Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Building / Patrons: Forging Links Between Buildings and Builders in Renaissance Italy

Subproject of "Art, Agency, and Living Presence in Early Modern Italy".

2006 - 2010
Caroline van Eck
NWO Vici NWO Vici

As the Florentine patrician Giovanni Rucellai (d. 1492) famously remarked, two things preoccupied a man of his status: to beget children and to build. While this and similar other passages usually have been read in the perspective of gender, I would argue that they could just as simply allude to the pleasure and prestige provided by the very act of building, since patronage of architecture was key to achieve magnificence. Applying Gell’s anthropological theory on agency, buildings of this period can indeed be considered as distributed agents of their patrons. 

This research project investigates the intimate bond between building and builder in early renaissance Italy. Taking its departure from architectural treatises, humanist writings, façade inscriptions and portrait medals, it focuses on the beginning of this intimate relationship, namely the very act of the foundation of the building. Judging from chronicles, diaries and architectural treatises, the early renaissance witnessed an increasing need to mark the founding of an important site with some kind of ritual, preferably infused with classical overtones. Patrons asked  court astrologers to determine the most propitious time for the foundation ceremony, meaning that they were to look for analogies with the patron’s birth horoscope. At the established date, the patron and his household convened at the foundations together with the ecclesiastical and civic authorities. Visibly to all, the patron would deposit some kind of building gifts into the foundation, which were then covered to start construction. 

Now, the practice of building deposits is a truly universal phenomenon, which is documented across all times and cultures. Gifts can consist of virtually anything, from beads, figurines, coins, to the ultimate sacrifice: animals or human bodies. Including their very own portrait medals in the foundations, self-conscious renaissance patrons added a distinctly new flavor to this ancient practice. 

To this date, building deposits had never established any intimate link between building and its patron or inhabitants. Now, humanists openly toyed with the idea that the portrait medals would allow for identification of the patron’s identity, once the buildings had been destroyed. Could it indeed be argued that by means of their building deposits, renaissance patrons distributed their agency not only across their territory, but also across time? What relation can be drawn with the renaissance interest in archaeological artefacts and classical accounts of foundation rituals? Ultimately, how do these building deposits fit in within the preoccupation of memoria?

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