Cosimo de Medici
Cosimo de Medici
Famous Family. One of the greatest families of the Italian Renaissance was the Medici family of Florence. In the course of the sixteenth century, Medicis became popes (Leo X and Clement VII), queens of France (Catherine de Medici and Marie de Medici), and the grand dukes of Tuscany when Florence’s republican constitution was overthrown. However, the Medicis did not start out as nobles—their rise to power rested on their role in creating a more modern system of international banking. A pivotal figure in that rise to power was Cosimo de Medici of Florence.
Papal Connections. The Medici bank was founded by Giovanni di Bicci de Medici in the late fourteenth century in Rome to lend money to papal projects. The association with Rome was to be an important part of the Medicis’ success. Under Pope John XXIII, the Rome office of the Medici bank became depository general of the Apostolic Chamber. Giovanni became the richest citizen in Florence and exerted considerable political influence in the city. In the 1420s he turned over day-to-day control of the bank to his son Cosimo, who became director after Giovanni’s death in 1429.
Branch Offices. The fortunes of the Medici bank grew all the more under Cosimo’s leadership. Branch offices were established in Pisa, Milan, Venice, Geneva, Lyon, Bruges, and London. Unlike Florentine banks of the medieval period, which had extremely centralized investment structures, each of these branches was granted a great deal of autonomy in lending. They could keep a large share of the profits of their lending activity, but also were insulated against the losses from other branches. This system prevented a repeat of the banking crisis that had brought down the three largest Florentine banks of the 1340s.
Ruler of Florence. The Medicis’ role as bankers also enabled them to play a major role as patrons for others. They had connections at the papal court and sometimes managed to get church appointments for their clients. Cosimo’s primary activities in patronage were for his clients within Florence, and he was able to place allies in prominent positions in the Florentine government, making him-self ruler of Florence in everything but the title. Indeed, he was so successful at this that his rivals tried to break his influence by driving him into exile. This attempt backfired. When a pro-Cosimo administration was selected in the next elections, the Pope himself intervened to allow Cosimo to return. From that point on, the Medici family set the tone for political life in Florence, though the republican constitution remained until 1494.
Patron of the Arts. Cosimo’s patronage not only influenced the distribution of political power in Florence and Rome, but also affected Renaissance cultural life. He promoted the literary pursuits of humanists such as Marsilio Ficino and the artistic work of Donatello and Benozzo Gozzoli. He was particularly active in various important building projects around Florence. The parish church of San Lorenzo became the centerpiece of Medici family activity. Cosimo supported the project to rebuild it entirely in Renaissance style. His supporters then began to pay for chapels built in the new style, which reinforced the association of the church and family. The Palazzo Medici, started in 1445, set the standard for a Florentine building boom. It guaranteed the predominance of the Renaissance architectural style. In all of these things he, as patron of the arts, set standards that would persist for his successors.
Spiritual Concerns. Cosimo’s interest in church projects was partly prompted by his worries about how his moneylending would affect his salvation. He became strongly attached to monastic life as a counterpoint to the excesses of banking. In the convents and monasteries he patronized, he made sure there was a monastic cell available for him to retreat to for contemplation. He took special pains in his burial arrangements, insisting that the ceremony be simple, but that he be buried in front of the high altar at the church of San Lorenzo. The great sculptor Donatello was chosen to create his tomb.
Collapse of the Bank. The bank of the Medici began to falter after Cosimo’s death in 1464. His son Piero proved to be at best a mediocre administrator. Yet, more important, the Medicis began to focus more on their political and patronage roles. Piero’s son Lorenzo acquired the nickname “the Magnificent,” but that had nothing to do with how he ran the bank, which went into an even steeper decline after 1478. Instead, Lorenzo became an active behind-the-scenes ruler of Florence and a major patron of the arts. He forged dynastic alliances with the leading families of Rome and set the stage for the Medicis’ rise into the nobility. Thus, even when the Medici bank collapsed in 1494, two years after his death, the standing of the Medici family no longer depended on its resources.
Impact. With the collapse of the Medici bank, new families stepped in to take the lead in international finance. The most prominent sixteenth century international bankers were the Fuggers of Augsburg. Nevertheless, the close relationship between private bankers and the needs of governments and the papacy was to remain a defining feature of the Renaissance and Reformation.
Raymond de Roover, The Rise and Decline of the Medici Bank, 1397–1464 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1963).