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Apollo & Vulcan: The Art Markets in Italy, 1400-1700

Apollo & Vulcan: The Art Markets in Italy, 1400-1700

by Guido Guerzoni

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Guido Guerzoni presents the results of fifteen years of research into one of the more hotly debated topics among historians of art and of economics: the history of art markets. Dedicating equal attention to current thought in the fields of economics, economic history, and art history, Guerzoni offers a broad and far-reaching analysis of the Italian scene, highlighting


Guido Guerzoni presents the results of fifteen years of research into one of the more hotly debated topics among historians of art and of economics: the history of art markets. Dedicating equal attention to current thought in the fields of economics, economic history, and art history, Guerzoni offers a broad and far-reaching analysis of the Italian scene, highlighting the existence of different forms of commercial interchange and diverse kinds of art markets. In doing so he ranges beyond painting and sculpture, to examine as well the economic drivers behind architecture, decorative and sumptuary arts, and performing or ephemeral events.     Organized by thematic areas (the ethics and psychology of consumption, an analysis of the demand, labor markets, services, prices, laws) that cover a large chronological period (from the 15th through the 17th century), various geographical areas, and several institution typologies, this book offers an exhaustive and up-to-date study of an increasingly fascinating topic.

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The Art Markets in Italy, 1400–1700
By Guido Guerzoni

Michigan State University Press

Copyright © 2011 Michigan State University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-61186-006-1

Chapter One

Historiographies The Perspectives of Economics, Economic History, and Art History


Only recently have the art markets become a field of study for various scholars, even though it was not easy to gain their interest, after decades of embarrassment and omissions that explain the disgraceful conditions in which these circles found themselves, that the nobility of art contrasted with vile commerce, echoing those warnings of the casting of the merchants from the temples of the beautiful and sublime. To explain this evolution, I have attempted to reconstruct the decisive moments of the three principal veins, beginning with economics, following that with the contribution of economic history, and then finally, art history.

In following the steps of the many scholars who have studied these arguments, one may not ignore the influence of the so-called "cultural economics"—a conjunction that would have seemed to be an unnatural oxymoron thirty years ago, a useless provocation in doubtful taste.

And yet, from the beginnings of the nineteenth-century democracies, the relation between economy and culture began to present itself in critical terms, as is witnessed by the apprehension on the part of those who were forced to think up technical solutions and rhetorical devices to fill the gaps left by the collapse of the institutions (royal academies or aristocratic and ecclesiastic patronage, to mention only a couple) that had for centuries, and splendidly, fulfilled their duties without worrying excessively about the economic reverberations of their projects.

It is however undeniable that the tumult of the nineteenth century redefined the agendas of the more perceptive thinkers, relegating the treatment of that unhappy nexus to an eccentric argument with respect to the epic transformations that were under way. With the sporadic exception of short texts and memoirs—mostly stemming from diverse traditions—such as the "merchandising" manuals, memoirs, or pamphlets of a physiocratic kind (one is reminded of the salacious polemic between Gerard Hoet Jr. and Johan van Gool, the Memoirs of William Buchanan, or the little treatise by Charles Roehn), reactions ranged from indifference to intolerance rather than igniting particular enthusiasm in earlier economists.

In the world of utility and reason, of indigent masses and bestial need, of sensible demand and supply, there could be no place for art, or credit for artists, intellectuals, and poets. And the relation between the two opposing conceptions of the world was destined to suffer the consequences of a mutual misunderstanding, as one can see from an examination of the undeniably emblematic Ruskin affair.

There has been an ongoing misunderstanding that John Ruskin was the father of the so-called "political economy of art," a mythical image that the British thinker would certainly have refused even if it meant patricide. In truth he did not work in favor of an irenic compromise, but moved from the art field to lambaste with old Testament fury the immoral materialism of the classic economists, in line with other champions of Victorianism, from Coleridge to Jane Marcet, De Quincey to Harriet Martineau, Carlyle to Morris, Hole to Neale, and Ludlow to Maurice.

From his point of view, art was not a trinket meant to drag a smile from the keepers of the "dismal science," but on the contrary, the divine force that would chastise those who idolized egotism and profit: not a redemptive light, but the lightning from heaven that would incinerate the nonbelievers. These were not pacific, but rather bellicose intentions, a question of life or death that placed mankind at a point of no return. only by fully considering just what is at stake can one intuit why Ruskin spent his nervous energy and reputation in this battle whose victory did not bring the domestication of the economic leviathan, but if anything the suppression of the monster, symbolized by Ruskin's choice of Saint George as patron of his crusade.

The arguments used to document the events—disastrous beginnings and posthumous triumph—of the economic and social thought of the "prophet of Brantwood," who exercised such a profound influence on the earlier social historians of art (such as Antal, Klingender, and Hauser), explain why his fate was so unhappy, given that the purpose of the graduate student and then Slade professor at oxford was not the constitution of a new branch of political economy but a criticism resolving it, capable of arresting the triumphal march of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Smith (who had begun a book on laws governing costume, arts, and sciences, but destroyed it before he died), Ricardo, Malthus, and Mill.

Ruskin assumed a much more uncomfortable position than that held up by a certain vulgate in search of an improbable justification, but important to the understanding of the later sometimes perverse development of the relations between the two disciplines, as one can see in the copious bibliography that after a long silence has recently returned to a consideration of the question.

From these studies, we see that Ruskin's interest in these problems manifested itself early, going back to 1847 but intensifying in 1857, the year in which in concomitance with the Great Art Treasures Exhibition (seen by more than a million people) in Manchester, he gave two public lectures, on July 10 and 13, that became the backbone of The Political Economy of Art, published immediately by Smith-Elder & Co.

In this miscellany, Ruskin—who came from the friendly field of artistic-literary criticism, where he already enjoyed a certain status—approached new problems: the titles of the dissertations collected in this agile anthology (Use, Accumulation, Distribution, etc.) reinterpreted in a polemic manner the catchwords and articles of faith of the doctrinal corpus of that "so-called modern science of classical political economy" that he returned to attack in Unto This Last: Four Essays on the First Principles of Political Economy, printed in 1862 at London by Smith-Elder & co., and in new York by Merrill.

In each of the articles included in the book, the Anglo-Saxon public intellectual aimed at important targets: in The Roots of Honour he seriously criticized the epistemic principles of classical economy; in The Vein of Wealth he stigmatized the uncertain, immoral, and imprecise nature of capitalism; in Qui Judicatis Terram he condemned the blasphemy of economic justice; in Ad Valorem he attacked Ricardo and Mill, contesting the distinction between productive and nonproductive labor and redefining the concepts of value, wealth, price, and product.

The reaction of the press was disastrous, even if foreseeable: if the Times stated that, about economics, the author of Modern Painters was "a mere innocent," the Literary Gazette spoke of "one of the most miserable spectacles, intellectually speaking, to which it had ever been witness," while the Saturday Review panned his writing as "eruptions of windy hysterics, absolute nonsense, utter imbecility, intolerable twaddle."

The acrimony of his judges was not mitigated by the passage of time, and even the series of appeals launched between 1862 and 1863, and printed in 1872 with the title Munera Pulveris: Six Essays on the Elements of Political Economy, turned out to be an enduring flop despite the seriousness of the questions brought forward. Think only of the passages in The Crown of Wild Olive in which Ruskin complains of the unpardonable lack of attention to the question of consumption: "I have fearlessly declared your so called science of political Economy to be no science; because, namely, it has omitted the study of exactly the most important branch of the business—the study of spending."

The space dedicated to these events should not deceive, since Ruskin's initial lack of success was not owing to his faults, but rather to the sensitivity—or insensitivity—of the times, distracted by other needs (consider the debates on professional-artistic education, on the care of the patrimony, and on the control of the commerce of art objects) that induced the intelligentsia to procrastinate.

The values recognized in the world of art were at the opposite pole of those of political economy, which found incomprehensible—if not disgraceful—the uselessness, the nonproductivity, the irrationality, the spiritualism of the former. With the disappearance or weakening of dynastic pride, pomp of magnates, the obligations of rank, and the desire for personal engagement, culture became the object of fiscal debate and anonymous parliamentary interrogation. De facto it was reduced to a cypher, a place in the budget that was inevitably sacrificed to the needs of the hungry masses and to the "modesty" (pruderie) of élites unable to free themselves from past example. Thus a new rhetoric was needed, nicely veiled by Minerva's cloak; state culture was to have few resources as a pedagogical lever acting on the education of taste and for the moral elevation of the less wealthy classes, while in the name of the magnificent and progressive fates, the "antique" values were scorned as is evidenced by avant-garde ferments, the careless treatment of academicians, the mockery of the traditionalists.

This situation explains the shallowness and partiality of economic literature of the nineteenth and proto-twentieth centuries, which, when not animated by polemical aims, busied itself only with commenting on the results of auctions, as one can see from the works of Blanc, Defer, Redford, Roberts, Mireur, and Graves.

In these texts, the references to the "trade and commerce of art" possessed the docile character of simple information; they did not denounce the relationships of force that existed and the areas of exercise of the respective authorities, but were sold in appendices and rubrics like those in the sector's periodicals, which were very successful, aided by the diffusion of photography and the evolution of printing techniques. Even though they furnished titillating news about prices and did not disdain scandal (the purchases of foreign millionaires, the despoiling of national treasures, the plague of thefts, the corruptibility of parish priests ...) these publications did not face the question, but talked around it. They alluded to it without touching it, and procrastinated with an armed truce; many facts remained unspeakable, nor could they suspect the involvement of connoisseurs and scholars surrounded by an aura of sacrality that the plague of commerce could never corrupt.

The reflections of the few economists who personally, and frequently on their own time,22 became involved in these events show the impossibility of arriving at a real confrontation, given the incompatibility of values and the idiosyncrasy of languages. When they referred to examples loaned from the artistic context, they put their fingers on the uniqueness typical of the worst scholasticism. Exceptions that confirmed the rules were observed in the prosaic world of normal people, of primary needs, of useful things. The assumption that works of art, prices of paintings of old masters, and collectors were clear examples of goods, values, and "anti-economic" characters par excellence supported and perpetuated the perception of the negative and anti-economic nature of the values and hierarchies reigning in the art field, a solution that justified ipso facto any lack of interest in this anachronistic "upside-down world."


The echo of prejudice was long-lived, with sporadic interferences (think of the role of Keynes in the constitution of the Arts council) that were not always happy, and only in the mid- 1960s did a real discussion about markets, production, and cultural consumption open up with the birth of cultural economy, today recognized and practiced by the international scientific community.

The moment in which that happy or unhappy event took place is in any case revealing, since, together with Marxist criticism, the arrows of some Anglo-Saxon economists, anxious to prove the inequality of the mechanisms of receipt and distribution of public funds destined to support cultural activities and institutions, began to hit the target.

The pedagogic rationalization was hard put to sustain an accusatory castle built on well-argued theses and valid empirical research: even the museums and theaters were called to account for their economic activities. It became necessary to redesign the terms of the relationships between "culture and economy," and out of this need came a process tied to the concourse of two vectors of change. The first was the progressive semantic broadening/slippage of the idea of cultural goods that, from the original and exclusive aesthetic criterion of the keeping of "things of artistic interest" and "natural beauty," gradually shifted to cover the semitotality of witnesses of past civilization, even the more recent. In parallel, besides the traditional functions of keeping and conservation, the institutions were forced to consider their responsibilities in terms of management, economic valorization, communication, and publication, in search of the occupational, touristic, and formative influence on the common weal.

The second novelty was the repositioning of public strategies after the discovery of so-called "Baumol's disease" (the degenerative pathology responsible for the increase in the costs of the performing arts discovered by Baumol and Bowen in 1966), and coincidentally with the crisis of the traditional welfare models that had been able to count on the return of cultural goods and activities to the protected sphere of pure public goods. The presence of the "public" as financer of the live spectacle, as cultural organizer, or museum manager not only had to respond to criteria of managerial efficiency, but was also contested by the evolution of the cultural industries and by the lowering of intersectorial barriers.

The flowering of the studies from the early seventies and eighties occurs in this climate: in 1973 William Hendon founded ACEI (Association for cultural Economics International), in 1976 Mark Blaug's Manifesto was published, and the next year the Journal of Cultural Economics was born. The association's activity was intense in its first fifteen years, though it was limited to disciplines ranging from the horizons of science to finance and political economics.

On the contrary, the attention of the early practitioners of the historiographic debate should be applauded even though it diminished in the early nineties, when, with the advent of cultural management, the opening of the investigative fan coincided with a quantitative drift and unstoppable specialization. Thus were consolidated the sealed compartments within which research on principles of the functionality of art markets and the return on investments in collected goods gained interest.


This kind of research underwent a brisk acceleration when English art historian Gerald Reitlinger wrote a three-volume work called The Economics of Taste between 1961 and 1970, in which he listed the prices of various categories of collectibles and commented on their fluctuations—almost always positive—in that era, even though he emphasized their erratic nature in earlier decades and centuries.

If the first signs of the sixties' boom had already caught the attention of historians of more refined tastes (think of the argument between Haskell and Stone in 1959, of the "cities, court and Artists" conference organized by past and present the following year, or Erik Duverger's contribution to the International congress of Art History in Bonn, 1964), the availability of the copious data collected by Reitlinger induced many economists to construct, rather casually, historical series used in a way that in the past would have been unforeseeable and certainly unexpected. Thus, even though he had warned the reader that "Art as an investment is a conception scarcely older than the early 1950s," Gerald Reitling found himself willy-nilly the chosen source for the computation of returns, on a multicentury basis, of so-called "art investments," an exercise that has, between 1961 and 2005, given us diverse monographs and more than sixty articles published by prestigious economic journals.


Excerpted from APOLLO & VULCAN by Guido Guerzoni Copyright © 2011 by Michigan State University. Excerpted by permission of Michigan State University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Guido Guerzoni, a specialist in economic and social history, teaches Cultural Management at Università Bocconi in Milan, Italy. He is the CEO of Polymnia, a nonprofit company part of the Foundation of Venice, which is building the M9 museum in Venice-Mestre.

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