Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 26, 2018
Alison Cole Italian Renaissance Courts: Art, Pleasure and Power London: Laurence King Publishing, 2016. 256 pp.; 156 color ills. Hardcover $30.00 (9781780677408)

The art-historical literature on Italian Renaissance courts has traditionally been one of in-depth studies of individual court cities and specific artists. Alison Cole’s lucidly written book summarizes some of this literature for a general audience, focusing on the courts of Naples, Urbino, Ferrara, Mantua, and Milan during the fifteenth century. The work is a revised edition of the author’s 1995 book Virtue and Magnificence: Art of the Italian Renaissance Courts, expanded to reflect recent scholarship. Cole approaches her subject primarily from an art-historical perspective, highlighting the varieties of media, styles, and uses of art at court while presenting a picture of the artists and patrons behind its production. Cole’s writing thus offers the nonspecialist a concise overview of an important and fascinating topic, and an alternative to the many general studies of the artistic centers of Florence, Venice, and Rome.

Like its predecessor, this book begins with several broad chapters before turning to more focused studies of individual courts. In her introduction, “The Fifteenth-Century Renaissance Court,” Cole seeks to characterize these institutions in terms of their political, historical, and diplomatic contexts. Although the term is not explicitly defined, Cole seems to consider an “Italian court” any state of the Italian peninsula ruled by a despotic lord such as a duke, marquis, or, in the case of Naples, a king. The rulers of these states were linked to each other by bonds of marriage, commerce, and diplomacy, and they maintained contact with the courts of France, Germany, Spain, and Burgundy. They all shared the desire to assert the legitimacy of their rule, the honor of their families, and their piety and virtue through art, architecture, and cultural programs. To this end, they sponsored projects that emphasized military prowess, spent lavishly to support religious orders, constructed dazzling palaces, and funded extravagant public spectacles. Courtly art was not only a display of power and prestige; it also was a source of enjoyment and “spiritual nourishment” that provided consolation in times of uncertainty and unrest (17). In this chapter Cole also describes some of the features of court life, touching on its administration, the comings and goings of its courtiers, the military activities of the lord, and the roles of women and children.

Having addressed this broad historical framework, Cole focuses the next two chapters on the culture of artistic production at court. Chapter 1, “Art and Princely ‘Magnificence,’” outlines the cultural values that shaped the patronage of the lord and his family. She relates how “magnificence,” a value deriving from Aristotle’s Ethics, prompted extravagant spending on art and building projects in the public sphere; this spending was regarded as honorable on account of its pious or civic character. On the other hand, “splendor” embodied the “private, less regal, equivalent of magnificence” (36), that is, the idea that finely decorated, exotic, and luxury items brought pleasure to the user and prestige to the owner. Renaissance ideals of decorum helped to determine not only the lavishness of an artistic display, but also its materials, ornament, and style. In all things, context was key: what was appropriate for private use could differ markedly from what was suitable for public display, as Cole reminds us in the final section, “The Princely Residence.” In chapter 2, “The Court Artist,” the author continues these themes, but focuses attention on the figure of the artist. Citing such examples as Cosmè Tura, Mantegna, and Filarete, she addresses the relationship between patron and artist, patrons’ expectations, and artists’ status at court. As she explains, the conditions of an artist’s employment could vary greatly, from one of many paid staff to familiaris, or an intimate member of the household.

The remaining chapters of the book present five case studies of the artistic cultures of Italian courts: Naples under Alfonso of Aragon, Urbino under Federico da Montefeltro, Ferrara under Borso and Ercole d’Este, Mantua under Ludovico Gonzaga, and Milan under Ludovico Sforza. Each chapter centers on the person of the prince, his artistic taste, and his use of art as a tool of self-promotion. Because these rulers often earned their fortunes as condottieri, or mercenary generals, there could be a sense of urgency to present an image of learning and refinement. Thus Federico da Montefeltro had a preference for art marked by “clarity, order, dignity” and “intense pragmatism” (108), which he used to bolster his image as a just, virtuous, and sophisticated prince. In contrast, the Este of Ferrara cultivated artistic styles marked by “a poetic, visual and lyrical complexity” (134) and themes of chivalry, pleasure, and amusement. The text concludes with a brief discussion of early sixteenth-century developments, focusing on the Roman works of Michelangelo, Bramante, and Raphael, and the works of Giulio Romano in Mantua. The volume is richly illustrated with high-quality images and followed by a select bibliography.

The content of these chapters is substantially the same as the 1995 edition, making this book indeed a revision and not an entirely new publication. That said, Cole has fulfilled her promise to incorporate more recent scholarship, and each chapter presents varying amounts of new material. Chapter 6 (“Arms and Letters: Urbino under Federico da Montefeltro”), for example, introduces a discussion about the status of Jews in Urbinese society to contextualize the representations of a Jewish moneylender in Paolo Uccello’s Miracle of the Profaned Host, the predella of the Corpus Domini Altarpiece. Similarly, in chapter 7 (“Local Expertise and Foreign Talent: Milan and Pavia under Ludovico ‘il Moro’”), Cole fleshes out the section on Leonardo da Vinci by incorporating the controversial thesis that the animal in the artist’s portrait of Cecilia Gallerani alludes to the sitter’s pregnancy. Cole further acknowledges the recent attribution of a drawing now known as La Bella Principessa to Leonardo. The select bibliography lists many important studies that have appeared in print since the earlier publication.

Cole’s goal of presenting the artistic cultures of five cities in fewer than three hundred pages is an ambitious one, so naturally the book offers a cursory discussion of the artists, works, and themes it explores. On the other hand, the broad scope of the book allows the author to compare the different centers by drawing attention to how the political situation of each city informed the patronage of the prince and the members of his court. Cole has endeavored to present a multifaceted picture of court culture, touching on a range of artistic and literary works, from the writings of humanists, the collection of ancient and contemporary artworks, and the production of works in painting, sculpture, and architecture as well as tapestries and metalwork. The author’s skill in tying the major themes of each prince’s artistic patronage with the specific exigencies of his situation is one of the major strengths of the book.

The book is not without its shortcomings, including a number of factual inaccuracies that, unfortunately, compromise the author’s authority. Already in the preface, Cole refers to the “despotic lords” who are the principal subject of her book erroneously as signorie (that is, seigniorial governments), rather than signori (lords). Elsewhere, the reader encounters various puzzling statements, such as the second sentence of the introduction, which places the rule of the Roman emperor Augustus in the second century and claims that “most of what we now recognize as modern Italy dates back to [his] reign” (11). Augustus, of course, ruled Rome from the late first century BCE to the early first century CE, not the second century, while the phrase “modern Italy” and its connection to Augustus are not explained. More generally, one wishes for greater clarity on how Cole defines “Italian Renaissance courts” and the various titles the signori held. Surely there is a difference between Naples, ruled by a Spanish king, and Mantua, ruled by a marquis who owed allegiance to the Holy Roman Emperor. The book’s introduction offers few clear parameters, and the author even pulls examples from papal Rome and republican Florence to characterize court culture. The inclusion of Florence and Rome may have been intended to provide additional context for the nonspecialist, but these sections tend to dilute Cole’s focus on secular courts subject to dynastic rule. Finally, the book is without notes, not even ones to credit the translators of the book’s many quotes from Italian and Latin, making it difficult for a reader to pursue this material further.

Despite these limitations, the book remains, like its predecessor, a useful, engaging, and attractively produced introduction to the art of the major Italian Renaissance courts. It will be of interest to general readers and undergraduate students seeking an overview of Italian artistic centers beyond Florence, Rome, and Venice. Overall Cole is amply successful in her stated aim “to explore the distinctive uses of art at court, to distil and bring to life the salient motivations behind the various regional cultures and ‘courtly styles,’ [and] to focus on the artists and individuals associated with them” (28).

Caroline Hillard
Associate Professor, Department of Art and Art History, Wright State University