March 1, 2019

How the Medici Made the Italian Renaissance

The Uffizi Gallery hosts one of the greatest collections of Renaissance art in the entire world. This is thanks, in no small part, to the Medici; the powerful banking family and great patrons of the arts, who ruled Florence for 300 years. At one time, the Medici were the wealthiest family in all Europe – perhaps the world – because of their innovations which made global banking what it is today.

You could find branches of the Medici Bank in Renaissance Avignon, London, Rome, Bruges, Lyon, Pisa… the list goes on; all of Europe’s major mercantile cities had a Medici Bank. The Medici Bank was so powerful that their own currency, the florin, was favored by European merchants as the most convenient way to pay – and so, the florin facilitated the development of international trade.

The Medici did not only consolidate private wealth, but their power too. The first great power-player of the Medici clan, Cosimo the Elder, became the de facto ruler of Florence – King in all but name – and the city transitioned from a republic, ruled by a mercantile elite, to what was essentially a sovereign dynasty, although not officially recognized as such.

Cosimo the Elder: Pater Patriae, Father of the Renaissance City State

The development of humanist thought alongside a rich, cultural civic life, so characteristic of the Italian Renaissance – and so influential to the development of European thought – can be attributed, in part, to the Medici family.

One of the Medici’s greatest legacies was the consequence of Cosimo the Elder’s decision to finance the takeover of the Kingdom of Milan by the Sforza family. This created a buffer state between various warring factions. Afterward, Italy enjoyed a 50-year long period of peace, which historians believe invigorated the Italian Renaissance.

Cosimo the Elder was the first – but not the last – great Medici patron of the arts. At the end of his life he remarked that as much as he had enjoyed making money, he enjoyed spending it all the more, as it gave glory to God and himself. Under Cosimo, Florence was entirely transformed. He founded the first public library in the city’s history and commissioned maverick architect Brunelleschi to design Florence’s magnificent Cathedral and Baptistry – two unique highlights of the city center.

Cosimo the Elder patronized many icons of the early Italian Renaissance; great names among them include Donatello, Fra Angelico, and Fra Lippi. Any pauper, who walked passed the Medici courtyard in the 1440s, could stop to admire Donatello’s sensuous David, displayed for all to see. Cosimo used his private funds to enrich the civic life of the city of Florence, which put the city at the center of the development of humanistic and scientific thought.

Lorenzo the Magnificent, By Name and Nature

The next great Medici Patron of the arts was Lorenzo the Magnificent, grandson of Cosimo the Elder. Beneficiaries of Lorenzo’s magnanimity include Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Botticelli. Lorenzo was a greater lover of the arts, and even wrote his own Renaissance humanist poetry. His poetry circled around the big topics, like light, love, and feasting; and the struggle between individual and collective responsibility.

Lorenzo opened a school for young boys who’d shown promise in artistic fields; another one of his initiatives to develop Florentine art. While there, a young sculpture caught his eye – a teenage Michelangelo. Lorenzo was so impressed with the boy, he invited him to live at his house. Michelangelo stayed for 3 years with the family and there, entered into the lively cultural life of the Medici family. At dinner, Michelangelo, the Medici, and their guests debated humanistic thought and artistic praxis.

Many Great Masters rose to prominence while Lorenzo ruled Florence, including Botticelli (who first introduced the female nude to the Western canon), Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, who might have also lived with Lorenzo. Lorenzo did not hoard his great artists but sent them across Italy, and Europe, to make great works – and so solidified Florence’s cultural influence.

Michelangelo's Last Judgement on the altar wall of The Sistine Chapel

The Sistine Chapel: Another Medici Legacy

Michelangelo worked on the Sistine Chapel ceiling while only a young man in his 20s. Many find the ceiling frescoes the big draw of the Sistine Chapel, but the true effect of Michelangelo’s work be unrealized, if not for the companion piece, The Last Judgement – which was commissioned by Clement VII, a Medici Pope.

Many symbols of humanistic thought are found in the ceiling frescoes; including, most notably, in The Creation of Adam, where God is portrayed reaching toward Adam from inside a shape that remarkably resembles a human brain. Historians today know that Michelangelo studied human anatomy and so, it’s no surprise he could incorporate a representation of the brain into one of his great works.

When Pope Clement VII, Medici Pope, commissioned Michelangelo to paint the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo was an older man, at 59 years old. His early humanistic thought and homosexuality gave way to religious devotion in his older years; he only accepted the role as the architect of St. Peter’s Basilica on the condition of no fee, to amend for his sins and save his soul.

The Last Judgement is the work of a man who’s early humanistic optimism has given way to a fear of the power of a vengeful God. The piece reflects the anxieties of the Reformation; of an ever-widening gap between those saved – members of the true church – and the damned Northern European rebels. Michelangelo himself is portrayed at St. Bartholomew, flayed alive.

The Sistine Chapel ceiling is a beautiful, optimistic masterpiece, but that aspect of Renaissance thought is incomplete, without the terrible contrast with The Last Judgement‘s pessimism. The Italian Renaissance was an era of great refinement, when artistic and scientific thought developed, and of terrible schisms, violent conflicts and blood-feuds.

A Cultural Legacy that Endures to This Day

Florence now boasts the greatest collection of Italian Renaissance art in the world, thanks to the Medici Family. Their collection is found in the magnificent Uffizi Gallery, Italy’s most popular museum. Medici fingerprints are all across the great Renaissance cities of Italy; works by artists that they popularized are found in Rome, Milan and Venice.

The Medici’s commitment to propagating Renaissance humanist thought throughout Europe, altered the world irrevocably, from the Reformation – prompted, in part, by the excesses of a Medici Pope – to the Enlightenment and even the French Revolution. Reforms they made to global banking still exert influence on the system of international trade.

The family itself still captivate the public imagination – the TV program Medici: Masters of Florence, starring Dustin Hoffman and Richard Madden of Game of Thrones fame, has achieved international success. One of Roma Experience’s private tours of Florence is still one of the best ways to confront this astonishing legacy firsthand. Walk through the winding streets of this marvelous city as you confront a truly astonishing history.

by Annie Beverley

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