Looking at 17th century Italian Art and Painting activity from an economic lens

Federico Etro of University of Venice links us to this interesting paper on the topic. He summarises the findings on voxeu.

In this paper, he looks at the this arts  and paintings activity  in Italy in 17th century and looks at it like a market. So just like you seen in a market where there are buyers, sellers and there is a price, same you see here in the arts market in Italy as well.

Economists are always on the lookout for new data to test their theories. But rather than sit around itching for the latest surveys or commissioning new randomised trials, researchers might want to dig up what we already have. With a bit of luck, the pages of history can be a rewarding friend. Take for instance the well-documented details of painters in 17th century Italy, at the height of the Baroque age. This is an example of a high-skilled labour market and can provide a fruitful area for study. 

One of the most impressive and rapid features of the Baroque art movement was the innovation that led mass productions of new genres of painting – to the economists among us, this is a form of horizontal product differentiation.

In a joint paper with Silvia Marchesi and Laura Pagani, we present an econometric investigation of the data put together by Spear and Sohm (2010), allowing us to test this hypothesis of price equalisation between genres (see Etro et al 2011). To do this, we adopt a labour-market perspective in which different genres are interpreted as different industries, different patrons as different firms, and different painters as different workers. After taking into account some basic determinants of the price of paintings, such as size, composition (more figures were paid more), support (canvas or panel), technique (oil painting or frescoes)3 and other demand and supply determinants related to the painters and the patrons,4 we can look at the residual differences between the prices of different genres.

What they find is that these markets were fairly competitive with most painters being price takers rather than makers. However, in some cases patrons paid more to get better work from the painters. This was like signalling where higher

It turns out that these differences disappear, and that most of the inter-genre price differential is explained by the variation in average individual heterogeneity across artistic sectors. This suggests that the Baroque labour market for painters was already quite competitive and allocated artists between artistic genres to the point of equalising the marginal return of different genres. In a sense, if figurative paintings were paid more in absolute terms, it was mainly because better painters were engaged in figurative paintings (which also had a larger size on average). On the other side, minor painters could not switch from still lifes to figurative paintings to earn extra profits because they would have been paid less than other painters. How much less? Exactly enough to make them indifferent between genres.

We did however find some evidence of residual price differences at the employer level: some patrons paid systematically more than others. These differences can be explained in terms of efficiency wages to induce effort in the production of artistic quality. In some cases, as for St Peter’s Basilica or the top noble families (the Medici, the Gonzaga, and foreign kings), higher prices, up to four times as ordinary, were paid to induce more effort and therefore quality (Shapiro and Stiglitz 1984). Other important families such as the Barberini, the Borghese, the Chigi, the Colonna, the Popes active during that century, and other foreign nobles could arrive to pay two or three times as much as ordinary commissions to tease out more effort and quality from the painters. The duality of the labour market, in a sense, was present even in this old market.


One Response to “Looking at 17th century Italian Art and Painting activity from an economic lens”

  1. shahid khan (@shahid78612) Says:

    nice information regarding italian art and paintings.thanks for writing such needfull information for us……….

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