By William Landon, Northern Kentucky University
In 1434, Cosimo de’ Medici headed the Florentine government. One of the most startling things about Cosimo’s ‘rule’ over Florence is that he did not have a title which signified his headship of the Florentine state. Rather, he, like the other wealthy men of Florence, served in various high offices in the city. How did he manage to gain ‘victory’ over Florence doing things his way?
Cosimo: A Character Sketch
Cosimo de’ Medici was a deeply religious man. He was well-liked, he loved his children, got on well with his wife, and he was respected for his honesty. He was married to Contessina de’ Bardi, and had three children—Piero, Giovanni and Carlo.
When Piero and Giovanni had families of their own, Cosimo doted on his grandchildren and especially on the young Lorenzo. He funded Lorenzo’s humanist education, whose leadership of Florence led the city, and it’s Renaissance, to almost unparalleled heights.
Vespasiano da Bisticci, one of Florence’s most prolific 15th-century chroniclers, described Cosimo as a man who took a keen interest not only in agriculture but also in the peasants who supplied Florence’s markets with produce. He enjoyed spending time with individuals who worked the soil and who tended orchards.
As a result, Cosimo would often retire to his country home in Careggi.
The Medici villa had been purchased by his father, Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici. After he had taken over the headship of the Florentine government, Cosimo hired Michellozzo to update it completely. The architect turned the forbidding medieval castle into a light and airy residence, which came to house the Platonic Academy that Cosimo founded.
While in the country, Cosimo spent several hours each morning tending to his vineyard, pruning vines in contemplative exercise.
Da Bisticci tells us that Cosimo was also stricken with gout and in almost constant pain, so much so that walking became difficult for him. As he aged, he was carried about on special chairs, both in his homes and in the streets of Florence, where he was greeted by people who truly adored him.
Impacting Florentine Policy
Cosimo de’ Medici did, in fact, lead the state but he ‘ruled’ it in a way like no other. He did it uniquely by moving in circles of men who he had to treat as equals because of their families’ links to Florence’s deep past, and their own wealth and influence.
Cosimo was, interestingly, able to impact Florentine policy, and link it with his family’s security, due to the continuance of the Lombard wars. Milan, Venice, Naples, Florence and the Papal States in central Italy were all drawn back into conflict—primarily by Milanese and Neapolitan aggression.
During wartime, the Florentine constitution allowed for something close to a suspension of regular government operation. In their place a balìa, or special council, was elected to govern. The membership of each respective balìa consisted of ottimati, or best men.
This article comes directly from content in the video series How the Medici Shaped the Renaissance. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Controlling Florence’s Elite
The Florentine Republic had had recourse to balìe-led governments on numerous occasions in the past, but after Cosimo’s return to Florence in 1434, they were relied upon with increasing frequency, grinding the normal Florentine election processes to a halt.
This was so that financial matters favorable to Florence’s elite could be controlled—without interference from the people.
At the same time, many of the men who were eligible to serve in the Florentine government had their names purged from the rosters. These were replaced by ‘new men’ who were sponsored by the Medici.
Many Florentines were also sent into exile, or had their sentences of exile extended, for holding views that were contrary to the interests of the state—which dovetailed with those of the Medici.
Influencing Regime Change
Meanwhile, Cosimo had helped to organize a change in the regime at Milan. The Visconti family, which had been a source of almost continual threat to Florence, were replaced in 1450 by a Medici-backed condottiero—Francesco Sforza—who was Tuscan, and who developed a close friendship with Cosimo.
Though their ties helped to deescalate violence between Florence and Milan, the Lombard War still dragged on—so Florence continued to be controlled by the balìa government.
The Peace of Lodi
More troublingly, however, even after a peace agreement between Milan, Naples, Venice, Florence and the Papal States was reached in 1454—referred to as the Peace of Lodi—the balìe governments continued to dominate Florence.
Cosimo had achieved a Florentine ‘victory’ and also helped to forge a peninsular peace that lasted for 50 years, but the celebrations at Florence were short-lived. By 1454 it became clear the city was facing a constitutional crisis, one that dragged on for several years.
Common Questions about Cosimo de’ Medici’s Florentine ‘Victory’
Cosimo de’ Medici was married to Contessina de’ Bardi, and had three children—Piero, Giovanni and Carlo.
The Florentine Republic had had recourse to balìe-led governments on numerous occasions in the past, but after Cosimo de’ Medici’s return to Florence in 1434, they were relied upon with increasing frequency, grinding the normal Florentine election processes to a halt.
Cosimo de’ Medici ‘ruled’ Florence in a way like no other. He did it uniquely by moving in circles of men who he had to treat as equals, because of their families’ links to Florence’s deep past, and their own wealth and influence.