Illustration by Drew Heffron
Illustration by Drew Heffron

Florentine authorities and residents were appalled when the cast of MTV’s “Jersey Shore” invaded the Tuscan capital for the show’s fourth season, which will debut Aug. 4. What were Snooki and The Situation doing associating themselves with the refined city of Dante and Botticelli (not to mention Ferragamo)? Even New Jersey won’t claim these louts.

The ostensible idea was to pay homage to the cast members’ Italian heritage. But these hyper-American descendants of peasants from Italy’s far southern regions hardly represent the Florentine heritage of art, humanism and elegant style. Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi and Jennifer “JWoww” Farley aren’t even of Italian descent. The cast’s Florence connection is quite a stretch.

But stretching, it turns out, puts them in a great Florentine tradition. Brand-building through misleading images wasn’t invented on Madison Avenue or Hollywood. Many of Florence’s Renaissance treasures are monuments to exaggeration for the purposes of self-promotion. The medium may have changed, but the motives haven’t. It’s a bit of history that today’s Wall Street billionaires, who have a bit of a collective image problem, might want to study.

The Renaissance patrons who paid for all those frescoes, paintings, altar pieces and sculptures weren’t generally funding beauty for its own sake. They were buying status -- building their brands, we’d say today. Their patronage showed off their wealth and piety and, in many cases, advertised their supposed links to the prestigious and powerful. In the process, these patrons often shaded the truth, leaving out unflattering facts and suggesting associations they didn’t in fact have.

Buttering Up Bankers

Know what to look for and Florentine artworks reveal secret messages that, while not as sexy as Dan Brown’s Mona Lisa fantasies, have the advantage of actually existing.

Take the boys shown walking up the stairs behind their tutor in Domenico Ghirlandaio’s fresco in the Santa Trinita church. What could these kids have to do with the “Confirmation of the Rule of Saint Francis,” the official subject of the fresco? They aren’t friars or church officials.

In fact, their portraits are just good public relations. The patron, a banker named Francesco Sassetti, included them to butter up their father, Lorenzo de’ Medici, and to let the churchgoing public know that he and Lorenzo were tight.

Renaissance Public Relations

But the painting doesn’t tell the whole story. It “conveniently omits a crucial fact about the patron’s relationship with the Medici,” write art historian Jonathan K. Nelson and economist Richard Zeckhauser in their book, “The Patron’s Payoff,” which uses economic signaling theory to analyze Renaissance patrons’ motivations and techniques. That fact: “By the time he commissioned the fresco, Sassetti had nearly run the Geneva branch of the Medici bank into bankruptcy.” Oops. Maybe the portraits were meant as a distraction or damage control. How could you fire (or worse) a man who had sponsored such fine pictures of your kids?

Nelson and Zeckhauser’s work demonstrates that Renaissance art is full of status signals and calculated image-building -- once-obvious messages that today’s tourists never notice. Nelson, who is the art history coordinator at Syracuse University’s campus in Florence, showed me some examples at Santa Maria Novella, the church dedicated to the Virgin Mary that stands near Florence’s train station. (It was novella, or new, in the 13th century.)

Like Stadium Naming

Consider Filippo Strozzi, who paid big money for the private chapel to the right of the main altar. As often happens with stadium-naming rights today, the chapel was available only because the previous owner had fallen on hard times. And just as the new stadium sponsor can’t evict the old team and install a new one, Strozzi couldn’t kick out the private chapel’s old patron saint, St. John the Evangelist, in favor of his own namesake, St. Philip the Apostle.

So Strozzi found a way to give both saints seemingly equal treatment, while actually making his namesake the more prominent. He commissioned two walls of frescos, each with scenes from the life of one of the saints. Both walls are beautiful works by Filippino Lippi -- but St. Philip is on the right side, which is much easier to see.

To the left of the Strozzi chapel, the church’s prime real estate, surrounding the main altar, is decorated in an even more blatantly image-building fashion. This area was controlled by another wealthy patron, Giovanni Tornabuoni, who (surprise) took it over after the previous patrons ran out of money.

A Flattering Image

Tornabuoni commissioned Ghirlandaio to create frescoes with scenes from the lives of the Virgin Mary (the church’s patron saint) and John the Baptist (the city’s) -- and to include in them flattering portraits of many members of the Tornabuoni family.

In one scene, the official subject is the angel’s appearance to Zacharias, John the Baptist’s father, to announce the saint’s impending birth. But Zacharias and the angel are decidedly secondary figures, stuck in the background like a play nobody’s paying attention to. Flanking them are various groups of Florentines, including Tornabuoni himself.

To demonstrate how Tornabuoni stretched the truth to make himself and his family look even more prominent, Nelson points to a clutch of four men in the scene’s foreground: the city’s leading humanists. Why put a philosopher, poet, or professor in a scene filled with family members and other close associates?

Celebrity Endorsements

They were there, Nelson suggests, to advertise that Tornabuoni was footing their bills. It was the Renaissance equivalent of putting a photo of yourself shaking hands with the president in your office. But Tornabuoni didn’t need the humanists’ permission to include their portraits, and he certainly didn’t have to pay them. In fact, there was no such connection. Tornabuoni was just enjoying a little reflected humanist glory. Should someone object, he could simply say that he was honoring his city’s greatness. When exaggerating, deniability is essential. “You don’t want to blow the balloon too big,” says Nelson.

These days, celebrity endorsements come at a price. But stretching is still common. What, I used to wonder every time I got off an airplane, does Tiger Woods have to do with consulting services? But there he was, seemingly every few feet in every airport, on Accenture Plc billboards proclaiming, “We know what it takes to be a Tiger.”

Tiger and Medici

Then one day Accenture realized that it didn’t know Tiger so well after all, and the billboards suddenly vanished. Similar things happened in the Renaissance, when patrons backed the wrong Medici in paintings, which were a lot harder to get rid of.

But such permanence also has its upside. To curry favor with the Medici, Guaspare del Lama, a Florentine broker and money changer, paid Sandro Botticelli to put portraits of family members in the “Adoration of the Magi” in his own chapel at Santa Maria Novella. But, notes Nelson, “this pandering did not help him when he was arrested, and convicted, of fraud.” It did, however, make him immortal. More than 500 years later, people still talk about the “Del Lama Adoration,” which is now in the Uffizi museum, largely because of its portraits of five Medici patriarchs.

Zeckhauser, who is on the faculty at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, notes a similar phenomenon there, with the school’s Taubman Building. Its namesake, A. Alfred Taubman, can hope that in 50 years he isn’t remembered just as the shopping mall magnate who went to prison for price fixing at Sotheby’s but as a Harvard patron. Given the building’s usefulness as a reputation-builder, one of Zeckhauser’s colleagues cynically proposed, “maybe we should go after him for another.”

(Virginia Postrel is Bloomberg View columnist writing about commerce and culture, innovation, economics and public policy. She is the author of “The Future and Its Enemies” and “The Substance of Style,” and is writing a book on glamour. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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To contact the writer of this column: Virginia Postrel in Los Angeles at vpostrel@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net