Written by Marisa Garreffa
By which name shall we call him? Cosimo di Giovanni de’ Medici? Or, as he is more commonly known, Cosimo The Elder? No. Let’s call him by his most impressive title: Pater Patriae, the Father of the Country. Born on September 27th, 1389, he was the first in his family to gain political status, thus igniting the Medici political dynasty. Adding to his mythology, his birthday is the commemoration for early Christian martyrs Cosmas and Damian, the patron saints of physicians.
Patronsaintsofphysicians=Cosimo’s birthday. Medici=Doctors. This family was not afraid to build legends around themselves.
The image of the martyrs is featured in many paintings that Cosimo commissioned, as well as those created in his honour, including a powerful painting by Fra Beato Angelico, the Dream of the Deacon Justinian.
The Medici family go way back, originating from the agricultural Mugello region located north of Florence and first mentioned in a document dated 1230. It was in 1397 that Cosimo’s father, Giovanni de Medici, founded the Medici Bank and established its headquarters in Florence. The bank rose to become the official bank of the Papal Court. Through Giovanni’s wealth and influence, he was able to hold a number of political offices that only increased the influence of the Medici family.
His father ensured that Cosimo was very well educated, particularly by esteemed Florentine humanists. He demonstrated a great love of books and intellectual rigour, and was determined to one day amass an incredible library of his own. This alarmed his father, who worried he’d abandon the family business. Cosimo was sent to work in the family banks, but this love of books and knowledge continued on, and would play an important part in the humanist movement of the Renaissance. Upon his death in 1429, Giovanni left an immense fortune to Cosimo, including the Medici banks, and he built his power on the back of this inheritance.
“Giovanni also told his sons that, while it behoved them to remain rich, and if possible to become richer, they must remember that a leading Florentine merchant in a respectable way of business was not worthy of honour only because of his riches. He also had a duty to honour the city of his birth.” Christopher Hibbert
Cosimo became one of the richest men of his time, wealthier than his father, but he had a complicated relationship with money. He was more driven by an earnest love of Florence, knowledge, and government.
“Cosimo, apparently tormented by the wealth of the Medici bank, had his own cell in the convent of San Marco, where he could retreat and contemplate The Adoration of the Magi by Fra Angelico and Benozzo Gozzoli.” Jonathan Jones
Cosimo married Contessina de’ Bardi, whose noble family ran one of the wealthiest banks in Europe called the Compagnia dei Bardi. Even after the fall of The Bardi Company in 1345, they remained a prominent family in Florence. With her dowry, Contessina bought Cosimo the Palazzo Bardi in one of the oldest streets in Florence, which was once entirely owned by her family and still bears their name.
When they were first married, Cosimo often travelled for work, leaving her alone at home. She didn’t seem to mind, and he returned often enough to make children. They had two sons together, Piero and Giovanni, born in Palazzo Bardi. Cosimo had a wandering eye and an illegitimate child, Carlo, with a slave from Circassia. Contessina raised the boy alongside her own.
The family moved into the Medici palazzo near Santa Maria del Fiore, and Cosimo’s influence grew – alarming the other powerful families of Florence and making him an enemy. In 1433 the Albizzi, furious rivals of Cosimo, had him summoned to face the charge of “having elevated himself higher than others”. He was imprisoned in the Palazzo Vecchio, but was not so easy to assassinate. With generous bribes to all involved, Cosimo’s sentence was reduced from death to banishment. He retired to Venice where he lived quite luxuriously, and it was one year later in 1434 that the Medici engineered the elections (they were a tricky family) to ensure their own win, and he returned to his city – exiling his enemies as they had done to him, though they never returned. It was the same year that Brunelleschi completed the famous cupola of the Duomo.
Cosimo governed discretely, preferring to operate from behind the scenes, and his hold on power was secure. He maintained the illusion of a constitution very carefully. His politics were subtle moves: he adjusted ever so slightly the process of selecting members to high office, so even though the names were still drawn randomly (giving the illusion of open access to all), he made it so that only “men who could be depended on” could be chosen. Three guesses who decided what qualified as dependable…
One of his greatest diplomatic feats came after he was elected as Gonfaloniere di Giustizia on the 28th December, 1438. One year later, in 1439, he succeeded in having the Ecunemical Council (a council for the union of the Greek and Latin churches, first initiated in Basel where the Medici had a bank) moved from its location in Ferrara to the city of Florence. He even paid out of his own pocket for the transport between the two cities, and welcomed the papacy himself upon their entrance to the city. The importance of this event was more than just political. The presence of Byzantine intellectuals (including Giorgio Gemisto Pletone, Giovanni Argiropulo, Basilio Bessarione, Giorgio Scolario), along with important Greek authors, launched a rediscovery of Hellenic culture and language that led Florence to be the primary center for the dissemination of neoplatonic philosophy. This was especially thanks to the massive operation of Latin translations conducted by the intellectuals connected to Cosimo – thus giving new impetus to humanistic studies. The documents related to this council can be found in the Laurentian library in San Lorenzo.
Cosimo was also considered a patron of the arts during the time of the Renaissance, and used his wealth to support architectural works such as Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, the Medici Palace and the San Marco Church, designed by Michelozzo, and the San Lorenzo Church designed by Filippo Brunelleschi. The payoff for all of this investment? More political power and the votes of the populace.
He commissioned sculptures and paintings, and had a close relationship with the classical sculptor, Donatello, which led to the production of the bronze sculpture of David. This particular sculpture was a bit scandalous. It implied the power of the Medici over Florence, and was created by a man rumoured to be a homosexual, who many believed had portrayed David in an overly sensual way, when homosexuality was a crime during that time.
Less controversial is the famed Adoration of the Magi, by Sandro Botticelli, which features Cosimo and his sons Piero, Giovanni, Giuliano, and Lorenzo. Cosimo kisses the feet of the young baby Jesus held in the arms of the Madonna, while his sons stand in the gathered crowd. Giorgio Vasari describes it as “the finest of all that are now extant for its life and vigor”. These paintings were strategic marketing for the Medici, suggesting the family’s divine relationship to God, an important part of building the image of Medici greatness.
We know that Cosimo was a great lover of literature and libraries in his youth, and this made him an important part of the humanist movement during the period of the Renaissance. Cosimo founded the first public library in Florence in 1444. The study of classical antiquity of the Ancient Greek and Roman worlds had become increasingly popular and important. Cosimo became a collector of books and a supporter of keeping Ancient Greek and Roman civilizations alive through literature. He was also a major supporter of education, sponsoring the Platonic Academy for the study of the ancient works located in Florence. The academy was dedicated to the study of philosophy and the classics and was almost entirely supported by Cosimo.
In more clever politics, he aligned himself with the power in Milan, exchanging gold for the support of army troops. This allowed him to maintain his hold on the city even against an attempted coup in 1458. He composed the famous “Cento” Senate, composed of 100 supporters loyal to himself and the Medici, ensuring secure power and comfort in the last years of his life. In 1463, Cosimo’s favourite son Giovanni died, putting Piero in line for the succession. Historians describe Cosimo roaming the palace at night, sighing, “Too large a house now for so small a family.” Piero the Gouty, poor man, was not the most inspiring figure to take over. He ruled for five years and was then succeeded by Cosimo’s grandson Lorenzo de Medici, a much more popular leader. You may know him as Il Magnifico, Lorenzo the Magnificent.
Cosimo the Elder died on the 1st of August, 1464, in his Villa di Careggi, the home that was designed by his dear friend Michelozzo. He was aged 74, and left behind a reputation of dignity and power that would be honoured for centuries. A huge crowd followed his body as it was taken to be entombed in San Lorenzo Church. The following year, the Signoria (the government of Renaissance Florence), granted him the title of title of Pater Patriae, the Father of the Country, and the people of the city voted to have this engraved on his tomb as a mark of their eternal respect.
by Marisa Garreffa