Artists and Patrons During the Renaissance
Renaissance History Essay 2
November 3, 2014
INSERT INTERESTING TITLE HERE Widely known as the first great art historian, in his Lives of the Artists, Giorgio Vasari goes into great detail on the lives of many famous Renaissance artists, including Lorenzo Ghiberti, Donatello, and Leonardo da Vinci. In his biographies of these artists, one of the most interesting ideas that Vasari explores is the relationship between the artists and their patrons. Because artists needed to earn a living, they relied on commissions, and patronages, and as a result, many different types of relationships emerged between artists and their various patrons. Patrons could range from wealthy individuals and families, to city governments, and even guilds, and while artists relied on their patrons for income, as their fame grew, and the culture of the Renaissance became more and more individualistic and fame-driven, the artists were able to maintain more power and control in their relationships with patrons. Vasari 's biographies of Ghiberti, Donatello, and Leonardo serve as excellent examples of the various types of patron and artist relationships during the Renaissance.
In his biography of Ghiberti, Vasari opens by describing how Ghiberti gained his fame-through winning the competition held to decide who would be commissioned to decorate two of the doors of San Giovanni, a principal church in Florence. Spending forty years working on the doors, Vasari depicts Ghiberti as mainly being under the patronage of the city of Florence. Ghiberti is a good example of how it was not just wealthy families or individuals who commissioned works of art for themselves. Unlike Donatello and Leonardo, Ghiberti did not seem to do as much art for individuals, instead, he did more public pieces, and was most frequently commissioned to do works for the city of Florence. For instance, after being commissioned to create the doors, he was commissioned by the Merchants Guild of Florence to make a bronze statue of John the Baptist for one of the niches outside Orsanmichele, and was later asked by more guilds to make statues for their niches. As Ghiberti 's reputation grew throughout Italy, he was commissioned more and more for projects outside Florence, such as when the Signoria of Siena hired him to make several scenes from the life of John the Baptist for them, after seeing his work in Florence. Later, Ghiberti was commissioned to make a memorial for a bishop of Florence, and was even commissioned by the Pope.
In his biography of Donatello, Vasari goes into detail about the patron-client relationship between the artist and the Medici family, in particular, Cosimo de Medici. According to Vasari, the Medici family were Donatello 's main patrons. He did much work for them, for instance, a bronze head of Cosimo de Medici 's wife, as well as various sculptures for the Medici palace. Vasari paints this relationship as one of mutual respect and appreciation "Cosimo thought so highly of Donatello 's talent that he kept him continually occupied; and in return Donatello loved Cosimo so well that he could understand all he wanted, from the slightest sign, and never disappointed him" (180). The relationship between Donatello and the Medici was so strong that even as Cosimo was dying, he still wanted to ensure that the artist would be provided for, so he put him in the care of his son Piero, who provided him with a steady income, showing that the bond between the artist and patron stretched beyond just a mere business relationship. Not only did Donatello do work for the Medici while under their patronage, but they also supported him by helping him gain other commissions, for instance, when he was commissioned to do a bronze head for a Genoese merchant, according to Vasari, "Donatello obtained the commission through Cosimo 's recommendation" (180), showing that even when an artist had a patron, they were not necessarily limited to only doing work for that patron.
Leonardo da Vinci also had similarly close relationships with his patrons as well, however, in Leonardo 's biography, Vasari illustrates how in some cases, even though the patrons were the ones with the money, it was truly the artists who held the power in the relationship. An example of this is when Vasari brings up an incident between Leonardo and one of his patrons. Leonardo had been commissioned to paint the Last Supper at a monastery. The prior there got impatient with Leonardo, feeling as though he wasn 't painting fast enough, because the artist tended to work slowly, and would often spend a great deal of time simply contemplating his work. The prior complained to the duke, and raised enough of a fuss to obligate the duke to speak to Leonardo and question him, even though the duke was not particularly bothered by Leonardo 's slow painting habits. Leonardo then explained to the duke in great detail about his work process, and joked that if he couldn 't find a model to use for the face of Judas, he could always use the face of “that tactless and importunate prior” (263). This seems to show that Leonardo could basically do as he pleased, and even insult one of the people he was working for, and get away with it, suggesting that his fame and talent in the end enabled him to do as he liked, even within the confines of a patronage.
It is important to note, however, that in each case, even though Vasari describes the artists as having much power and influence in their patronages, in the end, both the artist and the patron are reliant on each other. The artist needs to be able to support themselves, while the patrons seem to be more about gaining status from the artist and their work. The artist and patron model is a very interesting look at the earliest beginnings of fame culture, and the growing appreciation of individual talent within society. It also speaks towards the Renaissance theme of individualism, as we see more of a focus on individual identity, tied to the quest for fame. In the end, however, due to the growing fame of the artists, Vasari 's work seems to be suggesting that in some cases, it was the patrons who became reliant on the artists-if an artist became famous enough, and wealthy in their own right, they no longer needed to rely on patrons for money, and as a result, were freer to do as they liked.
Vasari, Giorgio, and George Bull. Lives of the Artists. Vol. 1. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1987. Print.
Cited: Vasari, Giorgio, and George Bull. Lives of the Artists. Vol. 1. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1987. Print.