Stories of artists, patrons and collectors told by Claudio Strinati: The art market in the fourteenth century

Market paradoxes: how is it that contemporary artworks that a large part of public opinion does not appreciate reach much higher prices than those attributed to masterpieces of ancient art?

For some years the art market has been experiencing a decline in interest and, therefore, in the economic value of ancient art. On the contrary, the market for modern and, above all, contemporary art has increased in importance to the point that news such as that of Modigliani's Lying Nude purchased at auction by a Chinese tycoon for a record sum of $172 million, or that of a Picasso passed out of hand against an outlay of cica 150 million. It is now clear to everyone that an antique painting can hardly reach figures of that level. Who, among the masters of the past, could compete on the market with Modigliani and Picasso? Only the great masters of art history of all time: Rubens, Caravaggio, Raphael, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, artists, that is to say, widely museumized and, in fact, out of the market. The situation is paradoxical, let's think of the astonishment of Modigliani - who in life was an unfortunate and very poor artist - if someone had told him that, one day, only one of Leonardo da Vinci's masterpieces could have hoped to reach the prices of one of those nudes of his that nobody wanted to buy.
That's right, Modigliani found it hard to find the money to pay for his lunch at the trattoria and he often managed to dine only thanks to a providential invitation from his friend Picasso who, a great connoisseur of art as he was, held him in high esteem. Nor was he able to exhibit his works. His only personal exhibition was organized by Berthe Weill in December 1917, so close to the end of his brief existence. Modigliani and Weill - a gallery owner who played an important role in the creation of the modern art market - decided to set the exhibition mainly on those nudes that today so excite the market, but which, at the time, could disturb someone. And that's exactly what happened. Unfortunately, the Weill Gallery was located in a very narrow street in front of a police station, so that when a group of ladies, scandalized by the nudity, started to protest loudly in the middle of the street, the police officers intervened immediately and closed the exhibition. In short, few people were able to see the famous nude lying down that the contemporary marketplace considers as desirable as a Leonardo da Vinci could be.

But is it right that the market can get to put Leonardo and Modigliani on the same level? And, above all, how did it come to this? The question seems all the more pertinent in the case of certain works of contemporary art that a large part of public opinion does not like and does not even consider artistic. Therefore, works that, although to the displeasure of most people, reach astronomical prices, while much less are worth artists valued excellent by a majority whose judgment is evidently irrelevant. Perhaps some of you have followed the controversy that, a few months ago, welcomed the installation of a sculpture by Jeff Koons in the middle of Piazza della Signoria next to the masterpieces by Michelangelo, Donatello, Cellini and Giambologna. I summarize brevemente the terms of the matter. On the occasion of the last Biennale Internazionale di Antiquariato in Florence, Fabrizio Moretti, Secretary General of the prestigious exhibition, promoted the placement in Piazza della Signoria of Pluto and Proserpina, a large golden sculpture in which the acclaimed American sculptor-pornographer revisits the Bernini masterpiece preserved at the Galleria Borghese. It may be that the Italian public knows Koons more as the ex-husband of the pornstar Cicciolina than as an artist, it may be that the sculpture appears to most people an ignoble punch in the eye, the fact is that many have shouted sacrilege. And yet, beyond the indignation of a large part of public opinion, we are well aware that the elite of potential buyers immediately judged it to be a very desirable work of high commercial value.

What is art?

Art is one of the most universal objects of human desire. If everyone can agree on this premise, music changes when it comes to defining what art is. How many times have we heard the lapidary judgment "this is not art"? Perhaps we ourselves, faced with an indigestible work of contemporary art, wondered if that could be considered art. Yeah, but what is art? What are the parameters to establish whether or not we are faced with a work of art? Let's reassure ourselves if we are not able to answer this question, because, since time immemorial, the masters of thought have been struggling to solve the question without succeeding.

The Italian school attended by the boys of my generation welcomed, still practically without reservations, the definition of art enunciated by Benedetto Croce in a work that has long and strongly influenced the aesthetic criticism of our country: Aesthetics as a science of expression and general linguistics, published in 1902. In Croce's Aesthetics art is defined by the endiadi intuition-expression, in the sense that true intuition is also expression. The spirit does not intuit except by doing, forming, expressing and what is not objective in expression is not intuition, but simple sensation. We cannot say that we have had the intuition of a geometric figure if we do not have a clear enough image to be able to draw it, because intuition and expression are two inseparably connected moments of a process of inner clarification.

It often happens to hear someone say "I am not able to express myself", as if inside the head of those people there were so many thoughts that they are unable to communicate. Well, according to Croce, when the capacity of expression is lacking it means that intuition is still very weak. In the same way, we are often led to think that our intuition of the figure or space is the same of the great artist, with the difference that he has the ability to represent it thanks to his technical ability. The truth is, however, that the artist is great not for his mastery of technique but for the quality of the intuition he expresses. The distinction between art and non-art therefore lies in the degree of intensity of intuition-expression. We all intuit and express: but the artist is such because he has a stronger, richer and deeper intuition to which inevitably corresponds an adequate expression. The reasoning does not make a fold and, in fact, it was very much appreciated, at least here in Italy, throughout the first half of the 20th century, then it began to be questioned.

Art and the market: how is the price of a work of art formed?

It is clear from what we have said that defining the concept of art on a philosophical level is a difficult undertaking. So let us approach the issue from a completely different point of view, that of the market. According to which mechanisms does the market attribute a more or less high economic value to a creation of the human intellect implicitly recognizing its artistic value? How is the price of a work of art formed? Let's immediately say that the work of art has its own production cost given by the cost of the materials used and labour. Is the value of the work equivalent to the sum of these two values? We know very well that this cannot be the case.

Let's take an example. Among the splendid sculptures that adorn the Florentine Piazza della Signoria is the Perseus by Benvenuto Cellini, a work of great beauty and celebrated fame. For the fortune of scholars, Cellini has left a detailed autobiography in which he recounts, with a wealth of details, the genesis of that sculpture, not wrongly considered his masterpiece. As is well known, the Perseus is a bronze casting made with the technique of lost wax, a refined and difficult technique, especially when applied to an artefact of that size. It is sufficient to observe the sculpture to understand that Cellini was able to brilliantly overcome any technical difficulty. From the artist's account, however, it is clear that this victory had a not insignificant economic cost. In fact, huge quantities of bronze were used, an expensive material, and a great deal of skilled labour, the best, two costs to which must be added the remuneration due to the artist. The pages of the autobiography contain enough information to make us understand that Cellini's masterpiece eventually cost the equivalent of 500/600,000 euros. Is this the value of Perseus or is this calculation missing some element? There is in fact one decisive element missing: art. The importance of that element to determine the value of a work is evident especially in the case of Modigliani's Lying Nude, which, although it did not have the high cost of making the Perseus, is worth the stratospheric figure of 172 million dollars on the market. We have therefore returned to the initial question: how do you recognize art, how much does it affect the final value of the work? The aim of our meetings will be to analyse the answer that the market has given to these questions over the centuries.

Giotto - Esequie di San Francesco, Bardi Chapel in Santa Croce

He believed Cimabue in painting keep the field, and now he has Giotto the cry.

La vicenda di Giotto, l’artista gigantesco che rimutò l’arte di greco in latino e ridusse al moderno, risulta illuminante nell’ambito della nostra discussione. La sua carriera fu coronata da uno straordinario successo, il successo di una vera e propria star che riceve compensi adeguati alla sua fama. Fama, successo, sono le parole chiave della storia che stiamo per raccontare, una storia ambientata, come sappiamo, all’inizio del ‘300. Proprio a partire da Giotto risulta infatti di assoluta evidenza come il parametro che in larga percentuale stabilisce il valore di un’opera d’arte sia il successo sociale. Questo significa che prima di Giotto gli artisti non avevano successo? Certo che lo avevano, ma non quel tipo di successo. Nella storia dell’arte occidentale il primo artista a riscuotere quel tipo di successo è Giotto, una circostanza di cui i contemporanei del pittore avevano piena consapevolezza. Ce lo conferma il più autorevole dei testimoni: Dante Alighieri, uno che di arte se ne intendeva parecchio e che, con poche, illuminanti parole, ci spiega la rivoluzione di Giotto, il pittore moderno per antonomasia, uno che avrebbe potuto tranquillamente dialogare con Modigliani e, perché no, con Jeff Koons. Il poeta esprime il suo parere, con sintesi lapidaria quanto efficace, nelle pagine della Divina Commedia (Purgatorio, Canto XI, verso 91). Dante e Virgilio stanno percorrendo la prima cornice del Purgatorio, riservata all’espiazione del peccato di superbia, dove le anime espianti sono costrette a procedere piegate dal peso di enormi massi poggiati sulla schiena. Dalla schiera si alza una voce, è quella di Oderisi da Gubbio, un famoso miniatore, che pronuncia alcune interessanti considerazioni proprio sul tema che ci interessa: il successo. Oderisi parla anche di Giotto: “Credette Cimabue ne la pittura tener lo campo, e ora ha Giotto il grido, sì che la fama di colui è scura”. Analizziamo il verso. Cos’è il campo? E’ l’arena, lo stadio, il luogo in cui ci si raduna per assistere a un evento sportivo o a un concerto, un evento che genera, letteralmente, urla, genera il grido del pubblico, perché il grido è la consacrazione della fama. Parliamo di una fama da divo, da rock star, una fama che porta ricchezza, tanta ricchezza. Esattamente il tipo di fama che si era conquistato Giotto, il pittore-divo richiesto alla corte papale perché alto era il grido che si alzava da Padova, dove grande scalpore aveva suscitato l’opera eccelsa dipinta per Enrico Scrovegni. Scrovegni è uno sponsor importante, un uomo ricchissimo e ambizioso che, giunto ai trent’anni, si pone il problema di consolidare e aumentare il suo potere. In vista di questo obiettivo deve presentarsi alla città con un profilo più alto, quello del benefattore-mecenate, che offre ai padovani il dono di un mirabile luogo di culto. A chi affidare il compito di realizzare un’opera così potente se non al pittore più potente di tutti? Sarà infatti questo pittore a consegnare all’eternità il nome di Enrico. Altri due sponsor di Giotto sono le famiglie Peruzzi e Bardi, due famiglie importanti. Quanto importanti? Importantissime, banchieri tra i maggiori del mondo, di quelli che, finanziando papi e re, reggono i destini dell’umanità. Una committenza di tale livello è certamente attirata dalla fama del pittore, ma contribuisce anche a moltiplicarla in una sorta di benefico circolo vizioso. Avere protettori del genere alle spalle fa la differenza.
Per i Bardi Giotto esegue una cappella in Santa Croce. Come si diceva, Bardi era un Rockfeller dell’epoca e desta una certa sorpresa il soggetto prescelto per la decorazione: Episodi della vita di San Francesco. Il bellissimo affresco è la perfetta rappresentazione visiva dei principi francescani di povertà e umiltà, niente di più lontano dalle figure dei ricchissimi e spregiudicati committenti. Lo stridente contrasto fu notato anche dai contemporanei e qualcuno si arrampicò sugli specchi spiegando che lo stesso ordine dei Francescani – i seguaci del Santo morto sulla nuda terra predicando la rinuncia ai beni terreni – avevano pensato di onorarlo erigendo in suo onore la più costosa cattedrale della storia cristiana, San Francesco d’Assisi, una circostanza che sembrava in qualche modo legittimare la dedica dei Bardi al Santo della povertà. D’altronde, se il committente dell’opera era uno degli uomini più ricchi della sua epoca, male non se la passava nemmeno l’esecutore. L’arte di Giotto rendeva molta fama, la fama molto denaro e il pittore dimostrava di saperlo abilmente impiegare e moltiplicare attraverso una frenetica attività speculativa. Questo sorprendente aspetto della sua personalità è con certezza testimoniato da ingenti quantitativi di atti notori e giudiziari che evocano la figura di uno speculatore immobiliare con un bel po’ di pelo sullo stomaco. Nel 1328, al culmine della carriera, Giotto viene chiamato a Napoli da Roberto d’Angiò, un sovrano di primo piano e, guarda caso, uomo tra i più ricchi del tempo. Delle opere realizzate dal pittore durante il soggiorno napoletano rimane purtroppo assai poco, conserviamo però una preziosa documentazione d’archivio che descrive con precisione il suo rapporto formale con la corte. Roberto d’Angiò lo nomina famigliare e primo pittore di corte e gli assegna un cospicuo stipendio annuo. Quando il sovrano è particolarmente soddisfatto del lavoro non manca di elargire donativi extra stipendio o benefici, come ad esempio le tenute ricevute dopo l’esecuzione degli affreschi del Palazzo Reale. E’ stato anche rintracciato un documento che attesta, nel 1332, il suo collocamento a riposo con diritto alla pensione e alla reversibilità per la vedova! Il pensionato Giotto riceveva annualmente dall’azienda Regno di Napoli 12 once d’oro, vale a dire una pensione equivalente a quella che oggi riceverebbe un manager di una certa importanza. Risulta a questo punto evidente che, a partire da Giotto, la storia del mestiere dell’artista si arricchisce di un nuovo capitolo, quello dell’artista-funzionario pubblico, una appetita possibilità di ascesa sociale. Nella storia dell’arte occidentale Giotto rappresenta uno spartiacque su tutta la linea, anche per quanto riguarda la condizione sociale dell’artista. Nel mondo medioevale pregiottesco l’artista è un artigiano-fornitore dotato di una struttura commerciale specializzata nella progettazione e realizzazione di cantieri, decorazioni, oggetti d’arte. Da questo modo di concepire il mestiere dell’artista deriva che quegli artisti erano meno artisti di quelli che sarebbero arrivati dopo? Assolutamente no, guardando la loro produzione ci rendiamo conto che alcuni di essi erano artisti fenomenali, ma la società del tempo non prendeva nemmeno in considerazione l’idea che un artista potesse essere stipendiato ed elevato al rango di funzionario pubblico. Quegli artisti non potevano aspirare al grido, alla fama da rock star che arriderà a Giotto, aspiravano piuttosto al buon nome, cioè a una reputazione di abilità professionale analoga a quella che, anche oggi, porta clienti all’idraulico o all’elettricista. Con Giotto si apre uno scenario del tutto nuovo in cui l’artista scopre di poter diventare un divo osannato e conteso dai grandi della terra: i re del mondo in competizione per assicurarsi i servigi del re dell’arte. Abbiamo lasciato Giotto in uscita dal Regno di Napoli con il riconoscimento di una lauta pensione, siamo dunque alle battute finali della sua prodigiosa carriera? Naturalmente no. Esattamente come fanno i grandi dirigenti dei nostri giorni, dopo la pensione egli continua a cumulare prestigiosi incarichi. A partire dall’aprile del 1334, cioè verso il termine della sua vita, lo troviamo a Firenze dove il Priorato delle Arti, un importante organo politico della città, e l’ufficio del Vessillifero di Giustizia gli conferiscono gli incarichi di Maestro e Direttore dell’opera della Chiesa di Santa Reparata (l’odierna Santa Maria del Fiore) e della perfetta costruzione delle mura ed altre fortificazioni della città di Firenze.

Ambrogio Lorenzetti - Allegory of Good and Bad Government (detail from the Effects of Good Government in the Countryside)

Ambrogio Lorenzetti

Giotto's extraordinary work and equally extraordinary career open new perspectives to the artist's art and craft. Many are his followers and many of great value. Among them stands out the figure of the Sienese Ambrogio Lorenzetti, one of the greatest painters in the history of Italian art. His most famous work is represented by a cycle of frescoes painted inside the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena, the Allegory of Good and Bad Government. Beyond the artistic value, which is paramount, those paintings are of fundamental importance as the first explicit example of a political work of art in the history of Italian art. Here, in fact, the city government commissioned Ambrogio and his workshop to create a decorative cycle in the building that is the symbol of political power. It is no coincidence that such an idea matured at first in Siena. The city was credited, in fact, as the best possible example of public administration and this also as a direct descendant of Rome. The history of Siena as heir to ancient Rome was supported with curious arguments by historians and jurists of the city. It was said in substance that, after the fall of the Roman Empire, what remained of that great civilization, erroneously considered of Etruscan origin, had returned to Etruria. Siena, the most important city of the Etruscan territory, is therefore felt to be the New Rome. Like New Rome, it adopts the symbol of the she-wolf suckling her twins and behaves towards art in a way that, in fact, is curiously "Roman". The idea of the Commune of Siena to commission one of the greatest living artists to work on explicit political propaganda is perfectly superimposed on the spirit that animates works such as Augustus' Ara Pacis or the Trajan's Column, just to mention a couple of the best known examples. Through the Ara Pacis, Augustus describes to his people the results of peace and prosperity of his good government. The administrators of Siena apply the same logic as Augustus when they ask Lorenzetti to represent the effects of (their) good government in every aspect of city life, effects that are enhanced by the parallel representation of the damage of bad government. Looking in detail at the fresco, one sees a sort of winged genius flying over the lush Siena countryside. The figure, representing Security, holds with one hand a hanged man, symbol of implacable justice with those who make mistakes, and with the other a scroll in which it is said that, as long as security reigns, everyone can wait in their own occupations free from fear. The language used for the writing is not Latin but Italian, a circumstance that confirms the didactic and political intent of a work evidently destined to speak to the whole community. It is equally evident that the artist called upon to carry out such an undertaking inevitably assumes a civic function. If Giotto is the artist of popes and kings, Lorenzetti is the voice of a republic, so his work is truly addressed to the people in a fully political message. When the City of Siena chooses to invest a large sum in an artistic enterprise (Lorenzetti was a very well paid artist) it makes a political choice, that is, it proclaims that art is one of the administrative functions of the city. That concept that we have seen come to the fore with Giotto - the artist who rises to the rank of important public official - in Siena takes a step forward. Here we see an artist at work in a political environment that considers art itself an activity of public interest, in short, the modern idea of the cultural good makes its way. What the City of Siena commissions from Ambrogio Lorenzetti is a cultural asset of the present city and of future generations, a sort of constitution for images not by chance conceived by the city that was, in Italy, among the first to have a written constitution.

The new social role of the artist

We have therefore seen how, already in the middle of the 14th century, that combination of art and money that was the subject of our investigation has roughly taken on the peculiarities that characterize it in the contemporary world. The artist can hope to become a star, to become richer and socially elevated thanks to the recognized and acclaimed desirability of his art. He can acquire, in Dante's words, the cry that induces the holders of political power to offer him well-paid jobs as a public official. A figure, that of the artist, a public official, who had never been seen before in the West, but whom Marco Polo tells of having met at the court of the Emperor of Catai. We do not know if Giotto and Lorenzetti had the opportunity to read and be influenced by the chronicles of the Venetian traveller, but certainly, in the wake of their successful career, the job of artist acquires social value and, for many young people, becomes a way to follow, if not even a dream to pursue.

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