Godfathers of the Renaissance*

Two of my favorite things are renaissance art and mobster movies, so that’s why I like the Medici’s. The Medici family owned the renaissance, going from businessmen to bankers to politicians to monarchy and Pope-age between the 1400’s and 1700’s. They pretty much ruled Florence and were important patrons of art and science. They spent so much money on it that they were directly responsible for a lot of the paintings, sculptures and architecture that came out of the Italian renaissance. Galileo even tutored some of the kids and named 4 moons of Jupiter after them. The Corleone’s wish they were the Medici’s.

Early Medici, Early Renaissance

Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici is the first notable Medici and the one with the name most fun to say out loud. By 1400 he was the richest man in Florence, commissioning lots of building and sculptures in the town including the Duomo by the architect Filippo Brunelleschi. He felt patronizing the arts was his patriotic duty.

BAM. The first and most important dome ever (or something like that, art history was like 5 years ago.)

Giovanni was a well-liked leader but after he died some rival families drove his sons out of Florence. Those families quickly ruined the city financially and the Medici’s were welcomed back. Giovanni’s son Cosimo became the leader of the republic and was a passionate supporter of art and academics. He commissioned a church from Brunelleschi, had a monastery rebuilt so Fra Angelica could live and work there and built the first public library. He was loved so much that after he died everyone just sort of let his son Piero become the leader, establishing a kind of monarchy of awesome (technically they were ruled by a council).

Lorenzo the Magnificent, Partying Like it’s 1499 (When it’s Really More Like 1470’s-ish)

Piero’s son was Lorenzo the Magnificent and like his family before him he loved to live extravagantly and spent money lavishing Florence. He created an academy to nurture young artists like Botticelli, da Vinci, Verrochio and later Michelangelo. He set up pageants and parties for Florence and wanted to return to the spirit of the classical times of Greece and Rome, essentially ushering in the entire philosophical revolution behind the renaissance. You might even say that he was magnificent. He also supported art that depicted more than just religious subjects, that celebrated secular and humanistic themes as well as using mythological images from classical times, greatly expanding the scope of the visual arts at the time. He was a tough ruler but brought in a time of prosperity for Florence. Good times were had by all.

"Venus" was painted by Sandro Botticelli for Lorenzo back when he was awesome. He gets way less awesome in the next section.


Party Foul

Things start going badly for the Medici’s and lovers of excess in general when Lorenzo’s brother was assassinated by a rival banking family and then some douche bag monk named Savonarola got power of Florence for four years. The rival family were the Pazzi’s and they were attempting to murder Lorenzo as well. Francesco Pazzi looked on the surface to be good friends with Lorenzo and his brother. He walked with the brothers into their palace where an ambush waited, killing Lorenzo’s brother as Lorenzo escaped. The people of Florence were not down with this so they ran the conspirators out of town and in the town square strung up the body of a Pazzi who had immediately committed suicide. In the aftermath Lorenzo continued to support art but was no longer a rambunctious partier, focusing instead on serious political business and peace-keeping.

Meanwhile, the monk Savonarola had been preaching death and destruction to the people of Florence based on his hatred art, music, plays and especially the Medici lifestyle. After Lorenzo’s death his message became more violent and he gained a following. Then he and his fanatics overtook power in Florence from Lorenzo’s son. Three years into his reign he and his followers staged a “Bonfire of the Vanities” and burned pretty much anything that brings any kind of fun or joy to anyone’s life. During this time Sandro Botticelli had become one of his followers, first abandoning pagan imagery and then leaving painting all together. He burned his own paintings in the bonfire, as did some other painters. One year later Savonarola was executed by being burned in the same spot the bonfire had been held, in punishment for his rallying against the sitting pope.

Savonarola: hated art, is depicted forver in art.

And Then Three Centuries of Some Other Stuff

After Savonarola the spirit of the renaissance moved south to Rome where the High Renaissance period started. The Medici’s did a bunch of other royal and political stuff, producing 4 different popes, and eventually falling, but this post is long enough.

Pope Leo X: He's the one that sold indulgences and commissioned the Sistine Chapel. Gangsta.

In Conclusion

Writing the other day about how the art market is driven by the demand for status symbols reminded me of Medici patronage. Is it appreciation of art or just displaying wealth? Do those have to be mutually exclusive? Does it matter? I guess I’m interested in the balance and relationship between money and art, customer and artist. As an artist money can mean that you’re limited by the expectations of the purchaser, but it can also be a source of energy for creation. Some of the Medici’s seemed to have genuinely loved art, science and philosophy and had different personal reasons for supporting it, but the most important aspect of those dealings was that like contemporary collectors, in exchange for supporting the arts they got prestige, immortality and a strengthened impression of their power.

Gotta look good.

So really what I’m saying is I would like to be adopted by a rich powerful family in exchange for my paintings, renaissance-style, because that seems like a sweet deal.

*Title stolen from a PBS documentary.


1 Comment

Filed under Art History

One response to “Godfathers of the Renaissance*

  1. KC Cowan

    great post! You should read “Mistress of the Vatican” — it’s about that same period and a woman who rose to incredible power against amazing odds. I loved it!

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