27 September 2020

Cosimo de’ Medici – banker and politician

Father of Florence used his wealth to encourage great architecture

Bronzino's portrait of Cosimo de' Medici, painted between 1565 and 1569
Bronzino's portrait of Cosimo de'
Medici, painted between 1565 and 1569
Today is the date Cosimo di Giovanni de’ Medici, the founder of the Medici dynasty, celebrated his birthday.

Cosimo and his twin brother, Damiano, were born to Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici and Piccarda Bueri in April 1389, but Damiano survived for only a short time.

The twins were named after the saints Cosmas and Damian, whose feast day in those days was celebrated on 27 September. Cosimo later decided to celebrate his birthday on 27 September, his ‘name day’, rather than on the actual date of his birth.

Cosimo’s father, who was the founder of the Medici Bank, came from a wealthy family and after making even more money he married well, his wife coming from an ancient Florentine family. A supporter of the arts in Florence, Giovanni was one of the financial backers for the magnificent doors of the Baptistery by Lorenzo Ghiberti, although they were not completed until after his death.

By the time his father died, Cosimo was 40 and had become a rich banker himself, which gave him great power. He had also become a patron of the arts, learning and architecture.

The Abizzi family, who ruled Florence, feared his power and also coveted his wealth so they had Cosimo arrested on the capital charge of having tried to raise himself up higher than others.

Brunelleschi's huge dome of Florence Cathedral, which Cosimo supported
Brunelleschi's huge dome of Florence
Cathedral, which Cosimo supported
But Cosimo was able to use his money to buy back his life and then later his freedom, before he went into exile for a year.

When he returned to Florence he became the de facto ruler of the city and banned the Abizzi family for ever. He became Europe’s richest banker and a great art patron, supporting Fra Angelico, Donatello, Ghiberti and many others.

He encouraged Filippo Brunelleschi to complete his great dome for Florence’s cathedral and ordered the construction of the Medici Chapel in the Basilica di Santa Croce.

He established the importance of the Medici family, who were to rule Florence for hundreds of years to come.

As he became older, Cosimo became badly affected by gout and he died in 1464 at the age of 75 at Careggi, where he had been born.

He was succeeded by his son Piero, who was to father Lorenzo the Magnificent, one of the most famous and admired of the Medici.

The Florentines awarded Cosimo the title Pater Patriae - Father of the Fatherland - an honour once awarded to Cicero, and they had it carved upon his tomb in the Church of San Lorenzo in the city.

The Villa Medici at Careggi, outside Florence, where Cosimo's life began and ended
The Villa Medici at Careggi, outside Florence,
where Cosimo's life began and ended
Travel tip:

Cosimo was born and also died at the Villa Medici at Careggi in the hills above Florence, which is the oldest of the Medici villas. After his father died, Cosimo had it remodelled by Michelozzo, who designed a walled garden overlooked by the upper loggias of the villa. The property was bought by an Englishman, Francis Sloane, in 1848, who added exotic plants and palms to the gardens. The villa now belongs to Regione Toscane and is in the process of being restored.

Luigi Pampaloni's statue of
Bunelleschi in Piazza del Duomo
Travel tip:

Santa Maria del Fiore, the Cathedral or Duomo of Florence, dominates the city with its enormous dome by Brunelleschi, which Cosimo had encouraged him to design. The largest dome of its time, it was built without scaffolding and given an inner shell to provide a platform for the timbers that support the outer shell. The architect died in 1446 before it was completed, but a statue of Brunelleschi was erected in Piazza del Duomo and he still looks up thoughtfully towards his greatest achievement, the dome that would forever define Florence and remains to this day the largest masonry dome in the world.

Also on this day:

1871: The birth of author and Nobel Prize winner Grazia Deledda

1966: The birth of singer-songwriter Jovanotti

1979: The death on Capri of singer and actress Gracie Fields


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