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Patronages: The funding of culture and progress

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Matt Smith:

Welcome to a La Trobe University podcast. I would be your host Matt Smith and with me today is Dr Lisa Beaven an art historian from the History Program at La Trobe University. Thank you for joining me Lisa.

Lisa Beaven:

Thank you.

Matt Smith:

You're here today to talk to me about patronage. What was it about and how did it work?

Lisa Beaven:

If you define it absolutely, patronage can be about someone obviously funding an outcome in some way. That's probably how we understand it now, a patron of a sporting event or something, here in Australia, will be someone who puts up the money for it. But I think it's fair to say in early modern Europe, particularly in the Renaissance and later, that patronage was an integral part of life. The best way to understand it, I think, is that an unofficial form of patronage still exists here in Australia today. So for example, political parties like the Labor Party and the Liberal Party, senior politicians will take people under their wing and nurture them and coax them their careers. Now that's also happened very, very strongly in Italian politics but the situation that made patronage so important in the Renaissance is that you had the political vacuum taking place in Northern Italy. Theoretically it belonged to part of the Holy Roman Empire but they had not actually utilised that authority in Italy for a while, so you had an enormous number of city state republics – little small towns like Siena, Florence, different places that were actually developing their own independence and own political networks, so these city states had every reason to promote culture, to actually enhance their independence in their political context. There was a huge amount of fighting and an enormous amount of conflict, and it was very complex. A lot of these little city states in Italy engaged in complex diplomacy with other city states, so places we would regard as the size of Ballarat might have ambassadors, they might have various envoys they would send out to represent themselves to other city states in Italy. So within that, this created an environment in which art could flourish beyond belief as part of the pride of these city states – it was a way of actually manifesting themselves, a way of actually expressing themselves. Now on top of that you also had private patrons. So some city states were literally set up by individuals – the best example of that is the Duke of Urbino, Federico da Montefeltro. He was basically a mercenary general, so he made a huge amount of money in war and he poured it all into culture – it seems like a strange juxtaposition to us, but it really worked in the Renaissance where you had private patronage and sponsorship on that scale. He would invite artists to come and work and study in his court, he promoted mathematics, he promoted scientific endeavour, he had a lot of artists working for him, literary people. We have to imagine – it would have been an extremely exciting culture to be in. You might be in some little hill town in Italy, but you had some of the most sophisticated minds of the time that had been attracted there by his money, who can all engage with each other and bounce ideas off each other.

Matt Smith:

But in the case of something like that, what benefit would he get out of being a patron? Is it simply in the terms of those times, good PR?

Lisa Beaven:

Well, of course, it is good PR but I think it's far more fundamental than that. It's the idea of what humanism is to the Renaissance, so for example, the Renaissance is intimately involved with the humanist movement and the humanist movement is basically an idea that the study of the humanities, particularly classical Greek and Roman text, could bring about a cultural rebirth. They encouraged cultural production on a massive scale.

Matt Smith:

Many famous philosophers, musicians, writers, alchemists, scholars and artists had patrons funding them. Do you think we would have had great minds such as Shakespeare and da Vinci without them?

Lisa Beaven:

No I don't. I think that patronage is this hugely important part of nearly every cultural endeavour and scientific endeavour and certainly in early modern Europe there was always someone there who was actually supporting them and helping them – people like Leonardo went to some of these different courts, like Milan and of course he died in France where the king of France had invited him to France, so patronage was hugely important. There was always someone behind them with the money and in the case of Florence, of course, you had the Medici, who were bankers, enormously wealthy bankers. It's hard to imagine most of the artistic endeavour and even some of the scientific endeavours of Florence could have taken place without them.

Matt Smith:

How responsible do you think it was for bringing about the Renaissance and for really powering that?

Lisa Beaven:

I think it's extremely important. There's no question about that. You did have the religious institutions as well, who would also commission works of art and they were also important, particularly in places like Siena and you do have city states themselves getting together and collectively patronising various artists and various projects. So it wasn't just individuals. It was partly, and you can't stress this enough, this really strong sense of competition that was going on at that time in the Renaissance in Italy, so people were competing with each other. There was also the sense that your villa was bigger and better than the guy across the valley, who might have got some famous artist in to do something.

Matt Smith:

Hey, I'm funding Leonardo da Vinci, would be a pretty good thing to say.

Lisa Beaven:

Yeah, it would, it would.

Matt Smith:

A bit of a status symbol that way. An important patron of the arts that you studied for your doctoral thesis was Cardinal Camillo Massimo. Now tell me a bit about him.

Lisa Beaven:

Yes, well, he's interesting because I really first have to talk a little bit about the seventeenth century. I was attracted to the idea of studying the seventeenth century. I often make the parallel with now. Now we have that sense that our lives are really being overtaken by technology. If you think about your ability to keep up with what's going on – constantly new developments are taking place and you only just may be hanging on by your fingernails to all those technological developments. The beginning of the seventeenth century was also like that. You had this huge scientific revolution – you had Galileo looking through his telescope, seeing the craters on the moon, you had the idea of the infinite starts to seep into human consciousness in the early modern Europe. That was both really exciting and terrifying. If you imagine that in the medieval period there was a certainty about your place in the world, there was a certainty that basically the sun revolved around you, that you were the centre of the universe, you were the centre of everything. By the seventeenth century, they know that's not true. There were all these things they had to contend with. So it makes it incredibly exciting and that world view of this idea of technology, for example people looked through a microscope for the first time in the seventeenth century and they see there's a whole world that's so small they didn't even know it was there. So all their worlds are expanding in different directions. Even the discovery of the New World takes a long time to actually filter through in European consciousness because the maps are secretly guarded all the way through the sixteenth century. You could be killed, executed, for stealing somebody's map.

Matt Smith:

The church was very big on repressing that sort of stuff for quite a while weren't they?

Lisa Beaven:

Yes, both yes and no. It's interesting with Galileo that the church was both supportive of him and…

Matt Smith:

And excommunicated him…

Lisa Beaven:

And excommunicated him, so the Jesuits for example, are great promoters of scientific discovery and innovation. On the other, they have a reputation I would argue that it's not entirely justified in terms of their attitude to science. What attracted me to the seventeenth century first is that it's a really, really exciting time to have learnt… I mean, there's so much going on, and Massimo's interesting because he's in a way such an unlikely figure to have become an important patron. He is one of the members of one of the oldest families in Rome, the Massimo family – some people argue that they go back to ancient Rome – and they used to live in this incredible masterpiece of a palace by Peruzzi, the Palazzo Massimo alle Collone in Rome, which is very much a manifestation of this classical past, this humanist ideal that I was talking about a minute ago. Born in 1620, he sets off on this very encouraging ecclesiastical career and he ends up becoming Papal nuncio to Spain in the 1650s which is like being an ambassador, a Papal ambassador.

Matt Smith:

But Spain didn't want him because he was too close to the French.

Lisa Beaven:

No, Spain didn't want him. That's right. So what happens is his glorious career goes wrong when he gets to Spain and he's actually not allowed to proceed to Madrid. He gets stranded, isolated in this little town for a year. Eventually he's admitted as Papal nuncio, but then he's recalled in disgrace back to Italy in 1658, and he has to go and live in exile in this tiny little place called Roccasecca dei Volsci in southern Lazio, no money, no prospects, nothing. In spite of all that, because of this extraordinary personality that he has, he actually manages to leverage these extraordinary friendships he has with some of the most important artists of his day. He was a really good friend of Nicolas Pouissin, he was one of the most important patrons of Claude Lorrain, the landscape painter, he was a friend of Velázquez, there was some evidence that Velázquez helped him when he got to the Spanish court – he actually had his portrait painted by Velázquez. So he's become this very interesting figure. He has this very uneven ecclesiastical career, a bit like a roller coaster. Near the end of his life in 1670, he's actually made Cardinal. So he goes from being completely broke, isolated, into being one of the leaders of Roman society, with lots of money, in 1670, a position he only enjoys for about seven years. So for my research I went and studied in Rome and I discovered there was a private archive there, which had all of his correspondence. So – an extraordinary resource, these letter books basically, which go from about the 1650s to the end of the 1660s. So what you find is you can actually reconstruct somebody's life because copies of his letters survived, all of his different correspondence, about every aspect of his life. That's actually extremely unusual. One of the problems with studying patrons is that we don't have enough evidence of what they really thought and felt about things. Most patronage studies rely on inventories, in other words, inventories which are made when somebody dies. You go through and you itemise everything in the house and you can reconstruct from these inventories, looking at the palaces where they would have lived, where the art would have been displayed and so on. But in Massimo's case, he writes very passionate, I think, very direct letters about things and those letters exist, so we know that he loves painting. He adores paintings that he has – in one case he says about the Pouissin paintings that he owns, someone has offered to buy them and he says "I paid 300 scudi for them, but no matter what they're offering, I wouldn't part with them because they are my taste and they really appeal to me". So we get this wonderful sense of his passion about art. He was also an artist himself. He actually took lessons we think, from Nicolas Pouissin. He's a very unusually figure, I think, because he's an artist and because he did a lot of drawing, he had a different relationship with those artists.

Matt Smith:

Does any of his art still survive?

Lisa Beaven:

His drawings do, some of his drawings do. For this particular project, the archive was inside the Palazzo Massimo alle Collone which is this beautiful Renaissance palace by Peruzzi and so I would have to make an appointment to go there and the head of the family would take me into the private archive which was extraordinary. It was filled with these enormous carved bookshelves. The cats would come in with me. There was no power point and I would actually transcribe as many documents as I could for the limited amount of time I could spend there. One winter when I was there it was freezing and cold – it was so cold that I actually had to move into the porter's office – your feet would go numb after an hour. And so at one point we had the head of the family, the porter, myself, all of the cats, in his tiny little office and while I was trying to study these letter books – it was an unusual circumstance I have to say, but it was really such an enormous privilege of course, to be in there.

Matt Smith:

Do they give that sort of access freely, to their documents?

Lisa Beaven:

No, it's quite hard and in terms of Roman studies, some family archives are in the Vatican for example, some are in the State Archives, some are still in private hands, and those documents of course are the hardest to get access to, because the families don't have the resources, usually, to have someone to accompany you into the archive, like an archivist, they can't afford to employ an archivist.

Matt Smith:

Hence having the cats with you…

Lisa Beaven:

Hence having the cats, who were convinced there were mice in there. It was an extremely unusual circumstance, really. There were some other people who did access the archive while I was there, but they were few and far between, partly because a member of the family had to make free time to come and spend that time. In my case, with Prince [12:85.5] Carlo Massimo – he was incredibly generous in spending so much time coming into the archive with me, where I would just sit there and just madly scribble documents down, trying to transcribe them. This was in the days before digital photography I might add, which makes things a lot easier for archival research.

Matt Smith:

Were you tempted to say, Hey, this patronage thing sounds like a good idea. Scholars could do with a bit of patronage now. Do you think that patronage could benefit people these days?

Lisa Beaven:

I think patronage is hugely important now, more than ever. We're looking at a situation where a lot of universities are in crisis, and if you look at the difference between the model in Australia and the model in America for example – in America, all the museums and the art galleries were founded on private patronage, mostly. So being generous benefactors who made their fortune in various ways, whether it was from oil, or banking or entrepreneurial activities, realised they wanted to give something back and they would donate their private collections to museums and so on. We've got lots of museums in America that began this way. But also universities. It's not unusual to get someone to leave millions of dollars to universities in America. In Australia we don't have that tradition at all. Someone makes money, there's no sense that they need to share it, to give something back to that community they came from, at least not in the way you get it in America. And it's quite interesting that we don't have that tradition here – I think it's more important than ever. I'm not sure how you actually change the mindset. A lot of those old Roman families, even if they have no money, they do understand absolutely what patronage about. In the case of Carlo Massimo, at one point he actually accompanied me to one of the other country properties, because he knew I wanted to see one of the art works there. So, in their own way, they do everything they can to help you, and they feel honoured that you've come all the way from the other side of the world to study that aspect of their history.

Matt Smith:

That's all the time we've got for the La Trobe University podcast today. If you have any questions, comments or feedback about this podcast, or any other, then send us an email at podcast@latrobe.edu.au. Dr Lisa Beaven, thank you very much for your time today.

Lisa Beaven:

Thank you.

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