Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 8, 2010
Jonathan K. Nelson and Richard J. Zeckhauser The Patron's Payoff: Conspicuous Commissions in Italian Renaissance Art Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008. 256 pp.; 51 b/w ills. Cloth $39.50 (9780691125411)

Scholars interested in using works of art to understand the lives of individuals and groups in the past can only be discouraged by the realization that so many of the works we study were created at the instigation of elites as demonstrations of wealth and power. While we might want to understand how these works related to members of diverse levels of society, the surviving evidence is generally restricted to information about the motivations and responses of members of the upper classes. This means that in our scholarly lives historians of the Renaissance are consigned to study the Medici, the Popes, and other privileged individuals, families, and institutions. Economic motivations are at the foundation of many social, political, historical, religious, and other developments, of course, and there is no reason why visual culture should be immune to such forces. The Patron’s Payoff—as the title immediately emphasizes—studies how economic motivations transformed art during the Renaissance. Subtitled Conspicuous Commissions in Italian Renaissance Art, it aims to provide a more sophisticated base for our examination of the economic foundation important for so many of the works created during this period.

The introduction to this ambitious volume was written by Nobel Prize-winning economist Michael Spense, who is known for his development of the theory of signaling. The book’s principal authors and editors are art historian Jonathan Nelson and economist Richard Zeckhauser. In the foreword and first five chapters, they demonstrate the application of economic theory to art history. Essays by scholars who presented papers at a 2001 College Art Association session chaired by Nelson and Zeckhauser provide case studies. A closing essay by Larry Silver “presents examples from other locales and other time frames to illustrate the broad applicability” of their framework” (2).

The economic terminology promoted by Nelson and Zeckhauser only sparingly finds its way into the contributions of the other authors. Whether these new terms, defined below, will find acceptance among art historians remains to be seen. In discussing patronage, Nelson and Zeckhauser identify the individual or group who “delineates the task” as the “principal,” while the person who is employed by the “principal” to fulfill the task is the “agent” (6). It seems unlikely to me that this pair of terms will catch on with art historians, as “patron” and “artist” are in wide usage, while “principal” and “agent” are complicated by being burdened with other meanings in other contexts. In addition, the use of “principal” and “agent” does not further clarify the relationship between the two parties. The authors complicate the matter by suggesting that in cases when the perceived “audience” defines the “task” that group becomes the “principal” and both artist and patron, in their goal to fulfill the task, become the “agent” (6). This emphasis on the possible role of the audience in the creative process is welcome, however, and is one of the important new directions in which art-historical studies can expand.

Nelson and Zeckhauser’s study goes beyond terminology to apply economic theory to the study of patronage. To emphasize the nature of the interactions among patron, artist, and audience, for example, they “examine conspicuous commissions through the lens of game theory.” This popular economic approach, used to explain “how people behave in interactive situations,” has been applied to “war, competition in markets, political campaigns, and relations within the family” (6). Game theory is the basis for the other theories presented in The Patron’s Payoff, including “signaling,” which can be used to explain how “works of art were employed to convey broad favorable characteristics” (7). Related to this is the concept of “self-fashioning,” a term developed by art historian Stephen Greenblatt to express the behavior of the elite in creating “an image of themselves that corresponded to, and in turn helped define, the norms of behavior and appearance in their society” (5).

“Two new models for examining commissions” are forwarded by Nelson and Zeckhauser. “Sign-posting,” which is “little used” in economics, and “stretching,” a term “newly developed for this study,” are employed to describe how a work might provide information that is “selective, misleading, or exaggerated” (7). “Through ‘sign-posting’ an actor indicates specific, truthful, and important characteristics while simultaneously omitting other significant information” (8), while “stretching” is when the characteristics presented are flagrantly misrepresented “to bathe the patron in a favorable light” (8).

Chapters 1 through 4 detail their theories and terminology. With the exception of chapter 1, their titles could be exchanged with those of an economics textbook: “Main Players: Patrons, Artists, and Audiences,” “Analytic Framework: Benefits, Costs, Constraints,” “Theories of Distinction: Magnificence and Signaling,” and “Selecting and Magnifying Information: Signposting and Stretching.” These chapters along with chapter 5—which offers specific examples of the payoffs offered by private family chapels purchased and decorated by elites in Renaissance Florence—are rich demonstrations of the applicability of the language of economics to art history.

Chapters 6 through 8 provide additional important examples of other conspicuous commissions. Thomas J. Loughman’s impressive “Commissioning Familial Remembrance in Fourteenth-Century Florence: Signaling Alberti Patronage at the Church of Santa Croce” examines three “interventions” by the Alberti in their family’s parish church of Santa Croce, with the larger part devoted to their patronage of Agnolo Gaddi’s frescoes in the High Altar Chapel. Kelly Helmstutler Di Dio’s “Signs of Success: Leone Leoni’s Signposting in Sixteenth-Century Milan” confirms that Leoni was the “principal” in commissioning the decoration of his own house in Milan, decoration that emphasized the noble rank given the sculptor by Emperor Charles V while neglecting to make any reference to his activities as an artist. While we often emphasize the new status gained by artists during the sixteenth century, Di Dio’s article demonstrates the limitations experienced by artists during this period. Molly Bourne’s “Mantegna’s Madonna della Vittoria and the Rewriting of Gonzaga History” discusses how the painting, created as a reference to the 1495 Battle of Fornovo, projected the idea that Francesco Gonzaga had been victorious there when, in actuality, most French and Italian sources accept that the former had won. This did not stop Francesco from commissioning the painting and a church—Santa Maria della Vittoria—in which it was to be housed, and to establish ceremonies to celebrate his “victory.”

Silver’s “Image is Everything: Visual Art as Self-Advertising (Europe and America)” moves past the Renaissance to discuss selected women as patrons and collectors. The works of art commissioned from Rubens by Maria de’ Medici, Queen of France, for example, are used to provide a clear example of “stretching.” The collectors, who used art to establish their social and cultural position in their respective cities, are Isabella Stewart Gardner of Boston, Bertha Honoré Palmer of Chicago, and Louisine Elder Havemeyer of New York. In addition, Silver interprets self-portraits by Velázquez, Rubens, Poussin, Artemisia Gentileschi, and Rembrandt as examples of “Artistic Self-Stretching.” His thoughtful essay concludes with a discussion of how Marie de’ Medici’s Luxembourg Palace, Isabella’s Stewart Gardner’s Fenway Court, and the home Rubens conceived and decorated in Antwerp are further examples of “signaling” by elites.

Surprisingly, no concluding chapter sums up the book, and there is no suggestion of examples from other periods or cultures that might be susceptible to the new terminology and approach. Is the Parthenon an example of Athenian “signaling” or “signposting”? What signals lie at the foundation of the Imperial Villa at Katsura, the mosques of Sinan, Antonio Gaudi’s Casa Battlò, or Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao?

Nelson and Zeckhauser are to be commended for their thought-provoking approach to issues of patronage and their interest in redirecting our attention toward and refining our understanding of the economic basis for commissions during the Renaissance. The four excellent essays by other authors significantly expand the presentation of their ideas.

While the book’s rather blunt title immediately defines Nelson and Zeckhauser’s point of view, it also suggests the limitations of their approach. Their emphasis on economic issues threatens to ignore the complexity characteristic of historical, familial, and individual situations. The development of patronage studies is one of the most fascinating recent developments in art history, but we must recognize that these investigations are limited because of our lack of further information about the patron’s motivations. The incentives of patrons who expend large amounts of money to create visual images are well worth probing, but their goals were probably more complex and wide-ranging than documentation and analysis reveal. Recognizing what we do not and perhaps cannot know is always important in elucidating the origin and development of works of visual culture.

While “agent,” “principal,” “game theory,” “signaling,” “sign-posting,” and “stretching” can be useful, only time will reveal whether they will find wide adaptation in art history. But the basic point of this book—that a careful study of economic and related social needs can help us further understand the genesis of many works of visual culture—is undeniable, and the editors’ and authors’ cogent presentation of the possibilities inherent in their approach is masterful. Recognizing the motivations of elites expands our understanding of the roles that visual works could play during the period we now identify as the Italian Renaissance. As a reviewer I congratulate Nelson and Zeckhauser, while continuing to lament art history’s inability—in the Renaissance at least—to gain access to a broader understanding of the diverse society and complex and subtle culture that supported the production of these works.

David G. Wilkins
Professor Emeritus of the History of Art and Architecture, University of Pittsburgh, and Senior Faculty, Duquesne University in Rome