Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 18, 2002
Dale Kent Cosimo de’ Medici and the Florentine Renaissance: The Patron's Oeuvre New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999. 544 pp.; 40 color ills.; 148 b/w ills. Cloth $49.95 (0300081286)

Winner of CAA’s 2002 Charles Rufus Morey Book Award

Dale Kent’s impressive study of Cosimo de’ Medici and patronage culture of the mid-fifteenth century is a welcome addition to Renaissance and Florentine studies. The last serious biography of Cosimo in English, by Kurt Gutkind, appeared in 1938. The Warburg Institute’s symposium that resulted in a volume of essays edited by Francis Ames-Lewis, Cosimo “il Vecchio” de’ Medici, 1389-1464 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992) brought Cosimo studies into the late twentieth century. Now, Kent’s book makes further contributions by incorporating an array of contemporary and modern sources into an insightful discussion of the early Medici and their cultural context. Those looking for an updated biography of Cosimo will be disappointed, for the book contains little about Cosimo’s personality, family life, or political iter unconnected to his patronage. We get only a few tantalizing glimpses of the dozens of petitioners crowded into the Medici courtyard or of the old man himself, crippled by gout, being carried about in a litter chair (this latter impression drawn from a contemporary poem). Not biographical in the traditional sense, Kent seeks to construct a cultural history of Cosimo’s patronage, which she conceives loosely as an "oeuvre"—a definable body of work held together by certain intelligible themes, responsive to and directed toward an audience. Although “oeuvre” usually describes the corpus produced by an artist or author, Kent makes a good case for similarly designating a patron’s collected commissions.

How to define Cosimo’s oeuvre is a debatable issue, complicated by the usual questions of attribution and dating. Kent takes a very broad approach that includes works he specifically sponsored, such as Donatello’s David and Judith, as well as guild commissions he might have encouraged, including the tomb of Pope John XXIII in the Baptistery and the painted equestrian portraits by Uccello and Castagno in the Duomo. In addition, she considers patronage by Cosimo’s sons during their father’s lifetime to be part of the oeuvre of the Medici household, hence downplaying intergenerational differences between Cosimo and his children. Kent emphasizes that the patron was indeed an auctor, though not sole author, of his commissions, similar in conception to what I have called elsewhere “shared agency.” For Kent, Cosimo’s authorship operated on two levels: first, and most directly, in his active involvement with artists on particular projects, and second, and more generally, in his promotion of the city’s cultural life, whereby patrons, artists, and their audiences shared a vocabulary of idioms and images. While Cosimo would not have dictated or restricted the special genius of a Donatello, Michelozzo, or Brunelleschi, these Renaissance artists did not listen to their muses in splendid isolation. “The patron’s conception of his oeuvre was the framework within which the artist created the elements of his” (345). Kent takes the position that as patrons and artists collaborated, they drew upon but also reflected back on a common corpus of cultural ideas. These cultural underpinnings become the subject of Part 2, in which she seeks to expose the wider Florentine audience and its core attitudes and beliefs about art, life, and God.

The book illustrates both the strength and tenuousness of cultural history, at once provocative and illuminating, but often at the same time, in the absence of hard proof, reliant upon constructions from accumulated circumstantial and sometimes indirect associations. For example, was Cosimo’s keen interest in matters military and his financial backing of the condottiere Niccoló Tolentino really sufficient evidence of active Medici participation in Andrea del Castagno’s equestrian portrait of him? Kent argues that themes employed in the visual, literary, and theatrical arts harmonize because of the extent to which fifteenth-century Florentines enjoyed a rich visual culture that facilitated an easy commerce between words and ideas and their symbolic representation in paint and stone.

Kent dismisses “trickle-down” theories that depict Renaissance intellectual and artistic culture as a product of self-interested, self-referential elites driven primarily by a desire to reaffirm continually their power and position in society. Rather, she argues that reductionist approaches mask or marginalize other important motivating impulses, such as, in Cosimo’s case, his sincere piety and desire to build “for the honor of God, and the honor of the city, and the memory of me,” to borrow the words his contemporary, Giovanni Rucellai, used in his Zibaldone.

She devotes Part 3 to Cosimo’s extensive devotional and religious commissions in major Florentine churches, in addition to his better-known renovations and decorations at San Marco and San Lorenzo. On the one hand, she detects little tension between Cosimo’s Christian devotion, and on the other, his classically inspired sense of magnificentia and civic virtue and his hearty appetite for expensive and elegant surroundings. Nor does she find at odds the sacred and civic symbols that often combined in Medici commissions, such as Benozzo Gozzoli’s splendid Procession of the Magi adorning the family’s private chapel in the Medici Palace, which has often been interpreted as a highly decorative, retardataire series of self-aggrandizing Medici portraits. Kent argues for a more sophisticated audience for these works, using examples drawn from contemporary writings to argue against the notion that Renaissance art can be read simply and directly without reference to iconography and hermeneutics.

What, then, constitutes the foundations of Renaissance culture according to Kent? At the risk of oversimplifying, her position incorporates elements of both Jacob Burckhardt and Mikhail Bakhtin. From the former she evokes the heroic dimensions of the Renaissance and the concept of “work of art” to describe diverse aspects of its culture, the foundation for which the Swiss cultural historian had located in the “genius” of the Italian people. Unlike Burckhardt, however, Kent emphasizes Cosimo’s sincere religious piety and the expiatory impulses of his patronage. From Bakhtin she accepts the basic premise that elite culture finds its wellspring in the culture of the folk in the streets. Kent’s Cosimo, however, emerges not so much as a man of the people as a man whose tastes were shaped by late trecento Florentine culture and its ingrained piety.

One of the most original and engaging sections of the book is Chapter 6, “Compilations and the Corpus of Texts,” which examines several hundred extant vernacular books and zibaldoni, or collections of miscellanies, the contents of which (their rubrics and illustrations) were all prepared by both wealthy and nonwealthy writers. She mines the common literature and popular culture for possible resonances in works of art and, more generally, for evidence of the tastes of contemporary Florentines aside from the educated elite. Kent argues that themes expressed in Medici commissions, drawn from Christian, Classical, political, and literary sources, were hardly esoteric, but were instead very familiar to general Florentine audiences. To wit, she finds little difference in the contents of zibaldoni compiled by patricians and plebeians. Their common core of texts typically included passages from Cicero, Augustine, Bernard of Clairvaux, and the lives of saints and of famous condottieri. Stories of uomini illustri, with their themes of heroism and fame, were also typical of these books destined to serve as handy moral guides, as gifts for friends, and, interestingly, as companions for persons in prison.

Kent’s book is beautifully presented, meeting the high standards of the Yale University Press for art publications, with its enlarged format and double columns of text. It is wonderfully illustrated with nearly 200 reproductions, including numerous full-page color plates, making the book a real bargain at under $50. Many of the objects and manuscripts associated with Cosimo and found in collections and libraries around the world are brought together photographically for the first time. The copious notes, placed at the end of the book, necessitate constant flipping back and forth, and the conscientious reader must pursue numerous cross-references to different sections of the book for further discussion of an argument or source. Kent’s organization by topic necessitates some repetition. Consequently the book is a slow read, but one that is certainly enjoyable and edifying for its rich harvest of iconographical references and bibliography. Kent’s cultural-history approach, located somewhere between the traditional disciplines of history and art history, may challenge some readers’ expectations. Her extensive discussions of works of art contain no formal stylistic analysis, and, as befitting her argument, she treats specific artworks and architecture as historical documents substantiating a larger context more than as aesthetic statements in their own right. After a generation of highly specialized research, Kent has accepted the challenge to engage current scholarship critically and to suggest a fresh, new synthesis of the Florentine experience. No one will agree with everything in the book, and some art historians may puzzle over the historian’s nonaesthetic treatment of art. Regardless, the book is an ambitious tour de force that brings together an impressive combination of written, visual, and ceremonial sources relating to Cosimo and mid-fifteenth-century Florentine culture. It is a study that few scholars could have executed with comparable insight and aplomb.

Melissa Meriam Bullard
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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