Patrimony and Discovery: Since its beginning, science has been supported by a variety of patrons, from the popes and princes of the Renaissance to State funding, up to the new forms of social patronage of today


The history of arts as we know it today wouldn’t be the same without the support provided by kings, popes and rich aristocratic families to musicians, painters and sculptors. This phenom­enon, which is usually referred to as “pa­tronage,” had its maximum development in Italy during Renaissance, when the major masterpieces in the history of art were conceived and came to life, mainly thanks to the influence of the House of Medici in Florence. Among the artists who benefited from their sponsorship were Brunelleschi, Donatello, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo.

While sponsorship of artists and the commissioning of artwork is the best-known aspect of the patronage system, other disciplines also benefited from this kind of sponsorship. At that time, sci­ence, for instance, was not the indepen­dent practice it is today. Much of what we know as science most often was carried out under Church or court patronage. However, this is an aspect of science that has often been left out of the spotlight, maybe because it involves a network of relationships, negotiations and favourit­isms that makes science a “socio-politi­cal” and “cultural” field, rather than an abstract transcendent phenomenon.

Although none of the Medici them­selves were scientists, the family spon­sored the research activities of Galileo Galilei, who dedicated the four largest moons of Jupiter to them, calling them “Medicean planets”.

In a letter to Kepler, Galileo speaks with gratitude of Cosmo, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, who “has now invited me to attach myself to him with the an­nual salary of one thousand florins, and with the title of Philosopher and Prin­cipal Mathematician to His Highness; without the duties of office to perform, but with the most complete leisure; so that I can complete my Treatises.” Such privileged condition came to a halt when the Inquisition accused Galileo of heresy and Ferdinando II abandoned his pro­tégé.

The major effect of this scientific pa­tronage was the establishment of the first scientific academies, such as the Lincean Academy, which was founded in 1603 by aristocrat Federico Cesi, and the Cimen­to Academy (Academy of Experiment), founded in 1657 by Galileo’s students and funded by Prince Leopoldo.

Coming to more recent times, with the advent of national States, the social organization of science based on the patronage of kings and princes disap­peared. It was the State itself that became the main patron of science, supporting scientific research through public funds, institutes of research and scholarships. Science therefore became a field of na­tional interest, attracting a variety of economic and military interests. Marx himself, in his Capital, in fact empha­sized that a major peculiarity of capital­ism is the application of science to the problems of industry.

In the last years, however, public sup­port to science has been steadily drop­ping. As a result, the private sector has become the main funder and performer of science, thus posing important ques­tions about the role of government poli­cies and priority setting in intellectual property rights, standards, university re­search, and so on.

So, what is left of the scientific patron­age today? Who are the new patrons of science?

Especially in the health system, most of the sponsorships today come from private foundations or associations (such as the associations of patients with rare diseases). As Steven Epstein interestingly argues in his book Impure Science: AIDS, Activism, and the Politics of Knowledge, the involvement of laypeople in the process­es of “doing science” seems to challenge the traditional approaches to the social study of science that tend to assume that knowledge making is the province of a narrow circle of credentialed experts. This recent phenomenon instead marks an important passage in the history of the production of scientific knowledge: from the patronage of churches to that of charitable foundations, from aristocrats to plutocrats, from an elite patronage to an unprecedented “social” kind of pa­tronage. The consequences of such a so­cial revolution are still to be discovered, but the advent of new players in the sup­port of scientific research could change forever the pathways of knowledge construction.

Laura Giacalone is the Associate Editor of the Italian Journal.