M-RCBG Faculty Working Paper Series No. 2019-04

Risky Business: Commissioning Portraits in Renaissance Italy

Jonathan K. Nelson
Richard Zeckhauser

July 2019


Portraits served as a form of social media in the Renaissance. Prominent individuals commissioned portraits to convey their accomplishments and relationships, not merely their images. Political and church leaders, in particular, used the images to bolster their role, but these commissioned works entailed risks, importantly including risks to reputation. A portrait could be unflattering or unrecognizable. It could also be judged to be indecorous, especially if the portrait was perceived as an attempt to elevate an individual above his or her station.

The artist-patron relationship was one between principal and agent. The time gap between commission and delivery brought risks. The work might be delayed, or simply not delivered. Both were significant risks with both Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. Portraits by other artists might turn out to be of low quality or violate decorum. In either case, the reputation of both patron and artist would suffer.

A number of salient examples of portraits gone wrong are analyzed in this essay. We mention two here. Elisabetta, mistress of Roberto Malatesta, the last of a long line of rulers of Rimini, became regent when Roberto died unexpectedly. She was guardian of their two minor sons and succeeded to power when Roberto’s brother’s plot to murder her and her elder son failed. Elisabetta then commissioned an altarpiece by Domenico Ghirlandaio for a famed local church. It was intended not only to show her devotion, but also, and strategically important, to publicly affirm her status as ruler, and her source of legitimacy as mother. She had herself depicted in the place of honor, in an outward gaze (unusual for a female patron) and nearly a head taller than her son. The deviations from the norm in the way she was portrayed, if widely accepted, would elevate Elisabetta, but such deviations elevated risks as well.

Domenico died and his brother, hardly his equal in skill, took over. Elisabetta took another risk and demanded a price reduction, then accepted binding arbitration. The arbiter granted that quality had suffered and cut the price, but he also noted the departures from decorum in the composition. The reputation of the painting, artist, and presumably the patron, suffered. About twenty years later, when the Malatestas were driven from Rimini, the donors’ portraits were painted out.

Francesco del Giocondo commissioned a portrait of his wife, (Mona) Lisa, which has become the most famous portrait of all time. But the story does not end happily for Francesco. Instead of delivering the painting to the original patron, Leonardo kept it and later described it to Cardinal Luigi of Aragon as commissioned by Giuliano de’Medici. The portrait was criticized in its time for many of its highly innovative features that are prized today.

Scandal also surrounded the portrait. It served as a prototype for the so-called Mona Vanna, a topless portrait, also due to Leonardo. A final unfortunate tale reemerged a few years ago, in a letter from 1515. Two prominent Florentines, including Duke Giuliano’s nephew Lorenzo, de facto ruler of Florence, made advances to Lisa del Giocondo. She refused. But the suggestion arises that the Mona Vanna was made for the erotic pleasure of Giuliano or Lorenzo de Medici.

Commissioning a portrait, as a venture into social media, always brought risks in the Renaissance. Those risks were magnified then, as they are today, when sex and power mixed together with the social medium message.

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