Once reserved for powerful merchants, the title ‘patron of the arts’ has been bestowed on ordinary citizens wanting to preserve the world’s most recognizable art and architecture.

Nowhere in Italy – perhaps in the entire world – is the act of looking at art more rewarding than in Florence. Nowhere else can one be captivated by a wistful Botticelli smile, impressed by the graceful dignity of Donatello’s bronze David, and moved by Michelangelo’s provocative Slaves twisting restlessly in their marble prisons. Established by the Romans in 80 BC, Florence became a center of medieval European trade and later the birthplace of the Renaissance.

The proliferation of artworks and architecture during the Renaissance was mainly due to a system of artistic patronage by wealthy merchants, who commissioned portraits, statues and murals to celebrate and flaunt their success. The most famous of these patrons was the Medici family, which had checkered periods of fortune and influence over the city for around 300 years. Lorenzo Medici is credited with commissioning Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Botticelli with some of the worlds most recognized artworks.

Beyond the preservation of the artworks themselves, Florence is a cultural city that attracts almost 2 million tourists each year and was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1982. Florence was also ranked by Forbes as one of the world’s most beautiful cities. It’s current status as a world fashion capital also means that preserving its past is an important factor in securing the city’s future. Friends of Florence is a U.S. non-profit organization supported by individuals from around the world who are dedicated to preserving the cultural and historical integrity of one of the worlds oldest and most creative cities.

Helping with this immensely important task is Contessa Simonetta Brandolini, the President and founder of Friends of Florence. Sixteen years ago she introduced a novel idea: why not allow ordinary people to become art patrons; those wanting to ensure the treasures of Florence are appreciated well into the future. This unique venture began in 1998 and has raised millions of dollars to restore priceless art treasures, including Michelangelo’s David, who was given a makeover for his 500th birthday in 2006.

Rather than undertake the restoration work itself, the organization provides financial support directly to the city’s restoration laboratories that refurbish, safeguard, and make available to the public a broad range of paintings and sculptures. Friends of Florence is the only organization to commit its full resources to restoration work and works closely with partners including the City of Florence, Italian Ministry of Art, and international committees.

They also work closely with the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, a leading and highly respected art restoration and teaching facility dating back to the late 1500s. Brandolini originally chose Florence for this venture as there is a perception that the majority of the world’s greatest art is found in Italy, with the best found in Florence.

So what caused Brandolini to set up an American non-profit organization, half way around the world, to preserve this important cultural city in Italy? “Italy offers almost zero tax deductions for charitable donations,” she says. “Even wealthy Italians find little incentive to be philanthropic. Americans love and appreciate this city and its art so I decided to set up Friends of Florence as a non-profit in the U.S. where tax incentives allow us to raise the amount of capital needed to fund this important work,” explains Brandolini.

Donations have ranged from $20,000 to $400,000 and a full tax deductible rating by the IRS has seen around $8,7 million in donations help preserve Florence’s extraordinary cultural legacy for future generations. The organization has attracted some household names to its advisory board including Sting, Mel Gibson and Bette Midler.

Twice a year, an intimate group of Friends of Florence patrons have a rare opportunity to become true citizens as they receive the keys to its artistic treasures and explore Florence in a way not possible for the casual visitor. They view private collections not normally open to the public and observe restoration projects. The rewards for patrons extends beyond Florence too, with unique events being held in other European cities and the U.S., offering art lovers behind-the-scenes experiences with private curators, art historians, prominent scholars and writers.

Since its creation, Friends of Florence has been the primary source of funding to the renowned Florentine restoration laboratories and the skilled preservation individuals who work to undo the damage to artworks from the ravages of time and pressures from modern development. From earthquakes to political upheaval and pollution to every-increasing tourism, Florence’s treasures have been subjected to constant stress and damage across the centuries.

Perhaps the most infamous event, broadcast around the world, was the flood of November 1966, when intense rains caused the Arno River to overflow its banks, damaging and destroying the city’s libraries, museums, churches and chapels, artistic masterpieces, precious books, and manuscripts. Great works such as Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Doors of Paradise were affected as well as Donatello’s Magdalene, Cimabue’s Santa Croce Crucifix, and hundreds more.

To consider a restoration project the organization receives a comprehensive historical documentation on the work, including a damage assessment, which is submitted to the Board for approval. A precise budget, timeline, and statement of skill for each restorer is reviewed before funding is provided directly to a pre-approved restoration laboratory.

In Florence, the organization closely monitors the terms of the contract and pace of the work to ensure the restoration proceeds on the agreed terms. This is critical when working on items that are priceless. Many artworks, such as Michelangelo’s David, have become such public icons and symbols of national pride that no insurance policy would ever be able to compensate against loss or permanent damage. They have gone beyond monetary terms.

Upon completion, projects are unveiled at a public ceremony and the donors are acknowledged with a permanent Friends of Florence plaque. The public perception of “ownership” of these historically important pieces is not lost on Brandolini who insists on keeping detailed records of each restoration. These are used for teaching and training and sometimes even a dedicated website is set up where people can follow the progress and restoration methods used. A DVD and book is made to accompany each project, which is sold to raise money. Support for Friends of Florence has come from some surprising places.

In 2011 a group of 11-year old school kids in Texas heard about the organization and decided to raise money to restore a bust of a Roman emperor. They got to work raising money through car washes and bake sales, not accepting a cent from their parents, and ended up earning $2,500. The restorer was so touched by their generosity that he agreed to restore another two busts at no extra charge. “A plaque was erected and they came to visit,” says Brandolini.

“They were so proud of what they had done and so was I. At such a young age they had become patrons of the arts. Imagine them returning in 30 years to show their children what they have done,” she says.