Merchant-banker, Diplomat, Courtier or Agent? Intermediaries and Collecting Art in the Renaissance Courts

Clark, Leah (2021). Merchant-banker, Diplomat, Courtier or Agent? Intermediaries and Collecting Art in the Renaissance Courts. In: Reist, Inge ed. When Michelangelo Was Modern: The Art Market and Collecting in Italy, 1450-1650. Leiden: Brill (In Press).

Abstract

Merchant bankers in the fifteenth century had heterogeneous identities; they not only served as intermediaries in the circulation of goods, but many were also collectors, ambassadors, negotiators, and pawnbrokers. Working across Italy and further afield in Europe, Florentine merchants navigated diverse forms of government, resulting in a paradoxical status often performing the role of ‘courtiers’ abroad and republican citizens at home. Importantly, their negotiation of these roles (their function as ‘double agents’ to use Marika Keblusek’s term), was intricately connected to the movement of objects, which created a web of connections, obligations, and associations. By examining the practices of exchange, this chapter explores the interconnections across boundaries and geographic spaces, thereby moving away from the traditional focus on select sites such as Republican Florence or other specific courtly settings. A traditional approach to collecting in the courts has been to examine one particular court and to understand the artistic products of that court as a reflection of the prince and his courtly circle. This chapter challenges that approach to collecting by revealing the multifaceted ways that objects and people circulated between courts, as it underlines the important role that objects played in the creation and dissolution of courtly networks within the Italian context. The essay thus focuses on the practices of exchange and the intermediaries who bought, sold, pawned, and loaned collectables.

At the same time, this chapter considers the relationship between different forms of exchange, arguing that late fifteenth-century consumption practices should be studied on their own terms, functioning within a dual economy of gifts and commerce. In the fifteenth century, these two systems sometimes worked together, sometimes came into conflict, but undoubtedly influenced each other. In all senses, possessions were often transient and status and reputation depended on one’s ability to negotiate the circulation of one’s goods, through the careful balance of pawning, credit, and gifting.

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