Was Florence truly a Republic?

Morgan has defined for us the meaning of a Republic. Jeannette has told us about the powerful families of this period. Now we are going to examine the works that came out of this period in order to determine for ourselves whether Florence was indeed a Republic.

Many works of art as well as buildings, such as churches, chapels and palaces, were commissioned by the powerful families of the era. Seven years after Cosimo’s death, his grandson Lorenzo stated that the Medici had spent over 600,000 florins for public purposes since 1434. What was the motive behind such generosity? It is my belief that these works of art and civic works such as churches were commissioned by these families in an effort to publicize their wealth and status.

The Old Sacristy:

Giovanni di Bicci, father of Cosimo, along with other families undertook the reconstruction of the church of San Lorenzo in 1418. The contribution of the Medici far exceeded the contributions of even the wealthiest family, the Strozzi. Most of the decoration for the Old Sacristy owes its patronage to Cosimo and his brother Lorenzo not to be confused with Lorenzo the Magnificent. The sons appear in the guise of their patron saints, St Cosmas and Lawrence in the large stucco reliefs over the small doors on either side of the altar wall. (Lft St. Lawrence and Stephan, Rght St. Cosmas and Damian)

Cosimo continued with the construction of San Lorenzo after his father’s death. In doing so, he assumed property rights over the main altar area and he stipulated that no family crest other than the Medici appear in the church. His assumption of the building costs effectively transformed San Lorenzo into a Medici structure.

San Marco Altarpiece:

There is a dynastic “subtext” in the imagery in the San Marco Altarpiece. It’s patron, Cosimo, appears in the guise of St. Cosmas kneeling in the traditional position of the donor in the left foreground of the painting. John the Evangelist, standing second from the left represents Giovanni di Bicci, Cosimo’s father; and St. Lawrence, at the far left is Cosimo’s brother, Lorenzo. The red balls on a gold ground is the Medici family crest which appear along the border of the rug at the bottom of the altarpiece. The red and white floral garlands hanging at the top of the painting, represent the colors of the city of Florence, uniting Medici and civic imagery.

By taking control of the main altar of San Lorenzo and San Marco, Cosimo enhanced his presence in the city. The Medici crest was also found on the exterior of many monastic buildings and served as a public reminder of the family’s power as well as their generosity.

Medici Palace on Via Cavour: Palazzo Riccardi

This palace was built for Cosimo Medici. From the video clip of the Medici’s we saw a week ago, Cosimo is supposedly an old-fashioned merchant with simple tastes. However, if you actually look at the Palace he constructed for his family you would think otherwise. For one, the living standard in the Medici palace was more luxurious than any of Cosimo’s ancestors.

The expenditure for such décor was designed to provide an impressive setting for prominent guests, such as the German emperor Frederick III and the Byzantine emperor John Paleologue. This was to create an image of Medici (and Florentine) wealth and taste. Cosimo erected a vast palace which symbolized both his power and his separation from his fellow-citizens.

An excerpt from Richard Goldthwaite, Wealth and the Demand of Art in Italy 1300-1600. Palaces were obviously family, not just individual, monuments. They were usually build in the neighborhood where the family had deep roots, and their builders probably viewed them as a symbol of family traditions and a focus for the loyalties of the wider family collectivity. They also looked to the future, for they were built to accommodate the dynasty that derived from the builder and to give it a prominent physical presence.

For the building of the Medici Palace, “Cosimo had hired and dismissed Brunelleschi’s model as far too grand. Yet the palace that Cosimo built was far more splendid than any in the city…” this led many to speculate that perhaps the placement for the palace in Brunelleschi’s plan was what disagreed with Cosimo. Brunelleschi’s project placed the palace opposite the church of San Lorenzo. “This juxtaposition of both church and palace is a well-known architectural iconography of authority, typically seen in the juxtapositions of bishop’s palaces and cathedrals” Message too blatant for Cosimo ? Was he merely an ordinary citizen of the republic? De facto control over the state?

Notice the use of extremely heavy rusticated masonry on the ground story, this gives the building a fortress-like aspect. This and the double lancet windows of the upper stories can only be found at the Palazzo della Signoria, linking the Medici architecturally with the city’s main site of sovereignity. The unrelieved rustication also reminds one of the massive wall around the back of the Forum of Augustus in Rome. Suggestion of rulership?

Another interesting fact: The normal practice of building palaces was to acquire adjacent properties and then enveloping them with a thin facing of stone. Hence, according to the public the building was a coherent structure while beneath the façade, the haphazard arrangements of the buildings still remained. Cosimo deviated from this by destroying whatever pre-existing structures were on the site and building from the foundations up. Symbolically, Medici unity as a family. The Medici surrounded themselves with visual images denoting rulership, Although they maintained that they were ordinary citizens of the republic, the art and civic works produced within the city showed otherwise.

There is a fresco in the private chapel of the Medici Palace where Piero often greeted visiting dignitaries which placed a royal cast to the family while celebrating their civic generosity and religious devotion. How? The fresco, by Benozzo Gozzoli depicts the procession of the Magi to Bethlehem. The two mounted figures behind the young king are Piero de’ Medici, on the white horse, and Piero’s father, Cosimo , on the donkey. The young king is thought to be an idealized version of ten year old Lorenzo (later known as Lorenzo the Magnificent), Piero’s first son. This role as one of the Magi was appropriate for Lorenzo since he had been baptized on Jan 6, the feast of the Magi. Also, the men of the Medici family belonged to the Company of the Magi, a confraternity that processed through the city each year on that feast day.

Here is a Portrait Bust of Piero:

It is one of his earliest commissions. He employed Mino da Fiesole (1429-84) to carve marble portrait busts of himself and his brother Giovanni. Piero’s bust, finished in 1453, marks the first example in marble to recall antique Roman portraits, a model appropriate for a citizen of a republic. The vertical borders of his clothing are carved with Piero’s personal crest of a diamond ring with a ribbon woven through it bearing the word SEMPER, Latin for always. One can speculate that there is a message of Medici permanence ringing from the bust of Piero.

The Renaissance Medal

Augustus Denarius, 19 B.C.

During the Renaissance, medals were commissioned by various rulers and wealthy families as a way of circulating their images in portable and relatively inexpensive form. They were inspired by imperial Roman coins and had a similar design…with a bust-length profile of an emperor on one side and an emblem and inscription on the other. The message conveyed by the emblem tended to function as political propaganda.

A well known Medici commission recorded in 1469 was Donatello’s bronze David. This perplexing piece of work depicts a slim, pre-pubescent boy rather than a powerful man as a classical hero. The statue was placed in the courtyard of the Medici Palace. Of course all were aware that Donatello’s earlier marble statue of David stood in the Palazzo della Signoria as one of the symbols of Florence. David was a metaphor for the city, strong in protecting its freedoms from external threat. Placement of David… appropriated civic imagery for the Medici…placement in private context.

David was supposed to symbolize Lorenzo, a youthful hero growing into a wise ruler. The reason for placing the statue in the courtyard of the Medici palace during the marriage festivities of 1469 was to have his future wife look down at him from above…just as David’s wife had done during their marriage ceremony. According to tradtion, the women were supposed to look down into the courtyard from their seated places on the second floor.

Donatello's bronze statue of Judith and Holofernes . As a woman who saved the Jewish nation from foreign domination by slaying the Assyrian general Holofernes, Judith is a counterpart of David. Also a civic icon. Intended as a fountain sculpture in a small garden within the palace complex. The sculpture could be interpreted simply as virtue overcoming vice; however, there is a political meaning implied by the inscription that Piero originally placed on the statue: "Piero, son of Cosimo, has dedicated the statue of this woman to that liberty and fortitude bestowed on the republic by the invincible and constant spirit of the citizens."

Hence, let us return to the original question. Was Florence truly a republic?

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