Department of Art History

Demand and the Production of Quality in Renaissance Painting

Demand and the Production of Quality in Renaissance Painting – Professor Michelle O’Malley

This research was funded by The Leverhulme Trust

Economic questions have long fuelled research in Renaissance art history and we know a significant amount about painters’ prices and their ways of doing business on a macro level. However, we know much less about business decisions taken on the micro level, that is, about how painters developed specific working methods, made judgements about the production of particular paintings within the workshop and devised business approaches to the manufacture of large bodies of work. Such issues are crucial, however, to understanding the meaning and the impact on painters of the wider economic issues that are known to have influenced Renaissance life.

This project looks in various ways at Alessandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Filippino Lippi and Pietro Perugino, four highly-regarded painters who created the look and identity of Florence in the late fifteenth century. It considers how, in the face of high demand for their work, they went about producing objects of significant quality and excellence. The research picks up on two central studies of economics and the arts. The first is Richard Goldthwaite’s Wealth and the Demand for Art in Italy, 1300-1600 (Baltimore and London 1993), which demonstrated the growing demand for works of art over the course of the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries. The second is the work of The Material Renaissance (Manchester 2007), a project that showed that prices in the Renaissance were often related to social issues more than to the costs of manufacture or production. The research questions how the pressure to produce greater volumes of work was met in an economic system that privileged human connections in setting prices. How was work actually made?

These are the questions that drive the research in Painting under Pressure: Fame Reputation and Demand in Renaissance Florence and in the articles that preceded it. The book asks what supplying high demand may have meant for individual artists’ careers and questions how painters responded to ever-increasing pressures to produce work when the prices of their outputs were only loosely related to the costs of production. It focuses on issues of quality and argues that painters often made decisions about the excellence of an output in relation to the pressures exerted by demand and income levels. It also demonstrates, however, that painters laboured to turn out innovative design and admirable work whatever the price.

On-going research considers the changes in demand wrought by Savonarola in Florence. It looks at how painters responded to alteration in the kind, size and subject-matter of images required by Florentines. In particular it asks how painters such as Botticelli and Filippino Lippi, who led the market in the 1480s, re-thought their approaches to business in the 1490s and early sixteenth century.

Related Publications

Painting under Pressure: Fame Reputation and Demand in Renaissance Florence, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 2013

‘Quality Choices in the Production of Renaissance Art: Botticelli and Demand’, Renaissance Studies, 28 (2014) 4-32

‘Finding Fame: Painting and the Making of Careers in Renaissance Italy’, Renaissance Studies, xxiv (2010) 9–32.

‘Perugino and the Contingency of Value’, in The Material Renaissance, ed. Michelle O’Malley and Evelyn Welch, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007, 106–30.

‘Quality and the Pressures of Reputation: Rethinking Perugino’, Art Bulletin, lxxxix (2007) 676–95.