Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 8, 2023
Inge Reist, ed. When Michelangelo Was Modern: Collecting, Patronage and the Art Market in Italy, 1450-1650 Studies in the History of Collecting & Art Markets, Volume: 14. Amsterdam: Brill, 2022. 280 pp.; 65 color ills. Hardback $78.00 (9789004460423)

Since 2007, the Center for the History of Collecting at the Frick Art Reference Library in New York has been a leader in its field. As a list in this book’s foreword demonstrates, the center has produced a number of scholarly tomes that have enriched the study of collecting. This volume departs somewhat from its predecessors in examining the collecting practices and art market of a much earlier period than the center has hitherto done, namely those in Italy during the years 1450–1650. In publishing with Brill’s growing series Studies in the History of Collecting & Art Markets, the center has also signaled a more overt interest in the art market than previously shown. Edited by Inge Reist, the center’s founding director, the present volume results from a symposium of the same name held in 2019. The book’s clever title is a tad misleading: while it suggests the reader will be presented with chapters written from the perspective of individuals involved in the art world of Renaissance Italy, in fact this is a conventional collection of scholarly essays. This does not, though, detract from the value of the contributions, which are arranged in roughly chronological order and address diverse Italian locations including Florence, Mantua, Venice, Bologna, and Rome. They also cover a broad range of art market participants from bankers and artists to critics, courtesans, and diplomats. Although there are mentions of other collecting categories, the fine arts, as in other Frick publications, dominate here.

Reist pulls the wide-ranging essays together in her introduction through presenting a few broad themes such as “The Changing Status of the Artist” and “Agents for the Secondary Market,” and through providing background information on a number of well-known figures active in the Italian art market. She begins with two Venetian merchant collectors who have been the subject of monographs in recent years, Andrea Odoni and Daniel Nijs, then moves on to three humanists, Pietro Aretino, Veronica Gambara and Cassiano del Pozzo, and to agents such as Jacopo Strada who has also been the subject of a recent monograph. In discussing Aretino’s role in brokering Titian’s commission to paint the portrait of Francis I, she describes the image as “a picture that would eventually become the King’s image for the ages” (15). It is hoped that the illustration in the introduction described as a portrait of Nijs will not likewise become the image of the Flemish merchant “for the ages,” for as Odoardo Fialetti’s portrait of Nijs, the cataloging of the Dayton Art Institute, and other portraits by Rubens attest, this is not Nijs but most likely the English agent George Gage.

Especially interesting essays include Saida Bondini’s examination of family patronage in Bologna and John Marciari’s tracing of the evolution of preparatory drawings from workshop aids to collectibles. Bondini’s essay challenges existing scholarly assumptions about the hegemony of the Bentivoglio family in Bologna’s artistic patronage and the political periodization of the city’s artistic production. Instead, she presents a granular view of the city’s patronage through examining other families who were able to adapt to shifting political circumstances and provide continuity in the artistic and cultural arena. These individuals included not only patricians but also merchants, notaries, and university lecturers. Bondini uses the patronage of the Santa Maria della Misericordia church as a case study to illustrate how donors, rather than the church’s religious order, pursued consistency and cohesiveness in the design of the chapels and decoration of the church.

Marciari’s essay perhaps comes closest to giving the reader the experience of seeing the period through the eyes of those who lived it. The author examines the process by which preparatory drawings, once uncollectible, became collectible. He describes how a sketch was understood as a marker of artistic genius, “a moment in which an artist seized upon inspiration and, in a godlike act, brought a new creation into being” (145). Nevertheless, sketches did not become collectibles until sometime after this belief took hold. Surviving drawings from the early Renaissance tend to be highly finished and refined, a notable exception being Spinello Aretino’s Miracles of Thomas Becket Read to Pope Alexander III (148). This sketch survived, though, because the other side of the paper was later utilized by the artist’s son for a drawing incorporated in the working of the studio. Artists saw these working drawings as belonging to their studios, and therefore as part of the inheritance of the family’s next generation of artists. This explains why so few of them came to the market until very late in the period discussed here. Even then, many artists continued to retain their working drawings until well into the eighteenth century. Although the author acknowledges his debt to Julius Held’s 1963 article “The Early Appreciation of Drawings,” Marciari’s contribution emphasizes the development of a market, providing real insight into the sometimes opposing interests of artists and collectors.

Frances Gage makes a worthy contribution to another area of renewed scholarly interest, the development of connoisseurship, through an essay on Giulio Mancini, who became personal physician to Urban VIII. Mancini’s “commitment to use-value above delight” (229) was central to his evaluation of art. Although the physician was mainly interested in painting, he was also invited to contribute to deliberations over drawings for the Baldacchino in St. Peter’s and mentions such items as carpets, porcelain, metal inlay, and feathers from Asia, Africa, and the Americas in his Discorso di pittura. Gage identifies his increasingly broad vocabulary in describing pictures as evidence of his development as a connoisseur. As Gage relates, Mancini became so confident in his ability to judge the quality of pictures that he even made recommendations to artists of works to study as part of their development. Mancini’s activities as both agent and critic provide a valuable case study of the working of the Roman art market.

Also engaging are Hannah Joy Friedman’s essay on copies and fakes and Fausto Nicolai’s on the taste for Caravaggesque art. An interest in fakes, their creation, and their trade has been growing among scholars. Friedman contributes to this evolving discussion, convincingly arguing that copies served a variety of purposes and, while fakes were produced with the intention of deceiving, the reasons for making copies could be complex and not at all apparent to us today. Copies, for example, could stand in for master compositions (particularly if they were paintings after Cinquecento masters) or be “translucent incorporations of a high-profile work into a younger artist’s oeuvre” (171). Using the example of Michelangelo’s Bacchus, Friedman demonstrates that the Renaissance collector and critic faced this complexity as well. She gives the Portuguese artist Francisco de Holanda’s 1548 description of his ability to discern that Bacchus was not ancient but rather contemporary as an example of what would today be called connoisseurship. Nicolai, meanwhile, describes the workings of the Roman art market in such a way that its many similarities with today’s art market become apparent. Nicolai demonstrates how in Rome the practice of making paintings “on spec” tended to promote the desirability of a particular style, the Caravaggesque. Nicolai’s essay is a counterpoint to that of Patrizia Cavazzini who discusses the complexities and restrictions in the practice of the painters’ profession in the same city. Academicians, for example, were not supposed to engage in commercial transactions at the same time that artists arriving in the capital found themselves working more and more for the “anonymous personalities who ran shops” (209) with only a few successfully finding employment in a nobleman’s or cardinal’s household. For Valentin de Boulogne and Nicolas Poussin, for example, it took many years of working outside traditional patronage channels and involvement in the picture trade before they attracted the attention of Cardinal Francesco Barberini.

The collection of essays is rounded out by Chriscinda Henry’s study of the collecting practices of the always fascinating figure of the Venetian courtesan. A courtesan “walked a fine line between seeking to project the intellectual and social virtues of the chaste court ladies she emulated . . . and displaying the seductive attributes and accoutrements commensurate with the ‘paradise of Venus’” (77). Henry analyses the complexities of the “home as self-portrait” for someone who might have economic agency yet whose social position and freedom were often contingent. Leah R. Clark, furthermore, gives an overview of early Renaissance court collecting and the various individuals involved while Frederick Ilchman describes how collecting became such a ubiquitous pastime in Venice, and Stephen K. Scher writes about Isabella d’Este. A volume on Italian collecting in this period would not be complete with this prominent patroness of the arts.

A varied and interesting addition to scholarship on early modern Italian art, the main benefit of this book is its contribution to the argument that the art market is a subject worthy of serious scholarly study. Together with recent publications on connoisseurship and the growing body of interdisciplinary work on collecting, it highlights that rather than being tainted by the market, the study of art history is incomplete without an understanding of how art was traded.

Christina M. Anderson
Daphne Jackson Principal Research Fellow, School of European Languages, Culture and Society (SELCS), University College London