How did the art patronage system work during the Renaissance?
This essay will provide a short overview of the relationship between artists and patrons during the Renaissance, with particular focus on Florence in Italy. I will argue that the work of many artists of the period developed according to the tastes and priorities of their patrons and so the system of patronage was central to the evolution of European fine arts both inside and outside of the Roman Catholic Church.
In the 1950s, art historian Bernard Berenson compared the relationship between artist and patron during the Renaissance to one between a carpenter, tailor or shoemaker and a customer placing an order (Burke, 2004). For instance, during the period of the Renaissance spanning the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, art patrons in Italy commonly specified what materials to be used and in what amounts in the works commissioned from the artists they patronised (UK National Gallery of Art, 2016).
During the Italian Renaissance, the majority of commissions were for religious works, being that the banking families of Florence, for example, wished to fund altarpieces and chapels in penance for the sin of usury or moneylending, otherwise condemned by the Church (US National Gallery of Art, 2016). Later in the 15th century, however, patrons became more concerned with the prestige of their individual reputations and increasingly commissioned art works for public display (US National Gallery of Art, 2016). Now, artists developed their work by finding new subjects from mythology rather than simply Christianity, which led to the evolution by the 16th century of a new understanding of fine art as “art for art’s sake” (US National Gallery of Art, 2016).
Nonetheless, the economic impact of the system of patronage in art should not be overlooked. In 1472 Florence, for instance, depended on the production of art as one of its key industries; the Italian city had 54 workshops for marble and stone and employed 44 master gold- and silversmiths, and at least thirty master painters (US National Gallery of Art, 2016). As a city, Florence’s position in the global wool and silk industries relied on the reputation of its craftsmen, and it was these artisans that stood alongside the fine artists in making patrons of the “moneymen” of the city – its merchants and financiers (US National Gallery of Art, 2016).
In conclusion, art patronage was a tool of both rulership and diplomacy, benefitting the elites of Renaissance Europe (Burke, 2004). However, the system of patronage was also key to the evolution of fine arts in the period. As a key member of the European elites, for instance, the great patron Lorenzo de’ Medic was also ‘an important arbiter of taste’ (US National Gallery of Art, 2016). Commerce, politics and the development of new arts came together thanks to the wealthy individuals and families central to the patronage system for, as an avid collector of Greek and Roman antiquities, Lorenzo de’ Medic ‘helped imprint the Florentine Renaissance with the humanism of the ancient world’ (US National Gallery of Art, 2016).
- Burke, J. (2004) Changing patrons: social identity and the visual arts in renaissance Florence. Retrieved from https://books.google.fr/books?id=1u90GAkeorYC&
- Patrons and artists in late 15th century Florence. (2016). US National Gallery of Art (n.d.). Retrieved March 17, 2016 from http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/features/slideshows/patrons-and-artists-in-late-15th-century-florence.html
- Artist and patrons – Italian Learning Resources. (2016). UK National Gallery of Art (n.d.). Retrieved March 17, 2016 from http://italianrenaissanceresources.com/units/unit-8/essays/introduction/
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