Specialization and the Firm in Renaissance Italian Art

A new draft of my paper on the organization of the production of Renaissance frescoes and altarpieces is available at SocArXiv.

Here’s a passage from the introduction that summarizes the argument of the manusript:

This paper develops a theory of ownership and specialization on the supply side of the market for Renaissance paintings. This theory explains several features of the economic lives of master painters in Renaissance Italy. First, it sheds light on the propensity of artists to assume residual claimancy over their paintings, own the workshop that produced them, and bear liability over their quality vis-à-vis patrons. Allocating residual claimancy to the artist—as opposed to any of the many other specialized artisans involved in the fulfillment of commissions—economized on the costs of ensuring the performance of tasks that were both more expensive to monitor and more consequential to the ultimate value of the painting. Second, the theory accounts for the division of labor in the production of Renaissance paintings. It explains why even the most talented artists did not fully exploit their comparative advantage and instead performed some more mundane tasks as well. Finally, it provides a rationale for the master painters’ choice of how to allocate the remaining tasks between employees of the bottega and independent contractors. According to our theory, the equilibrium degree of specialization by the artist and the boundaries of his firm are determined by a trade-off between the benefits of specialization, the costs of delegation to a subordinate, and those of delegation to an independent contractor.

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