Courts: Princes, Aristocrats, and Quiet Glory (c. 1425–c. 1500)

A Great Turning Point Forgotten?

On July 6, 1439, the famed architect Filippo Brunelleschi’s (1377–1446) recently domed Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, which dominated the cityscape of Florence and the imagination of many as the engineering and spiritual marvel of the day (Illustration 6.1), was the setting for an earthshaking proclamation. Under the remarkable free-standing dome referred to as Il Duomo (the Dome), along with the relatively new leader of Florence, Cosimo de’ Medici (1389–1464; “in power” 1434–1464), in attendance for the historic moment were the Greek emperor John VIII Palaeologus (1390–1448; emperor 1425–1448); the Patriarch of Constantinople, Joseph II, arguably the most important leader of the Eastern or Orthodox Church; a host of eminent Greek churchmen; Pope Eugenius IV (1383–1447; a pope 1431–1447); numerous cardinals; a large group of leaders of the Western Church; and a sizeable contingent of local notables. With impressive festivities and pageantry they were regaled with the formal announcement that the Church Council originally convened in Ferrara in 1438 and now meeting in Florence had concluded an agreement to reunite the Eastern Orthodox with the Western Catholic Church, ending almost a millennium of discord that had divided Christianity.


6.1. The Duomo in Florence (Santa Maria del Fiore). Photo: Scala/Art Resource, New York.

It seemed to be a great turning point in history. Making the reunion of the two churches even more significant, and in many ways making it possible, was the hope that a unified Christianity would be able to face the menace of an expanding Turkish Empire in the east, which threatened the Eastern Roman Empire centered in Constantinople. A crusade, it was hoped, would stop Turkish expansion in the east and strengthen the Eastern Roman Emperors in the bosom of a now unified Christianity. And it was not by chance that this agreement was reached in Florence, for the newly completed architectural masterpiece of Florence’s great Duomo was not only a testament to Rinascimento spiritual enthusiasm, artistic leadership, and technological virtù, it was a very visible measure of that city’s wealth, power, and leadership in Italy and Europe, all of which were deeply intertwined with the great wealth and European reach of its new leader, Cosimo de’ Medici, who had come to power in Florence just five years earlier.

In a way, then, Brunelleschi’s masterpiece, the Duomo, stood not just at the heart of Florence but at what was one of the main economic foci of the West. In fact, that was one reason why Pope Eugenius had moved his Church Council to Florence. Florentine wealth, and specifically a series of Florentine loans, had made the council possible, supporting the Greek leaders’ visit and aiding the pope with the considerable expense of hosting such a large gathering. Actually, Eugenius had been living in Florence for some time. Medici support, both financial and military, offered him a safe haven from a competing antipope, Felix V (1439–1449), and an aggressive Church Council that had dragged on for years in Basel (1431–1449) challenging Eugenius’s power. From that perspective, an additional motive for calling the council had been the hope that an embattled Eastern Empire and Eastern Orthodox Church would agree to a reunification of Christendom that would significantly reinforce papal authority in the West and the pope himself.

Of course, Medici support had its price. Papal banking, already heavily reliant on Florentines, now fell even more completely into the hands of the leading banker of his time, Cosimo de’ Medici. That, in turn, reinforced his informal but very real power in Florence. In essence, Florence under Cosimo could be touted as the city that brought together the greatest leaders of Europe and forged a peace that promised their eventual victory over the Turks. It was a mythic moment much like that much earlier mythic moment in 1177 when Venice had supposedly provided refuge for Pope Alexander III against the emperor Frederick Barbarossa, demonstrating its equality to those two great world powers. But this moment actually happened.

One might well ask why this potentially great event has not become a symbolic turning point in history. The answer is simple and at first seems straightforward. The union of Christendom dissolved almost as soon as it was announced. Within a short time the only remnants of that theoretically glorious reunion were a few major figures in the Eastern Church who joined the Western Church; a few leaders who continued to call for a crusade against the Turks; and a perhaps heightened interest in learning Greek among Western intellectuals. To make matters worse, the religious divisions and the lack of unity among European rulers was soon confirmed by Turkish successes in the east that culminated with the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and the collapse of the Eastern Empire, which had endured more than a thousand years. The Eastern Orthodox Church survived, albeit much weakened, living under Ottoman rule. Many of its leaders fled to the West. And a number moved north to Moscow, which soon was styling itself the Third Rome. In sum, what had seemed a momentous triumph, rich with symbolism for the future, turned into merely another moment of false hope or, worse yet, a telling harbinger of the inability of a deeply divided Christendom to work together to overcome even the most pressing threats.

Yet that moment in Florence’s impressive new Duomo, engineered in many ways by a cooperation between an aggressive pope trying to reestablish papal power and an aggressive new ruler in Florence, also reflected deeper changes that did have a future. First, it showcased Cosimo de’ Medici as a major player, not just in banking or in Italian affairs, but on a European scale. It also showcased what was becoming increasingly his Florence – a rich, lively city and cultural center, made richer yet by his patronage, banking, and investment in cloth production. Equally importantly, it highlighted the fact that the papacy was truly back in Italy. Eugenius IV was far from being a strong pope. And although he spent most of his papacy as a client of the Medici, living in exile from Rome in Florence (1434–1443) with his court, he aggressively fought to make the papacy a significant player in Italian and European affairs once again, with some success.

The Papal Court in Rome: Quiet Glory and a New/Old Courtly Aristocracy

The popes were back. Theoretically, of course, they had been back since the reign of Martin V (1368–1431; pope 1417–1431), who took office alone as pope in 1417, officially ending the Great Schism (1378–1417), and shortly thereafter, in 1420, returned to Rome. But when he returned he found a city badly damaged by the ongoing battles between local nobles, and a generally violent tenor of life. Establishing peace and his rule in the city and in the former Papal States became a top priority. This he saw as necessary in order to effectively establish Rome as a secure and safe base from which to rule the Church. In turn, in the Papal States this meant reestablishing papal power at the expense of locals who had usurped control while the papacy was away in Avignon or occupied by the Great Schism; and at the same time it required building broader diplomatic alliances that protected his power and rule. In this way Martin was refashioning himself as a prince, admittedly of the Church, but nonetheless acting much like any other princely ruler anxious to establish a firm power base and defend it. Regaining the Papal States, however, was not easy. Early on the death of the powerful condottiere and lord of Perugia, Braccio da Montone (1368–1424) – one of his main rivals in the area – led a number of prominent cities, including Perugia, Assisi, and Todi, to resubmit to papal rule. In short order they were joined by other cities further from Rome, beginning the long and conflicted process of reestablishing the traditional boundaries of the Papal States.

Martin also arranged a series of profitable marriages for members of his own important Roman family, the Colonna. One of his brothers became duke of Amalfi and prince of Salerno, creating an important foothold and a loyal defender in the south. Yet another brother became count of Alba. This form of nepotism, as it was negatively labeled by opponents, would also become a regular strategy of the popes seeking to secure their power and rule in Rome. And although it was without doubt nepotism, especially as Church revenues played a major role in furnishing the large dowries and special favors that smoothed the way for these advantageous marriage matches, it was also a tried and true princely form of diplomacy. What better way to extend one’s influence and protect one’s power than to extend one’s family networks via marriage into the powerful families of Italy and Europe.

Family, land, and political power, however, were not all a prince required in the Rinascimento. To be a true prince, one had to be princely. Yet if one had not been born a prince, and in many ways was really supposed to be a pious leader of a spiritual church, not a prince, one had to find ways to demonstrate merit in as unobjectionable a manner as possible. In Martin’s case, if he needed any examples, he found himself surrounded by signori, lords, and princes of questionable pedigree who demonstrated through their courts and patronage of the arts and learning their own virtù. Such patronage demonstrated what might be labeled the quiet glory of virtù – not greedy display or sinful consumption, but visible and laudable support of the most impressive cultural achievements of the day. In Martin’s case, he proclaimed that he was leading a rebirth of Rome and papal power as a prince of the Church, his own papal rinascimento. More generally, similar forms of patronage, displays of learning, and demonstrations of princely demeanor were becoming the order of the day at the courts that would-be notable princes gathered around themselves throughout Italy.

At first glance fifteenth-century Italian courts might seem merely a continuation or renewal of earlier medieval courts. But although to a degree they looked back to those earlier courts, in crucial ways they were different. First, as was the case with the culture of the Rinascimento, they were invariably urban, and they did not move about the territories that a prince controlled, following his peregrinations. Medieval courts, by contrast, tended to be rural and moved through the lands ruled by a noble or a prince, living off the wealth of the various underlords visited. Significantly, the denizens of medieval courts were usually a warrior nobility legally tied to their overlord in ways that ultimately turned on the military commitments that stood behind and legitimated a medieval nobility. Rinascimento courts, by contrast, encompassed a greater social mix, especially in the fifteenth century, with at times artist/artisans mixing with self-made bureaucrats, old noble families, and popolo grosso families who had risen to power and wealth in the more recent past, to form a decidedly new courtly aristocracy.

In fact, many members of these new courts comprised an increasingly aristocratic segment of the popolo grosso who had gained wealth and power across the fourteenth century. From this perspective, as discussed in Chapter 2, members of the Venetian merchant banker class who labeled themselves nobles in the early fourteenth century were not so much anomalous as ahead of the social developments elsewhere in their aristocratic pretensions. As the economic, social, and political leadership of the popolo grossobecame progressively more secure at the close of the fourteenth century and in the early fifteenth, they became progressively more aristocratic as well. This transition was at times helped along by intermarriage with older noble families, especially in the smaller towns and economically less advanced areas. But, on the whole, the trajectory that had seen the popolo minuto lose ground to the popolo grosso gradually saw the popolo grosso divide between a more prosperous and increasingly aristocratic core, on the one hand, and a lesser group of wealthy families who did not measure up to the newer standards that stressed grace and refined manners as central components of virtù and requirements for elite status, on the other. These were not new attributes of status added to the vision ofvirtù so much as they were traditional attributes that were being more strongly emphasized at the expense of what might be seen as the more utilitarian values of fourteenth-century elites, such as calculation, reason, and cunning.

The papal court, as it was reconstituted in Rome after the papacy’s return, provides a particularly good example of this, with certain significant caveats. Most notably, the papal court was both clerical and masculine, in contrast to courts elsewhere where women, at least in theory, played a central role and clerics were less dominant. In addition, the papal court tended to be an unstable entity, changing, often dramatically, from one relatively short-lived pope to the next, whereas the secular courts of Italy usually enjoyed a certain dynastic continuity, both in the ruling family and in the local families that participated. Martin V found it difficult even to get his court to join him in Rome after his return. Many were not particularly enthusiastic about moving to the relatively small town with less than 30,000 inhabitants that Rome had become, camping in the ruins of an ancient city that had once boasted a population of well over a million.

Poggio Bracciolini (1380–1459), the roughly contemporary book collector and classical scholar (recently made famous by Steven Greenblatt in his The Swerve: How the World Became Modern), described the city: “The hill of the Capitol … formerly the head of the Roman Empire … has fallen…. The path of victory is overgrown with vines, and the benches of the senators are concealed by a dunghill…. The forum of the Roman people … is now enclosed for the cultivation of herbs or thrown open for the pasturing of pigs.” Rome also was not particularly attractive because its environment was decidedly unhealthy, in terms of both disease and urban violence. The nearby swampy lands of the Campania, once drained by Roman emperors, had long since returned to being breeding grounds for swarms of mosquitoes that made malaria virtually endemic in the city. In turn, internecine warfare between noble families had become the order of the day in the absence of the papacy, with armed bands of supporters of various clans battling in the streets or from their own fortified compounds, often nestled in the ancient ruins. To make matters worse, the most powerful of those noble families had once dominated the College of Cardinals and the papacy itself; and many feared that in returning to Rome they would regain control of both. Martin, as noted, was a scion of one of the most powerful of those old Roman families, the Colonna, which only intensified such fears.

In the end, with all these things stacked against him, it is not surprising that Martin’s attempt to reestablish his court in Rome did not go particularly well. His successor, Eugenius IV, seemed only to confirm these negatives. Immediately problems with Martin’s powerful family forced him to flee to Florence, where he lived with his court, supported in part by Medici wealth for most of his papacy. Those years in exile, however, exposed Eugenius and his court to the vibrant cultural and artistic world that Cosimo, his supporters, and the city itself were cultivating as a demonstration of their own wealth and importance. The impressive hosting of Eugenius’s Church Council and the leaders of Christendom was just one example of the power of such display and of Cosimo’s own growing quiet glory.

Life at Eugenius’s court was described by a young scholar, Lapo da Castiglionchio, in his De Curiae Commodis (On the Benefits of the Curia), shortly before his untimely death at the age of thirty-three in 1438. In a recent study of Lapo, Christopher Celenza sensitively portrays this relatively unknown scholar’s description of the papal court, with its suggestive mix of a vibrant intellectual life and wealth, which so attracted him, and its highly visible vices, which troubled him. Perhaps trying to improve his chances for advancement, and certainly demonstrating his rhetorical cleverness, he often attempted to explain how even those vices might be seen as virtues. For example, speaking of gossip at court, he opined, “But whenever a conversation about lighter matters comes up, if it turns towards jest and gossip (for a great liberty and license is allowed in the Roman curia for reproaching and abusing) no one is spared, whether he is absent or present, and everyone is equally attacked…. Dinner parties, tavern life, pandering, bribes, thefts, adultery, rape and shameful deeds are publicly revealed.” Without missing a beat, Lapo smoothly turned this critique into yet another positive aspect of the court: “From this one acquires not only pleasure but also the greatest utility, since the life and character of all is thus placed before your eyes.” The result, he claimed, was that members of the court knew each other intimately and thus knew exactly how to deal with each other and “live[d] more wisely and more securely.”

He also praised the riches to be won at the court – although not always honestly, he admitted. Such wealth, for all its admitted negative attributes, he also defended as useful at least as far as it enhanced the glory and power of the Church. His highest praises, however – as might be expected, given his own scholarly pretensions – he reserved for the intellectual life of the court, which in his eyes included the greatest thinkers of the day, singling out as the most important Poggio; Giovanni Aurispa (1376–1459), another book collector and translator of Greek texts; Flavio Biondo (1392–1463), the noted historian of Italy, both ancient and medieval; and Leon Battista Alberti (1402–1472). Significantly, Lapo never speaks of any of them as a humanist or even as a follower of thestudia humanitatis. Biondo is portrayed as an erudite writer of history, Poggio as an urbane and witty writer, and Aurispa as so learned in the bonis artibus (perhaps a reference to the liberal arts) that little escaped his notice. Alberti is lauded as one whose mental power and wide range of abilities were unmatched. For Lapo, then, these luminaries of the papal court were men of great learning, eloquence, and doctrine whose enviable intellectual range was much broader than simply the studia humanitatis or what would have fit under a label like “humanist,” had it existed. Simply put, their cultural interests were much broader, as were those of the court of Eugenius and the day.

Eugenius’s successor, Nicholas V (1397–1455; pope 1447–1455), might be seen as the real architect of the rapid rise of both papal power in Rome and the papal court. A Tuscan by birth, trained at Bologna first in law and later in theology, he surrounded himself with a number of the leading intellectuals and artisans of his day. Many were drawn from Florence, where he had met and known them while he served there in pope Eugenius’s entourage. Reportedly he met daily in his Florentine days for scholarly discussions with the likes of Poggio and Giannozzo Manetti, among others. Back in Rome, his goal was to establish a glorious court that would attract the most creative artisans and intellectuals of the day. To make the city more attractive to such men, he began to build what would be the nucleus of a papal library based on his own collection of ancient authors and Christian authorities, including both the Church Fathers and Scholastic theologians of the Middle Ages, which reportedly came to include more than 5,000 volumes. In this endeavor he took advantage of his leadership of the Church to press clerics across Europe to search for little-known works in monastic and cathedral libraries and secure copies for his library. He was particularly interested in the Greek writers of the early Church and their predecessors in the ancient world. In turn, his library and court were enriched by scholars he recruited who were capable of translating those works into Latin in order to make them available to the majority of Western scholars still unable to read them in their original Greek.

This program was aided by a steadily growing flow of Greek scholars and churchmen fleeing the East, as the Turks advanced inexorably on Constantinople. When the city fell in 1453, that flow became a flood, with many of the refugees finding a place at Nicholas’s court. They brought with them important manuscripts, some of which also found their way into Nicholas’s library and many of which added to the excitement of a Greek revival in Rome. Thus, along with Nicholas’s drive to make Rome the new capital of the world, he and his supporters also began to portray his court and Rome as Athens reborn. As the glory of the classical world was seen as having shifted from Athens to Rome with the rise of the latter, that trajectory could now be seen as having completed a cycle, with his Rome giving rebirth to both ancient Athens and Rome.

Such a grandiose vision, and an only slightly more modest rhetoric of renewal, was matched by a revival of art and architecture in Rome that was orchestrated by Nicholas and that demonstrated his increasingly princely stature and at times not-so-quiet glory. On a practical plane he rebuilt the walls of the city and repaired many of its bridges and aqueducts. On a more spiritual but still utilitarian plane, he also repaired and redecorated many of the churches of the city that had fallen into disrepair; cleared and straightened the streets leading to the Vatican; rebuilt the papal palace itself; and began work on repairing Saint Peter’s Cathedral. To carry out these projects he brought to Rome a number of the best builders and architects of the day and apparently made use of Alberti and his architectural vision to plan a rebuilding of the city that, if realized, would have made it truly a capital of the world. And significantly, of course, all this novelty and aggressive aggrandizement of papal rule in Rome was once again packaged as anything but new or innovative. It was dominated over and over again by the now familiar “re” words: renewal, reform, rebirth. Rome was undergoing a rebirth of her ancient glories – no matter that it was led by a new pope, his new court, and a host of new painters, architects, and scholars.

One of the keys, however, to this papal rinascimento in Rome was yet another recall of the past – the fact that the city, like the papacy itself, could be seen as built on the body of Saint Peter, who had been martyred there and whose body was entombed in Saint Peter’s Cathedral. In this light, Flavio Biondo in his Roma instaurata (Rome Renewed), written in the mid-forties, had earlier, asserted that it was a mistake to see ancient Rome’s greatness as stemming from the bloody victories of her armies, as many contemporaries believed. Instead, he insisted that it was the blood of Christian martyrs that had made Rome a true capital of Christianity and the world. The true first “emperor” was Jesus Christ. He had passed his reign down to his apostle Peter, promising that upon that “rock” (a play in Latin on the double meaning of petrus as both rock and Peter) would be built his church. Biondo used this long-stressed doctrine of the Petrine or Apostolic Succession to promote Rome as a unique spiritual place with the mission of leading Christianity. Moreover, he noted that the city was exceptional because its monuments and churches were over and over again founded literally on the bodies of the martyrs of Christianity. What other city could boast that it housed the bodies of the apostles Peter and Paul, found in the Vatican, or the many other relics to be found under the altars of its churches.

Actually, many others made similar claims based on their own relics, bought or stolen over the centuries. But none, not even Venice, with its own apostolic claim to house the body of Saint Mark in Saint Mark’s Cathedral, could come close to Rome’s rich heritage, with trophies like the chains that held Peter in Herod’s prison in Jerusalem, now found in San Pietro in Vincoli; the ring sent directly from heaven to Saint Agnes; the grill on which Saint Lawrence was roasted; or, for that matter, the “fountains of sweet water” that rose from the spot where Saint Paul’s head fell when he was martyred in Rome. Most of these claims were not new, but now that the papacy had returned to Rome, they were marshaled aggressively by papal courtier/scholars, who emphasized them as part of a program that aggrandized the pope and his princely rule while associating the special destiny of the city with his role as the direct successor of Christ and the apostle Peter – virtually a papally inspired civic morality for urban Rome, stressing its renewal or rebirth as the capital of Christendom. With a paradoxical irony, then, the very civic morality that city-states had earlier developed in order to create parallel and essentially independent spiritual claims to legitimate their rule against the spiritual claims of the Church, was now being reinvented to empower papal claims to a special spiritual primacy.

Adding to such claims and to papal revenues as well, Pope Nicholas V declared 1450 a jubilee year for the Church. This was not an innovation on his part, as popes had been declaring jubilees every fifty years since the 1300 jubilee that brought our imaginary German pilgrim, Felix, to the city. But Nicholas used it to showcase the glory of his renewed Rome and his leadership of the Church. It was claimed that more than 40,000 pilgrims came to the city to take advantage of indulgences earned by visiting, and while the reality may have been more modest, the pope made the most of the event with a series of major processions and celebrations that proclaimed that Rome and the papacy were back and leaders of Europe. At the same time, the jubilee helped to refocus attention on the monuments and Christian heritage of the city and in turn helped to stimulate the revenue-producing potential of the city itself. For with better administration; rebuilt walls, churches, and streets; and a less violent tenor of life, Rome was ready to become one of the first tourist cities of the world. Of course, it had always been an attraction for those hardy pilgrims who braved the dangers of medieval travel to visit the holy city. What they had found, however, was another matter, for to many the holy city appeared to be only a holy village camped in the ruins of ancient Rome. Those who came for the jubilee of 1450 discovered a flourishing court and growing city that was on the way to becoming an impressive capital of Christian Europe.

Nicholas also increased the papacy’s role as a leader of Christianity following the fall of Constantinople in 1453 by calling a meeting of the main leaders of Italy to promote peace between them and once more to plan a crusade against the Turks. These were the last days of the Italian One Hundred Years’ War. The main belligerents were financially exhausted and ready for a peace that would stabilize their gains or limit their losses. Thus, although the pope’s meeting failed to gain more than rhetorical support for a counteroffensive against the Turks or a general peace, shortly thereafter, in 1454, the Peace of Lodi was signed, and the major parties to the conflict joined an Italian League that was pledged to maintain the peace in Italy for twenty-five years, officially ending the Italian Hundred Years’ War. Although the pledge was not always honored – mini-wars for territory in the Papal States, led by popes, were among the most significant breaches of the pact – a relative peace reigned in Italy until the mid-nineties, and the papacy attempted to demonstrate its leadership of the Christian West by championing a crusade against the Turks.

In fact, the popes that followed, Calixtus III (1378–1458; pope 1455–1458) and Pius II (1405–1464; pope 1458–1464), were less concerned with building the papal court or the city, preferring to focus on developing crusading plans. Calixtus of the Catalan family of Borja (Borgia in Italian), old and sickly when he gained the papacy, had played a long and significant role in establishing Aragonese power in the south of Italy and as pope continued calls for a crusade against the Turks. Much in what would become a Borgia tradition, he was also eager to aggrandize his family, appointing his nephew Roderigo cardinal (eventually he would become the notorious Borgia pope, Alexander VI [1492–1503]). In that context Calixtus also turned on the Aragonese, claiming that the kingdom of Naples was a papal fief, apparently in the hope of granting lands there to members of his family. Pius, a noted intellectual and classical scholar, spent more time building up Corsignano, his birthplace in Tuscany, into a beautiful little Rinascimento gem that he renamed Pienza, than he did on Rome or the papal court. Also, for a man who had been elected pope in the hope that he would maintain the peace finally gained with the Peace of Lodi, he spent much of his papacy deeply involved in war and diplomatic wrangling.

More curious at first glance, but more significant for his crusading initiatives, was the account that Pius provided in his autobiographical Commentaries of his welcoming of the apostolic head of Saint Andrew to Rome. It had been safely deposited in the Greek city of Patras, but had been forced to flee the Turkish invasion of the area in 1460, aided in this by Thomas Palaeologus, lord of the Morea. Pius offered Palaeologus sanctuary at the papal court and a pension to live comfortably as a lord in exile, in return for the head. But it had to wait to enter Rome until large new statues of the apostles Peter and Paul were placed in the square before Saint Peter’s Cathedral and until the square itself had been redone to provide a suitable setting for the reunion between the apostolic brothers Andrew and Peter. Once all had been prepared, the head was brought to a place just outside the gates of the city on the day after Palm Sunday, April 12, 1462, where it was met by the pope and a large entourage of cardinals, churchmen, important dignitaries, and an enthusiastic populace.

Pius notes in his autobiography that, overcome by tears, he welcomed the head, crying out, “You arrive at last, most sacred and adored head of the holy Apostle…. This city that you see before you is mother Rome, blessed by your brother’s precious blood. To this people gathered here [to greet you] your most loving brother the Apostle, Saint Peter and with him the chosen vessel, Saint Paul, gave rebirth [regeneravit] to Christ’s Rule.” The message was clear: this Rome, Pius’s Rome, was the destined final resting place of the apostles of Christ and quite literally the rock on which the Church and its mission were built. But he ended his welcome with a solemn prayer that made his vision of the Church’s mission clear: “Omnipotent and Everlasting God, Who rules Heaven and Earth, Who has today deigned to grace us with the arrival of the precious head of Saint Andrew, Your Apostle, grant, we pray, that through his merits and intercession the insolence of the faithless Turk may be crushed, all infidels may cease troubling us, and Christians serve You in freedom and safety. This we ask in the name of Christ our Lord.” The assembled host, he reported, replied, “Amen.”

Adding weight to the pope’s plea to defend Christians and “Christ’s honor” with a crusade against the Turks was the fact that Saint Andrew was often seen as the apostle to Greece, and thus in a way his head joining his brother’s in Rome seemed to reinforce the idea that the Eastern and Western Churches were reuniting and ready to defend Christendom as a whole. In his autobiography he put the call for a crusade in the mouth of the famed theologian and intellectual Cardinal Bessarion (1402–1472), himself a refugee from the East and a convert to the Western Church. Bessarion made an impassioned speech to the head of Andrew when the Apostles were finally united in the cathedral, once again before a large crowd of the faithful. “What will you do now?” he queried the head face to face.

Will you be unmoved or slow against the impious Turks…. Will you accept such deeds? You have today a successor [Pius II] who besides his other virtues cherishes in his heart this supreme purpose, this desire to avenge by righteous punishment the innocent blood of Christians that has been so cruelly shed. Now plowshares must be beaten into swords…. Now must your zeal blaze forth … and the Church founded on the rock that is Christ may prevail against the gates of hell.

And if anyone had missed the point, he ended his speech by exhorting Pius to call the princes of Europe to a crusade that the pope himself should lead. In this he was evidently well coached, as that was exactly what Pius had been planning and almost certainly was why Pius had brought the apostle Andrew’s head to Rome. With great difficulty Pius actually managed to bring together a crusading army and fleet at the Adriatic port city of Ancona. But, old and sickly, he died shortly after joining the troops who had reluctantly gathered there and who were melting away even before he arrived; thus, he never led his crusade and never got a chance to test the mettle of Andrew’s head or the bones of Paul and Peter in battle. Instead, his crusade dissolved in bickering between its secular leaders and never left Italy.

Paul II (1417–1471; pope 1464–1471), who succeeded Pius, has not fared well at the hands of historians or many of his contemporaries, for that matter. He was a patron of the arts and had his own rebuilding program in Rome, but he was troubled by the growth of the papal bureaucracy and the way in which offices were increasingly sold and traded. Thus he fired many of the scholars and intellectuals in the papal bureaucracy, a move that was not popular with them or their fellows and that seriously weakened his court. Adding to his negative reputation in the eyes of scholarly contemporaries, he was reportedly not a good Latinist. Some even claimed that he conducted too much of the business of the Church in Italian, a signal sin in the eyes of fifteenth-century intellectuals proud of their mastery of a revived classical Latin. Adding to his negative repute, it appears that he was not particularly enthusiastic about the classics or pagan culture more generally, which he saw as undermining Christian piety.

In this context Paul was especially worried about a group of intellectuals who met regularly in what some called the Roman Academy. Apparently he feared that in their enthusiasm for classical antiquity they were more pagan than Christian. No doubt the pope’s concern was accentuated by a number of scurrilous poems and invectives attacking him that had reportedly been written by members of the academy. Given that many of them had been dismissed from their posts as part of his reforms, such rumors had their logic. Tensions came to a head in 1468 when he dissolved the academy, accusing its members of a conspiracy against him as well as paganism, heresy, and sodomy, throwing a number in jail and even torturing a few. This clearly did not improve his image with the academy or its supporters and earned him a number of posthumous biographical sketches that portrayed him as ignorant, moody, grasping, and corrupt.

His successor, Sixtus IV (1414–1484; pope 1471–1484), for all his famed nepotism, his battles with Florence, and his role in the founding of the Spanish Inquisition (1478), was nonetheless portrayed by the scholars at his court in a much more positive light. An avid patron of the arts and scholarship, perhaps more than any previous pope he has been given the credit for establishing Rome and the papal court as a leading force in the Rinascimento. This may well have been because he undid the short-lived reforms of his predecessor, rebuilding the papal bureaucracy and staffing it with many of the scholars and intellectuals that Paul had fired and reinstituting the system of buying and trading offices. Labeled “veniality,” this system may be traced back at least to Bonaface IX (1359–1404; a pope 1389–1404). At first it was a fairly informal practice, but it soon developed into a system whereby the person originally appointed to a post in the papal curia withdrew, giving it to another for a fee. As the fee was regularly paid over time, it became a form of revenue for the original holder of the post.

Things quickly became more complex and corrupt. People began to pay the pope directly for an office. Thus the pope immediately gained needed revenues. Over time, however, the officeholder earned enough in office to turn a profit on his original investment, thus making the payments something very close to a hidden interest payment on a hidden loan to the papacy. These offices, however, were not limited to the first buyer, and that created a lively business in resales. To make matters worse, as the offices sold were to be held only for the life of the buyer, a range of scams developed designed to hold onto the office after the death of the original buyer. All required a dose of corruption to work and created a series of mini-intrigues that made the system even more profitable for those who knew how to play it. When Paul briefly abolished the whole mess, the system had already become so regularized that the papal bureaucracy itself was actually charging a tax on many of these highly questionable transactions, and such fees had become a significant source of revenue.

Most offices of the papal bureaucracy that were more administrative than spiritual came to be capitalized in this way, with the family of an officeholder having the right to sell the office at his death as long as the correct fee was paid. Under Sixtus, the approximately 300 offices involved before Paul’s reforms grew rapidly to over 600. By the papacy of Pope Leo X in the early sixteenth century, they had ballooned to over 2,000. The system was so lucrative for all involved that it actually endured down to the early twentieth century and was copied by many other bureaucracies during the early modern period. The negative impact of this practice has been well rehearsed by both modern scholars and contemporaries. Not only did it encourage what was essentially the buying and selling of Church offices – the much decried sin of simony – it also meant that many rich and powerful families treated some of the most important offices of the Church as private investments.

But for all the negatives of the system, it frequently benefited scholars and courtiers. Some offices could be bought directly by patrons for their protégées or awarded by the pope directly to noted intellectuals. The most successful could amass large fortunes; the more humble could at least find a relatively secure income and the freedom to pursue their scholarly interests. Thus the system not only increased papal revenues, it also significantly increased papal glory and magnificence, expanding the number of intellectuals and writers who graced a pope’s court. From this perspective, Sixtus, like Nicholas V, was especially interested in building the glory of his papacy, his court, and Rome itself by emphasizing once again that all three were undergoing a renewal of their ancient glories. Like many of his predecessors, then, he spent freely on the city’s walls, roads, aqueducts, and bridges – most notably the elegant Ponte Sisto constructed over the Tiber, named after him – with an eye to improving the living conditions in the city and its appeal to visitors. Perhaps most significantly, he had built the Sistine Chapel, which was to become the ceremonial center of the Church. Reportedly he played a significant role in choosing its decorative themes – parallel events in the life of Moses and Christ – and brought in from Florence a group of some of the best artists of the day to paint the frescoes he envisioned.

Glory was the story: artisan/artists competing for glory; the Sistine chapel representing the glory of Sixtus himself; and the whole package representing to a broader world the reborn glory of Rome and the papacy. Sixtus also continued in the footsteps of Nicholas V, expanding the papal library as a resource for scholars and a repository for the most important manuscripts of classical and modern authors. He added as well a number of less prized, but still significant, newly printed books. The library was moved into new quarters and was graced with the leadership of a major scholar, Bartolomeo Platina (1421–1481), who previously had been imprisoned and tortured by Paul II for his alleged role in the antipapal plot by the Roman Academy. Nothing could be more indicative of Sixtus’s rejection of Paul’s suspicion of scholars of the classics and what he saw as their dangerous fascination with paganism. Not only had Sixtus reestablished the Roman Academy and encouraged its celebration of the city’s ancient past as part of his own program of Roman aggrandizement, he had placed the supposed ringleader of that dangerous pagan revival in charge of the Vatican library itself. He then forcefully demonstrated his commitment to the library and its collection of the classics by having his favorite artist, Melozzo da Forlì (1438–1494), do a fresco for the library representing the pope giving the office of Vatican librarian to Platina, with several of his prominent nephews in attendance (Illustration 6.2). Platina, like the good courtier that he was or at least had become in the pope’s service, reciprocated with a literary campaign that once again stressed Sixtus’s glory and his renewed Rome.


6.2. Melozzo da Forlì, Sixtus IV Confirming Platina as Papal Librarian, 1477, Pinoteca Vaticana, Rome (originally in the Vatican Library). Photo: Scala/Art Resource, New York.

But what exactly was Sixtus’s court? At a technical level the answer is relatively simple: the papal court was formally made up of his famiglia, just another fictive corporation or family that included dependents, both lay and clerical, who assisted the pope in his religious, administrative, cultural, and personal life. But having said this, things rapidly become less clear. On the one hand, many members of the papal famiglia were menials, hardly the courtiers that discussions of the papal court normally focus on, even if they may have frequented it as servants and lesser functionaries. On the other, the extensive staff of the papal bureaucracy or curia, as it was known, was also closely involved with the famiglia and the court, some even officially becoming members of the famiglia. Usually, however, when outsiders, or even Romans themselves, referred to the papal court they were alluding more to an imagined community than to the actual papal famiglia or the curia. In some ways this imagined nature of the papal court actually worked to the pope’s advantage, because the glory of his court and his own glory could be increased by notables, leading cultural figures, and even artisan/artists working in the city who often had a rather distant relationship to the pope, or no relationship at all. Artists whom Sixtus IV called to Rome, such as Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, Perugino, Pinturicchio, and even Melozzo da Forlì, or papal secretaries with scholarly reputations who served him were imagined as significant players at his court. But the reality of their role and the very nature of courtly life at the papal court remain elusive.

Moreover, it was not the only court in town. Following the return of the papacy to Rome, cardinals also established elaborate courts of their own there. Actually, notable cardinals had had courts at Avignon as well, but now they established them in the eternal city, often in competition with each other and at times with the princely glory of the papacy. Perhaps the most magnificent cardinal’s court in Sixtus’s day was that of his favorite nephew, Pietro Riario (c. 1445–1474). Riario was made a cardinal (as well as archbishop of Florence and Patriarch of Constantinople) by his uncle at the age of twenty-six, shortly after the latter’s elevation to the papacy. Pietro’s court in its heyday employed 500 people and had an annual budget of about 150,000 scudi. According to the rather fawning account provided by one of his courtiers, Ottavio Cleofilo, the young cardinal held lively discussions there in which he personally participated along with an impressive circle of poets, architects, painters, singers, physicians, astrologers, philosophers, and classical scholars. Hyperbole or mere description, these gatherings added to the prestige of Riario, who seemed well on his way to succeeding his uncle and becoming pope himself until his “untimely” death in 1474, perhaps helped by Venetian poison, cut short the intrigues that swirled around him. Riario’s princely glory died with him, but not before it added significantly to the notoriety of the courtly life of Rome, as did the courts of a number of other cardinals.

That notoriety was, as Riario’s demise suggests, not always positive. The search for visibility and glory, for example, was also part of a larger competition for power between cardinals, who used their courts as one more tool in the ongoing jockeying to win the papacy. But the obverse was true as well: belittling, mocking, or even the more direct defeat of another cardinal’s courtiers in street battles were also seen as advancing one cardinal and his court over another. Thus poets, writers, and scholars could be used to attack opponents, both verbally and at times physically, as well as to sing the praises of patrons. In fact, the high level of violence that remained in Rome after the pacification programs of the fifteenth century were often attributed by contemporaries to such violent confrontations between the members of various cardinal’s courts. Moreover, with cardinals often dividing along dynastic or “national” lines – Italian, French, Spanish, and German being the most common – the potential for competition and open conflict was greater yet.

Even the old noble families of the city entered the courtly competition. The most important usually had a cardinal or two among their number, and family courts could then be integrated into their households. But when that was not the case, the more powerful of the old Roman families tried to emulate the courts of cardinals. In addition, a few of the most successful bankers in the city followed along in building courts to proclaim their glory, perhaps most notably the powerful Chigi family. Fifteenth-century Rome, then, with its cacophony of courts, rich patrons, seekers of power and glory, and a renewed papal prince was being transformed from a sleepy ghost town into an impressive reborn ancient Athens, classical Rome and a new/old Holy City that would play an increasingly central role in a more courtly and aristocratic second phase of the Rinascimento. The papacy was definitely back, and its increasing glory and impressive courts were quietly and not so quietly proclaiming its pope/prince as at once a spiritual leader and a powerful ruler.

Naples and Its Courtly World

Papal claims to rule the center of Italy, however, often brought it into tense contact with its neighbors: Florence to the north, Venice to the northeast, and Naples to the south. In the early Rinascimento the kingdom of Naples had been in many ways an anomaly from the perspective of the cities of northern Italy, for in the fourteenth century it was under the control, and in many ways the cultural leadership, of the French in the form of Angevin rulers and a more traditional social order that featured a complex combination of feudal forms and Mediterranean commercial contacts. Naples itself had a rich court life mixing French, Italian, Norman, and Mediterranean influences that had attracted the likes of northern artists such as Giotto and greatly influenced the young Boccaccio, who saw in its courtly graces an attractive, uplifting ideal for his own popolo grosso world. But although it was one of the larger cities in Europe, it was essentially an administrative capital, more like London or Paris than the productive urban centers of the north and center of Italy. Thus it remained largely a city that consumed rather than produced and featured an elite dominated by a more traditional nobility, with artisans and popolo remaining relatively weak, both socially and politically. To a degree its language and its proximity to and commercial ties with the rest of the peninsula made the break less stark than it has at times been portrayed – and there was plenty of interchange between the north and the south – but in the first Rinascimento, Naples and its kingdom remained a curious hybrid, too Mediterranean, rich, and Italian to fit easily into the world of northern Europe and at the same time too agricultural, noble-dominated, and rural to fit into the urban, popolo grosso world of the Rinascimento.

The kingdom of Naples had already built important bridges to the culture of the Rinascimento in the fourteenth century. But the process accelerated as the north of Italy became more courtly and aristocratic in the fifteenth century and as Naples became more deeply involved in the affairs of the north. Perhaps the moment that best symbolizes this is the triumphal entry in February 1443 of Alfonso I (1396–1458), son of Ferdinand I of Aragon, into Naples in a golden chariot through a hastily constructed Roman triumphal arch. Alfonso was already king of Aragon, Sicily, and Sardinia, making him, along with the Turks and the Venetians, one of the primary powers in the Mediterranean. Yet what is striking about the moment is that we find the son of a king from Aragon, with little or no Italian/Roman heritage, claiming the throne of the kingdom of Naples in a ceremony that harkened back to ancient Roman triumphs and echoed the imperial claims of many of the signori of the northern city-states.

Therein lies another complex tale of what is frequently called “bedroom diplomacy” – marriages between ruling families arranged to secure dynastic territorial goals – stretching back at least to the thirteenth century. To make that long story as short as possible, the key moment arrived in 1282, when the bastard son of the Emperor Frederick II married into the royal family of Aragon in order to gain their support for his attempt to secure control of Sicily. The house of Aragon, one of the most powerful on the Iberian peninsula, had long been interested in playing a major role in the Mediterranean, and they viewed a Sicilian connection as a strategic asset in that context. Following that marriage and descending through a long complex chain of at times rather questionable inheritances, an Aragonese claim to Sicily, and more vaguely to the south of Italy, was kept alive until finally, in 1443, Alfonso (already king of Aragon) conquered the kingdom of Naples, settling the matter by force.

His legal claim to rule, however, was rather tenuous. It seems that in 1420 the ruling queen of Naples, Joanna II, had been convinced by the latest in a series of her colorful lovers to adopt Alfonso as her son and heir in return for his military support in quelling the unrest among her nobility. But that dynastic alliance was short-lived, as Joanna found her new “loving” son pressing a bit too hard to rule before she had actually passed away; thus she disinherited him and in 1423 found a more patient son and protector in Louis of Anjou. When Louis died shortly thereafter fighting to defend her kingdom, she took his brother René as her heir, and things finally seemed settled. Eventually she did die in 1435. And at that point Alfonso reappeared to press his doubtful claim to the throne as her first adopted son, even if he had been disinherited. After a series of unlikely turns of fate, he finally defeated René in 1442 and took Naples in 1443. Pope Eugenius IV then became involved and – perhaps unwisely, given the future tensions between Naples and the papacy – recognized Alfonso as ruler of Naples and his illegitimate son Ferrante as his heir in return for Alfonso’s recognition of the pope as his feudal overlord. Needless to say, he did not do this out of the kindness of his heart or because of the quality of Alfonso’s claim to Naples, but rather in return for Alfonso’s support against the Conciliar Movement that was contesting his own power as pope. Tangled webs indeed.

Machiavelli would later discuss Alfonso’s strategy for ruling Naples as an ideal example of the way a new prince should govern. And one might claim, ahistorically, that Alfonso reciprocated, as he was in many ways a perfect Machiavellian prince avante le lettre, preferring to be feared rather than loved, but seeking to be both as much as possible. He was ruthless in putting down noble unrest, but at the same time patronized an impressive court and pressed to make Naples a lively cultural capital in competition with Rome, Florence, and Venice. Much in the spirit of the Rinascimento, he stressed his connections to and close affiliation with the ancient world, as even his entry into the city through a faux-Roman victory arch in 1443 proclaimed. If anyone had missed the point, when he rebuilt the great fortress that dominated the city, he incorporated into its Gothic structure a larger-yet Roman triumphal arch as its entry gate. Wedged rather inelegantly between dark battlements, the arch’s contrasting white marble sculptures depicted his earlier triumphal entry into the city. Their classicism echoed the depiction of ancient Roman triumphs to be seen on numerous classical columns and buildings in Rome, Italy, and throughout what had once been the Roman Empire. Rich in symbolic details that attached Alfonso to various crucial first times often evoked during the Rinascimento, he even depicted himself protected from the sun by an umbrella that recalls those of the pope, the emperor, and the Venetian doge – a traditional symbol of rulership.

An inveterate warrior who was frequently at war with his neighbors, Alfonso also used his court and patronage to depict himself as a deserving prince rather than a mere conqueror and tyrant. His search for a glorious reputation was carefully enhanced by the classical scholars and noted artists whom he attracted to his court with the goal of giving it a decidedly Rinascimento reputation. Naples, as a large European capital with a lively court, had always attracted northerners searching for patronage, but now, with an increasingly courtly world in the cities of the north, a circulation between courts became easier and parallels between the various courtly cultures of the peninsula more meaningful. One of Alfonso’s most prominent and enthusiastic courtiers was the classical scholar Antonio Beccadelli, called Panormita (1394–1471), who wrote a laudatory biography of him. Panormita had lived a well-travelled and rather colorful life before joining Alfonso. Born in Palermo, he studied in Siena along with another famous classical scholar, Eneas Silvio Piccolomini, later Pope Pius II. Their reportedly wild student days are often seen as a partial source for the erotic and racy material to be found in his perhaps most famous, or infamous, work the Hermafroditus (1425), a series of epigrams in Latin verse that drew heavily upon the ancient Roman poet Martial. After serving as court poet and historian at the court of Filippo Maria Visconti in Milan, he joined Alfonso in 1434 and followed him on his successful quest to take Naples. During that period he served as Alfonso’s secretary, tutor to his son, and occasionally as a diplomat as well.

Yet, perhaps more significantly for his patron’s classical cultural pretensions, Panormita reported that every day he read to his prince Livy and other ancient authors, because Alfonso loved the classics so much that he could not go a day without his revitalizing dose of ancient culture. Moreover, he claimed that even when Alfonso was in the field, he required his daily measure of classical readings and declared that he had learned more about warfare from Caesar and other ancient authors than from practical experience in battle. Such claims certainly won the hearts of many scholars, then as well as now, but, more importantly, they helped place him squarely in the midst of the cultural world of the cities and princes of the north of Italy.

Adding to his Rinascimento reputation, Alfonso also patronized and protected the often-controversial Lorenzo Valla (1407–1457). From 1437 to 1448, when he left to go to Rome to serve as papal secretary, Valla thrived in Alfonso’s entourage, producing some of his most important works, as discussed earlier. His famous proof that the supposed Donation of Constantine was a forgery and his Elegantiarum Latinae Linguae (On the Elegance of the Latin Language), which traces the development of ancient Latin, were both written during this period. He also wrote works attacking clerical corruption and defending the idea that salvation was gained by God’s grace and faith rather than by works; all of which seems to make him more of a precursor of Luther than a proto-humanist. Less controversially, he also wrote a laudatory life of Ferdinand I of Aragon, Alfonso’s father, that once again glorified the family. One modern critic decried it as a work “lacking in the critical spirit with which he approached classical texts,” but then that was required of him as the client of a prince with an unlikely Roman heritage who sought glory and legitimacy, and the controversial Valla needed that support.

Alfonso also patronized noted scholars like Poggio Bracciolini, whom he rewarded handsomely for translating Xenophon’s Cyropaedia, a treatise on the education of King Cyrus of Persia and princes in general. And he even invited the noted Florentine classical scholar and statesman Giannozzo Manetti (1396–1459) to his court in 1455. Reportedly Manetti had once induced the condottiere Sigismondo Malatesta to desert Alfonso to fight for Florence against him, but, more eager for glory than holding a grudge, he welcomed Manetti to his court as yet another master of ancient languages, as well as a noted biblical scholar. This open-handed support of scholars certainly contributed to his reputation as “Alfonso the Magnanimous.” It was even reported in glowing prose that the aristocrats of his court attended the daily classical readings he sponsored and that his commanders enjoyed similar pleasures with his army in the field. Be that as it may, it does seem that the more powerful of his barons living in Naples aped his princely ways and classical interests, also patronizing scholars and artists, who contributed in turn to making the city a vital cultural center. It should be remembered, however, that this glory was costly, and the title “magnanimous” applies less well to his need to extract revenues from the peasants and barons of his kingdom. Peasant unrest and baronial resistance, in fact, often kept him and his armies in the field, as did his ongoing wars with his neighbors.

At his death his less-than-magnanimous reality contributed to the problems his illegitimate son, Ferrante (c. 1431–1494), faced. A wide range of opponents materialized who were anxious to deny his claims to the throne, including the house of Anjou, now led by Jean of Anjou, along with much of the local Neapolitan nobility eager to escape what they saw as the heavy hand of the Aragonese. In a first moment the pope, Calixtus III, who had been a longtime supporter of Aragon in Italy, claimed that the kingdom should revert to the Church in the absence of a legitimate heir, as noted earlier, apparently with an eye to divvying it up among the members of his family. But after his death, Pius II, hoping to find a crusading ally, one perhaps more substantial than the apostle Andrew’s head, supported Ferrante’s claim, both verbally and militarily. Also important were marriage alliances made between the Neapolitan Aragonese and the Sforza rulers of Milan, who came to his support. Thus, with some of the most powerful papalcondottieri at his side, he eventually defeated Jean of Anjou and put down his rebellious nobles after six years of fighting. His reign followed much in the pattern of his father’s, with perhaps a heavier dose of repression and taxation, and with a more prominent northern Italian role in both his bureaucracy and court. All of which underlined the fact that Naples, and with it Aragon, were moving from being a powerful neighbor of the urban world in the north to becoming central players in the developments of Italian society and culture in the second Rinascimento.

At his court, Ferrante spent heavily to attract some of the leading lights of his day, including Panormita, Pontano, and a younger Sannazaro (1456–1530), all of whom, like most hired-gun intellectuals of the day, celebrated their patron’s rule, giving local traditions and his power a glorifying coat of classical brilliance and Roman ancestry. Panormita, as already noted, had served his father and, along with his other duties, had been Ferrante’s tutor. In later years he served as a learned diplomat for him. Pontano, who had studied at Perugia, joined Panormita in the service of Ferrante’s father early on, and the two collaborated closely, starting an informal classical academy that, under Pontano’s leadership, would eventually become known as the Neapolitan Academy, although like most such “academies” at the time it was apparently quite loosely organized. Learned in Greek and Latin and noted for a wide range of works – from poetry to philosophy and prescriptive literature on love, the family, and social issues, to satire, astrology, rhetoric,and botany – Pontano became a close advisor to Ferrante and eventually his learned chancellor in the mold of the learned chancellors of the north, famed for their rhetorical skill and Latin learning.

Jacopo Sannazaro succeeded Pontano as leader of the academy and, like him, was a noted Latin stylist who with classical inspiration wrote on a wide range of topics. His most famous work was L’arcadia, a classical pastoral tale of love written in Tuscan in both verse and prose. In selecting Tuscan rather than Neapolitan dialect for his classicizing tale of the love of the young shepherd Sincero, who goes to Greece to live an idyllic life among the shepherds there, Sannazaro once again placed Neapolitan literature at the center rather than on the periphery of Italian intellectual life and glory. For the Neapolitan court and its prince, however, such glory could not overcome the one thing that brought down even the most successful of princes – death.

And Ferrante chose exactly the right moment to die, for Aragonese glory and the classical rinascimento in Naples have brought us to 1494, a tragic year in the history not just of Naples but of the Rinascimento as a whole. In that year Italy’s long relative freedom from invasion from the north came to a brutal and unexpected end with the invasion of Italy by the young king of France, Charles VIII. Although that invasion will be discussed later, suffice it to say here that Charles had begun his invasion in order to reclaim Naples from Ferrante, whom he once again depicted as an illegitimate bastard who held the kingdom illegally. Within the year Charles’s claims were vindicated as he rode triumphantly into the city with his troops, much as Alfonso I had done fifty-one years earlier, but as a French king, not as a pseudo-Roman Aragonese Rinascimento prince – and with rather different results, as we shall see.

The Gonzaga Court in Mantua

Meanwhile, in the northern half of Italy, as papal expansion and the wars of the first half of the fifteenth century eliminated many of the independent cities that had been such a distinctive feature of the early Rinascimento, a few survived and flourished. In fact, the wars actually contributed to their survival, because they were ruled by signori who served the larger powers as condottieri, augmenting their revenues with their warrior’s wages and winning them the protection of the larger neighbors they served. At times clever and quite flexible diplomacy and rapid shifts in employers were also necessary for survival. In turn, in cities ruled by condottieri lords such as Ferrara, Urbino, Rimini, Pesaro, and Mantua, their signori built up courts that once again demonstrated their glory and presented them as more than warrior/tyrants. And in this regard they and their courts played a crucial role in fashioning the second, more aristocratic and courtly era of the Rinascimento.

Although smaller and often poorer than their Roman or Neapolitan counterparts, their courts were also vibrant centers of a new and more aristocratic cultural flourishing that once again was viewed, albeit with some difficulty, as not new but old. Classical Roman precedents, of course, had to be found and stressed, but often these smaller courts played on local medieval traditions with a militaristic emphasis that drew on the first times of the Middle Ages as well. Those largely mythic first times had been kept alive in the more general imagination by the highly popular tales of Charlemagne, his various knights, and their romantic adventures, along with the equally popular cycle of stories of the adventures of King Arthur, the knights of his Round Table, their loves, and their search for the Holy Grail. Although Mantua was probably not the most important of these cities, and while the Gonzaga who ruled there were not the richest, they were the most long-lived and most successful in the long run, ruling the city first as Captains of thePopolo from 1328, when they wrested power from earlier signori; then as marquises of the emperor from 1433; and finally as dukes of the emperor from 1530 until 1707.

Mantua is a smallish city on the Mincio River in the center of the Lombard plain on one of the routes that Felix might have followed on his pilgrimage to Rome in 1300. As the Mincio runs in a southeasterly direction from Lake Garda in the north to eventually join the Po on its way to the Adriatic, it was blessed with a central location for transport in some of the richest agricultural territory of a fertile agricultural plain. Well before the rise of the Gonzaga family, the marshy territory around the city and frequent floods caused by the Mincio had been tamed to a degree by hydraulic works that surrounded the city with a series of lakes, which also helped to protect it from invasion (giving it a distinctive and beautiful setting). Unfortunately, those same lakes and the lowlands that surrounded them were also ideal for the breeding of mosquitoes and contributed to problems with malaria that dogged the city. Geography, however, did place it in a fortunate position during the wars of the fifteenth century, as it sat conveniently at the outer limits of both Milanese and Venetian territorial claims; thus its rulers were able to play one city off against another and use their skills as condottieri in the service of first one and then the other in order to sustain their independence.

As Machiavelli later opined, a ruler was most likely to survive if he was loved as well as feared. As condottieri the Gonzaga had the military power to be feared and were willing to use it as necessary. To be loved, however, required more. A brilliant court once again, along with a beautiful city and the quiet glory of impressive scholars, artists, and architects, all went together to make a ruler seem a true prince or at least to broadcast the claim. Already in the fourteenth century, after taking over the city with considerable violence, the Gonzaga garnered their first moments of glory. Guido Gonzaga, for example, who ruled in the 1360s, brought the poet Petrarch to the city several times. His grandson, Francesco I (1366–1407), began a series of major rebuilding projects that associated the religious and cultural life of the city more closely with the Gonzaga family and in the process patronized noted architects from both Milan and Venice. Much in the spirit of the Rinascimento, he also took over one of the city’s most important relics from Christian first time, the sacra pisside, a pix that held a small amount of Christ’s blood, reportedly brought to the city by the Roman centurion Longinus in 37 A.D. This had long been safely locked up in a local monastery, but Francesco brought it out and displayed it for the Feast of the Ascension in 1401, an event regularly repeated thereafter. Sponsored by the Gonzaga, it attracted large numbers of pilgrims and once again associated their rule with one of the key first times of their city.

The pix of Christ’s blood became a continuing refrain in the celebration of the glory of the Gonzaga. When the emperor Sigismund visited Gianfrancesco Gonzaga (1395–1444; ruled 1407–1444) to invest him as marquise in 1433, he confirmed the imperial connection by marrying Gianfrancesco’s son and heir, Ludovico, to his niece Barbara of Brandeburg. To celebrate the occasion Gianfrancesco issued a silver coin that on one side featured a mix of Gonzaga and imperial heraldry and on the reverse a stylized rendition of the city itself, surrounded by lakes and punctuated at its heart by an out-of-scale and dominating depiction of the pix. As the business of the city was transacted with its coins, its special first time, imperial connections, and Gonzaga glory were all reiterated over and over again. The message was so powerful and so perfectly Rinascimento – with money, religion, and ideology all forged into the everyday – that it was repeated by virtually every generation of the Gonzagas, with each ruler minting his own version of the coin that offered an image of the sacred blood of Christ at the center of their city.

Gianfrancesco utilized an eclectic mix of the ancient and the medieval, almost always, however, stressing first times and the rebirth of their original glory. Perhaps motivated by his new status as marquise, he initiated a series of building and redecorating programs to upgrade the many family villas that dotted the countryside around the city as well as the Palazzo Ducale. Freely mixing classical motifs, scenes from chivalric romances, and hunting and agricultural vistas, the result was a testament to the warrior’sself-presentation as a cultured warrior-prince. Perhaps the most discussed of these renovations is the Sala del Pisanello in the Palazzo Ducale, named after the painter Antonio Pisanello (c. 1390–1455), who had worked at many of the most important courts of the day. Although badly damaged by later redecoration, and much contested by art historians after being uncovered in the late 1960s, the main subject of the unfinished work appears to have been drawn from popular French medieval romances based on the legends of the first time of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table. Jousting knights and fair princesses share the scene with Gonzaga warhorses (a favorite subject of Gianfrancesco), shining armor, Gonzaga banners, and heraldic colors. At first apparently distant from the Rinascimento, it fits comfortably with the topos of returning to superior first times. And for a noted condottiere like Gianfrancesco, clearly his military first times filled with stories of the great deeds of mythic first rulers like Arthur and Charlemagne do not seem so strange from the perspective of our broader Rinascimento.

For Gianfrancesco, this first chivalric world and its glory evidently lived on with relative ease along with his other Rinascimento interests. For at the same time he was actively supporting the revival of ancient Rome in Modena as well – and so visibly that Alberti actually dedicated his volume On Painting to him in an effort to gain his patronage, a ploy that eventually bore fruit with a number of architectural commissions. In this context Gianfrancesco was also an important patron and supporter of Vittorino da Feltre’s new school in Mantua, with its emphasis on the studia humanitatis discussed earlier. In fact, his son Ludovico studied for a time at the school, as did Ludovico’s wife, and their studies played a significant role in the cultural life they encouraged in the city and at their ever more glorious court.

Once again nicely suggesting this mix, Ludovico (1412–1478; ruled 1444–1478), soon after he succeeded his father in 1444, had Alberti strike a series of commemorative medals in the style of ancient Roman coins that featured members of his family along with the city’s famous educator Vittorino da Feltre. He had himself presented on one side of his medal with a classical Roman haircut in a half-bust pose that recalled ancient Roman generals and emperors, and on the other side in tournament armor that evoked once again the chivalric world of the Middle Ages. Of course, both poses also reflected his growing reputation as a condottiere; thus the mix was perfect for the glory that he sought to represent to the many contemporaries to whom he sent copies. In fact, the genre became quite popular in the later fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, especially among rulers eager to stress their own ennobling connections with the ancient world.

As a warrior Ludovico backed up his militaristic claims with deeds, fighting for the major cities of the day, including Florence in 1447, Venice in 1448, Naples in 1449, and Milan on and off from 1450 until the Peace of Lodi in 1454 ended the Italian Hundred Years’ War. While he was off fighting, his able wife, Barbara of Brandenburg, oversaw court life and the administration of the city and its territories. Perhaps it was his military reputation, perhaps the growing fame of his court, but certainly it was his wife’s family connections with the emperor that helped Ludovico convince Pope Pius II to convene a congress in Mantua in 1459 to plan his crusade against the Turks to free Constantinople. Pius knew he needed the emperor’s support and hoped Barbara could help win it. As noted earlier, Pius unfortunately died, and the crusade agreed upon in Mantua dissolved before it ever left.

Although the pope’s crusading plans came to naught, Ludovico was anxious to make the city as impressive and attractive as possible, engaging Alberti to redesign and upgrade the most important buildings of the city in a classical mode. The actual work, however, was carried out by less well-known Florentine architects and builders who realized Alberti’s ambitious plans with local artisans and relatively inexpensive local materials. Ludovico also sought to bring in one of the most promising young artists of the day, Andrea Mantegna (c. 1430–1506), whom he first contacted in 1457 to work on decorating his residences for Pius’s crusading congress. The painter did not make it to Mantua until 1460, well after the congress was over. But once he arrived, he became a fixture of the court and served three generations of Gonzaga lords, producing some of the most important paintings of the period.

Mantegna’s paintings featured a kind of sculptural classicism, with figures that seemed more like modeled stone barely contained within the frames of his works, and thus moved painting in Mantua away from the more chivalric and idealistic painting of earlier times and other courts to the very cutting edge of his day. Finding Ludovico a parsimonious patron, Mantegna’s early rewards were modest at best. An early agreement stipulated that he would receive a monthly salary of fifteen ducats, along with lodging, firewood, and grain to feed his family. But as his fame grew, Mantegna found his patron more generous with property and privileges, which were more available to Gonzaga than cash. Thus he eventually found himself with a rich house in the center of town, a number of properties in the countryside, and various titles that allowed him to present himself as more a gentleman or noble than a craftsman. His social and financial success became a model and a goal for other painters who were increasingly anxious to transcend their humble status as artisans to become members of the elite, “artists” rather than artisans. Still, as court painter Mantegna was an artisan, and he not only painted the great works for which he is famous, he also designed festive decorations for the court, floats for pageants, wall hangings, and even silverware and table adornments.

Perhaps his most famous and influential painting was the series of frescoes in the Camera Picta (Painted Room), more commonly known today as the Camera degli Sposi (Bridal Chamber), begun in 1465 and finished in 1474. Located in the Palazzo Ducale, the room actually served both as Ludovico’s bedroom and as a reception chamber for foreign dignitaries, a dual function that was not unusual at the time. The room is painted with a series of illusionistic scenes that seem to make the court life that went on in the halls of the palace come alive on its walls. We see Ludovico dressed informally, seated with his wife, their children, his courtiers, his servants, and the various accoutrements of court life, apparently discussing some important matter or awaiting the arrival of a notable visitor (Illustration 6.3). From across the room in another fresco his servants and dogs look on, and next to them is another depicting his brother Francesco being made a cardinal in a rural setting surrounded by family members and supporters (Illustration 6.4).


6.3. Mantegna, Camera Picta (court scene), 1465–74, Castello San Giorgio, Mantua. Photo: Scala/Art Resource, New York.


6.4. Mantegna, Camera Picta, 1465–74, Castello San Giorgio, Mantua. Source: see Fig. 6.3.

It almost seems as if the figures could step off the wall into the room at any moment, an effect heightened by Mantegna’s sculptural styling of the figures as well as by the trompe l’oeil effect of drawn-back painted curtains and architectural details such as columns that seem to be real parts of the room. The vaulted ceiling, with its stucco work and classical motifs painted in monochrome shades on a gold-colored background, depicts the first eight Caesars and once again connects the courtly space below with a militaristic Roman past. But court and palace were places of play as well as display, and the crowning aspect, quite literally, of the illusionistic space is a faux oculus in the ceiling that seems to open the room to the sky above. A few puffy clouds float by as the viewer enjoys a playful vision of putti dangling dangerously above, a pot perched precariously ready to fall, and smiling peasant girls (one might almost imagine) laughing at the elegant pretensions of the room below and Rinascimento courts in general.

Mantegna continued to work for the Gonzaga court after the death of Ludovico, serving his son Federigo I (1442–1484; ruled 1478–1484) and his grandson Francesco II (1466–1519; ruled 1484–1519) as well as his wife, Isabella d’Este (1474–1539), one of the most famous and interesting women of her day, who will be discussed more fully later. By the time of Francesco and Isabella, the Gonzaga were well-established masters of a leading courtly city, one of the most important in Italy. Francesco’s letters show him as a military man with pretensions of learning and the unquestioned assurance of his own status, along with an earthy bluntness whose sexuality mixed easily with his piety. Isabella’s more extensive correspondence (a significant portion of which will soon be published by Deanna Shemek) reveals her as similarly self-assured in her aristocratic status, learned, and masterful in her connoisseurship and patronage. It also demonstrates that while her husband was off fighting – which was usually – she was the real ruler of her city, with her glorious court setting a high standard for the courts of Italy and those of Europe as well.

A Medici Court in Republican Florence? Cosimo’s Quiet Glory and Sprezzatura

Bankers holding court? The very idea of rethinking courts in terms of bankers is useful for gaining a deeper appreciation of what was new about the courtly “revival” of the Rinascimento. Usually, taking at face value Florentine self-presentation in its myriad conflicts with more recognized courtly powers, such as the papacy and the Visconti and Sforza in Milan, the city is seen along with Venice as an anticourtly bastion of republican values. And, of course, there is more than a little truth to this, if one is speaking of ideals, but the reality was rather different in both cities; for, in a curious way, behind the imagined courtly world of Rome and the largely unimaginable courtly world of Florence and Venice, many of the forms of social and cultural life looked remarkably similar. In each case, however, the court and the courtly life of the city were driven by rich aristocratic patrons – the pope, cardinals, and powerful families in Rome; the Medici in Florence; and the most powerful of the nobility in Venice – who surrounded themselves with those they supported and who in return bathed them in a shared cultural glory that was becoming a necessary accoutrement of truly elite status.

Turning to early fifteenth-century Florence, as we have seen, the city had become one of the strongest and richest in Europe. When Cosimo de’ Medici returned from exile in 1434, he took over the system of electoral corruption perfected by Maso d’ Albizzi as well as his quiet, behind-the-scenes style of rule. Quiet, behind-the-scenes rule did not mean, however, that Cosimo was not ready to act decisively to solidify his position. Most importantly, he was well aware that he had to deal with those who had remained loyal to the Albizzi and, while he was at it, any families that appeared to pose a threat. In this he was aided by the Balìa that had invited him to return, for they took the bull by the horns and exiled most of his potential opponents for five years. Cosimo cleverly took the high ground and merely suggested that everyone be treated with moderation. But lest one be taken in by this and assume that Cosimo did not mean to rule behind the scenes, it should be noted that after those exiles expired in 1439, most found their banishments extended to 1499. A few families who were merely of questionable loyalty were declared magnates and thus placed under the regulations of the old Ordinances of Justice. This had the obvious advantage of eliminating them from political life, at least in terms of holding office, but, more subtly, it reminded everyone of the Medici tradition of supporting the popolo against aristocrats, as the Ordinances were seen as the great legislation that had proclaimed and protected the victory of the popolo over aristocratic pretensions.

Much like the signori ruling elsewhere, Cosimo realized that he could not rule Florence, even behind the scenes, without the support of the most powerful families of the city. As a result he worked to build a ruling group of his own made up of the Ottimati who had deserted the Albizzi, along with a few powerful families who had always kept their distance from the Ottimati and several newer rich families. While Cosimo, like Maso, avoided holding office as much as possible, he led this group of his supporters by making use of the system of electoral corruption already in place and expanding it thereby making it more effective yet. In this way he controlled the men who held the most important offices of government. With that came the ability to use government to reward loyal followers, encourage potential supporters, and punish, when necessary, opponents. With time the result was a solid core of supporters, known as the Palleschi (after the six balls [palle] on the Medici coat of arms), who replaced the old Ottimati as the inner group that ruled the city, overseen by Cosimo.

Beyond creating a political elite of his own, Cosimo sought to build a more nebulous broad support for himself among the general populace. In this he attempted to create the impression at each social level that he was working in its interest. For the lower classes, the story of how an earlier Medici, Salvestro de’ Medici, had been a leader in the Ciompi rising and attempted to protect the lower classes, was picked up, polished (with less appetizing details conveniently forgotten), and invoked to show the traditional ties of the Medici to the popolo minuto. Such selective historical memories were reinforced by a Medici policy that attempted to keep grain prices low and grain available in times of shortage and famine. While this was a sage policy widely followed at the time, what mattered for the lower classes of Florence was that Cosimo seemed to be on their side, especially when hard times arrived, as they regularly did. Cosimo also gained popular support as he was seen as having driven out the Albizzi, who were held responsible for having undone the gains that the popolo minuto had won with the Ciompi rising and for imposing a progressively more aristocratic and closed government that had brought on costly wars and ruinous taxes.

Cosimo also won support from the other end of the social spectrum. Although he had a few aristocratic Ottimati families declared magnates, he also had a number of the old magnate families declared popolani. This freed them of the stigma associated with magnate status, allowed them to participate in government, and, of course, tended to make them his supporters. But perhaps the area where Cosimo most aggressively sought support was among the new men and especially the new rich. The economic turmoil of Italy caused by recurring waves of plague and the ongoing costs and devastation of the Italian Hundred Years’ War had ruined many old families, but it had also created an economic climate in which a group of new families had gained wealth. This newly wealthy and potentially powerful group had for the most part been prevented from holding governmental offices and, more subtly, been kept out of the Ottimati, as the Albizzi rule had quite consciously aimed at protecting and succoring the “old” families against the pressure from those perceived as their social inferiors. Cosimo moved the more prosperous and powerful of these new men from the outside looking in to the inside of his ruling group. As a result, to the degree that these men and their families saw themselves as Medici-made, they tended to become strong supporters. In sum, support was everywhere, although some of it was dangerously new.

Yet – as many at the time, including Cosimo, were anxious to point out – nothing had changed, even if that was patently not the case. For him and his new supporters, the city remained what it had always been, a republic, and continued to portray itself as the last bastion of republican liberty against the tyrannical rule of signori and their aristocratic courts. And an important corollary of that self-portrayal continued to be a traditional civic ideal, based on a fourteenth-century vision of civiltà and reinforced by ancient texts that proclaimed that Florence allowed citizens the freedom to participate in government and civic life, thus creating better human beings, a better Christian community, and a better, richer, flourishing culture. This meant, however, that the merchant-banker Cosimo had another important reason, beyond his own interest in art and culture, to make Florence a thriving cultural capital. He had a tradition and an ideology to embrace that demonstrated the benefits of republican rule and Florentine civic morality, even as he worked behind the scenes to corrupt both.

Thus, although Florence as a republic officially lacked a court, Cosimo and his followers, along with the bureaucracy of the government that he controlled, were the leaders of a Florentine cultural world that in many ways was truly courtly. This was especially true when considered in comparison to Rome, where, as we have seen, the papal court as a cultural entity was less a formal reality than an imagined ensemble of various familiars of the pope, whether they were scholars and intellectuals employed in his bureaucracy; artists and architects brought to Rome to carry out architectural and decorative projects for him; or musicians and others he gathered around him to add to his glory. One key difference, at least, on the surface, was that the papal court tended to be dominated at the highest levels by clerics, most of whom were heavily invested in advancement within the Church. In Florence that was not the case, although many of the men who added luster to Cosimo’s Florence had entered minor orders of the Church to study and were deeply interested in many of the same ethical and moral issues as the intellectuals gathered in Rome by the popes. In fact, right through the fifteenth century and well into the sixteenth, intellectuals, artists, architects, and musicians moved with relative ease and frequency between Florence and Rome, taking up minor clerical orders and even at times becoming a bishop or a cardinal in order to forward their careers.

The key and strongest similarity between the Florence of Cosimo, the developing papal court at Rome, and the courts of the signori, however, was the use all made of patronage to win glory – glory for one’s city, of course, but more importantly, glory that demonstrated the aristocratic merit and princely refinement of a ruler. Virtù was once again a key in this, even as the term was slowly but surely shifting in meaning. Along with glory and more courtly values, it too was taking on a more aristocratic coloring. Manners and grace, which had played a role in the evaluation of virtù in the fourteenth century, were now slowly gaining place at the expense of reason and self-control, without totally displacing them. But, more importantly, magnificence and glory, paradoxically expressed as modestly as possible, were gaining place as measures of true merit. The impressively flexible renaissance term sprezzatura nicely captures this developing ideal of quiet glory. Essentially the term described the way a true aristocrat did great things, seemingly effortlessly and naturally – perhaps the ultimate measure of aristocratic virtù. In many ways Cosimo’s patronage and quiet rule behind the scenes might be seen as an attempt to realize a ruling sprezzatura – dominating Florence without breaking a sweat.

Cosimo, however, was also an astute businessman, an effective politician, and a wily player on the European stage, displaying many of the attributes of an older popolo grosso vision of virtù. He was well educated as well, with a wide range of cultural interests. Pius II remarked about him that “he was more cultivated than merchants usually are and had some knowledge of Greek,” perhaps intending to damn him with faint praise. Be that as it may, Cosimo was an avid collector of manuscripts, even planning as a youth to go to the Holy Land along with Niccolò Niccoli and the Venetian noble Francesco Barbaro to look for classical manuscripts. Although his youthful plans were cut short by the more immediate requirements of the Medici bank, he built up an impressive private library over the years. And when in 1437 his friend and erstwhile youthful companion to the Holy Land, Niccoli, died leaving a collection of about 800 manuscripts, Cosimo bought it and used it to found a library in the monastery of San Marco, which he had recently paid the architect Michelozzo Michelozzi (1396–1472) to rebuild. Open to scholars, some consider it to have been the first public library in the West since ancient times – whether first or not, it might well be seen as yet another rinascita. He did, however, keep a number of the more important manuscripts for his private library, which eventually became the Laurentian Library, housed in the family church of the Medici, San Lorenzo.

When in 1439 Cosimo met the Greek philosopher George Gemistus Plethon, he became attracted to the spiritual vision of the ancient philosopher Plato, whom Plethon, along with a number of other Greek intellectuals, was championing over the more traditionally popular Aristotle. Plato’s thought had a real advantage in a period like the Rinascimento when returning to ancient traditions seemed to promise so much. For while most of the original Platonic texts were not available to medieval theologians, who relied more directly on Aristotle (Plato’s student), Plato’s ideas were literally inscribed in the very DNA of Christian theology. Saint Augustine, the fourth-century Roman thinker and Church Father, was merely the most distinguished and perhaps most important early churchman who used the philosophy of Plato and his followers to provide the base for his theological explanations of the core meanings of Christianity. Thus when medieval theologians and scholars in the Rinascimento returned to the classic texts of the early Church, they were often working with texts heavily influenced by Platonic thought, whether they realized it or not. Thus, crucially, when Platonic texts were studied anew in the fifteenth century, first by Greek scholars in the East and then translated and studied in the West, something very powerful happened. For from the perspective of the Rinascimento, what scholars thought they discovered was that this ancient Greek philosopher had thought much like the Fathers of the Church, but well before Christ and his teachings. This seemed to demonstrate the validity of going back to discover the original truths to be found in first texts, even pagan first texts, and, equally importantly, revealed that there was one truth to be discovered in all.

It is hard to imagine the power of such a discovery today, but imagine a fifteenth-century reader encountering the pagan Greek texts of Plato written almost two millennia earlier and finding in them many of the deepest truths of what appeared to be the totally independent Christian tradition based on the teachings of Christ and the Bible. For Cosimo, then, Plethon and his fellow Greek Platonists may have seemed to be offering the next, and perhaps final, step in what had already been a very fruitful rinascimento, a complete rebirth of first times and first knowledge. There is some indication that Cosimo’s enthusiasm for the project of recovering Plato led him to consider founding a Platonic Academy in Florence, but, more importantly, it led him to patronize the young scholar of Greek philosophy Marsilio Ficino. Ficino, as discussed earlier, over the course of his life translated and commented upon the most important surviving works of Plato, his Dialogues, and in many ways his commentaries still form the basis of modern interpretations of them. In 1462 Cosimo encouraged him to pursue this work by giving him a significant collection of Greek manuscripts, including many of the more strange and syncretistic works of the Platonic tradition that were crucial for his later thought. In addition, he gave him the use of a villa at Careggi, in the Tuscan hills, where he could work in peace. With time it became an important retreat for those who shared an interest in Plato and the Platonic tradition of the ancient world. And after Cosimo’s death it continued to garner the support of Cosimo’s son Piero and his grandson Lorenzo, becoming the jewel of Platonic scholarship in the Rinascimento and the center of a rather informal Platonic Academy. That academy promoted Platonic studies, sponsored public lectures, threw parties, and even celebrated Plato’s birthday, gathering together leading thinkers of the day, including Ficino, Pico della Mirandola, Cristoforo Landino, Poliziano, and Lorenzo de’ Medici himself.

That was still in the future. For the moment, building seemed to have been more important for Cosimo than his patronage of intellectuals or his collecting of manuscripts. In fact, this was the case more generally for most Rinascimento rulers seeking to add to their reputations for magnificence – as buildings had the ability to showcase glory. And although as buildings they were silent, ironically they often shouted power and dominance. Even before he came to power, Cosimo’s father, Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici (1360–1429), had played a leading role in the reconstruction of the family’s parish church, San Lorenzo. In the 1420s the old church was torn down and a new one was built on the site, designed by perhaps the most famous architect of the day, Brunelleschi. While Giovanni was just one of the group that chose Brunelleschi for this commission, his selection emphasized just how important the rebuilding of the Medici parish church was. Brunelleschi at much the same time was completing the work of placing the gigantic dome on the main cathedral of the city (1419–1421) and had taken on the commission to design the Innocenti, the famous foundling hospital of the city.

Work on San Lorenzo, however, stalled during the turmoil of the later twenties and thirties, the cost of war and internal factional strife that swirled around Rinaldo d’ Albizzi taking precedence. Finally, as the thirties came to a close and Cosimo’s position of power in Florence became more secure, he personally took up the project of rebuilding the church with his own money. One person taking on the expense of finishing such a large and significant church was unheard of in Florence, and such economic display might at first glance seem to contradict the ideal of ruling behind the scenes and quiet glory. But displays of piety, especially in the context of endowing chapels in one’s parish church, were a traditional way in which the rich and powerful demonstrated their patronage and merit. Cosimo, however, went well beyond such traditions by taking on a church and not just a chapel. And much of the decoration of the church can be read as a conscious expression of the way the Medici fortunes, those of Florence, and those of the Christian Church itself were portrayed by Cosimo as deeply intertwined.

Throughout San Lorenzo, from the tomb of Cosimo’s father and mother, which lies at the heart of the old sacristy, to the bronze doors and illustrative stucco reliefs and roundels designed by the noted sculptor and artist Donatello (1386–1466), Medici iconography is connected directly to the family’s patron saints of Lorenzo, Cosmas, and Damian and for the first time explicitly to two of the patron saints of the city itself, Saint Joseph and John the Baptist. Donatello’s bronze doors, commissioned by Cosimo and his brother Lorenzo (not to be confused with Cosimo’s more famous grandson of the same name), may have suggested still more impressive claims, as the figures representing the patron saints of the Medici are pictured there as the equals of saints Peter and Paul in the great mission of the Christian Church. How strong a message all this was meant to convey is unclear, but it is clear that the Medici money spent to rebuild their parish church was invested with virtually as much meaning as one was willing to or capable of reading into it. And in an age carefully attuned to the visual presentation of deeper meanings, viewers were undoubtedly aware of Medici claims to piety, wealth, power, and glory – all conveyed as princely and deeply involved with the destiny and sanctity of their city. In this case, money talked, hand in hand with power, piety, and buildings.

Shortly after his return to Florence in 1434, Cosimo also hired the noted sculptor and architect Michelozzo Michelozzi to rebuild the Dominican monastery of San Marco. Once again the church and the cloisters were heavily imbued with Medicean messages of spirituality, with much of the artistic decoration done by the ethereal hand of the Dominican painter Fra Angelico, whom Cosimo also patronized. Perhaps the most discussed work there is the San Marco altarpiece, which at first glance seems to present a traditional sacra conversatione, with the Virgin Mary and Christ Child enthroned surrounded by Saints and Church Fathers (Illustration 6.5). A vaguely realistic Cosimo, in the guise of his namesake, Saint Cosmas, kneels in the front right of the painting, looking out at the viewer as other members of the family, represented as holy figures, gather around the Virgin and Child.


6.5. Fra Angelico, San Marco Altarpiece, c. 1440, for the high altar of San Marco, Florence, Museo di San Marco, Florence. Photo: Erich Lessing/Art Resource, New York.

Suggestively, the tilt of Cosimo’s head seems to echo in reverse the tilt of the Virgin’s head, as she looks down protectively at the Christ Child. But, significantly, Cosimo’s echoing gaze is down toward the viewer and perhaps the city of Florence itself, which he protects in its own sacred mission just as Mary protects Christ. From this perspective his hands, which at first might merely seem strangely crossed, appear to assert a crucial connection, with his left hand, like Mary’s, calling the viewer’s attention to Christ, while his right hand, with virtually the same gesture as Mary’s, reaches with Madonna-like succor toward the viewer. This may be claiming more than was intended, but suffice it to say, once again the Medici, with Cosimo’s artistic patronage, placed themselves in the very first time of Christianity, and they did so in a way that allowed them to showcase their glory, their wealth, and their role as protectors of Florence.

The dormitory of the monastery, which Fra Angelico also decorated with frescoes commissioned by Cosimo and his family, contains one of his most beautiful and evocative works, The Annunciation (c. 1440), a work that finally seems to be free of Medici symbolism (Illustration 6.6). It speaks with a delicate grace of one of the greatest mysteries of the Christian Church, with the angel Gabriel kneeling with rainbow-colored wings before a humble Virgin to inform her of her destiny to become the mother of God. Yet, suggestively, the placement of this fresco creates the illusion that the portico in which the scene is set is a continuation of the newly built porticos of the dormitory itself. Thus this central event of the deepest mystery of the Church visually appears to have been replaced by Cosimo and his patronage in a contemporary space that the monks and visitors to the monastery experienced every day as a part of their regular Florentine life. Quiet glory and sprezzatura at their most impressive.


6.6. Fra Angelico, Annunciation, 1438–45, dormitory corridor, San Marco, Florence. Photo: Gianni Dagli Orti/The Art Archive at Art Resource, New York.

While Cosimo supported a number of other building projects that helped to mark the city with Medici glory, perhaps the most impressive was the family palace that he commissioned, again from Michelozzo. A story circulated that Cosimo had originally approached Brunelleschi to design a new family palace, but when Brunelleschi’s design was too grand, and moreover placed the palace right next to the Medici parish church, San Lorenzo, to create a kind of Medici center at the heart of the city, he opted for a more humble structure less centrally located. Whether true or not, the tale once again stresses the mythic lack of princely ambition and modesty of Cosimo. For all that, however, the palace that Michelozzo built for Cosimo was the largest and most princely in Florence. And others who would later compete with the Medici would see it as a benchmark of the grandeur necessary to outdo them.

On the outside the palace seemed quite traditional, with a heavy rusticated first floor, often described as fortresslike, and progressively lighter upper stories – stern and traditional, virtually an ideal self-representation of Cosimo – but on the inside it was rich and princely, sparing no expense. Actually, although Cosimo was the patron, the person who oversaw its building and decoration was his son Piero (1416–1469). Frescoes, paintings, sculptures, and bronzes by the greatest artists of the day, not to mention classical antiques and gems, made the palace a princely treasure trove, the match of any courtly palace in Italy or in Europe, for that matter. In the chapel of the palace both Fra Filippo Lippi’s Adoration of the Christ Child (late 1450s) and Benozzo Gozzoli’s fresco of the Magi coming to visit the newborn Christ (c. 1459) stressed once more the family’s piety and the providential role of Medici leadership for Florence. Among other treasures, in the living areas of the palace, a cycle of battle scenes associated the military greatness of Florence with the Medici, including the famous oil painting by Paolo Uccello (1397–1475) of the Battle of San Romano (c. 1430s); and, to top it all off, Piero commissioned the sculptor Mino da Fiesole (1429–1484) to do marble portrait busts of himself and his brother that in their severity and lifelike intensity seem to echo ancient Roman portrait busts of emperors.

But perhaps the most famous and debated work in the palace was placed in the courtyard, where it could be glimpsed from the street: Donatello’s bronze statue of David in triumph over the fallen giant Goliath (Illustration 6.7). Virtually nothing is certain about this quite sensual youthful figure. It has been dated from as early as the 1420s and as late as the 1460s; it has been seen as an ode to the beauty of youth; as a relatively open celebration of male/male sexual attraction; and as an evocation of the strength and prowess of Piero’s young son Lorenzo, who would soon take up the Medici rule of the city. And, in fact, there is good reason to consider it all of the above, but one thing it most certainly was: yet another appropriation of Florentine civic imagery for the Medici family and their rule. Actually, Donatello had earlier done a much more modest David, which in 1416 had been placed in the Palazzo della Signoria as a civic image of the city’s defense of republican liberty against evil tyranny. This new Medici David thoroughly upstaged that work, and if, as appears likely, it evoked a youthful Lorenzo and the future of the Medici clan, its expense, its exquisite workmanship, and its mixture of grace, beauty, and confident strength offered a potent image of Medici rule.


6.7. Donatello, David, 1460s, Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence. Photo: Scala/Ministero per i Beni e le Attività culturali/Art Resource, New York.

The sensual and seemingly effeminate nature of the statue has troubled commentators over the years and to some has seemed to disqualify it as a symbol of Medici power. Recent scholarship, however, suggests that such reservations say more about modern stereotypical ways of seeing masculinity and male/male sexual attraction than about perceptions of same at the time. In Rinascimento Florence, as elsewhere, young males in their early teens, the age of the biblical David, were seen as relatively interchangeable with young women and capable of being every bit as beautiful, with light bodies, delicate lines, and an innocent sensuality that the period found particularly attractive. When these youths matured later in their teens, with heavier, more muscular bodies, lower voices, and growing beards and body hair, they became less beautiful and took up the active, aggressive ways required of adult masculinity. But all males went through that earlier stage, when they were as beautiful as women, and in that beauty there was great power and truth, which was regularly celebrated and admired. In fact, a figure like David triumphing over Goliath perfectly associated that exterior beauty with precocious strength and courage, and perhaps suggested an inner beauty and grace that would remain beneath the more masculine body of an adult. In this context, a David that in the early 1460s suggested the youthful beauty of a Lorenzo – the future Magnificent, then in his teens – was a virtually perfect symbol of all the promise of his and the Medicis’ future. And even if the statue was not meant to represent the young Lorenzo, it served as a splendid and very different Medici appropriation of a traditional self-conception of Florentine republicanism placed at the heart of their new palace.

Returning to Cosimo’s quiet, behind-the-scenes rule: in his later years, as he grew older and apparently more tired of the corruption necessary to control elections, he seems to have become more withdrawn and less attentive to potential enemies. It may be that he felt that his patronage, both artistic and economic, had really made him the pater patria, the father of his fatherland, as he and his supporters claimed, and thus untouchable. But there were those who were unhappy with his not-so-hidden rule; his cooption, both culturally and politically, of the civic world of Florence; and his increasingly less quiet glory. They may have hoped to use unease about what they styled these princely innovations to push out the aging Cosimo. It may be also that some feared that his sickly son Piero was unfit to succeed him and thus were waiting for the right moment to ease out both the aged father and the ailing son. The moment seemed right in 1454, shortly after the Peace of Lodi. Peace seemed to require less in the way of a strong leader, making a return to more republican forms of government, still a powerful ideal in Florence, appear a possibility.

Two novelties, closely related to the peace, also contributed to the moment. First, toward the end of the wars, Cosimo had made a dramatic switch in Florence’s time-honored alliances, aligning the city with its traditional enemy, Francesco Sforza and Milan, and turning away from Venice. Many, including some of Cosimo’s staunchest supporters, were troubled by this switch. Those less supportive styled it an open sign of the abandonment of Florentine civic and republican values, as traditionally the alliance with Venice had been idealized as one between the last great republican states against tyrants – tyrants exactly like Francesco Sforza. The David of Florence’s mythology was losing his status as a symbol of the small but courageous republic taking on the evil giant of tyranny and becoming the princely youth glimpsed from afar in his tantalizing beauty in the sumptuous private gardens of the Medici palace.

Equally important, with the coming of peace more and more Florentines began to complain about the unfairness of the system of forced loans that had financed long years of warfare. Similar complaints had destabilized the rule of Rinaldo d’Albizzi in the twenties, leading to the famous Catasto of 1427. Forced loans were still based on that Catasto, but, tellingly, over the generation of Cosimo’s rule the wealth of the Palleschi and his other supporters had tended to increase significantly, while others, especially perceived potential Medici enemies, had seen their wealth decline. The result was that the new riches of the Palleschi did not exist, as far as the Catasto was concerned, and remained untaxed, while many others were carrying the burden of taxation or being taxed on wealth they no longer had. In the short run this had been a useful strategy to build and hold the support of the Palleschi, but over the long run it created growing resistance from the general populace and increasing calls for a new Catasto.

The quiet rule of Cosimo quietly ignored such calls. But there was another unlikely yet real potential danger for the Medici rule; for although the electoral system had been corrupted, elections continued, and the formal structure of a republican government remained. As discussed earlier, elections were held by lot: names of future officeholders were drawn from bags filled with the names of the eligible, and as long as the bags were primarily filled with the names of Medici supporters, Medici supporters were drawn and dominated government. But with Cosimo interfering less in the process, in 1458 something went wrong, and out of the bags that were used to elect the Signoria – the executive council that oversaw Florentine government – there were drawn a group of names that lacked a clear majority of Medici supporters and evidently included the names of a number of men who were ready to end their rule. Almost immediately this group demanded that a new Catasto be drawn up. Obviously, this was perceived as a threat, but neither Cosimo nor his supporters were in a position to tackle it head on. In fact, Cosimo, worried about losing support by opposing a measure that had such widespread support, kept a low profile, prompting the Milanese ambassador to write to his master, Francesco Sforza, pessimistically, “At the moment Cosimo may not go into the Palazzo and cannot in any way use as much pressure as he did formerly.” It seemed as if the not-so-hidden rule of the Medici was about to disappear before a reassertion of republican rule.

But, with a certain irony, those same republican institutions came to Cosimo’s rescue, for in July of 1458 out of the bags still stuffed with the names of Medici supporters came the name of Luca Pitti, one of Cosimo’s strongest supporters, for the crucial post ofGonfalonier of Justice. This lucky event for Cosimo seems, with the advantage of hindsight, almost too lucky to have been entirely by chance. Be that as it may, the Gonfalonier was the official entrusted with protecting the rights of the popolo against magnates and other powerful men who might attempt to overthrow their rule. Pitti took advantage of that responsibility immediately, accusing the leaders of the opposition of treason against the popolo. Under torture they confessed, although it is hard to imagine how they could have been involved in treason against the popolo when it was Cosimo who had already quietly made sure that they did not rule. Pitti then called a general Balìa to investigate further, deal with the conspirators, and to rule Florence for six months until things returned to normal. There were protests, but with the support of troops supplied by Francesco Sforza, Cosimo’s new ally, peace was maintained in the city, and the attempt to return to republican rule was over.

The city remained a republic in its own fantasies and illusions; elections, although once again carefully corrupted, continued, seemingly confirming republican traditions. And, with a certain irony, as a largely illusory republic, it actually came close to living up to the ideology that proclaimed republics superior for encouraging intellectual and cultural achievement. But, of course, that was just another illusion, for to a great extent it was Medici wealth and patronage, plus a newer, more aristocratic elite eager to display their merit and wealth, along with the general prosperity of their city, that attracted the best intellectuals, artists, and architects to Florence and made it one of the jewels of the Rinascimento, much as was the case in other courtly cities. In fact, in most of those courtly cities, their formally quite different governments and their increasingly aristocratic upper classes with their patronage of culture produced a quiet but glorious magnificence at every level – from filling their private homes and villas with luxurious material goods and works of art to patronizing the cultural accomplishments of the famed (and less famed) in real and imagined courts. This virtù-ous glory came at a price, however, as republican ideals became ever-more theoretical and the popolo, especially the popolo minuto, shared little more than the reflection of that glory, as the gap yawned wider and wider between aristocratic elites and those at the base of society.

When Cosimo died after thirty years of rule in 1464, power passed, not without some opposition, to his son, Piero the Gouty. Often portrayed as a weak ruler, he was seriously handicapped by a crippling disease thought at the time to be a form of gout. Recent analysis of Medici bones, however, appears to confirm that rather than gout, it was a hereditary form of arthritis. Whatever it was, it is becoming clearer that Piero was actually more important than once thought. Perhaps most significantly, he played a major role in Medici patronage and co-opting of civic symbols in the building of the Medici palace and other buildings around the city during his father’s rule. He was also heavily involved in running the Medici bank in the last years of Cosimo’s life. Nonetheless, some of the most important Palleschi attempted to take his place as hidden leader of the city after the death of his father. Bedridden and sickly, his decisive action in the face of that challenge, along with the support of both Milan and Venice, however, won the day, allowing him to exile his most powerful opponents. On the quiet glory front, he was an avid book collector and supporter of scholarship, perhaps most notably continuing and expanding his father’s support of Marsilio Ficino and the circle of scholars who surrounded him. In the end, though, he was too sickly and died too quickly to accomplish much in the few years he ruled on his own.

While Piero’s reputation has tended to grow, that of his son, perhaps the most famous ruler of the Renaissance (who once again never actually officially ruled), Lorenzo (1449–1492; ruled behind the scenes 1469–1492), often styled “the Magnificent,” has tended to lose some of its luster. Obviously, it is rather difficult to maintain the heroic fame once ascribed to him before the probing and unforgiving eyes of generations of historians anxious to diminish a reputation that is almost impossible to defend. But there are some more substantial reasons for downsizing Lorenzo. Perhaps most telling were his failings as a banker, a story often overlooked in the celebration of his more princely and courtly rule of Florence. The Medici bank, which he inherited, was already showing signs of weakness, troubled by powerful international competitors; bad loans (especially to rulers and elites of the emerging nation-states of the north); a papacy more aggressively in competition with Florence; and a number of senior employees who mismanaged its funds. Branches in Bruges, London, and Lyon failed or had to be recapitalized, and, more importantly, the revenues of the main branch in Rome, which had traditionally returned the greatest profits, declined precipitously under his leadership. To make matters worse, Lorenzo was not averse to using the bank to help with Florentine foreign policy, something that his grandfather Cosimo had religiously attempted to avoid. Thus he made unwise loans to rulers and nobles whose support he needed as leader of Florence, often at the cost of considerable losses to the bank. As a result, while Cosimo had used the bank’s profits to add to the glory of Florence (and himself) and even occasionally to support the city in moments of crisis, Lorenzo at times “confused” the revenues of the city with the capital of the bank in order to keep the latter afloat.

Shortly before his father’s death in 1469, however, Lorenzo married Clarice Orsini, a marriage that certainly added to his magnificence. Traditionally the Medici, like many of the leading families of Florence, anxious to avoid any identification with foreign nobility that might have implied magnate leanings or antirepublican pretensions, had married their children to other members of the Florentine upper classes. But Clarice broke that tradition. She was the daughter of an old Roman noble family, the Orsini, famous for producing cardinals and condottieri and deeply involved in papal and Church politics. While the marriage was officially celebrated with great festivities and widely lauded, there were those who complained that this was yet another princely turn away from the solidpopolo grosso world of Florentine merchants and republican values to embrace an alien world of old nobles, warriors, and Church politics. No matter that Cosimo had already dabbled in building ties to each and had effectively made republican institutions a sham, Lorenzo’s marriage seemed to proclaim that the Medici were openly taking up a more courtly and princely rule and style.

But it should be remembered that although the Orsini could be labeled alien and a medieval warrior nobility, there was little that was actually traditional or medieval about them, aside perhaps from that label “noble.” Warfare had changed, as had the nobles who led condottieri armies; in turn, nobles who prospered, in order to compete with the new wealth of urban elites, had imposed more profitable regimes of agricultural production on their lands; and finally, the Church had grown into a very efficient producer of wealth for its popes and high officials like the Orsini. From this newer perspective, war, land, and the Church were profitable investments. And, in fact, Lorenzo’s marriage was very profitable indeed – for this move outside of Florence into the wider aristocratic world of princely popes and nobles with transcity-state and transnational power bases paid off quickly. As early as the first years of the sixteenth century, two Medicis won the papacy: Popes Leo X (1513–1521) and Clement VII (1523–1534). And to a great degree they were responsible for rebuilding the family fortune and reestablishing Medici rule in Florence after their fall from power there in 1494.

Another often-cited sign of Lorenzo’s shift away from traditional values associated with Florence was his subtle transfer of Medici patronage from scholarship that celebrated republican values and civic participation to areas that reflected more courtly and princely values. Again, this was not all that new. Both Cosimo and his son Piero had worked to co-opt the republican ideology of the city and associate it with the Medici family and Medici power. Lorenzo, trained in the classics and having mastered both ancient Latin and some Greek, was well schooled in the ideology that saw those Latin and Greek roots as underpinning the republican glory of Florence and its culture. But for him, and for many of the intellectuals he patronized, the imagined Roman virtù and highly prizedvita civile of the recent past morphed into a vision of a life of refined, aristocratic, and courtly manners quite distant from the messy world of politics and business – virtù itself was becoming more aristocratic and courtly. Some have argued that Lorenzo encouraged this shift because the active life advocated earlier in republican cities like Florence and Venice was dangerous to the hidden Medici rule. Things were undoubtedly more complex and the shift more general, as we shall see, but certainly it came easily to Lorenzo, a more openly princely and aristocratic leader.

On a more practical level, however, the political realities of his day often left Lorenzo looking more like a rather mundane tyrant than a prince. And Lorenzo’s rule illustrates well how a ruler, even an unofficial one, could easily slide back and forth between the two. A couple of years into his rule, in 1472, the Tuscan city of Volterra, which was under a form of Florentine protectorate, revolted. The dispute turned on the question of who would profit from the rich alum deposits recently discovered in Volterran territory. As alum was essential to the Florentine cloth industry, it appears that Lorenzo was anxious to make sure that control of the mining operations remained a Florentine monopoly. Volterra had other ideas and attempted to throw out the city’s Florentine “protectors.” In response, Lorenzo dispatched one of his best condottieri, Federico da Montefeltro, to quash the revolt. Faced with a besieging army that they had no hope of overcoming, the Volterrans sued for peace and, in return for an agreement that there would be no sack, opened the gates of the city. When Federico’s troops entered, however, they ran amuck, murdering an unspecified number of civilians and sacking the town.

The role Lorenzo played in this episode has remained a subject of debate ever since. Some claim that he supported the sacking as a lesson to anyone who might contemplate revolting against Florentine authority, others that Federico, often noted for his violent ways, acted on his own. Certainly such “lessons” from tyrants were not rare. And it is true that in the debates before the attack, Lorenzo had publicly called for doing “whatever it takes” to “make them understand their error.” Federico claimed in turn that there had been no plan and that he had simply been unable to control his troops; but Volterrans pointed out that the sacking, for all its destruction and violence, had been strangely limited, lasting just twelve hours, with the troops then making an orderly withdrawal from the city. Perhaps the last word in this brief account should not be left to Lorenzo, who later commented, “[W]e won’t say anything more about the sack, in order to forget it as quickly as possible. Perhaps they merited this because of some sin of theirs. We must be content with our own conscience and the actions that we and [Federico] … took to prevent this evil from happening.” Evidently he was well aware that brutal massacres were not what he wanted to base his magnificence upon, even if he may have seen them as necessary for maintaining the wealth and power of his Florence, like many a tyrant.

Tyrant or prince? Who was this complex person who claimed to be merely the first person of his beloved city? Certainly he is a figure who fascinated many of his contemporaries and many since, so much so that his day was once referred to as the Laurentian age – a usage that has to some degree fallen out of use, along with the traditional fascination with the history of Great Men. Yet there was much to this paradoxical republican-tyrant-prince that appealed to contemporaries and moderns as well. In fact, Lorenzo appears to have been enthusiastically interested in virtually all the scholarly, intellectual, and artistic excitement of his Florence that made the city in many ways one of the cultural and artistic capitals of his day. He encouraged the growth of the Studio of Florence, a not-quite-university that specialized in training the Florentine upper classes, and patronized an impressive group of scholars, even if he had less money to do so.

Their number included Christoforo Landino (1424–1492), who taught poetry and oratory and was perhaps best known for his philosophical work Disputationes Camaldulenses (c. 1475). This dialogue portrayed a discussion between Alberti, Ficino, and Lorenzo himself on the relative merits of the active versus the contemplative life that concluded that both were equally important, but that the contemplative came first – a significant break from older Florentine civic values. He also wrote an important commentary on Dante’s Divine Comedy that continued to add to that poet’s foundational reputation for Italian literature. In addition, Lorenzo patronized Demetrius Chalcondylas (1424–1511), who taught Greek at the Studio and edited Homer and a number of ancient Greek authors. Angelo Poliziano (1454–1494) was also a client who taught Latin and Greek eloquence; noted as a brilliant translator and critic as well as a poet in his own right, he served as an on-again-off-again tutor of Lorenzo’s children. His Miscellanea, as the title suggests, is a group of studies on literature and philology that claimed to record conversations with Lorenzo and the circle of intellectuals that surrounded him. Perhaps most famed and impressive among them, however, was Ficino, who taught philosophy and, as noted earlier, was a major interpreter and translator of Plato and other writers believed to have been from crucial first times.

Along with Landino, Ficino, and Poliziano, he encouraged the young philosopher Pico della Mirandola (1463–1494), whose youth, intelligence, and desire to bring all knowledge into a synthesis that might unite Muslims, pagans, and Christians around the one truth of God was cut short by his early death. The poet Luigi Pulci (1432–1484), an older contemporary noted for his witty and irreverent verse, at times even at Lorenzo’s expense, was also an on-again-off-again favorite. His send-up of the highly popular tales of Charlemagne in his mock epic Morgante maggiore, which featured the often ridiculous and regularly gluttonous deeds of the giant Morgante, along with the deeds of one of the traditional heroes of the Charlemagne tales, Orlando, was perhaps his best-known work. Noted painters such as Sandro Botticelli (1445–1510), Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449–1494), Antonio Pollaiuolo (c. 1430–1498), and Andrea Verrocchio (1435–1488) were also seen as important ornaments of his circle. And for a time the young Michelangelo (1475–1564) was also cultivated by Lorenzo, along with Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), before both men left the city seeking more supportive patrons. In addition, highly reputed architects such as Giuliano da Sangallo (c. 1455–1516) and Benedetto da Maiano (1442–1497), also known for his sculpture, along with Andrea della Robbia (1435–1525), best known for continuing his family’s innovative work with terra cotta, were patronized by Lorenzo. While with some of these figures Lorenzo’s association was more formal and limited and his patronage less princely than once assumed, still his enthusiasm for the arts and learning was clear. And that meant that at the time and thereafter the names of the great cultural figures who made the second half of the fifteenth century in Florence such a period of cultural flourishing were associated with Lorenzo and his magnificence and seen as part of a courtlike entourage, whether rightly or wrongly.

Actually, Lorenzo made an effort to contribute personally to many areas of that cultural flourishing with some success, even if, like many rich men, it may be that not all that was attributed to him was actually his. A poet of some note, his poetry spanned the gamut from refined love lyrics in the Petrarchan tradition to more earthy popular songs, often associated with carnival. Many of the latter survive and display a lively and playful mind that moved easily from classical conceits to obscene metaphors. And they were performed both at his princely table for elite guests and on the streets of Florence for the apparently admiring ears of the citizens of his city. A good example is provided by a song that featured a group of young peasant women who had come to the city for carnival, supposedly looking for their husbands and offering their “wares” in exchange for help in finding, if not their husbands, at least what Lorenzo suggests they were really seeking. They sing: “Cucumbers, large ones, we have brought, All rough outside and strange to view.First take the fruit in hand.Open your mouth and suck. For those Who know the way, it does not hurt at all.” Things proceed downhill from there, with melons and vegetables offering pleasures both culinary and erotic, and end with the women protesting that if they are not helped by their listeners, “We’ll find some other means so that Our land does not remain unplowed. We long to join Carnival!”

Poetry and song in Florence were a popular public activity often performed in the squares of the city. And Lorenzo was reportedly ready to join in reading and singing his lusty carnival songs even in the Piazza of San Martino, noted for its lower-class poets and humble, popular atmosphere. One wonders if Lorenzo rubbed shoulders with the lower-class workers there as a form of noblesse oblige or out of a genuine youthful pleasure in joining the playful life of the streets. In fact, it may be that the erotic and illicit were areas where upper-class men still moved regularly and with relative ease across class and cultural boundaries that were becoming stronger divides in the aristocratic world of his day. Still, not all of his more popular work was racy; in fact, many of his poems and songs, following in the tradition of street performances in Florence, focused on religious and moral themes. In this context he wrote a number of popular sacre rappresentazioni, popular religious plays usually performed during religious festivals, as well as poems and songs with religious themes.

Although this might seem a curious mix of the moral and the immoral, the Rinascimento, as we have seen, was a time when sexual pleasures, spiritual enthusiasms, and love in its many forms were often intertwined without a second thought and could transcend social boundaries – the garden of the Rinascimento tended to contain both satyrs and beautiful flowers. Of course, there were preachers and moralists who railed against this relatively easy coexistence, but sex, even what was seen formally as illicit sex, was still generally perceived as involving relatively minor, very human and unavoidable sins; thus an audience could shift fairly easily from laughter at obscene metaphors and lewd mimicry to tears and contrition before the deeds of martyrs and saints.

Lorenzo’s poetry and play, however, were often overwhelmed by the harsher realities that faced the Medicis’ not-so-hidden rule – most significantly, looming on the borders of the territory that he ruled were lands claimed by an ever-more-aggressive papacy that was not particularly impressed with his reputed magnificence. As noted earlier, one of the key goals of the renewed fifteenth-century papacy was reestablishing its authority over the Papal States in central Italy, and that brought it inexorably into troubled contact with Florence’s own territorial claims and expansionist policy. Things came to a head under the papacy of Sixtus IV, who, coming from a relatively humble Genoese family, was eager to build its fortunes by distributing Church offices and territory among his relatives. Lorenzo worked behind the scenes to block those plans when they seemed to threaten Florentine interests, especially in the nearby Romagna. As part of that strategy, he switched allies, replacing Naples with Venice in the alliance system that Florence had maintained with Naples and Milan to keep the peace in Italy after the Peace of Lodi. That switch seemed to threaten the pope, because Venice was the other main opponent of his expansionist policies in the Romagna, which also menaced Venetian territories and territorial ambitions.

In response, the pope aligned with Naples and as a sign of his displeasure named a scion of an exiled Florentine family in bitter conflict with the Medici, Francesco Salviati, as archbishop of Pisa. As Pisa was one of the more important cities of Tuscany under Florentine control, Lorenzo correctly perceived this as a challenge and responded by not allowing Salviati to take up residence there. The battle was under way. Petty challenges, slights, and border skirmishes proceeded quietly until tensions boiled over in 1478 with an assassination plot against Lorenzo. Although historians debate whether or not Sixtus IV was actually in on the plot, his nephew Girolamo Riario and Francesco Pazzi, leader of the rival Florentine Pazzi bank, which had replaced the Medici bank as the primary repository of papal wealth, were ringleaders along with Archbishop Salviati and his family.

The problem that the plotters saw as paramount was that if Lorenzo were killed, his popular younger brother Giuliano would take up the Medici rule and undoubtedly do so with increased support from his Florentine subjects. That meant that both brothers had to be assassinated, preferably at the same time. Thus, with a certain irony, they decided the one time this would be possible was when both brothers attended mass, one of the few moments when they regularly appeared in public together. The perfect moment arrived on Sunday, April 26, 1478, when a nephew of the pope, the eighteen-year-old newly minted cardinal, Raffaele Riario, visited Florence. Diplomatically he had been asked to say a mass in the Duomo, an event that, for all the tension between the Medici and the papacy, Lorenzo and his brother simply could not miss; thus, it provided a perfect moment for a double assassination.

The plotters, however, encountered one last-minute hitch: the professional soldiers they had hired to do the deed, when they learned that it was to be carried out in church during mass, refused to commit such a sacrilege. Thus, with the young cardinal celebrating the mass, at the moment when the host was elevated and the bell was sounded announcing the presence of Christ in the transubstantiated wine and bread, two priests, presumably more comfortable working during the mass, jumped upon Lorenzo with drawn knives. But as murder during the mass was presumably not one of their specialties, they managed only to wound him. At the same time Francesco Pazzi along with an accomplice struck down Giuliano, stabbing him, according to reports of the event, nineteen times in such a fury that Pazzi wounded himself seriously.

When the uproar in the church settled down, Giuliano lay dead in front of the altar in a pool of blood; Lorenzo, wounded, had fled to safety. Supporters of the conspiracy rode through the streets crying “Popolo!” and “Libertà!” But the crowds that had gathered as word of the attempt spread, learning that Lorenzo lived, responded with loud cries of “Palle! Palle!” – the rallying cry of the Medici and Palleschi. What followed was a bloodbath. Francesco Pazzi was quickly captured and taken to the Palazzo della Signoria along with Archbishop Salviati, who had been at the mass, and a number of other suspected plotters. Crowds gathered outside the palace, angered by the death of Giuliano, demanding that the conspirators be turned over to them for instant vengeance. The authorities one by one hanged Pazzi, Salviati, and the others from the windows of the palace, apparently trying to quench their fury.

But this deadly defenestration, with conspirators hanging from the Palazzo, did not satisfy the crowds, and the bodies were cut down, dragged through the streets, mutilated, dismembered, and desecrated with a violence that is a testament to what vengeance could still imply during the Rinascimento. Even burial did not bring peace to the bodies of the conspirators. They were dug up, further mutilated, and fed to the pigs and dogs that had the run of the streets or thrown into the Arno. Only the young Cardinal Riario was spared. Some claim that he seemed too young to be in on the plot, and as unlikely as that may seem, given his eighteen years and the violence of much younger upper-class youths of the day, he was also a cardinal and a nephew of the pope. With an archbishop, a papal banker, and a host of others executed with what could barely be termed summary justice, it may have seemed best to save someone in order to have a minimal claim to legitimacy for the violent response to what would become known as the Pazzi Conspiracy.

If that was the goal, it did not work, for the pope, learning of the failed plot and massacre, excommunicated Lorenzo, placed Florence under an interdict, and declared war on the city. This has led to ironic comments that the pope excommunicated Lorenzo for failing to allow himself to be assassinated. A Florentine notary close to the Medici described the pope not too delicately as that “wicked man … who does not want to grant us absolution … ass’s prick that he is.” But, of course, the pope had no shortage of excuses for his response, perhaps most notably the execution, if it could be called that, of Archbishop Salviati. Long tradition required that clerical misdeeds be tried by the Church, and the archbishop certainly had not been granted that privilege. The desecration of the bodies of the conspirators also provided ample excuse for punishing Florence and Lorenzo, even if Lorenzo claimed that he had tried to restrain the populace.

Sixtus’s war against Lorenzo and Florence went well from the start. Naples, his new ally, sent troops to his aid, while both of Florence’s allies, Milan and Venice, were unable to do so. Venice was occupied with the Turks. Milan was deeply involved in civil strife caused by the assassination of its ruler, Galeazzo Maria Sforza, in 1476 and the minority of his eight-year-old heir. As a result, the pope’s troops encountered little resistance as they cut easily through Tuscany heading toward Florence in the late fall of 1479. But just a few miles south of the city, with winter coming on, they decided to retire for the winter, perhaps just a bit too conveniently. It may have been the cold, rainy days of late November that led the allies to halt their advance, or the resistance they feared the Florentines might put up, but it seems also that not all were really anxious to see Florence and Lorenzo totally defeated by the pope.

Ferrante, the king of Naples, while happy to have the pope as an ally after Lorenzo had deserted their traditional alliance, was not particularly eager to see the pope become the undisputed ruler of central Italy. That would have freed the land-hungry Sixtus to look to the south for additional territories that he might claim for his family, a much less appealing situation for someone who officially held his kingdom as a fief from the pope. Moreover, the idea of a balance of power that was the underpinning of the Peace of Lodi still made sense, and that required a relatively strong, if chastised, Florence to keep the pope’s aggressive tendencies in check. Whether that was his reasoning or not, the troops of the pope’s allies, who just happened to be led by Ferrante’s son, Alfonso Duke of Calabria, decided that the end of the campaigning season had arrived and stopped their advance. Once again Florence had escaped, theoretically saved by nature: winter in this case, disease in the case of Gian Galeazzo Visconti.

Lorenzo clearly saw this as an opportunity to escape an untenable situation. Thus in December he secretly left Florence to sail to Naples and plead for peace for himself and his city. Before he sailed, however, he left a letter for the government and his fellow citizens that showed him at both his humblest and his princely best. After apologizing for leaving without consultation, he wrote:

As I am the person against whom the attack of our enemies is primarily aimed, by delivering myself into their power I may be able to restore peace to my fellow citizens…. Perhaps God wills that this war that began with the bloodshed of my brother and myself, should be ended by my hands. My desire is that by my life or my death, my misfortunes or my success, I may contribute to the wellbeing of our city…. I go full of hope, praying to God to give me the grace to perform what every citizen should at all times be ready to perform for his homeland.

Apparently a heroic gesture of a perfect prince, taken at great personal risk to save Florence, Lorenzo’s letter underlined the injustice of the attack on the city and himself and set the stage for either a heroic failure or an even more heroic triumph. Adding to the letter’s impact, Ferrante was well known for his often whimsical and heavy-handed cruelty. He had recently murdered, for example, the condottiere Jacopo Piccinino, who had come to Naples under a safe conduct to parley with him. Thus, Lorenzo going alone to face the lion in his den seemed impressively heroic.

Lorenzo’s dramatic action ended in triumph. In Naples he negotiated a difficult but real peace with Ferrante and lived to return to a joyous Florence. Unfortunately, it appears that this moment of princely heroism was more staged than real. Diplomatic correspondence in the Medici archives indicates that Lorenzo’s dangerous solo flight to Naples was actually carefully negotiated with Ferrante beforehand and much of the peace already worked out. Essentially Lorenzo had convinced Ferrante that a total victory for the papacy and Naples would upset the balance of power in Italy and free the pope to pursue his interests in Neapolitan territories. Also, as the secret negotiations were going on, the strongest of the contenders for ruling Milan, Ludovico Sforza, known as Il Moro (1452–1508), had finally won the regency and begun ruling in the name of his nephew. That implied that aid from Ludovico might also change the nature of the confrontation. Finally, Lorenzo offered Ferrante a very profitable peace. The cities and strongholds taken in the south of Tuscany would be controlled by Siena, a traditional enemy of Florence and a close ally of Naples; Alfonso, Ferrante’s son and leader of his troops, was to be hired for a number of years by Florence as their condottiere, in effect paying him off for winning the war; and finally, the members of the Pazzi family held in prison were to be released. But peace with Naples seemed definitely worth the price.

Triumphant, popular, heroic, and more magnificent than ever, Lorenzo, within a few weeks of his return, took advantage of the situation to solidify his rule yet further. On April 8, 1480, he turned to that well-established tool for taking power, the Balìa, and set up a special one to reform Florentine government. In short order it created a new Council of Seventy, superior to all previous governmental councils and essentially the final arbiter on all matters of state. Membership on the council was for life, and to no one’s surprise, most members were drawn from the leading supporters of the Medici. In sum, while old councils and old forms remained, real power was yet more solidly and openly in Lorenzo’s hands. This more complete control of the city may have seemed necessary to him, for although he had gained a peace with Ferrante and his popularity in Florence had been bolstered, his enemy, the pope, was not ready to concede peace and still had the resources to put considerable pressure on a vulnerable Florence.

Perhaps, then, it was lady Fortuna aided by a little secret and questionable international and interfaith diplomacy, but whatever it was, in August of that same year a Turkish fleet unexpectedly landed Muslim troops on the southern tip of Italy and they quickly took the town of Otranto. Panic spread rapidly throughout the peninsula. The Turks had arrived. Ferrante withdrew his troops from Tuscany to meet the threat, and Florence quickly reestablished control over the territories that were to have been under Sienese control according to the peace. Sixtus, anxious to face the threat with a unified Christendom, suddenly saw the wisdom of peace with Florence, and by December it had been worked out. Within a year the Turks were driven out of the small toehold they had won in the south, peace reigned, and Florence remained a republic more and more openly ruled by a prince and his unofficial court and courtiers.

Lorenzo’s later years, despite his careful corruption of Florentine republican institutions and diplomatic successes, were once again not quite as magnificent as once claimed. Troubles with his bank hampered both his role as a patron and his ability to support his more open princely glory. In fact, it seems that he actually dipped into governmental funds to keep his bank and other investments afloat. He also inherited his family’s arthritic disease and was forced to be much less visible in the city, a retreat that may have been related as well to the death of his brother and to his more suspicious rule thereafter. But the city and Italy were changing. For even as Florence gloried in its cultural leadership, lively social life, and rather wide open illicit culture, which featured an earthy male-and youth-centered sexuality, it was being more aggressively criticized by those troubled by its distance from the still widely held ideals of Christian and civic morality. Stoked by moral doubts and fire-breathing preachers like Girolamo Savonarola (1452–1498), a deep cultural conflict was brewing. In his last days, as Lorenzo lay dying, Savonarola actually visited him, apparently to warn him to repent of his sinful ways. One wonders if Lorenzo resisted – recalling his youthful, playfully erotic songs – or if on his deathbed he gave up his magnificence to finally become a repentant pilgrim as had Dante almost two centuries earlier.

Be that as it may, in the face of the one-time magnificence of Lorenzo, the renewed Rome of the popes, and the flourishing of Italian courts, one is tempted to ask why such impressive cultural accomplishments suddenly exploded in Italy in the fifteenth century. Where did all those impressive figures come from, and who or what was responsible for their unusual creativity and vitality? Someone like Ficino may have explained the flourishing as a fortunate conjunction of the stars combined with the rediscovery of theultimate truths of Prisca Theologia. The nineteenth-century Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt, much like Petrarch, would have seen it as the result of an aristocratic world that created and sustained genius. More recent historians would tend to stress the more impersonal forces of economics and patronage, with Italy draining the wealth of Europe into a few cities where a goodly portion could be invested in patronizing and cultivating artistic and scholarly activity. More culturally oriented historians might argue that a paradigm shift, based on a more aristocratic view of life, opened new cultural vistas and encouraged an outburst of creative exploration of relatively new questions, questions that seemed particularly attractive to the aristocratic world that followed. All these explanations have considerable weight and have been suggested here, hopefully without the value judgments, aside perhaps from the fortuitous conjunction of the stars. And even that, if one sees behind it the seldom-used, but often fairly accurate “things just seemed to fall together well” explanation, has some merit.

But it might be suggested that this flourishing was not quite as top-down and aristocratic as such explanations seem to imply and as the emphasis on more visible leaders in this chapter might seem to confirm. For many of the most creative leaders of this explosion of culture were new men whose skills had elevated them from the ranks of artisans or the ranks of more modest bureaucrats and notaries. Even many of the popes of the fifteenth century were relatively new men who had risen up through the ranks of the Church, and a significant number of the courtiers whom they supported had followed a similar trajectory. In Florence much the same was the case; even the Medici, in a way, were relatively new to their riches, power, and increasingly aristocratic ways. Of course, there were also scions of older families who contributed, especially in the area of scholarship. Yet the arts, with the exception of a few figures like Leon Battista Alberti, were more patronized by upper-class families than practiced by them.

What I am suggesting, then, is that there was a tremendous wellspring of creativity that swelled up from below and allowed the rich patrons of the fifteenth century in Rome, Florence, Venice, and elsewhere to cultivate and nourish a rich lower-class pool of talent. This pool of talent, if my hypothesis is correct, was extensive and ready to explore new horizons – and this opens a whole series of questions about the cultural flourishing associated with the Rinascimento. For example, one wonders what there was in the everyday culture of the lower classes, and especially the artisanal popolo, that made them so ready to experiment and so creative when they did. Could it have been simply the lure of aristocratic patronage? At a deeper level, given the apparently high per capita level of creativity of fifteenth century society, especially at lower-class and artisanal levels, what was the real potential of the nonelites who made up the largely unknown masses of the Rinascimento?

It almost seems as if the pool of talent to be drawn from the lower classes in the fifteenth century grew in direct proportion to the wealth that was committed to developing that talent. If that is true, the implications are immense and directly undercut the rationale of aristocratic societies across time that insists that only a select few are capable of leading society culturally and intellectually. Be that as it may, one thing is clear – in fifteenth-century Italy the creative power released in the cultural flourishing of the day uncovered a much deeper base of creativity in society than might be expected even today. Although that talent was to a large extent supported by aristocratic wealth and tastes, its roots went deep in a society and a shared primary culture that we are still just discovering, as we delve into the complex society that lay below the more visible and apparently more glorious world of Rinascimento aristocrats and courts.

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