Politics in Florence was the conflict of wealthy families and factions—the Ricci, Albizzi, Medici, Ridolfi, Pazzi, Pitti, Strozzi, Rucellai, Valori, Capponi, Soderini—for control of the government. From 1381 to 1434, with some interruptions, the Albizzi maintained their ascendancy in the state, and valiantly protected the rich against the poor.
The Medici family can be traced back to 1201, when Chiarissimo de’ Medici was a member of the Communal Council.* Averardo de’ Medici, great-great-grandfather of Cosimo, founded the fortune of the family by bold commerce and judicious finance, and was chosen gonfalonier in 1314. Averardo’s grandnephew, Salvestro de’ Medici, gonfalonier in 1378, established the popularity of the family by espousing the cause of the rebel poor. Salvestro’s grandnephew, Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici, gonfalonier in 1421, further endeared the family to the people by supporting—though he himself would suffer heavily from it—an annual tax (catasto) of one half of one per cent on income, which was reckoned at seven per cent of a man’s capital (1427).12 The rich, who had previously enjoyed a poll or head tax merely equal to that paid by the poor, vowed vengeance on the Medici.
Giovanni di Bicci died in 1428, bequeathing to his son Cosimo a good name and the largest fortune in Tuscany—179,221 florins ($4,480,525?).13 Cosimo was already thirty-nine years old, fully fit to carry on the far-flung enterprises of the firm. These were not confined to banking; they included the management of extensive farms, the manufacture of silk and woolen goods, and a varied trade that bound Russia and Spain, Scotland and Syria, Islam and Christendom. Cosimo, while building churches in Florence, saw no sin in making trade agreements, and exchanging costly presents, with Turkish sultans. The firm made a specialty of importing from the East articles of little bulk and great value, like spices, almonds, and sugar, and sold these and other products in a score of European ports.
Cosimo directed all this with quiet skill, and found time left for politics. As a member of the Dieci, or War Council of Ten, he guided Florence to victory against Lucca, and as a banker he financed the war by lending large sums to the government. His popularity excited the envy of other magnates, and in 1433, Rinaldo degli Albizzi launched an attack upon him as planning to overthrow the Republic and make himself dictator. Rinaldo persuaded Bernardo Guadagni, then gonfalonier, to order Cosimo’s arrest; Cosimo surrendered himself, and was confined in the Palazzo Vecchio. Since Rinaldo, with his armed retainers, dominated the parlamento in the Piazza della Signoria, a decree of death seemed imminent. But Cosimo managed to convey a thousand ducats ($25,000?) to Bernardo, who suddenly became more humane, and compromised by having Cosimo, his sons, and his chief supporters banished for ten years.14 Cosimo took up his residence in Venice, where his modesty and his means made him many friends. Soon the Venetian government was using its influence to have him recalled. The Signory elected in 1434 was favorable to him, and reversed the sentences of exile; Cosimo returned in triumph, and Rinaldo and his sons fled.
A parlamento appointed a balia, and gave it supreme power. After serving three short terms Cosimo relinquished all political positions; “to be elected to office,” he said, “is often prejudicial to the body and hurtful to the soul.”15 Since his enemies had left the city, his friends easily dominated the government. Without disturbing republican forms, he managed, by persuasion or money, to have his adherents remain in office to the end of his life. His loans to influential families won or forced their support; his gifts to the clergy enlisted their enthusiastic aid; and his public benefactions, of unprecedented scope and generosity, easily reconciled the citizens to his rule. The Florentines had observed that the constitution of the Republic did not protect them from the aristocracy of wealth; the defeat of the Ciompi had burned this lesson into the public memory. If the populace had to choose between the Albizzi, who favored the rich, and the Medici, who favored the middle classes and the poor, it could not long hesitate. A people oppressed by its economic masters, and weary of faction, welcomed dictatorship in Florence in 1434, in Perugia in 1389, in Bologna in 1401, in Siena in 1477, in Rome in 1347 and 1922. “The Medici,” said Villani, “were enabled to attain supremacy in the name of freedom, and with the support of the popolo and the populace.”16
Cosimo used his power with shrewd moderation, tempered with occasional violence. When his friends suspected that Baldaccio d’Anghiari was forming a conspiracy to end Cosimo’s power, they threw Baldaccio out of a sufficiently high window to ensure his termination, and Cosimo did not complain; it was one of his quips that “states are not ruled with paternosters.” He replaced the fixed income tax with a sliding scale of levies on capital, and was accused of adjusting these assessments to favor his friends and discourage his enemies. These levies totaled 4,875,000 florins ($121,875,000) in the first twenty years of Cosimo’s ascendancy; and those who balked at paying them were summarily jailed. Many aristocrats left the city and resumed the rural life of the medieval nobility. Cosimo accepted their departure with equanimity, remarking that new aristocrats could be made with a few yards of scarlet cloth.17
The people smiled approval, for they noted that the levies were devoted to the administration and adornment of Florence, and that Cosimo himself contributed 400,000 florins ($10,000,000?) to public works and private charities;18 this was almost double the sum that he left to his heirs.19 He labored assiduously to the end of his seventy-five years, managing at once his own properties and the affairs of the state. When Edward IV of England asked for a substantial loan, Cosimo obliged him, ignoring the faithlessness of Edward III, and the King repaid him with coin and political support. Tommaso Parentucelli, Bishop of Bologna, ran out of funds and asked for aid; Cosimo supplied him; and when Parentucelli became Pope Nicholas V Cosimo was given charge of all papal finances. To keep the varied threads of his activity from tangling, he rose early, and went nearly every day to his office, like an American millionaire. At home he pruned his trees and tended his vines. He dressed simply, ate and drank temperately, and (after begetting an illegitimate son by a slave girl) lived a quiet and orderly family life. Those who were admitted to his home were astonished at the contrast between the homely fare of his private table and the lavish feasts that he provided for foreign dignitaries as a lure to comity and peace. He was normally humane, mild, forgiving, reticent and yet known for his dry wit. He was generous to the poor, paid the taxes of impoverished friends, and hid his charity, like his power, in a gracious anonymity. Botticelli, Pontormo, and Benozzo Gozzoli have pictured him for us: of middle stature and olive complexion, with gray receding hair, long, sharp nose, and a grave, kindly countenance bespeaking shrewd wisdom and calm strength.
His foreign policy was dedicated to the organization of peace. Coming to power after a series of ruinous conflicts, Cosimo noted how war, actual or imminent, hobbled the march of trade. When the rule of the Visconti in Milan collapsed in chaos at Filippo Maria’s death, and Venice threatened to absorb the duchy and dominate all nothern Italy to the very gates of Florence, Cosimo sent Francesco Sforza the means to establish himself in Milan and check the Venetian advance. When Venice and Naples formed an alliance against Florence, Cosimo called in so many loans made to their citizens that their governments were induced to make peace.20 Thereafter Milan and Florence stood against Venice and Naples in a balance of power so even that neither side dared to risk a war. This policy of balanced powers, conceived by Cosimo and continued by Lorenzo, gave Italy those decades of peace and order, from 1450 to 1492, during which the cities grew rich enough to finance the early Renaissance.
It was the good fortune of Italy and mankind that Cosimo cared as much for literature, scholarship, philosophy, and art as for wealth and power. He was a man of education and taste; he knew Latin well, and had a smattering of Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic; he was broad enough to appreciate the piety and painting of Fra Angelico, the engaging rascality of Fra Filippo Lippi, the classical style of Ghiberti’s reliefs, the bold originality of Donatello’s sculpture, the grandiose churches of Brunellesco, the restrained power of Michelozzo’s architecture, the pagan Platonism of Gemistus Pletho, the mystic Platonism of Pico and Ficino, the refinement of Alberti, the learned vulgarity of Poggio, the bibliolatry of Niccolò de’ Niccoli; and all these men experienced his generosity. He brought Joannes Argyropoulos to Florence to instruct its youth in the language and literature of ancient Greece, and for twelve years he studied with Ficino the classics of Greece and Rome. He spent a large part of his fortune collecting classic texts, so that the most costly cargoes of his ships were in many cases manuscripts carried from Greece or Alexandria. When Niccolò de’ Niccoli had ruined himself in buying ancient manuscripts, Cosimo opened for him an unlimited credit at the Medici bank, and supported him till death. He engaged forty-five copyists, under the guidance of the enthusiastic bookseller Vespasiano da Bisticci, to transcribe such manuscripts as could not be bought. All these “precious minims” he placed in rooms at the monastery of San Marco, or in the abbey of Fiesole, or in his own library. When Niccoli died (1437), leaving eight hundred manuscripts valued at 6000 florins ($150,000), along with many debts, and naming sixteen trustees to determine the disposal of the books, Cosimo offered to assume the debts if he might allocate the volumes. It was so agreed, and Cosimo divided the collection between San Marco’s library and his own. All these collections were open to teachers and students without charge. Said the Florentine historian Varchi, with patriotic exaggeration:
That Greek letters were not completely forgotten, to the great loss of humanity, and that Latin letters have been revived to the infinite benefit of the people—this all Italy, nay all the world, owes solely to the high wisdom and friendliness of the house of the Medici.21
Of course the great work of revival had been inaugurated by the translators in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and by Arabic commentators, and by Petrarch and Boccaccio. It had been continued by scholars and collectors like Salutati, Traversari, Bruni, and Valla before Cosimo; it was carried forward independently of him by Niccoli, Poggio, Filelfo, King Alfonso the Magnanimous of Naples, and a hundred other contemporaries of Cosimo, even by his exiled rival, Palla Strozzi. But if we embrace in our judgment not only Cosimo Pater Patriae, but his descendants Lorenzo the Magnificent, Leo X, and Clement VII, we may admit that in the patronage of learning and art the Medici have never been equaled by any other family in the known history of mankind.