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Patrons and Artists in Late 15th-Century Florence

This free-standing, painted, terracotta portrait sculpture shows the head, shoulders, and chest of a man with dark hair and a prominent nose. His face and body are angled slightly to our right in this photograph, and he looks down his crooked nose. He has peach-colored skin, which is lightly shadowed around his chin. His thin lips are set in a line, and his brow is furrowed low above his eyes. Chin-length brown hair hangs straight down the sides of his face. His garment has scarlet-red sleeves under a navy-blue tunic, and he wears a red headdress that hangs down to his shoulder over his left ear, on our right. A red scarf drapes across his chest, and the end hangs on his chest on our left. Paint losses on the surface of the sculpture allow the brown terracotta to show through in some areas.


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.

Florentine 15th or 16th Century, probably after a model by Andrea del Verrocchio and Orsino Benintendi, Italian, 1440 - c. 1498, Lorenzo de' Medici, 1478/1521, painted terracotta, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1943.4.92

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Shown from the chest up, a man with pale, yellow-tinged skin is angled to our right with downcast eyes in this vertical portrait painting. He is cleanshaven with chin-length black hair. There is a deep vertical crease in the center of his forehead between dark brows. His eyes are hazel brown, and he has a long, hooked nose over slightly parted, pale pink lips. He wears a high-necked, red tunic with deep pleats down his chest. The arm closer to us has a fawn-brown sleeve. He is shown behind a narrow ledge where a brown, dove-sized bird with an ivory-white belly sits on a twig in the lower left corner. A window opening behind the man has two wooden shutters. The shutter to the right is closed, and the one to the left is pushed open so a sliver of pale sky is visible.

Giuliano Medici, the younger brother of Lorenzo, was nursing a bad knee on Easter Day 1478 and had to be helped to the cathedral—by the very men who were plotting to kill him and his brother during mass. The assassins, members and supporters of the Pazzi family, banking rivals of the Medici, awaited their signal. As worshipers bowed their heads at the elevation of the host, Giuliano was brutally stabbed. Lorenzo escaped to the sacristy, remaining there while the Pazzi partisans attempted to seize the government. They soon failed, however, and Lorenzo resumed control.

The murder of Giuliano shocked Florence, and a number of portraits were ordered for public display to serve both as memorials and as warnings to other plotters. Botticelli's painting may have been the prototype for others, and lent symbolic gravity to Guiliano’s passing, showing him as an icon, almost a saint. The open window and mourning dove were familiar symbols of death, alluding to the flight of the soul and the deceased's passage to the afterlife. Some scholars, noting the lowered eyelids, suggest this portrait was painted posthumously from a death mask.

Sandro Botticelli, Italian, 1446 - 1510, Giuliano de' Medici, c. 1478/1480, tempera on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1952.5.56

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About three dozen people gather in a grassy field to either side of a crumbling structure to kneel and pray before a woman and baby in the center of this horizontal painting. The woman, Mary, and baby, Jesus, have smooth, pale skin while the others have light or tanned skin. The structure has sand-colored stone pillars, a wooden triangular, pitched roof, and a straw floor. Mary, who has an elongated torso, sits facing us with her knees apart. She wears an azure-blue robe over a rose-pink dress. A shell-pink veil covers her head and body. Jesus sits on her left knee, his pudgy body angled to our left. He is nude except for a transparent cloth wrapped over one shoulder and the opposite hip. Mary’s left hand braces his torso. On Mary’s right, our left, Joseph, an older man, stands facing us. He clasps his hands at his chest and leans on a long stick. He has wrinkled skin, long, gray curly hair, and a full beard. Both Mary and Joseph tilt their heads to their right, our left, as they look down at Jesus. Joseph wears a golden yellow robe over a blue tunic. Joseph, Mary, and Jesus have faint gold halos. Behind them, a brown cow and gray donkey rest on the straw. People closest to Mary and Jesus kneel and bow their heads while the people to the left and right sides mostly stand. Three men kneeling closest to Mary and Jesus offer gifts, including a bronze vessel and a gold jar. One man has long dark brown hair and a beard, and wears a gold crown. Another man is bald with long gray hair and beard, while the third is cleanshaven with shoulder-length brown hair. These men wear robes in powder blue, carnation pink, or celery green with delicate silver and gold embelishments. Others in the crowd range in age from young and cleanshaven to older and bearded. They wear robes and tunics in shades of raspberry pink, butterscotch yellow, lapis blue, plum purple, or forest green. Several horses, their coats white or cinnamon brown, stand among the crowd, a few with riders. To our right, one horse rears its head and two others stand facing each other. Beyond the crowd, grassy green meadows and hills dotted with trees lead back to the horizon. A pale blue sky fills the top third of the composition.

For most of the fifteenth century, the Epiphany was celebrated in Florence with a great festival. Expensively clad citizens reenacted the journey of the three kings to Bethlehem with processions through the streets. Shortly before this work was painted, however, the elaborate pageantry of the festival was curtailed. Preachers like Savonarola complained that excessive luxury obscured the day's religious significance.

Botticelli's painting seems to reflect this new concern. He places Jesus at the center of a powerful X formed by the opposing triangles of kneeling worshipers and the roof of the manger. The viewer, rather than being overwhelmed by rich detail, is instead aware of the quiet distance between him and the holy figures—and like the worshipers in the painting leans toward the infant. This yearning to close the gap between human existence and the divine was a frequent Neoplatonic theme.

Botticelli may have painted this while in Rome working on the Sistine Chapel. Rearing horses in the background, for example, appear to reflect the colossal horses of the Dioscuri. The classical architecture of the manger and the crumbling ruins also have theological significance. Legend held that earthquakes destroyed pagan temples at the moment Christ was born, and in a more general sense ruins suggest that the old order of the Law of Moses is supplanted by the new era of Grace made possible by Christ's birth.

Sandro Botticelli, Italian, 1446 - 1510, The Adoration of the Magi, c. 1478/1482, tempera and oil on panel, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1937.1.22

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Winding from our right to left, a procession of dozens of people, mostly men and many in black and gray armor on foot and horseback, weaves through rocky hills to the gates of a city in this long, horizontal painting. The people we can see have light skin, and they are small in scale against the landscape. Throughout the procession, dogs nip at the heels of horses that walk, rear, or buck. Many of the armored men carry tall spears. The men not wearing armor mostly wear crimson-red robes over black stockings or short black tunics over stockings with one white leg and one mauve-pink leg. To our right, a man wearing black armor and a black wreath around his blond hair rides a gold throne on a large, gold platform being pulled by two cream-white horses. A gold canopy hangs over his head. Facing our left in profile, he points a scepter down at a person sitting in front of him, lower down on the base. That person wears a simple, lilac-purple tunic and slouching, denim-blue boots as he turns and looks up at the crowned man, hands raised. Three men and one woman sit in alcoves on the side of the base facing us with their hands behind their backs. The men wear black armor while the woman wears a muted sea-green dress. The letters “SPQR” are written in gold across the chest of a rider to our right. The procession in front of the throne passes around a tall golden structure like a fountain. At the top of that structure, a woman surrounded by gold rays to create an ellipse. The soldiers at the front of the procession cross a short, arched bridge leading into the city, and one rider carries a gold banner with a stylized, splayed black bird. Towers and domes in shades of cream, coral, and pink peek above the crenelated city wall. To our right, the landscape beyond the procession is dotted with trees leading to rocky mountains in the deep distance. The horizon line comes four-fifths of the way up the composition. A few wispy white clouds float across a sky that deepens from white along the horizon to lapis blue across the top edge of the panel.

Subjects like this one, taken from the writings of the ancient Roman author Livy, displayed the learning and sophistication of Renaissance patrons and were especially popular in domestic settings. The size of this painting suggests that it was probably displayed like a frieze with other panels in the home of a wealthy Florentine family.

Here, the Roman senate honors the hero Camillus with a triumphal parade through Rome. Camillus returned from exile to rescue Rome from besieging Gauls. When informed that the city was ready to capitulate by paying off the enemy, Camillus stirred his troops and fellow citizens with powerful rhetoric. "With iron," he said, "and not with gold, Rome buys her freedom." This spirit of republican virtue appealed to fifteenth-century Florentines, who regarded ancient Rome as a paradigm for their own city. The scene's relevance was enhanced by its contemporary costumes and other familiar details. The decorated parade floats recalled the lavish spectacle of processions in Florence. The battered and blood-stained walls of the city enclose several buildings that could be recognized in Rome, including the dome of the Pantheon and the drums of Castel Sant'Angelo. The heraldic colors that drape the horses probably belonged to the painting's patron, as yet unidentified.

Biagio d'Antonio and Workshop, Italian, c. 1446 - 1516, The Triumph of Camillus, c. 1470/1475, tempera on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1939.1.153

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Small devotional images such as this were produced in large numbers by craftsmen and lesser-known artists for the homes of Florence's middle class. These artists often filled in at leading workshops when extra assistants were needed for important commissions. We know, for example, that Jacopo worked with Filippo Lippi, Ghirlandaio, and Botticelli.

This painting reflects the concerns of Florentine merchants and their pride in the city. John the Baptist was the patron saint of Florence, and we see him here before the city skyline. Clear in the distant landscape are the Palazzo Vecchio, center of the city administration; Brunelleschi's huge cathedral dome; and the campanile designed by Giotto. (It is one of our earliest painted views of Florence.) Other details preserve a traditional, conservative religious outlook. The bowl at the saint's foot recalls his baptism of Christ, while goldfinches, whose red markings were believed to have been made by Christ's crown of thorns, remind viewers of the Crucifixion. Most telling is the axe sunken into the tree trunk at the left edge of the painting, which refers to Luke 3:9: "every tree therefore which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down." This was a pointed warning against the unorthodox beliefs of some of the city's patrician elite, echoing Savonarola's sermons against their dangerously paganlike tendencies.

Jacopo del Sellaio, Italian, 1441/1442 - 1493, Saint John the Baptist, c. 1480, oil on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1939.1.283

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Shown from about the waist up, a woman stands on the far side of a stone ledge, supporting a nude baby boy on the sill in front of her with two more windows opening to distant landscapes behind them in this vertical painting. The bottom and side edges of the stone opening run close to and parallel to the bottom and side edges of the composition. The woman and the baby have pale skin with a yellowish cast, and both have faint gold halos. The woman’s body is angled slightly to our left, and her head tilts to our right as she looks down toward the baby with pale brown eyes. She has a straight nose, smooth cheeks, and her pale, heart-shaped lips are closed. Her blond, curly hair is parted down the middle and hangs to her sloping shoulders. Her mauve-pink dress is gathered at her breast with a midnight-blue jewel, and a lapis-blue cloak with kelly-green lining drapes over her shoulders and across the stone ledge in front of her. Barely noticeable against the deep pink dress, she holds an open pomegranate with ruby-red seeds in her left hand, to our right. With her other hand, she supports the baby behind his legs and backside. His nude, pudgy body is angled to our right as he tilts his head back to look up at the woman with light brown eyes. He has short blond hair and a rounded nose, full cheeks, and his lips are slightly downturned. With his right hand, closer to us, he holds a few pomegranate seeds up near the woman’s face. His other hand rests on the fruit by the woman’s torso. The child stands with one foot in front of the other on the cloak draped over the gray stone sill. Two rectangular windows pierce the back wall of the shallow, shadowed room behind the pair, with one over each of the woman’s shoulders. Grassy fields are dotted with trees, flowers, and bushes, and lead back to powder-blue hills in the deep distance. The light blue sky fades to pale yellow along the horizon.

The workshop of a Renaissance artist was both studio and school, where apprentices were trained to paint in the style of the master. Since large commissions required the efforts of many painters, backgrounds, still-life details, and secondary figures were often painted by assistants. A master might also give lesser commissions entirely over to his assistants, simply approving the work as meeting his standard. It is often difficult to distinguish the work of the master from that of talented assistants whose individual styles were not yet fully developed.

This small devotional panel is painted in the style of Andrea del Verrocchio but is the work of one of his students, Lorenzo di Credi, who inherited the workshop when Andrea died. For inspiration Credi seems also to have looked to a fellow student—Leonardo da Vinci. This madonna is modeled after one by Leonardo; in fact, the painting was once thought to be an early work by Leonardo. But the colors differ from Leonardo’s subdued palette, and the landscape lacks his fanciful mountains. Notice, too, the Virgin's left hand, which holds a pomegranate, symbol of the Resurrection. In Leonardo's painting she holds a carnation. Credi failed to alter the position of her fingers, leaving her with an unnatural gesture unthinkable from such a keen observer of nature as Leonardo.

Lorenzo di Credi, Italian, c. 1457/1459 - 1536, Madonna and Child with a Pomegranate, 1475/1480, oil on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1952.5.65

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Against a gold background, a blond woman is shown from the lap up, facing us as she holds and looks down at a plump baby sitting on a gold and white pillow on her lap in this vertical painting. Both people have pale, peachy skin, and faint halos encircle their heads. The child sits with his body angled to our right, toward his mother, but he turns to look off to our left with pale green eyes. He holds his right hand, on our left, up with his thumb and first two fingers raised. He has short, light brown hair, rounded cheeks, a delicate nose and lips, and chubby legs. He wears a light blue smock edged in gold, with gold filigree at the collar. The garment is belted with a twist of fabric patterned in bands of red, black, and gold. Under the smock he wears a half-sleeved, transparent undershirt. The woman steadies the baby with her long, delicate hands. She wears a sky-blue robe edged with gold, Arabic-like script. The lining, in a black and brown floral pattern, is visible where the edges of her robe turn back over her wrists and around her neck. Belted across the chest in a twist of blue and gold fabric, her dusky-pink dress is lined at the neck with a gold band with red and blue gems, with a brooch of pearls and rock crystal at the center. Her headdress is a sheer, white cloth bordered with a gold stripe, rolled atop her head and falling to her shoulders, where it is tucked into her robe. Some areas of the gold background have worn away to show the red layer beneath.

In a city filled with artists, the busiest workshop in the later 1400s was that of Domenico Ghirlandaio. His popularity rested on the conventional piety of his images, his direct and forthright style, and his high standards of craftsmanship. These qualities probably appealed to the average Florentine, who was less attracted by the humanist erudition and advanced tastes that enthralled the city's elite. Works like this devout image contrast with the sensuality and luxury denounced by Savonarola.

The gold background is unusual—a little old-fashioned for a painting done in the 1470s. It is not clear whether the present gilt surface (not original) replaced original gilding or was applied over a now-obliterated landscape, such as seen elsewhere in this room. If the painting was gilded from the outset, this would have been specified in the contract between artist and patron. Until the mid-fifteenth century, the intrinsic value of materials—gold and costly pigments such as ultramarine, which is made from the semiprecious stone lapis lazuli—accounted for much of a painting's worth. By the time this work was made, however, the emphasis had shifted. Patrons had come to value instead the skill of the painter, as we do today.

Domenico Ghirlandaio, Italian, 1449 - 1494, Madonna and Child, c. 1470/1475, tempera on panel transferred to hardboard, Samuel H. Kress Collection 1961.9.49

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Filippino was the son of the artist Fra Filippo Lippi. His father, however, died when the boy was only twelve, about the age when he would have begun his artistic training. Filippino's education was taken over by his father's pupil, Botticelli, and their association lasted many years.

This painting is probably a very early work by Filippino—some, in fact, believe it to be his earliest one to survive. At this point in his career, Filippino was still strongly under Botticelli's influence. The lyrical and graceful line—the rippling cascades of drapery and the fanlike fall of cloth at the Virgin's hem—show Filippino's debt to his teacher, but the confident colors are the artist's own. As his style matured, Filippino moved away from the linearity of Botticelli. The diaphanous shimmer of fabric and sad delicacy of his faces give his works an elusive and poetic quality.

The half-round shape of this painting, called a lunette, was used most often over doorways. Probably this one was placed over the entrance to a private chapel or sacristy, but its original location remains unknown.

Filippino Lippi, Italian, 1457 - 1504, The Coronation of the Virgin, c. 1475, oil and tempera (?) on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1943.4.36

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A winged angel leads a clean-shaven young man across a landscape in this vertical painting. The angel and man nearly fill the composition. They both have pale skin slightly tinged with green, rosy cheeks, copper-blond curly hair, fluttering robes, and halos. Their jaws are rounded, and their full lips closed. They each step forward onto one foot. To our left, the angel’s head turns back with eyes downcast or closed. The angel’s sky-blue robe is gathered up around the waist and falls to the ankles. The neckline and bottom hem are edged with gold writing, and the halo is a gold ring filled in with gold dots. The angel holds a gold vessel or object in the right hand, farther from us, and reaches the other arm slightly back. The man, Tobias, leans forward and reaches one arm to hook wrists with the angel. A scroll curls down from Tobias’s wrist. He tips his head to our left and looks up with large, light brown eyes. He wears a rose-pink robe over a powder-blue tunic. The robe also has gold lettering around the lower hem, and he wears matching pink stockings and shin-high, golden-yellow boots. He carries a fish hanging from a gold thread with his other hand. Gold rays radiate around his head like a starburst. A small, shaggy white dog looks at the ground to our left of the angel’s feet. Some forest-green shrubs and spindly trees with sage-green canopies grow on the far side of the path. Water winds into the distance to meet white buildings along the right edge of the composition. More trees and a steeple are hazy blue in the distance along the horizon, which comes about halfway up the painting. The sky is streaked with white and ice blue.

This painting is based on the Book of Tobit which tells the story of Tobit of Nenevah. Tobit is described as a man of good faith who suffers from blindness and poverty. He sent his son, Tobias, to a distant city to collect money he had deposited there, and hired a companion to accompany the youth. The companion was actually the archangel Raphael in disguise. Their journey was successful: not only was the money recovered, but medicine made from a monstrous fish Tobias encounters along the way cures Tobit's blindness.

In Hebrew, Raphael's name means "God has healed." In this painting, Raphael holds a golden mortar used for compounding medicinal ingredients. Although the archangel is usually shown with a mortar or medicine box, his identity here is established by the presence of Tobias holding a fish. Raphael is named only in the Book of Tobit.

The story of Tobit may have been particularly popular in fifteenth-century Florence because of its appeal to merchant families, whose sons were often sent to trade in far-away cities. Paintings of Tobias and his angelic guardian were likely commissioned as dedications to ensure a safe journey, or offer thanks for a safe return. The painting's suggestion of reward for fair dealing may have been equally welcome.

Filippino Lippi, Italian, 1457 - 1504, Tobias and the Angel, c. 1475/1480, oil and tempera (?) on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1939.1.229

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