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


  • Jonathan Katz Nelson
  • Richard J. Zeckhauser


Catholic churches in Renaissance Florence supported themselves overwhelmingly from the contributions of wealthy citizens. The sale of private chapels within churches to individuals was a significant source of church funds, and facilitated a church construction boom. Chapel sales offered three benefits to churches: prices were usually far above cost; donor/purchasers purchased masses and other tie-in services; and they added to the magnificence of the church because donors were required to decorate chapels expensively. Donors purchased chapels for two primary reasons: to facilitate services for themselves and their families, such as masses and church burials, that would speed their departure from Purgatory; and to gain status in the community. Chapels were private property within churches, but were only occasionally used directly by their owners. The expense of chapels and their decorations made them an ideal signal for wealth, particularly since sumptuary laws limited most displays of wealth. To overcome the contributions free-rider problem, these churches sold private benefits not readily available elsewhere, namely status and salvation.

Suggested Citation

  • Jonathan Katz Nelson & Richard J. Zeckhauser, 2002. "A Renaissance Instrument to Support Nonprofits: The Sale of Private Chapels in Florentine Churches," NBER Working Papers 9173, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:9173
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    JEL classification:

    • L31 - Industrial Organization - - Nonprofit Organizations and Public Enterprise - - - Nonprofit Institutions; NGOs; Social Entrepreneurship
    • D82 - Microeconomics - - Information, Knowledge, and Uncertainty - - - Asymmetric and Private Information; Mechanism Design

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