The Malevolently Benevolent Medici: The Corruption of the Renaissance’s Favorite Family

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Recognized as the primary advocates of artistic expression and production during the 14th-15th centuries, the Medici family developed an image of humble benefactors whose motive was to benefit the city of Florence and Italian culture through the patronage of artists (Chilvers, “Medici”). For example, The Oxford Companion to Italian Literature goes as far as describing Cosimo Medici I as “one of the ablest rulers of the 16th” century” (Black), praising the family’s efforts to restore peace and facilitate the growth of Florentine culture and society. In addition, the Medici aided the rise of eminent artists such as Michelangelo, treating him “almost as an adopted son”(Chilvers, “Medici”). These public acts of cultural advocacy allowed the family to create the appearance of a fair and charitable rule, both cementing their place in art history and allowing scholars to argue the Medici established Florence as the “cradle of the Renaissance” (Chilvers, “Renaissance”). This assertion, however, overlooks the often-overt methods in which the family manipulated the Renaissance culture to purport a powerful and benevolent ruler image. Due to these overly positive historical portrayals and prevalence of corruption within the family, I have developed the question, “how did the Medici family influence art and culture in Renaissance Florence, analyzing their use of Renaissance art, culture, and society to achieve their goals?” to shed light on the despotic, corrupt inner-workings of the Medici. Although presented as generous benefactors of the arts and models of Renaissance virtue and ideals, the Medici family were, in actuality,proponents of corruption and absolute authority over Florence through their manipulation of Renaissance culture by using art as political propaganda, establishing literal and symbolic religious overtones to their rule, and their undoing of humanist and republican ideals.

To start, the Medici family twisted Renaissance culture through their utilization of art as a means of achieving or expressing their political goals through the patronage and propagation of sculpture and the revival of the Laurentian carnival. Wanting to be associated with the classical age of emperors and absolute power, Cosimo commissioned several works depicting him in the likeness of emperors such as Hadrian and Augustus.Beginning with the bust of Cosimo I by Baccio Bandinelli (Fig. 1), the allusions to patrician and imperator busts of classical Rome shine through, with Cosimo wearing a cuirass, the traditional Roman military breastplate, and exhibiting idealized physical features to convey the Roman imperialist values of power,wealth, and status. Furthermore, by juxtaposing Baccio’s bust with the Uffizi’s Marble Bust of Hadrian (Fig. 2), and observing the context and timing of Cosimo’s bust, Cosimo’s intentions begin to surface. Upon first glance, the two busts are in almost exact likeness, exaggerating their muscle tone and facial features to convey the aforementioned Roman imperial ideals. During the bust’s creation, Cosimo entered the violent Habsburg-Valois conflict, siding with Charles V in a bid to capture Siena and acquire the Duchy of Tuscany (“Florence and Central Italy”). By comparing the political instability and volatility of Cosimo’s time and the rule of Hadrian,which was marked by Hadrian’s “generally peaceful rule” (Boatwright), one can generate the assertion Cosimo commissioned the bust to evoke a similar sense of calm leadership and military prowess to the viewer. Moreover, the bust of Cosimo reveals his hopes of reshaping history through art, depicting him in a most likely fictitious manner given Cosimo solely acted as a source of funding during the Habsburg-Valois conflict, thereby exposing Cosimo’s desires to play the military leader and defender of Florence.

Cosimo goes further with his obsession of the imperator era of Rome,however, patronizing sculptures in the likeness of Rome’s first authoritarian ruler—Augustus. It is in these works that Cosimo’s true intentions are perhaps the most obvious, as he attempts to become the “new Augustus” (Forster 88), ruling Florence through the quintessentially Augustan methods of exercising firm control over Florentine culture and politics while maintaining an appearance of a republic, establishing the Great Council, a pseudo-republican assembly (Butters).Cosimo hoped to not only embody Augustus in practice, but also through art, enlisting Vincenzo Danti create Cosimo I de’ Medici as Emperor Augustus in 1570-1571 (Fig. 3). Danti sculpts Cosimo holding a fascio—meaning “an organized political”faction in Italian and often represented by a bundle of sticks in art (“fascio,”OED)—in his hand, symbolically communicating Cosimo’s rigid hold of Florence’s politics and factions. Furthermore, by presenting Cosimo in the classical contrapposto pose, Danti evokes a sense of balance and order to Cosimo’s already heavily augmented profile. Danti’s work presents itself as an example of the Medici’s manipulation of Renaissance culture because it utilizes Renaissance artistic techniques and models to alter the viewer’s perception of Cosimo I. An additional way in which Cosimo I as Augustus attempts to sway public opinion of Cosimo lies in the date of creation—1570—just years before Cosimo’s death, making the purpose of the piece to leave a visual legacy of peaceful rule and mask the violent events surrounding his rule. Further, by noting the events surrounding the sculpture’s creation, Cosimo I’s defeat of Siena and subsequent appointment as the Duke of Tuscany in 1569, Cosimo presents Danti’s work as a statement of triumph of the Medici and “absolute power” (, Kurt Forster of the Yale School of Architecture notes how Cosimo intended to place the statue atop the Uffizi, “[facing] Cosimo’s new Forum from a princely vantage point, flanked by allegories of Severe and Just Government”(86), further emphasizing Cosimo’s agenda of making himself ‘above’ Florence and creating a façade of republican and “Just Government” (Forster 86).

Further, the Medici manipulated Renaissance ideas and themes by using their role as leading patrons of Renaissance artistic culture, specifically through the reintroduction of the Laurentian carnival. The family used the Laurentian Carnival culture to celebrate their return from exile, although they presented it as a promotion of the arts and humanities. The Medici hired artists such as Pontormo to create floats that displayed lines from classical works, creating the appearance that the family was re-ushering in “the golden age” of the Lorenzo “the Magnificent” era (Baker 499), hence the name Laurentian Carnival. These messages, however, sought to veil the family’s motives of reasserting control over Florence and attempts to twist Renaissance culture to fit their goals of hegemony. Such as the use of broncone imagery, “the dried and broken bough that puts forth flourishing green shoots” (Baker 500), to argue the previous rulers—the“broken bough”—utilized an outdated system of government (republicanism), and the Medici—the green shoots—represent a future of success and prosperity for Florence. Finally, the timing of the event, Holy Week, highlights another way in which the Medici undermined Renaissance values, the propagation of connections between the divine and the family, bringing us to our second point.

Second, the Medici family corrupted Renaissance values of virtue through its obsession of associating the family with the divine, establishing both literal and symbolic religious associations and overtones. During Pope Leo X’s, formerly Giovanni Medici, procession into Florence in 1512 to celebrate his appointment as Pope, artists, instructed by the Medici, built celebratory arches displaying the message “Hic est filius meus delictus,” (This is my beloved son), an allusion to God’s message to Jesus during the Baptism of Christ, next to images of Leo’s father Lorenzo “the Magnificent” Medici(Tacconi 351). Here, the family presents a double meaning, framing the parade as Giovanni’s ‘baptism’ into the highest rank of the Church, as well as analogizing the parade to the Baptism of Christ, presenting Lorenzo as God and Leo X as Jesus. By doing so, the family divulges their desires to be associated with the divine, employing overt religious symbolism and scripture to achieve their goals. Tacconi goes further, explaining the family’s use of baptism imagery to “[underscore]the theme of renewal…the Medici…sought” (352) to promote. The family thus wanted to present their return to Florence as a period of Florentine revival, encouraging the public to view their restoration to power through a religious lens. In addition,the family commissioned Donatello to sculpt David(Fig. 4) to frame their return to Florence in the 1430s as a triumph over the Albizzi family (“The Medici Family”) and strengthen the family’s connection with the city since the Florentines viewed David as their patron saint (Harris& Zucker). By commissioning and placing the sculpture in their palace, the Medici portray themselves as Florence’s David, defeating the Goliath Albizzi family, and establishing a monarchical reign, just as David did. Furthermore, there is the implication that God supports the family’s acquiring of power, just as God guided David to victory over Goliath, therefore making the Medici backed by the divine. Similar to the celebratory arches and Donatello’s David,Vasari’s “Apotheosis of Cosimo I” (Fig. 5) connects the Medici to the divine through imagery and symbolism, In the title alone, “Apotheosis of Cosimo I,” the blatant connection to the divine stands out, with the very definition of apotheosis being a “transformation into a god” (“apotheosis,” OED). Analyzing the work itself, Vasari depicts Cosimo’s crowning in Heaven, above the viewer within an oculus—used inart as a window into Heaven—portraying himself as a ruler both Florence and Heaven, subsequently creating an air of divinity and being ‘above’ Florence and the world, watching over us as God does. Furthermore, Vasari inscribes around the piece phrases Cosimo hoped to define his rule by, such as aucto imperio (empire) and optimo principe (excellent ruler). These phrases reveal Cosimo’s intentions of associating himself with the Roman empire era by literally inscribing the word “empire” and creating the appearance of a just rule, paralleling Augustus’s self-aggrandizing memoir Res Gestae. In fact, Vasari’s original intention was to create a historical painting, but “doubtlessly on Cosimo's request, he substituted an apotheosis of the Duke himself” (Forster 97),showing Cosimo’s constriction of the Renaissance ideal of artistic expression.

Transitioning to the use of churches to exert religious authority, the Medici commissioned the building of the San Lorenzo and San Marco Church, making sure their mark on Florence transcended religious art into religious architecture. Although Niccolo Machiavelli praises the commissions as signs of Cosimo’s significant generosity, stating, “[Cosimo’s] munificence appeared in the great number of buildings he erected, [such as] the churches of San Marco and…San Lorenzo” (Machiavelli 1342), the hidden Medicean agenda still shines through in each church’s architecture. In San Lorenzo, one can find the Medicean influence in the placement of the family’s coat of arms on the pendentives and coffered ceiling of San Lorenzo (Fig. 6, 7). The Medicean agenda is especially evident in the coffered ceilings because while followers pray, they will look to the heavens for guidance and see the Medici coat of arms, which serves as a reminder of who funded the church and an attempt to associate the family with the divine. Similarly, San Marco contains Medicean imagery in the design of the altar (Fig. 8). Once again using Christian rituals to their advantage, the Medici placed their crest on both sides of the altar, so one cannot process towards or view the altar without seeing the family seal. Furthermore, the family patronized the work of Fra Angelico to paint the San Marco Altarpiece (Fig. 9), dedicating the piece to the family’s patron saints St. Cosmas and St. Damian (National Gallery) due to the saints’ occupations as physicians and medici translating to “doctor.” The scene, while appearing devoid of Medicean themes, is actually a family portrait, as it not only paints St. Cosmas in the likeness of Cosimo I,but also has saints representing family members, such as St. Lawrence, St. John the Baptist, and St. Francis representing Lawrence, Giovanni, and Piero Medici respectively (Art in Tuscany). By placing the family members in a sacred scene, Angelico elevates the family to saintly status, further exposing the family’s influence and manipulation of religion in Florence.

Third, by dismantling and perverting the Renaissance’s core ideals of republicanism and humanism, the Medici family successfully altered Renaissance culture to fit their own political and cultural agenda. In his work Power and Imagination: City-States in Renaissance Italy, Lauro Martines defines a prince as one who “[attracts] throngs of people in search of jobs, favors, patronage…others, instead he [repels]…[generating] fear and enemies” (218). We will thus examine how the Medici princes embodied Martines’s definition of a Florentine prince and how their princely rule was antithetical to Renaissance ideals of classical republicanism and humanism. Upon the family’s return to Florence in 1512, their first actions involved the censorship and exiling of those “deemed hostile to the Medici” (Jurdjevic, “Virtue”5). By doing so, the family instituted a pro-Medici culture, eliminating the possibilities of public dissent or anti-Medici uprisings. This therefore exposes the family’s anti-humanist values, as they act in direct opposition to humanism’s ideals of freewill and one’s unfettered ability to pursue critical analysis and rhetoric in politics,literature, and the arts (Chang 19). Additionally, the family established a precedent that one must perform acts of loyalty or subservience to the family to attain their patronage, forming the foundation of the Renaissance: the patron-client relationship. The Medici patron-client relationship, although hailed by scholars (Chilvers, “Medici”), was in actuality fraught with the exploitation of clients to boost the family image. Machiavelli, a former client of theMedici, resonates with this idea in his writing, the “History of Florence,”where he claims he does “nottell of…the love of citizens for their country, [but rather]…with what deceptions…tricks and schemes, the princes [used]…to keep that reputation which they did not deserve” (1233). As an observer of the Medici’s rise to power, Machiavelli experienced first-hand the corruption within the Medici family, criticizing how the princes utilized “schemes,” such as patronizing Vasari or Fra Angelico to literally paint them in a positive light. Moreover, by juxtaposing the family’s actions with the crucial precept of republicanism as a group of citizens “united by a concern for the common good” (Moulakis), the Medici’s manipulative efforts represent a clear divergence from republicanism.

In addition to employing devious methods to boost their reputation, “Cosimo and Lorenzo…Medici [had] no qualms putting wealth…before virtue”—a key principle of the Renaissance and humanism (Filelfo 333). Filelfo’s critiques, although representing the ideas of the rival Sforza regime (Panizza), are backed up by real-life events, such as the wedding decorations in the Palazzo Vecchio, where numerous panels illustrate the history of the Medici, from Cosimo Vecchio to Alessandro (Forster 91-92). The wedding decorations especially vindicate Filelfo’s assertion because the family used a sacred ceremony to advertise a lavish and pro-Medicean version of the family’s and Florence’s history, uncovering both the family’s prioritization of luxury over honor and the family’s digression from republicanism’s distaste for“ostentation [or] luxury” (Moulakis). Continuing the theme of overt expressions of anti-republican ideals, Lorenzo Medici, in his poem “The Supreme Good,” goes as far as claiming, “Lorenzo is Lauro, and Lauro is the laurel tree” (94). Lorenzo does not even attempt to hide his desires for authoritarian associations, directly connecting himself to the standard symbol of Roman authoritarian rule: the laurel. Lorenzo’s analogizing of himself to a laurel highlights the Medici’s breakdown of republicanism because he alludes to wanting a reinstitution of the emperor era. This becomes especially evident when looking at how they established a Great Council to ease the Florentine public’s fears of the Medici disbanding a republican government. This move provided camouflage, however, for the family’s true intentions of centralizing power within their faction, “[filling] the ranks of the sixty-five and the two hundred [appointed for life positions] withMedici supporters” (Butters). The Medici therefore dismantled republican ideals through their obsession with ostentation over virtue, attempts to return to the imperator era, and their pseudo-establishment of a republican government.

Despite the multitude of primary source evidence and scholarly perspectives suggesting the Medici family did in fact manipulate Renaissance culture towards their own personal agendas, some scholars argue that the Medici family, although prominent in the arts, were small players in political affairs, and virtuous and humble in their methods of rule. Chronicling the creation of The Duomo choirbooks, Tacconi concedes the Medici had “no direct involvement in the commission or finance of the cathedral choirbooks” (369). Thereby providing supposed proof there was no Medicean agenda behind the creation of the manuscripts. In analyzing both the motive behind the creation of and theimagery in each manuscript however, one uncovers the Medicean overtones in each, such as the recurring Medici crest or Giovanni Medici appearing in the Baptism of Christ illustration (Tacconi 347),and Monte di Giovanni’s creating of the manuscripts because of the “explicit wish of a higher authority,” the higher authority being the Medici (Tacconi 337).Additionally, if you view the definition of civic humanism and Machiavelli’s praise of the family at face value, several elements appear to fit the widely accepted image of the Medici, such as “encouraging the flowering of all forms of creativity and ingenuity” (Moulakis) and Machiavelli’s claim of Cosimo being a “lover of and patron of learned men” (1345). The family’s deals and affairs,however, contradict Moulakis’s definition of civic humanism, as they made specific requests for propaganda art and literature. Such as Cristoforo Landino,who wrote that it would be privilege if his works “[took] an honored place/in the palace of the Medici” (I.I.7-8) in order to gain the favor of the Medici and subsequently attain a “bureaucratic appointment” (Chatfield xvi). As for Machiavelli, he later subtly requests the reader to disregard his glorification of Cosimo, saying he twisted history to mimic other ‘historical’ descriptions of princes (1346). One therefore sees the differing ways in which the Medici corrupted the Renaissance ideal, going as far as having writers skewing historical events to make them appear good and just. Further counter evidence can be found within Lorenzo de Medici’s letter to his son, Giovanni Medici, who would later become Pope Leo X, which emphasizes a clergyman’s duty to uphold simple and honest morals: “Avoid…the imputation of hypocrisy;guard against all ostentation, either in your conduct or your discourse” (Whitcomb 2). Lorenzo’s sanctimonious claims ironically exposes both his own and his son’s future hypocrisy as both fall short of avoiding “ostentation.” This is particularly apparent in Pope Leo X’s Jubilee Indulgence of 1517, a fundraising effort forSt. Peter’s Basilica, and the “indulgence tradition” (Chang 20) Leo X perpetuated during his papal tenure. In fact, it was during Pope Leo X’s rule that Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation gained traction and public support, attacking the corruption and incompetency of Leo X’s Vatican administration (Chang 20).

While contemporaries emphasize the family’s central role in shaping Renaissance culture through their patronage of artistic and literary works, the Medici’s hidden agendas and corrupt and despotic methods of doing so cannot go unnoticed. In fact, given that they commissioned works that portrayed them favorably to shape historical opinions, one can assert they fulfilled their goals of altering history in their favor because of how positively people view them today. Additionally, Forster remarks how the Medici actually developed a “self-restrictive system,” resulting in “the average level of quality and a narrowing range” of themes and subjects (102). We must therefore acknowledge that while the family funded artistic masterpieces, they ultimately corrupted the Renaissance ideals through their acts of deceit and manipulation, thereby making them obstacles to, not upholders of, the core values of the Renaissance: virtue, honor,and freedom of expression.


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