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Princeton University Press
The Patron's Payoff: Conspicuous Commissions in Italian Renaissance Art

The Patron's Payoff: Conspicuous Commissions in Italian Renaissance Art


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In The Patron's Payoff, Jonathan Nelson and Richard Zeckhauser apply the innovative methods of information economics to the study of art. Their findings, written in highly accessible prose, are surprising and important. Building on three economic concepts--signaling, signposting, and stretching--the book develops the first systematic methodology for assessing the meaning of art patronage and provides a broad and useful framework for understanding how works of art functioned in Renaissance Italy.

The authors discuss how patrons used conspicuous commissions to establish and signal their wealth and status, and the book explores the impact that individual works had on society. The ways in which artists met their patrons' needs for self-promotion dramatically affected the nature and appearance of paintings, sculptures, and buildings. The Patron's Payoff presents a new conceptual structure that allows readers to explore the relationships among the main players in the commissioning game--patrons, artists, and audiences--and to understand how commissioned art transmits information. This book facilitates comparisons of art from different periods and shows the interplay of artists and patrons working to produce mutual benefits subject to an array of limiting factors. The authors engage several art historians to look at what economic models reveal about the material culture of Italy, ca. 1300 1600, and beyond. Their case studies address such topics as private chapels and their decorations, donor portraits, and private palaces.

In addition to the authors, the contributors are Molly Bourne, Kelley Helmstutler Di Dio, Thomas J. Loughman, and Larry Silver.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691125411
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 08/24/2008
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 7.10(w) x 10.10(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Jonathan K. Nelson is assistant director for academic programs and publications at Villa I Tatti--the Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies. He has written extensively on Michelangelo, Leonardo, Botticelli, and Filippino Lippi. Richard J. Zeckhauser is the Frank P. Ramsey Professor of Political Economy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. His most recent book is Collaborative Governance: Private Roles for Public Goals in Turbulent Times.

Read an Excerpt

The Patron's Payoff Conspicuous Commissions in Italian Renaissance Art.

By Jonathan K. Nelson Richard J. Zeckhauser Princeton University Press
Copyright © 2008
Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-12541-1

Introduction Themes and Aims

In a memoIr dated 1473, the Florentine merchant and patron Giovanni rucellai stated that he had "spent a great deal of money" on his house, the façade of the church of Santa maria novella, the chapel and tomb in the church of San Pancrazio, and other projects. He observed that these commissions brought him "the greatest contentment and the greatest pleasure because they serve the glory of God, the honor of the city, and the commemoration of myself." Our study, although recognizing the importance of the first two benefits mentioned by rucellai, focuses primarily on patron's payoffs of the third kind: the celebration of individuals and their families. A clear-cut example is rucellai's name emblazoned in Latin across the façade of the church of Santa maria novella [fig. 0.1]. Personal promotion through art was highly effective, largely accepted, and extremely widespread in renaissance Italy, as in many other locales and eras. The ways in which artists met their patrons' needs for self-promotion dramatically affected the nature, appearance, and content of paintings, sculptures, and buildings. Consciously or intuitively, they worked in alliance with patrons to produce value for patrons as well as themselves.

Commissioned art always conveys information about the patron. Crucial decisions inherent in the creation of a specific work tell a great deal about the person who ordered it. The selection of the artist, materials, size, location, and subject help to indicate the benefits that a commission was expected to bring, as well as its intended audience. The choices made by a patron take on even more significance when considered with both costs and limiting factors, or "constraints," such as the availability of desirable artists, materials, and display locations. analytical tools and models recently developed in economics address the sending and receiving of information. They comprise an important and recent subfield called the "economics of information." We employ and develop some of its central concepts to create a general framework for the study of commissioned art.

This volume aims to foster a lasting dialogue between two fields that rarely communicate, art history and economic theory. It offers a rare instance of the economics of information applied to historical settings, specifically the Italian renaissance. Part 1 sets forth economic frameworks to promote sophisticated analyses of art patronage. Part 2 presents illustrative cases, developed by several other authors as well as ourselves, that focus on painting, sculpture, and architecture commissioned and executed in central and northern Italy between the early 1300s and the late 1500s. The final, extended essay presents examples from other locales and other time frames to illustrate the broad applicability of our framework.

For students and historians of art and society, the economic theories and models we describe and develop offer four primary benefits. First, they establish a broad conceptual framework that delineates the relationships among patrons, artists, and audiences, and identifies the benefits that commissions brought to each. For example, a significant stimulus for patrons was the desire to signal status, as has long been recognized and discussed by art historians. Our framework draws on recently developed and new theories in the economics of information to isolate critical elements of art commissions that enable them to transmit meaningful information. This conceptual framework allows us to discuss the impact of individual works in a more precise manner than was possible previously.

Second, the theories and models offered here point to important, previously unexplored areas, and thereby encourage art historians to ask new questions. For example, why did many churches sell some private chapels for high prices and other chapels at extremely low ones? (That question is answered in chapter 5.) our methods provide a means for art historians to incorporate findings

Third, our models facilitate comparisons between art commissions in renaissance Italy and those made in different periods and geographic areas. Fourth, our approach helps scholars teach basic principles of art patronage, applicable for virtually any place or time. While developing our theories of patronage, we found it essential to describe mechanisms often taken for granted, and to illustrate them with concrete examples. This will assist those with little experience in art history, be they university students or scholars working in other disciplines.

Though we address the broad realm of "art," we concentrate on commis sioned works that the patron expected an intended audience to see, appreciate for their aesthetic merit, and identify as made-to-order for a certain individu al or group. Equally important, these viewers were expected to recognize the challenges or difficulties that the patron faced in creating the work, notably the cost, but also in securing the artist, materials, and locale. In short, the book focuses on what we label "conspicuous commissions." This phrase seeks to cap ture the central elements of "conspicuous consumption," Thorstein Veblen's famed term for spending behavior intended to convey the consumer's status. More than a century ago, he observed that the "gentleman of leisure" consumes "beyond the minimum required for subsistence and physical efficiency.... He consumes freely and of the best, in food, drink, narcotics, shelter, services, ornaments, apparel, weapons and accoutrements.... Since the consumption of these more excellent goods is an evidence of wealth, it becomes honorific; and conversely, the failure to consume in due quantity and quality becomes a mark of inferiority and demerit." Veblen found "conspicuous consumption" irrational and wasteful, even despicable. More recent scholars have focused on the practical use of such behavior to signal status. For example, the social historian Peter Burke adapted Veblen's approach in his nuanced essay on "con spicuous consumption in seventeenth-century Italy." Focusing on palaces and coaches, Burke demonstrated the importance of this ostentation and "the in formal rule of consumption which individuals and families ignored at their peril." to distinguish themselves from those of lesser status, they felt the need to demonstrate "magnificence," a central concept discussed in chapter 3.

These intertwined objectives of signaling status and demonstrating mag nificence, both attributes of crucial importance to the present volume, were articulated elegantly in a treatise written by alessandro Piccolomini in 1552. The Sienese nobleman explained that

the munificent should make every effort so that his works cannot be easily imitated, and should always seek to outdo what has already been done by others on similar occasions. His country houses must be magnificent and splendid, the gardens sumptuous, the town house grand and splendid and furnished in accordance with his degree and something over.

The economic historian Guido Guerzoni employed this passage to help document his convincing argument that in the Italian renaissance, the type of expenditure noted by Veblen "seems to be more the result of a conscientious, effective and rational calculation, than unconscious or ostentatious consumerist impulse." In his pathbreaking study Wealth and the Demand for Art in Italy, 1300-1600, richard Goldthwaite concluded that, for affluent patrons in Italy, commissions "expressed their sense of what constituted noble status; their spending habits arose from what is perhaps the universal desire of the rich to utilize wealth to set themselves off from ordinary people." Goldthwaite demonstrated the particular importance of art in late medieval and renaissance Italy. Though the urbanized elites had consolidated their exalted social position, they felt the need "to formulate an ideological confirmation of a class that ... did not have the tangible evidence of status that the northern feudal nobility could take for granted-familial estates, seigniorial jurisdiction, privileges, titles." In short, these Italian patrons used art to communicate essential but difficult-to-convey information-their elevated station in society. Whereas Goldthwaite focused on art patrons and collectors as a group, countless renaissance sources indicate that individuals thought about commissions in terms of the distinction they could communicate. This comes across not only in grand treatises, such as Piccolomini's, but also in informal letters. In 1491, Isabella d'este ordered some "black cloth for a mantle, such as shall be without a rival in the world.... If it is only as good as those which others wear, I had rather be without it!" Thus, the marchioness of mantua wanted her clothing to express not only the highest quality but something that set her apart from others.

This desire for distinction, analyzed in a fundamental sociological study by Pierre Bourdieu, is perfect material for the economics of information, which explores how information is consciously transmitted and deciphered. In traditional economics, the most powerful results arise in perfect markets, where decision makers are well informed-they have adequate information about any "product" they buy, and about workers or managers they hire. In such markets, consumers know all they need to know to accurately identify, say, the quality of ancient roman sculpture. Prices reflect only quality and availability. Such ideal markets are rare; more often, markets are plagued with limited information. For example, a dealer selling antiquities is more aware than the potential buyer about the gray zones in the provenance or conservation of a work; the scholar knows better than nonspecialist readers if a new study stands on sturdy or shaky ground.

The economics of information explores how such imperfect information is transmitted and digested. It addresses, for example, how manufacturers or retailers communicate information about their products, how individuals convey their capabilities to potential employers, and how firms convey their prospects to financial markets. People daily take advantage of the economics of information without fully understanding its conceptual models, distilling truthful information from messages that are conveyed, actions that are taken, and records that are tallied.

The theory of signaling, one of the prime concepts in the economics of information, was developed by michael Spence, who was awarded the nobel Prize in economics in 2001, along with two others who pioneered the economics of information. Spence's classic book, Market Signaling, showed that capable individuals who could not directly demonstrate their skills to an anonymous job market might beneficially acquire a "costly" signal-a college degree-to do so. This signal can be secured at high but affordable cost by a motivated and talented person, but both getting into and getting through college would be extremely expensive to a less capable individual. This significant differential in costs makes the signal a reliable indicator of quality, and makes securing a college education worthwhile, even though the information learned in the process might be irrelevant to a prospective employer.

Most economic analyses focus on benefits that translate easily into dollars and cents. Even studies of economic history usually concentrate on questions of prices, compensation, salaries, and markets. The economics of information, however, applies readily to historical situations, such as art commissions, where benefits are not readily tallied in monetary terms. Such commissions rarely bring direct financial gain to patrons. Patrons accept the costs of commissions, together with the burden of their constraints, to obtain rewards or benefits that vary depending on the time, place, and individuals concerned.

What are those benefits? In renaissance Italy, many patrons employed both words and actions to communicate self-serving messages. This constituted an important part of how the elite conducted themselves in behavior that Stephen Greenblatt called "self-fashioning." They created an image of themselves that corresponded to, and in turn helped define, the norms of behavior and appearance in their society. For the affluent and noble, a key aspect of that image was the display of magnificence. In his short treatise The Virtue of Magnificence (1498), Giovanni Pontano explained that noble people are particularly intent "to realize the long lasting of their name and reputation, for which man's desire is infinite; moreover, especially for public buildings, the longer they last, the greater the glory they bring the person who built them."

Pontano's text provides a useful guide to the "theory of magnificence," perhaps the most useful concept developed in modern patronage studies. This theory explores, as we do, the motivations behind expensive art commissions.

Outline of This Volume

In the first part of the book, we examine conspicuous commissions through the lens of game theory. This theory focuses on how people behave in interactive situations, in which one person's payoff depends on the behavior of another individual or group. The term "game" may sound frivolous to some, but in recent decades economists, political scientists, and sociologists have used it to describe situations as varied as war, competition in markets, political campaigns, and relations within the family. Game theory lays bare the underpinnings of these interactive situations and has won a highly prominent place in modern economics. The nobel memorial Prize in economics went to game theorists in both 1994 and 2005, and their work was employed by the 2001 winners, who developed the economics of information. To understand any game, the first step is to identify the players. In the game represented by art commissions, the patron and artist are naturally the most important players, but the intended audience is also an indispensable participant.

In chapter 1, we describe the roles of patrons, artists, and audiences within principal and agent relationships, a central concept from the economics of information. Throughout societies worldwide and across time, the division of labor often leads to situations in which one person works on behalf of another. The first is called an agent; the second is the principal, the person who delineates the task and for whom the agent works. We expect the agent to serve the interests of the principal. The agent, who often has distinctive knowledge and capabilities, has considerable discretion in conducting the task.

We address the patron-to-artist relationship as one of principal to agent. Specifically, during the Italian renaissance, the patron selected the artist and paid the bill; the artist acted as the agent charged to carry out the work with skill and aesthetic sensibilities. The approval process, of both the preliminary drawing or model and the final work, helped to ensure that the message conveyed by art reflected the patron's interests. commissions usually led to a symbiotic collaboration between patrons and the artists. Both members of this "creative duo" aimed to favorably impress the audience, which consisted of contemporaries drawn from various classes, future viewers, and viewers in Heaven, mainly God and the holy intercessors, mary and the saints. Thus, we could say that in working to impress viewers, both the patrons and the artists were working in tandem as agents for these principals, their audience. The members of each audience would view, learn from, and appreciate works of art, or so patrons and artists hoped. Similarly, the readers of a scholarly book can be thought of as its principals; they expect to learn, and they hope the material will be presented in an appealing style. The author-agents must assess how one or more types of readers will interpret and react to a planned book. If these agents fail to provide valuable and accessible information, the principals will neither read, nor recommend, nor cite the work.


Excerpted from The Patron's Payoff by Jonathan K. Nelson Richard J. Zeckhauser
Copyright © 2008 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Illustrations ix

Foreword xiii

Preface xvii

Introduction 1


Chapter One: Main Players: Patrons, Artists, and Audiences 17

Chapter Two: Analytic Framework: Benefits, Costs, and Constraints 37

Chapter Three: Theories of Distinction: Magnificence and Signaling 67

Chapter Four: Selecting and Magnifying Information: Signposting and Stretching 85


Chapter Five: Private Chapels in Florence: A Paradise for Signalers by Jonathan K. Nelson and Richard J. Zeckhauser 113

Chapter Six: Commissioning Familial Remembrance in Fourteenth-Century Florence: Signaling Alberti Patronage at the Church of Santa Croce by Thomas J. Loughman 133

Chapter Seven: Signs of Success: Leone Leoni's Signposting in Sixteenth-Century Milan by Kelley Helmstutler Di Dio 149

Chapter Eight: Mantegna's Madonna della Vittoria and the Rewriting of Gonzaga History by Molly Bourne 166

Chapter Nine: Image Is Everything: Visual Art as Self-Advertising (Europe and America) by Larry Silver 185

Contributors 225

Index 227

What People are Saying About This

Dale Kent

This genial and imaginative collaboration of art history and economic theory offers a genuinely original perspective on the commissioning game, and employs the economics of information to evaluate the patron's payoff.
Dale Kent, University of California, Riverside

Adrian Randolph

In applying a distinctive economic theory to the area of Renaissance patronage, this book fosters an interdisciplinary approach to the study of early modern European art.
Adrian Randolph, Dartmouth College


The Patron's Payoff is an innovative study of the messages artworks in Renaissance Italy tacitly communicated about the men and women who commissioned them. Nelson and Zeckhauser make a compelling case that the currency of the payoff for patrons embraced such critical social values as honor, status, family alliance, and friendship. Building their analysis upon recent economic theories, the authors offer a suggestive model for research in Renaissance studies and beyond.
Louis A. Waldman, Villa I Tatti—The Harvard Center for Italian Renaissance Studies


A stimulating and challenging work, The Patron's Payoff offers a plausible new approach to artistic creation that has the benefit of a known set of economic tools and results. An interesting marriage between art historical and economics perspectives.
William N. Goetzmann, Yale University

James Cuno

Nelson and Zeckhauser have written a pathbreaking study on the role of artistic and architectural commissions in Renaissance Florence which, by its new and sophisticated methodology, employing game theory used in modern economics and political science, presents a model for similar studies of patronage in every era. Their analysis of the commissioning game is a must read for anyone interested in the hows and whys of artistic patronage during an era particularly sensitive to the possibilities presented by conspicuous consumption.
James Cuno, president and director, Art Institute of Chicago

Michael Spence

If the idea appeals to you, of going back in time to the extraordinary period of the Renaissance in Italy with the patrons and the artists . . . to understand the incentives and the constraints, the opportunities and the missteps, then you must give this book a try. For me reading the book felt similar to visiting a great art museum in the company of a knowledgeable, insightful, and engaging curator: a thoroughly rewarding experience.
from the foreword by Michael Spence, 2001 Nobel laureate in economics

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