This was the ambitious goal of Cosimo I, who became leader of Florence in 1537. He didn’t know it yet, but his rule would mark the beginning of two hundred years of powerful Medici rule (ending in 1737). This sprawling dynasty wasn’t created single handedly. In 1539, Cosimo married Eleonora di Toledo, daughter to the Spanish viceroy of Naples, and together they had eleven children – seven sons and four daughters. As well as being the great love of his life, Eleonora brought with her an enormous dowry which she used well to advance her husband’s status and position. You can read more about her life and their marriage in our blog here.
Cosimo became more powerful than any Medici before him. With his youth came a healthy dose of arrogance and ambition; he was determined to make the Florentine court as grand as any in Europe. Perhaps this youthful ego is precisely what made him such a good leader, he was unafraid of bold decisions and choosing his own vision over others. He is remembered as a remarkable leader who stabilised Florence. When he came to power, the governing structures of Florence were a mess. There were many rival claims to power that created constant battles between families, and an ongoing struggle between the Republic and the Medici. Cosimo was not shy about trampling over challenges to his authority. He removed all competition for power, abolishing the Republic’s institutions to ensure the stable and consistent rule by his own family line. There were mixed feelings about this – some praised the stability he brought, while others saw him as a tyrant.
Tyrant or hero, Cosimo I was a clever and tricky man. He displaced the old ruling class of important Florentine families by “elevating” them to the role of “courtiers”; positions of prestige where they could be called upon, but were now ineligible to be elected to office and therefore had no real access to power. Instead, power was distributed in a way that simplified and improved the bureaucracy of the city, by allocating the important positions to a diverse selection of the educated class. These were people of humble origins but with great talent and knowledge, found both in Florence and beyond. When the people saw that they were chosen based on merit and education, rather than simply the luck of birth, they responded by giving Cosimo their love and loyalty.
Cosimo’s work didn’t stop there. He created a new criminal code and an efficient judicial system and police force. With his new government structure he set to work rebuilding the economy, which had been devastated by the years of war and invasions preceding his rule. He worked to attract new industry to Florence and supported these new ventures, encouraging the settlement of foreign merchants, though mostly in Pisa and Livorno, rather than Florence proper. His list of accomplishments in Pisa is truly vast: he restored the University of Pisa and launched an extensive program to revitalise the city. He created a canal from Pisa to Livorno, where he expanded the port. He reinforced their naval power and founded the Order of the Knights of San Stefano to defend Tuscany’s coastline. It was Pope Pius IV who founded the order under the arrangement of Cosimo. There was gossip that Cosimo had over-reached with his hand in the arrangements, founding orders was something usually only done by royalty, but it elevated his status considerably, bringing him closer to the title of Grand Duke.
Following in his father’s footsteps Cosimo demonstrated a flair for winning in battle. His most famous military success was the taking of Siena. First, weakening their position, he won the Battle of Marciano in 1554 and then he laid siege to Siena itself. In 1555 the city fell, and in 1559 Montalcino, (“the last man standing”), was also annexed to Cosimo’s territories. This win cemented his reputation throughout Italy, earning him respect and admiration.
He was clever in his revitalisation of the cultural life of Florence, making a strategic exchange with the important artists of the time, such as Vasari and Cellini. He would forgive their previous sympathies to the Republic and any past alignments against the Medici, and in exchange they were welcomed back into the city and would pledge their art to the service of his politics. It worked a treat. He worked hard to spread the story of the Medici as great patrons of the arts, restoring the Palazzo Medici and the Biblioteca Laurenziana, enriching both with new works. He commissioned Vasari’s portrait of Lorenzo the Magnificent, established the Arazzeria Medicea, and joined with Michelangelo to lead the Accademia del Disegno. You can read in Eleonora’s biography all about the expansion of Palazzo Vecchio and Palazzo Pitti, and imagine how this added to the prestige of Cosimo’s reputation.
He used his patronage well to enhance his image, promoting himself as a strong and ideal leader of Florence and Tuscany. Cosimo himself took over the role of storyteller for the memory of being thrown out the window as a baby, a story that tied in beautifully with the legend of himself he created as a ruler. Bronzino was Cosimo’s court artist, creating the impressive bronze bust of him, and was later replaced by Vasari as the favourite, who transformed the interiors of Palazzo Vecchio with frescoes that glorified the Medici, beginning with Cosimo il Vecchio and culminating in the Sala dei Cinquecento which celebrates Cosimo I’s rule. In particular, here we find the large scale fresco created by Vasari to celebrate Cosimo’s greatest achievement: the conquest of Siena. (Side note: there is a theory that beneath this painting, a lost fresco of Leonardo da Vinci can be found, The Battle of Anghiari, covered over by Vasari.)
It wasn’t only his reputation that he sought to enhance, he also wanted to create a strong mythology around Florence’s descent from Etruscan origins, to give the strong impression of an ancient heritage. He created massive archeological sites in Chiusi, Arezzo and other cities to excavate Etruscan artifacts. And it was Cosimo who took the first vital steps to establishing the Florentine language as the central language of Italy – he knew that culture is intimately tied to language, and in order for Florence to be the heartbeat of Italy, the language needed to be shaped and then spread beyond the borders of the Duchy.
At this time there was the Accademia degli Umidi, academics who were fascinated by vernacular poetry, particularly by poets such as Dante and Petrarca. Cosimo saw the potential and became their great supporter, bringing them beneath his wing and ensuring that “litterati” who were loyal to him entered the academy, where they studied language and the poets. The academy, once private, became a state academy, changing its name to Accademia Fiorentina and being moved into the Palazzo della Signoria.
Cosimo commissioned five of the Umani to develop a set of grammatical rules “del parlar toschano et fiorentino”, creating a language drawn from the whole Tuscan linguistic heritage that could now be taught widely as an alternative to Latin, forming the base of what is now the national language of modern Italy – the Italian version of “the King’s english”. The academy and Cosimo pushed for the translation of scientific works from Latin into the Florentine vernacular for wider distribution – opening up knowledge like never before and creating a sense of a unified Tuscan identity through the use of a shared language. It is in large part thanks to his work that Florence became the Italian cradle of language and literature. This push for a Tuscan “volgare” revived the Etruscan myth, which said that Tuscany was the first European city to be populated and civilised, and that the language drew its roots from this glorious ancient heritage. Cosimo intentionally played into this myth, creating the story of the “New Etruria of the Medici”.
In modern times, Cosimo is more commonly known for the construction of the Uffizi. When he was alive, it was created at Cosimo’s request by Giorgio Vasari, to hold the magistrate offices for Florence; Uffizi means “offices”. Today it is a famous museum that holds one of the largest and most magnificent art collections in the world. When Cosimo moved to the Pitti Palace, he also commissioned Vasari to build the Vasari Corridor, a secret passageway that connects Pitti Palace to the Uffizi. You can read all about the expansion of the Pitti Palace and the creation of the Boboli Gardens in our blog about his wife, Eleonora di Toledo.
Sadly, Eleonora and two of their sons, Giovanni and Garzia, died of malaria in 1562. This was a terrible heartbreak for Cosimo and two years later, in 1564, he stepped down from his government post and gave his son and succeeding heir, Francesco I, reins over Florence. It was Francesco who first created a private gallery in the east wing of the Uffizi, containing sculptures and pieces from the family’s private collection.
In 1569, Pope Pius V crowned Cosimo as the Grand Duke of Tuscany at the Vatican in the Sala Regia in Rome a duchy that now included the Republic of Siena under its banner, thanks to him. With this prestigious position, the expansion of his power was complete. In 1570, he married his mistress, Camilla Martelli, and they had a daughter, Virginia de’ Medici. In April of 1574, Cosimo I died and his body was laid to rest in the Chapel of the Princes at the Basilica of San Lorenzo. Pope Leo X had predicted well, when he named Cosimo to live up to the greatness of Cosimo the Elder. Cosimo I became one of the most remembered and honoured leaders in all of Florentine history.