Alexander VI as patron : the style and significance of the Borgia papal frescoes



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In 1492, Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia ascended the throne of St. Peter as Pope Alexander Sextus. Later that same year, Alexander commissioned Perugian artist Bernardino di Betto--more commonly referred to as Pinturicchio--to paint a series of frescoes for Alexander's new papal apartments, which comprised of six rooms. Pinturicchio's frescoes are astonishingly lavish, having been richly-appointed with brilliant colors, pastiglia, and a generous amount of gold leaf. This splendor makes a very specific statement about Alexander. It heralds his personal wealth and power, and seeks very pointedly to dazzle and even overwhelm viewers. Scholars often discuss this sumptuousness in relationship to the suite's iconography, which seems to echo the style in emphasizing Alexander's importance, both a sacred and a secular leader. However, as early as the seventeenth century, critics of both Alexander and Pinturicchio ascribed the suite’s lavishness to a poor taste on Alexander’s part and lack of skill on Pinturicchio's. This supposition was often presented in conjunction with Alexander’s reputation, both in his own time and throughout the succeeding centuries of scholarship, as a politically-minded pope unlearned in humanism or the arts. Despite his successful career, Pinturicchio's style was posthumously perceived to be retardaire, and he was unfavorably compared to contemporaries like Raphael, who embodied what scholars felt was a more purely "Renaissance" style. In this thesis, I seek to disprove these notions. Pinturicchio's Borgia style reflects elements from the International Gothic style that dominated European courts a generation earlier, a style lauded by humanists for its imitation of nature and rich detail. In exploring the relationship between Pinturicchio's work and those of International Gothic artists, I will suggest that Pinturicchio's style would also have delighted humanist viewers. I will also discuss the ways in which the Borgia frescoes' style coincides with rhetorical theory. The revival of Classical rhetoric lay at the heart of Renaissance humanism, and Renaissance art criticism reflected rhetorical theory as a result. Art was thus judged on its ability to translate these oratory practices into physical form, essentially creating visual arguments ultimately aimed at persuading viewers. This is very much the case in Pinturicchio's frescoes. I will point out the ways in which his work successfully incorporated rhetorical elements that would have been understood and appreciated by learned viewers. I will also discuss the way in which scholars perceive Alexander's legacy in an effort to demonstrate that he too understood and appreciated the complexity of Pinturicchio's style. Overall, I argue for the ultimate success of Pinturicchio's visual argument and suggest by association that Alexander was a man who understood and exploited the power of art. In doing so, I seek to re-contextualize Alexander's artistic legacy.