What the arts need is political majesty, not philanthropy
When philanthropy emerged as a credible source of arts funding, it came as a surprise to those of us who thought business sponsorship of the arts was a marketing process. But Arts & Business, whose subsidised job was to encourage commerce which had not looked past sport for a street profile to turn to the arts, had discovered that the privately wealthy were quietly giving cash to the arts, and doing it expressly without publicity and to values exceeding what corporate business was contributing. Despite Jeremy Hunt’s attempt to lay an entire funding policy on philanthropic largesse, the philanthropists actually did it for the love of the arts, not because they had a point to make.
A&B labelled the phenomenon the Medici Effect. It was a good word for it at the time, evoking the Florentine ruling family of the 15th century that defined the Renaissance, the great expression of humanism, giving us the likes of Leonardo, Michelangelo and Brunelleschi.
But as a fascinating book by Alison Cole (Italian Renaissance Courts: Art, Pleasure and Power, published by Laurence King) shows us, the Medici effect was not unalloyed beneficence. Art was as much a weapon as the sword, and many times more politically effective, and Cole shows us that the practice of supporting artists was not confined to Florence, it was common among all the city states of the Quattrocento.
Once a magnate took control of a city he had to hold it, and try to leave what he had created for a dynasty. This meant first of all impressing either the Pope or the Holy Roman Emperor, depending in whose sphere of influence the city was, and then the other dukes and marquises who would have been watching warily for signs of danger and of opportunity. To be cultivated was to be one of us, and you showed it by the scholarship, art and architecture you made happen. Through their arts “philanthropy” they demonstrated their hold on the virtues, of fortitude, prudence, temperance, magnanimity and liberalism, an ethic summed up as “Maiestate”, or majesty.
They used it to seal marriage alliances. Mantegna’s famous Camera degli Sposi in Mantua was effectively a dating catalogue, with the Gonzagas’ eligible ladies portrayed in the best possible light by the finest painter of the age. But the magnates also loved this stuff, and sometimes got carried away with their enthusiams. Ludovico Sforza in Milan was overthrown partly because he had spent all his money on art with nothing left to pay mercenaries. For his sublime Last Supper fresco Leonardo was given a vineyard in lieu of cash. And while there was a superstratum of artists from Giotto to Leonardo who could, on paper anyway, command huge retainers, there were jobbing court artists right down the pecking order, on a par with the court candlestick-maker.
No, if the Medicis and the Sforzas were around today they would be into football, not art, buying and selling peripatetic Ibrahimovices and Ronaldos to make the impression they needed through the their clubs’ Champions League success, while the real political influence is in arts culture and that is why every government except ours, it seems, is aware of the diplomatic currency of art. Let’s celebrate philanthropists for what they enable to happen, but let's not kid ourselves that they are ushering in a new Renaissance. But politicians who get it - and can get over their unfathomable shame at being seen by the public enjoying the arts - just might.
I’ll be away for a couple of weeks, back on or about Sept 16