- Changing Patrons: Social Identity and the Visual Arts in Renaissance Florence
This book is about art patronage, but it deals not merely in conventional views about relationships between patrons and artists. It offers subtle and complex readings of the social purposes underlying the commissioning and display of paintings in Florence towards the end of the fifteenth century. The sophisticated discussion of patronal motivations revolves around two relatively little-known Florentine merchant families, the Nasi and the Del Pugliese. Piero del Pugliese, the principal art patron of his family, is best known for his commission of Filippino Lippi's Apparition of the Virgin to St. Bernard altarpiece, originally on the altar of his chapel in Santa Maria alle Campora. Filippo Nasi had Pietro Perugino paint an altarpiece of the same subject for his chapel in Santa Maria Maddalena dei Pazzi. Strikingly different in appearance, and in function and meaning for their two patrons, these altarpieces are awarded a justifiably extended comparative discussion.
Piero del Pugliese probably collaborated with the young Filippino Lippi in the design of his altarpiece, Jill Burke concludes, given the range of personal implications contained in its imagery. He himself appears, gazing at the Virgin, at the bottom-right corner of the panel, cut off at bust length as though "only half-accepted into [the] world" of the sacred figures. The Virgin interrupts St. Bernard [End Page 597] at work writing a sermon: this and other texts in the painting are easily to be read, and doubtless were intended to be read by learned beholders such as the Benedictine monks of the Campora. Piero "is both a model for imitation on the part of the laity who may have prayed in front of this image and a reminder to them to keep him in their prayers." Perugino's version of the subject appears to be compositionally modeled on an Annunciation scene, calling to mind St. Bernard's most celebrated sermon, Super Missus Est. In that sermon, on St. Luke's account of the Annunciation story, St. Bernard writes that "it is sweet to contemplate [the Virgin] in silence." Whereas Filippino's St. Bernard is active in his intercessory role, Perugino's St. Bernard represents through quiet meditation the Nasi family's support of the Cistercian church. Close readings of this sort offer new evidence about the contrasting visual messages that donors of altarpieces may have wished observers to receive.
Piero del Pugliese turns out to be a versatile promoter of his social identity through visual means. He is portrayed as St. Nicholas in an altarpiece (now in St. Louis, MO) commissioned from Piero di Cosimo for the Del Pugliese chapel in the small church of Santa Maria a Lecceto. St. Nicholas offers his standard attri-bute, three golden balls, to the Virgin, alluding to Piero del Pugliese's gift of land and money that helped the Dominican community to build the church. We should not, Burke suggests, be surprised by such "identity manipulation in a society where individuals were encouraged to empathize with Christ and the saints. . . ." Burke shows that altarpieces were not merely ecclesiastical furnishings given by devout merchants: they were often statements about familial identity and how patrons wished to position themselves within Florentine society.
The same patron is portrayed once more in an extraordinary and little-known double portrait (now in the Denver Art Museum), which brings together what Burke describes as "patronage and the art of friendship." Piero's prominently attentive ear is caught by the bust-length profile of Filippino Lippi, open-mouthed as in speech, causing him to look round towards the painter. This engaged relationship between patron and painter manifests the amicitia between them, a notion central to the Vasarian construct of the painter as artist rather than artisan. Here his close association with a painter also evidently flatters the patron: he could gain social kudos through the portrait's implication of his cultural sophistication, and as Burke suggests through the part...