CHW 3M: A New Kind of Greatness

We have talked about a lot of great leaders this semester. Some were born into power, while others used force to obtain it. In all cases, however, the leader in question–whether dictator, emperor, or pharaoh–was clearly the head of state.

Cosimo de Medici was a different kind of great. Part philosopher, part patron, and part mob boss, Cosimo dominated Renaissance Florence despite not being its official ruler. Florence was technically a democracy, but incredibly corrupt; no one achieved a position of power without consulting the Medici family. 

Let’s consider a few highlights and lowlights of Cosimo’s influence:

  • the Medici essentially invented the concept of banking as we know it. Travellers’ ability to go from city to city and withdraw funds made international investment possible. It also increased the mobility of anyone with money.
  • Cosimo’s support of the arts forever altered Europe. Some of the world’s  most impressive works of art and architecture were created during the Renaissance, and many of the artists had connections to the Medici. Cosimo supported the likes of Donatello; his descendents continued the practice, and provided patronage for da Vinci and Michelangelo. They were kind of a big deal.
  • Cosimo founded a school in Florence that reinvigorated studies of classical Rome and Greece. The new values that came from schools like this redefined philosophy and values, and contributed to the end of the Age of Faith.
  • The support of arts and philosophy by the Medici contributed to a change in cultural values. Sprezzaturra, or Renaissance Cool, epitomized these changes. To be “in”, a noble had to know about the arts and philosophy, but he also had to be a master of all sorts of courtly activities. He had to carry himself with a detached air, as if he was above everything around him.
  • the Medici used their power to buy everything (even the Papacy).  They couldn’t buy their safety, however; a rival family actually attempted to murder Cosimo’s grandson in church.
  • The Medici secured the title of official bankers for the Church. They even collected the funds from parishioners on the Church’s behalf.  While the Medici were not responsible for the Indulgences that infuriated Martin Luther, they did contribute to the corruption that was behind them.
  • When Cosimo’s power became too much, he was exiled from Florence. Unfortunately for Florence, he took his money and his banks with him. He was soon invited back.
  • One of the worst things that could happen to you in Renaissance Italy was “losing face.” The term used at the time was brutta figura, meaning that you had made a very bad impression. On at least one occasion, however, Cosimo made brutta figura more literal: he had someone who spoke ill of him cut from ear to ear.
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