Patronage in the Renaissance

Patronage in the Renaissance

by Guy Fitch Lytle

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The fourteen essays in this collection explore the dominance of patronage in Renaissance politics, religion, theatre, and artistic life.

Originally published in 1982.

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The fourteen essays in this collection explore the dominance of patronage in Renaissance politics, religion, theatre, and artistic life.

Originally published in 1982.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

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Patronage in the Renaissance

By Guy Fitch Lytle, Stephen Orgel


Copyright © 1981 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-10125-5


Patronage in the Renaissance: An Exploratory Approach

* * *

Werner L. Gundersheimer

Patronage, broadly defined as "the action of a patron in supporting, encouraging, or countenancing a person, institution, work, art, etc.," has been clearly established as one of the dominant social processes of pre-industrial Europe. It is virtually a permanent structural characteristic of all early European material high culture, based as it is on production by specialists. The effects of patronage are also pervasive in such diverse areas as appointments to secular and religious offices; the conception and creation of the structures and spaces within which people work, pray, and live; the execution of the artifacts of material and intellectual culture; the systems of transactions into which the behavior of social groups — families, clans, guilds, classes (whether economic, social, occupational, or sexual) — is organized, and through which the relationships of such groups to one another are expressed. Though for scholarly purposes we normally tend to use the term in more limited senses appropriate to the analytical objectives of our particular disciplines, it is important to recognize that particular patrons, and individual acts of patronage of all kinds and degrees, should be understood not only within their own immediate cultural context. They may also be subsumed within a more encompassing theory concerning the systemic effects of patronage in European social and intellectual history.

In order to develop such a theory fully, one would have to go far beyond the objectives and the limits of this essay. Such a task would require sophistication and skill in applying to an enormous mass of historical data concepts derived from the various social science disciplines. One can at best hold this up as a long-term goal for collective scholarship.

In the meantime, perhaps one may frame an approach to patronage as an early modern institution by taking a via negativa. Can there be a Renaissance society without patronage? What would be its essential characteristics? What aspects of patronly societies would anti- or a-patronly societies help us to comprehend? I shall try to trace out an answer to these questions in both theoretical and practical terms, or perhaps more accurately, fictive and historical, terms.

To the extent that Renaissance literature embodies social thought, systems of patron-client relations tend to be taken for granted. Both in the courtly societies depicted by Ariosto and Castiglione and in the somewhat less centralized aristocracies portrayed by Boccaccio, Alberti, and Machiavelli, people are expected to defer to, or accept protection from, their superiors. Even the most genuinely idealistic Italian texts of the fifteenth century link social aspiration with patronly sponsorship. Filarete's model city, Sforzinda, derives its name from the author's own patron, Francesco Sforza. More substantively, every social class in the city has its own distinctive architectural style, and, as Luigi Firpo observed, "crowning it all [is] a contradictory and useless element, a Renaissance prince." Contradictory and useless perhaps to Firpo, who wanted to advance Filarete's claims as an innovator, the first Renaissance Utopist. But for Filarete there could be no Sforzinda without the Sforza, no ideal city without a precisely articulated social hierarchy. While modifying and rationalizing them considerably, Filarete accepted the terms of social and political organization, and of cultural sponsorship, that he observed in the Italian urban world.

Although it is not difficult to find Renaissance Italians rejecting particular patrons (a tendency which in the case of artists has sometimes led scholars to infer a greater degree of independence of the system than most artists could have imagined), the most conspicuous instances of genuine attacks on patronage that I know of during the Renaissance come from Northern Europe. Here we may note in passing the position of Erasmus, as usual complex and equilibrated. Erasmus lived on patronage, as J. Hoyoux proved years ago, but he always appreciated its dangers. While willing to accept the occasional purse filled with golden coins, or a horse, or a case of some good wine, or even prolonged hospitality, he would not agree to the role of client as a definition of himself. For this reason he rejected many kinds of preferment, and in his writings referred with grave misgivings to those who permitted themselves to be so seduced. His was the privilege, relatively rare in his time, of what might be called the cultural "superstar." This is a colloquial way of expressing the fact that an identification with him produced greater benefits for his patrons than he could derive from prolonged attachment to them.

But Erasmus' reservations, both behavioral and doctrinal, are far from constituting a theoretical antithesis to patronage. For this we must turn to his intimate friend Thomas More. The Utopia confronts both social reality and ideality. It is, in the first instance, a ruthless indictment of a social world embodying extremes of dysfunction. As Martin Fleisher has observed, "Enclosures and rural depopulation, price revolution and debasement of coinage, unemployment, mendicancy, and vagabondage, gentlemen highwaymen, rebellious elements among the nobility and rural unrest, the transformation of the agrarian economy — we have here almost all the ingredients which go to make up what has been called 'Tawney's Century,' England in the period from 1540 to 1640." More's solution, embodied in Book Two, is an egalitarian society designed to prevent the appearance of economic, social, and political distinctions among men. There are, of course, differences in aptitude and ability, but these are not permitted to develop into permanent, let alone hereditary, differences in status. More's social egalitarianism is reinforced in various ways — patterns of work, styles of dress and housing, and many others — but the crucial and overarching element in the Utopian system is the abolition of private property. Though a great deal of very distinguished scholarship has been devoted to More, I think it has not been fully appreciated that one major effect of the distribution of wealth in Utopia is the eradication of patronage. That this is part of a more general "transvaluation of values" in More should be obvious. Gold, the Boethian pretiosa pericula, a "precious bane," loses its function as a medium of exchange when relegated to the manufacture of chamberpots. In this reversal, it also loses something more subtle: its attractiveness as an element of ornament or decoration. Both social and artistic criteria are overthrown here. Equally striking, however, is that More eliminates the social as well as the material basis of patronage. There are no aristocrats. Everybody works. The physical labor is shared. The amenities of life are not overlooked. They are merely public.

Though More understandably has little to say of the arts, it is worth considering his often neglected passage on pleasure gardens. Here is a subject close to the concerns of all students of private patronage in the Renaissance, for by its very nature it transcends the parochial boundaries of our disciplines. The garden as an image of Paradise, as an earthly paradise, as a mythological program, or as an attempt to assert man's dominance over nature abounds in literature and the visual arts. To understand the actual creation of such gardens engages the energies of historians of art, architecture, the classical tradition, the building trades, and other special areas. More's gardens suggest neither physical complexity nor intellectual conceits. More imagines, in describing the blocks of houses, "which are far from mean" in the capital city of Amaurotum, that

On the rear of houses, through the whole length of the block, lies a broad garden enclosed on all sides by the backs of the blocks. Every home has not only a door into the street but a back door into the garden. What is more, folding doors, easily opening by hand and then closing of themselves, give admission to anyone. As a result, nothing is private property anywhere. Every ten years they actually exchange their very homes by lot.

The sense of openness and public accessibility here takes on added meaning, if one adopts as a point of reference the ideal courtly, monastic, or even bourgeois garden of the late Middle Ages, with its enclosing walls. The hortus conclusus, the locus atnoenus, the giardino segreto are fantasies (sometimes fulfilled) of exclusiveness, reserved, to quote the title of a recent symposium on elites, for The Rich, the Well Born, and the Powerful. Yet More's gardens are not mere open commons or playing fields, for he tells us:

The Utopians are very fond of their gardens. In them they have vines, fruits, herbs, flowers, so well kept and flourishing that I never saw anything more fruitful and more tasteful anywhere. Their zest in keeping them is increased not merely by the pleasure afforded them but by the keen competition between blocks as to which will have the best kept garden.

Thus, competitive instincts are sublimated in the pursuit of agriculture, which for the Renaissance Epicurean is naturally a variant form of culture. The result is productive both aesthetically and economically. It is the product of collective effort and commonly shared pleasure: the antithesis of patronage.

One could multiply other examples from Utopia — the priesthood, which is established by popular election and may include women; the judicial system, which treats all men as equals; and so on. The general point is evident: in eliminating hierarchy, More has at least theoretically annihilated political, religious, and apparently artistic patronage, the very existence of which depend on differences of wealth, occupation, and status. During the Reformation, less systematic but more direct attacks on Renaissance hierarchies also surface. As we turn to them, we may remember Thomas More cheerfully paying with his life for his final refusal to serve an earthly patron.

It has always been recognized that the major leaders of the Reformation, however radical they may have been in their Scripturalism, were deeply and literally conservative in their political doctrines. Basing themselves on Romans xiii, Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin always insisted that lawful authority must be obeyed. In so saying, they gave support to most existing social hierarchies. Often, in return, they received protection from urban and magisterial elites. While allying themselves with such political patrons, they challenged some other forms of patronage. The ecclesiastical hierarchies of the Church were toppled and replaced by synodal and consistorial arrangements. In sacerdotal theory and sacramental practice, distinctions among men, and to some extent between men and women, came to be softened. Ecclesiastical patronage of the visual arts in some areas came to a virtual standstill, owing to the literal acceptance of Biblical injunctions against graven images and the battle cry against idolatry, a shorthand term of opprobrium connoting a wide range of Roman Catholic practices (all of which enjoyed, while in part abusing, the hallowed sanction of traditio). Some of these developments, not consciously conceived as attacks on diverse manifestations of the patronage system (and often popular in their origins), are functionally indistinguishable from deliberate attacks. To reinforce this point, it will be useful to speak briefly of Reformation iconoclasm, a phenomenon quite different from the Byzantine imperial version. This, of course, is not to deny the patronly relations that obtained between certain reformers and the secular rulers who protected them.

During the sixteenth century in Northern Europe, thousands of paintings and sculptures were seized in convents and churches and then destroyed. A list of these objects, if one could be made, would form an interesting visual martyrology. What I wish to suggest here is that it may be too simple to explain these acts merely as the expression either of a theological critique or of the unbridled enthusiasm of a mob. That there was another, perhaps unconscious, method to this madness may be at least surmised from a few examples. The destruction of images appears to have begun in Zurich as early as 1 September 1523. A few months later, following the sermons of Leo Jud and the treatise against images by Louis Haetzer, a group of zealots destroyed the great crucifix at Stadelhofen, near Zurich. This is one of the rare instances when we know what happened to the destroyed object. The chopped-up pieces were distributed to the poor as firewood. One can hardly imagine a more eloquent denial of sacerdotal paternalism, nor a more powerful symbolic affirmation of a new sense of social concern. Similar instances occurred in the Netherlands in the 1560s and elsewhere.

During the Calvinist revolt in the Netherlands in 1566, one finds attacks on images taking almost systematic form. This seems to be a function of increasing popular involvement in religious conflict. Pieter Geyl informs us that while the States-General had in the past given evidence of national consciousness, "never on former occasions had the people participated so generally and with such enthusiasm as they did at this time." What forms did this public participation take? First they flocked to hear sermons and take part in the singing of psalms outside churches. Then, seeking a more active role, they found it in the breaking of the images. Here is how Geyl describes the movement:

The movement started on the linguistic frontier, in the area where the new cloth manufacture had created an industrial proletariat ... whose religious ecstasy was nearly allied to social unrest. A transport of rage suddenly possessed the multitude. Crowds surged into the churches to destroy all the most treasured symbols and ornaments of the old religion. ... For the most part ... these excesses caused surprise and discomfiture to the leaders whose fanatical phraseology had roused the temper of the mob to the right pitch. In any case it was a truly Calvinistic work, fierce and honest, restrained by no respect for art or beauty.

There are many ways to be cynical about these events, not to mention Geyl's almost joyous evocation of them. It is easier to smash sculptures than to stand up against the legions of the Duke of Alva. But to dwell on such aspects of the revolt would be to miss its cultural meanings. These are especially interesting in that artisans and craftsmen generally carried out these attacks. They, like their Catholic counterparts, could have chosen to kill people instead. Also, they had some idea of what was involved in the production of a work of art. Men from their own social rank had for centuries been the creators of these precious objects. Yet demolition was clearly the goal here, and looting seems to have played little if any role. What we may be seeing is not merely the venting of social frustrations and religious grievances. It can perhaps better be understood as the conscious symbolic eradication of a past. The images — saints and heroes, father-figures and mother-figures, objects of deference and veneration — were part of the social ecology of everyday life. Like the lay and ecclesiastical patrons who commissioned them, they stood immutable and made their demands of every man. The ologically, it would have been enough to remove the images, or even to refuse to defer to them. But Reformation iconoclasm goes beyond this, implying an attack on the very system that calls into existence both celestial and terrestrial hierarchies. The kinds of theories and behavior I have tried to characterize until now as more or less direct challenges to a patronly social and economic order are quite different from principled rejections of the system on the individual level. It would be anachronistic to expect these for this period, when concepts of human freedom were still rudimentary and little known. What artist, let alone patron, in the Renaissance would not have been taken aback by Dr. Johnson's famous definition:

Is not a patron, my lord, one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water, and when he has reached ground encumbers him with help? The notice which you have been pleased to take of my labours, had it been early, had been kind; but it has been delayed till I am indifferent, and cannot enjoy it; till I am solitary, and cannot impart it; till I am known, and do not want it.


Excerpted from Patronage in the Renaissance by Guy Fitch Lytle, Stephen Orgel. Copyright © 1981 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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