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  • The Business of Art: Contracts and the Commissioning Process in Renaissance Italy
  • Ames-Lewis Ames-Lewis
Michelle O'Malley . The Business of Art: Contracts and the Commissioning Process in Renaissance Italy. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005. x + 358 pp. index. append. illus. bibl. $50. ISBN: 0-300-10438-3.

This book sums up many years' research into the subtleties of language and meaning in documents regarding the commissioning of Italian Renaissance paintings. Issues of linguistic interpretation are explored considerably more profoundly than in hitherto standard works such as Hanelore Glasser's thesis of 1965, and O'Malley makes a major contribution to our understanding of the legal framework for Renaissance painters' activities. She builds her analysis around three issues: "what were the nuances of language that framed contract terms; what were the ramifications of contract stipulations, in terms of both production and finance; and how was information, particularly visual information, transmitted?" (1).

O'Malley's close reading of the "nuances of language" in contracts is sophisticated and productive. She reaches illuminating deductions about the contemporary values of particular contractual stipulations. An important example is her elucidation of how the term a sua mano, as used in Renaissance contracts, was understood and applied. Given the evidently collaborative nature of works so described, from Duccio's Maestà onwards, the meaning of a sua mano has often perplexed critics. As O'Malley notes, "while it seems to prevent the participation of assistants in painting a work, making such a requirement would have subverted normal workshop practice" (91). But she shows that in fact it was understood to mean that "[t]he painter was bound to cause the work to be painted by handling its production within his own workshop" (92). It is a piece of legal jargon that is never used by painters themselves. Only later in the fifteenth century did the term's meaning evolve to refer to work that had specifically to be done by the master himself. Filippino Lippi, for example, agreed in his contract personally to paint Filippo Strozzi's chapel in S. Maria Novella, Florence, "tutto di suo mano, e massime le figure"; and in 1502 Pinturicchio agreed to "make with his own hand all the designs both on paper and on the wall" for the Libreria Piccolomini frescoes in Siena, to "paint the heads in fresco, do the retouching necessary in secco and bring the whole work to his usual quality of finish."

O'Malley works with a corpus of 238 commissions for altarpieces and frescoes; of these, 154 include contract documents. The terms used in these documents were codified using a purpose-designed digitized database. The breadth of the analysis demonstrates powerfully the value of new technology in a research project of this nature: by encouraging her to search in numerous directions, O'Malley's database reveals myriad ways of analyzing the documentary information. However, some results obtained by database searching seem statistically unsteady. Discussing the relationship between altarpiece sizes and prices, O'Malley judiciously concludes that "[s]ize was an important element, but it was only one of the many aspects taken into account when agreeing a fee" (135); so the size-price tables she provides are of uncertain value. "The data before 1400 are too scant to tell much about sizes and prices" (135), she admits, and indeed, problematically, [End Page 498] an "average" fee for an altarpiece is often cited when only one case survives. Moreover, the documentary data on altarpiece sizes is often imprecise. Probably only broad conclusions, such as that "[p]rices in Florence and Central Italy tended . . . to fall after 1500" (136), can validly be deduced from such limited and equivocal information. Prudently perhaps, O'Malley soon moves to consider more intangible influences on pricing decisions, such as the high prestige of the commission, which might lead a painter to accept a relatively low fee; the honor of the commissioning body, which might lead them to offer a relatively high fee; or perceptions of the skill and reputation of the painter.

An informative chapter investigates contract drawings, their characteristics and their functions within the commissioning process: O'Malley concludes that the painter here "created . . . a comprehensive conception...


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pp. 498-499
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Archived 2009
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