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The Cosimos

1.

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 to his creeping accumulation of power. But astute diplomacy and lucky circumstance allowed him and his city to spend the last ten years of his life in peace and prosperity, so that at his death in 1464, if not universally liked, he was nevertheless generally revered as the greatest Florentine of his age.

Where then is his tomb? Moving around San Lorenzo, one looks in vain for a magnificent sarcophagus. Until, standing in the center of the nave, directly before the high altar, the eyes turn downward. In a circle of white marble set in the floor, a porphyry plaque reads: “Here lies Cosimo de’ Medici, by public decree Father of his Country. He lived seventy-five years, three months and twenty days.”

The distance, aesthetic, spiritual, and political, between this banker’s burial monument, at once unobtrusive yet absolutely central, and the grand tombs of the Medici princes, magnificent but removed from plebeian view, to a great extent characterizes the distance between the earlier and later Medici, and likewise between much of the content of the two books under review.

Drawing on a lifetime’s scholarship, Dale Kent sets out to present Cosimo’s patronage of the arts, sacred and profane, in architecture, painting, and sculpture, as a coherent oeuvre, deserving of the same interest and respect as the lifetime work of a major artist. This immediately involves her in two kinds of polemics. She feels she must correct a long tradition of art historians who, under the influence of Romanticism, have considered only the intentions and genius of the artist, ignoring the patron except to complain when he has opinions as well as money. And she wants to rebut those scholars who, this time under the influence of modern and generally left-wing political ideas, have seen in Cosimo’s patronage only a cynical strategy of self-aggrandizement or at best, in his church-building, a dubious insurance policy for the hereafter, refusing to recognize, on the banker’s part, either a genuine piety or a real desire to honor his city with things of beauty.

Though Kent is overwhelmingly engaged in having us appreciate the specificity of the world of fifteenth-century Florence and its distance from our own times, the issue of private patronage and its motivations remains very much a contemporary one. In The Rings of Saturn, W.G. Sebald remarks on the way many important museums, the Mauritshuis in The Hague and the Tate Gallery in London, were built with money connected with the sugar trade of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a trade that depended on large-scale slave labor. Endowing the arts involves an attempt to legitimize this wealth while simultaneously, through the very gesture of penitence, if it really is that, enhancing the prestige of the patron. Is there a direct line from Cosimo and his altarpieces to the contemporary tobacco company sponsoring a major exhibition or sporting event? In the opening pages of her lavishly illustrated book, Kent herself acknowledges the patronage of various cultural institutes, themselves perhaps patronized by commercial companies. The art exhibition for which the book The Medici, Michelangelo, and the Art of Late Renaissance Florence is the official catalog was sponsored by, among others, Bank One and the Florence Savings Bank.

2.

Like most other wealthy Florentine families of his time Cosimo de’ Medici kept domestic slaves and indeed in the 1420s had a child by one shortly after the birth of his second son by his wife Contessina. But this does not seem to have been a source of much remorse. The fault was a common one. Cosimo, who declared himself a devotee of the Virgin, had the boy brought up with his own children and apparently experienced no embarrassment that the child’s Circassian features would be a constant reminder of his adultery. On the other hand, he was determined, in his role as banker, never to appear to be a “manifest usurer.” Usury, the lending of money in return for an interest rate (any interest rate, not just an exorbitant one) was strictly forbidden by the Church, “a detestable sin,” the government of Florence called it when annually fining the city’s pawnbrokers, who were nevertheless always allowed to trade. Contracts between the Medici and the directors of their bank’s branches in the financial centers of Italy and northern Europe invariably defined the organization’s business as “honest and licit” exchanges. Not usury, that is. All the same, the bookseller Vespasiano da Bisticci, who wrote a short life of Cosimo, his best customer, remarked that he had “accumulated quite a bit on his conscience, as most men do who govern states and want to be ahead of the rest,” and that his patronage of churches had to do with his wish for “God to have mercy on him, and to preserve him in the enjoyment of his temporal goods.”

So before his involvement in the restoration of the Convent of San Marco, his first major patronage project, Cosimo consulted Pope Eugenius IV (then his bank’s most important client). In return for the huge sum of money he spent on the Church, Eugenius issued a papal bull that effectively expiated Cosimo from his sins. The first lines of the bull were inscribed in stone over the entrance to a cell that Cosimo kept for his own use inside the convent. Taking refuge to pray there before Benozzo Gozzoli’s Crucifixion and Adoration of the Magi, frescoes that, together with dozens of others by Fra Angelico, he himself had paid for, thinking of all the prayers that were daily being recited for his soul in return for his generosity, Cosimo must have felt that he was doing as much as a man can do to get himself into heaven. And this was before he began work on San Lorenzo, on the Badia di Fiesole, on the Santissima Annunziata, and many others, including a contribution to the restoration of the Church of Santo Spirito in Jerusalem.

Kent has written elsewhere about Cosimo’s rise to power and his manipulation of the Florentine Republic, and she is entirely familiar with Raymond De Roover’s exhaustive history of the Medici bank and its practices. Yet in this book she chooses not to consider those aspects of Cosimo’s life that might make a man feel he had a lot to make up for. Instead she concentrates on establishing a continuity between the artifacts that his patronage gave rise to and the surrounding culture, both popular and intellectual.

Cosimo’s relationship with the avant-garde humanists of his time, his collection of rare manuscripts, his furnishing of various libraries, awareness of the classical world, declared affinity with Cicero, later interest in Plato’s reflections on the eternal life of the soul—all this is well-trodden ground and Kent can do little more here than look for evidence that Cosimo really did read the books he collected, his patronage thus being influenced by their content. She quotes a letter in which he asks to have a trunk of books sent to him when he is away on business (but we later discover that he also likes to have his ceremonial armor with him as well). She finds markers in the margins of pages dealing with the virtues of patience and the dangers of carnal desire. It is hardly conclusive either way. Having sensibly remarked in her preface that she sees no point in passing judgment one way or another on the man, Kent then defends and promotes Cosimo in intellectual, aesthetic, and moral matters so strenuously and with the aid of so many “may have’s,” “might have’s,” and “perhapses” in his favor that many readers will begin to feel an instinctive resistance. Cosimo, who, as Vespa-siano tells us, knew how to influence colleagues and parliaments by giving the impression that it was actually they who had suggested his point of view, would have gone about presenting his case rather differently.

But the chapters on popular Florentine culture and then on the art commissions themselves, the contents of Cosimo’s various collections, and the nature of his patronage network are far more satisfying. We are given accounts of popular entertainments, of singing and poetry-reading in Piazza San Martino. There are long quotations from contemporary descriptions of sacred plays, whose staging created images closely resembling those of celebrated paintings, the implication being, as Kent insists throughout, that ordinary people were entirely familiar with the sophisticated iconography of “high” art. She has a fascinating discussion of the vernacular scrapbooks that people liked to keep, full of bits of poetry and extracts from sermons that they would copy out themselves, perhaps when a bout of the plague forced them to retreat to the country, or when inability to pay a debt obliged them to spend a while in prison. Again Kent establishes a substantial overlap between what Cosimo and the average artisan was reading.

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