Renaissance Art Patrons and Their Effect on History
The great works of art that hang on the walls of some of the great museums of the world are not there because the artist wished for the world to behold their particular brilliance. It is true that greats such as Michelangelo and da Vinci were brilliant in their own right, but they would not have been able to produce as they did unless they had patrons who commissioned many of their works. Royalty were not alone in being able to afford the works that brilliant masters produced, though they were patrons at times. Private, wealthy persons who wanted to be remembered for their wealth and stature were the most prolific patrons. Even into the modern day, there are patrons of the arts who commission paintings, sculptures, buildings and other works that otherwise would not be produced. It is a tradition that has not only allowed these great works to exist, but has allowed the great artists who produce them to have an income for their talent. Whether the person is an artisan who does some side work in sculpture aside from stone masonry or a clerk who paints and dreams of the world seeing their work, patrons have been able to assist the arts throughout the ages so that they can be admired today. Various patrons have been responsible for the commission of some of the great works. The type of people who became patrons and how that tradition has continued into modern times is the focus of this paper.
Some of the greatest patrons in ancient and modern times were the rich and famous of their day. They wanted people to revere them for their wealth and influence. It may seem that this activity would have been exclusive to men, especially prior to the last hundred years, but that is not a correct assumption. Jones (2010) said that "most of the world's great works of art are the fruit of spendaholic patronage by magnificos who knew how to tell the accountants where to go." These artists "basically worked for one patron at a time, usually a single man, rather than an entire court…The patron had great control over the artist in the first half of the 17th c., however this began to change by the second half of the century" (Stockton). The art produced was often of the patron's family and/or a scene from the patrons life. This was true whether the patron was a man or a woman.
Female patrons often married into a rich family where they were expected to be behind the scenes (in the case of the famous Italian women patrons). But, these women wanted to be remembered as more than just the wife of some functionary. They wanted people to understand that they too had power and influence (Zwanger). Probably the most famous patroness in the old Italian time period was Isabella d'Este. She was responsible for many works of art from substantial painters such as Michelangelo and Titian. She wanted the art to decorate her private quarters and was constantly seeking a new artist to paint her in exciting ways (Zwanger). Females of the time were painted with their faces showing traditional virtues, but they commissioned the artists to show them with what were then considered male virtues also. Isabella d'Este commissioned many works that were either translated to the artist via a family friend or a note from herself (Zwanger).
Many women had to either have someone else commission the painting for them, as was the case when "widows who had retired to convents sometimes purchased pictures for their orders" (Zwanger), as did d'Este. However, it has to be remembered that "Isabella d "Este was by no means unique as a secular female patron" (Reiss & Wilkins). Other Italians of the same time period, "female members of royalty [who wanted] to establish and strengthen their power" (Zwanger), and modern female patrons such as Philippa de Menil who has helped fund much of the minimalist movement (Sassi).
However, it was usually the man of the family who was prominent in buying into the arts. In ancient times, Maecenas became the patron of Virgil and he is also reported to have given Horace a farm. He also was mentioned often in the poetry of Horace and has gone down in history as a result (Jones). In the middle ages "Shakespeare rose from theatrical hack to the Ovid of his age through an aristocratic friendship with Henry Wriothesley, the third earl of Southampton, while the debt-ridden Stuart monarchy spent freely to encourage everyone from Inigo Jones to Christopher Wren" (Jones), and in more modern times a wealthy patrons were responsible for the growth of the minimalist movement due to their patronage (Sassi).
But the patrons were not all simply wealthy people who could afford to throw their money around (Jones). Many different types have existed throughout history: "the church; the courts; the secular governments, and the middle class" (Stockton). It seems that the merchant class, what people in modern times would call the 'middle class', were especially valuable to artists after the wealthy of Italy had started people patronizing artists they admired. In Holland it was this group who were responsible for the growth of such masters as Rembrandt. Because they wanted an investment that would grow their personal fortunes, the merchants purchased art, and financed emerging artists. These patrons were interested in landscapes and seascapes much more than the portraits and family scenes of the Italians (Stockton). These were savvy buyers who had not grown up with money, but had made it themselves. The art that they bought had to be worth something. When a merchant owned a painting or sculpture created by Rembrandt, they were known to be among the elite of the day.
These types of patrons have not continued to be used in modern times to any great extent. Individuals will buy paintings commissioned by others that are for sale, but they usually will not have an artist create something for them alone. If they do, it is usually not seen as great art for a many years after it is painted. "More recently, genius has been supported by state patronage at the National Theatre, the RSC, the Tate Modern and through the Turner prize. Corporate generosity funds events such as the Turbine Hall installations, which rival the masques and operas of those lavish baroque courts" (Jones). The state has most of the disposable income that used to be used to create these masterpieces. Also, with so much new media, people do not see the need to have themselves immortalized in a painting or sculpture. What would once have seemed commonplace, would now seem gauche and self-promoting. It is easier for people who want to be artists to find work now anyway. But, they are generally employed by media outlets, publishers or governments to display their talents for the enjoyment of the general public.
The greatest gift anyone could give the world though was given by some of the selfish early patrons of the arts. It has been recorded that Michelangelo and others disliked the people that they were forced to work for, but they did so to propagate their work. This gift to the modern world is one that it is difficult to estimate. Both in financial worth and in terms of their beauty and cultural worth, these works would have been a great loss had they not been produced. The Church cannot be forgotten as a very important patron. Michelangelo would not have been able to produce his two seminal works, "David" and the roof of the Sistine Chapel, and da Vinci may never have produced "The Last Supper" if it were not for wealthy clergy who wanted the works…