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Scrambling for scudi: notes on painters' earnings in early Baroque Rome
Art Bulletin, The,  June, 2003  by Richard E. Spear

 Long snubbed by art historians as an ill-matched couple, art and economics have enjoyed a good relationship lately, especially at international conferences where no one thinks that talk about money sullies art. (1) Much of the growing interest in the economics of early Italian painting focuses on the demand rather than the supply side of exchange, because throughout the Renaissance and most of the seventeenth century a system of elite patronage, particularly in Rome, curbed the development of an open market in which the artist rather than the buyer initiated production. (2) Given its premier standing in Italian studies and its unusually rich archives, Renaissance Florence has received much more attention than any other Italian city (Venice being a distant second), but even then rarely have artists' earnings been the subject of discussion. (3) The economics of painters working in seventeenth-century Rome has been little examined, despite the groundwork laid by Francis Haskell in his pioneering book on Italian Baroque patronage. (4)

The focus of this essay was determined by a simple yet neglected question raised by the recent exhibition The Genius of Rome: 1592-1623 (held at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, in 2001): What can be said about the socioeconomic status of the artists included in the exhibition? More specifically, how did their earnings compare with those of the larger Roman population, and what would their payments have bought at the time? For instance, when Giulio Mancini, Caravaggio's early biographer, reports with dismay that the artist, newly settled in Rome, was paid only 11/2 scudi for his Boy Bitten by a Lizard and only 8 scudi for his Fortune-Teller (5)--an account invariably cited in the literature but without analysis--what did those sums mean? As I hope to show, notwithstanding their frequent complaints about money and the post-Romantic notion of the starving artist coping with life from a garret, the painters who established a reputation in Rome, including the protobohemian Caravaggio, belonged--or, if they knew how to manage their money, should have belonged-to the economic elite.

To seek a conclusion by analyzing data sampled from payments to various artists in The Genius of Rome can be justified on two accounts, regardless of the economic variables mentioned below. First, most of the leading painters in the papal capital from the time of Caravaggio and the Carracci until the election of Urban VIII in 1623 were represented in the exhibition, even if their assistants, other minor painters, and the failed hopefuls who disappeared from record, of course, were not. Hence this essay, conceived as a bozzetto for correction and enlargement, is limited to successful painters at work in early-seventeenth-century Rome. (6)

Second, the period from around 1590 to 1623 saw relative economic stability in Italy. It coincided with a leveling off of growth and inflation and preceded a gradual but serious economic decline due to weaknesses in Italy's export markets, the availability of less expensive foreign goods, especially textiles, stiff maritime competition, foreign protectionism, high labor costs, and resistance to technological change. (7) But just as Rome's economy suffered less than the maritime, textile, and agricultural economies of Venice, Genoa, Florence, and Naples, (8) so Rome's artists remained in demand because, as of yet, there were no substitutes for their high-quality goods. Thus, for this study-in-progress it is fair to say that both prices and wages in the city, like its population of about 110,000, essentially held steady from the 1590s to the 1620s.

Prior to discussing paintings and prices, not just of pictures but also of bread and eggs, it should be stressed that Rome's economy was unusual, given that it neither produced nor manufactured many goods (and therefore was less vulnerable to the economic pressures just mentioned). The papal city was instead more dependent on luxury services provided by artists and artisans (particularly jewelers and goldsmiths), booksellers, tailors, hotel keepers, and, especially, bankers and the legal profession, including notaries, and many wine merchants and prostitutes, too. (9) Nor were Rome's residents typical. Nearly 60 percent were male, about half of whom worked in a trade or profession. (10) In 1603 there were 1,241 priests and 4,512 monks and nuns living in the city, 5.5 percent of the total population. (11)

Pilgrims and tourists added considerably to the number of residents. More than a half million pilgrims traveled to Rome during the Jubilee of 1600, five times the city's permanent population. (12) Not only did they make charitable donations and spend money on goods and services, but also their periodic stays prompted costly public works. Another thirty thousand tourists visited the city annually, supporting an unusually large number of hotels. (13) In 1622, Rome's residents and visitors could buy from 5,600 shops that employed twenty-four thousand of the city's inhabitants, among which (in 1625) were sixteen "rivenditori di colori," that is, sellers of pigments. (14)

Dominating this economic activity was the court of the Church, with its wealthy Curia and extended bureaucracy, which formed the backbone of the client-based, or demand-driven, patronage system. As Giovanni Bottero put it in 1588, would Rome "not be more like a desert than a city if the Pope held not his residence there? ... If he ... spent not a great part of the revenues of the Church?" (15) Furthermore, the monies of the clerical bureaucracy in the sixteenth century "exceeded, perhaps even doubled, the monies directly controlled by the papal central government." (16) In 1571 the combined revenue from benefices of the College of Cardinals amounted to a staggering million gold scudi. (17) During his papacy (1605-21), Paul V spent more than 1,200,000 scudi on just four building projects: St. Peter's, the Vatican and Quirinal palaces, and the Pauline Chapel in S. Maria Maggiore.

That was the equivalent of half the total annual papal income of 2,500,000 scudi. (18)

It is important to bear such sums in mind, as well as the financial benefits of nepotism and the nonhereditary structure of the Church, which significantly increased the distribution of wealth. Time and again artists were dependent, directly or indirectly, on the families whose fortunes were linked to the papal court. (19) They profited from an exceptionally high demand for art in Rome, thanks to a combination of available money, the need for imagery to support the intensified cult of Mary and the saints after the Council of Trent, and extensive opportunities for decoration--more than fifty churches, fifty palaces, and twenty villas had been built or remodeled in the city during the sixteenth century. (20) By 11630, there were some one hundred religious houses. (21)

Prices in Rome typically were quoted in gold or silver scudi or their fractions (a gold scudo was worth about 1.3 times a silver scudo during the period under consideration), although actual payments frequently took the form of goods or a combination of goods and cash. For uniformity, the silver scudo romano, which was divided into 10 giuli and 100 bajocchi and contained about thirty-two grams of silver, is used throughout this essay (its value against the gold scudo declined approximately 14 percent from around 1590 until 1625). (22)

Estimating the annual incomes of laborers is problematic because their wages often were seasonal, making it difficult to determine how many days an agricultural or building worker (those for whom we have the best data) was employed. For comparative purposes I have taken 250 days of annual work as a model, though it might err by being too high, given the inevitability of bad weather, slack demand, and the large number of holidays at the time (in 1595 in Lombardy, for example, there were 96 holy days a year) (23)

Many of the issues of concern here were raised by Peter Paul Rubens in a letter he sent to the duke of Mantua's secretary in mid-1606, wherein he complained about money. He said that, while he had received his stipend from the duke for his first four months in Rome,

now the time has passed, and the salary is already in arrears for four more months.... I beg you to intercede for me before His Most Serene Highness, so that it may please him to continue the same favor towards me. Then I can carry on my studies without having to turn elsewhere for resources--which would not be lacking in Rome.

Rubens's monthly allowance was 25 scudi. Four months later the artist wrote again, expressing his dismay that the duke wanted him to return to Mantua right away. That was impossible, he explained,

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