In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Patronage of the Arts

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Patronage in the Italian Renaissance I: Princes and Power
  • Patronage in the Italian Renaissance II: Republics and Corporations
  • The Patron’s Patron: Lorenzo de’ Medici
  • Women Patrons
  • Patronage and Economic History
  • Patronage and Social Economies
  • Patronage and Intellectual Economies
  • Patronage Studies beyond Italy

Renaissance and Reformation Patronage of the Arts
Sally Hickson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0358


Ever since Georgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists (1550, revised and enlarged 1568), the study of Renaissance art has been inextricably tied to the concept of patronage. The slow economic rebirth of Italy in the fifty years following the devastation of the 1348 plague resulted in a population shift from countryside to commune. In the new civic economy that resulted from the influx of the populace from country to city, wealthy merchants, craftsmen’s guilds, and the burgeoning mendicant orders, as part of their administration of a growing urban clientele, commissioned and paid for civic buildings, churches, palaces, frescoes, statues, paintings, and hosts of luxury goods, all of them embodying the new humanistic ideals of individual greatness that had resulted in this new prosperity. The governance structures that supported and protected this economic growth—aristocrats, guilds, and monastics—used artistic patronage to reinforce social structures fundamental to civic sustainability: loyalty to family, church, and city/state. Kings, popes, princes, cardinals, poets, and humanists, as well as cathedrals, convents, and monasteries—all sorts of patrons shaped Renaissance artistic culture by engaging artists to fulfill their commissions. A continual supply of patrons ensured a continual supply of artists and artistic workshops, and craft flourished. When Jacob Burckhardt wrote his formative social history of the Renaissance in 1860, he emphasized the role of the enlightened patron as the originator of Renaissance art. Patrons, through their ingenuity and growing apprehension of the virtues of Antiquity, and driven by the nobility of civic purpose inspired by ancient Rome, provided artists with hope and opportunity. In Vasari’s view, artists actually gained much more through patronage than patrons did—patronage was a social mechanism and economic engine that elevated the anonymous practices of mechanical crafts to the realm of the liberal arts. Through patronage, the Renaissance “rise of the individual” elevated the artist to a new level of social and cultural importance.

General Overviews

Early studies on patronage, such as Chambers 1970, tend to reiterate the Burkhardtian endorsement of the use of culture to project an intellectual affinity on the part of a learned patron, such as Lorenzo de’ Medici in Florence, with the agendas of humanism and enlightened creativity, or mecenatismo (derived from the name of the ancient Roman patron Maecenas). In Burckhardt 2014 (first published in 1860), it was Lorenzo’s greatness as an individual that induced him to privilege the virtues of the Roman past as emblematic ideologies for Renaissance emulation. That ideology was propagated through art. Artists were merely the means through which patrons reaffirmed their power, amanuenses of enlightened greatness. The properly instrumentalized artist was one who had found a worthy patron through which to express the Renaissance zeitgeist. The major challenge to this general view of patronage as a capitalist tool for reinforcing existing power structures came with the advent of Marxism and an increased emphasis on the class struggle of artists themselves, as well as a more nuanced understanding of the economic and social structures of the European Renaissance. Some historians, following Tracy Cooper (Cooper 1996), prefer to characterize the patron-artist relationship in the Renaissance in terms of clientelismo, implying a distinctly preferential system of quid pro quo in which patron and artist jostled for advantage, a view more consistent with the narratives of reciprocity recorded by Georgio Vasari (Vasari 1996). Other historians, such as Creighton Gilbert (Gilbert 1998), argue that the patron’s role in the development of Renaissance art has been overstated in the literature. Burke 2014 examines the problem of patronage from the point of view of social relations, exploring cultural commissions as a means by which the emergent merchant class of Florence could begin to appropriate the cultural privileges of the socioeconomic elite. Kempers 1994 focuses on how patronage served to “professionalize” artists, moving them up the social ladder from nameless craftsmen to prized practitioners of distinctive liberal arts, and Baxandall 1988 looks at art production in 15th-century Italy as the result of patron-client transactions in the context of social and commercial deposits and exchanges. Hollingsworth 2014 takes a geographical view of the phenomenon of patronage, from Florence to the Veneto, traversing the Italian courts of the centre and periphery and reaching its apex in the early 16th century in High Renaissance Rome. More-recent currents of scholarship have focused on individual women patrons and on female religious corporations as cultural agents. Renaissance “patrons” can also be broken down into broad categories: private patrons, civic agencies, and corporate entities, although these categories all tend to overlap. The evidence for patronage exists in the relationships that can be established between and among people and things. Scholars rely on the study of primary archival and documentary sources and the physical examination of extant buildings and objects that can be linked to those relationship networks. Ideally, patronage relationships are reconstructed both from subjective and objective primary documentary sources, ideally from letters exchanged between patrons to artists and vice versa, through narrative accounts of objects and their makers made to secondary correspondents (e.g., humanist advisors, court secretaries, household staff, ambassadorial or mercantile agents), or from information on contracts, inventories, and wills found in notarial archives.

  • Baxandall, Michael. Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy: A Primer in the Social History of Pictorial Style. 2d ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.

    A social primer on art, providing what have become fundamental insights into artistic commissions, the artists’ trade, the “period eye,” and the effects of social contexts on the creation and reception of visual culture.

  • Burckhardt, Jacob. The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. Dover Books on History, Political and Social Science. Mineola, NY: Dover, 2014.

    First published in 1860 as Die Cultur der Renaissance in Italien (Basel, Switzerland: Schweighhauser), now the classic introduction to the theory of the “Renaissance” as a distinct period of progress toward modernism. Burckhardt traces the origins of the Renaissance to the rise of the individual and the cradle of modernity and focuses on the key roles played by great men as patrons and makers of art and culture.

  • Burke, Peter. The Italian Renaissance: Culture and Society in Italy. 3d ed. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014.

    An updated version of a classic in the social and cultural history of the Renaissance, important for exposing patronage and artistic practice as functions determined by larger social constraints, conventions, and codes; a decentering of Burckhardt’s theory of individual primacy.

  • Chambers, David S. Patrons and Artists in the Italian Renaissance. History in Depth. London: Macmillan, 1970.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-349-00623-6

    A study of patronage that predates later refinements seeking to articulate varieties of meaning implicit in the definitions both of “patron” and “artist”; an unproblematic view of artistic projects wrought by great men and great artists.

  • Cole, Alison. Virtue and Magnificence: Art of the Italian Renaissance Courts. Perspectives. New York: H. N. Abrams, 1995.

    An overview of the most-important patronage centers during the Renaissance, from Florence to Naples to Rome; concisely summarizes the vast literature on individual courts and patrons. Synthesizes the most-important works associated with aristocratic patronage throughout Italy.

  • Cooper, Tracy E. “Mecenatismo or Clientelismo? The Character of Renaissance Patronage.” In The Search for a Patron in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Edited by David G. Wilkins and Rebecca L. Wilkins, 19–32. Medieval and Renaissance Studies 12. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen, 1996.

    An important contribution to the literature because it emphasizes the degree to which patronage was a social negotiation among unequal parties, all of whom stood to benefit from the quid pro quo of cultural and economic exchange.

  • Esch, Arnold, and Christoph Luitpold Frommel, eds. Arte, committenza ed economia a Roma e nelle corti del Rinascimento (1420–1530): Atti del convegno internazionale, Roma 24–27 ottobre 1990. Piccola Biblioteca Einaudi 630. Turin, Italy: Einaudi, 1995.

    Excellent essays by prominent international scholars on patronage at the various Italian courts, from the conference of the same name held 24–27 October 1990 in Rome.

  • Gilbert, Creighton. “What Did the Renaissance Patron Buy?,” Renaissance Quarterly 51.2 (1998): 392–450.

    DOI: 10.2307/2901572

    A seminal essay in the development of patronage studies, Gilbert broke the trope of patronage as a direct relationship between patron and artist, demonstrating varied degrees of control exercised in the dynamic relationship between purchase and production and in accordance with the nature of the commission. For example, patrons were rather fussier about family history than fidelity to Biblical accounts. Offers nuanced insights into the processes of communication involved in commissioning works of art and glimpses into the tensions between economic and content control on the one hand, and artistic creative control on the other.

  • Hollingsworth, Mary. Patronage in Renaissance Italy: From 1400 to the Early Sixteenth Century. London: Thistle, 2014.

    Hollingsworth provides a comprehensive synthesis of patronage activities undertaken by the mostly standard roster of Burckhardian individuals in the context of their cities and courts across Italy. The interpretive focus in often on artistic and architectural patronage as the manifestation of personal or dynastic status and power, and the demonstration of wealth and faith. The emphasis is on aspirational activities and on the assumption of an audience conditioned to associate visual objects in the public arena with patrons rather than artists.

  • Kempers, Bram. Painting, Power and Patronage: The Rise of the Professional Artist in the Italian Renaissance. Translated by Beverly Jackson. London: Penguin, 1994.

    Translated from the original Dutch. Kempers synthesizes the broad realm of Renaissance artistic patronage with broader social developments linked to urbanism, linking patronage to the gradual professionalization of artists within the cultural economies of Italy.

  • Vasari, Giorgio. Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects. 2 vols. Translated by Gaston du C. de Vere. Introduction and notes by David Ekserdjian. Everyman’s Library 129. New York and London: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996.

    Based on the 1912 English translation by de Vere, with updated notes to the text. Vasari first published the Lives in 1550 and issued an expanded version in 1568. The authoritative modern version is still the seven-volume Le vite de’ piu eccellenti pittori, scultori ed architettori, edited by Gaetano Milanesi (Florence: Sansoni, 1878–1885), but this Everyman’s version offers a comprehensive translation of the text and is well annotated. Vasari’s observations about relationships between patrons and artists are often cited in the context of patronage studies.

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