Why did the greatest patron of art have hardly any ‘art’ in his private collection?

Why did the greatest patron of art have hardly any ‘art’ in his private collection? 

If you are wondering who the greatest patron of (at least Western) art may be, I would say it is Lorenzo Medici (1449-1492), one of the most famous statesman and magnates of the Florentine Republic. Although he was a very successful politician and diplomat in late 15th century, the Italian nobleman is best well-known for his enthusiastic and powerful patronage of Renaissance culture. It has been estimated that over his lifetime, Lorenzo had spent approximately 663,000 florins (about US $460 million today) on patronage of the arts, charity, and buildings. He sponsored some of the greatest Renaissance artists of all time: Sandro Botticelli, Michelangelo, Piero and Antonio del Pollaiuolo, Andrea del Verrocchio, Domenico Ghirlandaio and even Leonardo da Vinci. All the artists he sponsored were instrumental to acknowledge the construction of the 15th-century Renaissance. It is debateable if all that would have been possible without the patronage of Lorenzo Medici. 

Agnolo Bronzino, Portrait of Lorenzo de’ Medici, c. 1565, Uffizi Gallery 

“The series of extracts from the 1492 inventory of the palace, taken after Lorenzo’s death, shows some of the items of furniture and clothing as well as the character of Lorenzo’s “art collection”. …, including a wooden stool and a set of fire irons, a scarlet wooden gown, panel paintings (both Italian and Flemish), Byzantine miniature mosaics, antique cameos, jewellery, precious-stone vases, and goldsmiths work” 

-An extract taken from the book Renaissance Art Reconsidered: An Anthology of Primary Sources, commentating on Lorenzo’s “art inventory”. 

However, here comes the confusing question that you already encountered in the title: Why this Florentine nobleman, who was famous for his passion and patronage for the arts, has barely any ‘art’ in his private collection? Instead, his art collection is filled with mosaics, antique cameos, tapestries, jewellery, precious-stone vases, gilded chests, goldsmith’s works and many other similar artefacts. Now, as these objects don’t sound so strange in the context that they are in the possession of one of the richest men in Europe at the time, it is a bit baffling how this exact man does not have corridors and vast rooms filled with brilliant, big canvases, glorious altarpieces, and dazzling marble sculptures. 

Unknown artist, Swearing-in cross of the Order of the Golden Fleece, 14th century, many similar items to this one would have been seen in Lorenzo’s inventory 

“I do not regret this for though many would consider it better to have a part of that sum in their purse, I consider it to have been a great honour to our state, and I think the money was well-expended and I am well-pleased.” 

– Lorenzo Medici on all the money he spent for the arts and culture 

First, it should be mentioned that paintings and sculptures were in fact present in that ‘art’ is only considered to be paintings or sculpture, and that other objects are ‘lesser’ or ‘decorative’ forms of art. We could point the blame to one man in particular for this idea – Giorgio Vasari. In his famous books Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects written in the second half of the 16th century, he puts forward the idea that only the painting, sculpture and architecture can be considered ‘high’ or ‘fine’ art. Finally, it should be kept in mind that Lorenzo Medici was also an astute politician. His collection of luxurious objects, precious stones, gilded items, and rare metals, as well as paintings and sculptures, was intended not only to impress the people of his republic and prove his authority, but also to show other politicians his immense power, wealth, and status. After all, at that time period gold, emeralds, pearls, and silver were a sign of status and wealth, perhaps more so than an oil painting by a ‘great master’. 

Circle of Vasari, Portrait of Giorgio Vasari, c.1574, Vasari was responsible for the creation of the Lives 

Further Reading: 

  1. Marina Belozerskaya,Rethinking the Renaissance: Burgundian arts across Europe, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002
  2. Patricia Lee Rubin and Alison Wright, Renaissance Florence: the art of the 1470s, London: National Gallery Publications, 1999
  3. C. M. Richardson, K.W. Woods and M.W. Franklin (eds.), Renaissance Art Reconsidered: An Anthology of Primary Sources, Oxford: Blackwell, 2007
  4. Alfred von Reumont, Lorenzo de’ Medici: The Magnificent, Robert Harrison(trans.), Vol. 2, London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1876

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