Cosimo de’ Medici was born in 1389, into a wealthy banking family. His father,Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici, was already a successful businessman. In 1420 Giovanni di Bicci retired and handed over his various business and art ventures, including the bank to Cosimo.
Cosimo de’ Medici was one of the most famous personalities of Renaissance Florence and a great patron of the arts,especially architecture. He was also one the most powerful bankers in Florence, and eventually in all of Europe, thanks in part to his management of the Papacy’s finances. Cosimo’s influence in the art and the economic world made him very politically powerful, and he was posthumously given the title pater patriae, Latin for “father of his country.” His success was the beginning of the reign of the Medici family in Florence that lasted until well into the 17th century.
Cosimo de’ Medici was a very successful businessman. Cosimo gave a large part of his wealth to churches and other charitable institutions, and what he did not give away he used as a weapon to gain power, especially outside of Florence. Cosimo de’ Medici garnered a significant amount of power from his extensive family and the connections that this gave him.
As Professor Dale Kent has noted, “Cosimo became the family’s leading representative in the ruling group, its symbolic head, and the chief architect of family and party policy.”
For instance, Cosimo gave extensive loans to the Venetian Republic to help them fight off the French and the Duke of Milan. Cosimo’s financial assistance allowed the Venetians to successfully ward off the attack, which kept Florence safe from invasion. Conversely, when Venice and Naples united against Florence, Cosimo crippled their attacks by demanding that they pay their debts to the Medici bank, leaving them without any resources to continue the war.
Cosimo also had many personal connections that gave him influence in the political world . He attended meetings of humanists and had learned conversation with such men as Bruni,
Poggio, and Marsuppini, leading humanists in Florence. All of these men later became chancellors of the Republic, giving Cosimo considerable political influence through his friends.
As Dale Kent argued,
Cosimo succeeded in identifying the honor of the Medici family with that of the commune more completely than any citizen before him. He did this by making his friends and political supporters honorary extensions of this group, to be seen as dear as fathers, brothers, and sons in affection and obligation.
Cosimo used this and his wealth to influence policy, especially foreign policy. For example, he used his connections and economic power to arrange the Council of Florence in 1439, a meeting between the authorities of the Eastern and Western church. Cosimo housed all of the members of the council with his own resources, giving him ample opportunity to gain from the council.
This merging of Eastern and Western culture gave Cosimo and other humanists special opportunities to expand their learning. Cosimo de Medici’s rise to power in Florence was not always smooth. His carefully crafted persona as a pious patriot made him very popular, even though he held no official political title.
As Cosimo began to gain power among the people, the Albizzi family held sway over the government. The Albizzi family were not unpopular, as they ruled in a time of prosperity for Florence. However, the rival family saw the threat that Cosimo posed due to his wealth and influence over the citizens of Florence. They were not convinced by Cosimo’s pious persona. They managed to arrest him on the charges of attempting to raise himself above the average citizen, a serious offense in Florence, where modesty and humility were highly valued.
Cosimo’s adversaries planned to have him killed in prison, but Cosimo detected their plan and refused to eat anything, lest it had been poisoned.11 Seeing that they would not be able to kill him without raising suspicion, on September 7, 1433, Cosimo and his family were exiled. However, the government soon shifted in the favor of the Medici, and Cosimo made a triumphant return just over a year later. Cosimo became the head of a group of families, typically younger families determined to oppose the older families led by the Albizzi.13 The Albizzi family eventually made their way to Arezzo, which caused tension between the Medici and Arezzo for many years to come.Cosimo took great care to ensure that his return to power was reflected in every aspect of his life, especially in the art he commissioned.Cosimo commissioned a great variety of works from the most talented artists in Florence at the time. His patronage spanned personal, religious, and civic subjects. Each work he commissioned contained a specific message for a specific audience, depending on the context of the work. These works aimed to promote the strength and honor of the Medici family.
Cosimo de’ Medici was a powerful, wealthy man who gained power and control by connections, economic influence, and a persona portrayed through the art he commissioned. In each commission and business decision, Cosimo increased the strength and honor of the Medici family, and he was so beloved that when he died in 1464, the ruler of Florence gave the title pater patriae, or father of his country. He left a powerful legacy in the buildings he commissioned, including the churches of San Lorenzo and San Marco, as well as his own residence, the Medici Palace. He also left an economic legacy, as his son Piero became the wealthiest man in Europe at Cosimo’s death. Finally, Cosimo left a legacy in his family, who controlled Florence, one of the most powerful cities in Europe, until 1537.