The Cosimos

The tombs of the Medici, the family that with two brief interludes was the dominant force in Florence from 1434 to 1737, are to be found in the Church of San Lorenzo, a northerly stone’s throw from the city’s duomo. You pay about five dollars to get into the Chapel of Princes at the back of the building. The space is far larger and taller than you could have imagined. There are extravagantly bejeweled trophies in bright display cases and all around, high against walls of variously colored stone, the grand sarcophagi of the Tuscan dukes in gloomy granite, polished and preposterous. The impression is not of a people honoring its rulers, but of a family admiring itself.

Yet the tombs of the earlier Medici, the men who founded the merchant bank upon which the family’s power was originally based, are not to be seen here. Paying a more modest sum to enter the main church, you can look up Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici in what is called the old sacristy to the left of the nave. Giovanni started the Medici bank in 1397 and from modest beginnings amassed a fortune of some hundreds of thousands of florins at a time when a respectable town house could be built for a thousand. He himself commissioned the chapel from Brunelleschi, who completed the building shortly before the banker’s death in 1429. It is a sublimely quiet space, neither spare nor lavish, whose sober charm resists even the treadmill of modern tourism. There are no paintings. On lunettes above the doors and roundels beneath the dome, Donatello’s stucco bas-reliefs are at once animated and cool. Giovanni di Bicci’s white marble tomb occupies the center of the chapel, but is half hidden by a simple low table, again made from white marble. Perhaps the only false note is the golden shields bearing eight red balls—emblem of the Medici family—that shine a little too proudly at the chapel’s four corners. (See illustration on page 76.)

But where is Cosimo? Inheriting the bank from his father, Cosimo il Vecchio took the family business to its maximum extension and profitability. So great was his largesse and the party of followers that developed around it that in 1433 the city’s ruling faction, headed by the Albizzi family, had him arrested for “having sought to elevate himself higher than others.” Unable to get the consensus to execute him, they had him expelled. A year later, on the brink of bankruptcy, the city’s government invited Cosimo and his money back. The banker promptly had his enemies expelled and set about manipulating the republic’s institutions in such a way that the status quo could not easily be reversed again. At the same time, he embarked upon a program of building and artistic patronage that financed some of the finest work of the early Renaissance. Cosimo survived twenty years of fruitless war, not to mention some stiff resistance …

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