Cosimo de' Medici

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Cosimo de' Medici

The Italian merchant prince Cosimo de' Medici (1389-1464) was the unofficial and benevolent despot of Florence, contributing much to making it the intellectual and cultural jewel of 15th-century Europe. The dynasty he founded ruled Florence until 1494.

Cosimo de' Medici was born on Sept. 27, 1389, the son of Giovanni de' Medici, who founded the family's legendary fortune, amassing enormous sums in trade and banking. After his father died in 1429, Cosimo continued the family's commercial and financial practices with great success. He brought goods of little weight and high value from the East and lent money to the princely houses of Europe.

Cosimo also adopted the policy, already traditional in his family, of supporting the lesser guilds and the poor against the wealthy aristocracy which ruled the city. These oligarchs became jealous of Cosimo's popularity and fearful of his democratic tendencies. Consequently they sought to destroy him and his family. In 1433, spurred on by Rinaldo degli Albizzi, the most influential of their number, they had Cosimo arrested with the intention of putting him to death. He was exiled instead when, from his place of imprisonment, he succeeded in buying the favor of Bernardo Guadagni, the gonfalonier of justice, for 1,000 ducats (about $25,000).

One year later, in October 1434, the sentence of exile was overturned by a new government favorable to Cosimo, and he returned to the city in triumph. From that time until his death he controlled both the foreign and domestic affairs of Florence, using his prestige and his money to keep his adherents in the government. Cosimo himself took public office only briefly. He believed it prudent to keep the institutions of government intact and to rule quietly, so as not to injure the republican sensibilities of the people.

His despotism established, Cosimo promptly reformed the system of taxation, changing from a fixed income tax to a graduated one. This placed a heavier burden on the wealthy, who grumbled that the Medici tyrant was using the tax as a weapon against them. The middle class and the poorer citizens, who were Cosimo's strength, were delighted and became even more ardent in their support, particularly when they saw that the funds gained through taxation, amplified by substantial contributions from Cosimo's own pocket, were put to use in public projects.

Cosimo employed the architectural skills of Michelozzo to build his palace and, in 1437, the Dominican convent of S. Marco. He commissioned Filippo Brunelleschi to restore the church of S. Lorenzo, which was in dire need of repair. The cloisters of Fiesole owe their erection to Cosimo, who added to these monuments of his munificence country villas of contemporary style at both Fiesole and Careggi.

Along with the physical adornment of Florence and its environs, Cosimo provided for its cultural life. He sent his ships to the East to gather the precious manuscripts of ancient writers, and he hired scribes to copy what he could not buy. He added to this growing collection the private library of Niccolò Niccoli, an enthusiastic bibliophile who left his books to Cosimo in gratitude for generous loans which had saved him from financial ruin. These valuable manuscripts were distributed to the monastery of S. Marco in Florence and the abbey at Fiesole, except for some which Cosimo kept in his own home. These collections were open to the public.

The growing accessibility of the materials of scholarship and the persuasion of Greek scholars, to whom he was always a gracious host, inspired Cosimo to found the Platonic Academy, an institution for the translation of Plato's works and the propagation of his ideas. Marsilio Ficino, a humanist of great skill, was made president of the academy in 1458. The patronage of the tyrant did not stop here. His largesse was enjoyed not only by architects and scholars but also by some of the greatest sculptors and painters of the quattrocento, among them Donatello and Fra Filippo Lippi.

In spite of his riches and the lavish entertainments he provided for his guests, Cosimo lived modestly. He ate and drank moderately and simply and worked long, regular hours. He dressed without ostentation and was accessible to the humblest Florentine. His generosity, mildness, and wit were legendary. Upon his death on Aug. 1, 1464, a grateful city decreed that on his tomb should be inscribed the words Pater Patriae (father of his country).

Further Reading

The best biography of Cosimo is still K. Dorothea Ewart Vernon, Cosimo de' Medici (1899). A scholarly treatment of Cosimo is in George Frederick Young, The Medici (1930). A recent history of the Medici which includes a portrait of Cosimo is Marcel Brion, The Medici: A Great Florentine Family (1969), a large-format book rich in color plates. Also very useful on all the Medici is Ferdinand Schevill, History of Florence (1936), also available in a paperback edition (2 vols., 1963).

Additional Sources

Cosimo 'il Vecchio' de' Medici, 1389-1464: essays in commemoration of the 600th anniversary of Cosimo de' Medici's birth: including papers delivered at the Society for Renaissance Studies Sexcentenary Symposium at the Warburg Institute, London, 19 May 1989, Oxford England: Clarendon Press, 1992. □

Medici, Cosimo de' (1389–1464)

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Medici, Cosimo de' (13891464)

Ruler of Florence and founder of the Medici dynasty, one of the wealthiest and most influential clans of Europe. The son of Giovanni de' Medici, a gonfalero (high official) of Florence, Cosimo inherited a fortune made by his father in the new industry of international banking. The Medici profited from expanded trade and business contacts among the nations, which called for more sophisticated methods of exchanging and investing money. On inheriting the family's bank in 1429, Cosimo set out to increase business by lending money to European rulers and investing in trading expeditions to Africa and Asia.

Cosimo rankled the aristocrats of Florence by enlisting the artisans and guilds of the city to his side. He was arrested in 1433 at the instigation of his most powerful rivals, the wealthy Albizzi clan. Threatened with a trial and execution, he was eventually exiled from the city after paying a bribe to the head of the city's justice department. In the next year, a new Florentine government overturned his sentence, the Albizzi were banished, and Cosimo returned to the city. He soon held the reigns of power firmly in his hands, by appointing his own supporters to the high offices known as magistracies. Although he held no formal title, Cosimo enjoyed fervent support among common people and ordinary workers. With his popularity greater than ever, he reformed the tax system to favor the middle class and spent great amounts of money on important public works, including the restoration of the Church of San Lorenzo. He allied the city with Milan and Venice, in order to balance the power of Naples and the Papacy. This balance of power survived into the late fifteenth century under the skillful management of his grandson, Lorenzo de' Medici.

Cosimo also began a Medici tradition of patronage of the arts and letters. He invited artists and sculptors to contribute their works to his palace and local churches. He collected manuscripts from throughout Europe and had them copied and preserved. The books were gathered in local monasteries and made available to scholars and writers. Cosimo also founded the Academy of Plato, also known as the Neoplatonic Academy, to teach the philosophy and writings of this ancient Greek writer, under the leadership of Marsilio Ficino. These actions made Florence the center of an emerging new view of the world that placed the genius of human artists and philosophers on an equal footing with the inspiration of traditional religion.

See Also: Ficino, Marsilio; humanism; Medici, Lorenzo de'

Medici, Cosimo de

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Medici, Cosimo de' ( the Elder) (1389–1464) Ruler of Florence (1434–64). With the Medici banking fortune he led the oligarchy that was expelled from Florence in 1433 but returned to rule permanently the next year. He increased the Medici fortune, strengthened Florence by alliance with Milan and Naples, and was a great patron of the artists of the early Renaissance.