By William Landon, Northern Kentucky University
Cosimo de’ Medici was born in 1389; the eldest son of Giovanni de’ Medici and his wife Piccarda Bueri, whose family was of ancient lineage and considerable wealth. Piccarda was known for her beauty and grace, and she imparted some of her attractiveness to Cosimo, who was less homely than his father.
Cosimo Had Great Influences
Cosimo was born a twin, but his brother Damiano died shortly after birth. From an early age—before he was trained in his father’s banking business—he was given a thorough education in classical literature. Giovanni arranged for Cosimo to be tutored by the eminent humanist scholar, and student of Coluccio Salutati, Roberto de’ Rossi.
Rossi isn’t widely known outside of Renaissance historical circles, but he is worthy of mention because he was one of the first Florentines to master classical Greek (which Cosimo studied with him), and translated Aristotle and other Greek titans into Latin, which made Greek philosophy accessible to Florentines. Through his association with Rossi, Cosimo was introduced to a circle of geniuses that included Leonardo Bruni and Poggio Bracciolini, among others.
Bruni was the chancellor of the Florentine Republic, and one of the greatest Latinists and historical writers of his age. Poggio, who traveled as a secretary for the papal court, rediscovered numerous important classical texts that had for centuries collected dust in monastic libraries all over Europe—including the Epicurean Roman poet Lucretius’ De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things), which added materialistic atheism to Renaissance discourse.
Cosimo did not share Rossi’s, Bruni’s, and Poggio’s intellectual excitement. However, having watched his father actively patronize the visual and architectural arts, he realized that being a patron of humanistic scholarship brought him into contact with Florence’s most influential minds.
Patron of the Arts
As he matured, Cosimo integrated his father’s patronage of the arts and his own patronage of humanism to shape not only the skyline of Florence but also the narratives of its history—both written and visual. For example, in 1415, when Leonardo Bruni began to write his History of Florence, he traced Florence’s founding to the Roman republican veterans who had served under Sulla in the early first century BCE.
But later historians, under pressure to legitimize the Medici principate (which the Florentine republicans referred to as a form of tyranny), traced its founding either to Julius Caesar or to the Second Triumvirate, which included Octavian (later the emperor Augustus), Marc Antony and Lepidus.
Through their patronage, Cosimo and later Medici successfully revised and politicized their native city’s history so that it supported their power. Florence, their supportive humanists argued, was founded by Caesars, and the Medici were the new manifestations of Gaius and Augustus.
This article comes directly from content in the video series How the Medici Shaped the Renaissance. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Leonardo Bruni’s Politics
When the Florentine republicans, on several occasions, managed to oust the Medici from power, reconstituting their beloved republic, they recast the city’s founding in their own image. Both sides used history and humanists to support their cause.
Many were exiled when governmental power changed hands, but some, including Leonardo Bruni, managed to thrive, even as different administrations and forms of government came and went. Even though Bruni was a republican, and an outspoken one at that, the friendship he forged with Cosimo de’ Medici led to governmental positions that were lucrative and prestigious enough to seal his mouth.
Leonardo was not a revolutionary like some who would follow him—such as Niccolò Machiavelli. Nor was he willing to accept exile or to give up his life in support of republican idealism. Rather, he made the careful decision to use his intellect both to guide and to support Cosimo de’ Medici’s enterprises.
In many ways, Bruni personifies the struggle between republicanism and tyranny in Florence. He began his intellectual and political career as a staunch defender of the republic, but as the Medici gained power in Florence, he gravitated to their sphere of influence, not only as a means of survival but also that he might influence Cosimo’s decision making toward republicanism.
Cosimo de’ Medici’s Family Life
It would be a post-Enlightenment mistake to condemn Bruni as a traitor to republicanism, when in fact, he was more mundanely, a pragmatist. And so was Cosimo de’ Medici, who, while his father still lived, quietly observed life, politics, and business in Giovanni’s protective shadow. As the family’s status in Florence increased and as Cosimo reached maturity, it became necessary for Giovanni to find him a suitable bride.
In either 1415 or 1416, Giovanni chose Contessina de’ Bardi. Her family was of ancient Florentine lineage, which added an increasingly noble patina to the Medici’s crest and a sizeable dowry to their coffers. After their marriage, Cosimo and Contessina went to live with Giovanni and Piccarda at their family home.
Cosimo’s marriage to Contessina was by all accounts more business-like than loving. Arranged aristocratic marriages rarely developed into long-lasting romances. That doesn’t mean such marriages weren’t successful.
In time, Contessina became the manager of the Medici household, a marriage broker, and a loving grandmother to her sons’ children. She freed Cosimo to manage the bank and Florentine politics—which were by the late 1420s becoming increasingly turbulent.
Common Questions about Cosimo de’ Medici’s Life as a Patron of the Arts
Cosimo de’ Medici’s support of the humanities put pressure on historians to legitimize the Medici principate and show that the Medicis were new manifestations of Augustus or Gaius.
It’s better to think of Bruni as a pragmatist. In some ways, he resembles the struggle between republicanism and tyranny in Florence. His friendly relations with Cosimo de’ Medici enabled him to survive changes of administration, while maybe hoping to influence Cosimo’s decisions.
Cosimo de’ Medici’s marriage to Contessina proved beneficial to him as her family was of ancient Florentine lineage, which added an increasingly noble patina to the Medici’s crest and a sizeable dowry to their coffers. Also, after a while, Contessina became the manager of the Medici household which freed Cosimo to manage the political side of things.