Finding Cosimo de’ Medici

Marble portrait of Cosimo de’ Medici, 1460, Antonio Rossellino, Bode Museum

Cosimo de’ Medici (1389-1464) isn’t like most of our guides in ‘Hidden Florence’. So far, the characters we’ve discussed in these blogs – such as Giovanni, and in HF2 Ercole and Marietta – are fictional and in various ways at the bottom end of urban hierarchies. Cosimo, on the other hand, is real, and at the top of the ziggurat. As the pope’s banker and the man who took unofficial control of republican Florence in 1434, Cosimo was even more famous in his own lifetime than he is now, renowned for his stupendous wealth, his political acumen, and his patronage of architects, humanists and painters. What Cosimo allows us to do is to present a figure at the other end of the power relationships we’ve explored with our other guides, the kind of establishment authority figure that they, however obliquely, are in dialogue with. For a history walking app, he’s a particularly good figure to do this with, since, due to his extensive building programs, there’s plenty of Cosimo’s material legacy to visit in today’s Florence.

On one hand, the process has been no different to voicing these other characters. As always the key thing has been to draw out (and hopefully draw you into) the relationship between an individual and the places significant to them – to re-create lived experience in the Renaissance city. On the other hand, given the detail modern scholarship has gifted us on Cosimo, and on his involvement in most of the sites he takes you to, every element had to be highly precise. We wanted to go to the Medici palace, which meant we had to place Cosimo – at the earliest – in the very late 1450s. In the end we chose 1459. At this point Cosimo is 70 years old, at the height of his wealth and prestige, but also, as he is well aware, approaching the end of his life. This means that, as he takes you to the places that matter to him, he is often reflecting on the past, reviewing his legacy.

Again, thanks to the scholarship, there was not a lot of need to invent facts in order to shed light on this Cosimo. When he goes to the convent of Sant’ Apollonia, one of the ‘hidden’ stops on this itinerary, he can recall his personal links to two of the nuns, daughters of his late banking associate Folco Portinari. When he stops at the circular temple at the monastery of Santa Maria degli Angeli, he can dwell on his ties to the former abbot Ambrogio Traversari and the humanist circles he once mixed in there. Which is not to say that we haven’t invented the odd detail to make a point and give colour to his narration. At a streetcorner near the Medici palace, where he mingles with the shopkeepers, we have him tell you that his grandson Lorenzo has started to come with him on these walks. We have no idea if that ever happened, but we liked the thought of 10-year-old Lorenzo (the future ‘Magnificent’) learning the lessons of everyday neighbourhood patronage at Cosimo’s side, lessons that would later pay a dividend in popular support.

Yet if few ‘facts’ have been fabricated, making Cosimo speak is, as with all our characters, necessarily a fictive enterprise. We’ve used fragments he is known to have said or written, adapted sentiments he was plausibly reported to have expressed, and to an extent adhered to the contemporary view of him as laconic and wry. But his overall ‘voice’ is another matter. Soon after Cosimo’s death, the Florentine government, a Medici government steered by his son, Piero, declared him to be pater patriae, father of the fatherland, a benevolent and paternalistic statesman. Forty years ago, Anthony Molho suggested historians had been blinded by the encomia surrounding Cosimo and argued that we should really think of him as a padrino, a mafia-like godfather. It’s not a debate that has ever completely gone away. More recently, Dale Kent, the most important modern historian of Cosimo, has been criticised for playing down his political motives in order to argue that he was pious and civic-minded, that his charity and patronage of religious institutions attest mainly to a rich man’s bid to expiate his sins.

We’ve looked to tack through these arguments, and in fact they represent some of the issues we wanted to explore with this character. When we meet Cosimo, he’s just staged a ‘coup’ in which he seems to have consolidated the Medici grip on the republic, and so we’ve made him a touch defensive and self-justifying as he takes you from site to site, fully aware that some see him as that most Florentine of bogeymen, a tyrant. Naturally, his self-presentation is not entirely reliable, but we’ve contrived to make that apparent, to construct a voice pitched between civic piety and – more than Cosimo realises – hubris. Plagued by gout and only five years from the crypt, our Cosimo is indeed fearful for his immortal soul, and he does care for the honour of the city, but at the same time he’s a wily, slightly sinister and at times ruthless political operator. In other words, he’s complicated – and we hope you’ll find him and his take on mid-fifteenth century Florence engaging. Just don’t cross him.

David Rosenthal

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