Written by Shea Ferguson
In late 2018, the French and Italian governments reached a deal to swap certain works of the famed Renaissance artists Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael in order to celebrate the upcoming death anniversaries of these giants of art history. The achievement of a deal was no easy feat – just months before, the previous Italian administration derided the potential swap, labelling it as one that heavily favoured the French. In an online blog on the subject, writer Mischa Alexander takes this example of political wrangling and investigates it further in order to answer the question – “Is art inherently political?” The conclusion being that “as politics seep more and more into our daily lives, it also seeps into our art.” Indeed, art at its simplest is a form of human expression and thus cannot be divorced from the bias of ideology, opinion and belief that is so fundamental to human character. During the Italian Renaissance, art was a deeply political endeavour, often blatantly so. In his work on painting in Renaissance Italy, scholar Michael Baxandall writes of the social relationships that gave context to the creation of artwork; on one side there was a painter who produced a piece, and on the other a commissioner who portrayed a vision and provided the funds necessary for its completion. Today, the names on one side of the relationship stick out: those of the artists Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Donatello, Vasari and others. Less easy to recall, however, are those who made up the other side of the dynamic, those who financed and commissioned the works of artists – the political and wealthy elite of the Italian Renaissance world. For this group, great works of art served as a powerful tool, used to advance a ruling family’s cultural reputation and legacy, and in effect enhance their political status.
The political landscape of fifteenth-century Italy was a complicated patchwork of constantly warring city-states, with the city of Florence under the dynastic rule of the Medici family recognised historically as the most culturally affluent and significant of the states. Despite the Florentines proudly declaring their city a democratic republic, the Medici rose to unofficial yet undisputed power in the city under the familial patriarch, Cosimo de’ Medici, aided by his international banking empire to become “king in all but name.” Cosimo took a deep interest in the emerging artistic and cultural scene in Florence, utilising the Medici wealth to revitalise the city into the cultural capital of Italy. An examination of the Medici accounts in the period 1434 to 1471 exposes that a gargantuan sum of 663,775 florins was directed by Cosimo for the construction and renovation of buildings in Florence, from churches to universities. Cosimo was intimately aware of how such sponsorship of the city’s cultural and artistic institutions would play to his political advantage, allowing the Medici to be immortalised through the architectural scene of Florence as the prime benefactors of the country’s artistic epicentre. In turn, the Medici won public support by beautifying the city and developing the crucial image of a charitable and generous ruling family. With deadly political rivalries between the leading families of Florence creating a tense and uncertain future for the Medici family power, public support was crucial. As Cosimo himself stated: “In fifty years we Medici will have been exiled, but my buildings will remain.” Power was ever shifting and uncertain, yes, but through artistic championship, Cosimo could create a political dynasty that would be recognised centuries later as the “Godfathers of the Renaissance.” In strong contrast to the public luxury sponsored by the Medici, the family chose to present a more architecturally modest image with their own home. Following the maxim of ancient Roman historian Sallust, who railed against “publica egestas, privatim opulenta” or private opulence and public squalor, the Palazzo Medici – the family palace – was unremarkable, disregarding flamboyance for a compact and humble stateliness. This was something of a political olive branch to the Florentine population; whilst the Medici may have been building Tuscan countryside villas with a fortune amassed through usury, at home they were certainly focused on providing artistic and architectural opulence for public enjoyment. Personal modesty was, then, just as much a calculated political decision to win over public support.
Whilst the link thus far between art and politics has been notably subtle, with behind-the-scenes extension of funds by political leaders to influence the cultural scene, the elite of the Renaissance were in no way adverse to more blatant shows of artistic propaganda. Cosimo de’ Medici’s grandson, Lorenzo Il Magnifico (or the Magnificent), continued the family reputation as leaders in the art world. In the family home, Lorenzo is thought to be depicted in a fifteenth-century painting by Benozzo Gozzoli as the youngest of the Three Wise Men, or Kings, who journeyed to the infant Jesus, as confirmed by the seven Medici gold spheres embleming the King’s horse. Crowning the painting is a fortress in the image of the Medici countryside home at Caffagioli; from here, the Procession sets forth in echo of the Biblical Magi beginning their search for Jesus from Jerusalem. Indeed, the Biblical allusions continue, with Cosimo de’ Medici himself depicted astride a donkey, the very same animal ridden by Jesus throughout the Bible. As Alina Cohen writes in her article on the subject, “equating their patriarch with the Catholic world’s ultimate moral authority was a power move.” Here again, the elite’s involvement in artistic endeavours was strongly politically motivated. Depicting the Medici as key figures in a forefront Biblical moment sent a message of Medici power and importance, placing the family alongside figures and moments of mythical importance to confirm the family eminence. Beyond religious symbolism, the painting is one of overwhelming opulence, with its subjects coated in fashionable Florentine garments, adorned from head to toe in a wide array of gems. Again, the political message sent her is one of Medici wealth and power, taking their place in the most luxurious scenes of history.
The political elite of Italy were certainly keen to have the great artists of the day work from within the family home, to the extent that many artists would live for extended periods as intimate companions of political families. The renowned Renaissance diplomat and theorist of political strategy, Niccolò Machiavelli, wrote that “a ruler must show that he admires achievement in others, giving home to men of remarkable ability and rewarding people who excel,” and as with many instances in the Renaissance art world, the Medici are the most obvious example of this. Lorenzo de’ Medici would house in his Palazzo such household names as Leonardo da Vinci and Donatello for years at a time, neatly epitomising the proximity between art and power in the period. With a closer inspection of the life of Leonardo da Vinci, this link is seen to extend beyond the confines of Florence. After working closely with the Medici, da Vinci wrote to the Duke Ludovico Sforza of Milan to boast of his abilities in engineering equipment for warfare, “I can also cast bombs, if necessary, mortars and field guns in beautiful and useful shape and for ordinary use,” as well as the ability to design and erect monuments in the honour of the Milani family: “I would also be able to work on a statue of an equestrian in bronze…for the happy memory of Your Glory Father and the Princely House of Sforza.” In this, the use of artists as political tools is further confirmed, with Leonardo hoping to achieve a position with the Duke on the merit of his political value. After the fall of Sforza to the French invasion of Milan in 1499, Lorenzo travelled to work as a military engineer for the infamous Cesare Borgia, son of Pope Alexander VI. Next, he worked as “Premier Painter and Engineer and Architect” of the French King Francis I. Leonardo’s life reflected a much broader experience of many artists of the period. As geniuses of painting, engineering, architecture, and science they were brought close to the heavyweights of politics as so valued an asset, so important a political tool, as to be family companions of the closest confidence. Nowhere is the intimate relationship between the artistic and political worlds made more manifest than in an 1818 painting by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres depicting Leonardo on his deathbed, his head cradled by the French king himself. What closer confirmation could there be that art in the Renaissance was of an inherently political nature, with the use of artists as key assets in maintaining and furthering political power; it can be assumed here that the King mourns not just a close companion, but the loss of an irreplaceable political tool.
Alexander, Mischa. “Is art inherently political?”. The Boar, October 26 2019. https://theboar.org/2019/10/is-art-inherently-political/.
Anorak. “The Ten Point CV Leonardo Da Vinci Sent To The Duke Of Milan”. Flashback, June 2 2014. https://flashbak.com/the-10-point-cv-leonardo-da-vinci-sent-to-the-duke-of-milan-735/.
Baxandall, Michael. Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1988.
Cohen, Alina. “In the Renaissance, Wealthy Patrons Used Art for Power”. Artsy, August 20 2018. https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-italian-renaissance-wealthy-patrons-art-power.
Gozzoli, Bennozo. “The Procession of the Magi”, 1459. Palazzo Medici Ricardi, Florence, http://www.travelingintuscany.com/art/benozzogozzoli/processionofthemagi.htm.
Ingres, Jean-Auguste-Dominique. “The Death of Leonardo da Vinci”. 1818. Petit Palais, Paris, https://www.wikiart.org/en/jean-auguste-dominique-ingres/death-of-leonardo-da-vinci-1818.
Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince. 2014, Penguin Classics.
Strathern, Paul. The Medici: Godfather’s of the Renaissance. London, Vintage Books London, 2007.
“Art In Tuscany: Procession of the Magi in the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi in Florence (1459-60)”. Travelling In Tuscany. http://www.travelingintuscany.com/art/benozzogozzoli/processionofthemagi.htm.