The Italian merchant prince Cosimo de' Medici (1389-1464), also known as “the Elder,” was the unofficial and benevolent despot of Florence, contributing much to making it the intellectual and cultural jewel of 15th-century Europe. The dynasty he founded ruled Florence until 1494.
As he believed in democracy, Cosimo didn’t take office for long. His family made their money in banking and, unfortunately, his dalliance in politics landed him in prison and subsequent exile for a period of time. Still, he continued to amass his fortune once his exile ended. Cosimo di Giovanni de’ Medici became a great patron of the arts, sponsoring poets and philosophers. The Platonic Academy was established thanks to his dedication, a place to honor and translate the writings of Plato. Posthumously, he’s known as the “Father of the Fatherland.”
Cosimo de' Medici was born on September 27, 1389, the son of Giovanni de' Medici, who founded the family's legendary fortune, amassing enormous sums in trade and banking. 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. These oligarchs became jealous of Cosimo's popularity and fearful of his democratic tendencies. Consequently they sought to destroy him and his family. In 1433, spurred on by Rinaldo degli Albizzi, the most influential of their number, they 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. He believed it prudent to keep the institutions of government intact and to rule quietly, so as not to injure the republican sensibilities of the people.
His despotism established, 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.
Cosimo employed the architectural skills of Michelozzo to build his palace and, in 1437, the Dominican convent of San Marco. He commissioned Filippo Brunelleschi to restore the Basilica di San Lorenzo, which was in dire need of repair. The cloisters of Fiesole owe their erection to Cosimo, who added to these monuments of his munificence country villas of contemporary style at both Fiesole and Careggi.
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 San Marco in Florence and the abbey at Fiesole, except for some which Cosimo kept in his own home. These collections were open to the public.
The growing accessibility of the materials of scholarship and the persuasion of Greek scholars, to whom he was always a gracious host, inspired Cosimo to found the Platonic Academy, an institution for the translation of Plato's works and the propagation of his ideas. Marsilio Ficino, a humanist of great skill, was made president of the academy in 1458. Cosimo’s patronage of the arts and scholarly pursuits did not stop there. His largesse was enjoyed not only by architects and scholars but also by some of the greatest sculptors and painters of the quattrocento, among them Donatello and Fra Filippo Lippi.
In spite of his riches and the lavish entertainment 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. In his later years, Cosimo suffered terribly from arthritis, bladder problems, and gout. Upon his death on August 1, 1464, a grateful city decreed that on his tomb should be inscribed the words Pater Patriae (father of his country or Father of the Fatherland).
The best biography of Cosimo is still K. Dorothea Ewart Vernon’s Cosimo de' Medici (1899). A scholarly treatment of Cosimo is in George Frederick Young’s The Medici (1930). A recent history of the Medici which includes a portrait of Cosimo is Marcel Brion’s The Medici: A Great Florentine Family (1969), a large-format book rich in color plates. Also very useful on all the Medici is History of Florence (1936) by Ferdinand Schevill, also available in a paperback edition (2 vols., 1963).
Cosimo 'il Vecchio' de' Medici, 1389-1464: essays in commemoration of the 600th anniversary of Cosimo de' Medici's birth: including papers delivered at the Society for Renaissance Studies Sexcentenary Symposium at the Warburg Institute, London, 19 May 1989, Oxford England: Clarendon Press, 1992.
Updates by Kit Kittelstad