Another reason that Gothic paintings may seem monotonous to the modern eye is that they have a single dominant genre: religious. No realism was necessary, because everyone knew the story, and its interpretation was a matter of dogma not nuance. By the end of the Renaissance, paintings were being made in each of the genres, even landscapes, and those which were narrative frequently told myths or even contemporary fiction. One of the main reasons for the broadening of genres and themes was patronage.
Even before the Renaissance, secular paintings started to become more common. One of the most remarkable forerunners in this respect (and others) are the frescoes painted by Ambrogio Lorenzetti in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena.
These frescoes for the Council Room (above and below) were commissioned by the city council of Siena, and are among the first examples of what was later to become a little derogatively termed municipal art. But Lorenzetti takes the opportunity to express a humanist message, warning those using the Council Room of the consequences of their decisions.
Almost exactly a century later, Paolo Uccello was commissioned most probably by a member of the Bartolini Salimbeni family of Florence to paint a series of panels showing the Battle of San Romano.
This is the panel which is now in London’s National Gallery. For Florentines of the day this was considered an important victory for their city-state over Siena, fought on 1 June 1432, just a few years before Uccello is thought to have painted these scenes. They are characteristic of the early Renaissance, being painted in egg tempera with drying oils, an intermediate between traditional and modern media, and designed to demonstrate the artist’s prowess at the novel perspective projection which had just been developed in Florence.
Among the most famous patrons of painting and the arts were the de’ Medici family of Florence, whose relationship with Sandro Botticelli is explored in Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale’s Botticelli’s Studio (1922).
This painting’s full title reveals its key figures: Botticelli’s Studio: The first visit of Simonetta presented by Giulio and Lorenzo de Medici. 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.
Although these patrons invested in religious works, they also loved portraits, and other secular paintings.
Leonardo da Vinci’s superb portrait of a Lady with an Ermine, shows Cecilia Gallerani, the mistress of Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan and patron of both Leonardo and Bramante the architect. This made such an impression at the Duke’s court that Bernardo Bellincioni, a poet there, wrote a sonnet in its celebration.
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.
Isabella d’Este, Beatrice’s older sister, was another important patron who involved herself so much in her commissions that she almost painted them by proxy. Her sponsorship and taste in paintings is largely reflected in the works which she commissioned for her private study, her famous studiolo. Her period of collecting covered the appointments of two court painters in Mantua: Andrea Mantegna until his death in 1506, thereafter Lorenzo Costa. When Isabella was most active in her collecting of paintings in the early 1500s, Mantegna was around 70 years old, and Costa in his forties.
Despite a discouraging start, Isabella’s first commission for a painting for her study was awarded to Mantegna, for his painting of Mars and Venus, known better as Parnassus (1496-97). This refers to the classical myth of the affair between Mars and Venus, the latter being married to Vulcan, who caught them in bed together and cast a fine net around them for the other gods to come and mock their adultery. It’s an unusual and thoroughly secular theme for a woman of the time to have chosen, although it has generally been interpreted with reference to a contemporary poem which seems less concerned with the underlying story of adultery exposed.
The noble families of Florence and the other city-states of Italy weren’t just rich and influential, but prized scholarship and education. Through those they came to appreciate contemporary art in a way that earlier courts were incapable. Books like Boccaccio’s Decameron, which had been widely distributed since its completion by 1353, were as familiar to them as the accounts of classical myths by Ovid, and scripture. Among the best-known at the time was that of Nastagio Degli Onesti, included in the Decameron as the eighth tale on the fifth day.
This gruesome story and ingenious reversal of conventional Christian values became popular and well-known through the fifteenth century, sufficient for it to be depicted in four tempera panels given on the occasion of the arranged marriage of Gianozzo Pucci and Lucretia Bini in 1483. The couple were particularly fortunate, in that one of those who made the arrangement, and who had this gift made for them, was Lorenzo de’ Medici, ‘the Magnificent’, who was also Botticelli’s patron at the time, and ruler of the Florentine Republic.
The first panel shows two figures of Nastagio, at the left, in the pine wood, with the naked woman running towards him, a mastiff ainking its teeth into her buttock. Behind them, at the right, is Guido, his sword in hand ready to kill the woman when he catches her. In the distance is a coastal landscape intended to locate this near Ravenna, which is close to the Adriatic, although this appears idealised rather than representative.
Botticelli continues to tell the story using multiplex (‘continuous’) narrative in the second painting. The dead Guido has now caught the dead woman, killed her with his rapier, and with her lying on her face, he is cutting her back open to remove her cold heart. His dogs are already eating her organs at the right, and Nastagio is visibly distressed at the left.
Behind that composite scene is an earlier scene of Guido and his dogs still in pursuit of the woman, which precedes the image of the first painting in the series.
In the third painting, Botticelli shows the breakfast banquet a week later, with the dead woman being attacked by Guido’s dogs, and Guido himself about to catch and kill her, in front of Nastagio’s guests.
Nastagio’s love is sitting at the table on the left, from which all the women are rising in distress at the sight, spilling their food in front of them.
The fourth and final panel shows Nastagio’s wedding, the bride and her women sitting to the left, and the men to the right, in formal symmetry. The groom is sat on the other side of the same table as the bride.
Botticelli’s series seems to have been quite celebrated, and not too long afterwards, Ghirlandaio, another Florentine master, was asked to paint not copies, but in the manner of Botticelli’s series, of which two have survived.
The appearance of the nude in paintings was another landmark of the Renaissance. There are few stories in the Bible which might justify the inclusion of naked young women, but they are commonplace in myth and other secular stories, and proved popular with the predominantly male patrons.
Botticelli was a master of secular narrative, particularly reworked classical myths, as seen in his most famous paintings, Primavera and The Birth of Venus.
Sandro Botticelli was born in Florence in about 1445, worked in Fra Filippo Lippi’s workshop in the city, and established his own workshop there by 1470. He produced illustrations for the first printed edition of Dante’s Inferno in 1481. The Primavera was commissioned by his patron Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’Medici, for his Florence residence, but was later moved to his residence at Castello, where it was joined by The Birth of Venus (below).
Piero di Cosimo, another Florentine of the same period, may have paid his bills by painting portraits of nobles, including Simonetta Vespucci, mistress of Giuliano de’ Medici, but he too contributed to this explosive growth in paintings of mythology in realist style.
Although there’s still debate over its subject, Piero’s A Satyr Mourning over a Nymph from about 1495 is a fine example of a secular work which simply couldn’t have been painted before the Renaissance.
Of all the modern genres, it was landscape painting which came latest, and developed most slowly in the southern Renaissance.
Giorgione’s revolutionary landscape The Tempest from just after 1500 remains enigmatic today, and may have religious references, but it marked the start of this new and wholly secular genre which is heavily dependent on realism even now. Giorgione was, of course, a Venetian, and this painting was commissioned by Gabriele Vendramin, a local nouveau riche who assembled one of the most significant collections of art in Venice.
While the artists of the Renaissance undoubtedly chose their own course in the development of their art, it was their patrons who funded, enabled, and occasionally directed its movement towards realism and secular subjects. Ultimately it was they who were at least in part responsible for the genres which became popular.