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Screenshot from “ARTé: Mecenas” (courtesy Triseum)

In the game ARTé: Mecenasyou navigate Florence in the Italian Renaissance as a member of the powerful Medici family, building your influence while supporting the flourishing arts. Will you take emerging architect Filippo Brunelleschi up on his challenge to balance an egg upright, thus allowing him to smash one end and demonstrate his plan for the dome of the Florence Cathedral? Or will you deny his curious request and lead him to a life on the streets? Will you fund the Della Robbia workshop and its innovative, yet unconventional, colored terracotta techniques? Will you buy a “unicorn” horn? Narwhal tusk though it may be, the oddity will lure clients to your expanding bank.

These are the types of questions posed on each turn of this strategy game, along with an ongoing buying and trading of linen, flax, wool, and alum. Each sale has its impact on your local and international networks, and it’s this financial side of art that is the focus of ARTé: Mecenas. A beneficial trade with the Ottoman Turks will irk the Church Mines; favoring Venice over rival Milan will have its own repercussions. The game was developed by Triseum and is intended as an educational supplement for college-level art history courses. Triseum was formed from the Learning Interactive Visualizations Experience (LIVE) Lab at Texas A&M University. There, students were the first to pilot ARTé: Mecenas, its titular “mecenas” referring to the player’s aspirations to be a great patron for the arts.

Screenshot from “ARTé: Mecenas” (courtesy Triseum)

Screenshot from “ARTé: Mecenas” (courtesy Triseum)

“The actual learning objective is to teach students about the economies of art,” Triseum CEO André Thomas told Hyperallergic. Thomas explained that the game responded to a need of the art history faculty at A&M, where they have two large survey courses that speedily cover 5,000 years of art history over two semesters. “There’s only so much you’re going to get out of that,” he said, and the game supports a deeper context, while connecting with the gaming interest of students.

“I’m really proud of A&M as a visionary in investing in such a progressive way into education,” Thomas said. Furthermore, the majority of Triseum’s employees are recent A&M grads, and any student who worked on the game as an undergraduate will receive royalties as a co-author for as long as it is sold, at a price that’s meant to be affordable for students. They now have three more art history games in development (and recently released a calculus 3D exploration game), with plans for between 30 and 40 distinct art history games in the future.

The game was brought to my attention by Chloe Spencer’s article on Kotaku, and like Spencer I found the game had a bit of a learning curve. (To be fair, I’m not currently studying the Italian Renaissance, and subsequently made a few tactical errors such as supporting Baldassarre Cossa for pope. I should have checked his Wikipedia for the later heresy, murder, fornication, and sodomy accusations.) “In the game you can’t advance to the next level if you only mastered 80% or 90% of the content, you need 100% mastery to advance further,” Thomas stated. “Seeing that students are playing the game on average 10 times between 2 and 4 hours leads us to believe it is not just a proven learning experience for students, as shown in the research, but also highly engaging.”

It took a couple of tries for me to make it through the first level. If my “Soul Meter,” represented as a painting on my digital desk, dropped to zero, I would be excommunicated. Likewise, if my “Reputation Meter,” visualized as a Medici crest, evaporated, I would be exiled. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the experience, even if I’ve failed to return from my Level 2 wrongful exile — thanks to the political meddling of the Albizzi family.

The setting of ARTé: Mecenas never changes; you’re always facing a desk (although it’s in drabber surroundings during exile, missing the bright Florentine view). The mechanics are fairly simple, with three “messages” arriving in turns, each presenting new choices, and a map and market, accessed by clicking on some scales, to buy and sell your wares. Almost every round involves a decision relating to the iconic art of the Italian Renaissance, demonstrating how patronage enabled the careers of creators, whether the sometimes controversial Donatello or the devout Fra Angelico, and was entwined with the influence of the Catholic Church in the 15th and 16th centuries. If you avoid morally questionable moneymaking like usury — or loaning money that enriches your own holdings — the Archbishop may place thousands of florins in his secret account. If Florence starts to hear rumors of your immoral actions, or move to not expand your bank to Geneva or Flanders, your reputation may be irreparably wrecked and your trade networks broken.

“If we can enable students to experience art history and the context in which art was created first hand, I’m not sure there is a better way of educating our students,” Thomas said. “While we can read about it, hear about it, watch videos and movies about it, being there and actively participating in the historical events from a first-person perspective is very powerful and one of the most engaging learning experiences we can offer our students.”

Screenshot from “ARTé: Mecenas” (courtesy Triseum)

Screenshot from “ARTé: Mecenas” (courtesy Triseum)

Screenshot from “ARTé: Mecenas” (courtesy Triseum)

ARTé: Mecenas is playable on Mac, PC, and Google Chrome from Triseum games. 

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...