By William Landon, Northern Kentucky University
In 1434, the straining sinews that connected Florentine republicanism and Medici princely rule were exposed when Cosimo de’ Medici became the head of the Florentine government. In name, and in theory, Florence was still a republic, but it was clear that Cosimo and his party were in charge. Dissent became increasingly dangerous and was driven, for many years, into silence.
Cosimo, the Politician
As a politician, Cosimo’s actions were balanced between his own self-interests and the realization that, as the head of the government at Florence, he was responsible for the ‘common good’—a term still widely used by contemporary politicians, but one which was used with more precision in Renaissance Florence.
For example, intellectuals such as Niccolò Machiavelli used the words bene commune to mean that a ruler must act so as to benefit the majority of citizens who made up, for lack of a better word, his base.
The minority, who either felt neglected by their leader’s judgment or who actively opposed him as a result of possessing revolutionary republican zeal, were to be crushed, Machiavelli had argued, so as not to undermine ‘the common good’.
The outspoken minority were often imprisoned, exiled or executed. Cosimo managed Florence in this fashion.
Making Florence Beautiful
In addition to maintaining his political focus, Cosimo also set out to make Florence the most beautiful city in Europe. Nearly all of the buildings in Florence’s city center, with the notable exception of the Palazzo Vecchio, were commissioned and built during Cosimo’s reign.
Yes, the Baptistery of St. John and the Duomo were built long before the Renaissance began, but their decorations and, of course, the cathedral’s dome were initiated by Cosimo and his father and brought to completion after Cosimo seized power in 1434.
During Cosimo’s tenure as head of the Florentine government, he used his personal wealth not only to be a patron of the arts, but also to push other wealthy Florentines to invest in the city’s beautification.
Cosimo: A Patron of Arts
Regarding his own patronage, Cosimo personally funded many projects, such as, the rebuilding of the San Marco Monastery and the construction of his family palace, the Palazzo de’ Medici.
He also funded the library at San Marco, which resulted from a bequest of manuscripts made to it by Niccolò Niccoli—and became the first public library in Europe. Furthermore, the building of the Basilica di San Lorenzo, where Cosimo’s father and mother were buried was also made by him.
Cosimo also funded the interior decorations of these Renaissance masterpieces, hiring luminaries such as Fra Angelico, Fra Filippo Lippi, Donatello, Benozzo Gozzoli, and, of course, the architects Brunelleschi and Michelozzo.
This article comes directly from content in the video series How the Medici Shaped the Renaissance. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Friends Supported Medici
Families closely associated with Cosimo, including the Rucellai, funded Leon Battista Alberti to design and adorn the church of Santa Maria Novella with what is perhaps one of the most beautiful façades produced during the Renaissance.
And Luca Pitti, one of Cosimo’s closest associates, had his family residence—the largest in Florence—constructed across the Arno in the Santo Spirito district. And speaking of Santo Spirito, it was completely redesigned by Filippo Brunelleschi.
The Pazzi family hired Brunelleschi, too, to design their family chapel, which is attached to an exterior wall of the Church of Santa Croce. Brunelleschi also designed the cloister at Santa Croce—one of the most beautiful architectural spaces in Florence.
With the exception of the library at San Marco, all of the buildings and decorations just cited, which make up only a fraction of the important buildings in Florence, were intended either for private or religious functions.
The freedom with which Cosimo parted with his money, in the hope that others would follow in his footsteps, worked.
Effect on the Common People of Florence
But what, if any, connection did these Renaissance structures, built in such a radical new style, have with the consciousness of the Florentine people? Where intellectual matters are concerned, all one can do is speculate.
Florentine chroniclers in the 15th century made frequent note of the public’s reaction to these building projects—and they tend to focus on the awe they induced.
On a more practical level, the thousands of Florentine laborers who put up these new buildings gained training that made their expertise a commodity.
In the main, however, the arcane debates that came to dominate Florentine humanist discussion were foreign to the common person, unless those debates were given visual expression that made them tangible.
Explosion of the Visual Arts
In time, works commissioned by Cosimo de’ Medici and his family, and later iterations of the Florentine Republic, used the Loggia dei Lanzi, cattycorner from the Palazzo Vechio, as a public gallery to display Florentine sculptural ingenuity.
Because his personal patronage allowed architects and artists to express not only their own vision, but also his own, and because it compelled other Florentines to follow his example, Cosimo de’ Medici’s personal taste defined the first great explosion of the visual arts of the Renaissance in Florence.
And, as a result of Cosimo’s Italy-wide fame and influence, other cities of Italy in turn developed their own Renaissance—nearly all of which were dedicated to Florence’s creative explosion.
Common Questions about Cosimo de’ Medici and the Common Good
Intellectuals such as Niccolò Machiavelli used the words bene commune to mean that a ruler must act so as to benefit the majority of citizens who made up, for lack of a better word, his base.
The outspoken minority of Florence were often imprisoned, exiled or executed.
Because his personal patronage allowed architects and artists to express not only their own vision but also his own, and because it compelled other Florentines to follow his example, Cosimo de’ Medici’s personal taste defined the first great explosion of the visual arts of the Renaissance in Florence.