By William Landon, Northern Kentucky University
Cosimo de’ Medici was a careful politician who, in 1434, became the head of the Florentine government. Incidentally, all of his success rested upon him maintaining his public and private persona. He presented himself as a citizen among equals, bound by the same laws and traditions.
Although an astute politician, remarkably, Cosimo de’ Medici was responsible, at least in part, for making the Florentine Renaissance an international phenomenon. Cosimo commissioned artist Donatello—perhaps as early as the mid-1440s—to execute his David, the first freestanding bronze statue created since classical antiquity.
Donatello’s David is a masterpiece in every way. The artist used the Biblical figure—David—standing triumphantly upon the mangled head of the vanquished philistine—Goliath—to represent Florence’s victory over Milan—perhaps a decade before the Peace of Lodi.
It personified both Cosimo and Florence’s confidence. And, by the same token, the David’s delicate homoeroticism, with the protagonist standing in a classical, feminine pose, lips pursed, hips cocked, hand on hip, with a long feather resting gently against his inner thigh, illustrated Donatello’s confidence in the protection that Cosimo de’ Medici offered to him.
Unsurprisingly, David became one of the most recognizable symbols of Medici and Florentine strength.
Judith and Holofernes
Cosimo commissioned a second tyrannicide statue from Donatello in 1457: Judith and Holofernes, which captures the moment just before the ancient Hebrew liberator Judith separated the drunken Assyrian general’s head from his body.
While it, too, was meant to illustrate Florence’s triumph over more powerful enemies, when viewed in the context of the constitutional crisis—a flexing of Florence’s republican muscles—that boiled over in the first half of 1457, it could more cynically be viewed as Cosimo’s triumph over his native city and over republicanism.
The latter interpretation of Donatello’s Judith and Holofernes was brought into focus, later in 1457, when the constitutional crisis turned potentially deadly. A group of elite citizens, who opposed the Medici’s erosion of Florence’s republican values, formed a conspiracy.
Hoping to restore Florence’s constitutional government, they were, however, discovered, tried and exiled or executed.
When yet another balìa, or special council, was elected in 1458, the very real possibility of losing the last vestiges of Florence’s republican tradition led to public outcry and a parliament had to be called.
This article comes directly from content in the video series How the Medici Shaped the Renaissance. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Consiglio di Cento
In order to bring order to a situation that was on the edge of revolution, the balìa, which was made permanent, in 1458, created a new branch of the Florentine government—the Consiglio di Cento, or Council of 100.
The Cento rather than the balìa (which had superseded the Signoria) was to propose legislation that would be ratified by the Councils of the People and the Commune.
The Cento, however, still took its guidance from the balìa—and in this case from Luca Pitti, the gonfaloniere of justice who served as Cosimo de’ Medici’s lieutenant.
Massive Public Debt
Despite having found itself at peace, Florence was left with a massive public debt resulting from decades of warfare, and its political fabric was fraying. However, Cosimo de’ Medici’s wealth and political connections outside of Florence kept external support for the government strong.
While Cosimo was never the ‘Lord’ of Florence in a formal sense, he was able to guide the city; balancing moments of conservative republican sentiment, which threatened revolution, and crushing those revolts.
The ‘Management of Shadows’
Cosimo de’ Medici was successful in maintaining the façade of the city’s republican institutions. This, amusingly, was enough to placate most Florentines, all the while increasing his personal, familial and party interests in the Florentine government.
Nonetheless, as his biographer Vespasiano da Bisticci put it: ‘He acted privately with the greatest discretion in order to safeguard himself, and whenever he sought to obtain an object he contrived to let it appear that the matter he had set in motion by someone other than himself.’
Richard Mackenney, a historian of Renaissance Italy, has referred to this art of management practiced so perfectly by Cosimo and other Renaissance princes as the ‘management of shadows’, which is quite fitting. The puppeteer remained obscured.
Piero: Carrying on the Legacy
As the 1450s drew to an end, Cosimo’s deteriorating health, which often confined him to his bed, meant that he was no longer capable of carrying out all of the daily functions required of him. When Cosimo died in 1464 at the age of 75, he was buried in the Church of San Lorenzo—and his tomb was inscribed with the Latin words Pater patriae, ‘father of the fatherland’.
And his eldest son, Piero, became the head of the Medici family, and by extension, of Florence. He was 48 years old, and was already wrecked by the same affliction that had ruined his father’s health—gout. Sadly, whereas Cosimo had been able to function and move about, though painfully, until much later in his life, Piero was already forced to be bedridden for long stretches when he inherited leadership from his father.
Piero became so associated with the disease that later generations of Florentines referred to him as Il Gottoso—‘The Gouty’.
Common Questions about Cosimo de’ Medici and the Management of Shadows
Cosimo de’ Medici commissioned a second tyrannicide statue from Donatello in 1457: Judith and Holofernes. It captures the moment just before the ancient Hebrew liberator Judith separated the drunken Assyrian general’s head from his body.
Florence was left with a massive public debt resulting from decades of warfare, and its political fabric was fraying. However, Cosimo de’ Medici’s wealth and political connections outside of Florence kept external support for the government strong.
When Cosimo de’ Medici died in 1464 at the age of 75, he was buried in the Church of San Lorenzo—and his tomb was inscribed with the Latin words Pater patriae, ‘father of the fatherland’.