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.
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.
Other chapters offer wonderful details of a workshop producing objects of devotional art for all comers and a truly excellent analysis of the complex politics of Church patronage, where families, guilds, and ecclesiastical authorities were in constant negotiation over the upkeep and decoration of side chapels, naves, and sacristies. Most intriguing of all, one very long section—but every section of this book is long and determinedly cumulative—describes Florence’s religious confraternities. Meeting weekly to sing God’s praises, or to take off their shirts and give each other a penitential whipping, these organizations brought together people from throughout the city’s guilds, quarters, and family factions. Cosimo himself was a member of the confraternity devoted to the Magi and took part in festive Magi processions, his wife fussing over whether it wasn’t time for them to get new costumes. The paintings of the Adoration of the Magi that the banker commissioned for his cell in San Marco, the chapel in his house, and many other locations are thus shown to be part of a shared community life.
“Rich context” are the two words that Kent most often and most enthusiastically puts together. She is enamored of fifteenth-century Florence. Far more than her polemics, the social and cultural setting she establishes does indeed make nonsense of brutal oppositions such as genuine piety versus cynical aggrandizement, or ignorant patron versus artistic genius. On the other hand, so deeply does she involve Cosimo in the religious and cultural manifestations of his time, and in particular the shared vision of the rich patriarch as a sort of patron saint on earth, that it is hard to see anything individually distinctive about the impressive cycle of his commissions. If anything, the picture that emerges is of a man always eager that every project, commercial, ecclesiastic, or political, be seen as a group effort, involving friends, family, partisans, clergy, and artists alike. In a world torn by faction, he was, like many Italian politicians since, obsessed by the need to achieve consensus, then determined that when the work was finished the emblem of his own faction would be stamped on the achievement.
“God knows why I did it,” Cosimo is reported to have said of his extensive patronage. Along with the pious formula, one suspects there is an honest perplexity here. Kent herself freely admits that to have demolished simplistic accusations is not to have explained Cosimo’s motives, conscious or otherwise. Why does, why did, the patron do it? Something more needs to be said.
Perhaps the place to start is with a religion of revealed truth that calls believers out of the world to a life of poverty and humility before the imminent Second Coming. Which fails to come. The latter days begin, the liturgy. The religion becomes the religion of the status quo, but without changing its teaching. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” What can this state of affairs give rise to, the great historian Jacob Burckhardt once asked, if not a habit of hypocrisy? What positive image of a rich man can the Christian banker find for himself in the New Testament, if not that of the Magi? They bring their gifts, kneel in obeisance, and go.
In the Baptistery, Florence’s oldest church, just a few hundred yards from Cosimo’s house, a Last Judgment divides the domed ceiling into the blessed and the damned. There is no in-between. The rigid, static Byzantine style, the hard little stones of the mosaic, allow for no equivocation, or even diversion. The beauty of color and line only increases the clarity of the message: this world is a trial for the next, death is the day of reckoning. Hence the Church’s obsession with establishing whether this or that behavior amounts to sin; hence the constant use of the accounting metaphor to establish our position vis-à-vis the hereafter.
The theologians had decided that usury was a sin, not because it exploited the poor, but because it upset God’s natural order; it allowed a man to get rich and “elevate himself above others,” by doing nothing more than sit back and have his money “copulate.” Contro natura! the Church thundered. In the Inferno the usurers are placed with the sodomites. The merchant bankers of the fourteenth and fifteenth century disguised their interest rates in a complex game of currency exchanges. But it was clear to them and to the theologians that many of their activities amounted to usury. Some people refused to engage in banking as a result. So even as Cosimo obtained the bull of expiation from Pope Eugenius, he knew that he would go on committing the sins that had driven him to ask for it. In 1429 the government of Florence had banned the so-called cambio secco, a form of exchange deal they rightly judged as no more than a cover for interest rates. In 1435, shortly before embarking on the San Marco project, Cosimo had that law revoked. The Florence branch of his bank frequently operated the cambio secco.
In addition to the origins of his wealth, Cosimo also faced the moral dilemmas resulting from his political supremacy. He had had his enemies, the Albizzis, exiled from necessity, but why did he banish the rich and cultured Palla Strozzi? Jealousy? Cosimo famously replied to a voice of protest, “The state is not run by paternosters,” i.e., by beads of the Rosary on which the Lord’s Prayer is said. Kent is right in insisting that this doesn’t mean Cosimo is an inveterate cynic. But precisely because he cares about his eternal soul he is aware of a fierce tension between the competing demands of the sacred and the secular. A rich and powerful man who is also a devout Christian must needs be anxious. Which is convenient for the Church.
Or is it? In its rediscovery of the classical world, Roman and then Greek, one of the rarely declared strategies of the humanist enterprise which so attracted Cosimo was to establish a mental space where Christian preoccupations did not apply. There was no question of repudiating Christianity, but human nobility, intelligence, and moral behavior could be contemplated without constant reference to sin and judgment. What worried Christian banker would not heave a sigh of relief?
In literature this secular space already existed. It needed only to be rediscovered, translated, copied, commented on. Cosimo was ready with finance. But the visual arts were almost entirely devotional. And no doubt Cosimo intended his own religious commissions to be so too. Yet it was he, with the help of Michelozzo and Donatello, who as early as the 1420s introduced into the timeless world of the Baptistery’s mosaics the lavishly distracting tomb of his friend the deposed and disgraced anti-pope John XXIII. This wonderful monument featured a beautiful bronze reclining figure, a recognizable human being who was clearly neither in heaven or hell. The controversial inscription on that tomb, “John XXIII erstwhile pope,” brought a gust of human history, of schism and ambiguity, into the eternally still air of the Byzantine judgment scene. Had the man been pope or not? Nothing is more inimical to the diktat of revealed truth than the complexity of human history.
As one leafs through the fine illustrations of Kent’s book, reflecting on Cosimo’s forty years of church patronage, a pattern becomes evident. Cosimo chooses religious orders devoted to poverty and he showers them with money. He is attracted to monastic austerity and he covers the walls with images of human beauty. Of course there are crucifixes. Of course there is devotion. But as the years pass the women are more lovely, the clothes more sumptuous, the figures more classical. Suddenly the Medici balls appear in a design on the carpet at the Virgin’s feet. The profane is creeping in, always with head bowed, but indisputably there.
In this new environment, where devotion, aesthetic pleasure, and political convenience are now seductively and inextricably confused, the rich Christian patron can breathe more easily. He has made the Church accept the importance of his money. He can think of himself as interceding for his poorer brethren. He asks the Pope to be freer with indulgences. In the congregation a distracted worshiper identifies his fellow citizens in a fresco. All the saints are Medici name saints! “I invoke God’s curse and mine,” we read on a painting in San Marco reserved for monks’ eyes only, “on the introduction of possessions into this order.” Sooner or later a fundamentalist backlash was inevitable.
The Medici bank was already in decline when Cosimo died in 1464. His gouty, bed-ridden son Piero did well to hold onto power for the five years before he joined his brother and grandfather in the old sacristy. Piero’s son, the magnificent Lorenzo, charismatic and shrewd as he was, was always living on borrowed time. Instead of flowing from the Medici bank into society, cash was now being channeled from the government toward Medici debts. Trade was declining. The fundamentalist Savonarola was on the rise. Shortly after Lorenzo died in 1492, his incompetent son, another Piero, fled the city and an era was over. When the Medici returned to Florence in 1512 it was through a Medici cardinal on the back of Vatican power and after the catastrophe of foreign invasion. That regime collapsed when an army of the Holy Roman Empire sacked Rome in 1527, only to be reinstalled as a dukedom after Florence’s republican aspirations had finally been crushed in the long siege of 1529, the imperial soldiers now fighting with the Pope against the Florentines.
The twelve essays by various authors that make up The Medici, Michelangelo, and the Art of Late Renaissance Florence examine the patronage of this second period of Medici ascendancy, the book serving as the catalog for an exhibition currently at the Art Institute of Chicago. Michelangelo bridges the distance between the two eras. As a boy he tinkered in Lorenzo the Magnificent’s sculpture garden at San Marco; thirty years later after the collapse of his beloved republic, he buckled under and did the Medici dukes’ bidding in the New Sacristy and Laurentian Library at San Lorenzo, producing work that would dominate Florentine art for a century to come. But the great man laughed at the idea of building a statue fifty-five feet high. He went off to Rome and wouldn’t come back. Imposed on their own city from without, having no historic title to the sovereignty they now assumed, and permitted to rule as part of the uneasy foreign partition of Italy that was to last until the nineteenth century, the new Medici did not, like their forebears, work within existing corporate systems to put private money into public works. Rather they ordered monuments of tax-funded magnificence to establish an aura of legitimacy. All the fruitful ambiguity that characterizes Cosimo il Vecchio’s commissions is gone. We are in the world of larger-than-life equestrian statues, flattering official portraits, imagined military glory, extravagant though always breathtaking mannerist paintings, dreams of irrigated gardens on arid hilltops, and fantasies of launching a crusade to bring the holy sepulchre to Florence.
The highly wrought silver reliquary becomes more precious than the bones it contains, the duke is told he is now a grand duke, the craftsmen set to work on a crown but have to melt it down when the Pope stipulates something simpler, and all the while, under the conservative eye of the Counter- Reformation, a handful of royal families send daughter after blue-blooded daughter back and forth across Europe in that mutually sustaining dance of intermarriage that would provide so many splendid occasions for choreographed state propaganda. Cannily, the grand dukes established workshops of the finest craftsmen to produce a better-quality royal gift.
While Kent’s ambitious book is the result of long and admirably meticulous research into a relatively short period, The Medici, Michelangelo, and the Art of Late Renaissance Florence understandably offers no more than appetizing introductory essays into the patronage of two centuries and more. But what does emerge very convincingly in the counterpoint of text and image is the later Medicis’ happy intuition that the artistic achievements that had been in part a penitential spinoff of their ancestors’ banking enterprise could be turned into a Florentine myth and a flourishing export industry in its own right. They brought in foreign experts in porcelain, sericulture, tapestry-weaving, metalwork, and glassware. They set up state workshops dedicated to research and design. Regardless of devotional content, artistic activity was becoming in itself a justification of power. Fabulous photographs show gem-encrusted tabletops, intricate marble mosaics, vases cut from solid jasper, beautifully patterned fabrics. The butchers were cleared from the Ponte Vecchio and the goldsmiths invited to take their place. Monks and Magi forgotten, the Italian design industry was born.
December 19, 2002