Introduction and the Court Artist
Why the arts? What is a Prince? Were they all leaders of taste? We begin by exploring some of the key themes and figures of this series before moving on to examine the qualities, experience and identity of the “court artist”.
The Glory of the Lagoon
Far from the romantic city of our imagination, Renaissance Venice was a superpower feared across the Italian peninsula. Its vast territories gave it unique contact with eastern and western culture which, from Jacopo Bellini to Titian, mingle in the art commissioned by those selected families who vied with each other to provide the next Doge.
Splendour in the Marches
Federigo da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino, was in many ways the ideal Renaissance ruler – courageous soldier, benevolent statesman and cultivated and lavish patron of the arts. We will concentrate on the paintings, architecture, manuscripts and sculpture associated with Federigo, but also cast a glance at his arch‐enemy Sigismondo Malatesta of Rimini, “more wild beast than man”.
Poets and Soldiers
The d’Este rulers of Ferrara created an environment of taste and magnificence, brick and marble, of the finest paintings, in a city which they made a model of early urban planning and is now a Unesco World Heritage site. Much of their collections is now dispersed, but we will consider their impact as well as that of the sculpture, architecture and painting which remain. In contrast, the Sforza of Milan were terrifying warlords but also commissioned some of Leonardo’s finest work during his 18 years at their court.
Smoke and Mirrors
Mantua, small and muddy, was one of the least powerful of Italian city states but through extraordinary and judicious patronage of the arts, the Gonzaga dynasty presented itself as the equal of all contemporaries. Alberti in architecture, Pisanello and Mantegna in painting created an image of splendour which made the city the envy of its contemporaries.
The role of women in commissioning art works is slowly becoming clearer, distinct in so many ways from the choices and opportunities available to their male counterparts. Central to this picture is Isabella d’Este, Marchesa of Mantua and scion of the powerful Ferrarese dynasty, whose unscrupulous methods contributed to the creation of a legendary personal collection.
A “Restive and Independent City”
Florence was a proud Republic, so the position of the Medici family was equivocal. Officially “first among equals”, they trod a fine line in asserting their rule without alienating the democratic rhetoric of the state, and their discerning and generous commissions to some of the greatest creative figures of the age were calculated to give political reassurance while subtly reminding the people of the munificence, wisdom and virtue of the first family.
Princes of the Church
Renaissance popes were not only princes of the church but rulers of vast secular domains, determined to recreate for Rome the glories of pagan antiquity. None was more remarkable than Julius II who, in a reign of barely 10 years, rebuilt a dilapidated city, commissioned Michelangelo, Raphael and Bramante, and laid the foundations of St Peter’s Basilica as we know it today.
Merchants, Monks and Guilds
The patronage of princes inspired others. Wealthy urbanites and the Church, individuals and groups, increasingly used art to confirm their commitment to Renaissance values of piety, charity and scholarship.
Italy created the model in which connoisseurship became the distinguishing mark of the enlightened and refined ruler. From Krakow to London, monarchs presented themselves through their patronage of the arts, the forms taken from Italy and often executed by artists from the peninsula itself, responsible for spreading the vocabulary of classicism and power across the European courts.