ruler into a city, which was usually marked by the erection of ephemeral monuments decorated with paintings, statues, or, in northern Europe, sometimes with real people dressed as historical or allegorical figures. The purpose of such entries, they believe, was to glorify the ruler; and they regard the imagery commissioned by Cosimo—and by implication other sixteenth-century rulers—as being directed in a straightforward and almost exclusive way to this single end.

There is an element of truth in this, but the situation is less clear-cut than they suggest. Elaborately staged entries into cities were certainly a ubiquitous feature of the public spectacles of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but to describe them always as triumphs is too simple. Such events were typically organized by cities to celebrate the arrival of visiting dignitaries, especially royalty. But they were often designed as much to glorify the host city as the visitor, and on occasion the imagery could even be used to draw attention to grievances and to emphasize, usually in a relatively muted way, the policies which the citizens hoped their sovereign would pursue.

The entry of Archduchess Joanna herself into Florence in 1565, which the authors analyze in some detail, is a characteristic, if unusually lavish, example of the genre, with a dozen individual monuments constructed specifically for the occasion. If the imagery gave unusual emphasis to Cosimo, this can in part be explained by his anomalous situation, since he had officially abdicated in the previous year, even though in practice he retained control of the state. In theory, therefore, he was no longer the ruler of Florence. Partridge and Starn, more sensitive here to the realities of power than to the niceties of status that had preoccupied them in their analysis of Mantegna’s Camera, refer to the abdication in passing but do not specify when it took place, and in their text omit to mention that it was given pride of place on one of the arches.3 In treating the entry primarily as an enormous assertion of Medici power they tend to overlook the very features that made it distinctive. The event was planned by a Florentine antiquarian named Vincenzo Borghini, the closest friend of the painter Giorgio Vasari, who had overall responsibility for carrying out Borghini’s ideas.

Although the many documents related to the project contain countless references to the fact that the Duke’s wishes were paramount. Cosimo accepted virtually all of Borghini’s proposals. He intervened only once, but then he was overruled, and that was when Borghini insisted that the decorations include a portrait of Cosimo’s deceased wife Eleonora of Toledo, even though he knew that this was bound to cause pain to the duke, who was devoted to her memory. It is clear too that Borghini regarded the choice of the principal themes, illustrating the distinguished lineage of the Habsburg bride and her Medici husband, the historical achievements of Florence, and the wise and beneficent rule of Cosimo, as the least interesting or challenging part of his task. He was much more concerned with the way in which these themes were represented, and his criteria were essentially aesthetic.

In preparing his scheme. Borghini was careful to read all the published accounts he could find of earlier entries of this kind, most of which he regarded with some contempt. He was quite aware that the basic content of all these events was much the same, but what he disliked about previous examples of the genre was the poverty of their invention—the repetition of individual subjects, the obscurity of the imagery, the inelegance of the inscriptions, the inappropriateness of the attributes of the personifications, and more generally, the lack of artistry. Borghini was essentially a classicist, who sought antique precedent for every detail and overall coherence for the entire scheme. He regarded the entry as no less an assertion of Florentine scholarly excellence and artistic genius than of Medici power. To achieve this aim he was prepared to give the artists themselves as much liberty as possible, on the sensible grounds that this would inspire them to produce better results. Likewise, he planned the route so that the procession would pass several masterpieces of Florentine public sculpture, not, as is often suggested, because these too could be directly associated with the duke, but because they were beautiful objects in themselves.

Borghini was also deeply involved in planning the decoration of the Sala Grande of the Palazzo Vecchio, which was largely completed in time for the entry. The central tondo on the ceiling, showing Cosimo seated on the clouds and crowned by Florence, was certainly startling in its assertiveness: but it was only introduced into the scheme after the abdication. The other paintings consisted mostly of episodes from the history of Florence, with a particular emphasis on scenes showing the extension of its territorial power under the republic and the duke.

The purpose, which had an obvious topical relevance, was to stress the continuity of Florentine institutions and the advantages of ducal role; and it was here that Cosimo most actively intervened. Thus he instructed that a group of councilors be eliminated from a scene showing his planning the conquest of Siena, on the grounds that he alone was responsible for the victory. He also insisted on changes to a scene involving the early history of the city, to underline his claim that Florence had been founded by the Romans and subsequently had never been destroyed.

There was more than mere vanity behind his concerns. Historical paintings of this kind were commonly regarded as almost the equivalent of documents, and Borghini’s scheme incorporated a great deal of genuine historical research. But the issues at stake were not merely antiquarian. Cosimo’s still controversial status was at stake, particularly the question of precedence over the Duke of Ferrara; and in such disputes, which had a real political relevance, the historical record was minutely scrutinized by all the interested parties.

Partridge and Starn are informative about many aspects of the project, and they give the numerous inscriptions the kind of attention which, it was hoped, they would have been accorded by educated Florentines and visiting diplomats. They are sympathetic too to the aesthetic concerns of Vasari. But it is difficult to accept without qualification their conclusion that halls of state “changed as much with the configuration of power as with the style of art.” Cosimo’s state was no more substantial than the Milan of the Sforzas, and his status no more assured than that of the Gonzaga in Mantua or the d’Este in Ferrara. Indeed, Borghini was well aware that the Ferrarese, who were celebrating another Habsburg marriage at just the same period, would inevitably try to lay on a similar entry. Siena was still a republic, albeit a shaky one, when Beccafumi painted his ceiling there, yet the type of imagery was not very different from that employed in Florence thirty years later. The only important distinction was that in Siena the subjects were taken from classical antiquity, in Florence from the history of Tuscany. In Venice too, whose political structure was uniquely stable, the Doge’s Palace was decorated in the later part of the sixteenth century with an imposing mixture of personifications and representations of the deeds of a host of famous Venetians. These replaced an earlier cycle of paintings illustrating, almost certainly in a rather prosaic way, a single episode in Venetian history.

All these states thus drew in much the same way on exemplary historical precedents and all of them invoked standard political virtues such as justice, peace, and concord. Under princely regimes it was implied that these desirable qualities were fostered by the ruler, while in republics they were supposedly protected by individuals who placed the common good above personal interest. What was distinctive about the Florentine schemes was not the basic content, but the particular style of Vasari and his fellow Tuscan artists, and the specific antiquarian interests of Borghini. The counterparts of Borghini in Venice tended to be less systematic in such matters as the selection of attributes for personifications, and the painters worked in a rather different idiom. But the basic rhetoric was much the same in both cities, as it was in countless decorative schemes throughout Italy. This new fashion was created by artists, who welcomed the chance to paint historical narratives, and by scholarly advisers, who now had access to an increasing number of convenient reference books. The new approach owed its success not to a change in the political character of the regimes that commissioned this type of art, but to a growing consensus about the canons of artistic taste. In this respect Vasari was right about the role of patrons, because he was writing from personal experience.

The various projects discussed by Partridge and Starn illustrate very clearly one of the most striking features of the Italian Renaissance, the way in which the patronage of the visual arts came to be widely regarded as an indispensable activity of states and powerful individuals. Bram Kemper’s book, Painting, Power and Patronage, is an ambitious attempt by a sociologist to explain how and why this came about. His discussion is based on an analysis of three different phenomena. The first is a process of professionalization among painters, that is to say the development and increasingly formalized transmission of specific skills, the formation of professional organizations, culminating in the establishment of the Florentine Accademia del Disegno in 1563, and the emergence of historical and theoretical writing on the subject, beginning with works such as Alberti’s De pictura and Ghiberti’s Commentaries, and ending with Vasari’s Lives of the Artists and a host of treatises and critical works in the middle years of the sixteenth century.

The second is the growth of centralized states, such as Siena and Florence, which gradually acquired administrative structures and a monopoly of power within fixed boundaries, a process which led to the construction of government buildings and a demand for public art to proclaim the ideology of the ruling elite. The third is the “process of civilization” and with it modes of behavior formerly confined to courts, in particular a taste for ostentatious display and culture. The book takes as its central theme the changing demands of patrons and the attempts of artists to fulfill these new requirements, and it is organized partly as a general survey, and partly as a series of case studies. Not surprisingly, in the commissions which he considers in detail there is a considerable overlap with the work of Partridge and Starn.

The most interesting sections are the earliest ones, concerning the contentious problem of the origin of the altarpiece as a distinct genre in the decades around 1300, with an informative discussion of how paintings were originally displayed in churches, and the growth of a tradition of monumental art in Siena. Here the role of the city government was crucial, since it was responsible for commissioning a series of paintings of unprecedented scale and visual complexity, including Duccio’s Maestà and a group of other altarpieces in the cathedral, as well as a succession of monumental frescoes in the town hall, among them works by Simone Martini and Lorenzetti’s Good and Bad Government. Kempers convincingly argues that the challenges that such commissions offered the artists gave them an opportunity to develop new skills and at the same time fostered a new kind of professional pride.

These sections work well because the material is relatively limited. But Kempers is much less successful in dealing with later periods, when his text often degenerates into a series of misleading or unsubstantiated generalizations. Thus he claims, for example, that the ecclesiastical authorities were always deeply concerned about the choice of subject matter for works of art to be displayed in churches. The principal evidence for this turns out to be just three items. Two date from after the Council of Trent, when the Church certainly did try to intervene in such matters. The third is a statement of the archbishop of Florence, a man who had singularly little enthusiasm for art in churches at all, complaining about painters filling their pictures with theological anomalies or frivolous details just to display their skill. The archbishop nowhere suggests that such painters were disregarding clerical advice, but implies that they alone were responsible for the way in which they chose to represent religious themes, so this isolated comment could be taken to demonstrate the opposite of what Kempers maintains. Later he cites another commission which, he says, illustrates the fact that “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,” but he omits to mention that this particular picture was commissioned by a group of priests. This episode therefore tells us nothing at all about the behavior of lay patrons.

Lapses of this kind are unfortunately by no means uncommon. Isolated passages in documents are taken as proof of widespread practices; patrons such as the Medici, whose situation was unique, are seen as typical representatives of a much larger social group; excessive reliance is placed on questionable or tendentious interpretations of individual paintings. At the same time, Kempers’s thesis about the professionalization of painters is too general to be particularly illuminating or persuasive.

The kind of synoptic survey which Kempers had in mind is certainly needed, and his boldness is to be admired, but if a project of this kind were to carry any conviction it would have to be based on a much more wide-ranging and judicious use of the surviving evidence, whether documentary or visual. Kempers’s book, like many studies of Renaissance art including that of Starn and Partridge, concentrates on a relatively small group of familiar masterpieces, many of which have acquired a disproportionate importance because they are easily accessible or merely because they happen to have survived. There is no reason to suppose that further study of these particular works is the best way of discovering more about the place of the visual arts in the culture of Renaissance Italy.

Thus we can only understand what was distinctive about the Camera degli Sposi and the Sala Grande of Palazzo Vecchio by setting them in the context of other schemes of palace decoration, including examples by less famous artists. Likewise, we are unlikely to be able to explain why the appearance of religious images changed so greatly between 1300 and 1550 until we have a clearer idea not only of the functions these were supposed to perform, and therefore of the reasons why so much money was spent on them, but also of the respective roles that patrons and artists expected to play in determining their subject matter and composition. It is often relatively undistinguished and conventional works that provide the most illuminating evidence about such issues.

This Issue

March 25, 1993