The Medici Family, Florence
Florentine Art Patrons of the Early Renaissance.

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The Medici Family, Florence
During the Early Italian Renaissance (c.1400-1500)

An Old Man and His Grandson
(c.1490, Louvre, Paris)
By Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449-94).

The City of Florence
Florentine Art and Its Patrons
Giovanni di Bicci de' Medici
Cosimo de' Medici
Piero de' Medici
Lorenzo de' Medici
The Plot to Kill Lorenzo and Giuliano
The Impact of the Plot on Lorenzo de' Medici
The Rise and Fall of Savonarola
Savonarola's Campaign Against Worldly Art
The Bonfire of the Vanities

The City of Florence

When we look at the panel by an unknown Florentine painter showing the burning of the fanatical religious leader Girolamo Savonarola (1452-98), we get a vivid picture of what Florence looked like around 1500. Although the perspective of the painting is inferior to that of some of the earlier works we have seen, the picture is interesting for its sweeping view of the Piazza della Signoria, one of the numerous public squares for which the city was famous, and gives as well some idea of the surrounding landscape. We can see the rolling hills, the distant mountains, and the valley through which the Arno River flows. Two buildings dominate the composition. To the left, part of the cathedral is visible, and we see a portion of the majestic dome by Filippo Brunelleschi. To the right, acting as a foil for the cathedral and vying with it for our attention, is the Palazzo Vecchio ("Old Palace"), which served as the town hall. We note its fortress-like construction and soaring tower from which observers could spot the approach of hostile troops. The buildings of the Piazza della Signori a provide almost a capsule history of Florence; her struggles, her ambitions, and her character.

The houses that surround the square are simple, sturdy, and severely geometric, recalling the buildings in the paintings of Masaccio and Piero della Francesca. In general, the architecture makes few concessions to lightness of spirit. Venice*, with her glorious light, colour, and network of canals, suggests an atmosphere of romance, but the solid architecture of Florence seems to have been built by and for hard-working and hard-thinking men. Even the colour schemes of the important buildings are sombre: black and white, green and white, or the reddish-brown of the earth on which they are built. Although today many Florentine palaces house wonderful collections of paintings, sculpture, and furniture, their stern and solid exteriors give little indication of the riches within. They resemble military strongholds, and they were in fact often used as such by their early inhabitants.

[*For information about Venetian painting and sculpture during this time, see Renaissance Art in Venice.]

In fifteenth-century Florence, one prominent family was frequently pitted against another in the struggle for political and economic power. Usually this rivalry was confined to business dealings or covert diplomacy, but at times open warfare broke out. Then the town house became a fortress to which the family could retreat in time of attack or from which they might launch an offensive. Accordingly, the exterior of the ground floor of the palace was faced with the heavy rusticated (roughly hewn or beveled) stones that one also finds in the country strongholds of warrior nobles. In the ground floor 'were located the powder magazines, the storage and workshop areas, and the kitchen. The numerous occupants of the palace were housed in chambers above the street roar. Today, only street names remind the visitor of Florence's stormy history. The Piazza dei Pazzi, for example, was named for the famous enemies of the Medici who plotted to kill Lorenzo and Giuliano in 1478.

Florentine Art and Its Patrons

Under the influence of the Medicis, the advances achieved in Proto-Renaissance art (1300-1400) were exceeded many times over during the Florentine Renaissance of the fifteenth century. Most visibly, much sculpture was created to adorn the squares and buildings of the city. Like the ancient Greeks and Romans, the citizens of Florence viewed statues as important public art. Statues were both beautiful and instructive, symbolic of valued qualities and, to many, even more: many people of the time believed that spirits were imprisoned in sculptured figures. This is evidenced by numerous popular tales that young girls had been transformed into statues. Many of the sculptures that adorn the squares of Florence testify to the city's admiration of heroism and physical courage. Michelangelo's huge marble statue of the Old Testament king David was meant to stand guard over the Ponte Vecchio ("Old Bridge") in the company of the pagan warriors Hercules, Ajax, and Perseus. Contemporary figures also joined those of ancient history. Since the middle of the sixteenth century, the commanding presence of Cosimo I, one of the most dynamic of the Medici, has dominated the Piazza della Signoria, reminding visitors of the many associations of this great family with the city. See also: Renaissance Architecture.

Who were the extraordinary men who brought artists, philosophers, and scientists to Florence and created there a Renaissance - a golden age in the history of art to rival that of Athens? Contrary to what one might expect, they were not aristocrats, but businessmen. The businessmen of Florence in the late Middle Ages accumulated considerable wealth from their participation in the local silk and wool industries. The success of the Medici family was a question of being in the right place at the right time. By the fifteenth century, Florence was at the crossroads of the trade routes of Europe. Merchants and commercial agents from the Low Countries, France, and Germany maintained headquarters in the city. Within a generation, the city had become a major banking center, as those with surplus capital lent it for interest. Merchants needed cash to engage ships, local princes were constantly borrowing funds to finance their private wars, and the Church required the services of bankers to administer her numerous holdings. The most enterprising and successful moneylenders in Florence belonged to the Medici family, which bore on its coat of arms seven red balls (one for each of the cardinal virtues) against a field of gold.

World's Top Art
- For a list of the Top 10 painters/sculptors: see: Best Artists of All Time.
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Giovanni di Bicci de' Medici

The founder of this amazing breed of men was Giovanni di Bicci de' Medici, who was by 1400 one of the richest men in Italy. During Giovanni's lifetime, the city of Florence, unlike most of its neighbours, was a republic; in it ordinary citizens might rise to prominence if they possessed sufficient industry and vision. Public spirit was evident in the many cultural activities supported by the textile merchants' guild, to which Giovanni belonged. Under his leadership, the city's businessmen commissioned numerous works of sculpture and architecture, the most notable of these the construction of the great dome for the cathedral - the visible symbol of the Renaissance in Florence - and the erection of a foundling hospital, both designed by the foremost architect of the day, Filippo Brunelleschi.

Giovanni was so admired by the Florentine citizenry that he was elected Gonfaloniere, which made him the city's chief executive. One of his greatest achievements was the institution of tax reforms. This benefited the majority of the people, although it enraged many nobles. Constantly mindful of public opinion, Giovanni wisely advised his sons Cosimo and Lorenzo to "do nothing that is contrary to the interests of the people." When Giovanni de' Medici died in 1429, the nobles (organized by the rival Albizzi family) saw a chance to discredit the household. They accused Giovanni's sons of excessive spending and undemocratic attitudes, and succeeded in bribing members of the Signory, or town government. Cosimo and Lorenzo were forced into exile. But mismanagement by these members of the nobility brought the city to the brink of financial disaster, and the brothers were recalled to Florence in triumph. For the next thirty years Cosimo, the elder of the two, was supreme ruler of the city.

Cosimo de' Medici

His father, Giovanni, had fostered the fine arts because he felt it was his patriotic duty to do so, but Cosimo was a genuinely enthusiastic patron both of fine art painting and sculpture. From childhood, he had enjoyed the company of wise tutors. In his maturity, he loved nothing better than those times when he was able to leave the responsibilities of business and government and surround himself with learned men. He was knowledgeable about art and constantly receptive to new talent.

It was Cosimo who persuaded the architect Michelozzo to rebuild the Dominican monastery of San Marco and who encouraged the gentle Fra Angelico to live and work there. He also commissioned the great Brunelleschi to build a church for the Medici family, which was named after San Lorenzo, one of their patron saints. One of Cosimo's greatest gifts to Florence and to the world was the founding of the first public library in Europe, called the Medicea. Although many princes and prelates of the Italian Renaissance were equally smitten by the enthusiasm for collecting ancient and rare manuscripts, none was quite so successful as Cosimo, whose scholarly detectives stalked the world in search of such magnificent examples of ancient learning as the five books of the Roman historian Tacitus and the legal codes of the Byzantine emperor Justinian.

Cosimo proved to be a remarkably able administrator, as well. He was virtually a one-man chamber of commerce, always quick to seize any opportunity to center world interest and attention on Florence. When a great ecumenical council was declared by the Pope in 1438, Cosimo persuaded the participants to move from the small city of Ferrara to Florence. For months thereafter, the eyes of Europe were fixed on Florence and on the spectacle enacted there. Though there are few surviving souvenirs of the dramatic meeting between the bishop of Rome (the Pope) and the patriarch of Constantinople, some of the splendour of the occasion was remembered and recreated in Benozzo Gozzoli's fresco "The Journey of the Magi". In the fresco, which covers the wall of a chapel in the Medici palace, we see the elaborate, exotic retinue of the Byzantine emperor John Paleologus VII portrayed as the Magi, or kings of the East. Benozzo also included in his composition members of the Medici family, who had journeyed out of the city to greet the distinguished visitors. The excitement of the meeting, the costumed pages and soldiers, and the numerous animals are lavishly rendered. In one detail, we even catch a glimpse of young Giuliano de' Medici with his pet leopard at his side.

When Cosimo's long life came to an end in 1464, the Siguory declared that he should be buried with highest honors and bestowed on him the title "Father of his Country." His death was typical of his serious and purposeful attitude toward life, for he died as he was listening to a reading of one of Plato's Dialogues. Cosimo's personal reputation and the esteem in which he was held were so high that his son Piero was immediately acknowledged as his successor. Thus, even though Florence was a republic, the responsibilities of government were passed on in almost the same way that kingship was bestowed in a monarchy.

Piero de' Medici

Piero continued Cosimo's political policies but he governed the affairs of the Medici household somewhat differently. Marriages had previously been arranged between an eligible Medici and another wealthy bourgeois family, but Piero decided that his son, Lorenzo, would marry the daughter of one of the oldest and noblest of Roman houses, the Orsini. To celebrate this alliance, he planned a program of elaborate festivities and invited the entire city to attend. For five days and nights, sober Florence was transformed into a joyous, music-filled stage on which the gaily clad populace sang, danced, wined, and dined. The high point of the celebration was a mock tournament in which festively garbed knights (like those depicted in "The Battle of San Romano" by Paolo Uccello) competed for the favour of their ladies. As befitted the occasion, the most dashing cavalier was the bridegroom, who appeared in a suit embroidered with diamonds and rubies, while his horse was outfitted in red and white silk covered with pearls.

Lorenzo de' Medici

Young Lorenzo, who was to earn the title "The Magnificent," assumed the responsibilities of his father in 1469, when he was scarcely twenty years old. Piero had been, like his father before him, a sympathetic friend to painters such as Gozzoli, Domenico Ghirlandaio, and the young Sandro Botticelli, but he lacked Cosimo's enthusiasm for art. Young Lorenzo was altogether different. He was a gifted statesman, a generous host, and, above all, a devoted patron of art, science, and philosophy. An accomplished poet himself, he created an academy to support the painters, sculptors, and scholars whose company he craved. He and his younger brother Giuliano were not unlike old Cosimo in their desire to rival the cultural achievements of both Greek art and Roman art. Not only did they support the creation of works of art that gave the Florentine citizenry a glimpse of classical grandeur, but they also staged pageants and processions that aimed at recreating the spirit of Greek and Roman civic celebrations.

Under Lorenzo the Magnificent, the art of the Early Renaissance entered an important new phase. Previously, the concern of painters and sculptors with ancient art was largely confined to the imitation or reproduction of such architectural elements as columns or triumphal arches, or was expressed in their interest in the hnman body, especially the male nude. Now, under Lorenzo, artists began to change art from an enterprise devoted to the representation of religious subjects to one that reflected secular or human values. A wholly new range of themes became open to painters and sculptors - themes drawn from ancient history, philosophy, and the mythology that chronicled the lives of the pagan gods: see for instance The Birth of Venus (1484-6), Botticelli's masterpiece that was commissioned by Lorenzo de Medici.

The Plot to Kill Lorenzo de' Medici and His Brother Giuliano

The air of joy and optimism that characterized Botticelli's earlier painting La Primavera and the Medici's Florence was shattered unexpectedly. The first of a series of quick and violent blows to the Medici household was the death in 1477 of the young Simonetta Vespucci, Giuliano's mistress. This woman, whose beauty was celebrated in verse and song, in toasts and duels, is regarded by many as the prime inspiration for Botticelli's female figures. The same clear-eyed, blonde elegance that marks his portrait of her - the only surviving portrait made from life - is present in his Madonnas and in the figures of Venus and "Primavera," which might almost be called variations on the theme of Simonetta.

The mourning period for the tragic young beauty was scarcely over when death struck again, in a much more violent form. On Easter Sunday, 1478, Giuliano was the victim of a bold and savage plan designed to eliminate both Medici brothers, Giuliano and Lorenzo, at the same time. The chief organizer of the plot was Francesco de' Pazzi, a member of a distinguished rival banking family, a confidant of the reigning Pope, Sixtus IV, and a seemingly devoted friend of Giuliano. The plotters, who resented the power and popularity of the Medici, planned to murder the brothers while they attended High Mass in the cathedral.

As it happened, Giuliano had been ill and was not inclined to go to mass. Anxious to see the plan through, Francesco de' Pazzi went to the Medici palace and persuaded Giuliano to go along with him to the cathedral. Arm in arm, the two friends made their way through the crowded holiday streets. Historians of the incident describe with irony how particularly good-natured and affectionate Francesco seemed toward Giuliano, frequently patting him on the back and shoulders - to determine whether he was wearing any protective garments. Inside the cathedral, the carefully organized plan misfired. While nineteen stab wounds claimed Giuliano's life, Lorenzo managed to make his way to the safety of the old sacristy.

Fleeing the cathedral, the Pazzi conspirators quickly discovered that the mood of the city was violently against them. Most disappeared from Florence immediately, but Francesco went to his home. He was found there bleeding to death from deep, self-inflicted gashes in the leg. His suicide did not pacify the aroused people, who took his naked body and strung it up in front of the Palazzo Vecchio for all to see. Before the Pazzi-Medici power struggle was over, three hundred other Pazzi sympathizers followed Giuliano and Francesco to horrible deaths.

The Impact of the Plot on Lorenzo de' Medici and the Renaissance

The loss of his beloved brother and the trouble in the city had a profound effect on the character of Lorenzo de' Medici. The young man who had enthusiastically participated in tournaments and other diversions was replaced by a serious and devoted statesman, dedicated to the maintenance of peace and stability. More and more of Lorenzo's leisure time was spent in the study of the ancient literature and philosophy that he had first come to know through his youthful tutor, Marsilio Ficino. And he actively encouraged such artists as Filippino Lippi, who was Filippo's son, Lorenzo di Credi, Andrea del Verrocchio, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Sandro Botticelli.

Lorenzo died fourteen years later, in 1492. After his brother's assassination, Lorenzo had guided the political destiny of Florence with a firm hand, and he had enlarged the financial empire of the Medici, as well. Without benefit of title or crown, he presided over commercial interests that extended from Spain to Constantinople and from the tip of the Italian boot northward beyond the Alps. With his death, the gaiety and vitality, the love of art and music that were the Medici heritage disappeared.

The Rise and Fall of Savonarola

The golden age of Lorenzo the Magnificent was shortly followed by the gloomy reign of a monk named Girolamo Savonarola, a fanatical religious reformer. This Dominican monk's execution in the Piazza della Signoria on May 23, 1498, climaxed the city's repudiation of him and his rule, but before the people turned against him, he had held them in his power for four years.

What enabled Savonarola to dominate and change Florence were the fiery eloquence of his sermons and the force of his strange personality. Some historians say that he had entered the church because of disappointment in a love affair; certainly he was credited with the writing of love poems, which he later disowned. Although initially headed for a medical career, he turned away from the world and entered a Dominican monastery as a youth. His gifts for preaching led him to Florence and the famed monastery of San Marco, which is located only a short distance from the Medici palace. After he became prior of the monastery, he instituted many moral reforms, which ultimately were extended to all of Florence. He believed that divine power had sent him to purge the city of evil and make it a paradise on earth. In order to effect this, he terrified congregations with visions of death and destruction. In September, 1494, his voice boomed at them the dreadful Old Testament warning: "And behold I, even I, do bring a flood of waters upon the earth." That same day, this warning was fulfilled, as the Florentines received the news of a human deluge - the invasion of Italy by the armies of the French king, Charles VIII.

With his spellbinding oratory, Savonarola captured the imagination of the rich and poor, the learned and the illiterate. Even the great philosopher Pica della Mirandola, who had introduced Lorenzo de' Medici to the study of Plato, fell under the preacher's spell, and so did Sandro Botticelli. Under Savonarola's influence, he first gave up his joyous pagan themes, then renounced painting altogether.

Savonarola's Campaign Against Worldly Art

When Lorenzo died, the leadership of the city government had passed on to his son Piero, a vigorous and athletic man who shared his father's taste for life, but lacked his keen intelligence and understanding of human nature. For years Savonarola had chided Lorenzo for corrupting the people with music, plays, art, and other "vanities' of life. After Lorenzo's death, Savonarola's condemnations of cultural activities and of the Medici became more violent in tone. By 1494, partly because of Piero de' Medici's clumsiness in dealing with them, Savonarola and his followers had succeeded in seizing control of the city government. The Medici were immediately banished from the city, to remain in exile for twenty years until Pope Julius II aided their return to power. After their departure, with the help of his zealous followers, Savonarola maintained a four-year reign of fanaticism and terror.

His followers, who were called Piagnoni ("Weepers") by their critics, continued to grow in numbers and devotion. Packs of them would go through houses and public buildings in search of the sinful worldly art that their leader condemned. Sometimes after a particularly eloquent sermon, they would charge out into the streets and squares shouting slogans and singing hymns.

The Bonfire of the Vanities

The peak of Savonarola's power was reached only a year before his death in 1498. On the first day of the carnival that traditionally preceded the Lenten season, his followers erected a huge pyre in the Piazza della Signoria. A great pyramid seven tiers high, it contained rows of "vanities" - mirrors, cards, dice, musical instruments, jewelry, books, paintings, and sculpture - that were all consigned to the flames. In a burst of wild enthusiasm, the artists Fra Bartolommeo and Lorenzo di Credi even contributed their paintings to the enormous fire around which monks and citizens performed a frenzied dance.

Ironically, the Bonfire of the Vanities, which marked the zenith of Savonarola's power, was erected in almost the same spot in which the religious reformer was hanged and burned one year later. It is hard to imagine how Savonarola could have maintained his power much longer. His supporters were fanatically devoted, but his criticisms of the aristocrats, the rich merchants, and the local church authorities had earned him an increasing number of enemies in Florence. However, it was his unrelenting attack on the Pope in Rome, Rodrigo Borgia, whom he regarded as the greatest of sinners, that led to his being declared a heretic and to his ex-communication and condemnation to the fire.
Savonarola's impact was felt long after the Medici returned to Florence. In 1527, many felt his dire predictions of destruction were fulfilled. A great number of those followers who had seen him executed lived to witness the violent plunder of the invaders his sermons had warned them of - the army of the Emperor Charles V.

By 1500, the great artistic and intellectual vitality that had marked Florentine life for over two centuries had left the city and moved southward to Rome where it gave rise to the High Renaissance. There the popes were attempting to assert spiritual and political authority over all of Italy and to create a city that would be a splendid and worthy successor to the Rome of the emperors. The Renaissance in Rome went on for three decades, and some of the most magnificent examples of High Renaissance painting were produced by the two geniuses Raphael and Michelangelo, both of whom served the ambitious Pontiffs Julius II (1503-13) and Leo X (1513-21).

As an indication of Medici power, see Raphael's famous group portrait of the family's ecclesiastical representatives: Pope Leo X with Cardinals (1518) Galleria Palatina, Pitti Palace, Florence.

Further Information

• For details of developments in painting and sculpture in Northern European countries like England, Flanders, Holland and Germany, please see Northern Renaissance and Artists of the Northern Renaissance.

• For styles of oil painting, see: Homepage.

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