One persistent myth about the Medici is that, unlike the aristocratic Albizzi, their great rivals during the factional struggles of the early fifteenth century, they led the “popular” party. It’s not really the case. The Medici may not have been particularly important before 1400, but they were an old office-holding family. During his rise to power, and throughout his supremacy, Cosimo’s most important partisans all came from within the circles of the established Florentine elite.
However, Cosimo did cultivate ties further down the social hierarchy, nurturing webs of clients and dependents, “friends” whom he favoured and, as a good patron, interceded for. This wasn’t essentially different to the way other patrons behaved. But the Medici, with their huge resources and vaulting ambitions, did it bigger and more avidly. From the countryside, they relied on the allegiance of peasants from their ancestral territory in the Mugello, north of Florence, and across a whole chunk of the Apennines. When Cosimo was recalled to Florence from his brief exile in 1434, by a Signoria packed with his partisans, the government called a parlamento, a town meeting, to acclaim the new regime. Six thousand armed peasants, led by one Papi de’ Medici, swarmed into the Piazza, an intimidating private army that ensured everything went Cosimo’s way.
In the city, meanwhile, about half of Cosimo’s partisans were from non-elite families, and up and coming men were favoured above all in the Medici neighbourhood stronghold of the Golden Lion. Families such as the Martelli, who like all Cosimo’s bank managers, were amici bound to the Medici by bonds, as he wrote, of trust and goodwill. There were also artisans from the city’s minor craft guilds, such as Puccio Pucci, one of Cosimo’s most valued allies in party matters. In the early days the Mediceans were even nicknamed the “Puccini”.
But Medici networking went deeper still, and the Canto alla Macine, the Millstone Corner, gives us a taste of this. Almost as in Cosimo’s day, the Canto has a pharmacy (apothecary), a bar (tavern), a bakery and a church. This cluster of services made streetcorners hubs of local sociability. Michele del Giogante, the chess and wine-loving poet and book-keeper, was one of the Canto’s well-known residents, and as Cosimo says an old friend. It’s easy to imagine how Michele helped connect Cosimo to this working-class micro-neighbourhood, as he did to the popular street-singing culture around the city-centre church of San Martino (see Giovanni: People and Politics, 5).
How often did Cosimo mingle with the shopkeepers around the Canto, and just how intricate were his ties with the streetcorner’s other residents and workers? We don’t know. But, as a later event reveals, there is little doubt that the Medici nurtured loyalties there. During the Pazzi Conspiracy, the 1478 plot to murder Cosimo’s grandson Lorenzo de’ Medici, a group of about thirty shop apprentices and others who called themselves “the lads from the Millstone Corner” armed themselves, rushed to the Medici palace and then went off to chase down the “traitors”. This informal neighbourhood militia then wrote to Lorenzo, telling him they were “servants and lovers of the house of the Medici”, and, in a classic example of patron-client dynamics, sought Lorenzo’s intervention so they might keep three mules they’d confiscated from his enemies.
To cite this essay, we suggest:
David Rosenthal, ‘Friends on the corner’ published online 2019, in ‘Hidden Florence’, The University of Exeter, https://hiddenflorence.org/stories/cosimo/4-friends-on-the-corner/
Dale Kent, ‘The Lodging House of all Memories’: An Accountant’s Home in Renaissance Florence’, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 66, 4 (2007), 444-63
Dale Kent, The Rise of the Medici: Faction in Florence, 1426-1434 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977)
Dale and FW Kent, ‘Two Vignettes of Florentine Society in the 15th Century, Rinascimento, 23 (1983), 237-60