We know all about the de Medici family - one of the most important dynastic families in Europe and in particular concerning the cultural and artistic life of Italy and so of the continent. And yet, as Dale Kent makes clear in her authoritative (and fascinating) account of the family and in particular of the life of Cosimo De'Medici, we actually know less about the family than we think. Kent argues that common ideas - and common misconceptions -- about the De'Medicis reflect not only flawed knowledge about this family in particular but also more general flawed assumptions about their era and about prevailing attitudes of the time towards artistic patronage and indeed towards art.
Kent's book is as much an ethnographic exploration of the culture and society of fifteenth-century Florence as it is about Cosimo de'Medici himself - although in her telling the man and the historical context are in many ways the same. He would not have been the kind of art patron that he was in another age and (likewise) his era was changed because of the particular kind of man that he was: Florence created Cosimo even as Cosimo created Florence.
Kent argues, as this review of the book notes, that rather than being a rapacious political and banker with little true appreciation for the arts, Cosimo de'Medici was an educated and cultured man whose ability to sponsor important artistic projects was based on both his political and economic power and his real appreciation for the humanistic and neoclassical currents of Florentine Renaissance art and architecture:
How was Cosimo, a businessman and politician, able to appreciate and commission Christian and classical works of such sophistication, skill, and variety? While most scholars have focused on the 1450s and early 1460s, Kent looks at the early 1400s, when regular contact with scholars and artists supplied Cosimo's education. He studied under and was intimate with the humanists Niccoli, Bruni, Poggio, and Traversari, and the classizing artists Ghiberti, Brunelleschi, Masaccio, and Donatello. Kent relies mostly on humanist correspondence referring to Cosimo, manuscripts copied for or presented to him, and biographies. She also found a surprising number of documents for the more difficult question of Cosimo's relations with artists. Relying on Albinia De La Mare's study of Cosimo's library, Kent discusses the Christian, classical, and humanist manuscripts that he owned; the dedications to him on manuscripts; and manuscripts ofmoral philosophy and history that he personally annotated (D'Elia 114).
Kent's book is a departure from many other studies of Cosimo de' Medici (as well as of the entire clan) because other scholars have tended to focus on Cosimo de' Medici's political power and his interests as a merchant. But while these elements of his life - his political and financial resources - are certainly a part of the picture that Kent presents, they remain only a part of the picture. And while others have tended to see Cosimo de' Medici's artistic patronage as a type of flamboyance, as a way of both flaunting the wealth that he had accumulated as well as a way of increasing his social position, Kent suggests that there was an different motivation for the man.
It is easy to cast aspersions at the church for being too worldly and too subject to the influence of money, but Kent suggests that there was at least for Cosimo de'Medici an altogether healthy mingling of the sacred and the mundane, as Boland (2000) points out in her review of the book. Cosimo de'Medici helped bridge the gap between the lay and religious worlds by using his worldly fortunes to fund churches, but he also did so by commissioning works like the fresco of the Journey of the Magi from the Medici chapel that is described below:
The chapel frescoes, by Benozzo Gozzoli and completed around 1459, were the culmination of Cosimo's long association with the cult of the Magi. They may be seen as imaging his own spiritual journey as a wealthy and powerful man, who enjoyed great authority in the city, but who in his gifts to the Church made offerings as the Magi did to the Christ child.
On this east fresco, the actual, clearly individuated portraits of the family and their relatives and retainers appear in the cortege following in the train of the young Caspar: Cosimo is in the front rank, mounted on a mule, which could be seen as a symbol of humility, often adopted by abbots and popes, but which family letters record was also an animal members of the de' Medici family rodeon their journeys between Florence and their villas. Cosimo is flanked by his sons Piero, Giovanni and the illegitimate Carlo. The son of Cosimo's Cicassian slave, Carlo is clearly distinguished by his dark skin, and by his exotic features and headdress. Above is the Adoration of the Magi painted around 1440 by Domenico Veneziano, and now in the Staatliche Museum, Berlin. As in the Medici chapel, this representation of the Magi offered an ideal opportunity for the inclusion of portraits of the patron and his friends. In this case the man in black and white at the centre of the group of Magi, standing slightly behind them, as if presenting them to the Holy Family, and to the viewer, portrays Piero de' Medici, the putative patron of the picture. He holds a falcon, his personal emblem and a symbol of the faithful who always return to their heavenly master. In this work the human aspects of the Magi story are emphasised as much as the divine.
This blending of the human and the divine marked Cosimo's work as an art patron as well as much of the culture of Florence at the time and even more broadly much of the early Renaissance church.
While Florence in the early Renaissance was certainly a place of commerce and political intrigue in which attention to social alliances and the ability to spot a good bargain were essential skills for most of those people who would make themselves successful, it was also a place in which the traditional power of the Catholic Church was being invigorated (as much as it was being challenged) by the rising tide of humanistic art and inquiry.
Cosimo de'Medici, like other Florentines of his generation, was both educated and a populist, a man of the world and a man who devout Christian faith guided him through that world, as Edmonds (2000) summarizes in praising Kent's book:
Cosimo de Medici (1389-1464) a man to whom patronage was a way of life, was in every respect a devout man. In his library, in addition to the Christian classics there were bibles, books of hours, Latin editions of the classical texts - including the naughty tales of Ovid without which no educated European male could get along. There were also maps of the world - or at least, as much of it as was known.
Cosimo was certainly no pedant. The list of vernacular books in his possession shows that he read what the majority of literate Florentines read. But when it came to classical writing Cosimo was an enthusiast, annotating lavishly his copies of the writings of the orator Cicero.
Cosimo de' Medici - Kent argues - was a part of both of these elements of Florentine culture. He was a man of the world, active in both politics and commerce. But he was also a man of faith, and his patronage of artists and of art was as much motivated by his faith and his spiritual beliefs as by his desire to solidify the financial, political, and social position of himself and his family. Kent argues throughout his book that Cosimo de' Medici devoted substantial resources to the arts as an expression of his devotion to his religion - as well as his devotion to his city, to beauty itself, and to his family. He was able to do this because in Florence during the Renaissance it was possible to combine all of these aspects of life: Commerce and the church could work together, beauty and friendship were easily joined with each other, and politics ran through everything.
The overall portrait that emerges of Cosimo de' Medici is a man who was far less cynical than the stereotype of his whole family would lead us to believe him to be and the complex pleasures that he derived from patronizing the arts as well as the variety of rewards that he drew from doing so tell us a great deal about both this man and his moment in history.
He is also, in Kent's portrait of him, less autocratic in his choice of artistic patronage than might be popularly believed, for while his own tastes were certainly an important part of the choices that he made of artists and works, he was also influenced by broad popular tastes as well:
In addition to patron and artist, Kent stresses the role of audience in determining artistic commissions. Good schools and…