Cosimo (the Elder) de' Medici

At the end of the 14th century, Florence was ruled by a small circle of leading families, like the Albizzi, Uzzano and Capponi. In reaction to a revolt of the popolo minuto (the impoverished), the folk put all its hope in a family that had been on their side: the Medici, who had been a relative young dynasty (that Dante didn't find worthy of mention in his Divine Comedy).

Founder of the fortune was Giovanni de' Medici, called di Bicci. He came from the peasants of the valley of Mugello and entered first the Roman banking house of his uncle Vieri di Cambio (you can guess why 'Cambio' means Money Exchange in Italian language). In 1393 he founded his own bank or took over Vieri's bank and transferred in 1397 its headquarter to Florence. He formed connections to the Holy See in Rome. The Medici became the bankers of the popes and above all administrator of the church-money with percentage. The legendary fortune of this family is due to this unrivalled position. He took the occasion to hold public offices, was elected for the Senate and had been gonfaloniere di giustizia (sort of minister president). His son Cosimo was left his property undivided.

Highly gifted and ambitious Cosimo enjoyed with 25 of age the most respect, from which arose the envy of the old family of the Albizzi. After long quarrels in which Cosimo was banned, he returned in 1434 and from then on his ascent was unstoppable.

He was responsible for Florence's ascent as a rich commercial center and he started the protection of artists. He constituted Florence state as a republic and ruled the town without to have an official legitimation. But the people followed him as they followed later his grandson Lorenzo.

Lorenzo il Magnifico

Lorenzo's father Piero had, in the short time left to him by his invalidism (1464-69), weathered the natural reaction against Medicean political leadership - the dominant position obtained by his father Cosimo. Though Lorenzo was only 20 at the time, therefore, the leading families in Florence were prepared to rally behind his family's reputation and his own wealth rather than return to the free-for-all factionalism that had ruined so many fortunes and reputations in the past. Lorenzo has come to be known as 'the Magnificent'. Il magnifico was, in fact, no more than a common title of respect accorded to anyone who was in a position of political authority without being of princely blood. That Lorenzo should be singled out in this way reflects two factors: the wars of Italy initiated so long and sad a story of Italian humiliations that he was seen by a later generation of Florentines as having presided over a period of peace, plenty and confident magnificence; and non-Italian historians of the 19 century caught this tone of laudifying nostalgia and fitted it into their own vision of a man who, as they saw it, was single-handedly responsible for the last great phase of Florentine cultural leadership - the age of Ficino and Pico della Mirandola, of Filippino Lippi, Botticelli, Verrocchio, the aspiring Leonardo and the tyro Michelangelo, of Poliziano, Pulci - and of Lorenzo the poet-patron himself.

Lorenzo's role as the magician who conjured up the talents that contributed to the intellectual and artistic image of Florence in the late Quattrocento can be assessed briefly. He responded, as a highly intelligent and carefully educated young man might, to quality, whether shown in intellectual speculation or in artistic endeavour. But as a patron of the arts his role was to encourage others to employ the city's artists rather than to commission works from them himself. He arranged for Giuliano da Sangallo to work for the King of Naples. It was his cousin Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici who obtained Primavera and The Birth of Venus from Botticelli, his business associates who paid Ghirlandaio for the fresco cycles in S. Trinita and S. Maria Novella. The latter cycle cost only a tenth of one of Lorenzo's own most cherished purchases, the antique Tazza Farnese. His preferred taste, backed by his own pocket, was for the more private forms of art represented by works of this sort; for small, precious objects: ancient vases, cups, cameos, jewels and bronze statuettes. He did commission Giuliano da Sangallo to remodel one of his favourite country retreats, the farm at Poggio a Caiano, and Perugino, Ghirlandaio, Botticelli and Filippino to decorate another, his villa at Spedaletto (near Arezzo: the frescoes have disappeared).

He was a leader indeed in that growing taste for country life which, together with the jousts he sponsored, was part of a more general leadership of the Florentine patriciate towards a style of life closer to that of the aristocratic north. Outside his political role, in which he was painstaking and careful not to push too far the licence granted - increasingly grudgingly on the part of many - to his family to act independently, and outside his role as banker, which he neglected, Lorenzo's interests suggest that inside the statesman and party manager was a reflective scholar-prince longing to get out. Yet he remained a steady and loving centre of his family, and though more places might be laid at table for visiting dignitaries and for artists and men of letters than in other Florentine households, the palace in the Via Larga cannot be seen as in any sense the nucleus of a court. He was absorbed by, and ambitious for, his family, just as his father and grandfather had been, and he did nothing that contributed more to the perpetuation of his family name than when he obtained in 1489 Pope Innocent VIII's promise of a cardinalcy for his son Giovanni, the future Leo X.

Right Botticelli's portrait of Lorenzo's brother Giuliano who was murdered at the Pazzi conspiracy.