Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 2, 2012
Charles M. Rosenberg, ed. The Court Cities of Northern Italy: Milan, Parma, Piacenza, Mantua, Ferrara, Bologna, Urbino, Pesaro, and Rimini Artistic Centers of the Italian Renaissance.. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. 468 pp.; 35 color ills.; 228 b/w ills. Cloth $175.00 (9780521792486)

The Court Cities of Northern Italy: Milan, Parma, Piacenza, Mantua, Ferrara, Bologna, Urbino, Pesaro, and Rimini, published in Cambridge University Press’s Artistic Centers of the Italian Renaissance series, follows those on Rome, edited by Marcia B. Hall (2005), and Venice and the Veneto, edited by Peter Humphrey (2008), while two forthcoming volumes will address Naples and Florence. The series is conceived as a broadly contextual account of art of all kinds in Italy, 1300–1600.

The key to this approach is patronage. Each of the authors of Court Cities of Northern Italy looks at patrons as the way to approach the buildings, decorations, and objects in time and place. Since key patrons of these cities were often the rulers, each chapter rehearses a good deal of political history. A project of this scale inevitably runs into questions concerning the divisions adopted, and the authors must take into account events, personalities, and artworks that transcend the assigned boundaries of each chapter and of the volume. As the authors show: artists moved about, patrons invited artists from other cities, and patronage such as that of a major monarch or a large monastic order often affected far greater areas than one state. Aggressions among Italian city states, incursions of outside forces, changing boundaries, and constantly shifting alliances, often cemented by strategic marriages, affected patronage, contributing to a highly complex picture and making it all the more difficult to establish neat divisions. Within this complexity there can be omissions. For example, the city of Verona, independent, powerful, and signorile in the Trecento, is found in the volume on Venice and the Veneto, chapter 6, “Verona and Vicenza” by Gabriele Neher, where attention is given chiefly to the years after Verona’s submission to Venice in 1405. While perfectly logical in the context of cities subjugated to Venice, Verona’s rich history and artistic production of the Trecento under the Scaligeri, which relate to material in the Court Cities of Northern Italy, is not represented in this series. Somewhat similarly, in the Court Cities of Northern Italy, the years covered in each chapter differ according to the history of each center, as shall be seen below.

The introduction by Charles Rosenberg sets the stage for the essays that follow by reminding readers of the presence of Emperor and Pope in the political scene and the typical lack of full power by ruling families. He sets forth the range of patrons, from signori, to church, to convent, to individuals as well as their widely varied commissions, and from palaces, churches, villas and their decorations, to coinage and temporary architecture or costumes for public rituals. Rosenberg points out as common characteristics the continuation or revival of chivalric tradition and the commissioning of art and architecture by ruling families to display magnificence, affirm legitimacy, and visually affirm power.

Chapter 1, “Patrons, Artists and Audiences in Renaissance Milan, 1300–1600” by Evelyn Welch, highlights ad hoc collaboration among artists, the important roles of individual rulers, and the effects of the Catholic Reform under Borromeo. Welch writes that guilds had less power in Milan than in many other Italian states so that artists often arranged collaborations between workshops in order to meet deadlines. The long period of Visconti dominance (1277–1447) saw the height of Milan’s power, encompassing Siena, Pavia, Verona, and even Bologna and Padua circa 1400 under Giangaleazzo. Welch points out, however, that the building and decoration of the Duomo, providing work for artists for generations, was “established and managed by Milan’s professional urban elite,” not the court. Francesco Sforza’s aggressive rise to power was given legitimacy by his wife Bianca Maria Visconti, who patronized Observant Dominican and Franciscan monasteries. Clashing Sforza machinations brought France and Spain alternately into governorship of Milan beginning in the 1490s. Hapsburg power was consolidated, and starting in 1565 Cardinal Carlo Borromeo’s forceful presence brought significant renovations in church architecture in accord with Council of Trent prescriptions.

Chapter 2, “Center and Periphery: Art Patronage in Renaissance Piacenza and Parma” by Giuseppe Bertini, explores the situation in both Lombard cities, “mid-fourteenth century through late sixteenth.” Bertini sees Parma and Piacenza as peripheral with regard to Milan and Pavia. He argues further that Parma, more culturally sophisticated than Piacenza, developed its own “school” of painting in the early Cinquecento due to the gifts of Correggio and Parmigianino and the sensitivity of their patrons, whereas Piacenza depended primarily on imported talent. The many examples cited show much exchange between these cities and various other centers, including Milan (which dominated both cities from the mid-fourteenth through the fifteenth century), Rome (the Farnese dominated—alternating with the French—during the first half of the sixteenth century), Venice, and Bologna. In addition to ducal patronage, the canons of the Cathedral of Parma and Benedictine abbesses were important patrons. Frequent exchange between Piacenza and Parma is illustrated in the case of the Abbess of the San Paolo Convent in Parma, Giovanna da Piacenza, patroness of Correggio’s Camera di San Paolo.

Chapter 3, “The Art of Diplomacy: Mantua and the Gonzaga, 1328–1630” by Molly Bourne, has a clear focus, made possible partly because the Gonzaga controlled Mantua for this entire period. Bourne traces the steadily increasing wealth and prestige of the Gonzaga dynasty from their period as capitani, to marchesi, and finally to dukes in 1530. Building, decorating, and collecting progressed in parallel. Wealth was accumulated in part from Gonzaga rulers’ service as condottieri for major powers, such as Venice. The Gonzaga held the great Benedictine monastery of San Benedetto Po in commenda, and maintained close ties even after it joined the reform Cassinese Congregation, which forbade the commenda. Fifteenth-century commissions brought Pisanello, Mantegna, and Alberti to this small but prestigious duchy. Forwarded particularly through Giulio Romano’s service to three dukes, the building programs in the Cinquecento encompassed country estates and ecclesiastical patronage as well as the famous palaces. In the sixteenth century the dukes again invited the best talent from outside, and amassed an enviable collection of movable works that included paintings by Correggio, Titian, and Andrea del Sarto. Local painter and architect Gian Battista Bertani followed Giulio as court artist, renovated the Duomo, staged decorations for royal entries, and translated Vitruvius. Music, theater, and purpose-built spaces for performances formed part of the Gonzaga court scene and their princely magnificence.

Chapter 4, “Estense Patronage and the Construction of the Ferrarese Renaissance, c. 1395–1598” by Anthony Colantuono, similarly is able to focus on one dynasty, and the extent of the essay is again tailored to this purpose. Noting that much of Ferrara’s Renaissance magnificence is lost due to a series of disasters, Colantuono relates its strength in architecture, patronage of humanist scholars, and of both local and “foreign” artists, from Cossa or Dossi to Alberti, Titian, and Cellini. There seems not to have been one court artist as in Mantua. In a sympathetic note, Colantuono points out that our perception of strategies of patronage as a way to secure and maintain power may not have been the view of the protagonists, who probably saw their efforts more as obligations to Church, state, and heirs. A particular taste of this court was the commissioning of luxury manuscripts of religious content. Due perhaps to continual changes in the papacy, of which Ferrara was a vicariate, the Este endeavored to control local religious establishments through patronage.

Chapter 5, “Art, Patronage and Civic Identities in Renaissance Bologna” by David J. Drogin, focuses on the period 1350–1600, and is distinguished from the other chapters in Court Cities by Bologna’s history as a university town with a strong penchant for independence. Drogin points out Bologna’s strategic geographic location and traditional use of local materials, especially bricks and tiles in building. While earlier independent and briefly under Milan, from 1350 Bologna had often-renegotiated variations of shared papal and local rule. Two aspects highlighted as connected with the university in the Trecento are a homogeneous style in miniature painting and the importance of professors’ tombs. The church of San Petronio, the city’s patron saint, was symbolic of local rule, yet an “iconography of obedience” is seen in Jacopo della Quercia’s Quattrocento portal. Following the fall of the leading Bentivoglio family in 1506, Julius II and his successors (not without interruption) made Bologna the “second papal city,” reducing local power and increasing international presence and prestige. Such international events as the Congress of Bologna of 1529–30, involving Emperor Charles V and Pope Clement VII, brought commissions for elaborate ephemeral works of art, including triumphal arches and chapels. The role played by the Carracci in the stylistic changes of the late Cinquecento inspired by the Catholic Reform is analyzed as based on their study of Venetian and Emilian models.

Chapter 6, “Art Patronage in Renaissance Urbino, Pesaro and Rimini, c. 1400–1550” by Mary Hollingsworth, considers three papal fiefs ruled by “soldier-princes.” The period covered is the briefest of the six chapters, but this does not prevent its being full of political intrigue and, consequently, changes in patronage. Like the Gonzaga, the Montefeltro sold their military prowess to larger powers by serving as well-rewarded condottieri. In both building and festivals the cult of antiquity clothed the old chivalric traditions. Rimini’s history as a Roman port may have helped spur the Malatesta court’s support of humanist studies, and Sigismondo’s extensive patronage included Alberti’s enclosure of San Francesco in ancient architectural vocabulary. Urbino, ruled by Malatesta’s rivals, the Montefeltro, saw its greatest prestige under Federico da Montefeltro, who came to power by assassinating his legitimate half brother Oddantino in 1444. Yet his imagery stresses his virtue: Piero della Francesca’s portraits of Federico and his wife Battista Sforza have triumphs on the reverse: Federico’s of Fame with the four Cardinal virtues, Battista’s of Chastity with the Theological Virtues. Federico’s impressive library was wide-ranging, from religious and classical texts to military treatises; his church patronage focused on the Observant Franciscans. His palace decorations included a cycle of famous soldiers and his famous Studiolo portraits of twenty-four uomini illustri, from Old Testament models to Sixtus IV. Guidobaldo, Federico’s son, imported Baldassare Castiglione and commissioned paintings from young Raphael. Pesaro’s fortunes, and patronage, were tied up with those of Urbino and Rimini. Controlled by the Malatesta until 1445, the city was secured to Alessandro Sforza and his heirs in 1447 by Nicholas V. Alessandro supported Observant Franciscans and Dominicans; his son Costanzo worked at urban renewal. Della Rovere power dominated Pesaro as well as Urbino in the first half of the Cinquecento; Francesco Maria della Rovere and Eleonora Gonzaga commissioned portraits from Titian, their son Guidobaldo from Bronzino. Hollingsworth’s chapter thus illustrates not only inter-court politics, but also the highly international character of commissions by dukes of the papal fief cities.

Court Cities of North Italy is richly informative, often compelling reading, and is certainly a useful addition to the literature in English. It can be seen as complementary to earlier compendia that were object-focused, such as the Pelican History of Art series, or Adolfo Venturi’s eleven volume Storia dell’arte italiana. Each chapter is abundantly annotated, offering the reader leads to further literature, particularly in Italian and English. The focus, on the whole, is on patronage by rulers; often fascinating in telling the many initiatives and reversals of ruling families that in turn affected the arts, this emphasis might, in some places, shortchange other patronage of the period. It would appear that for this series of volumes on Artistic Centers of the Italian Renaissance each author worked independently after receiving the assignment. Perhaps an index with cross-references could be developed as part of the final volume to assist users in following the complex interrelationships.

Diana Gisolfi
Professor, Department of Art History, Pratt Institute