Cosimo de Medici, also known as Cosimo The Elder, was born in Florence in 1389, son of Giovanni di Bicci and Piccarda Bueri. The Medici celebrated his birth on September 27, the day of Saints Cosmas and Damian, from which Cosimo and the twin brother Damian, who is believed to have died shortly after birth, had taken the name. He was the first Medici to actually rule Florence and a great patron of arts. In Florence he is remembered as Pater Patriae (Latin for founding father).
Cosimo The Elder – A wise businessman
At the time of the birth of Cosimo the Elder, the Medici family, although quite old and illustrious, was not among the prominent families in the city life or in business activities; it was during the life of Cosimo that the branch of the family to which he belonged not only became incredibly rich, but built the foundations of his power in Florence. From 1420 the Medici bank was depositary of the Papal affairs. This charge was maintained continuously by the Medici bank for twenty-two years, and occasionally, for another two decades. So, for most of the life of Cosimo The Elder, the Medici bank took care of the lucrative business of the papal court, which were the basis of the expansion of the bank itself in Europe and led it to be one of the leading financial institutions of the time. In addition to the assignment obtained from the papal court, much of the success of the bank can be attributed to the loyalty of its members. The bank had employed only members of the Medici family or their relatives or friends. After the consolidation of the Medici faction, in the early thirties of the fifteenth century, the agents were usually taken by a small group of trusted friends and relatives-in-law, belonging to the families Bardi, Benci, Martelli and Portinari, and such association allowed the Medici to extend their power and influence in business, politics and society.
In 1429, shortly before his death, Giovanni di Bicci was the richest citizen of Florence. He had, however, withdrawn from the actual direction of the bank in 1420, leaving his place to Cosimo The Elder and his brother Lorenzo The Elder. Having received a top class education and preparation for the banking business, under Cosimo’s direction the company reached the peak of success, expanding and diversifying until the mid-fifties, when it came to have numerous branches and representative offices in all of Western Europe . Cosimo The Elder held the reins of the business tightly in his hands, directing operations through a constant flow of correspondence with his associates. In July 1464, just a month before the death of Cosimo, Tommaso Portinari, branch manager of Bruges, still related directly to him; in that same period, the eldest son of Cosimo The Elder, Piero The Gouty, wrote to their children Lorenzo (Lorenzo the Magnificent) and Giuliano describing their grandfather as a “prosperous merchant”.
Cosimo The Elder and his family
At the end of the twenties Cosimo The Elder was recognized as a true patriarch by the entire lineage of the Medici, which in 1427 included 27 families. Around 1415 he married Contessina de Bardi. They had two sons: Piero (The Gouty) and Giovanni. Cosimo also had an illegitimate son, Carlo, from a Caucasian slave.
The high authority of Cosimo The Elder went beyond his family to include relatives, neighbours and friends, up to, as pater patriae, the entire city of Florence; he was also a devoted pater familias, very concerned about the health of the women of his family. He was very respectful of his wife and surprisingly dependent on her for domestic affairs. Alesso Pelli, the clerk of the Medici family, once wrote in a letter to Giovanni de Medici of July 4, 1442: “Cosimo has almost recovered, but he still doesn’t get out of home; I don’t think he will until Mona Contessa comes back to fix him, for he’s all messed up”.
Cosimo The Elder, highly regarded, was often responsible for managing and financing the wars the Florentine Republic was almost constantly engaged in. In his rich correspondence, both official and private, Cosimo shows the considerable interest and a lot of expertise in military strategy.
Like other important families, in exchange for loyalty to the Medici guaranteed a group of partners personal protection and career advancement, political and financial. The Medici patronage network was composed of relatives, neighbours and friends. The correspondence between the Medici and their friends and customers is clear that the Medici used any means in the complex electoral system to elect their friends to public offices, urging them, once elected, to exercise their power in the exclusive interest of their party. Although it was strictly forbidden by law, this practice was common among the most influential citizens of Florence: the beginning of the thirties of the fifteenth century was when Cosimo The Elder became the most powerful patron of the city and head of the most relevant party or faction in the Florentine political system.
The conspiracy and the ban
The main rivals of Cosimo The Elder were in the ruling oligarchy: members of families Albizi, Peruzzi and Gianfigliazzi, intimidated by the growth of the Medici power, in September 1433 forced the exile of Cosimo and the other leaders of his clan. On September 5, Cosimo The Elder was summoned at the Palazzo dei Priori (Palazzo Vecchio) with the excuse of a practice; on his arrival he was immediately arrested and imprisoned in the Alberghetto (a cell in the tower of the Palazzo). Cosimo The Elder, scared for his life, didn’t accept any food. In the end he paid his way out and went into exile in Venice, where the Medici bank had an important branch. The brothers and the youngest members of the family found so comfortable staying in that city as special guests of the Doge Francesco Foscari, their friend, waiting for developments.
The ban of the Medici, as opposed to what was planned, was decisive in the consolidation of the authority of Cosimo The Elder in Florence. His absence from the city served to show that his wealth and his qualities as a statesman made him indispensable. In addition, the international presence of the Medici bank and its link with the Papacy extended their influence to Italian and European royal families, including the kings of France and England and the Holy Roman Emperor, who disapproved the action against Cosimo The Elder.
The return to Florence
The loyalty of the Medici supporters and the pressure on the city government by their friends abroad were important to maintain Cosimo’s influence in preparation for his return. The exile, which could end the career of a faction leader, turned into a triumph thanks to the personality of Cosimo The Elder. Resolutely refusing any proposal of plotting his return, Cosimo firmly argued that he would be back in the city just as he had left it, by order of the Signoria. This position of prudence and fairness to the institutions was rewarded soon, to the point that in February 1434 a letter from the still hostile Signoria praised his conduct as impeccable. In September 1434, exactly one year after his ban, Cosimo The Elder was recalled and publicly recognized as the most important citizen of Florence. His enemies were exiled themselves and their repeated attempts to rebel with the help of Milan, ruled by Filippo Maria Visconti, were decisively defeated in 1440 in the Battle of Anghiari. After 1434 the deliberate manipulation of the electoral system was refined to the point that in a short time the Medici faction turned the Florentine political system into a Medici regime.
The most important political achievement by Cosimo The Elder happened in 1439 when an important council scheduled in Ferrara was moved to Florence thatnks to his influence. The Florentine Council hosted representatives of the Eastern Church and the Roman Church. The cultural exchange between Florence and the Byzantine Empire was crucial for the development of the Renaissance. After the council, Florence was the first European University teaching ancient Greek. In 1453, after the fall of Constantinople, most of the scholars that had been in Florence for the council, returned to live in Renaissance City.
A generous patron of the Renaissance
Cosimo The Elder was the most important Florentine patron of the first half of the 15th century in arts and literature. Although the works he commissioned were considered primarily as a clear expression of political power held by his family, in his patronage, he agreed to the same models and ideals of other important citizens, like his father. Like them, Cosimo fully embraced the Renaissance, commissioning works inspired by the rediscovery of classical forms, in order to celebrate their family and their city.
The first works that were commissioned by Cosimo The Elder were those inherited from the father, as the tomb of the Antipope John XXIII by Donatello and Michelozzo in the Baptistery of San Giovanni. In 1419 Giovanni di Bicci commissioned Filippo Brunelleschi the construction of the sacristy (the “old sacristy”) for the church of San Lorenzo, the parish church of the Medici, which was to serve as a burial place. After Giovanni’s death, in 1429, Cosimo and his brother Lorenzo commissioned Donatello the completion and decoration of the sacristy, with the addition of a tomb for their parents. After the death of his brother, which occurred in 1440, Cosimo The Elder assumed the sole responsibility of the reconstruction, in Renaissance style, of the entire church of San Lorenzo, dedicated to the patron saint of the deceased.
The restoration of the Dominican convent of San Marco, close to the residence of the Medici in Via Larga, was the main work commissioned by Cosimo and begun in the mid-thirties. To paint the cells and common areas of the convent he chose Fra Angelico, who was a member of the monastic community. Cosimo even provided books for the library that Michelozzo built in San Marco.
Let’s not forget that Cosimo The Elder also commissioned the construction of Palazzo Medici. The Medici palace construction was begun in 1445 and completed at the end of the fifties. Outside the palace recalled the robustness of the houses of the medieval period, while the classical details expressed the new enthusiasm for the ancient arts. Inside, the building was decorated in the refined taste of its inhabitants, thus becoming a sort of summary of the most innovative styles and genres of Florentine art. Many works were made to decorate the palace. Among them there were many works by Donatello, the favourite artist of Cosimo The Elder. No other work expressed more originality as his bronze David, symbol of morality and civil freedom for the Florentines as well as complex and sophisticated union of the interests of Cosimo for Christian, classical and military themes. The heart of the building was represented by the chapel, one of the few built in a private home during the fifteenth century. Located right in the center of the building, it was decorated by Benozzo Gozzoli with frescoes depicting the Journey of the Magi.
The interest of Cosimo The Elder in neo-Platonic ideas was expressed with the sponsorship of Marsilio Ficino, son of the doctor of the Medici family. Cosimo granted Ficino the use of rooms in his property of Careggi, founding the neo-platonic academy.
Death of Cosimo The Elder
Cosimo The Elder, long suffering from gout, died in his villa at Careggi August 1st, 1464.
The final years of his life were saddened by the loss, in 1459, of the beloved grandson Cosimino, the five year old son of Giovanni, and by the death of his son Giovanni himself, which occurred in 1463. He himself had arranged every detail for the funeral, the burial and commemoration. The tomb was placed under a stone floor of the church of San Lorenzo, located just before the main altar; Cosimo had commissioned to Donatello two pulpits depicting major events of Revelation, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection; had then stipulated that his funeral would be simple and that the participants had to be “only” the representatives of the Medici family, those who lived in the villas of Careggi and Cafaggiolo and the clergy of St. Mark, St. Lawrence and the Abbey in Fiesole.