San Marco is emblematic for Cosimo. It was his first big independent commission after taking control of the republic in 1434. It’s a massive public statement of his charitable magnificence. As he tells you, it is also the primary location where – like all Florentines, but on a monumental scale – he has tried to put his account with God in order. Now, increasingly plagued by gout and well aware that he is not far from the crypt, this is all very much on Cosimo’s mind.
Magnificence and expiation came together for Cosimo at San Marco partly due to the agency of his friend Pope Eugenius IV. In 1436, Eugenius, a supporter of Italy’s growing monastic reform movement, kicked out a chapter of reputedly lax Silvestrine monks and installed a chapter of Observant Dominican friars. Being observant essentially meant returning to the pristine rule of your order, in particular returning to strict vows of poverty. It made these friars holier; it made their preaching – one of the most important urban roles for both Dominican and Franciscan friars – more authentic; and it made their prayers more likely to reach heaven.
All of this made Observant friars highly attractive to Florentine patrons, especially wealthy ones such as Cosimo, who was up to his neck in usury, fiddled his taxes (though he was still the city’s biggest taxpayer), and wasn’t above ordering the torture and exile of his political opponents. Cosimo agreed to rebuild San Marco as part of the transfer deal, and Eugenius proclaimed the expiation of his sins, a line from which, citing the “lavish expenses of the most distinguished man Cosimo de’ Medici”, was carved into the lintel of the sacristy door of the church.
It didn’t end with bricks and mortar – the work of expiation was ongoing. As Cosimo tells you, the church was reconsecrated in 1443 to St Mark but also to the Medici family’s heavenly intercessors, the martyrs St Cosmas and St Damian. These saints were never far from the friars’ eyes or prayers, incorporated into a number of sacred images Cosimo commissioned for San Marco from Fra’ Angelico, a member of the order, as well into an altarpiece in the chapel Cosimo built on convent grounds for the boys’ religious fraternity of the Purification. At every meeting the boys had to say prayers for Cosimo in front of St Cosmas. Meanwhile, Cosimo made his own penitential supplications to heaven, temporarily leaving the world behind when, like a friar, he entered his own double cell inside the convent, frescoed with the arrival of the three kings in Bethlehem.
Cosimo’s lavish expenses at San Marco, which included giving the friars direct access to the Medici bank, inevitably chipped away at the Observant ideal of holy poverty. The tensions this created could be finessed but they never went away. The first Dominican prior of San Marco, Fra’ Antonino Pierozzi, later the influential archbishop of Florence, was no lackey of Cosimo, but he was practical enough to defend the civic virtues of magnificent splendour – if wealth was directed to churches, hospitals and charities for the poor. Fifty years later, a future prior of San Marco, the firebrand preacher Fra’ Girolamo Savonarola, would not be nearly so accommodating.
You can visit the convent, including Cosimo’s cell, in the Museum of San Marco.
Read about Benozzo Gozzoli’s altarpiece for the boys’ fraternity of the Purification at the National Gallery in London here.
To cite this essay, we suggest:
David Rosenthal, ‘Patron’s penitence’ published online 2019, in ‘Hidden Florence’, The University of Exeter, https://hiddenflorence.org/stories/cosimo/6-patrons-penitence/
William Hood, Fra Angelico at San Marco (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993)
Peter Howard, ‘Preaching Magnificence in Renaissance Florence’, Renaissance Quarterly, 61, 2 (2008), 325-69
Lorenzo Polizzotto, Children of the Promise: The Confraternity of the Purification and the Socialization of Youths in Florence 1427-1785 (Oxford: OUP, 2004)