Rent-Seeking and the Decline of the Florentine School

July 9, 2022
My friend and grad school cellmate desk-mate, Ennio Piano, has written a paper with one of his students, Tanner Hardy, that continues his ongoing work in cultural economics. They seek to explain the precipitous decline in quality of Florentine painters during the Late Renaissance.
From their paper, here’s the “decline” in one picture:
notion image
Here’s their abstract:
Economists have claimed that the invisible hand of competition is behind the historical episodes of outstanding artistic achievement, from Shakespearean theater to musical composition in Mozart’s Vienna. Competition, the argument goes, acts on producers of the arts just as it does on producers of mundane commodities. By pitting one artist against all others for the public’s purse and the critics’ praise, rivalry encourages them to supply more refined products. While often left unstated, the same argument implies that the absence of competition will be detrimental to the quality of artists’ output. We extend that insight to explain the decline of the Florentine school of painting in the Late Renaissance period. The rise of the Medici family as Florence’s ruling dynasty turned the previously competitive market for paintings into a monopsony. That development, we argue, strengthened the benefits to local painters of forming a cartel to reclaim the rents captured by the monopsonist. The result was the creation of a local painters’ guild that restricted competition, ultimately contributing to a decline in the quality and influence of Florentine painting.
Tyler Cowen likes their approach, commenting:
Speculative, as they say, and declines in artistic quality are notoriously difficult to predict or to squish into standard models. That said, the earlier model of competitive guild bidding for artists was, I think, better for quality than Medici patronage.
Bravo to Piano and Hardy for tackling questions that don’t come with an easy data set waiting to be, ahem, regressed.