Cosimo I de Medici, Duke of Florence and Grand Duke of Tuscany, is certainly one of the most famous members of the Medici family in history. He consolidated the power of the Medici in Florence, after more than one century of unofficial domination, highlighted by many plots to overcome the House of Medici. Well, if you think it was easy for him, being born in a rich and powerful family, to accomplish all his great achievements, you are deadly wrong. Cosimo was not born to be the ruler of Florence: far from the legitimate line of succession, always on the edge of bankruptcy, he didn’t even find a family willing to give him his daughter as a wife. At the same time, he lived his youth in danger because of his name, and he owes his mother if he reached the status of most powerful man in Tuscany, changing the city of Florence forever.
A difficult youth
Cosimo I de Medici was born in Florence, June 12th, 1519, by Giovanni Dalle Bande Nere, descending from a cadet branch of the Medici family, and Maria Salviati, descending through the mother from the main branch of the family: she was a granddaughter of Pope Leo X. Cosimo spent most part of his childhood and adolescence in the villa of Trebbio, situated in Mugello, not far from Florence.
His father Giovanni, busy with his military career and dissipated life, died when Cosimo I de Medici was just 7 years old. The only episode of their life together is when Giovanni ordered that his one-year-old son was thrown down to him from a window of Palazzo Salviati in Florence, rejoicing because he didn’t cry. The mother Maria Salviati was an austere and deeply religious woman, proud of belonging to the Medici family, attentive to events in Florence and Rome, and sorry, as she herself wrote, about her husband’s indifference to “the things on this side”.
From early childhood, Cosimo I de Medici shared with his mother a life marked by economic difficulties and debts, and followed her trips to Florence and in 1524 to Rome, in search of help. In Rome, he was introduced to Pope Clement VII, from whom Maria obtained the payment of debts of her husband, but nothing for the child. Given the difficult conditions, Cosimo received a limited education, as opposed to the Medici traditions.
Between 1527 and 1530, with the Medici banned from Florence, Cosimo I de Medici and his mother had quite an adventurous life, having to escape from the Villa because everybody named Medici was in danger at that time.The restoration of the Medici domain in 1530 meant more serene times for Cosimo. His cousin Alessandro was named Duke of Florence, and Cosimo alternated his stays in the villa with periods at the court of the Duke. He went with Alessandro in Bologna in 1532 and in Genoa in 1536, meeting the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V several times.
Although witness of important events, Cosimo was however overshadowed by the older cousin Lorenzino. The mediocrity of his position was also reflected in the uncertainty of his future. The arrangements to marry noble women like Maddalena Sanseverino, Countess of Caiazzo and heir of the large lands, or Elisabetta Guicciardini, whose father Francesco believed Cosimo was a poor husband, failed miserably. Only in the last years of the duchy of Alessandro, in fact, Cosimo managed to overcome his financial difficulties, thanks to the favorable conclusion of a pending case against the cousin Lorenzino in splitting the common heritage.
Cosimo I de Medici Duke of Florence
The murder of Alessandro by Lorenzino de Medici, on Jan 6th, 1537, opened unexpected horizons for Cosimo. As the Duke left no legitimate male heir and Lorenzino decayed of his right, his right to the succession suddenly arose, but was not automatic nor uncontested. Someone supported the restoration of a republican government, even courted by the last followers of Savonarola. Even before the news of the murder (carefully kept secret for several hours) was spread, an army loyal to the Medici had secured the city. However, there were strong Florentine families in exile in Rome, Venice, Bologna and elsewhere and the new Pope Paul III Farnese was hostile to the Medici, given his aspiration to create a state in central Italy. In this context, the succession was the center of an underground conflict. On the one hand a group of advisers to the deceased Duke, led by the “foreigner” Cardinal Innocenzo Cybo, a relative of the Medici and friend of Charles V, proposed the election of Giulio, the three-year-old illegitimate son of Alessandro. The other faction, around Francesco Guicciardini (the man who refused Cosimo as his son-in-law) and more Florentine noble families, after a short initial bewilderment, sided with Cosimo. They were confident that the inexperience of Cosimo would allow them to have a tempered Duke, conditioned by the oligarchy of the town.
In the climate of fear that the power vacuum caused by the death of Alexander aroused in both groups, events unfolded very quickly. After a first session of the Senate of the Forty-eight, the supreme organ of the city government, had ended with a no-decision, the noble leaders, through Maria Salviati, called Cosimo I de Medici, who was at Trebbio. The presence of the young Medici, supported by the nobles, by “many common loyal and partisans” and spontaneous demonstrations by the army, created a situation impossible to ignore. On January 9th, 1537, Cosimo I de Medici was appointed as the new Duke of Florence.