National Gallery of Art - THE COLLECTION

Tour: Patrons and Artists in Late 15th-Century Florence

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In the late fifteenth century, Florence had more woodcarvers than butchers, suggesting that art, even more than meat, was a necessity of life. This was true not only for the wealthy, but also for those of more modest means. In 1472, the city boasted 54 workshops for marble and stone; it employed 44 master gold- and silversmiths, and at least thirty master painters. Florence's position in the wool and silk industries relied on its reputation for quality—a tradition of craftsmanship that made discerning patrons of its merchants and financiers.

Most commissions were for religious works. Many banking families, for example, viewed the funding of altarpieces and chapels as a kind of penance for usury (moneylending at interest), which was condemned by the church but inherent to their profession. As the 1400s progressed, however, patrons became increasingly interested in personal fame and worldly prestige. Lavish, even ostentatious, public display became more common, even as the fortunes of the city declined. New subjects from mythology found eager audiences impressed by such evidence of learning. And, by the end of the century—for the first time since antiquity—some art was being made simply "for art's sake."

Among the greatest patrons in 15th-century Florence were members of the powerful Medici family, who ruled as princes, though the city was, in name, a republic. The works in this tour date from the time of Lorenzo de' Medici, the Magnificent, whom Machiavelli called "the greatest patron of literature and art that any prince has ever been." Although Lorenzo himself commissioned relatively few major works, he was an important arbiter of taste. An avid collector of Greek and Roman antiquities, he helped imprint the Florentine Renaissance with the humanism of the ancient world.

One of the artists employed by the Medici was Botticelli, a member of Lorenzo's circle of poets and scholars. Botticelli's lyrical paintings matched the cerebral refinement of Florence's humanists, especially the Neoplatonic philosophers, who saw beauty as a way to approach an understanding of the divine. Botticelli's ethereal figures, defined by line rather than modeled with light and shadow, seem to float, their drapery billowing in graceful patterns. His subjects, both mythological and religious, are imbued with lyricism and mystery.

Despite their delight in pagan themes, most Florentine humanists remained deeply pious. In the 1480s and 1490s, the Dominican friar Savonarola gave impassioned sermons attacking luxury and the amorality of ancient gods. He attracted many followers, including, it seems, Botticelli, who abandoned mythological subjects. After Lorenzo the Magnificent died in 1492, economic and political disasters put Florence in the hands of Savonarola's radical religious reformers. Vigilantes patrolled the streets, and citizens consigned luxury goods, including untold numbers of paintings and other works of art, to the consuming flames of bonfires.

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