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

Italian Renaissance Portraits that Disappoint: Isabella d’Este, Francesco del Giocondo and Other Displeased Patrons

Jonathan K. Nelson
Richard Zeckhauser

July 2019
Updated April 2021


The successful fruits of Italian Renaissance patronage were often prominently displayed by the original owners and written up favorably by their contemporaries and ours. By contrast, paintings and sculptures that displeased or, worse, disgraced their patrons, though occasionally mentioned in publications about the patrons or artists, tended to get lost in historical accounts. As a result, standard assessments convey an unrealistically favorable picture. To facilitate a more balanced understanding of the patronage process, this essay addresses the risks inherent in commissioned portraits made in Italy from the late fifteenth through the late sixteenth century, including paintings by Andrea Mantegna, Domenico Ghirlandaio, and Leonardo da Vinci.

We focus on two broad categories of risks faced by patrons. First, portraits had the prime goal of presenting individuals in a manner both recognizable and favorable, but these two objectives often clashed. Second, though the commissioned works needed to convey an appropriate message, some were deemed to be confusing, irritating, or indecorous. Such failings often resulted from the selection, pose, placement, and/or attributes of the individuals portrayed. Patrons or owners who perceived failings in any of these subtle and subjective matters expressed disapproval by criticizing, rejecting, damaging, or even destroying a portrait. The potential for negative reactions was a deterrent that helped to promote the quality, timeliness, and appropriateness of commissioned art. Nevertheless, significant risks remained. Identifying these sources of risk enables us to better understand the strategies that patrons and artists employed to control them.

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