Cosimo I de’ Medici 1519 – 1574
His father ordered him thrown out of a window as a baby to see if he was brave. It was the first of many tests that Cosimo I would pass with flying colours. Cosimo I de’ Medici was born in Palazzo Salviati on June 12th 1519, an only child like his father Lodovico de’ Medici, a strong and fierce condottiero (mercenary) known as Giovanni of the Black Bands, who worked for Pope Leo X. His father and the Pope were so close that it was for Leo that Giovanni was given his nickname and Cosimo was given his name. When Cosimo was born, it was Leo X who stood as Godfather and sent the orders that the child be named Cosimo: “to revive the memory of the wisest, the bravest, and most prudent man yet born to the house of Medici.”
Of course Giovanni complied, and he was named Cosimo I. Upon Leo X’s death, in his grief Giovanni added two black bands to his insignia in honour of his friend, and was known for this image ever after.
While Giovanni was away for Cosimo’s actual birth, the story goes that one day after he’d returned, he found himself beneath a window of the Salviati Palazzo where Maria was holding her son in her arms. “Buttami Cosimino!” he cried to her. “Throw him to me!” Who knows what she must have thought, but he insisted and so she dropped her baby out of the window where he fell into to waiting arms of his father below. Giovanni was proud, declaring to all who would listen that his son had neither cried nor struggled, proof of his great courage. “You’ll be a prince,” he allegedly said, which became true enough. He is famously known as the second Duke of Florence and the first Grand Duke of Tuscany.
Cosimo I was a rare Medici, one who could trace his descendents back to both branches of the family line. His father was the child of Giovanni de Medici (Il Popolano) and Caterina Sforza; and his mother was Maria Salviati, who descended from two powerful banking families: the Salviati and the Medici (she was the daughter of Lucrezia and granddaughter of Lorenzo the Magnificent). These bloodlines would be important later, when Cosimo found himself remarkably in line to rule, despite not having paternal descendance from the political branch of the family.
Though he was born in Florence, he spent the rest of his childhood in a quiet valley of the Mugello, at the Villa Il Trebbio. His father died from a battle wound when he was 7 years old, and as he grew older he began to demonstrate some of his inheritance: strong physical robustness and an ability for hunting, a call to battle and involvement in power games, good judgement and organisation, and the ability to enforce discipline. The qualities that made his father such a good mercenary would soon make Cosimo I a great leader.
“Thus Cosimo looking back may have realised that his childhood had been not merely a stirring time, but the very ending of an epoch in his country’s history”
Cecily Booth, Cosimo I Duke of Florence
The Medici had yet to consistently maintain their hold onto power. Cosimo was born after the reign of Lorenzo the Magnificent, after the trial of Savonarola who had challenged the Medici rule, and after the exiles suffered by Medici rulers. Not coming from the political line, it wasn’t expected that he would come to rule, let alone be the one who would establish the firm power of the Medici dynasty, unbroken, for the next two hundred years.
So what could have possibly happened to change these expected fates? On 6th January 1537, a pretty bad day to be Alessandro de’ Medici (the grandson of Lorenzo the Magnificent and cousin of Cosimo’s mother, who inherited the rule of the Duchy in 1532). His nickname was “Il Moro”, The Moor, and historians believe this was due to his probable African heritage; many believe he was the child of an African servant in the Medici household.
After six years of rule as Duke, on January 6th, Alessandro’s distant cousin Lorenzo assassinated him, having lured him into a trap with the promise of some sexy time with his beautiful sister. Instead of sticking around to gloat or to take power himself, Lorenzo then fled the city immediately, ruining any chance of succeeding himself to the position of ruler, despite being next in line. He claimed that he committed the murder in support of the republic, but his hoped for anti-Medici uprising never happened and he was nicknamed Lorenzaccio (bad Lorenzo). The Florentines really did love their nicknames. Tsk tsk. Bad Lorenzo.
Alessandro’s son, being an illegitimate heir, did not succeed his father. Instead, Medici supporters with influence ensured that Cosimo, at the tender age of 17, was instead chosen to lead. He had just won the Battle of Montemurlo and was gaining some reputation. The election was approved by Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, to whom Cosimo became a faithful ally. Of course, it wasn’t all so straight forward; the influential Florentines who put him into power had hoped to use Cosimo as a puppet to further their own ends in government. Ha! Little did they know. Cosimo took to leadership with a determination and scale of vision that no one had expected. In everything, he aimed for higher than the top, and this made him a puppet to no one.
“The young duke looked not to the powerful nobles who had practically handed him the duchy, but within himself for personal strength, within the educated class for administrative talent, and within the general population for faithful support.” Victoria College
Florence was given its first glimpse of what would be one of the greatest PR and branding exercises ever launched by a Florentine leader when Cosimo I immediately began a transformation of the gardens at the Villa di Castello, which were designed by Niccolo Tribolo. The reason? To celebrate in elaborate fashion the magnificence of the Medici family, and to “herald in a new golden age for Florence”. Does this give you a hint as to just how big Cosimo I was thinking as he took the reigns of power? You’ll find out more in our blog next week. Cosimo I created a lot of hype around himself, but he also lived up to it.