Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Cosimo de’ Medici (1389-1464)

Cosimo de’ Medici was born on September 27, 1389 in Florence. His father was the wealthy founder of the Medici Bank. Growing up, Cosimo eagerly learned everything he needed to know about banking. He also showed great skill in diplomacy. In 1420 his father gave him control of the family bank. At that time Florence was one of the largest and richest cities in Latin Christendom and the Medici Bank was Latin Christendom’s biggest.

Under Cosimo’s control, the bank greatly prospered. First, he was an outstanding manager of his bank. Second, at that time, Florence was a democratic republic. Like today, however, Cosimo as a wealthy banker was able to use his money to control the selection of candidates, the votes for them, and the laws they enacted once in office. This allowed him to create a political context which supported his various businesses. Strangely enough, this context also strengthened weaker craft guilds and ordinary people in relation to landed aristocrats.

In 1433 some of those landed aristocrats, resenting Cosimo's influence on Florentine politics, managed to get him exiled. He took his bank with him to Venice. So many important friends and so much needed money followed him that even his political enemies had to ask him to return a year later. Once he returned, his control of Florentine politics remained uncontested for the rest of his long life. He strengthened it by having a flat-rate system of taxation replaced by a progressive one.

Cosimo persuaded the pope, who banked with him, to move the Seventeenth Ecumenical Council of the Catholic Church from Ferrara to Florence in 1439. Both Joseph 2nd, Patriarch of Constantinople, and John 8th, Emperor of Rome, came to the Council in an attempt to reunite the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches. While that attempt failed, the presence of such important representatives of Orthodox culture led to a further burst of creativity in Florence.

Cosimo pursued his goal of maintaining peace in his region of northern Latinia and southern Alpinia in two ways. One, he created a balance of regional control between himself and the rulers of Milan, Venice, and Naples by negotiating the Treaty of Lodi in 1454. Two, he acted in ways that helped keep the armies of the rulers of the state of France and the Holy Roman Empire out of his region.

Cosimo provided generous financial support to artists. His support of Filippo Brunelleschi made possible the construction of the dome for the cathedral of Florence. To atone for his sin of charging interest on loans, Cosimo paid Fra Angelico to beautify the interior of the monastery of San Marco in Florence with paintings in each room and on the interior walls. Donatello also benefited from his patronage.      

He also financially supported thinkers. He paid the Platonist Marsilio Ficino to translate the complete works of Plato from Greek into Latin. Ficino was the first to do this. Cosimo also sponsored the Platonic Academy. This was an informal group of thinkers led by Marsilio which included Giovanni Pico della Mirandola and later even Michelangelo. In spirit they thought of themselves as recreating Plato’s Academy and creatively discussed Plato’s philosophy and its relationship to Christian theology. They also welcomed Greek scholars fleeing Constantinople after its conquest in 1453.

Cosimo even collected ancient manuscripts and paid scribes to copy those he couldn’t buy. He kept these manuscripts in libraries open to the public.

Cosimo’s generous support of artistic and intellectual creativity inspired many other wealthy men, including his grandson Lorenzo, to follow his example. It was his support and example that allowed the renaissance of classical culture to happen in Florence and to spread from there throughout Latin Christendom.

Cosimo died on August 1, 1464. His bones are buried in the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence.

Copyright © 2013 by Steven Farsaci.
All rights reserved. Fair use encouraged.