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The Medici and the Italian Renaissance – Part 1

Duomo of Florence

As the C15th dawned, the Renaissance was on the brink of transforming Europe forever.  It was a revolution in art, culture, and learning.  The old Medieval world was slowly disappearing.  In its place, a new, early modern Europe was being born.

At the heart of this revolution was a single Italian city state – Florence.  The wealth of Florence would fuel some of the finest accomplishments of the Renaissance.  Da Vinci, Donatello, Michelangelo, Brunelleschi, and many others would owe their careers to Florentine wealth. 

And in C15th Florence no one was wealthier than the Medici family.   All Europe felt the power of the Medici; from financing the papacy to bankrolling both sides in the Wars of the Roses. 

This is the story of the golden age of Medici power and of how a single family came to play a key role in financing the Renaissance. 

The Florentine Republic

In the late C14th Italy was divided between several fractious city states.  Some, like Venice and Milan rivalled Florence in their wealth and power.  Others, like Genoa, now subordinate to Milan, were fading powers.  The Papal states in central Italy were so divided and chaotic as to be approaching anarchy.  In the south the houses of Anjou and Aragon squabbled over the Kingdom of Naples and Sicily.

The Florentines attributed their comparative success and stability to their form of government.  Ever since the early C12th Florence had been a republic, free from the tyrannical rule of Dukes and Princes.  The Republic was an oligarchic democracy, loosely modelled on the examples of Greek and Roman antiquity.

Power in Florence sat with the merchant’s gilds.  These bodies elected the politicians.  Every two months men were selected by lot to sit on the ruling council of Florence – the Priori.  Six of these came from the six most powerful gilds and two from the lesser gilds.  Each member of the Priori assumed the title of Signoria and would live in the Palazzo Vecchio for the duration of their term in office.  The ninth member of the Priori was the Gonfaloniere, as close to an official head of state as the Florentine constitution would permit.

On the surface of things, it all sounded quite democratic.  But the reality was somewhat different.

Power in Florence

Not everyone was eligible for election to the Priori of course.  You had to be a gildsman for a start.  For another thing, the six most prestigious (and wealthiest gilds) were disproportionately represented.  And, it went without saying, only men of means who were debt free could reasonably be considered for office.

But behind the scenes, the richest and most powerful Florentine families often manipulated elections.  As a result, the Signoria were either members of these families or beholden to them.

The lack of a ruling nobility and the strength of republican tradition meant that power flowed from wealth rather than lineage.  That is not to say that lineage was not important.  However, what mattered most was successful participation in an international cosmopolitan mercantile culture.

“A Florentine who is not a merchant, who has not travelled through the world, seeing foreign nations and peoples and then returned to Florence with some wealth, is a man who enjoys no esteem whatsoever.”

Gregorio Dati, Florentine Silk Merchant; from The Diaries of Gregorio Dati

By the end of the C14th, the true power in Florence sat with the wealthy Albizzi family.  The family patriarch, Maso degli Albizzi, first served as Gonfaloniere in 1393 and from this time onwards his family dominated Florentine politics.

The Medici family

Medici family crest
Medici family crest

The Medici, at the end of the C14th, were a well-established and respected family of no more than middling significance.  They had been active participants in Florentine public life for a very long time.  However, by 1400 they were no longer considered as prestigious as they had been a century before.

A family legend claimed they were descendants of the fabled Averardo, one of Charlemagne’s knights. The story went that the valiant Averardo had confronted and defeated a terrible giant. During the fight his shield had received numerous dents. To celebrate his great victory, Charlemagne awarded him the Medici coat of arms – several red balls in a field of gold. Each ball represented one of the dents on the hero’s famous shield.

A slightly less heroic (but realistic) explanation of the family’s origins was that the red balls represented pills.  This reflected the fact that the earliest Medici had made their money as apothecaries.  In this version of the story, rather than descending from a knight, the Medici were said to have descended from a humble charcoal burner.

The rise of House Medici

The fortunes of house Medici began to rise again during the late C14th.  Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici became head of the Medici banking business in Rome in 1393.  At this point in time the Medici were moderately successful bankers but far from being counted amongst Florence’s most prominent citizens.  Giovanni was a quiet but shrewd businessman and worked hard to build up his business. 

Growing wealth brought with it prominence and, although he preferred to remain out of the limelight, Giovanni was elected to serve as a Signoria in 1402, 1408 and 1411.  His big break came when he became the chief banker to Pope John XXIII.  From this point on, the Medici enjoyed a lucrative relationship with the Roman Curia (the treasury of the papacy).  Although the Medici were not always as close to popes as they were to John XXIII, Rome continued to provide them with a steady stream of business.

As Giovanni’s wealth grew, he established new branches throughout Italy.  By 1421 Giovanni had risen to such prominence that he was elected as Gonfaloniere.  Better still, Giovanni’s son, Cosimo, was fast proving to be every bit as commercially astute as his father.

Always keep out of the public eye’

By this time Giovanni was important enough to be seen as a serious player in Florentine politics.  The powerful Albizzi were wary of his growing influence.  Nevertheless, as long as Giovanni focused on his business interests and supported the Albizzi political line, he was seen as an asset rather than a threat.

By the time Giovanni died in 1429 he had established the Medici as one of Florence’s wealthiest and most prominent families.  His success had been driven in no small part by a shrewd commercial mind and a firm policy of avoiding political disputes.  On his deathbed he gave his son, Cosimo, the following words of advice:

“Avoid litigation and political controversy, and always keep out of the public eye.”

Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici

But Cosimo would prove to be a far more ambitious man than his father.

Cosimo de’ Medici

By 1429 Cosimo had been active in the family bank for several years and had a well-established reputation as a formidable businessman.  It was impossible to ignore the fact that, on the death of his father, Cosimo was now one of the richest men in Florence.

Portrait of Cosimo di Medici
Cosimo de’ Medici

By the late 1420s, Maso degli Albizzi was also dead and the powerful Albizzi family was now led by Rinaldo degli Albizzi.  Rinaldo was a man of political ambition.  His family had led Florence to the conquest of Pisa in 1406, providing the Republic with lucrative access to sea trade.  He had also led Florence in war against the expansionist ambitions of the Duchy of Milan.  Now, in 1429, his attentions turned to one of Milan’s allies, the city of Lucca.

Rinaldo needed the support of Florence’s leading citizens for his war.  That, of course, included the support of the Medici.  The idea of conquering a wealthy city state like Lucca was popular with the Florentines, although Rinaldo’s plans did not meet with unqualified support. 

War

One prominent dissenting voice was that of Cosimo de’ Medici.  Whilst he had no objection to the idea in principle, Cosimo argued, the time was not right to embark on another war.  Furthermore, he doubted that Florence could win a war with Lucca under Albizzi leadership.

Cosimo nevertheless supported the Albizzi line.  He even showed willing by serving on the committee set up to run the war.  However, as the war began to go poorly and costs began to mount, Cosimo resigned his post.  To distance himself further from the unfolding debacle, he left Florence for Verona.  If it were not bad enough that his actions were undermining Albizzi leadership, his warning that the war would not go well was proving to be accurate.

The Albizzi faction began to spread rumours in his absence that Cosimo was planning to raise an army to overthrow the Signoria.  Several leading families became increasingly concerned by these rumours.  Perhaps the Albizzi were right. 

Nevertheless, Niccolò da Uzzano, one of Florence’s most prominent citizens, did not favour any rash moves against Cosimo.  If Cosimo was gone, da Uzzano argued, the way would be clear for Rinaldo degli Albizzi to rule the city as a tyrant.  The influence of da Uzzano was enough to deter Cosimo’s enemies.  However, in 1432 he died.

He had emblazoned even the monks’ privies with his balls’

In the wake of da Uzzano’s death, Rinaldo moved quickly against Cosimo.  He packed the Priori with Signoria sympathetic to the Albizzi.  Rinaldo even paid off the debts of Bernardo Guadagni, so that the grateful Bernardo would qualify for election as Gonfaloniere.

At the same time, the Albizzi faction spread malicious gossip about Cosimo.  Most centred on claiming that Cosimo was misusing his vast wealth to buy control of the city.  Prominent amongst the Medici critics were such Albizzi allies as the scholar Francesco Filelfo.  Had the citizens of Florence not noticed just how many buildings had come to be stamped with the Medici balls?  Cosimo’s crest was now so prominent in Florence that he had emblazoned “even the monks’ privies with his balls!”

By 1433 Rinaldo was ready to act.  A committee was formed to ‘reform’ the city.  Principal amongst the proposed reforms was the arrest of Cosimo and other key Medici family members.  Cosimo stood accused of plotting against the Republic.  Albizzi rabble rousers like Filelfo demanded the death penalty. 

However, Cosimo still had many friends, both inside Florence and elsewhere.  The Venetian Republic had made extensive use of Cosimo’s banking services and sent three ambassadors to petition for his release.  Even the Pope sent a representative to plead Cosimo’s case.

Exile

Rinaldo may have been able to muster enough support to arrest Cosimo but he was unable to secure a death sentence.  Instead, it was finally agreed that Cosimo would be exiled for a period of ten years.  In addition to Cosimo, his brother and cousin were also exiled.  For now, at least, the Albizzi had re-asserted their authority over Florence.

However, Cosimo de’ Medici in exile was still Cosimo de’ Medici.  He still controlled a large banking business.  He was still vastly wealthy.  And, most important of all, he was still able to provide powerful clients with the money they desperately needed.  All this meant that he had no shortage of friends and allies willing to champion his cause.

At first Cosimo was content to retire to Padua and, from there, to Venice.  He kept a relatively low profile.  However, all the while, his allies worked to undermine the position of the Albizzi in Florence.  As time went by the warnings of Niccolò da Uzzano began to prey on the minds of many.  With the Medici gone, who would restrain the Albizzi?  Florence’s main Italian allies, in the form of the Papacy and the Venetians both openly favoured Cosimo’s cause.

Triumphant return

Albizzi’s fortunes took another turn for the worse in the summer of 1434 when a Florentine force fared poorly against Milanese mercenaries at Imola.  As Cosimo had predicted, the Albizzi were not capable of successfully leading Florence in war.  Soon after, Medici supporters finally gained control of the Priori.  Rinaldo was summoned to appear before them. 

Suspecting that he would be arrested and put on trial, just as Cosimo had been, he raised an armed force and attempted to take the Palazzo Vecchio by force.  However, the Signoria were one step ahead of him and had mustered their own men to protect the Palazzo.  It was a standoff.

In the negotiations that followed and with the intervention of the Pope, support for the Albizzi melted away.  A committee was formed to reform the city, this time packed with Medici supporters.  The leading members of the Albizzi family and their few remaining allies were banished.  The sentence of exile placed on the Medici was revoked.

On 28th September 1434, Cosimo de’ Medici returned to Florence in triumph.

King in everything by name

After his return, Cosimo’s energies continued to be directed, as they always had been, on expanding his business interests.  His bank had major branches in Florence, Rome, Geneva, and Venice by 1434.  This would be added to over the next few decades by branches in Bruges, London, Pisa, Avignon, Milan, Lyon and even Cairo.  The period from 1435 to 1455 was characterised by incredible Medici commercial success.

Florentine florin from the time of Medici
The famous Florentine golden Florin came to epitomise the wealth and power of the city during the C15th

Despite his great wealth, Cosimo held the office of Gonfaloniere no more than three times in his entire life.  When it came to politics, he preferred to keep a low profile, avoiding serving in high office as much as possible.  However, from 1434 onwards, he dominated the political life of Florence from behind the scenes.  His representatives packed the ranks of the Signoria, and the various committees set up to run different aspects of city life.

Pope Pius II once said of Cosimo:

“Political questions are settled at his house.  The man he chooses holds office…He it is who decides peace and war and controls the laws…he is king in everything but name.”

Pius II

The Wars in Lombardy

Italy had been troubled, since 1423, by an ongoing power struggle between Venice and Milan for supremacy in the north.  It was a conflict into which Florence was occasionally drawn as an ally of Venice.

Conflict erupted once more during the late 1430s.  As before, the main protagonists were the Duchy of Milan and the Venetian Republic.  Old alliances were re-kindled, and Florence found itself dragged into a wider conflict on the Venetian side.

Illustration of the battle of Anghiari
The Battle of Anghiari, 29th June 1440, ended in victory for the alliance of Florence, Venice, and the Papal States over the Milanese.  However, the overall result of the war was largely inconclusive.

As had been the case throughout the 1420s and 1430s, neither side was able to achieve a decisive advantage.  The Peace of Cremona was finally concluded on 20 November 1441.  To a large extent, it did little more than restore the old status quo. 

The main beneficiary of the war was the condottieri (mercenary captain) Francesco Sforza, who’d been employed primarily (but not always) in service of Milan.  In recognition of his role in brokering the peace, Filippo Visconti, the Duke of Milan, permitted Sforza to marry his only daughter Bianca Maria.  As Duke Filippo had no sons, Sforza became the effective heir to the Duchy of Milan.

The Politician

Cosimo’s attitude to politics was probably that it was a necessary evil.  What was most important in life, as far as Cosimo was concerned, was business and culture.  However, for business and culture to thrive it was necessary to have a stable political environment.

To ensure this Cosimo kept a keen eye on Italian politics.  In 1447 Filippo Visconti, died leaving a power vacuum in Milan.  For a time, it looked like the Venetians might take advantage and perhaps even absorb the Duchy within their Republic.  Such a move would have created a dangerously powerful Venetian state in northern Italy.

Cosimo responded by backing Sforza to take control of the Duchy.  The move was not universally popular in Florence.  Milan had been a long time enemy of Florence and many in the city objected to the cost of bankrolling Sforza.  However, Cosimo realised that an alliance of convenience with Milan was necessary for Florence’s longer-term security.  He would be proven correct.  For most of the remainder of the C15th, Italy would enjoy relative peace, with a Milanese-Florentine entente successfully counterbalancing a Venetian-Neapolitan power bloc.

Most importantly of all, Cosimo realised the potential danger to Italy posed by the intervention of foreign powers.  In particular, he worked hard to keep France and the Holy Roman Empire from becoming embroiled in Italian affairs.

Patron of the arts

Cosimo’s father had been a significant patron of the arts, commissioning several important civic projects.  However, Cosimo himself would take this patronage to a whole new level.  Throughout his life he would spend around 600,000 gold florins (equivalent to around $500 million in modern money) on art and culture.

Cosimo was a passionate student of renaissance humanism – a philosophical movement centred on the study of classical antiquity.  As such Cosimo embraced the ancient Roman civic virtue of ‘Euergetism’.  This meant that he believed it was the duty of all wealthy citizens to set aside a portion of their income to spend on their community.  As a result he acted as an enthusiastic patron, dedicated to enriching Florence with art works, culture, magnificent buildings, and monuments.

It was this philosophy that would provide the money that drove the C15th Italian Renaissance.  

Photo of the Duomo in  Florence, an example of the legacy of Cosimo di Medici
The iconic Duomo of Florence’s Cathedral dominates the Florentine skyline even today.  It is just one example of Cosimo de’ Medici’s legacy

Cosimo’s patronage enabled Michelozzo Michelozzi to create the magnificent Palazzo Medici.  He was also patron to the great renaissance sculptor Donatello, whose famous statue of David he commissioned.  And it was Cosimo’s money that enabled the architect Brunelleschi to complete the iconic Duomo of the Santa Maria del Fiore in 1436.

Cosimo also founded the Laurentian Library in Florence, which today houses an important collection of 11,000 manuscripts and some 4,500 of the earliest printed books.

Father of the Fatherland

After 1455 Cosimo’s health began to fail.  For the last decade of his life, he would be increasingly plagued by gout and arthritis.  He became ever more reliant on his managers and his sons to run his affairs.  His eldest son, Piero had never enjoyed especially good health, and many did not expect him to outlive his father by long.  The second son Giovanni enjoyed better health and was the more able of the two when it came to matters of business.

Giovanni increasing involved himself in business dealings with the Curia.  Cosimo had every reason to hope he would develop into a reasonably competent successor to the Medici business empire.  However, Giovanni was extremely fond of fine food and wine.  As he grew older, he became increasingly obese and in 1463 the inevitable happened and he died suddenly of a heart attack.  His death came as a shock to Cosimo, himself now a frail old man in his mid-seventies. What would become of his legacy now?

Cosimo passed away less than a year later, on 1st August 1464.  The city honoured Cosimo’s life by awarding him the title Pater Patriae, “Father of the Fatherland” – a title previously held by Cicero in ancient Rome.  It was a clear nod to the role Cosimo had played in the renaissance revival. 

Legacy

Cosimo died as one of the richest men who’d ever lived.  He left behind a vast business empire.  But more importantly his patronage left us a legacy of art, learning and culture that helped fuel the Italian Renaissance. 

In 1464 his inheritance passed to his sickly and relatively inexperienced son, known across the city as Piero the Gouty.  At the time, the future of House Medici must have looked decidedly fragile.

Next time

In the next article in this two-part series, we’ll look at how the Medici survived a distinctly turbulent period to emerge stronger than ever.  Medici fortunes revived and prospered under the leadership of Cosimo’s grandson, Lorenzo.  His patronage of the arts and culture would, if anything, surpass even the achievements of his grandfather.  And the people of Florence would remember Lorenzo de’ Medici as perhaps their greatest leader, bestowing on him the title Il Magnifico.

Late C15th Florence would enjoy one glorious final flowering.  The Florentine golden age would live on for several more decades after Cosimo’s death.  It would continue until, at last, a fast-changing world and the onset of a cataclysmic war finally brought it all to a dramatic end.

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References & further reading:

The rise and fall of the House of Medici by Christopher Hibbert, Penguin 1979

Images

Photo of the Duomo by Fczarnowski (via Wiki Commons)

Medici coat of arms by Hugo Gerard Strohl (via Wiki Commons)

Portrait of Cosimo de’ Medici by Bronzino (via Wiki Commons)

Italian Florin (gold coin), series XXVII, 1462 AD (via Wiki Commons)

Photo of Florence Cathedral by Bob Tubbs (via Wiki Commons)

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