Wednesday, May 21, 2014


To delve deeply into the life of Cosimo de Medici, pater patriae, Florence's Father of the Fatherland, we find a hard-nosed business man; a man who brought his family and his homeland to financial, flourishing greatness with his business acumen. Though his aptitude resided firmly in banking and the accumulation of wealth, he knew the value of art as well, though his admiration was tempered by the value he placed upon it.

The painter Salviati quotes Cosimo as saying, “All those things (works of art) have given me the greatest satisfaction and contentment because they are not only for the honor of God but are likewise for my own remembrance. For fifty years, I have done nothing else but earn money and spend money; and it became clear that spending money gives me greater pleasure than earning it.” Clearly, he understood the importance of art in his life as well as in the evolution of human the gift that it is. And he put his money behind such truths, beginning the tradition of sponsorship through commission, that would bring the world some of the greatest artists and their work the world has ever known.

Though Cosimo was patron to many, a few reach out to us for the immortality of their splendid work.

Donato di Niccolo di Betto Bardi (1386-1466), better known as Donatello, is known as one of the greatest sculptors of the Renaissance, if not all time. His work is touted for its savage force and strength; a reflection, no doubt, of the dynamic, vigorous times in which he lived. Here are a few of the works produced thanks, in part, to the patronage of Cosimo de Medici.

Donatello's St. George 
c 1420 Marble 6'5"
An exquisite example of the artist's emotional realism, his ability to create narratives
and characters, ready to move, to fight, to truly exist. 
Donatello's David
c. 1440s, bronze, 5'2"
Revolutionary for its day, it depicts David not as the king he was to become,
 but as the innocent and virtuous youth which holds the promise of the greatest yet to come. 
St. John the Evangelist by Donatello
c. 1410, marble,  6'8"
This statue represents a clear example of perspective achieved. To offset the distortion
from seeing the statue from below, Donatello elongated the body in relation to his legs.
 Remarkable are the saint's deep, penetrating expression, and the realistic treatment
 of his open hand on the book.

Born to a butcher and his wife who died while he was still a small child, Fra' Filippo Lippi (1406-1469) would be raised by his aunt, Mona Lapaccia. As schoolboy, instead of studying he would spend all his time scrawling pictures on his own books and those of others. (Lives of Artists, Vasari). Through his evolution, we see the very evolution of painting into the realm of realism and dimensionality.

Madonna and Child c 1440
The Walters Art Museum
This tender and classical rendering is clear evidence of the obsession with
the antiquity that would characterize the age.
Madonna and Child c 1445
National Gallery of Art
The similarity of expression is a telling sign of Fra Filippo Lippi's devotion,
 yet the more readily apparently dimensionality, as well as the delicacy of details 
(especially the golden mesh-like, intricate halo above Mary's head) clearly reveal
 the evolution of the artist's prowess.
Portrait of a Man and Woman at a Casement c1440
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Perhaps one of the most recognizable of Lippi's works, the composition depicts a common 
occurrence in the courtship of the day, when a man would climb to a woman's window
 to see her, to speak with her, as Romeo did to Juliet. It is the earliest surviving double 
portrait in Italian art, most probably Ranieri Scolari and Angiola di Bernardo Sapiti. 
The work baffles scholars as to its it to commemorate their marriage, 
the impending birth of their child and yet their eyes do not meet. 

Mad and poverty stricken, it was the patronage of Cosimo, his commission and sponsorship, which not only pulled Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446) from the dregs of a hard life, it catapulted him to eternal eminence. Though the architect designed and built many breathtaking buildings, one need look no further than the Duomo--the domed cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore--to see his true brilliance.

Construction on the new cathedral began in 1294, Brunelleschi's involvement did not begin until 1418. In that year, the Arte delle Lana (the guild of the wool makers) held a competition to determine who would finish the magnificent structure with the design and construction of the dome. The two main competitors were Lorenzo Ghiberti and Brunelleschi, the latter with the full support of the Medici. The work, which began in 1420 and ended in 1436, would produce not only one of the most aesthetically impressive  and glorious of structures, it would make history, becoming the first 'octagonal' dome to be built without a temporary wooden supporting frame, a feat many believed impossible. Years after its completion, Florentines often worried over its collapse, having little faith in the innovation that took place in their city. Brunelleschi was granted the honor to be buried in the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore with a marble bust, reputed to be carved from life, and placed in perpetual memory with a fitting epitaph, "Both the magnificent dome of this famous church and many other devices invented by Filippo the architect, bear witness to his superb skill. Therefore, in tribute to his exceptional talents, a grateful country that will always remember buries him here in the soil below."

By the time of his death in 1464, it is believed that Cosimo invested near to 600,000 gold florins in the support of scholarly learning, architecture, and other arts. As it is known that the fortune left to him by his father only equaled approximately 180,000 florins, this number is staggering, clear evidence of the man's ability not only to make money, but to spend it wisely.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Cosimo de Medici, the Elder:
The Women in his Life

Like most powerful men, men for whom a single word can send others jumping to do his bidding, no matter how trivial, no matter how significant, Cosimo de Medici exuded a dynamism that belied his not-quite-handsome countenance. These men throughout history, to the present, have surrounded themselves with beautiful women, few exhibiting the willpower to restrain themselves, to contain their sexual encounters to their wives only. For Cosimo, however, there were few women, in fact, only two.

Born in Florence in 1391 to Alessandro de Bardi, Contessina de Bardi was blessed with delicate beauty. At the time of her birth, and for much of her childhood, her family had been the wealthiest in all of Florence, amassing their fortune as the leading bankers of Europe, the Compagnia dei Bardi. Unfortunately, when in 1345, King Edward III of England defaulted on his loan with them--a loan of 900,000 gold florins--the family was plunged into bankruptcy. In an age where family-matched marriages were made to either further the family's postion or wealth, the merging of the Bardi and Medici families seemed tailor made. For all the wealth and power the Medicis had accumulated, there was one thing lacking...nobility. Though Contessina came to Cosimo with little in the way of a dowry, she instead  brought to him that elusive quality...aristocracy.

The nobility of the Bardi family can be documented to 1164, when Emperor Friedrich Barbosa bestowed upon the family via the first Count, Alberto, the county of Vernio along with the right to confer the noble title on his descendents. Regardless of their bank's failure, the Bardi's continued as a family of influence in Florence and to enjoy their status of nobility. Family members further distinguished themselves in the Crusades, more obtaining knighthood, and as ambassadors to the Vatican. It was, therefore, the perfect melding of wealth and gentry when, in 1414, Contessina de Bardi married Cosimo de Medici.

As the wife of one of the most powerful men in Florence, perhaps throughout the Italian states, Contessina distinguished herself as a mother, a fine manager of their household, and as one cautious with money. Contessina and Cosimo's marriage lasted for forty-nine years, ending only at Cosimo's death in 1463. By that time, Contessina had become a loving grandmother and remained with her son and his family until her death ten years later. There was very little to have come between Cosimo and his for Maddalena.

Though little facts and no images remain of Cosimo's mistress, two theories abound. Based on the features of
their one offspring, Carlo, depicted here in a portrait by Andrea Mantegna, one theory postulates that Maddalena was an African slave-woman, more than likely purchased in Venice. But, in this same portrait, one can see 'intense blue eyes' and in a portrait by Filippo Lippi, Carlo is rendered with typical Italian skin pigmentation. Such details give sway to a second theory, that Maddalena was a Circassin, a Northern Caucasian ethnic group misplaced by the Russian conquest of Caucasus. Carlo was given the benefit of an education worthy of a Medici, illegitimacy aside, and became an Italian priest who would served as a senior clergyman.

Though inappropriate to modern sensibilities, it would appear that in his dealings with the two women in his life, Cosimo upheld his code of honor and respectability, a code that would reign through his lineage for centuries to come.