To feel with any vividness the life of art in Cosimo’s Florence we must not only contemplate those major geniuses whom we have here commemorated so hurriedly. We must enter the side streets and alleys of art and visit a hundred shops and studios where potters shaped and painted clay, or glassmakers blew or cut glass into forms of fragile loveliness, or goldsmiths fashioned precious metals or stone into gems and medals, seals and coins, and a thousand ornaments of dress or person, home or church. We must hear noisy intent artisans beating or chasing iron, copper, or bronze into weapons and armor, vessels and utensils and tools. We must watch the cabinet makers designing, carving, inlaying, or surfacing wood; engravers cutting designs into metal; and other workers chiseling chimney pieces, or tooling leather, or carving ivory, or producing delicate textiles to make flesh seductive or adorn a home. We must enter convents and see patient monks illuminating manuscripts, placid nuns stitching storied tapestries. Above all we must picture a population developed enough to understand beauty, and wise enough to give honor, sustenance, and stimulus to those who consumed themselves in its making.
Metal engraving was one of the inventions of Florence; and its Gutenberg died in the same year as Cosimo. Tommaso Finiguerra was a worker in niello—i.e., he cut designs into metal or wood, and filled the cavities with a black compound of silver and lead. One day, says a pretty story, a stray piece of paper or cloth fell upon a metal surface just inlaid; removed, it was found imprinted with the design. The tale has the earmarks of an afterthought; in any case Finiguerra and others deliberately took such impressions on paper in order to judge of the effect of the engraved patterns. Baccio Baldini (c. 1450), a Florentine goldsmith, was apparently the first to take such impressions, from incised metal surfaces, as a means of preserving and multiplying the drawings of artists. Botticelli, Mantegna, and others supplied him with designs. A generation later Marcantonio Raimondi would develop the new technique of engraving into a means of broadcasting all but the color of Renaissance paintings to the world.
We have kept for the last a man who defies classification, and can best be understood as the embodied synthesis of his time. Leon Battista Alberti lived every phase of his century except the political. He was born in Venice of a Florentine exile, returned to Florence when Cosimo was recalled, and fell in love with its art, its music, its literary and philosophical coteries. Florence responded by hailing him as almost a monstrously perfect man. He was both handsome and strong; excelled in all bodily exercises; could, with feet tied, leap over a standing man; could, in the great cathedral, throw a coin far up to ring against the vault; amused himself by taming wild horses and climbing mountains. He was a good singer, an eminent organist, a charming conversationalist, an eloquent orator, a man of alert but sober intelligence, a gentleman of refinement and courtesy, generous to all but women, whom he satirized with unpleasant persistence and possibly artificial indignation. Caring little about money, he committed the care of his property to his friends, and shared its income with them. “Men can do all things if they will,” he said; and indeed there were few major artists in the Italian Renaissance who did not excel in several arts. Like Leonardo half a century later, Alberti was a master, or at least a skilled practitioner, in a dozen fields—mathematics, mechanics, architecture, sculpture, painting, music, poetry, drama, philosophy, civil and canon law. He wrote on nearly all these subjects, including a treatise on painting that influenced Piero della Francesca and perhaps Leonardo; he added two dialogues on women and the art of love, and a famous essay on “The Care of the Family.” After painting a picture he would call in children and ask them what it meant; if it puzzled them he considered it a failure.51He was among the first to discover the possibilities of the camera obscura. Predominantly an architect, he passed from city to city raising façades or chapels in the Roman style. In Rome he shared in planning the buildings with which, as Vasari put it, Nicholas V was “turning the capital upside down.” In Rimini he transformed the old church of San Francesco into almost a pagan temple. In Florence he raised a marble front for the church of Santa Maria Novella, and built for the Rucellai family a chapel in the church of San Pancrazio, and two palaces of simple and stately design. In Mantua he adorned the cathedral with a chapel of the Incoronata, and faced the church of Sant’ Andrea with a façade in the form of a Roman triumphal arch.
He composed a comedy, Philodoxus, in such idiomatic Latin that no one doubted him when, as a hoax on his time, he passed it off as the newly discovered work of an ancient author; and Aldus Manutius, himself a scholar, printed it as a Roman classic. He wrote his treatises in chatty dialogue form, and in “bare and simple” Italian so that even a busy businessman might read him. His religion was rather Roman than Christian, but he was always a Christian when he heard the cathedral choir. Looking far ahead, he expressed the fear that the decline of Christian belief would plunge the world into a chaos of conduct and ideas. He loved the countryside around Florence, retired to it whenever he could, and made the title character of his dialogue Teogenio say:
The society of the illustrious dead can be enjoyed by me at leisure here; and when I choose to converse with sages, statesmen, or great poets, I have but to turn to my bookshelves, and my company is better than any that your palaces can afford with all their crowd of clients and flatterers.
Cosimo agreed with him, and found no greater solace in his old age than his villas, his intimates, his art collection, and his books. He suffered severely from gout, and in his final years left the internal affairs of the state to Luca Pitti, who abused the opportunity to add to his wealth. Cosimo’s own fortune had not been diminished by his numerous charities; he whimsically complained that God kept always a step ahead of him in returning his benefactions with interest.52 In his country seats he applied himself to the study of Plato, under the tutelage of his protégé Ficino. When Cosimo lay dying it was on the authority of Plato’s Socrates, not on that of Christ, that Ficino promised him a life beyond the grave. Friends and enemies alike grieved over his death (1464), fearing chaos in the government; and almost the entire city followed his corpse to the tomb that he had commissioned Desiderio da Settignano to prepare for him in the church of San Lorenzo.
Patriots like Guicciardini, angered by the conduct of the later Medici, thought of him as Brutus thought of Caesar;53 Machiavelli honored him as he honored Caesar.54 Cosimo had overthrown the Republic, but the freedom he had checked was the liberty of the rich to rule the state with factious violence. Though he sullied his record with occasional cruelty, his reign was by and large one of the most genial, peaceful, and orderly periods in the history of Florence; and the other was that of the grandson who had been trained by his precedents. Rarely had any prince been so wisely generous, or so genuinely interested in the advancement of mankind. “I owe much to Plato,” said Ficino, “but to Cosimo no less; he realized for me the virtues of which Plato gave me the conception.”55 Under him the humanist movement flowered; under him the diverse genius of Donatello, Fra Angelico, and Lippo Lippi received bountiful encouragement; under him Plato, so long overshadowed by Aristotle, returned into the mindstream of humanity. When a year had passed after Cosimo’s death, and time had had a chance to dull his glory and reveal his faults, the Florentine Signory voted to inscribe upon his tomb the noblest title it could confer: Pater Patriae, Father of His Country. And it was deserved. With him the Renaissance lifted its head; under his grandson it reached its purest excellence; under his great-grandson it conquered Rome. Many sins may be forgiven to such a dynasty.