The Medici Family – The Leaders of Florence (Part II)
The Medici Family: The Leaders of Florence is being presented over the course of the next few weeks. The notorious and prominent Medici family first attained wealth and political power in Florence in the 13th century through its success in commerce and banking. The dynasty left a lasting legacy that spanned across Italy and throughout the world, as the Medici’s produced four popes, and married into many of Europe’s royal families. This series takes an in depth look into the lives of Florence’s most famous family, from the humble beginnings of founder Giovanni di Bicci and his ruthless son Cosimo, to the extraordinary life of Lorenzo the Magnificent and his outstanding professional relationship with Renaissance Master Leonardo da Vinci. This week, we focus on the most corrupt member of the family, Cosimo de’ Medici.
Giovanni and Piccarda di Bicci de’ Medici, founders of the Medici dynasty, had two sons, Cosimo and Lorenzo. Cosimo, the elder of the two, possessed his father’s simplicity, patience and modesty. Nevertheless, he was determined not to be simply a rich banker with some political influence; his objectives included political power. In just a few years, Cosimo absorbed the majority of the 39 Florentine banks, which had begun to disappear in 1425, while Giovanni was still alive. He placed this immense economic power at the service of his political ambitions and his conduct immediately made other merchant bankers such as the Strozzi, Pazzi, Acciaioli and above all, the Albizzi, his enemies.
By 1434, Cosimo was unmistakably the most powerful man in Florence even though his family’s cause had suffered a severe setback the previous year. In 1433, Cosimo was arrested by those who opposed him, having been accused of attacking Florentine freedom. While bribes and well-placed friends saved him from death, Cosimo was sentenced to ten years of exile. Yet the powerful leader maintained control over an influential Florentine party during his exile which lasted only one year.
During a reign of 30 years, Cosimo used his fortune to maintain absolute control over the internal affairs of Florence, squeezing his opponents to financial extinction. While within the city, Cosimo’s control was discreet – he ruled for 30 years without ever receiving and official title. Outside of Florence, Cosimo was acknowledged as the ruler of Florence, by now a city-state of considerable significance.
The expansion of Florentine control over the surrounding region accelerated before and during Cosimo’s lifetime. The town of Arezzo fell to a Florentine army in 1384 and Pisa, a great prize, was taken in 1406. Livorno, of immense value as a seaport, was purchased by Florence in 1421.
Although he achieved success in overtaking nearby cities, Cosimo did not have similar luck with the north. Florence was in constant battle with Milan, its equally powerful northern neighbor led by Gian Galeazzo Visconti. Milan rivaled Florence and would have seized the city if not for the death of Visconti in 1402. Four decades later, under Cosimo’s leadership, Florence had her revenge and brutally defeated the Visconti clan at Anghiari in 1440.
The defeat of the Milanese was soon followed by the end of the Visconti dynasty. The next ruler in Milan was Francesco Sforza, a soldier of fortune and a customer of the Medici Bank. Seizing the opportunity at hand, Cosimo reversed the previous Florentine policy and made an alliance with Milan.
While Cosimo looked to maintain a balance of power between the Italian states in order to benefit his own interests, he was more interested in enabling commerce and the arts to flourish in Florence, and in this policy was remarkably successful.
Cosimo’s court was, like that of his immediate successors, a gathering of artists and scholars whose works were among the most prized possessions of the family and the city – figures of stature, the likes of Donatello, Brunelleschi, Domenico Veneziano and of Poliziano, Vespasiano da Bisticci, Platina and Pico della Mirandola. Cosimo was also an eminent book-lover. Indeed, for his library, which had become virtually public, he invested considerable amounts of money and patience collecting incunabuli, illuminated codices, manuscripts and parchments of immense value.
With a far-sighted vision of greatness for his city, in 1439 Cosimo arranged for Florence to host the Oecumenical Council that had been working vainly for years to reconcile the Roman and Eastern Orthodox Churches. The Pope, the Patriarch of Constantinople and the Emperor of Constantinople, John VIII Palaeologus, were guests of Florence and of the Medici family.
Cosimo died in 1464 and earned the posthumous title “pater patriae,” or father of the fatherland. It acknowledges his great contribution to the enhanced status of Florence and also contains, to modern ears, a hint of the method behind his power. Cosimo never occupied an official position as head of state; he remained a private citizen, running affairs by a network of behind-the-scenes alliances which benefited his own faction and ruined his enemies.