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The Artist’s Portfolio: Creating, Producing, and Earning in Bologna in the Seventeenth Century

Raffaella Morselli, Università di Teramo, Italy
Ailsa Mellon Bruce Visiting Senior Fellow, March 3–April 30, 2014

I am investigating the art world of Bologna at the height of its success, its golden age, distinguished by great international figures such as Guido Reni (1575–1642) and Guercino (1591–1666), which lasted from the beginning to about the middle of the seventeenth century. Bologna stood out from the other centers of the production, commercialization, and collection of art because of a sort of cultural autarchy that enabled the guild of painters to take part in an expanding economic system, one that guaranteed everyone a market niche. It was a base of artistic production whose foundations were laid in the fourteenth century, and it continued successfully until the end of the eighteenth century. What changed at the turn of the sixteenth century was the professional identity of artists, their economic status, and the role they played in the business sectors of the city, despite the disaster of the plague epidemic of 1630.


Simon Guillain after Annibale Carracci, The Picture Seller, plate 19 from Cries of Bologna, seventeenth century. Harvard Art Museums / Fogg Museum, Gift of Belinda L. Randall from the collection of John Witt Randall, R8074

My project began with documentary and bibliographical research: I looked at manuscripts and early printed sources, modern sources, and recent bibliography, as well as paintings and drawings by artists working in Bologna in the seventeenth century. Using these documents, I delineated the internal mechanisms of the guild of painters, analyzing and evaluating the social boundaries of the Bolognese community, the cost of living, and artists’ pricing policies. My work traces the outlines of artists’ careers by analyzing their social status through examination of their real estate holdings (land, rents, income), professional rank, and type of earnings. It compares contracts and payments, distinguishing paintings on canvas with secular subjects from public commissions with religious subjects; investigates the production of frescoes in Bologna and outside its territory in comparison with movable paintings; and factors in the costs of pigments, frames, transportation, and travel. It also takes into consideration the different terminology used in sources to distinguish among atelier, workshop, academy, and school in order to lead the critical debate toward a correct use of these terms within the sphere of seventeenth-century criticism. And it evaluates the use of copies as an opportunity to increase the market value of the support industries and describes their utilization.

My residency at CASVA gave me the opportunity to finish two chapters of the book, as well as to organize my notes. Exchanges of opinion and comments with colleagues aided me greatly in bringing my original aims into sharper focus and in opening up new paths of research. Particularly rich in suggestions and ideas were long discussions with colleagues working on the critical edition of Carlo Cesare Malvasia’s work.

One of the chapters I finished is a comparison and critical analysis of a fundamental source for the reconstruction of an artist’s career: account books. This type of document speaks to modern-day scholars using a concise language that is nonetheless full of information. Account books of different types—including Bartolomeo Cesi’s libro mastro (ledger), Guido Reni’s taccuino (notebook) in Rome, Guercino’s computo (business plan), Elisabetta Sirani’s diary, Marcantonio Franceschini’s notes, and Jan Jacobs’s international record book—aid a better understanding of the artist’s business. For example, only Guercino kept true account books; all the others made notes in their family day books or cash records. Jan Jacobs kept two books: one for objects supplied to markets in Flanders and another for his own personal production. Of Guido Reni’s accounts, only his Roman diary survives, even though Malvasia had access to other notebooks, which he used in writing his Felsina pittrice (published in 1678). The same is true for Bartolomeo Cesi, Guido’s first teacher, whose heirs gave Malvasia his precious papers. Elisabetta Sirani kept a diary such as a woman of her time would have kept, where we find not the prices of works, only the names of patrons. Marcantonio Franceschini wrote down everything that happened to him, arranging his reports by year, with occasional lacunae.

These account records of six artists running throughout the course of the seventeenth century, following one after another with different durations starting on January 1, 1600, represent a highly unusual cluster of sources for the artistic society of Europe in those years. Read in chronological sequence, they give a broad, intriguing picture of the methods, working hours expended, and patrons of these six outstanding artists. They help us in identifying procedures for the organization of work and in examining the choices made by purchasers, merchants, friends, and intermediaries that define more clearly the artistic biographies of the painters themselves and their role in the market.

The other chapter on which I worked at CASVA reexamines a very important and unjustly neglected manuscript account, the Ricordo dell’accordo (Report of the Agreement), thirty-five pages long, on the commission given to Guido Reni for the altarpiece The Triumph of Job (1636, now in Notre-Dame, Paris), which was destined for the altar of the silk workers’ guild in the church of the Mendicanti in Bologna, the seat of the city’s guilds. The document, rediscovered in the Archivio di Stato in Bologna and published in extracted form in 1840, traces the various phases, interventions, and decisions in the discussions between the members of the Arte della Seta and Guido Reni. This episode, which lasted a good fourteen years, from 1622 to 1636, brings into focus Reni’s influence in the art world of his time, his relations with the city’s richest and most influential guild, the possibilities of bringing other painters like Domenichino and Guercino into the deal, Reni’s own personality, and the versions of the painting to which the surviving drawings bear witness. A close reading of the original text through the lens of the history of Bolognese art thus offers a unique opportunity to understand numerous mechanisms of the Bolognese art market.