On 17 July 1830, The Spectator published a letter from ‘an old dilettante’, who was responding to a recent suggestion in the Westminster Review that ‘genius was the child of patronage’. ‘Now who but a weak man would ever assert such nonsense?’ asked the old dilettante. ‘Genius is the gift of God, in poetry, painting, or music; but the degree to which that genius can develop itself, I maintain, depends on the opportunity given it by patronage, that is by employment.’

Books and manuscripts can be objects of great elaboration and unusual beauty. More often than not they are collaborative, and as such offer a corrective to what is sometimes dismissed as ‘the myth of solitary genius’. The scholar, the scribe, the artist, the printer and the binder may all have a hand in their creation. Some are created at the behest of a wealthy patron; others are made in the hope of patronage or royal favour. The powerful figures behind the works of art in this section include a Frankish emperor, a duke of Mantua, a prominent Florentine merchant, a Holy Roman Emperor, Mughal rulers, an English queen and unknown rich aristocrats in Japan and Asia. They all either commissioned the finest craftsmen and artists available to them, or inspired someone to produce his or her best work.

As commissioned objects, these books and manuscripts were occasioned and shaped by the personal preferences and, sometimes, the political purposes of the patron. The patron’s wishes were in turn influenced by the prevailing tastes of the time. The calligraphy and adornment of religious texts were also executed according to established traditions. Maps are also determined by the circumstances of and reasons for their making. Sometimes, as for example in a map of new colonial territory, these contexts and intentions are clear; on occasions when they are not, the map can remain something of a mystery.

Although embedded in the tastes, traditions and politics of their time, these books and manuscripts are not predetermined and lifeless followers of fashion, let alone the dreary products of some committee. On the contrary, their beauty comes from the character and artistry – the genius – of the individuals who conspired, often anonymously, to make them.