When money is the art of the matter

PATRONAGE IN SIXTEENTH-CENTURY ITALY by Mary Hollingsworth, John Murray pounds 25/pounds 15.99
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Recently, a senior partner in a well-known New York PR consultancy politely corrected me on the subject of art patronage. Part of his firm's work involves helping Fortune 500 companies to build collections and sponsor major exhibitions. Bar a handful of very wealthy private collectors, these businesses are as close as the late 20th century comes to the popes and princes of the Renaissance. Talking about the motivation for corporate sponsorship, I said I supposed that in the end the reasons had to be mercenary. The response was unexpected - on the contrary, my friend told me, in 30 years in the business he had not known one client firm whose collecting and sponsorship activities were not driven by the chief executive's genuine passion for art.

I mention this not because I found it completely convincing (I am still thinking about it) but because I have always liked to believe that in the glorious Renaissance heyday of patronage it was true. That is to say that when the early 16th-century popes spent lavishly on employing Raphael and Michelangelo to decorate the Vatican, they recognised that there was something qualitatively different in this display of princely magnificence from their equally profligate spending on dukedoms for their illegitimate sons or on peacocks' tongues for feasts. After reading Patronage in Sixteenth-Century Italy, with its tales of art deployed for political, dynastic and diplomatic advantage, I am not so sure.

Perhaps this is a good thing. We still tend to think of the history of art as a sequence of great artists, famous works of art and succeeding styles. It is not only popular art books that encourage this essentially ahistorical view; so do the rushed tourist itineraries through the high- spots of Italian art that most of us are obliged to follow in our short summer holidays. This aestheticising approach divorces us from the rough historical reality.

Few artists before the 20th century had the luxury of creating for themselves and hoping that someone would buy the results. Renaissance artists were dependent on the wishes of their patrons, who sometimes involved themselves in the most minute details of the appearance of a painting, sculpture or building. More often than not, if Mary Hollingsworth is right, they had more pressing concerns than artistic quality.

Take the case of Pope Julius II - the employer of Raphael, Bramante and Michelangelo. Succeeding to a weak and virtually bankrupt Papal throne and faced with the split of the church into pro-Roman and reformist factions, he spent hugely to reassert Papal authority. Art and architecture had a crucial role to play. He commissioned Michelangelo to make a bronze statue of him for fractious Bologna, a reluctant part of the Papal states - a gesture only a little more delicate than the fortress he had built at the same time. When he employed Raphael to decorate the Vatican's Stanze, his ceremonial reception rooms, Julius planned the themes himself and made sure that his own features were given to heroic predecessors in several scenes. He may also have had a hand in the iconography of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling.

Both these schemes, and the one to rebuild St Peter's, were part of a policy to co-opt the grandeur of Imperial Rome for its flagging Christian successor. It is sobering to remember, when we admire the results, that this glorious ostentation - and Julius's corrupt selling of offices and indulgences on an unprecedented scale to raise the cash to pay for it - only hastened the break-up of Europe into warring Catholic and Protestant factions.

Mary Hollingsworth has done a great service by putting the pragmatic dimension back into the story of Italian art. She makes it clear also how the dynamics of patronage changed from place to place and over the course of the century. The pace was particularly hectic in Rome, since most of the popes were old men in a hurry to make their mark and to glorify Church or family or both, according to their degree of worldliness or the seriousness with which they took the Protestant threat.

The stop/start of artistic activity in Rome, and the factionalism that could see an artist overwhelmed with commissions by one pontiff only to be sacked by his successor, was very different to the steadier atmosphere in Venice. There, dynastic aggrandisement was inhibited by state control, and some semblance of republican sobriety was insisted on. Even so, the non-aristocratic religious confraternities competed to spend the money supposedly intended for charitable works on building and decorating ever more lavish meeting halls. The board of the Scuola di San Rocco, with its ceilings and walls painted by Tintoretto, was widely criticised for their self-advertising extravagance. The rival Scuola della Misericordia actually went bust in trying to surpass it. And at the fragile ducal courts like Florence there was plenty of need to assert power and legitimacy through art and virtually no limitation on resources: money could always be raised through increased taxes or borrowings, leaving future generations to pick up the tab.

Like her previous book on patronage in 15th-century Italy, Mary Hollingsworth's companion volume is written from a vast knowledge of the subject. It will be of use not just to the scholar but to anyone who travels in Italy and has wondered about the "why" and the "how" of some of the greatest masterpieces of European art. It is, however, more a book to be mined for information about a particular place or a particular patron than read at a sitting. Her introductions to the three main sections, "Rome", "Venice" and "The Courts", promise real insights into the complex processes of 16th-century patronage. Thereafter a sometimes bewildering array of factual information takes over, with a merry-go-round of Clements, Leos, Cosimos, Giangaleazzos and Emanuele Filibertos. Perhaps she would have written a better book if she had limited herself to a more focused study of a handful of representative patrons. She might then have brought us closer to answering the delicate question of why powerful individuals and rich institutions spend money on art.

Royal patronage on the grand scale: Charles Cameron, an architect described by Catherine the Great as 'a master who excites the imagination', arrived in St Petersburg in 1780, and negotiated the stormy Empress's whims so adroitly that his work at the lavish Tsarskoye Selo palace soon included Wedgewood medallions, British silver, a marble bridge copied from Wilton House, a pagoda modelled after one in Kew, a park landscaped by John Bush of Hackney, and so on. The Italian influence was paramount, nevertheless, as seen in these illustrations from Dimitri Shvidkovsky's sumptuous The Empress & the Architect: British Architecture and Gardens at the Court of Catherine the Great (Yale pounds 29.95)