The Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance

The Medici Family is a Florentine family that left a profound mark in the history of Europe. The family is most famous for being Europe’s bankers and patrons of Renaissance art, but the family also yielded princes and rulers, humanists and artists, and even popes! Below is an excerpt about their curious beginnings:

“On 1 October 1397 Giovanni di Bicci de Medici established a head office (for his bank) in Florence, and this is generally accepted as the date for the founding of the great Medici Bank. In its first year’s trading the bank made around 10% profit. The Medici Bank never underwent rapid expansion, and even at its height was not as extensive as any of the other three great Florentine banks of the previous century, those owned by the Bardi, the Peruzzi and Acciaiuoli families – the Medici did not believe in overstretching themselves. Giovanni not only founded the Medici Bank, and the Medici banking code of practice, but also laid foundations of the extensive family fortune that was to become its power base.

The Head of the Medici Bank soon became a prominent figure in Florence, and as early as 1401 Giovanni di Bicci saved on the committee of leading citizens that was to judge the winner of an international competition to create new doors for the Baptistery. This was the first instance of a Medici being involved in artistic patronage, though in this
case the patron was the city itself. The artist who received the commission for the bronze doors was Lorenzo Ghiberti, a young Florentine sculptor who was later to become one of the founders of Renaissance art, just as Giovanni was to become the founder of the Medici patronage that did so much to engender this movement. It is not exaggerated to say that this occasion launched Ghiberti on the road to greatness, but at the same time it may well have opened Giovanni di Bicci’s eyes to something greater
that the accumulation of wealth.

In 1402 Giovanni di Bicci became prior of the Florentine guild of bankers and moneychangers and had a seat on the ruling Signoria. During this period, a bank usually consisted of a single largish room, divided by the banco or counter that gave it its name (bank), and behind the counter sat the clerks, together with the bookkeeper and his abacus.

Despite all his caution, Giovanni was not above the odd lapse of judgement himself.
This is certainly the case with Baldassare Cossa, whom Giovanni befriended in Rome.
Baldassare was descended from impoverished Neapolitan nobility, and as young man had run off to sea, where he made a fortune as a pirate. Back on land he used this money to obtain a doctorate in law at the University of Bologna; he then bought himself a position in the Church, where he soon began to prosper. In 1402 he decided to buy a cardinal’s hat, and approached Giovanni for a loan of 10,000 ducats. Astonishingly, Giovanni agreed –and this decision becomes even more surprising when one considers Baldassare Cossa’s character. According to a contemporary writer, during Baldassare’s nine years as cardinal legate at Bologna, his spiritual qualities were ‘zero or minus zero’.
So why did the cagey Giovanni become involved with an unscrupulous profligate like Baldassare? Let alone ‘loan’ him such a large sum? The answer was simple:
Giovanni took a gamble on Baldassare Cossa because he knew that he was in the running for the papacy, and Giovanni had worked long enough in Rome to understand that being banker to the pope was the biggest financial prize of all. If the Medici Bank could handle the financial affairs of the Curia, it could establish itself as one of the major commercial institutions in Europe.

For eight long years Giovanni di Bicci befriended Baldassare Cossa and acted as his banker, regularly corresponding with him and doing his best to limit Baldassare’s extravagances, which remained a constant drain on the Medici Bank’s resources. Then in 1410 it all paid off: Baldassare Cossa was elected pontiff, becoming Pope John XXIII, and the Medici Bank took over the handling of the Curia’s finances.

By the early fifteenth century, banking had become an essential arm of the papal executive. Unlike any other European power of this period, most of its revenues were earned abroad, coming largely in the form of remittances from the vast number of sees through Europe. These sees extended to the very limits of the Western World – as far as Iceland and even Greenland (whose bishop paid in sealskins and whalebones, which were converted into cash in Bruges). Another source of income was the selling of holy relics, which often fetched an enormous price, as they had the power to transform an entire economy, turning the region that possessed them into a centre of pilgrimage.
Even more lucrative was the trade in indulgences, which offered the purchaser the pope’s pardon for his sins, the price increasing dependent upon the magnitude of the sin involved.

The sums involved in this continent-wide commercial enterprise were enormous – proportionately far larger than those accumulated by any present-day multinational – and the bank that handled them would of course receive its commissions, which would amount to a huge annual income. The Medici Rome branch yielded no less than 30% on investment for Giovanni di Bicci and his partners.

Later on, Giovanni would begin to devote much of his time and money to patronage. In 1421, in company with seven other neighbourhood families, Giovanni commissioned the rebuilding of the church of San Lorenzo after it was damaged by fire in 1417. This venture into patronage was to be part of the Medici bid for a social status to match their growing political influence. The man commissioned was redesign San Lorenzo was Brunelleschi, then the most prominent architect in Florence, and one of the pioneers of the Renaissance. It was he who rediscovered the rules of perspective, which had been lost since classical times.

It was only in his later years that Giovanni di Bicci had begun to understand that (…) money could be turned into the permanence of art by patronage, and in the exercise of this patronage one gained access to another world of timeless values, which appeared free from the devious politic of power and banking. His son, Cosimo de Medici, would be aware of this other world from his earliest years; his education made him a humanist. Cosimo became actively involved both in increasing the family wealth and in spending it to enrich Florence through his patronage of art and culture.
He was the patron of such Renaissance Masters as Fra Angelico, Fra Lippi, and Donatello, among others. Donatello’s masterpieces, David, and Brunelleschi’s wonderwork, the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore, were possible thanks to Cosimo.

Source: The Medici, Godfathers of the Renaissance – Paul Strathern (Pilmico edition 2005).

Giovanni di Bicci de' Medici

Lorenzo de Medici

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