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

Madonna della Misericordia - depicting Florence (1342). School of Bernardo Daddi, Museo del Bigallo, Florence.

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

By Jonathan K. Nelson and Richard J. Zeckhauser

The Governance of Not-for-Profit Organizations, ed. by Edward L. Glaeser (University of Chicago Press, 2003)

Madonna della Misericordia - depicting Florence (1342). School of Bernardo Daddi, Museo del Bigallo, Florence.
Madonna della Misericordia – depicting Florence (1342). School of Bernardo Daddi, Museo del Bigallo, Florence.

Introduction: Our paper considers the operation of a historic, non-American, religious-based nonprofit: the Roman Catholic Church. The most important nonprofit in Renaissance Florence, the Church had two clear objectives: to address the needs of the parishioners, and to build churches in order to propagate the faith.

To meet these objectives and to grow as an institution, the Church needed substantial private support from donors. It sold private chapels within churches to get such support, and these sales brought in significant tie-in revenues from burials, funerals, and commissioned masses. The monies supported the construction, expansion, and renovation of churches, and the religious services celebrated in the chapels provided employment for many priests and members of religious orders. Those who provided financial support enjoyed the satisfaction of contributing to noble and spiritual endeavors— but they also reaped considerable private benefits, notably status, permanent recognition, and expectations of salvation.


The Church thus sold benefits to donors to raise private funds, and transformed the private funds into public goods. This “transformation” of contributions from wealthy merchants and bankers involved the production of art. In Renaissance Florence, the Church played a major role in stimulating the visual arts, architecture, and music, although this was not the mission of this institution. (Support of the arts is often a role of modern nonprofits, but the history of the Church demonstrates how faith-based organizations can deliver public services in this area.)

Click here to read this paper from Academia.edu

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