Interview: Alison Cole on courtly Italian Renaissance art

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Italian Renaissance Courts: Art, Pleasure and Power by art historian Alison Cole is a much revised and expanded edition of a book that was first published 1995. Then ‘court studies’ for a general public was a relatively new field. The central chapters of the book, a beautiful volume published by Laurence King, examines how five great Italian secular courts – Naples, Urbino, Ferrara, Mantua, and Milan – used art in their distinctive ways, during the 15th century. We had the opportunity to ask Alison Cole a few questions about the book.

The history of the Italian renaissance art has to a rather large extent become synonymous with the history of Medici Florence, followed by the history of the arts in Rome and Venice around 1500. Why did art history become so Tuscan-centric?

The simple answer is Giorgio Vasari, the 16th-century artist and art historian, whose Lives of the Artists (1550 and 1568) is one of the most important primary texts that art historians draw on for their knowledge of this period. Vasari was a Florentine, with a mission not only to create an entertaining and lively historical account of the artists he most admired, but also to promote his native Florence and its artists as the summit of political and artistic achievement.

The great 19th century German and Italian art historians were also more sympathetic to the Florentine Renaissance ethos, regarding the republics of Venice and Florence as the cradle of the liberal, Western-style modern state. As late as the 1960s, Florentine studies were still dominated “by a heroic conception of liberty and enlightenment fostered by the great …. scholar of civic humanism, and refugee from Nazi Germany, Hans Baron” (Paul Hills). Art historians, like Ernst Gombrich, continued this notion of the Florentine civic humanists, fostered by the Medici, as the standard bearers of learning and freedom. The courts, on the other hand, were regarded as centers of oppression and quixotic brilliance, moulded in the image of the despotic lords who ruled them.

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In the beginning of your book you write that art historians and scholars, during the last 50 years, have shifted focus toward the other city states and Italy’s secular princely courts. And your book tells the story of art, pleasure and power in the courts of Naples, Urbino, Ferrara, Mantua and Milan during the 15th century. What are the most striking differences between the art of these courts and the familiar Tuscan-centric narrative about Italian renaissance art?

The Tuscan-centric view has historically looked at Renaissance art as a progression, starting with Giotto’s remarkable innovations and culminating in the ”divine” accomplishments of Michelangelo. It tends to create a decisive break with the medieval period – marked by the transition to a new ‘modern’ style, that takes its cue from the astonishing advances made in painting, sculpture and architecture in the 1410s and 1420s (focusing on the achievements of Alberti, Donatello, Ghiberti, Masaccio and Brunelleschi). The Florentine style, with its mastery of central perspective, modelling in relief, antique-inspired naturalism and sculptural monumentally has long been regarded as the dominant aesthetic of the time.

When we look at the rich culture of the courts, however, we see that many different and equally prized aesthetics existed side by side, that there is no abrupt break with the past (continuity was politically desirable), that geographical boundaries are porous (admitting much exchange), and that a taste for Gothic can flourish alongside the revival of the Antique. The great courts of Naples and Milan, in particular, straddle larger worlds – with Naples looking to Spain and the Eastern Mediterranean, and Milan looking across the Alps to its Northern neighbors. We also find that art exists in many forms – with illuminated miniatures, ceremonial decoration, tapestry and jewelry often prized as much as, if not more than, painting and sculpture.

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Art was used as a means to project and legitimize power. Could you please give us a few examples of how art was used as propaganda by the rulers of these five secular princely courts?

We can begin with Azzone Visconti (Lord of Milan), whose fortified palace with its magnificent decoration was designed to have a specific effect on his subjects. “Thunderstruck in admiration”, says a contemporary chronicler, they were to judge him a prince “of such power, that it [was] impossible to attack him.”

Then we have Borso d’Este of Ferrara, who adorned an antechamber of his Schifanoia Palace with remarkable stucco decoration. This is designed around personifications of the seven female virtues, but only six are represented. The missing virtue – Justice – was amply embodied, it seems, by Borso himself. He used this room for formal hearings – while a large bronze statue of the ‘just ruler’, Borso, sat atop a column in the main square.

Finally, look at Ambrogio de Predis’ Portrait of Bianca Maria Sforza, commissioned by her uncle Ludovico Sforza (Regent of Milan). Here Bianca is presented as a hapless embodiment of her uncle’s dynastic ambition – the portrait was painted to mark her betrothal to Emperor Maximilian (Ludovico’s hopes of a Dukedom depended on this match). Thus Bianca is bedecked with the costliest jewelry (Ludovico was to provide 300,000 ducats for her dowry) and sports her uncle’s mottoes and emblems.

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You also write, in the beginning of the book, ”that courtly patronage was not just about outward display, material consumption or the cynical manipulation of power.” Could you please tell us a little bit about the other uses or functions of art?

Pleasure and delight, private enjoyment/ connoisseurship with an intimate and learned circle, and genuine devotion were also absolutely key to the commissioning and appreciation of works of art in this period. These existed side by side with more public motivations. The humanist Manetti, in a speech of 1445, praises Naples’s Alfonso of Aragon’s private moral virtues (piety, continence and devotion to art and learning) as distinct from his regal qualities ”justice, courage, gravity, liberality and magnificent.” Alfonso’s letter of March 1446, written to a Cardinal in grateful knowledge of some personal gifts, provides a useful counterpoint to the more public role played by art at court.

“I tell you, Sir, that when the first statue and paintings arrived I was out hunting and did not return until sunset. I had not eaten all day, but nonetheless was determined to satisfy the soul’s desires before the body’s, and I looked at the works without delay. I assure you that they are so perfect, especially the sculpture – which every day when I look at it delights me as if for the first time.”

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The book describes a lot of concepts and virtues of the period, and some of them might seem foreign today. I’m thinking of the Aristotelian theory of magnificence, and splendor, majesty, dignity, decorum and a sense of what is appropriate. Are there any concepts, aesthetic values or virtues, that are particularly important to grasp if you want to understand the period?

‘Magnificence’ and ‘decorum’ are probably two of the most important concepts to grasp. Generous expenditure – particularly in the sphere of public building, and ceremonial – became explicitly associated with an Aristotleian notion of classical honour: ‘magnificent’ expenditure made for the public good. But lavish expenditure had to be appropriate to place, rank and occasion, so rules of decorum were generally applied.

The revival of notions of dignity and decorum was also closely tied to the readings of classical texts, in this case the writings of Cicero and Quintilian. These Roman orators linked dignity directly with the ability to wield ‘authority’, deliver justice and command respect. ‘Dignity’ was a quality that was carefully cultivated by Renaissance soldier-princes, whose states depended on their success as ‘mercenaries for hire’. Federico da Montefeltro complained to Ludovico Gonzaga that their employers treated them as ‘peasants’, while expecting at the same time to be well served. The implication was that they were common soldiers driven by mercenary motives, rather than nobles inspired by deeds of ancient valour. A well-orchestrated cultural policy, displaying their dignity as well as their magnificence, could do much to bolster their status, with humanist learning conferring both honour and prestige.

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The five central chapters examine the courts of Naples, Urbino, Ferrara, Mantua and Milan during the 15th century. Could you mention a few features of them that are similar, and a few features that sets them apart?

With regards to what united the courts and their rulers– there are too many things to enumerate. But a search for legitimacy and a desire to stamp their authority on their domains (many princes were born illegitimate or had had to seize power by force), a need to be ‘ahead of the curve’ but also in step with the latest trends, an ability to forge alliances with greater powers and embark on advantageous cultural exchange, a passion for chivalry and a desire to belong to prestigious English and French chivalric orders (or to create their own), and a need to surround themselves with the best advisers, scholars, historians artists, and artisans who could reinforce their virtues and proclaim their deeds: these are a few of the common imperatives.

With regards to what sets them apart: their family’s origins and ancestry; the nature of their terrain and natural resources; the basis for their economies; their cultural preferences; their military and political abilities; their choice of allies – often mirrored in their choice of artists and architects; and the nature of the individual rulers themselves.

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Do you have a favorite among these five princely courts? Are there any patrons, artists or artworks that you are especially fond of?

My favourite noble is probably Federico da Montefeltro – the ‘ideal’ Renaissance prince but also the mercenary soldier-ruler who had to work hard, we are told, to control his ”naturally choleric” temperament. You feel this sense of rigid self-control in everything that Federico does, including the art he commissions – together with the determination to set himself apart from his arch-rival Sigismondo Malatesta of Rimini (who was renowned for his restlessness and capriciousness). Nowhere is this careful articulation of self more evident that in the brand image that Federico created – with his dignified but disfigured profile adorning the portraits of his reign. Federico reportedly lost his eye in a youthful joust – but his portrait (emphasizing the missing bridge of his nose) suggests maturity and stoicism.

My favourite court is that of the Gonzagas at Mantua – encapsulated by the work of their court artist, Andrea Mantegna, who served the Gonzagas for 46 years. I like the fact that a seemingly small, unprepossessing place – surrounded by lakes, swamps and the incessant croaking of frogs – could commission some of the most beautiful art ”in the world” (such as the Camera degli Sposi in the Castello di San Giorgio), and retain power for so long (while other courts were subsumed) through skillful maneuvering and diplomacy. This is also the court where Isabella d’Este, wife of Francesco Gonzaga, could indelibly stamp her mark.

Ola Wihlke

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