The tradition of wealthy people offering financial support to scientists and artists has its roots in ancient times. It is largely thanks to interest by wealthy patrons in the arts that the works of Virgil and Horace, the sculptures of Donatello, the surrealism and abstractions of Picasso and Kandinsky were created and have survived to this day. Science and technology, taken under the wing of philanthropists, has also borne fruit. The establishment of schools contributed to the study of the natural sciences, as well as the accumulation and systematization of humanity’s base of scientific knowledge.

The history of the origin of the term

Patronage as a tradition of financially encouraging and supporting intellectual and creative work appeared in antiquity. Roman Gaius Cilnius Maecenas, from the Equites family, a close confidante of Emperor Octavian Augustus, is seen as one of the founders of the formal tradition.

As a passionate lover of Latin poetry, Maecenas organized a community of writers, which included Virgil, Horace, Propertius, Emilius Macro, and other luminaries of Roman literature. Gaius Maecenas supported members of this circle financially, and also guaranteed them social and legal protection.

Ancient Roman statesman Gaius Cilnius Maecenas (Gāius Cilnius Maecēnās)
Gaius Zilniy Maecenas (Cole Park, Ireland).

Gaius Cilnius Maecenas also drove changes in Rome’s cityscape. With his direct patronage, a large flower garden was built on the city’s Esquilina plateau on the site of a cemetery for the poor and slaves. He also financed the backfilling of the hill with a six-meter layer of earth from the cemetery, and then took over the costs of landscaping the park.

Of course, sponsorship existed long before Gaius Maecenas began to engage in it. In ancient Greece, patronage was even legally regulated: a wealth tax was paid by all wealthy families of Athens, Olympia, and other polities when organizing sporting events and festive celebrations. People did not try to evade paying the tax, as contributing to the development of public space was considered a civic honor, and the names of those who donated were engraved on granite slabs.

In ancient China, Confucius financed his own school for the training of government officials. Among the Chinese emperors, there was also a tradition of bringing the best poets, artists, and craftsmen to their courts, sometimes even making them dignitaries. Such cases were often more a matter of compulsion by authorities than of material incentives, but the practice nevertheless contributed to the development of cultural and scientific heritage.

The Epoch of Clerics and Collectors

During the early Middle Ages in Europe, the Church began to play an active role in the patronage of arts and science. Money from the clergy and private donors (in the tradition of medieval Byzantium – Ktetors) built new monasteries and parochial schools. These schools would subsequently become the first European universities, which in turn gave birth to the Western European scientific tradition.

Under the direct patronage of the church, the universities of Bologna, Venice, Naples and Prague, as well as Oxford and Cambridge in England, were founded. These universities contributed to the writing of a number of breakthrough scientific works for their time. Examples include Albert Magnus’s volumes on natural science De vegetalibus et plantis (“On Plants”) and De mineralibus (“On Minerals”), as well as the works of Robert Grosseteste, known as an architect of the scientific method. 

University of Bologna (Università di Bologna) Year of foundation 1088
University of Bologna.

In addition to the church, the feudal circles of Europe also provided for the development of culture and science. King Roger II, founder of the Kingdom of Sicily in 1130, invited a number of scientists, philosophers, and theologians from both Europe and the Arab world, sponsoring their work from his own treasury. Works on the systematization of geographical data by the Arab geographer Abu al-Idrisi led to his Tabula Rogeriana, which was one of the most advanced maps of the known world in the pre-Columbian era.

The Renaissance only strengthened the role of patronage in Europe’s social and cultural life. The consolidation of the first private capital allowed wealthy families to compete in beneficence with kings, popes, and emperors. One of them was Lorenzo Medici, the preeminent citizen of the Florentine Republic, famous for his saying: There is nothing more worthy in the world than to excel others in generosity

During Lorenzo de’ Medici’s reign as the de facto ruler of Florence from 1469-1492, construction in the city flourished. Lorenzo the Magnificent, as he was known to his fellow Florentines, not only engaged in patronage, but also knew how to attract others to it. All noble people who invested in the improvement and expansion of the city were provided with favorable tax incentives. In Lorenzo de’ Medici’s Florence, philanthropy was not only prestigious, but also profitable.

At various times, Lorenzo de’ Medici was a patron of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Donatello, Botticelli, Marselio Ficino, and Pico de Mirandola. Between 1434 and 1471 (estimated by the prior himself) the Medici family spent 633,000 florins on its patronage. This amount today would equal around $460 million.

It was during the Renaissance that the main forms of patronage appeared, including:

  • Direct commissions of works to artists by patrons, along with referrals to other customers.
  • Generous financial donations (land plots, sums of money, lifelong grants and pensions).
  • Awarding of titles and appointments to public office.
  • Organization of educational institutions and scientific and literary communities.
  • Assistance in resolving litigation and the provision of legal protection.
  • The practice of prominent patrons publicly endorsing a brand, craftsman, artist, or entire scientific movement.

The sponsors of religiously-themed paintings not only received the acclaim of society and the clergy, but were often literally painted into the pictures themselves, granting them a pride of place next to the saints.

The painting Madonna with Child and Saints Nicholas and Catherine. 1405г. Gentile da Fabriano
Madonna by Gentile da Fabriano (the donor of the painting is depicted on his knees), ≈1390-1395.

Financial support also influenced the study of the cosmos during the Renaissance. It was thus that Galileo Galilei, who was patronized by subsequent generations of the Medici family, named one of the moons of Jupiter which he discovered as Medicea Sidera (Star of Medici) . Later, with the direct sponsorship of the family, the Academy of Experiment (Italian – l’Accademia del Cimento), one of the first European academies of natural sciences, was organized, dealing with the study of alchemy and astronomy.

Post-Renaissance and new financial opportunities

In the era of the New time, which was characterized by the development of absolute monarchies, patronage was still concentrated in the hands of rulers and dynastic clans, who mainly used it to strengthen power and social status in society. During this period of time, military engineering received active investment: new frigates with gunpowder cannon made it possible not only to make great geographical discoveries, but also helped to colonize newly-discovered lands.

The expansion of patronage was also helped by industrialization. The bourgeois class, which was coming into its own, saw patronage as a lever of influence on the aristocracy. Charitable foundations, student societies, and investments in construction and infrastructure contributed to the strengthening of the bourgeois’ socio-political status. At the same time, the interest in patronage was not entirely selfless, as the development which it spurred in science and technology gave impetus to the modernization of the economy, and allowed those who financed such activities to profit from it.

The 20th century reinforced this tradition with the patronage of the first monopolists in finance and industry, and with the development of the commercial market in general. The advent of trademarks led to increased sponsorship. Companies benefited from raising their brand awareness through investments in public recreation and sports. Thus, Coca-Cola has been the official sponsor of the Olympic Games for more than 100 years, dating all the way back to 1896 . 

At the same time, a clear boundary appears between two forms of patronage: public and social, and fund and financial. The appearance of the Nobel Prize, and later other prizes aimed at awarding excellence in science and culture, implied, first of all, public recognition of the merits of individual figures, and not merely a general improvement in the conditions for conducting scientific activities. Another direction of philanthropy, the creation of charitable foundations, bypassed individual rewards and focused on helping individual branches of science and culture through the building of endowments.

Handwritten text of Alfred Nobel's testaments 1895
Handwritten text of Alfred Nobel’s will, which contains the will to establish his financial fortune in the Nobel Prize fund

In the wake of growing the economic inequality of the later 20th and early 21st centuries, charity has become its own form of patronage. Every year, the richest people in the world donate billions of dollars to solve socio-economic problems related to poverty, the climate, medicine, and science.

Today, the history of philanthropy is turning into a history of selfless and noble aspirations in the hope of making our world a better place. It is full of amazing organizations and names, many of which will be presented in the next article of this series, dedicated to patrons and sponsors of the Modern Age.