Exploring historical roots of philanthropy for the arts in Europe

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Cultural philanthropy (or “philanthropy for the arts”), conceived as any act of altruism that sustains the arts and culture, is intertwined with the rise and growth of civil society in Europe. Its study is still embryonal in social sciences, but we might, in fact, trace its boom back to the beginning of the 14th centuries when cities and civic life re-emerged as an economic and political phenomenon in different regions in Europe. It’s in that epoch (and in particular in central-northern Italy) that we have also a resumption of cultural life and a new model of social order centered on a community of “free” men, the city, which emerged as a reaction to feudalism. In those times, in central-northern Italy, there were already ninety-six cities with more than 5,000 inhabitants – fifty-three of them with more than 10,000 inhabitants – and 21.4 per cent of the total of the population resident there, compared with Europe as a whole, which saw an average of 9.5 per cent of the population in cities. (Bruni and Zamagni, 2016). It was in these centuries that humanism – and then the Renaissance – blossomed: religious and secular patronage of the arts together with  forms of civic philanthropy became common practice, their different forms representing the social and economic turmoil of the epoch. Finally, it is in this historical period that one might sort out some of the different models of cultural philanthropism that we practice today.

philanthropy for the arts in Europe

Duomo of Milan cathedral

The first kind of cultural philanthropy can be well illustrated by the story of a businessman named Oliviero Forzetta, who lived in Treviso, near Venice, between 1300 and 1373 (Gaffuri, 1997). Son of a notary, who had accumulated a considerable amount of money through usury loans, Oliviero was a man “without letters”, but he had an intense passion for codices, books and antiquities: he was able to form a library and an archaeological collection similar to more extensive subsequent Renaissance collections. On 16 July 1368, still in good health, Forzetta dictated his will. Having no children, despite having had five wives, he left with an act of philanthropism his estate to the Confraternity of Santa Maria dei Battuti of which he was a brother, noting that after his death all his art should be sold – and the revenue from the sale given to poor girls- except for antique books and codices that should have been secured to benches by chains at the Confraternity’s Oratory. In this way, his collection was rapidly publicly dispersed. The Forzetta collection is famous because he listed all the purchases he made in Venice, thus leaving us the oldest known evidence of an art and archaeology collection which helped culture to blossom in Venice. Oliviero Forzetta represents the first type of cultural philanthropist, namely art collector. One might argue that the act of collecting cannot be envisioned as a form of giving, and cultural economists would include collecting as a paradigmatic form of household consumption: the open-endedness of a collection resonates with the continuous search for novelty in contemporary consumer behavior (Bianchi 1997). However, portraying arts collectors (and cultural philanthropists) as fully rational and self-interested economic agents would not explain Forzetta’s will or the behavior of particular types of art collectors (like Texas arts collectors) that  competitively bid in auctions to purchase the best pieces of Texan art, but at the same time they operate in a network of thick social ties, they care that this piece of heritage remains in Texas – think of Forzetta and his chained books – and they support and organize self-funded travelling exhibitions of Texan art both to increase its value (and that of the paintings they own), but also to reinforce Texan cultural identity (Turrini, 2021). Above all, an explicit philanthropic aim emerges when arts collectors think about the future of their collections so that we would align collecting and collectors with Walter Benjamin’s (1935) portrait of collectors as those individuals who through their purchases save art from commodification that markets trigger.

Returning to the 14th century in northern Italy, we can detect two other types of cultural philanthropists: arts patrons (or mecenats) and capitalist philanthropist. To do so, we can briefly refer to two other patrons of the arts at that time who were in some way linked: Cangande I della Scala from Verona and Enrico Scrovegni from Padua. Della Scala lived in Verona between 1291 and 1329, at a time when Verona – thanks to the Scaligeri family – had become a city of great political importance. With Cangrande, it also became a cultural centre, anticipating the splendour of Renaissance patronage that developed shortly thereafter in Florence with Cosimo de’ Medici. It is interesting to focus on the patronage relationship that Cangrande built with Dante Alighieri, Italy’s most famous poet and one of the founding fathers of Italian literature. Being exiled from Florence and in need of a patron from 1312 to 1318, Dante was hosted by Cangrande della Scala, whose generosity is recognized in the seventeenth canto of The Divine Comedy, Dante’s masterpiece, to recognize its patronage.  The Dante–della Scala relationship is a good example of cultural patronage in which reciprocity matters. In this sense, as Paul McLean (2005, 640) recently wrote, “Patronage did not simply signify the top-down distribution of material rewards, nor a lavish support of philosophy and the arts. It was a pervasive, bottom-up, political cultural phenomenon—an institution in the sociological sense of a set of relatively routine or “standardized activity sequences” or “organized, established procedure[s]” that support and reproduce a set of shared expectations about the world and how it operates.

philanthropy for the arts in Europe

Giotto fresco at Cappella Scrovegni

A different story might emerge from the life of Enrico Scrovegni from Padua. Also Enrico Scrovegni was from a family of moneylenders and either to give back what his father had taken away or as a strategic move to launch his political career in Padua (Frugoni, 2008) he decided to devote part of his accumulated wealth to the construction of a chapel, now known as Cappella Scrovegni. He hired Giotto, the most celebrated fresco painter of the day, to decorate the inside of the chapel with scenes from the life of Christ. In the frescoes, Scrovegni is depicted as kneeling in an act of devotion, presenting a model of the chapel. He is not only depicted in Paradise, but also appears the same size as the other saints, in order to portray himself as one of the just, as a figure who could play a role in the city’s future fortunes. Enrico Scrovegni could even be considered a precursor of welfare capitalism or capitalist philanthropy, a 14th-century Carnegie, Rockefeller or Gates. Scrovegni wanted to give back something that his family had taken from the community (in a primitive example of the restitution principle), just as American welfare capitalism is based on the agreement under which companies have the task of considering the fate and well-being of their employees and their employees’ families. According to the restitution principle, a capitalist returns part of his or her profits to those who have contributed to them. For Scrovegni, this type of giving resulted in the building of a chapel; in modern times, the result of a gift of this nature is often the constitution of a foundation for the arts or a corporate museum.

The final form of cultural philanthropy that we can trace back into the past, is what we might label as arts crowdfunding. Rather than speaking about digital crowdfunding platforms such as Kickstarter, we can go back to the 14th century, even if we move a little bit westward in Italy – from Venice to Milan. As recent studies by Martina Saltamacchia have shown, the Duomo Cathedral in Milan, like many other cathedrals in Europe, was not only built thanks to the munificence of a prince or a duke (in this case the Visconti family), but also because of the contributions made by the“crowd” – the city’s Christian community. The organization in charge of the building of the cathedral was the Fabbrica, which drew together the philanthropic efforts of all Milan’s citizens. As Saltamacchia (2011: 171) describes (p. 180): “The Fabbrica had also implemented an effective network of fundraising, employing an organized system of multiple instruments. […] The main place for the collection of donations was the altar in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore […] Four deputies from the Fabbrica welcomed donors at the altar, received offerings and recorded them in their registers. […] Not everyone had time to bring their donation to the altar. So, in order to reach all the people, boxes were located at major crossroads of the city and the countryside, as well as in places where people might gather” The collective giving effort was mirrored by the Fabbrica’s democratic governance structure: the three main stakeholders – the prince, the Church and the people – were all represented on the council. The “crowd”, for example, were represented by fifty residents per district, who convened weekly. This flat governance structure was quite common at the time. Similar organizations could be found in other Italian cities, together with corporate guilds (which were engaged in cultural philanthropism as well as supporting their members) and confraternities (Tepstra, 1999).

Collecting, patronage and mecenatism, capitalist giving and crowdfunding are different approaches and practices in cultural philanthropy in Europe, grounded in the common belief, similar to the ideal of humanitas in ancient Rome, that investing in the arts and the humanities can help community development, not just its economic growth or simply the individuals.


For further reading:

Fundraising for the Arts, by Alex Turrini, Francesca Pecoraro and Mark Volpe, Bocconi University Press

The work of fundraising has transformed into a sophisticated and com-petitive profession, attracting talented and dedicated leaders who wish to use their skills to contribute to a secure financial future for their organizations. The arts and cultural field has not been an exception to these pressures above all in times when new emergencies and pres-sures shrink the funding opportunities of arts organizations both in Europe and in the US. This book aims to be a reference point for up-per-level undergraduate students, graduate students, and junior practi-tioners in the arts management field. It will provide core insights about and inspiration for careers in fundraising for the arts and high-quality content (including on advanced topics such as the organizational dy-namics of creating a culture of philanthropy, E-D-I in fundraising, the use of digital and social media platforms, board involvement, perfor-mance management and accountability) that will appeal to novice or experienced practitioners.








Alex Turrini

Alex Turrini is Associate Professor in Public and Nonprofit Management at Bocconi University, Milan. Previously, he has been Chair of the Division of Arts Management and Arts Entrepreneurship as well as Visiting Professor at Meadows School for the Arts and Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University, Dallas. His research activities mainly focus on arts management and cultural  He is the author of numerous books and articles on these topics. His works have been published in Public Administration Review, Governance, Public Administration, the International Journal of Arts Management, the Journal of Art and Law and Society, among others. He serves as a reviewer for national and international journals and he is the Editor-in-Chief for the International Journal of Arts Management. His last book Fundraising for the Arts (coauthored with Mark Volpe and Francesca Pecoraro) has been published by Bocconi University Press.

This article is part of the September 2023 special edition: Philanthropy & the Arts. You can find more here.

Philanthropy & the arts