Renaissance Florence is considered the birthplace of capitalism. An economic system nurtured by the Medici. A family established by a common usurer, Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici; founder of the Medici Bank.
Giovanni symbolically kicked off the Renaissance when he backed Filippo Brunelleschi’s bid to complete the Florence Cathedral with his son. It wouldn’t be completed until after his death in 1429. By that time the Renaissance was in full swing and his descendants would foot the bill.
With deep pockets and political savvy the Medici would forge the modern world. Namely Cosimo, Lorenzo ‘The Magnificent’, and Anna Maria Luisa whose lasting cultural impact are hallmarks of western civilization.
Cosimo: The Elder
Born 1389, in Florence, Cosimo de’ Medici rose to prominence when he, along with his father Giovanni, helped a friendly cardinal buy the papacy. In return the Medici Bank received the papal accounts. Soon after, the Medici were the richest family in Europe.
Cosimo used this wealth to preserve and restore Ancient Greek and Roman art. Offering gold florins for ancient texts, he inadvertently founded modern archeology when forgeries appeared. He began verifying authenticity; hiring historians to attest to an items provenance.
Cosimo engaged more than 45 copyists to transcribe almost 800 manuscripts. Along with books from his own collection he would found Florence’s first public library in 1436. Saving numerous ancient texts, and by extension history, from the ravages of time.
Among the works transcribed was the first complete translation of Plato.
Lorenzo: The Magnificent
Lorenzo de’ Medici, born in 1449, was schooled from a young age by humanist philosophers. Cosimo, Lorenzo’s grand-father, provided for his education and would instill in him a deep love of culture.
Maintaining an unprecedented peace in the region Lorenzo was more interested in the arts than finance. The great patron of the Renaissance, he would become infamous for arranging commissioned works by Botticelli, Verrocchio, and Leonardo Da Vinci. Spending 663,000 florins, or around half a billion dollars, on public works in his lifetime.
Outperforming the cultural triumphs his grandfather had unearthed in antiquity. Lorenzo’s patronage made Florence a de-facto cultural center. He secularized the region and preserved the republic.
At the end of his life a young sculptor caught his eye. He was taken in, tutored, and raised like a son; his name was Michelangelo.
Anna Maria: The Last
The Medici family’s last heir, Anna Maria Luisa, was born in 1667. She would gain power through her arranged marriage to the Electoral Palatinate; ruler of a Holy Roman sub-state. Happily married she would remain childless.
Instead of a mother she became a great patron of the arts. Collecting paintings by Rubens and early Flemish artists. Not as well-known as Lorenzo or Cosimo she single-handedly saved the entirety of the Medici artistic patrimony. Ensuring no work would be sold, traded, or forgotten.
By signing the Family Pact in 1737 she bequeathed all furnishings, belongings, galleries, paintings, statues, jewelry, relics, and reliquaries of the Medici dynasty to the citizens of Florence. So long as they were never, “removed or transported outside the capital.”
Her donation formed the Uffizi Galleries. A public collection of art that’d otherwise be owned privately and hidden away.
Rothschilds are Boring
Many other members of the Medici fought for progress as well. Using their influence and money to safe-guard controversial scientists, like Galileo, and other secular works from the inquisition. Risking excommunication in the process.
Others used the families wealth to fight for despotism and authoritarian rule. In stark contrast to the principles of their fore-fathers.
They are not purely benevolent or without stigma. However, their legacy of patronage is still imitated by the wealthy today. They’re a symbol that encourages charity and public work.
The Medici financed work that served to inspire, promote, and illustrate a shared ideal. One of upward mobility. A common Florentine usurer and his descendants building a banking empire; overcoming aristocracy and circumstance.
They invented the middle-class.
Portrait of Cosimo de’ Medici – Jacopo Pontormo
Bust of Lorenzo de’ Medici – Verrochio
Portrait of Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici – Antonio Fanchi