Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 13, 2011
Patrizia Cavazzini Painting as Business in Early Seventeenth-Century Rome University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2009. 256 pp.; 24 color ills.; 47 b/w ills. Cloth $80.00 (9780271032153)
Richard Spear and Philip Sohm, eds. Painting for Profit: The Economic Lives of Seventeenth-Century Italian Painters New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010. 30 color ills.; 120 b/w ills. Cloth $85.00 (9780300154566)

These two books, which describe how painters made a living in seventeenth-century Rome, Florence, Bologna, Venice, and Naples, synthesize the work of many dedicated scholars, including some by the authors themselves. As Patrizia Cavazzini notes in her introduction, most research on Italian painting has favored major painters and their patrons, neglecting the large supporting cast who also made a living as painters and decorators in Rome and elsewhere. Some worked assisting painters charged with covering extensive wall surfaces with religious or mythological scenes, providing illusionistic architectural frameworks [quadratura], or adding generic landscape vistas or patches of al antica scrollwork. Credit then goes to the painter in charge, while their share is ignored as the product of anonymous hands. Some collaborators, such as Agostino Tassi (1578–1644), were known for their quadratura skills, but he also managed to establish himself as a landscape painter capable of doing large wall murals and easel paintings in a genre dominated by Northerners throughout the century. Other painters made a living doing copies, especially of portraits of current popes and cardinals but also of any artist’s work then in favor. Others sold work to dealers, as even Caravaggio and Poussin did when they first arrived in Rome, but this was looked down upon and avoided if possible. Most painters never became sufficiently known to be the subject of even a brief vita in one of the volumes of artists’ lives published in this century and the next. Anyone who visits sale rooms in North America and Europe hoping to find a good seicento painting for a few thousand dollars knows what an abundant supply there is of decent to mediocre Italian paintings of religious, mythological, genre, landscape, and still-life subjects, some with names, many anonymous. These often dark, dirty canvases once had owners who bought them when they were new and whose heirs did not discard them. What can be learned from Cavazzini’s book about the goals and tastes of this little-studied but substantial share of the Italian art market, and from the abundant information about the other cities assembled by the team brought together by Richard Spear and Philip Sohm?

Cavazzini’s study of the Roman art market grew out of her research into the career of Tassi, a scoundrel better known today for raping Artemisia Gentileschi than for his expertise in painting quadratura settings for other painters’ frescoes or his role in popularizing the genre of landscape in seicento Rome. His encounters with the law were almost as outrageous as Caravaggio’s: if he did arrange for his first wife to be murdered, they were worse. Cavazzini found other artists with police records in the Roman archives, usually for lesser crimes like theft, failure to settle debts, and domestic violence, but she mentions one other murder by an artist who left town and later returned without being punished. Artists of many nationalities and aesthetic persuasion turn up in court documents, with the exception, interestingly, of the Bolognese painters who emerged from Annibale Carracci’s Roman studio. Cavazzini uses documents and anecdotal material in artists’ biographies by Giovanni Baglione, G. B. Passeri, and Giulio Mancini to fill out her detailed account of artists’ dealings with pigment merchants, dealers, and each other, as well as their somewhat casual relationships with the Accademia di San Luca. She also discuses the collectors of lesser means to whom the anonymous Italian seicento paintings once belonged. Her emphasis on the frequency with which works were copied, both by students learning the profession and by artists who made a living doing only that, is a useful reminder not to get too excited about yet another version of Caravaggio’s Card Players or a Poussin mythology.

Cavazzini organizes her material into four chapters: “Artists and Craftsmen,” “Training,” “The Diffusion of Painting,” and “The Market.” The first describes the problems tracing individual artists because given and family names were not stable. That there were at least two painters named Bartolomeo Manfredi, for example, is a factor in misidentifications still accepted today. Foreigners were often listed by first name only with a city or country of origin: for instance, there were so many artists called “Claudio Lorena” in Rome in the 1620s that it is impossible to determine when Claude Gellée first arrived there. Cavazzini then describes the range of work carried out by these obscure painters, who sometimes collaborated with known artists such as Tassi. Gilders (indoratori) did much more than gild frames. Some carried out decorative work on walls and ceilings; others had shops and sold work by other artists. Miniature painters (miniatori) did not work only in vellum on a small scale. Some artists began as hacks copying popular devotional images before graduating to more demanding work when their talent was spotted by an astute dealer or patron.

Anything was possible in Rome, where there were no longer guilds requiring apprenticeships and the production of a “masterpiece” before a painter could open a studio and accept pupils. The Academy of St. Luke failed to control the mass production of inferior work or to provide on a regular basis the kind of instruction that could improve standards among the young artists seeking work in Rome. The extremes among artists are conjured up by the terms valentuomini and pittori grossi or bassi. The first was a designation of excellence in other professions or life in general, known to art historians from Caravaggio’s use of it when naming the few artists he respected. The latter are terms of disdain used by those who had advanced to higher levels of artistic achievement about those whose work they despised. Guido Reni divided artists into three categories: pittori straordinari, pittori ordinari, pittori più bassi. Would superior skill alone be enough to be regarded as “extraordinary” or was recognition in solid financial terms required as well? Below the surface lies the problem of separating artists from craftsmen, an issue that surfaced periodically in the Accademia, whose members wished that craftsmen like gilders would create their own separate organization. Still, some were loyal, hard-working members of the Academy, attending meetings and paying their dues, something many valentuomini did not do.

With the relaxation of guild rules, the path from beginner to master was ill-defined, though the best route to success was to join a good artist’s studio as an apprentice (with fees usually paid by the father), where the young man learned by watching, helping, copying, and finally making small independent works; this route was not open to women except daughters of the master, for whom it was the usual if still rare path to a career. If the young men were well mentored, as Domenichino was by Annibale Carracci, they would emerge in their early twenties as recognizable products of that studio but with enough individual traits to define them as distinct artistic personas. Caravaggio’s career threw a spanner in the works of this traditional machine; those who wanted to make work like his could not join his studio because he essentially worked alone with his models. His spectacular results inspired young artists to believe that this was easy—just get a friend to pose and create the best illusion of reality that you could muster. Northerners who arrived with Flemish training in oil painting were better prepared to do this than many Italian artists, which may partly explain the success of such foreign admirers of Caravaggio as Gerrit van Honthorst and Simon Vouet, and even why Andrea Sacchi, the adopted son of a pittore grosso, went to Bologna with Francesco Albani to complete his training.

The more expansive picture of the Roman art world presented by Cavazzini’s research and that of others raises many issues, even basic ones such as what percentage of the population worked as painters (or artists) of some sort in the period she covers. Did they all start out hoping to become a new Raphael or Caravaggio, or did most just hope to survive by working as craftsmen? What made some aim for more material and social signs of success? Tassi even faked a knighthood. Did the social standing of painters generally improve in this century? How do the painters compare with the sculptors, stonemasons, marble intarsia makers, and wood carvers essential for the decoration of every chapel and church interior, not to mention palaces and country villas? (Jennifer Montagu’s study of the sculptors’ world, Roman Baroque Sculpture: The Industry of Art [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993], gets only a brief mention in a footnote.) They would have to be part of any calculation of the percentage of the Roman population who were artists (however loosely defined) or highly skilled craftsmen, and what they contributed to the economy of the city, if only because painting was the cheapest of the three “high” arts. The most expensive of these, architecture, also commanded the highest fees for the supervising master.

The essays edited by Spear and Sohm in Painting for Profit: The Economic Lives of Seventeenth-Century Italian Painters include statistics about population levels, currencies, prices of altarpieces in Rome and elsewhere in chronological order, and even the cost of some basic foods in the seventeenth century. After Sohm’s general introduction, Spear describes the Roman scene in detail, his essay serving as a template for comparisons with the political, social, and economic situations in Naples (Christopher Marshall), Bologna (Raffaella Morselli), Florence (Elena Fumagalli), and Venice (Sohm). Finally, the social historian Renata Ago offers her perspective on these cities’ economies, class structures, and the position of artists, followed by Richard Goldthwaite’s take on the economic contribution of the arts of painting to seventeenth-century Italy. (Ago’s essay, and those of Morselli and Fumagalli, have been well translated from the Italian by Matthew Sohm, a contribution that deserves more prominent mention than in fine print near the ISBN number.) Goldthwaite states baldly that painters’ contribution to the Italian economy in this century was insignificant. He is probably correct, and it may be salutary for art historians attached to our mythologies of genius and artistic greatness to be reminded of this humbling fact. Still, after all the wool, silk, timber, oil, and wheat of the seicento had been consumed, little remains beyond the works of art and architecture made by the men and women clothed and fed by these more important basic industries. As the credit card ad says, some things are priceless.

Tables of information about altarpiece prices illuminate the difference between well-paid and less generously remunerated artists and demonstrate how steady the rewards were in these cities for most altarpieces (one hundred to three hundred scudi), with some variations explained by the artist’s reputation, the work’s size, and the prestige of location. In smaller towns, the reward for painting an altarpiece usually dropped below one hundred scudi, but those who painted altarpieces for St. Peter’s earned higher fees and considerable prestige. The enormous altarpieces and over-doors there earned fees between eight hundred and one thousand scudi, but they were also much larger than the average altarpiece. A few privileged artists received bonuses.

Extensive information about St. Peter’s has been available since Oscar Pollack published two volumes of payments for artistic commissions from the Barberini in 1928 and 1931; that material has been amply studied, most recently in Louise Rice’s splendid monograph, The Altars and Altarpieces of New St. Peter’s: Outfitting the Basilica, 1621–1666 (New York: Cambridge University Press,1997). Indeed, most specialists will be familiar with some of the documentation discussed, depending on their areas of interest. Still, few have the time to accumulate so much comparative data, nor to think more broadly about painters’ economic situation and how it affected their work. Spear and Sohm and their co-authors, together with Cavazzini, provide a sense of the practicalities of painters’ daily lives in these five cities. One hundred scudi, an average payment for an altarpiece, could apparently sustain a family in Rome for a year; a thousand would enable a painter to live almost as comfortably as a minor canon of the church. According to Ago, if the artist were married, his wife might contribute through the value of her dowry or by doing laundry for extra income. Still, most successful painters produced small canvases to cover expenses between the better-paid commissions that few could count on getting regularly. Landscapes, even the frescoes by Gaspard Dughet in San Martino ai Monti in the 1640s, were paid on a much lower scale (three scudi for small ones above the larger ones, for which Dughet received only ten scudi). Poussin received twenty scudi for each of his landscapes of St. Matthew (Berlin) and St. John on Patmos (Chicago), painted for Abbot G. M. Roscioli in 1640, which are much smaller than Dughet’s frescoes and the average Roman altarpiece. Roscioli paid Claude Lorrain the same amount for two unidentified paintings in the 1640s, but gradually Claude’s prices rose to altarpiece levels, even though his canvases were never as large as the typical pala d’altare.

The essays on Rome, Naples, Bologna, Florence, and Venice examine the elites who had the power and resources to be lucrative patrons: the Church and its enormous administrative bureaucracy in Rome, the old established families of the Venetian Republic’s Council of Ten, the Medici, and so on. The Medici spent lavishly on art, offering artists more steady employment with yearly stipends than they could find elsewhere. Although Bologna was the smallest of these five cities, it was a major player artistically with well-researched material available for analysis, especially about the careers of Reni and Guercino, whose international success enabled them to get much higher prices from Bolognese patrons than those paid to other Bolognese artists. Their tactics included refusing to name a price and forcing patrons to demonstrate respect for their reputations by paying prices equal to or higher than what they usually received and adding a valuable gift too. This was only an option for the most productive artists, with many wealthy clients begging for their work.

Marshall’s essay on Naples was especially helpful for this reader as its situation was the least familiar. He sets the scene with the case of an unknown painter (Onofrio de Anfora) of no great talent whose possessions were inventoried in 1644 after he was fatally wounded in a fight. Like the excavations at Pompeii that caught its residents in mid-life, this inventory captures the studio contents of a busy pittore basso. He had over two hundred works on hand, not all by himself, including many half-finished, half-length canvases awaiting a buyer, for whom an image of San Gennaro or the Madonna could be finished quickly to taste and then framed, doubling Onofrio’s income as the frame could easily cost more than the painting, as they can today too. Presumably sales at the two to four scudi level were reliable enough for him to invest in the materials to create or buy from others these devotional images, which in the Catholic culture of Naples, then firmly under Spanish control, would be as necessary as a bed, table, chairs, and basic cooking equipment, even in a poor household.

Marshall reminds those better informed about the rest of Italy that Naples had not had a major school of painters in the previous century, when it saw huge population growth after the vice-regents relieved residents of taxes while raising those on the surrounding territories. Peasants and landowners left the countryside and swelled the population of Naples to over 300,000, making it the largest city in Italy. Many new churches, convents, and palaces were built in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, creating business for all the craft trades needed to decorate and furnish them. Artists came from Rome to work there, beginning with Giuseppe Cesari d’Arpino in 1588–91 and 1595–97, then Caravaggio (1606–7), Giuseppe Ribera (1616 until his death), Domenichino (1631–41), Lanfranco (1634–46), and Artemisia Gentileschi (1629 until her death in the 1650s); Gian Lorenzo Bernini was born in Naples in 1598 while his father was working there. However, as Marshall puts it, “Spanish patrons may have greatly appreciated the qualities of painting, yet their understanding of the corresponding social status of painters themselves and the underlying intellectual significance and value attached to painting as a liberal art was much less developed than elsewhere in Italy, particularly in Rome” (118). There was as yet no tradition of collecting and appreciating painting, though by mid-century several fine collections of seicento Neapolitan art had been formed. Until Luca Giordano’s career was well launched, however, no Neapolitan-born artist attracted important clients and commissions elsewhere.

The essays in Painting for Profit offer fascinating information about influential and less successful painters and the challenges they faced to become artists and then to sustain their careers and make a living amid constant competition. Both books should be required reading by anyone who works on Italian seventeenth-century painting and related fields; even those who work on other periods of Italian artistic production will find much useful material. The common belief in Italian artists’ change of status between 1500 and 1700—from lowly workers with their hands to upper-class intellectuals trained to express complex ideas and beliefs in paint on canvas and thus banishing all associations with craft professions—seems especially questionable after reading these essays, although painters did earn more than other craft professions, allowing them to look down on gilders and their ilk. Only the most successful artists who were also lucky enough to get a good education before they started training to be painters (or sculptors or architects) achieved some degree of acceptance as equals in court and intellectual circles, but this perception was impossible to maintain without a substantial income and a literary education not available to the majority. Rubens set the gold standard. Bernini had the income and close relationships with several popes to earn him considerable standing, but no Italian painters come close. Their associates and lifestyle ruled them out (e.g., Caravaggio), or they were difficult to deal with (Reni). Many seemed uncomfortable in the world of their patrons: Annibale Carracci comes to mind, though his brother Agostino did enjoy life at the Farnese court. Not even Poussin comes close to Rubens’s range of literary expertise and diplomatic skills, and furthermore, he deliberately chose not to live like a prince. Many aspired but few achieved. Ago’s comments on this issue are well taken.

Ann Sutherland Harris
Professor Emerita, Department of the History of Art and Architecture, University of Pittsburgh

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