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A Renaissance Instrument to Support Nonprofits: The Sale of Private Chapels in Florentine Churches

A Renaissance Instrument to Support Nonprofits: The Sale of Private Chapels in Florentine Churches

By Jonathan Katz Nelson and Richard J. Zeckhauser

The Governance of Not-for-Profit Organizations, edited by Edward L. Glaeser (University of Chicago Press, 2009)

Introduction: This paper focuses on Florentine churches over the course of about 250 years. This period begins in about 1280, when construction began on the first two churches to contain significant numbers of private chapels: the late medieval basilicas of Santa Croce and Santa Maria Novella. It ends in the early 1530s, when Renaissance Florence became a duchy, and the Medici family began to exercise much greater control over local churches, and specifically on the sale and decoration of private chapels. Sections 5.2– 5.5 address the historical context of our analysis. Section 5.2 looks at the similarities between the functions and needs of modern nonprofits and the Renaissance Church, and how the selling of chapels provided a useful way to raise money. Section 5.3 discusses the currency and prices of Renaissance Florence, and the reasons for our chronological and geographic focus. Section 5.4 discusses the layout of Renaissance churches, including a description of private chapels, and the construction of these spaces. Section 5.5 explores funding, especially for construction costs, with special attention to the sale of private chapels.

Sections 5.6 and 5.7 consider why churches offered such spaces for sale, and why donors bought them. Section 5.6 addresses the supply side of chapels, reviewing the experience of three major churches. It argues that local churches supplied private chapels because the benefits they received—the direct payments for the chapels, tie-in revenues, and enhancements to the church—substantially outweighed the costs. Section 5.7 looks at the demand for chapels. Why were donors willing to pay significant amounts to obtain and decorate private chapels, and to pay for masses in these spaces? It argues that the demand arose because the donors could buy benefits not available elsewhere, primarily status and the hope for salvation. (Similarly, the donation of a building to a university both establishes a form of immortality for one’s name and enhances one’s status.) Section 5.8 consists of some short concluding remarks.

Click here to read this article from the National Bureau of Economic Research 

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