This piece is written by Professors Joerg Reckenrich and Jamie Anderson of the Antwerp Management School. More information and links to the authors can be found below.
In today’s complex world, a leader’s ability to drive creativity and innovation is an essential skill. Leaders need to identify emerging customer trends, drive the creation of new products and services, and continuously push for novel and effective ways of doing things.
While the ability to think creatively and to innovate is a requirement for all contemporary leaders, in this post we step back to 16th Century Venice to demonstrate that Creative Leadership spans industries and epochs. We tell the story of Tintoretto, a true innovation leader who was able to challenge the dominant position of his competitor and Art Grand Master Titian.
The Rise of Venice
Between the 9th and the 12th century Venice reached a strong strategic position on the Adriatic Sea, built on naval and commercial power, and made the city-state almost invulnerable. At the peak of its political power the city employed 36,000 sailors, operated 3,300 ships and dominated Mediterranean commerce. The political and economic conditions of the 16th Century provided the foundations for a flourishing art market.
Emergence of the Grand Master Titian
The artist Titian (1490-1576) emerged as the undisputed leader of the Venetian art market by the mid 16th Century. His rise as a well-known artist began in 1518 when one of the most incredible objects in the history of art was unveiled for the Frari Church in Venice: “The Ascension of Maria (Assunta)”. Titian’s success was enabled not just by his entrepreneurial and artistic talent, but by his mastery of new technologies and production processes. Titian became the portrait painter of his time, and served clients belonging to the church and European aristocracy.
The Unorthodox Intruder—Tintoretto
At the age of 15, Tintoretto (1519 – 1594) was taken to the studio of Titian to be trained as an artist. But after just ten days Titian expelled the young pupil as he was fearful of a possible future competitor. After his ejection Tintoretto started his independent career, by offering his ability to paint as a form of craftsmanship, rather than high art. Therefore, he could meet the demands of a much wider spectrum of customers.
In order to succeed Tintoretto adopted a speed painting technology, called “Prestezza”, as well as other ‘unorthodox’ business practices. Sometimes he delivered paintings even if customers had not asked for them, just in order to rouse a demand. Tintoretto offered paintings well below the price level of Titian’s workshop as a cornerstone of his business tactics.
The break-through for winning major commissions happened for Tintoretto in 1564.
The “Scuola San Rocco”, an Order dedicated to the plague saint San Rocco, had built a palazzo from 1516 – 1550, which was perfectly suited for a great scheme of pictorial adornment. In 1560 Tintoretto and four other principal painters were invited to a competition. They were asked to present trial-designs for the center-painting in the grand hall, but instead of producing sketches Tintoretto took the lead and delivered a finished version! His competitors protested and withdrew from the competition.
The artist donated the painting to the Scuola as a gift, being well aware of the fact that the rules of the Order prohibited to reject such an offering. In addition Tintoretto proposed to decorate the entire building of the Scuola and the church of San Rocco next to it at half the price of his competitors. Many artist colleagues were very irritated and upset. They argued that he was ruining the reputation of the arts and spoiling price levels.
Even if Tintoretto was innovative in terms of technique and style, he did not claim artistic invention in every single painting. He re-combined figures and compositions from other paintings and did not hesitate to use similar compositions out of the work of his strongest competitor Titian. As many innovation leaders have done throughout history, he offered something similar to his competitor but with a unique style and at a more reasonable price.
Creative Leadership in 16th Century Venice
Tintoretto’s strategic advantage was his insight that it was not only the upper echelons of the Church and the aristocracy that wanted to consume art of high quality—he discovered a new ‘WHO’. Patricians, smaller churches and the Scuole Grandi (confraternity and sodality orders in Venice) that also desired works of art, but were unable to afford the high prices of the grand master Titian.
Tintoretto also introduced a new ‘WHAT’—affordable but high-quality works of art, with relatively short delivery times. Previously, high quality art work involved refined style and significant expense, but through his mastery of “prestezza” technology he educated customers to accept a rougher painting style.
For Titian, major commissions had come through personal connections and reputation that had taken years to develop. Tintoretto was able to fast-track his success through a new ‘HOW’—by flooding the market with a high number of very high-quality works of art—even if these art works had not been asked for by their intended recipients.
Finally, the success of Tintoretto in 16th century Venice provides a lesson in humility for 21st century leaders. While Titian and Tintoretto always kept a certain distance to each other, Tintoretto remained a professed and ardent admirer of his rival, expressed in the inscription he placed at the entrance of his studio: Il disegno di Michelangelo ed il colorito di Titiano (“Michelangelo’s drawing and Titian’s colour”).
Table 1 – Leading Innovation – Tintoretto versus Titian
|WHO||—Targeted Venetian and international nobility and political leaders, major church projects and city-state projects commissioned by the ‘Great Council’.||—Initially targeted the ‘mass-market’ through street sales, before moving to develop the market for the Venetian bourgeois class.|
|WHAT||—Painting as high-art to communicate status and power.
—Predominantly portraits of the aristocracy and political and religious elite such as the Doge of Venice, the Farnese Family and Pope Paul III.
|—Painting as form of craftsmanship.
—Initially produced smaller paintings to furnish homes, before moving on to commissions including furniture paintings and façade frescos, and projects for minor churches and commercial organizations such as the Scuole.
|HOW||—Deeply rooted in the refined “Colourism” school.
—Artistic invention and uniqueness a key differentiator.
—Maintained strong control over the output of workshop assistants.
—Workshop geared towards low-volume, highly detailed portrait painting, with modest number of commissions completed each year.
—New business won through close personal ties and networks.
|—Developed the “Mannerism” school that leveraged new “prestezza” technology.
—Did not claim artistic invention in every piece.
—Guided rather than dictated the artistic output of workshop assistants
—Workshop geared towards low-cost, high volume production of a range of art works.
—New business often won through unorthodox sales and marketing techniques.
—Spectrum of prices depending on client.
Jamie Anderson is Professor of Strategic Management at Antwerp Management School, and Visiting Professor at INSEAD. A three-time TED speaker, Jamie has also been included on a list of the world’s “top 25 management thinkers” by the journal Business Strategy Review. Website: www.jamieandersononline.com; Twitter: @JamieAndersonBE; TED Talk
Jörg Reckhenrich is Adjunct Professor of Innovation Management at the Antwerp Management School, and Visiting Professor at CEIBS (Zürich Institute of Business Education. Named as a “Management Guru” by the Financial Times, Joerg’s research focuses on creativity, innovation and corporate transformation. Website: www.reckhenrich.com/; Twitter: @reckhenrich; TED Talk
Creative Leadership in 16th Century Venice