Florence and The Medici
The City of Florence
When we look at the panel by an unknown Florentine
painter showing the burning of the fanatical religious leader Savonarola,
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.
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.
and Its Patrons
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 neighbors, 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.
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 Renaissance princes
and prelates 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.
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 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.
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.
The Plot to Kill
Lorenzo de' Medici and His Brother Giuliano
The Impact of the
Plot on Lorenzo de' Medici and the Renaissance
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.
Against Worldly Art
The Bonfire of
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 other art movements and periods, see: History of Art.
For styles of oil painting, see: Art Encyclopedia.