An essay by Dr. Heather Graham and Dr. Lauren G. Kilroy-Ewbank
What’s in it for me?
Why would someone patronize art in the renaissance? Giovanni Rucellai, a major patron of art and architecture in fifteenth-century Florence, paid Leon Battista Alberti to construct the Palazzo Rucellai and the façade of Santa Maria Novella, both high–profile and extremely costly undertakings. In his personal memoir, he talks about his motivations for these and other commissions, noting that “All the above-mentioned things have given and give me the greatest satisfaction and pleasure, because in part they serve the honor of God as well as the honor of the city and the commemoration of myself.” 
Aside from bringing honor to one’s faith, city, and self, patronizing art was also fun. Earning and spending money felt good, especially the spending part. As Rucellai goes on, “I really think that it is even more pleasurable to spend than to earn….” 
The ancient Roman world (with which much of renaissance Europe was endlessly fascinated) also provided motivation for patronage. The liberal expenditure on art and architecture by ancient Roman patricians was celebrated in the literature of antiquity and survived—even if in fragmentary form—to dazzle the eyes of renaissance viewers. The Roman Emperor Augustus, who so famously said that he found Rome a city of brick and transformed it into a city of marble, provided the ultimate noble model of patronage.
Commissioning an artwork often meant giving detailed directions to the artist, even what to include in the work, and this helped patrons fashion their identities. While the identity of Bronzino’s Florentine sitter in a Portrait of a Young Man is unknown, the artist shows him standing confidently in the composition’s center, looking out at us while dressed in expensive black satin, slashed sleeves, and a codpiece complete with golden aglets. He holds his fingers between the pages of a poetry book, which rests atop a table carved with grotesque faces. The book and the table were undoubtedly intended to convey the man’s sophistication and learning while his clothing and upright posture showed his wealth and nobility.
The renaissance was also a time when increasingly wealthy middle-class merchants and others aspired to increase their social recognition and began to commission portraits, as we see in double portraits like Jan van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Portrait showing the Italian merchant Giovanni de Nicolao di Arnolfini with his wife in Bruges (in present-day Belgium). Petrus Christus’s Portrait of a Carthusian reveals the increasing prominence of religious figures, with clergy, monks, and nuns sitting for portraits, many of which were likely made to celebrate the entry of wealthy individuals into religious orders.
Wealth, power, and status
In a seventeenth-century fresco by the artist Ottavio Vannini, Michelangelo, the artist, is shown presenting the powerful Florentine, Lorenzo the Magnificent de’ Medici, with a sculpture of a faun. Lorenzo sits at the center of the image, facing frontally like a ruler, while Michelangelo stands off to the side, bowing respectfully towards him. While today the name Michelangelo is better known, in the fresco the Medici patron is shown as more important than the artist.
Paying for something lavish and monumental, such as Sant’Andrea in Mantua (commissioned by Ludovico Gonzaga, ruler of the Italian city-state of Mantua and built by Alberti) or El Escorial (commissioned by Philip II, King of Spain, outside of Madrid), was a powerful statement about a patron’s wealth and status. Philip II was deeply involved in the planning of the massive complex that became El Escorial (a monastery, palace, and church). The complex was built in an austere, classicizing style that was intended to showcase Philip’s imperial power by looking to ancient Roman architectural forms.
Spiritual comfort and salvation
Some patrons paid for art to serve a larger purpose, perhaps to fulfill a devotional or religious need, as the Isenheim Altarpiece did for people suffering from the painful disease of ergotism. Others commissioned art to expiate the patron’s sins for such things as usury, as Jodocus Vijd desired when he paid a large sum of money for the Ghent Altarpiece.
Inspiring civic duty and responsibility
Commissioning artworks also helped to inspire civic responsibility or to demonstrate that members of a particular community performed their duties properly. The Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista, one of many Venetian devotional confraternities, paid Gentile Bellini to depict the procession of the relic of the True Cross through St. Mark’s square. This commission highlights the importance of the miraculous object as well as the civic duty of the city’s citizens, who are shown in the painting’s foreground, with the Scuola members carrying a canopy above the relic.
Patrons in art
Patrons often had themselves incorporated into paintings and sculptures to remind viewers of who had paid for the work of art as well as to show themselves participating in the narrative. We call these “donor portraits.” Lluis Dalmau’s Virgin of the Councillors, for instance, shows the Virgin Mary enthroned, holding the baby Jesus and surrounded by saints in a luxurious Gothic interior. Kneeling before the saints, at the edge of the throne, are five men, all of whom were members of the Barcelona City Council (Casa de la Ciutat), who had paid Dalmau to create the painting to hang in the chapel at the council palace. The portrait collapses sacred and secular time, placing the men as perpetually revering Mary and showcasing their piety to anyone observing the painting.
Even in instances where patrons were not overtly depicted in artworks, artists would sometimes be directed to include heraldic symbols, visual puns, or other motifs to allude to the patron. The coat of arms of the wealthy Mendoza family rests above main entrance to the Palacio del Infantado (in Guadalajara, Spain) amidst the decorative plateresque elements, and advertising to any passersby who had paid for and lived in the striking palace.
Patrons as influencers
Patrons also set fashions for style and subject matter. Importing artists and artworks from distant lands could show off one’s sophistication and introduce new styles, techniques, and subjects to local audiences. Artists and art traveled widely during this period, and exchanges across Europe and beyond were common. Because of the wealth and glamour of northern European court culture, it was fashionable for the wealthy elite of Italy and Spain to import both Netherlandish art and artists. Queen Isabel of Castile, whose father had favored Flemish painters such as Rogier van der Weyden, had a number of artists, including Juan de Flandes, Michel Sittow, and Gil de Siloe, at her court to create lavish works that would speak to her power and magnificence.
Likewise, Tomasso Portinari, who worked for the Medici bank in Bruges, hired the northern artist Hugo van der Goes to paint a massive altarpiece of the Nativity for his home town of Florence, Italy. When put on display in the hospital church of Santa Maria Nuova in 1483, it created a sensation. Italian artists, in awe of the accomplishments of the northern master, quickly responded to what they saw. Portinari not only showcased his own cosmopolitan sophistication, he also helped shape the direction of Florentine art by introducing this spectacular image to local artists.
Why patrons matter
Art communicated ideas about patrons. Status, wealth, social, and religious identities all played out across paintings, prints, sculptures, and buildings. At the same time, the careers of artists were shaped with the aid of powerful patrons. Likewise, artistic styles emerged or developed as a result of patrons hiring artists or buying artworks and by transporting them to new locations. The history of art has been shaped not only by artists, but also by the patrons whose choices in sponsorship determined what art was created, who created it, who saw it, and what art was made of. Until the modern era, the stories that have been told in art are the stories that reflect the interests of the rich and powerful, the privileged few—mostly men—who were in positions to patronize art. In a nutshell, patronage mattered.
 Giovanni Rucellai, Giovanni Rucellai ed il suo Zibaldone, ed. Alessandro Perosa. 2 vols. (London: The Warburg Institute, University of London, 1960), 1:121
 Rucellai, Zibaldone, 1:121
Read more about Isabella d’Este and her patronage
Learn more about patronage in fifteenth-century Burgundy
Explore renaissance Spain further, and learn more about the patronage of Queen Isabel of Castile
Learn more about Patrons and Artists in Late 15th-Century Florence from the National Gallery of Art
Read about patronage at the later Valois court on the Heilbrunn Timeline
Art from the Court of Burgundy: The Patronage of Philip the Bold and John the Fearless 1364–1419 (Dijon, 2004)
Michael Baxandall, Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy: A Primer in the Social History of Pictorial Style, 2d ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988)
Rafael Domínguez Casas, “The Artistic Patronage of Isabel the Catholic: Medieval or Modern?,” in Queen Isabel I of Castile: Power, Patronage, Persona, edited by Barbara F. Weissberger (Boydell & Brewer, 2008), pp. 123–48
Alison Cole, Virtue and Magnificence: Art of the Italian Renaissance Courts (New York: H. N. Abrams, 1995)
Tracy E. Cooper, “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 (Medieval and Renaissance Studies 12. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen, 1996), pp. 19–32
Mary Hollingsworth, Patronage in Renaissance Italy: From 1400 to the Early Sixteenth Century (London: Thistle, 2014)
Robrecht Janssen, Jan van der Stock, and Daan van Heesch, Netherlandish Art and Luxury Goods in Renaissance Spain: Studies in Honor of Professor Jan Karel Steppe (1918–2009) (Belgium: Harvey Miller Publishers, 2018)
Dale Kent, Cosimo De’ Medici and the Florentine Renaissance: The Patron’s Oeuvre (New Haven: Yale UP, 2000)
Catherine E. King and Margaret L King, Renaissance Women Patrons: Wives and Widows in Italy, C. 1300–1550 (Manchester: Manchester UP, 1998)
Sherry C. M. Lindquist, Agency, Visuality and Society and the Charterhouse of Champmol (Aldershot and Burlington, 2008)
Michelle O’Malley, The Business of Art: Contracts and the Commissioning Process in Renaissance Italy (New Haven: Yale UP, 2005)
Sheryl Reiss, “A Taxonomy of Art Patronage in Renaissance Italy,” in A Companion to Renaissance and Baroque Art, ed. Babette Bohn and James M. Saslow (Chichester, West Sussex UK: John Wiley & Sons, 2013), pp. 23–43
Hugo Van der Velden, The Donor’s Image: Gerard Loyet and the votive portraits of Charles the Bold (Turnhout, 2000)
Jessica Weiss, “Juan de Flandes and His Financial Success in Castile,” Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art 11:1 (Winter 2019) DOI: 10.5092/jhna.2019.11.1.2