Gordon Nickerson The Medici Family

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Gordon Nickerson
The Medici Family
Few families have made as significant an impact on history as that of the Medici family of Florence, Italy. The family’s history is one of political turmoil, power struggles, banishment, extreme wealth, and cultural contributions. The Medici bank would become the largest bank and one of the most respected institutions in all of Europe in the fifteenth century, creating unprecedented amounts of wealth for the family. With this money, the Medici would fund the Renaissance in Florence, providing patronage to names such as Brunelleschi, Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Galileo, and Botticelli. The Medici family significantly influenced Florentine culture throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. However, to what degree did they alter the trajectory of Florentine culture? If the Medici had not come along would the same blossoming of creative genius taken place under different patronage? Did the Medici have particularly discerning eyes when it came to art or were they simply funding the limited local talent? Could the Renaissance have happened without the Medici?

The Renaissance

Renaissance literally translates to “rebirth.” The Renaissance period–lasting from the fourteenth century to the seventeenth century–was a rebirth in that the world was emerging from the ravages of the Black Plague. However, the time period also marks a rebirth of previously forgotten classical Greek and Roman knowledge and influence. This reemergence of lost knowledge triggered a revolution in culture, art, and learning that bridges the gap between the Middle Ages and the modern era (Kehoe 411).

Prior to the Renaissance, a feudal system of government existed in Europe, in which a lineage-based, wealthy land-owning nobility provided security and governance for the people. However, the multiple crusades throughout the twelfth through fifteenth centuries reinvigorated the trade economy of Italy (Kehoe 416). This reinvigoration of long-distance trade throughout Europe gave rise to a new merchant class in Italy. Merchants became increasingly wealthy, leading to a surplus of capital. They lent out this surplus capital at interest. They also introduced a stable currency–gold coins, florins–far superior to most erratic medieval currencies subject to fluctuations. With new found influence from wealth, the merchant class seized political power across Italy, establishing republics in places like Florence (“Renaissance”).

Italy at this time was a changing intellectual landscape. The merchants were educated laymen and had a hungering for knowledge, unlike their peasant predecessors. The values and ambitions of the medieval society–based on peasants, knights, and priests–did not fit Italy’s new, more secular, inquiring, urban society (Wilde). The Crusades put the Western European civilization in contact with the Muslims of Spain and Eastern Europe, who had maintained the classic Roman and Greek texts through the Middle Ages. The widespread trade routes, and later the printing press, allowed the dissemination of these classical Latin and Greek texts (Kehoe 418).

In medieval Europe education and the arts were mainly concerned with religion and the church (Landau). With the reemergence of ancient texts, Italian artists and scholars began increasingly emulating the achievements and ideals of classical Roman culture (Renaissance Art). Roman culture emphasized not only spirituality and God, but also the individual and the secular world. In a movement that became known as Humanism, Renaissance scholars and artists began to connect the secular world with God (Landau). These Humanists were interested in mankind, and art and scholarship became man-centered rather than God-centered. Renaissance artists realized the value of the individual and that art could be more than allegorical or as a device for teaching Christianity. As such, they began depicting the natural human form, like the ancient Greeks before them. Figures have depth and “show emotion in their movement and facial expressions,” in contrast with the flat, dull art of medieval Europe (Kehoe 421). Artists developed innumerable new techniques for portraying the beauty of nature over the 200-year period of Italian Renaissance (Kehoe 422). However, artists of the Renaissance did not simply produce art out of sheer enjoyment: someone — traditionally a patron — commissions a work of art. As such, the artists alone could not have catalyzed this period of radical innovation.

With the restructuring of many Italian societies into republics, the newly established merchant class of the Renaissance could politicize itself if it gained enough influence. Merchants needed a way to legitimize themselves and display their prestige. Like the Church and nobility before them, they did this through patronage of artists, architects, poets, and scholars. There was a much greater distribution of wealth than in the Middle Ages. As such, there was a great increase in the number of patrons who were willing to fund creative endeavors. More patrons meant funding for the burgeoning humanist artists/thinkers throughout Italy who in turn would innovate the artistic world and contribute to the scientific world (Wilde). The newly affluent Medici of Florence were one of the most generous patrons of the Renaissance.

The Medici

Medici prominence begins with Giovanni de’ Medici when he founded the family bank in 1397. The Medici existed long before Giovanni, but his founding of the bank allowed the family to amass huge amounts of wealth and power (“Giovanni”). Giovanni transformed his small scale family operation after sponsoring Baldassarre Cossa, a pirate, in his campaign for the Papacy. In return for their support of his campaign, Cossa (Pope John XXIII) once elected Pope in 1410 gave control of the Papal financial accounts to the Medici bank. The Medici became known as “God’s Bankers” (The Medici). This elevated the Medici to the Florentine elite and turned Giovanni into one of Florence’s richest men at the time.

Before his death in 1429, Giovanni relinquished partial control of the bank to his son Cosimo. Cosimo would control the bank until his own death in 1464. Although his father warned him to “stay out of the public eye,” Cosimo, who was later known as Pater patriae (Father of the Country), became deeply entwined with Florentine politics, consolidated the power of Florence into his family’s hands, and essentially ruled the city for his lifetime. The Medici bank also reached its financial apex under Cosimo (Parks 24). With this money, Cosimo aspired to gain political power and influence in Florence, and promoted his own image through patronage of artists, architects, and thinkers (The Medici). Giovanni had only left a fortune of roughly 180,000 florins for Cosimo. Yet scholars estimate that Cosimo spent approximately 600,000 gold florins over his lifetime as a patron (“Florence”). In the fifteenth century Cosimo was the major private patron of Florence, commissioning work from “most of the distinguished painters, sculptors, architects, and craftsmen of his day” (Kent 4) and capturing “the imagination of his contemporaries... because he used his wealth and power to promote the innovations of the greatest artists of the Florentine Renaissance” (Kent 11).

Lorenzo de’ Medici (known as The Magnificent), the grandson of Cosimo, took control of the Florentine Republic in 1469 and ruled until 1492. In some ways, he followed Cosimo’s example closely and continued as a patron of the arts, scholarship, architecture, etc. Under his Florentine rule, some of the world’s most well-known artists–including Da Vinci and Michelangelo–produced for the Medici (“Lorenzo”). Unlike his grandfather Cosimo, however, Lorenzo was raised with the knowledge that he would someday take over control of Florence. As such his education was not focused on commerce and banking like that of Cosimo’s. Instead, he received a humanist education. “Lorenzo de’ Medici was raised with an appreciation of art and learning, while Cosimo was raised as a banker and then a scholar” (Gilbert 29). His education allowed him to appreciate and understand art and learning to a greater degree than Cosimo. This in turn led to a greater involvement with his patronage than Cosimo.

The Medici Patronage

Filippo Brunelleschi marked one of the earliest and most rewarding patronages of the Medici. Brunelleschi was known in Florence as hard to work with and short-tempered. In 1401 he was offered a position to collaborate with another young sculptor on the doors of the Florence Baptistry. The arrogant Brunelleschi denied any sort of collaboration, and renounced himself as a sculptor. He moved to Rome and began studying architecture. Ten years later the maverick architect moved back to Florence and brought the ideas of ancient Roman architecture with him (Bramblett). In 1419 Cosimo’s father, Giovanni, offered Brunelleschi a chance to prove himself as an architect when other patrons hesitated due to his temperamental history. Brunelleschi designed a state orphanage for Giovanni along classical lines, unlike anything anyone had seen since Ancient Rome (The Medici). In his design Brunelleschi incorporated the Roman architectural sprawling arches, intricately carved stone, and true pillars as structural support (“Filippo”). Brunelleschi’s use of ancient Roman classical simplicity would spark an architectural revolution across Europe and upon the completion of this building Cosimo adopted him as the family’s primary architect (The Medici).

Brunelleschi next turned his attention to the uncompleted Cathedral of Florence, an eyesore on the Florentine skyline. Construction had been abandoned 100 years before Brunelleschi due to inability to build a dome as large as the building required. With the public support of Cosimo de Medici, Brunelleschi won the commission to complete the dome of the Cathedral of Florence (The Medici). Employing a completely original theory, Brunelleschi engineered the world’s largest freestanding dome — 148 feet wide and 275 feet tall. After the completion of the dome, Cosimo invited the Pope to consecrate it on Easter day 1436 (“Filippo”). The Cathedral of Florence still stands today, nobly rising above the rest of the city as the symbol of Florence.

In addition to supporting the arts, Cosimo and Lorenzo contributed significantly to the growing Humanism movement in Florence in his lifetime. According to his contemporaries (and fellow humanists) Poggio and Niccoli, “for a businessman and statesman, Cosimo was unusually well-read and interested in intellectual issues” (Kent 34). Hungry for knowledge, Cosimo–with the help of fellow humanists–organized and funded a systematic search for ancient Roman and Greek manuscripts found in both Christendom and the East with Sultan Mehmed II’s permission, with whom he had strong trade relations (“Cosimo de’ Medici”). Additionally, Cosimo inherited the “legendary” library of early humanist Niccolò de’ Niccoli in 1430 (Kent 25). Through both searching and friendships, Cosimo amassed a huge collection of ancient and contemporary manuscripts. Cosimo paid to have all his manuscripts copied and then donated them to the San Marco convent. Later Cosimo’s collection was moved to the Laurentian Library commissioned by Lorenzo de’ Medici and open to all scholars (“Cosimo de’ Medici”). Lorenzo continued Cosimo’s search for ancient manuscripts, commissioning Byzantine scholar Jean Lascaris to scour the land for unknown manuscripts. Some 200 were identified and added to the library by Lorenzo (Sturm 19). The recovery and subsequent availability of scholarly manuscripts made possible by Cosimo and Lorenzo propagated the dissemination of humanist ideals in Florence.

Cosimo and Lorenzo also supported the Neo-Platonist movement of scholars, which “blended the classical thought with Christian doctrine” (Kehoe 423). In his later life Cosimo became so fascinated with Greek learning and culture that he frequented the lectures of Greek scholars (“Cosimo de’ Medici”). He was also a fervent admirer of Plato, convincing the brilliant Marsillio Ficino–a contemporary philosopher and linguist–to complete a full translation of Plato from Greek to Latin. Cosimo later placed Ficino at the head of his Platonic Academy, which was an unofficial group of scholars attempting to recreate Plato’s original Greek Academy (“Humanism”). Lorenzo also “encouraged learning and education” by supporting and participating in the Platonic Academy (Gilbert 37). Lorenzo enticed philosopher Pico della Mirandola, who eventually penned “Oration on the Dignity of Man,” to join the Academy (Kehoe 423). Shortly after the academy’s formation, the University of Florence resumed teaching Greek, which hadn’t been widely used in Western Europe for 700 years (“Cosimo de Medici”). Cosimo sought with the Platonic Academy to bring education and teachings normally “reserved for professions...to the citizenry of Florence” (Gilbert 29).

Like Cosimo, Lorenzo was a major patron of the fine arts. Both “treated [their patronage] as friends at a time when people still looked upon them as manual workers” (“Cosimo de’ Medici”). However, more well-known artists came to produce masterpieces under the support of Lorenzo than Cosimo, partly due to Lorenzo’s opening of the world’s first school of art (“The Magnificent Medici”). Under Lorenzo worked the artists Da Vinci and Michelangelo (Sturm 18).

Leonardo Da Vinci did not actually produce much work for the Medici family. However, Leonardo belonged to Lorenzo’s court, and Lorenzo played a large role in fostering Leonardo’s intellectual development (“Lorenzo de’ Medici”). Even though he wasn’t directly commissioning works from Leonardo, Lorenzo put Leonardo in contact with powerful people who did require commissions. Additionally, when Leonardo grew tired of work in Florence, Lorenzo sent him to work with his friend the Duke of Milan. There, Leonardo created arguably the most famous fresco ever painted: The Last Supper. Additionally, Leonardo was the first artist to begin experimenting with oil paint, rather than with egg tempera. This sparked an artistic revolution because oil allowed for an accumulation of layers to add depth to paintings and also the ease of covering mistakes. Furthermore, Leonardo under the protection of Lorenzo, was able to study the anatomy of the human body–the most controversial practice of the time. He discovered aspects and functions of the body that wouldn’t become common medical knowledge for over 200 years (“Leonardo da Vinci”). Lorenzo’s financial and intellectual support of Leonardo allowed his sometimes far-fetched ideas to blossom into realities and bolster the knowledge of the period.

Michelangelo Buonarotti was one of the first students of Lorenzo de’ Medici’s art school in Florence. Lorenzo noticed the boys extraordinary talent and invited him to live with his family at the Medici palace. (“Michelangelo Buonarroti”). Lorenzo had Michelangelo schooled alongside his own children. Michelangelo was exposed to all the humanist poets, scientists, philosophers, and artists that frequented the Medici household. He even attended the Platonic Academy established by Cosimo. These early classical guides significantly influenced Michelangelo’s career as an artist (“Michelangelo and the Medici”). After Lorenzo’s death, Michelangelo and the Medici boys he grew up with were forced to leave Florence. He later returned to complete the “David,” a 13-foot-tall marble sculpture of the David from David and the Goliath (“Michelangelo Buonarroti”). Undoubtedly the influence of living with the Medici helped Michelangelo blossom into the master of art he is known as today, for this allowed the knowledgeable Lorenzo to shape and guide the blossoming artist’s career.


The Medici had a profound impact on the Renaissance of Italy. Specifically, Cosimo and Lorenzo de’ Medici affected the Renaissance through their extraordinary patronage of arts, architecture, and scholars. The Medici in particular had such a profound effect on the Renaissance due to the way they approached patronage. Cosimo and Lorenzo both treated the people they commissioned as friends and equals. They were not cracking the whip, so to speak, because they understood that an artists’ best work occurs when they are happy and comfortable. This manifested in the form of Cosimo and Lorenzo both ensuring the comfort of their patrons, and sometimes even inviting artists–like Michelangelo– to live with the family. This led to some of the most remarkable artists in history–Da Vinci and Michelangelo, among others–coming into their full potential under the support of the Medici family.

Furthermore, the Medici were willing to take risks with those to which they gave patronage, risks other patrons were not necessarily willing to take. For example, their backing of a pirate Baldassare Cossa for Pope led to their financial success. Additionally, they supported Brunelleschi when others disregarded his ability due to his short-temper and problems with cooperation. From Brunelleschi sprung several radical concepts: the revival of classical Roman architecture, the solution to the Cathedral of Florence’s dome, and techniques for drawing perspective. These transformative ideas had a profound impact on the rest of the Renaissance and may not have surfaced had the Medici not supported Brunelleschi.

Lastly, the Medici were concerned with not only the arts and architecture, but the scholarly and intellectual movements of the day as well. Cosimo and Lorenzo to some degree financed the rediscovery and copying of ancient texts that drove the humanist movement of the Renaissance. They also founded libraries for the edification of the citizenry, as well as established the platonic academy, in which many influential thinkers participated. Indeed, these efforts helped the dissemination of Renaissance ideas throughout not just Italy but all of Europe.

The Medici patrons were benevolent towards their patronage, were willing to take risks, and were well educated in arts and scholarship. The combination of these attributes led to a few generations of Medici family–namely Cosimo and Lorenzo’s–which profoundly shaped the intellectual and artistic movements of the Renaissance. Without the Medici family the Renaissance may not have been this distinctly recognizable era during which a wellspring of forgotten knowledge and radical new ideas sprang forth.
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