From Virgil to Beyoncé: 5 Great Moments of Artistic Patronage

Getty Images
Getty Images / Getty Images

Throughout the centuries, the patronage system has allowed for the redistribution of wealth from the business class to the creative class—the members of which were often assumed to be starving and in need of such redistribution. The basic conceit is that a wealthy individual, family, or business pays the living wages of a playwright, musician or artist (often providing food and shelter) so that person can concentrate solely on their creation. In return, the artist often dedicates their works to their patron. In this way, the business arrangement has the potential to make both parties immortal.

This week, the New York Times wrote about a modern iteration of patronage—one between a large corporation and an already very successful musical artist. Pepsi and singer Beyoncé have struck a $50 million deal, which includes a “creative content development fund,” for Beyoncé’s various endeavors. Why not just pay Beyoncé for traditional advertising wherein her face appears on billboards and she shakes her booty in a commercial or two? “This way feels less polluting. It feels like there are more good things around it. It creates an all-around good will,” explains behavioral economist Dan Ariely, the author of The Upside of Irrationality.

The downside is, of course, that art and consumerism become intertwined—but history teaches us that, for better or worse, art and business have always been intrinsically combined, often to aid the creation of timeless masterpieces. Here are a few examples.

1. Gaius Maecenas/Horace, Virgil

Virgil. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

During the golden age of Latin literature, the Roman diplomat Maecenas was a benefactor of poets Horace and Virgil. His endowments to the men allowed for the writing of Virgil’s "The Georgics" and Horace’s "Satires 1," "Epistles 1," and "Odes 1-3." It is unclear how Virgil first came to meet Horace, but scholars believe he was the one who introduced the statesman to Horace, the son of a freed slave. It is also believed that Virgil composed his didactic poem about agriculture and public life, "The Georgics" (a seven-year undertaking), under order from Maecenas, who wished to see the Roman Empire return to a more traditional bucolic lifestyle.

Horace did much of his writing at a small estate with eight slaves and five tenanted properties called the Sabine Farm, gifted to him by Maecenas. The farm gave Horace the security to continue his writings in peace, and in return Horace addressed the first book of each of his series, Satires, Epistles and Odes, to his benefactor.

2. The Medici Family/Michelangelo

Getty Images

The politician and businessman Lorenzo de' Medici (humbly nicknamed Lorenzo the Magnificent) was famous for inviting artists to live in his Florentine palace while they were under his patronage.

Michelangelo was likely introduced to the patron by his sculpting teacher, who was part of the Medici creative cabal at the time. The 15-year-old, who would later go on to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, moved into the palace in 1490. In addition to giving him housing, Lorenzo provided the teenager with a stipend and gave his dad a job as a house clerk. Michelangelo was raised among Lorenzo’s children and nephews, two of whom later became Popes (Leo X and Clement VII). It is a boon to grow up in proximity to the powerful: both men later employed the artist for various projects around the Vatican.

3. Isabella d’Este/Leonardo da Vinci

Getty Images

Perhaps the most well-connected woman in Renaissance Italy, Isabella d'Este was the patron of the artists Mantegna, Titian and Leonardo da Vinci. At some point she commissioned each of the men to paint her portrait. She is well known as Leonardo's muse, and her portraits look strikingly similar to his best-known piece, hanging in the Louvre today.

4. Queen Elizabeth/Shakespeare

Getty Images

Queen Elizabeth’s devotion to England’s most famous playwright is so well known it has become the sub-plot of several award-winning movies. In reality, the Queen was a devoted fan of the theatre and a generous supporter of Shakespeare’s work. In return, he immortalized the virgin Queen in his works, most notably as the “fair vestal throned by the West” in A Midsummer-Night’s Dream.

5. Pepsi/Beyoncé

Getty Images

Pepsi's $50 million patronage of Beyoncé is expected to provide the singer and clothing designer—who earns approximately $40 million a year—with the ability to pursue creative endeavors free from the shackles and constraints of the market. “Pepsi embraces creativity and understands that artists evolve,” Beyoncé said in a statement to the Times. “As a businesswoman, this allows me to work with a lifestyle brand with no compromise and without sacrificing my creativity.”

In return for their generosity, the soda brand has already announced they will put the singer’s face on a series of limited edition soda cans and that she will appear in a new television ad.

Other things that could be financed through Pepsi’s “Beyoncé fund” could include live events, videos, or a “cool photo shoot,” as Lee Anne Callahan-Longo, the general manager of Beyoncé’s company Parkwood Entertainment, told the Times.

Instead of a farm or a roof over her head, Beyoncé is getting the gift of limited but generous resources and the ability to get a little bit wacky with how she represents Pepsi. You’re in good company in the annals of history, B. We’re expecting no less than a 21st Century Mona Lisa in sequins.