Filippo Brunelleschi’s circular temple, or rotonda, at the Camaldolese convent of Santa Maria degli Angeli, is hardly the most famous classically inspired structure in Florence. It was begun in 1434, from a bequest by members of the Scolari family, Florentine merchant-diplomats at the Hungarian court. But the funds ran dry three years later, and the building Cosimo stands in front of in 1459, while in use, remained incomplete and a little shabby.
Yet, as Cosimo suggests, the rotonda, the first centrally planned church since antiquity, is a place that closely links buildings and words. Classicising architecture was a powerful visualisation of the humanist rhetoric of revival – the idea that Florence was the heir of Rome, the epicentre of a new golden age for the liberal arts – and Santa Maria degli Angeli was one of the hubs of this revival. Here, in the 1410s through 1420s, patron-enthusiasts such as Cosimo and his brother Lorenzo converged with a virtual who’s who of scholars around their shared passion for antiquity. Apart from the convent’s celebrated abbot, Ambrogio Traversari, the most influential member of this informal academy was the erudite Niccolo Niccoli. Cosimo financed Niccoli’s quests to unearth lost manuscripts, and his collection ended up becoming the core of the library, 400 volumes strong, that Cosimo built inside San Marco, the first public library in Europe.
The intellectual world of Santa Maria degli Angeli reflected the synthetic impulses of the humanist enterprise. Cosimo, like other educated Florentines of his generation, was steeped in the works of the Roman republican orator Cicero; he reputedly had Aristotle’s Ethics read to him on his deathbed. At Cosimo’s urging, Traversari translated Diogenes Laertius’ third-century Lives of the Most Eminent Philosophers from the Greek, the first real summary of Plato’s thought available in Italy for a millennium. But the passion for antiquity didn’t mean only pagan antiquity, and humanists also looked back to the formative period of Christianity in search of authentic models for a virtuous life. Traversari also translated for Cosimo biblical commentaries and sermons by heroes of the early Church, such as St John Chyrsostom, the fourth-century archbishop of Constantinople, or his contemporary the Syrian St Ephraem, whom Traversari told Cosimo to imagine as an honoured guest in his home.
The world of Santa Maria degli Angeli also reflected the way that both humanists and the civic ideology they promoted became bolted to the Medici ascendancy. As ever, Cosimo made sure his friends were taken care of, and a string of them were appointed as chancellors (chief bureaucrats) of Florence. In turn, they tended to stress that, while republican liberty allowed virtue and ingenuity to flourish, those best fitted to lead the republic were the wisest, wealthiest, and most magnificent men. Men like Cosimo de’ Medici.
To cite this essay, we suggest:
David Rosenthal, ‘Visions of Rome’ published online 2019, in ‘Hidden Florence’, The University of Exeter, https://hiddenflorence.org/stories/cosimo/8-visions-of-rome/
Mark Jurdjevic, ‘Civic Humanism and the Rise of the Medici’, Renaissance Quarterly, 52, 4 (1999), 994-1020
Howard Saalman, Filippo Brunelleschi: The Buildings (University Park, Pennsylvania, 1993)
Charles L. Stinger, Humanism and The Church Fathers: Ambrogio Traversari and Christian Antiquity in the Italian Renaissance (New York, 1977)