The Art of Rule: The Medici’s Key to Power

Florence, Italy. Photo by William Geary

Overview

For those who have made a trip to Florence, or maybe taken an art history class in college, the Medici name should certainly ring a bell. The Medici family rose to power in Florence as bankers, having earned their riches during Northern Italy’s transition towards city-states. After obtaining power, the Medici began to fund art and education for everyone throughout Florence, and commissioned artists to decorate their homes and buildings with paintings and statues. The Medici’s love and patronage of the arts gave a new artistic identity to the people of Florence, which in exchange brought more power to the family.

The introduction of this new art culture also acted as a mechanism against those who opposed the Medici; with art, the Medici had ingrained themselves into the hearts of the Florentine people and earned their support. By continuing to commission artists, who could make a living off of the Medici’s patronage, the Medici themselves gained a larger following with the art that was produced. Therefore, the relationship between artists and the Medici was a symbiotic one, which served to help them maintain their rule over Florence for nearly 300 years.

The Rise of the Renaissance

Italy, known for its delicious food and beautiful landscapes, is also home to some of the most famous works of art. Thanks to the Renaissance, Italy has produced countless world-renowned masterpieces, such as The Birth of Venus, The Last Supper, and the statue of David. However, in order to truly understand Italy’s rich artistic past, and a large portion of its culture, we must take one extra step back and first understand the origins of the world’s greatest art revolution.

In the 12th century, many Northern Italian cities began to separate themselves from the rule of the Church, who had previously maintained power using a clergy political system. This is not to say that the Church played no influence; religion still played a large part in the lives of nearly everyone, but it did not exert complete control as it had in the past. These cities, such as Florence, Milan, and Venice, began forming their own communi, also known as city-states. These city-states were founded as a result of a steady exodus from the countryside, as farmers, craftsmen, laborers, and other citizens left remote rural communities in search of financial and physical safety of the cities. As these flourishing city-states transformed into self-governing bodies, with representatives elected by the people, the Church’s political power began to wane, as well.

An additional result of the creation of city-states was that a new middle class emerged, as well as new types of jobs. In order to remain independent, these communi relied heavily on trade, meaning that many citizens quit their old jobs as farmers to work as artisans, bankers, and merchants, instead. Without a caste-like class system or monarchical rule to deter prosperity, lower class citizens were now able to climb the social ladder and become increasingly more successful. This included the Medici, a Florentine family who capitalized on banking during Florence’s transition into a city-state. After having become the official bankers of the Pope and inventing new techniques such as double-entry bookkeeping, the Medici family became one of the wealthiest in Florence.

Adoration of the Magi by Sandro Botticelli. While this painting depicts the three Wise Men bringing gifts to Christ, Mary, and Joseph, members of the Medici family are scattered throughout as well, including Lorenzo, Piero, Giovanni, and Cosimo. Photo by The Yorck Project

Their newly acquired riches enabled the Medici to rise to power in 1434, when they doctored the elections for the government council and made a return for Florence after having been banished by the Albizzi. However, the family had more than just financial power; they had the support of the Florentine citizenry, too. Like many other people who had recently become successful, the Medici began to fund education and artists. As more and more people throughout Florence were being educated, the theme in everyday life shifted to focus on man in greater detail, and artists were being paid to represent these ideas in the form of paintings, statues, and buildings. This new funding, in essence, led to the Renaissance.

The Medici’s funding of education and the arts certainly provided many with new opportunities to learn about subjects such as the arts and the sciences. But the Medici’s goal was not simply to educate the Florentine people; they also funded artists for status and for recognition, as observed by author John Green. The Medici paid artists and architects to create some of the most beautiful paintings, statues, and buildings of the time, in part for their love of art, yet also to obtain the love of the people. The Medici knew that by creating a new cultural identity through art, their patronage would become widely recognized, which in return would gain them the appreciation and support of Florence.

With Power Comes Opposition

“Culture is a bond. It bonds people in a special language that doesn’t need a translation”

 – Basma Al Sulaiman, The Financial Times

In 1478, Giuliano de’ Medici was assassinated, while his brother, Lorenzo, survived a stabbing attempt. The man who plotted to kill the brothers, Jacopo de’ Pazzi, had been trying to gain the support of the Florentines by calling the assassination attempts a “fight against tyranny,” Renaissance historian Marcello Simonetta writes. Yet de’ Pazzi was thwarted by the Florentines, who instead rallied around the Medici family.

He should not have been surprised.

The Medici family enjoyed support because it wisely used art to create a culture and common bond that enshrined their power as well as the power of the Florentine city state. Artists such as Brunelleschi and Michelangelo benefitted from the family’s financial support, but the relationship went both ways. The Medici needed artists much in the way that modern politics need slick advertising. Meanwhile, the Florentines “prospered,” too, as the Medici-funded art created a distinct Florentine culture. Its innovative beauty was, and remains to this day, the envy of much of the world.

Brunelleschi

Brunelleschi’s Dome atop the Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral in Florence. Photo by William Geary

The Medici had two methods in which they used art to their advantage for maintaining power: the first was by indirect means. The Medici would commission projects throughout Florence which did not involve a direct representation of themselves, such as a painting or a statue. However, their name was linked to creation of these important commissions, which were often adored by the people of Florence. The Florentines knew that the project would not have been completed otherwise without the Medici’s funding, so there was a certain level of gratitude towards the family for what they had provided.            

This method worked with Brunelleschi and the Florence Dome, which sits atop of the Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral. The cathedral’s construction began in 1296, designed by Arnolfo di Cambio, and was meant to serve as the basilica of the city. However, when the cathedral was finished in 1368, it was still lacking a dome. A competition was held to find an architect who could work around the many challenges included in the design, as explained in this National Geographic video. Ultimately, it was decided that Filippo Brunelleschi’s design would be used, and the dome was constructed from 1420 to 1436. Although it was a cathedral that was being built, a religious building, it was Cosimo Medici who paid for the project rather than the church. This came with a consequence, as explained in the article Art and Civic Pride in Florence, which says “the meaning of the dome had little to do with God. Instead, it became a symbol of Florence, and a testament to human ingenuity.” People were proud to have such an engineering marvel as the centerpiece of their city; the dome brought with it civic pride, and became the new stamp of Florence, all thanks to the Medici.

Vasari

The Last Judgement by Giorgio Vasari and Federico Zuccari. Photo by Imagentle

Though the Cathedral’s cupola quickly became a symbol of Florence and a source of pride, the inside remained blank for nearly 130 years after its completion. The white ceiling once more prompted debate, this time on how to decorate the dome. Prior to his death in 1446, Brunelleschi had wanted to cover the inside in gold, yet his idea was quickly abandoned in favor of a mural. Once more a problem arose: a painting of such a size would be extremely expensive. However, Cosimo I de’ Medici was quick to commission the work upon the decision, and assigned one of his artists, Giorgio Vasari, to the task. Once more, the Medici saw this as another opportunity to gain publicity and reinforce the support of the Florentines. As Vasari’s The Last Judgment depicts the Second Coming of Christ, the painting also functioned as a way for the Medici to proclaim their belief in Christian values and the religion as a whole. Equally significant, the mural’s religious subject matter connected the Medici back to Rome and the Pope, suggesting a divine legitimacy to their rule.

Arnolfo Shows the Plan to Enlarge Florence by Giorgio Vasari. Photo by Palazzo Vecchio Museum

Vasari’s work did not stop there. Ten years prior to the painting of the Dome, he created Arnolfo Shows the Plan to Enlarge Florence under Cosimo I’s patronage. The painting, completed in 1563, depicts Florence’s impressive past and more glorious future under the Medici’s rule. In the foreground, well-attired gentlemen examine a plan for the city. Nearby, stonemasons shape blocks to be used on new and unfinished buildings, including the Cathedral, still without Brunelleschi’s dome, and Palazzo della Signoria, the original seat of Medici power. The Palazzo, found at the center of Vasari’s painting, was begun during Cosimo de Medici’s lifetime, and finished during his grandson’s, Lorenzo the Magnificent. The Palazzo’s evolution, paid for by the Medici, created “an irony,” writes historian Melissa Bullard. “For at the same time the halls of government were being splendidly decorated – thus enhancing the public dignity of the Signoria – the constitutional change […] created new organs of government which facilitated control by the Medici party.” The painting therefore has two purposes: it glorifies the Medici’s rule and displays the fact that while the people were enthusiastic with the new changes being brought to Florence, the Medici were able to take even more control and steadily increase their power.

Cellini

Cosimo I de’ Medici by Benvenuto Cellini. Photo by Antonio Quattrone

As the Medici’s rule became increasingly tyrannical, the way in which they used art to maintain support changed drastically. Instead of commissioning large projects and paintings promoting the growth of Florence, the Medici began to pay artists to create representations of themselves, with heroic and allegorical representations to preserve a positive public consensus. One of these artists tasked to glorify the family was Benvenuto Cellini, an Italian goldsmith and sculptor, well known for his statue Perseus with the Head of Medusa located in Piazza della Signora. Cellini was commissioned by Cosimo I to create a bust that would represent his presence on the island of Elba, after having gained power from Charles V.

In the statue, Cosimo I wears antique armor, opposed to something more modern for the time, symbolizing a connection between himself and the great Roman rulers such as Trajan and Caesar Augustus. Thus, starting with Cosimo I, the Medici began to use art as a type of political propaganda, while simultaneously creating an art culture throughout Italy. The sculpture became known as “one of the greatest portrait busts of the Renaissance,” according to Keith Christiansen, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. However, while its relevance even today as a work of art is spectacular, the Medici’s ability to use art as a political tool was still all the more impressive.

Conclusion

As the Medici rulers began to lose touch with the artistic culture their relatives had created in Florence, their influence began to collapse as well. The Medici’s support was struggling at the time that they ran out of male heirs. So, although Cosimo III declared that his daughter Anna Maria Luisa should succeed him, command fell into the hands of Don Carlos of Spain after he died in 1723. After Tuscany was occupied by the Spanish, and later the Austrians, Anna Maria Luisa signed the Patto di Famiglia, or “family pact,” in 1737. It willed the property of the Medici to Tuscany after her death, on the basis that the artifacts would not be moved from Florence.

Families such as the Medici tend to be associated with the birth of the Renaissance, due to their large amounts of spending and funding of the arts, however, people often overlook the fact that the art that led to the Renaissance was also a very early type of propaganda that helped the Medici amass and hold onto control for nearly three centuries. The Medici’s use of art promoted “cultural identity” and provided the people of Florence with new means of identifying themselves. Art for the Medici was like Renaissance political advertising. In this, artists not only blossomed because of the Medici’s patronage, but the Medici needed these artists to promote a culture people would be willing to fight for. It was mutually beneficial.

Masterpieces such as Brunelleschi’s Dome and Vasari’s The Last Judgment are still seen today as symbols of Florence and sources of pride for its people, and the patronage of the Medici is to thank for all of their creations. To have their name associated with the foundation of such a large movement of cultural identity would end up reaping large rewards, but the Medici had already known this. Funding these arts was a way to improve their city and receive the positive recognition and support that they desired. Even today, Medici remains a well-known name, unlike their rivals, the Albizzi or the Alberti, because they strategically grasped the value of art to create a singular culture and a political message that would resonate for centuries to come.

Sources

Al-Najar, Joshua. “Magnificent Manipulation: How the Medici Politicised Public Art.” Retrospect Journal, 27 Sept. 2020, https://retrospectjournal.com/2019/10/27/magnificent-manipulation-how-the-medici-politicised-public-art/.

“Art and Civic Pride in Florence.” ART 109 Renaissance to Modern, Westchester Community College, 3 Aug. 2015, https://art109textbook.wordpress.com/new-online-textbook-2-2/chapter-3-the-italian-renaissance/introduction-art-and-civic-pride-in-florence/.

Bullard, Melissa M., “Adumbrations of Power and the Politics of Appearances in Medicean Florence.” Renaissance Studies, 1998, https://www.jstor.org/stable/24412609.

Christiansen, Keith. “The Medici: Portraits and Politics, 1512-1570 | Met Exhibitions.” The Met, YouTube, 5 Aug. 2021, https://youtu.be/Qi-3lGh2gas.

Encyclopaedia Britannica Editors. “Medici Family.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 20 Nov. 2022, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Medici-family.

Green, John. “Florence and the Renaissance: Crash Course European History #2.” CrashCourse, YouTube, 19 Apr. 2019, https://youtu.be/tecocKSclwc.

Heartney, Eleanor. “The Medici Were History’s Greatest Patrons – And Also Tyrants. The Met’s New Show Tackles How Art Served Power.” Artnet, 7 Jul. 2021, https://news.artnet.com/art-world/the-medici-were-historys-greatest-patrons-and-also-tyrants-the-mets-new-show-tackles-how-art-served-power-1985310.

History.com Editors. “The Medici Family.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 9 Nov. 2009, https://www.history.com/topics/renaissance/medici-family.

Janson, Horst W., and Samuel Cauman. History of Art for Young People. H.N. Abrams, 1985.

Martinez, Jacqueline. “The Medici Family: Ultimate Power and Legacy In The Renaissance.” The Collector, 29 Jul. 2020, https://www.thecollector.com/the-medici-family-legacy/.

Simonetta, Marcello. “The Renaissance of City-States.” Lapham’s Quarterly, 9 Nov. 2010, https://www.laphamsquarterly.org/roundtable/renaissance-city-states.

Weise, Hans. “How an Amateur Built the World’s Biggest Dome.” National Geographic, YouTube, 24 Jan. 2014, https://youtu.be/_IOPlGPQPuM. Woodcock, Victoria. “Culture is a Bond.” Financial Times, 26 Nov. 2022.

Woodcock, Victoria. “Culture is a Bond.” The Financial Times, 26 Nov. 2022.

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