A Brief History of Patronage
One of the defining characteristics of Florentine society throughout
the centuries was a deeply-rooted system of patronage networks. Galileo
benefitted from the patronage of both the Marchese del Monte and the
Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo II de Medici, in his lifelong career as a
mathematician, scientist, and inventor.
Patronage was practiced as a social institution throughout early
modern Europe, probably peeking in importance between the 14th and 17th
centuries. It is nearly impossible, however, to determine a specific origin of
the tradition. In fact, "Cicero thought that the origins of Roman
clientela were so ancient that it must have been brought to Rome
by Romulus himself."1. By nature, it developed very gradually
over long periods of time as different families and individuals rose and diminished
in prominence in their respective corners of the continent.
In Florence, early patronage was associated with the church, which was a result
of the powerful episcopal political influence in central Italy. The ownership of land
determined one's importance, and the church was one of the largest single property-holders
in Italy. By the 11th century, bishops were competing with wealthy rural
families to become the "patrons" of local land-owners. Despite this rampant political
parlaying on the part of church officals, the rise of Italian patronage has actually
been attributed by some to the generosity inherent in Catholicism.
Whatever its roots, it became firmly institutionalized in Florentine life. As Biagioli
describes it, patronage was not an "option." It was the key to social status, and, in
Florence, there was an absolute social hierarchy. A career and social mobility
were impossible apart from being involved in a network of patronage relationships.
Even the working poor found themselves a part of this complicated web in their labor under
Florence's multitude of patron-driven 2.
Patronage is most commonly associated with artists and the arts in general, but,
as with the case of Galileo, it extended to acadaemia and the sciences. Notability
and credibility went hand-in-hand, particularly for the scientist. Working under an
increasingly prominent noble made one an increasingly credible thinker, or respectable
craftsman. (Hence, Galileo sought the patronage of the Grand Duke.) Perhaps the best
example of this patron-reputation linkage is Michaelangelo, whose patron was the Pope
himself (Julius II). By the time of his death, he had been practically raised to a level
of divinity among Florentine artists.
The social standing of the patron also benefitted from the arrangement.
Sponsoring several clients indicated substantial wealth and an interest
in the community. Especially accomplished clients brought to their patrons
added prestige. In the academic hierarchy, the most prestigious patrons
tended not to identify with clients from the "lower" disciplines (mathematics
and the natural sciences), which further illustrates the remarkable
accomplishments of Galileo. Ironically, patrons tended to distance themselves
publicly from their clients as much as possible, so as not to give the
appearance of relying on their patrons for their status.
The end of academic patronage, at least in the sciences, can be loosely
dated to 1682. In that year, King Louis XIV of France founded the Acedemie
des Sciences, which brought to Western science a new reliance on experimentation. The
credibility of research became dependent on the success of experiments rather than
on the notability of a scientist's patron.
Other forms of patronage have persisted into the late twentieth century
and continue to be a characteristic, though much less formal, element of
southern European society.
1. Biagioli, Mario. Galileo, Coutier. Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1993. p.15
2. ibid. p.16
Biagioli, Mario. Galileo, Courtier. Chicago: University of Chicago
Dameron, George W. Episcopal Power and Florentine Society, 1000-1320.
Cambridge: Harvard Univeristy Press, 1991.
Life and Death in Fifteenth-Century Florence. ed. by Marcel Tetel,
Ronald G. Witt, & Rona Goffen. Durham: Duke University Press, 1989.