How did the de Medici contribute to the Renaissance?
What were the contributions of the de Medici family to the Renaissance in Italy during the fifteenth century? The de Medicis were the effective rulers of the Florentine Republic in the 15th century, and they later became the ruling house of Florence in the 16th and 17th century. The family, especially in the fifteenth century made a decisive contribution to the Renaissance in Italy. This contribution was through their patronage of the arts in their native Florence and their policies that favored peace and stability in Italy and shaped the Renaissance.
The de Medicis made a real and telling contribution to the arts, politics, and stability of Italy and encouraged the cultural flourishing that became known as the Renaissance.
The Medici family originally originate in a small village to the north of Florence. In the thirteenth century, the first Medici arrived in Florence. The family soon prospered in their new home. The early De Medici’s made their money in the wool trade. They used the profits that they made in the wool trade to diversify their business interests. Giovanni di Bicci de' Medici (c. 1360–1429), increased the wealth of the family and established the Medici Bank, and became one of the richest men in the city of Florence. The Medici became involved in politics, and they were often involved with the popular party in Florence. In general, the Medici liked to influence politics from behind the scene and used their wealth and connections to achieve their goals. In 1434 Cosimo the Elder was elected as one of the leaders of the Florentine Republic, and although he was only one of several magistrates who ruled the city, he came to dominate it.
Cosimo was a very effective leader and was a skilled negotiator, and he brought stability to the city and made it even wealthier. Before Cosimo, the city had been regularly disturbed and unsettled by political factions and influential families. Cosimo was succeeded by his son Piero who had little of the abilities of his father. He died while still quite young and was succeeded by his son Lorenzo, who is known to history as Lorenzo the Magnificent. He was an excellent ruler and brought peace and prosperity to Florence and its hinterland.
However, the De Medici business fortunes began to falter, and this ultimately weakened their hold on Florence. Lorenzo and the Medici survived a plot to kill them and seize power in 1474. After Lorenzo died, his son became head of Florence but he was incompetent, and he provoked a popular uprising against the family, and this led to their expulsion from Florence from 1494-1512. The Family was restored to Florence in 1512, and they eventually became the Dukes of Florence. However, the glory days were gone, the later de Medici was not as powerful or as rich as their predecessors, and Florence became a political and cultural backwater.
de Medici and Florence
In the 15th century when the de Medici was at the height of their powers, they dominated Florence. However, they were eager to appear as first among equals, they went to great lengths to allow the other noble and wealthy families to secure many of the offices in the City-Republic’s government. This reconciled many of them to the domination of their Republic by one family. The de Medici were fabulously wealthy at least until the 1480s, and their wealth was able to smooth out any difficulties that they had experienced and the City of Florence experienced a period of peace and stability because of the de Medici's wealth. This period of tranquility was unique in the city’s history that well-known for its political turbulence. The de Medici brought stability to the city and this allowed trade to flourish and also the arts. The stability that the de Medici provided allowed Florence to become a cultural center.
The city’s artists and writers took advantage of the peace and stability to develop new styles of art in security. Then the de Medici were quite tolerant for the times. They were mostly secular in outlook and their power meant that the city’s artists and writers did not have to fear from the Inquisition or clerical interference. The Medici, especially Lorenzo the Magnificent was broad-minded. Indeed, Lorenzo was himself a distinguished poet, and this led to an atmosphere where new ideas and practices were encouraged and even promoted in Florence.
The de Medic had long been associated with the Humanists. Lorenzo the Magnificent was himself taught by a well-known Humanist and was sympathetic to the aims of the movement. For this reason, humanism and its ideas on human reason and capabilities flourished in the city. Indeed, many humanists such as De Valla were able to secure employment in the de Medici administration and added to the cultural life of the city.
De Medici and the Peace of Italy
In the fifteenth century conditions in Italy became more peaceful. In previous centuries war was endemic in the Peninsula. There were conflicts between the city-states and often civil conflicts within them. These indeed led to the rise of many tyrants all over Italy especially, in the 14th century. The De Medici did not like to engage in war and did not want to expand Florentine territory. They favored peace and believed that war was bad for trade. In this, they had a decidedly modern outlook. Cosimo the Elder worked tirelessly for peace in the North of Italy. He sought to establish a balance of power in the region between the main powers and the exclusion of foreign powers such as the French and the Holy Roman Emperor. Cosimo helped to negotiate an end to a series of wars in Lombardy and helped the main players in Italy, Milan, Naples, Venice, and Florence to reach an agreement to respect each other’s territorial integrity.
Lorenzo, the Magnificent, followed his grandfather’s policies about maintaining a balance of power in Italy. This led Lorenzo and other Northern Italian leaders to negotiate the Treaty of Lodi that brought peace and stability to the North and Central Italy. The de Medici through their policies did much to bring peace and security too much of Italy, and this was crucial for the Renaissance  It is not a coincidence that the cultural zenith of the Italian Renaissance occurred when Florence was stable. Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Raphael produced their most celebrated works when Northern Italy was experiencing an unprecedented peaceful period in the fifteen century. In this way, the de Medici helped to create an ideal environment for the great artists of the era to grow and create peerless works of art.
The De Medici and the revival of Greek Learning
The Renaissance was inspired by the Classical World of Ancient Greece and Rome. However, until the fifteenth century, the Italian humanists only knew of Ancient Greece and the great works of Plato and the other great Greeks through the Romans. Cosimo the Elder helped to introduce Ancient Greek manuscripts and culture into Italy. Cosimo the Elder sought to end the schism in the Christian Church. He helped to negotiate the union of the Catholic and the Orthodox Church that was formalized at the Council of Florence in 1439. This Union ultimately failed, but it was to have a profound impact on the development of the Renaissance.
The Byzantine Emperor visited Florence in 1493 to ratify the Union, and he was attended by several hundred followers among them the great Neoplatonist philosopher George Gemistos Plethon. Cosimo had failed to achieve a lasting union between the eastern and the western Church. However, he inspired renewed interest in the works of the Greeks as he patronized several Greek scholars from Byzantium and appeared to have secured some manuscripts that were previously unknown in Florence. In the Byzantine Empire, there were many great works from the Greek past that were unknown in Italy. The city of Florence soon became the center for the study of Ancient Greek culture and Neoplatonism, became very influential. The increasing interest in Greek culture was to direct the Renaissance in new directions and inspired a new generation of writers and philosophers such as Pico Della Mirandola.
De Medici as Patrons
All of the de Medici had an interest in the arts in the fifteenth century and art was used to legitimize the family's rule of Florence. The works commissioned by the family often sought to raise the status of the family in the city. They used art to fortify their position in Florentine Society. However, the family was also genuinely fond of art, architecture, and literature. Cosimo was very knowledgeable about architecture and Lorenzo the Magnificent was a connoisseur of paintings and sculptures.
The Medici’s used their lavish wealth to patronize many of the greatest artists of the time. The family was directly responsible for some of the greatest works in the Renaissance. Cosimo the Elder was the patron of the great architect Bruneschelli, and it was under De Medici orders that he built the great Medici Sacristy in the Church of San Lorenzo. It was Cosimo who ordered the building of the great De Medici Palace with its magnificent paintings by Uccello. It was Cosimo who also commissioned Donatello's, Bronze of David, one of the most influential pieces of sculpture in the period.
Lorenzo was equally lavish in his patronage of artists and the commissioning of great works of art. He is widely seen as perhaps the greatest patron of the arts in Renaissance Italy, but this view has been challenged in recent decades. He also commissioned works from great artists such as Botticelli, Perugino, Ghirlandaio, and Verrocchio. Moreover, Lorenzo established a sculpture garden at San Marco, where he encouraged the young Michelangelo to study works from the Classical Period. Michelangelo produced his first significant works under the patronage of Lorenzo. Michelangelo formed part of Lorenzo’s household, and he treated artists as the equals of humanist scholars and poets.
Lorenzo's treatment of articles was unprecedented in Republican Florence, where painters and sculptors had only been ranked as mere tradesmen or common craftsmen.' This treatment raised the status of the artists in the eyes of Florentine society and this was to produce an environment where they had more freedom of expression, and this enabled them to produce many great artworks. Lorenzo not only patronized these great artists but they also patronized many humanists and writers and they all helped to make Florence a leading intellectual center. Ironically, it has been suggested that the de Medici’s lavish expenditure on the arts and buildings led to their financial difficulties from the 1480s onwards, which contributed to their ‘expulsion from the city in 1494.
The de Medici during their rule of Florence in the fifteen century did much to influence the Renaissance and to enable the great artists, humanists, and writers, to produce their works that have been so influential down the centuries. The family brought stability and peace to the city of Florence. This was crucial in the cultural flourishing in the city in the fifteenth century. The de Medici largely peaceful rule did much to promote the Renaissance in the city. They also in their relations with the other city-states did much to bring peace to North Italy. Then the de Medici was very instrumental in the growing interest in Greek culture and history.
Cosimo de Medici and his policies promoted, unintentionally, the study of the works of the Greeks. This was to move the Renaissance in new directions, especially under the influence of Neoplatonism. Then there was the patronage of the de Medici; the family directly helped many great artists to produce many new and great works of art. Lorenzo the Magnificent especially helped to raise the status of the artists in Florentine society. By the time of their expulsion in 1494, the family had made a significant contribution to the development of the Renaissance, which has been crucial in the evolution of the modern world.
- Hibbert, Christopher. The House of Medici: Its Rise and Fall. Morrow (London, Morrow, 1975)
- Ferdinand Schevill, History of Florence: From the Founding of the City Through the Renaissance (London, Frederick Ungar, 1936), p. 113
- Schevill, p. 115
- Paul Strathern, The Medici—Godfathers of the Renaissance (London, Pimlico, 2005), p. 213
- Lauro Martines, April Blood: Florence and the Plot Against the Medici (Oxford, Oxford University Press 2003, p. 114)
- Schevill, p. 115
- Martines, p. 145
- Schevill, p. 117
- Strathern, p. 117
- Hibbert, p. 167
- Hibbert, p. 156
- Hibbert, p. 118
- Miles J. Unger, Magnifico: The Brilliant Life and Violent Times of Lorenzo de Medici, (London, Simon and Schuster 2008), p. 134
- Miles, p. 123
- Hibbert, p. 134
- Hibbert, p. 134
- Miles, p 145
- Miles, 117
- Strathern, p 65
- Miles, p 134
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Updated January 13, 2019