The most distinguishing idea that clearly separates the Renaissance from the Middle Ages is that of Humanism. The popular belief of that time was that the humanists of the Renaissance era had rediscovered the Latin and Greek texts, hence the concept of “rebirth” or “renaissance” of the Classical world, and as it further goes, humanists created the European Renaissance and paved the way for a modern, secular world.
Humanism (the belief that humans are rational being) is a philosophical and ethical stance that emphasizes the value and agency of human beings, individually and collectively, which focused on experience and empiricism in their day to day approach, rather than just fideism. This stems from the movement which originated with the study of classical culture and a group of subjects (grammar, logic, rhetoric, history, poetry, moral philosophy, ancient Greek, Latin studies, et cetra) which are collectively known as “Studia Humanitatis” or the Study of Humanities. The Father of Humanism, Francesco Petrarca (commonly known as Petrarch), said to have been born in 1304 near Florence, was the great poet, philosopher thinker under whom the renaissance spirit took form. Historian state that April 6, 1341-the date on which Petrarch was crowned Poet Laureate upon the Capitol in Rome, as the true beginning of the Renaissance. Petrarch was torn between two worlds, on one side was the world of antiquity and on the other was the new experimental age, a world of true eloquence and ethical wisdom which was lost in the middle ages. Through his writings he tried to provoke and resurrect the “true” Christian values, he was greatly inspired by the writings of Virgil and Cicero.
Renaissance humanism was applied to all aspects possible of life, from art and literature to even architecture, and to politics. After Petrarch, humanism philosophy spread first through Italy and then the rest of Europe. The structure of Renaissance was different in Northern and Southern Europe because of the difference in their history and antiquity. Florence became the hub of humanistic learning in the peak of Renaissance. From here, we take on the Medici family under whom the city-state of Florence flourished be it in Art, Literature, study of Classics and even in Wealth and Politics. Medici family is seen as synonymous to Italian Renaissance. They dominated the Florentine culture for nearly 300 years, even though they were not the official crown rulers of the city-state. The power structure and economy of Florence depended on trade, especially wool, and banking. The families who dominated these sectors were also, largely the power holders in the government of the capital as well. The rise of the Medici is partly explained by their involvement in civic affairs, particularly in the highly influential merchant guild. The fame and prominence enjoyed by the Medici was largely the result of ambitious and industrious predecessors, and the entire Medici lineage were great patrons of art.
The Medici’s came to Florence, Italy from the Tuscan hillside around the 12th Century. Though they were prominent figures in the Signoria (basically, a group of powerful and influential people that formed the oligarchic institution that ran the Florentine republic) and the Florentine merchant guild, of which Ardingo de’ Medici became the prior, or head, in the 1280s. Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici, the first patron of the arts in the family, aided Masaccio and commissioned Brunelleschi for the reconstruction of the Basilica of San Lorenzo, Florence in 1419. He also takes away the credit for introducing the Medici Bank in Florence around 1397. It was through his wealth that he gained power. He never held any political office, but through his manipulations many tax reforms came into practice, this made him popular amongst the Florentine plebeians adding to his political cache. He was the banker to the Papal Court, this also earned him the title of God’s Bankers. After his death in 1429, Giovanni left his son who was well educated in the principles of humanism, as his heir, Cosimo de Medici, along with a reputed legacy for the patronage of arts and an immense fortune. Cosimo took over his family’s banking business at the age of forty and became known as a successful businessman, he built up his father’s fortune and established business connections all over Europe.
If it was Giovanni who made the Medici family rise to fame and popularity, it was Cosimo who turned it into the golden bird that it became famous for, in the 15th century. It was this time that they started turning their wealth into political capital, and became the unofficial, yet indubitable, rulers of Florence. Cosima established business unlike no other, he had a hold over almost all businesses in Florence. He loaned money to people for favours and hence, could call in favours whenever he pleased. It is believed that he functioned like a true Cosa Nostra (mafia). His business skills were explicable, he set up branches of the Medici Bank all over the known world, from Barcelona to Cairo to Bruges. Soon, almost every parish in Europe sent its money to the Medici. The Pope himself opened a huge credit line, giving the Medici the purse strings of the church. Again, money won power, making the House of Medici a ruling dynasty without birthright or title. Cosimo generously supported the arts, commissioning the building of great cathedrals, and commissioning the best artists of the age to decorate them. He demonstrated great support for education, establishing the Platonic Academy for the study of ancient works. It is estimated that before his death in 1464, Cosimo spent approximately 600,000 gold florins supporting architecture, scholarly learning, and other arts. When one considers that the unprecedented fortune left to Cosimo by his father totaled only 180,000 florins, this amount is clearly extraordinary.
Cosimo’s popularity attracted friends and enemies alike, he was exiled by the Albizzi family in 1433. Originally an imprisonment, Cosimo turned it into an exile through his political connections. But, with great support and the power of money he returned within an year and overthrew the Albizzi family, coming back in power. His notable artistic associates were Brunelleschi, Donatello and Fra Angelico. Craftily, Cosimo the Elder continued to fund the arts, earning his city fame and making it into the famous cultural center of Europe, that it came to be known as in the 15th century, and himself the posthumous title, Father of the Fatherland.
Cosimo passed away in 1464, leaving behind his son Piero who ruled for only 5 years, this unpopular phase of the House of Medici was followed by its most popular successor, Cosimo’s grandson and eldest son of Piero I de’ Medici, Lorenzo de’ Medici (Lorenzo the Magnificent). He lived a more refined and sophisticated life as compared to Cosimo, he made Florence reach the heights of economic greatness like never before. The lower class had never felt so comfortable, protected and independent like they did under his administration. Florence became the most important city-state and even the most beautiful amongst all of Europe during his reign, 1469-1492. He funded a public art school, fostered the talent of Michelangelo, supported the brilliance of Da Vinci and flaunted the racy works of Botticelli. This grasping of power through art is blatantly seen in Botticelli’s work, the Adoration of the Magi. In this masterpiece, the artist actually painted members of the Medici family as the kneeling wise men! What could give the appearance of power more so than having a wise Medici kneeling and actually touching the feet of the Holy Child? It was for Lorenzo that Niccolo Machiavelli wrote The Prince, to regain the oligarchic Medici’s trust after he was accused of , and banished for taking part in the Radical (youth) Republican thought.
It is believed that even though the arts flourished and commerce increased, Lorenzo did not pay much attention to his family bank, which saw a decline in its popularity and functioning. That is why in the latter half of his unofficial reign, Lorenzo came under great criticism by the powerful monk Savonarola. This outspoken clergyman condemned Lorenzo for his sinful taste in art, extravagance and his abuse of church power. Without the full force of their former fortune, the Medici line began to weaken. Savonarola had garnered a following since early 1491, when he started preaching the worldliness and paganism of the Renaissance and demanded a return to simple faith. After 2 years of Lorenzo’s death, Savonarola ousted the Medici family and took over. His discerning rule did not last long and the Medici’s came back in power but, could not assume their earlier status and power and neither could Florence attain its earlier glories. Still, the Medici family was the most prominent during the Italian Renaissance because of their generous funding and patronage of the artists of that time who became famous worldwide.