Period Persona – Cosimo de Medici


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Cosimo de Medici

The floor tomb of Cosimo de' Medici in San Lor...

The floor tomb of Cosimo de’ Medici in San Lorenzo, Florence. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Born: 27 September 1389 in Florence, Italy

Died: 1 August 1464 in Florence, Italy

Cosimo di Giovanni de Medici was the first of the Medici political dynasty. He was also known as “Cosimo ‘the Elder'” (“il Vecchio”) and “Cosimo Pater Patriae” (Latin: ‘father of the nation’).

He represented the Medici bank, managed the papacy’s finances and became the wealthiest man of his time. Despite never holding office, he controlled Florence via his wealth and was the start of a dynasty that held power for centuries. Cosimo was an important patron of Renaissance art.

After his father died in 1429, Cosimo continued the family’s commercial and financial practices with great success. He brought goods of little weight and high value from the East and lent money to the princely houses of Europe. Cosimo also adopted the policy, already traditional in his family, of supporting the lesser guilds and the poor against the wealthy aristocracy which ruled the city.

In 1433, who were jealous of Cosimo and his power were spurred on by Rinaldo degli Albizzi, the most influential of their number, and had Cosimo arrested with the intention of putting him to death. He was exiled instead when, from his place of imprisonment, he succeeded in buying the favor of Bernardo Guadagni, the gonfalonier of justice, for 1,000 ducats (about $25,000).

One year later, in October 1434, the sentence of exile was overturned by a new government favorable to Cosimo, and he returned to the city in triumph. From that time until his death he controlled both the foreign and domestic affairs of Florence, using his prestige and his money to keep his adherents in the government. Cosimo himself took public office only briefly. Cosimo promptly reformed the system of taxation, changing from a fixed income tax to a graduated one. This placed a heavier burden on the wealthy, who grumbled that the Medici tyrant was using the tax as a weapon against them. The middle class and the poorer citizens, who were Cosimo’s strength, were delighted and became even more ardent in their support, particularly when they saw that the funds gained through taxation, amplified by substantial contributions from Cosimo’s own pocket, were put to use in public projects.

He commissioned Filippo Brunelleschi to restore the church of S. Lorenzo, which was in dire need of repair and the cloisters of Fiesole owe their erection to Cosimo. Along with the physical adornment of Florence and its environs, Cosimo provided for its cultural life. He sent his ships to the East to gather the precious manuscripts of ancient writers, and he hired scribes to copy what he could not buy. He added to this growing collection the private library of Niccolò Niccoli, an enthusiastic bibliophile who left his books to Cosimo in gratitude for generous loans which had saved him from financial ruin. These valuable manuscripts were distributed to the monastery of S. Marco in Florence and the abbey at Fiesole. These collections were open to the public.

In spite of his riches and the lavish entertainments he provided for his guests, Cosimo lived modestly. He ate and drank moderately and simply and worked long, regular hours. He dressed without ostentation and was accessible to the humblest Florentine. His generosity, mildness, and wit were legendary. Upon his death on Aug. 1, 1464, a grateful city decreed that on his tomb should be inscribed the words Pater Patriae (father of his country).

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