Calling the Tune: patrons, donors and dealers in paintings 1

Raphael (1483–1520), Portrait of a Cardinal (1510-11), oil on panel, 79 x 61 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

Like any art, paintings aren’t created in isolation, in some sort of idealistic vacuum in which the artist simply creates whatever they want. For a start, the great majority of paintings are created for someone else to view them. The dirty secret is that the artist often hopes that one of those viewers is going to be sufficiently pleased with their work as to drop them some money in return for the painting. Like it or not, painters like other human beings have partners and families, and mundane things like bills to pay and mouths to feed.

Much of the time we choose to downplay or even ignore the other half of the painting’s purpose: to please a patron, donor or dealer. Ignoring their role in the art of the painting gives a very one-sided view of paintings. In the coming weeks, I’m going to look at this vital relationship from the other side, to see how patrons, donors, dealers and others involved in the purchase of paintings have affected what has been painted.

This has been well-studied in the Renaissance, a period when few paintings came into existence without a commission or patron.

Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale (1872–1945), The Forerunner (1920), oil on canvas, 59.6 × 122 cm, Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool, England. Wikimedia Commons.

Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale is one of the few to have looked at these relationships in her paintings. The Forerunner shows Leonardo da Vinci trying to convince the Milanese court not for a painting, but of his idea for flying machines. The notable figures included here are (from the left) Savonarola (derived from Fra Bartolomeo’s portrait), Beatrice d’Este (Duchess of Milan), Cecilia Gallerani, Elisabetta Gonzaga, Leonardo da Vinci, and Ludovico Sforza (Duke of Milan, and Leonardo’s patron). Apart from Savonarola, all played important roles in the financial support of art.

Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale didn’t paint this in artistic isolation either. She sold The Forerunner to Lord Leverhulme, and it is now on view in the Lady Lever Art Gallery. Two years later she was commissioned to paint Botticelli’s Studio (below) for Montague Rendell, a painting shown at the Royal Academy later that year, and remaining in a succession of private collections since.

Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale (1872–1945), Botticelli’s studio: The first visit of Simonetta presented by Giulio and Lorenzo de Medici (1922), oil on canvas, 74.9 × 126.4 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

This painting’s full title reveals its key figures: Botticelli’s Studio: The first visit of Simonetta presented by Giulio and Lorenzo de Medici (1922). Sandro Botticelli stands at the left, in front of an exquisite tondo which he is working on. Bowing to him at the centre is Giuliano de’ Medici, who is accompanied by Simonetta Vespucci, wearing the green dress. Behind her is Lorenzo de’ Medici, also known as Lorenzo the Magnificent, and behind him are Giovanna Tornabuoni and her attendants, completing this group of Botticelli’s key patrons. The view through the window is of the Palazzo Vecchio in the centre of Florence, a city in which patronage was decisive in so many activities.

Portraits of patrons and their assocates are also important parts of our art heritage.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), Lady with an Ermine (Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani) (c 1489-90), oil on walnut, 54.8 x 40.3 cm, Czartoryskich w Krakowie, Kraków, Poland. Wikimedia Commons.

Leonardo da Vinci’s superb portrait of a Lady with an Ermine, shows Cecilia Gallerani, the mistress of Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan. This made such an impression at the Duke’s court that Bernardo Bellincioni, a poet there, wrote a sonnet celebrating this painting.

The ermine is an unusual animal for such a portrait, but has two distinctive links. Its Greek name γαλέη (galée) is a pun on Cecilia’s surname of Gallerani, and King Ferrante of Naples bestowed the Order of the Ermine on Ludovico, who then became dubbed Italico Morel, bianco eremellino, ‘Italian Moor, white ermine’, by Bellincioni.

Cecilia became Ludovico’s mistress in early 1489, when she was fifteen years old. He married Beatrice d’Este in January 1491, when Cecilia was five months pregnant with his son, and the court poet Bellincioni died young the following year.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), Portrait of Isabella d’Este (c 1499-1500), black and red chalk with stump, ochre chalk, white highlights, on paper, 61 x 46.5 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Image by RMN / Michèle Bellot, via Wikimedia Commons.

After he had painted The Last Supper, Leonardo made this Portrait of Isabella d’Este (c 1499-1500) in chalk. Isabella (1474-1539) was the Marchioness of Mantua, a major patron of the arts, and sister to Beatrice d’Este, Duchess of Milan, the wife of Ludovico Sforza. It was a small world.

The career of another major Italian artist of the Renaissance, Raphael, was heavily dependent on his patronage by the Pope, Julius II.

Raphael (1483–1520), Portrait of Pope Julius II (1511), oil on poplar wood, 108.7 x 81 cm, National Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.

It was Julius II who summoned Raphael to Rome, and commissioned his stanze in the Vatican Palace there. Only five years earlier, he had started the rebuilding of Saint Peter’s Basilica, and had engaged Michelangelo too. He fell ill in 1512, and died early the following year at the age of 69.

Raphael (1483–1520), Portrait of a Cardinal (1510-11), oil on panel, 79 x 61 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

Raphael’s slightly earlier Portrait of a Cardinal from 1510-11 most probably shows Ippolito d’Este, commonly known as the Cardinal of Ferrara. He was the brother of Beatrice and Isabella d’Este, so the brother-in-law of Ludovico Sforza. His oldest brother Alfonso married Lucrezia Borgia. This adds another piece to the jigsaw puzzle of patronage at the time.

Ippolito d’Este was himself a patron of the arts, and was perhaps most notable in that respect for the support that he gave Ludovico Ariosto, author of Orlando Furioso, which praises the Cardinal.

Patronage was important in Venice, where it was often exercised through its fraternity institutions, known as scuole (plural of scuola). There were numerous regular scuole, but a few rose to become officially recognised as Scuole Grandi, which had elaborate constitutions and were regulated by the Procurators of the city. In 1564, there were just six, of which the Scuola Grande di San Rocco was the second youngest, being founded in 1478.

In addition to their system of boards and officers, the Scuole Grandi had grand premises. In their main building was an androne or meeting hall, and its upper floor had two rooms for smaller gatherings: the larger one was used by its main board, and a smaller albergo for its supervising committees. There was usually an affiliated hospital, and of course the Scuola’s church. The Scuole Grandi also had a long history of commissioning music and musicians, and art, including architecture, sculpture, and painting.

San Rocco’s meeting house had undergone protracted and costly development, being started on its formation in 1478 and only ‘substantially’ completed seventy years later in 1549.

In 1549, in a bid to strengthen his hand with the Scuola Grande, Jacopo Tintoretto donated his painting of Saint Roch Cures the Plague Victims to its Church of San Rocco, but it had been his patron Tommaso Rangone who commissioned a recent series of paintings of Saint Mark. Then in 1564, the brothers of the Scuola Grande called a competition between the leading painters of Venice to start providing paintings for its albergo.

Jacopo Tintoretto (c 1518-1594), St Roch in Glory (E&I 101) (1564), oil on canvas, 240 x 360 cm, Albergo, Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

Tintoretto, faced with hostility from some of the brothers, pre-empted the competition by donating what was intended to be the thematic centre panel of the ceiling: St Roch in Glory (E&I 101) (1564). This resulted in Tintoretto stealing the commission, and making twenty-two more paintings to complete that project. Over the following years, his paintings came to dominate the treasures of San Rocco, and his place in the history of art was assured.

Jacopo Tintoretto (c 1518-1594), The Crucifixion (E&I 123) (1565), oil on canvas, 536 x 1224 cm, Albergo, Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

The following year, commissioned again by the Scuola Grande for its albergo, Tintoretto painted one of the major religious works of the century: his vast Crucifixion (E&I 123) (1565). This is over 5 metres (17 feet) high, and 12 metres (40 feet) across.

Whatever our feelings today about systems of patronage, they were decisive not only in determining which artists flourished, but also what and how they painted. In the next article I will look at more recent times.