Vital Signs

Notes on Art Patronage

Art patronage has had a long, uneven, and agitated history, and ideas about it appear to have long ago been settled: we call "great ages" those with intellectual and artistic brilliance, and we also add that these achievements were largely public, since taste and splendor were manifested first of all in buildings, churches, town halls, statues, and burial places. Let us add another aspect: while Pericles and Augustus built palaces, temples, schools, baths, and sponsored philosophers, the latter's friend and contemporary, Maecenas, whose name is synonymous with patronage itself, endowed poets lavishly by securing their estates from creditors and paying their expenses in Rome. Others—princes, kings, and wealthy men—founded libraries, in Pergamon or Alexandria, which were the predecessors of Western universities, themselves endowed by emperors and popes, and ancestors also of institutions like the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton, the Wartburg Institute in London, or the Nobel Foundation in Sweden.

We see immediately that the distinction between public and private founding and endowment is not the really important dividing line for the classification of patronage. The division can be made between the objects for which the moneys pay and the taste with which they are created. Tn declining Rome the wealthy were expected to disburse enormous sums for circus games and public baths, but...

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