During the Renaissance, carpenters and mason-workers often joined associations known as guilds to protect their interests. Before the 15th century, artists were considered tradesmen, but operated in a patronage system, through which they received commissions from both individuals and institutions for specific projects. At the beginning of the 15th century, artists produced their works to the specification of contracts drawn up by clients -- even the amount of costly pigments was quantified. Later in the century, a new system began to develop in which wealthy and powerful patrons commissioned specific artists to execute large-scale works. Michelangelo, Titian, da Vinci --some of the greatest artists of the Renaissance were part of the patronage system.

The Medici, Illustrious Patrons of Renaissance Artists

Perhaps the most famous patron of Renaissance artists was the Medici family of Florence. Though they would eventually wield power akin to that of rulers, the Medici were originally wealthy merchants. They essentially bought their nobility, in part by serving as patrons for now-legendary artists including Botticelli, Ghirlandaio and Michelangelo, the last of whom designed the chapel known as the “Sagrestria Nuova,” or the “New Sacristy." The patronage system did not just benefit artists; it enabled wealthy private citizens essentially to ‘'buy’' a public space in the city, from frescoes and sculptures to buildings.

Discovering Different Sites of Patronage

Though the Medici are likely the most famous patrons of Renaissance artists, it has been noted that it was actually in Urbino where another family, the Montefeltro clan, actually spent more capital in support of artistic projects. In fact, the celebrated Piero della Francesca’s double portrait was commissioned by the Duke and Duchess of Urbino. Many of the artists who later migrated to Florence -- including Raphael -- would have their start at Urbino’s court.

Alternative Patronage Systems

Other regions in Italy had unique patronage systems. In Milan, for example, the dictator-like Sforza family commissioned artists to legitimate its rule. In 16th century Venice, artists realized new levels of solidarity and began to develop their own unions known as “scuole” (schools). It was in Venice, home to artists including Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese, that works were often municipally funded. Artists were commissioned by social groups, according to their wealth.

Looking to the Northern Renaissance

Of course, Renaissance artists were not restricted to Italy alone. In the North, particularly in Flanders, which comprises parts of modern-day France, Belgium and the Netherlands, a patronage system ruled, but its features were unique. Artists were generally commissioned not by monarchs but by private citizens, wealthy merchants who were proud of their social standing. This distinction between the more public dimension of Italian patronage and the personal charge of the Northern version is attested to by the kinds of works commissioned. While the Medici and the Sforza families requested large frescoes, monumental statues and buildings, Northern patrons requested smaller-scale paintings — an important quality for traveling merchants.