From Money Changing to Magnificence

Ciao tutti!

SO today I went to an enthralling lecture on the rise of the hated and celebrated Medici family in early Renaissance Italy. The energetic Lisa Kaborycha led the talk, entitled ‘From Money Changing to Magnificence: The Medici in the Fifteenth Century’, as part of the British Institute’s art history programme. You can enrol as an art history student for up to 3 months or, if your an Italian student like me, you can request to go to lectures and visits of your choice! This afternoon, a group of us took our seats in the beautiful Harold Acton Library and were transported into the time of Cosimo il Vecchio (the Elder) of the Medici family; he also bears the modest title pater patriae meaning Father of the Fatherland!

Lisa started with a brief background to Florence’s most powerful and influential family who, contrary to what you may expect, were not the descendants of Charlemagne.

Lisa shared with us a beautiful and comical new layer of meaning to the Medici crest: the Italians refer to the coat of arms as ‘palle!’ with the double meaning of ‘balls’, in the sense of the design, and ‘bollocks!’as the emblem was a product of the Medici’s claimed descent from nobility!

We then progressed to the role of Medici amongst the pioneers of banking and usury. This commenced with Giovanni di Bicci Medici and his relative Vieri di Cambio de’ Medici, with the delightful nickname “Cambiozzo” (the big chunk of change), who began the process of lending money and charging interest. The act of ‘making money with money’ was heavily condemned at the time and was even criticised by Dante as a dirty and sinful act. In order to avoid criticism and attracting the envy and anger of other Florentine elites, Giovanni advised his son Cosimo to keep his head down and not flaunt his wealth when he took over his father’s enterprise. You can see in the painting below Cosimo-the man in the red hat behind the mule- had himself depicted amongst the crowd as a fellow, instead of a leader.

BUT, though he tried to take this nondescript approach, Cosimo was arrested and exiled from Florence in 1433 on accusations of war-mongering; the State borrowed money from Cosimo for war, which he was accused of wanting to prolong in order to increase these loans.

The vast Medici banking empire in the 1400s.

However, there was more to Cosimo than his skilful money manipulation and unethical taxation; he was an academic enthusiast and patron of learning, architecture and the arts. His most famous contributions include the restoration of the Basilica of San Lorenzo and the Convent of San Marco and the construction of Palazzo Medici. In fact, Cosimo contributed 40,000 florins to restore San Lorenzo church; Lisa put this huge figure into perspective by telling us how Brunelleschi, Florence’s most celebrated architect, earned a yearly salary of 100 florins…

Cosimo was also a FRIEND of Donatello who crafted this beautiful bronze statue, David. The piece used to be at Palazzo Medici but can now be viewed at the Bargello.

My favourite fact is that Marsilio Ficino was tutor to Cosimo’s grandsons! Imagine, the first man to translate all of Plato’s work into Latin is your private teacher… AMAZING!

Well, I hope I’ve taught you a little or refreshed your memory of the Medici clan. I’m sure there will many a Medici post during my time here in Florence!


Mills X

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