In Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy, Michael Baxandall states that any "fifteenth-century painting is a deposit of a social relationship." In other words, Italian paintings of the fifteenth century in some sense embody, reflect, or offer information about the conventions governing how individuals interact with one another. In my opinion, however, Baxandall's thesis, at least in this form, is otiose.
Baxandall discusses a number of contracts that were executed by painters and patrons (mostly those merchants of old whose measures of value and equity were relative to their large sacks of grain). We are shown financial records that document what is clearly a stark business transaction in which, because these paintings were frequently commissioned for the church, the artists' freedom is quite limited. This is not to say that there was an absence of piety associated with the production many of these works. The audience presumably believes the stories these paintings tell. To try in any way to discount this obvious fact would be futile. But piety is not the only issue for the painters. A painter might also want to show that he is favored by the muses, that he is the greatest story-teller of all, a bard. After all, it is the centrality of the Biblical stories and what they represent, together with the artist's skill at evoking them, that makes these works worth paying for.
Like the money spent by Hollywood producers in order to make movies with state-of-the-art visual effects, Italian painters too required substantial investment to contribute to their equivalent of the entertainment industry. But here again the question of piety arises. As often as not, piety and money go together quite well. The willingness to invest extravagant resources in the production of religious art is itself a tribute to God's word, not merely as a way of giving alms to the church, but more significantly to clarify the story, to render it fresh and more vivid - a properly aesthetic aim. Both financier and artist are thereby each gaining grace, the one advertising his willingness to put his wealth, and the other his willingness to put his skill, aesthetic prowess, in the service of God. To say, as Baxandall does, that paintings embody social relationships is to say too little. Of more interest is the character of the social relationships that we find emerging through these paintings. We see business contracts for mutual profit, the struggle for achievement and recognition on the part of the artists, the desire to inform the public about sacred matters (and also to reinterpret them), the desire of financiers to demonstrate their piety, and no doubt much else as well. Our aim should not be merely to identify "the social," but to characterize it in its complexity, ambiguity, and multiple and overlapping meanings.
Though this book is essential to anyone interested in fifteenth-century history, art production being the locus of that history, I give the four-stars rating since 45% of the book is filled with black and white plates, though printed on high-quality paper. I feel that color plates could have bumped it up to five stars.