131 Art and economy

Report on a high-power conference at an Italian institute for the history of economics, where art was subjected to intensive archival, numerical and tabular scrutiny.

To exaggerate a bit: Economists equate the value of art with its cash price; to art historians the very thought is anathema. Economists and economic historians study open, anonymous markets; art historians closed, personal studios. The former deal in abstractions and numbers; the latter in objects and judgments. Students of economics are looking for universal laws; those of art for unique properties and fine distinctions.

No wonder then that when practitioners of these disciplines get together they find it hard to get in gear. In fact, few of them even get together at all. Only a handful of economic historians have ever concerned themselves with a field as small as art; not many art historians have studied as crass an aspect of art history as the art market. A true meeting of the economic and art-historical minds has yet to take place, an economic history of art yet to be written. For the moment, cooperation between the disciplines takes place mainly at special congresses, most recently a meeting held in Prato, Italy at the Francesco Datini Institute for Economic History on 30 April-4 May: Economy and Art, 13th-18th centuries.

An example of how shocking the economic study of art can be was delivered by Pierre Gérin-Jean of Paris. Studying the prices of art and other precious objects, he writes perfectly sensibly that price tells us something about the behavior of artists and buyers and that it offers an objective basis for cross-cultural and transhistorical comparisons. This should allow the art historian, he writes, “to take account of past realities that may be very different from our own.” His findings are however so different from the present-day scale of values that it’s hard even to begin to take them into account. Analyzing 3,500 prices over the centuries, Gérin-Jean found that the present-day primacy of paintings on the art market throws all historical comparisons out of balance. The rate of pay for painters lay considerably below that for professions we now consider artisanal, such as jewelers, metalsmiths, embroiderers and weavers. The Last Judgment by Michelangelo, which many would call the greatest work of art ever made, cost Pope Paul III only half the amount that as Cardinal Alessandro Farnese he had paid for a crucifix and two chandeliers in rock crystal and lapis lazuli. No one today, in an age when a painting by (in Gérin-Jean’s example) Willem de Kooning is worth more than any piece of jewelry in existence, is capable of squinting hard enough at the objects involved to begin to make sense of these relationships.

Sense can and must be be made of another of the economic-historical papers at the conference, by the Milanese historian Guido Guerzoni. Guerzoni has entered into a database all the expenditures of the Este court in Ferrara over long stretches of the 15th and 16th centuries. What he discovered undermines the prevailing view of court patronage as a propagandistic means of glorifying the dynasty. Guerzoni’s figures show that disbursements on representational art were dwarfed both in volume and rate of pay by spending on furniture and tapestries, music and dance, clothing and jewels, stucco and clocks. It goes against all the evidence to place the minor and poorly paid expenditures on painting at the center of Este patronage. Instead, he suggests that we view it as a mainly social and economic phenomenon, a driving force in the life of a city of which the courts constituted a major portion of the populace. In political terms, patronage was more of an instrument for preserving consensus than elevating the Este above their dependents.

If economic history challenges the assumptions of art history, the converse can also be maintained. In paper after paper, humanistically inclined historians insisted that the economists’ reliance on the market model is excessive and ahistorical. John Brewer (a Brit in Chicago) pointed out that there is such a thing as a system of the arts, based on quality connoisseurship, that deliberately sets itself off against the market but which is nonetheless indispensible for determining artistic values. Wim Blockmans (A Fleming in Leiden) complained that the market model left no room for symbolic values that can at times be of greater importance for the parties involved than financial worth. Laurence Fontaine (a Frenchwoman in Florence) argued for a breaking down of the economy of art into a world of economies, corresponding to the multiple worlds of art that we encounter in the historical record. Maximiliaan Martens (a Fleming in Groningen) objected to the too-loose application of the concepts mass market and serial production to art of the 15th and 16th centuries.

For the moment, however, the market model seems to be even more unbudgably entrenched in the study of economics than is the hegemony of painting in the study of art. Art historians need heavier ammunition than they have at present before they can convince economists that their faith in market forces as an explanatory tool goes too far. To acknowledge this, economists would have to adjust not only their analyses of value in past ages but also of the present, admitting a larger range of qualitative factors than economists care to deal with.

My sense of the congress was that both sides were edging towards a conception of the market in art in which the roles of more stakeholders were being considered than those of the artist and patron – the art-historical instinct – or the buyer and seller, as economists do. The market in artistic prices and aesthetic values alike is strongly influenced by connoisseurs and other kibitzers. Museumgoers who would never be able to buy an expensive painting nonetheless help determine the relative value of old masters in the market. When their feelings, as well as those of other players in the art system, are factored into the equation, more art-historical and economic gears may start to mesh.

© Gary Schwartz 2001. Published in Loekie Schwartz’s Dutch translation in Het Financieele Dagblad, 12 May 2001.

14 August 2017: Thanks to a query concerning this column by Ann Sutherland Harris, I have scanned the printed text of my talk from the proceedings of the Prato conference and put the present column on the Schwartzlist.

Our visit to Italy started the evening before we left, with a performance by the Netherlands Opera in Amsterdam of Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea, directed by Pierre Audi, conducted by Christophe Rousset. It was one of the most wonderful evenings of my life. Few musicians can ever have been so inspired as Monteverdi in the writing of the opera and few librettos as gripping as that of Giovanni Francesco Busenello. The operations of fate that opera thrives on and that come across so histrionically in most 19th-century operas, are presented here as an amoral and overpowering  triumph of sensual desire over all else. The opera was staged with melancholy dignity, in costumes reminiscent of drawings of Renaissance masque, and sung with heartbreaking beauty. One of the features of the Netherlands Opera that make it so appealing to me is the absence of the prima donna cult. Individual voices do not claim special attention and the audience seldom applauds arias. Perhaps it’s only because the Netherlands Opera cannot afford Cecilia Bartoli or Michael Chance, who have passionate claques, but whatever it is I’m for it. (From the Cecilia Bartoli – I adore her too, but still – HyperNews website I just culled the following):

Please tell me it isn’t so….I can’t believe Cecilia Bartoli my love,my all,my everything is getting married.I am so upset,you cannot understand,my heart will never love again…please tell me……write to me,someone…cyprinnes@hotmail.com

My appeal for help in finding rooms in Rome and Florence was answered generously by quite a few of you. All responses have gone into my Travel tips folder, where I hope to make use of them later. I did call some of the places you recommended, but this proved fruitless. All the lodgings that were anyone’s favorite were already booked in that period, which was full of national holidays and such. In Rome we ended up staying for three nights at a b&b on the Piazza del Monte di Pietà. A wonderful location and a picturesque building, but at a price per night (for minimal accommodations and a breakfast consisting of two slices of bread, measured amounts of butter and jam and a two-cup pot of coffee) of 280,000 lire ($126), about the same that our children pay per month for student rooms in Amsterdam. And to think that the Monte di Pietà, the city pawnbroker, was established to combat usury. Even for that price we couldn’t find a room for the fourth night, which was the eve of a national holiday, so we had to move to an even more expensive hotel. In Florence we gave up after five phone calls, and simply stayed on in Prato at the hotel where the congress was putting me up. The decision was all the easier after our one afternoon and evening in Florence, which was so absurdly overcrowded – waiting in line in the rain to pay 5,000 lire to visit Santa Maria Novella, teenage mob scenes everywhere – that we didn’t go back. Instead, we had a much nicer time visiting Pistoia and the Medici villa at Poggio a Caiano.

That was after the Datini symposium, an exhausting five-day affair that I drained to the dregs. Why is it that I can never seem to find time to sit down and read a scholarly journal, but manage to listen to I don’t know how many lectures at congresses and symposia, which take so much more time? The atmosphere at the congress, despite the built-in tensions sketched above, was notably gentlemanly. At least, in the (pretty awful) meeting hall. The confrontations and backstabbing were reserved for the corridors and cafés, as well as (I am told) the closed meetings of the scientific committee and the giunta. With more words at my disposal, I would have quoted the main organizer of the congress, Hans Pohl, who accosted me at the coffee bar with the provocation “Art is a commodity just like fish, no? Why can’t I find any art historians who are willing to discuss it with us on those terms?” Nonetheless, I was pleased that he liked my paper and singled it out at the wrap-up as the only talk aside from the keynote addresses that created a larger framework for the issues involved. (Any of you who wish to receive the text and tables of “The structure of patronage networks in Rome, The Hague and Amsterdam in the 17th century” may have it for the asking, in the hope that you will comment on it. I can still make use of suggestions for the published version.) [14 August 2017: this offer is now rescinded on account of redundancy.]

Some Italian experiences that stand out:

  • Visiting the Giustiniani exhibition at the Roman palace of the same name together with Irene Baldriga, the discoverer of the Bassano Michelangelo from the Giustiniani collection. The Christ with the Cross was the first display, on the stairway landing leading up to the exhibition galleries. Loekie and I studied it with her, after having looked closely the day before at the later version in the church of S. Maria sopra Minerva. (See FFDys 124: Lost and found.) Neither of us has any doubt whatsoever that Baldriga is right and that her professor missed out on the chance of a lifetime when she failed to identify the original author in her study of the Giustiniani collection. Dr. Squarzina, the main curator of the exhibition, is parading before the Italian media as the one who gave the statue to Michelangelo, but in the record of scholarship the find stands squarely to the credit of Baldriga.
  • Having dinner with Loekie on our 33rd wedding anniversary at the apartment of friends in Rome, who at my request had bought 33 long-stemmed red roses for her, which barely fit into our b&b. He is a Knight of Malta, which nowadays mainly entails providing paramedical services for pilgrims. He told us that during the Holy Year 2000 they helped about 15,000 visitors to Rome who fainted from exhaustion, emotion and heat.
  • Dinner at a roadside village restaurant near Poggio a Caiano with Bert Meijer, director of the Netherlands Institute in Florence.
  • Two lunches in Prato (La cucina di Paola, OK but overrated, and a forgettable tavola calda) with John Brewer, my fellow dedicatee of Simon Schama’s book Rembrandt’s eyes. We toasted Simon and talked about him lovingly, admiringly, jealously and critically.
  • Dinner in Florence (delightful neighborhood restaurant of S. Niccolo) with our old friend from publishing Alessandra Marchi of Centro Di. She also happens to be a Pandolfini princess, so we could enjoy some family gossip of a kind we never get to hear otherwise.
  • A visit by bus to Carmignano to see Pontormo’s Visitation and Bill Viola’s video installation The visit in a chapel of the same church (S. Michele).
  • Our first visit to Pistoia, capped by a personal tour of the empty S. Maria dell’Umilta by Father Massimo, who sang with us under Vasari’s dome to show us how long sound echos there (6-7 seconds) and regaled us with the local explanations of various iconographies, formal features and techniques in that wonderful church by Giuliano da Sangallo. (His S. Maria della Carceri in Prato was another highpoint.)

I was a bit out of it on the trip. I read clean over information on two events that I would have liked to attend. May 1st is one of the four days per year when the Virgin’s Sash, the famous Cintola, is shown at the Duomo of Prato. The organizers of the Datini conference didn’t announce this, because they wanted to keep their audience beyond 6 p.m., when the display took place. I also failed to notice in the guide to events in Prato that on the very day I visited Carmignano, a few hours earlier, Bill Viola was present at S. Michele. We met in Amsterdam three years ago and I would have liked to see him in the quieter Prato.

Finally, I convinced myself in Florence that I did not yet have a copy of the TCI guide to Firenze e Provincia, so I bought one. When I got home I of course found the same edition – the most recent one, of 1993 – on my bookshelves. I paid 90,000 lire; if any of you would like to take it off my hands it’s yours for 60,000 plus postage. [This offer too can no longer be fulfilled, as I now have only one copy on my bookshelves.]

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