Florence has long been synonymous with the Renaissance as the fabled “cradle of humanism”
to which the patron Medici dynasty served as nursemaid. The city’s influence on Italy and Europe was inestimable as a centre
for culture and the arts, and as one of the richest banking houses in the world. Even in the latter half of the sixteenth century,
(Derivative) Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons after her glory had faded along with that of the Medici, Florence had a pivotal role in the emergence of the nuove musiche.
Geographically and politically, Florence’s position on the Tuscan plateau was precarious. Pisa and Lucca lay across her access
to the sea, and Siena controlled the route southward to Rome. To the north were Modena and belligerent Milan, and at her back she
was hemmed in by the Papal States. Nevertheless, the city managed to prosper in textiles and in banking. From the ranks of
numerous merchant guilds, members of the ruling Signory levied taxes and guided citizens in a tradition of civic virtue and
classical idealism. The Medici family emerged as the dominating force in the Signory particularly after the death of Maso degli
Cosimo de’ Medici “il Vecchio”
Wikimedia Commons Albizzi in 1417. When the Albizzi failed in a conspiracy to obtain the death penalty or permanent exile for Cosimo de’ Medici il Vecchio (“the elder”) in 1433, the Medici grip on the city tightened even further.
Cosimo’s mantle of artistic patronage passed through his son Piero I, who was little interested in either art or politics,
to his grandson Lorenzo il Magnifico (“the magnificent one”). Together, Cosimo and Lorenzo
brought Florence to its primacy as arbiter of the Renaissance. The names of those whom they encouraged and patronized read like a
Lorenzo de’ Medici
Wikimedia Commons textbook list of period giants: Brunelleschi, Buonarotti, Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli, Michelangelo.
Lorenzo survived his own assassination attempt — a dramatic story of conspiracy among the Pazzi family and the Pope
that took place in the cathedral during mass, the elevation of the host serving as the signal to strike. He took even more
control of Florence in the aftermath, but in his later years neglected his banking business, ultimately bringing about its ruin.
His final years were haunted by economic decline as the cloth trade shifted to Britain and the Low Countries, and by the hysteria
Wikimedia Commons whipped up by Savonarola’s rabid puritanism. Lorenzo died in 1492, and two years later, his incompetent son Piero II was expelled along with the rest of Medici clan. A grisly religious republic, harsher even than Cromwell’s Commonwealth, came to an end in 1498, when Florence’s citizens turned on Savonarola. He was tortured until he recanted, then burned alive.
On their return in 1512, the Medici family was able to regain its power, despite further popular revolts and temporary banishments. In defeating Siena, Cosimo I de’ Medici founded the duchy of Tuscany and ended the Florentine republic. When he died in 1574, he was succeeded by his son Ferdinando, who continued Medici ostentation and pageantry, but the glory days launched by Cosimo il Vecchio and his father Giovanni were long over.