Saturday, 31 August 2013

The coolest man of the Renaissance

So here's a guy who inherits 179,000 florins and is the richest guy in Florence. By the time he dies, he makes 600,000 florins, of which he leaves 200,000 to his son - the rest he spends on making his city better.
Here's a guy who gets arrested because of the machinations of a rival family and escapes a death sentence by bribing his judge into exiling him. He goes away and then returns a year later and kicks out the Albizzis and the Strozzis, the two families that had joined up to get rid of him.
Here's a guy who - well - if not the founder - was one of the men who laid the foundations for a dynasty which produced four popes, two queens and any number of grand dukes.
And here's a guy - who was not the father of the renaissance(that honour goes to book maniac Petrarch) - but whom Durant calls its midwife - though personally, I think "Godfather" of the renaissance works better.
The guy, boys and girls, is Cosimo De Medici. Cosimo il Vecchio. Cosimo Pater Patriae.
Meet the coolest guy of the Renaissance.
Cosimo's dad, Giovanni Di Bicci de Medici was no slouch himself. The richest man in Florence, he endeared himself to the poor by supporting an annual income tax  which really pissed off the rich, who, up till that time were taxed at the same rate as the poor.
Giovanni Di Bicci popped in 1428, "bequeathing to his son Cosimo a good name and the largest fortune in Tuscany - 179,221 florins." (Durant values the florin at $25. the book was written in 1952-53 and according to, that would make a 1952 dollar worth 8.66 of todays dollars, setting Giovanni Di Bicci's fortune at $ 38.8 million).
Cosimo took over at the age of 39 - not exactly an impetuous youth. The De Medici businesses were already global. "They were not confined to banking; they included the management of extensive farms, the manufacture of silk and woolen goods, a varied trade that bound Russia and Spain, Scotland and Syria, Islam and Christendom. Cosimo, while building churches in Florence, saw no sin in making trade agreements, and exchanging costly presents, with Turkish sultans. The firm made a specialty of importing from the East articles of little bulk and great value, like spices, almonds and sugar, and sold these and other products at various European ports," writes Durant.
Cosimo handled his business with unostentatious skill. He also found time to dabble in politics.  As a leading member of the Dieci, the Florentine council of 10, he directed Florence to a victory against Lucca[1].
Cosimo's popularity with the masses came with its usual share of enemies. One of the Medici's rival families, resented Cosimo's successes. The Albizzis also dominated the parlamento and asked for the arrest of Cosimo - on charges that he was planning to overthrow the Republic. An unpopular idea - but Rinaldo Degli Albizzi was sure he could push it through. One noble they tried to convince, Nicolo Di Uzzano responded:" The justice of our cause is wholly founded upon our suspicion that Cosimo designs to make himself prince of the city. And although we entertain this suspicion and suppose it to be correct, others have it not; but what is worse, they charge us with the very design of which we accuse him. Those actions of Cosimo which lead us to suspect him are, that he lends money indiscriminately, and not to private persons only, but to the public; and not to Florentines only, but to the condottieri, the soldiers of fortune. Besides, he assists any citizen who requires magisterial aid; and, by the universal interest he possesses in the city, raises first one friend and then another to higher grades of honor. Therefore, to adduce our reasons for expelling him, would be to say that he is kind, generous, liberal, and beloved by all. Now tell me, what law is there which forbids, disapproves, or condemns men for being pious, liberal, and benevolent? And though they are all modes adopted by those who aim at sovereignty, they are not believed to be such, nor have we sufficient power to make them to be so esteemed; for our conduct has robbed us of confidence, and the city, naturally partial and (having always lived in faction) corrupt, cannot lend its attention to such charges. But even if we were successful in an attempt to expel him (which might easily happen under a favorable Signory), how could we (being surrounded by his innumerable friends, who would constantly reproach us, and ardently desire to see him again in the city) prevent his return? It would be impossible for they being so numerous, and having the good will of all upon their side, we should never be secure from them. And as many of his first discovered friends as you might expel, so many enemies would you make, so that in a short time he would return, and the result would be simply this, that we had driven him out a good man and he had returned to us a bad one." Still, Rinaldo persisted and was able to muster enough support to ask for Cosimo's imprisonment.
Cosimo surrendered himself. Everyone thought he was a moron, and the death sentence was inevitable. The Albizzis would make sure of it. But Cosimo was as cool as Tyrion Lannister and somehow, between imprisonment and sentence, Bernardo Guadagni, the gonfaloniere (standard bearer, equivalent to the city's judge) found himself richer by 1,000 ducats (a little over $ 100,000), and discovered mercy, exiling Cosimo instead of having him executed. He went to Venice, where his open handedness soon had the Venetian government lobbying for his return. Sure enough, in 1434, one year after his banishment, Cosimo is back in Florence.
After his return, Cosimo briefly served in the government of Florence, but soon gave up all official positions. He didn't need to stay in power to get his stuff done, everybody in power was a friend, or someone he had helped on the way. "To be elected to office is often prejudicial to the body and hurtful to the soul," he would say.
Cosimo used his money well. He gave loans to influential families to get their support. His gifts to the clergy made them Medici fanboys. And the loads of money he spent on the city had won him admirers among the citizens. "The Florentines had observed that the constitution of the Republic did not protect them from the aristocracy of wealth; the defeat of the Ciompi had burned this lesson into public memory. If the populace had to choose between the Albizzi, who favoured the rich, and the Medici, who favoured the middle classes and the poor, it could not long hesitate," writes Durant.
Cosimo was discreet and subtle, but wasn't exactly Gandhi. "Cities are not ruled by paternosters," he would say. People who opposed him hit the road fast, like the Albizzis, and sometimes with a heavy splat, like Baldaccio D'Anghiari. He replaced the fixed income tax with a sliding scale of levies which essentially drove his enemies out of the city. "Cosimo accepted their departure with equanimity, remarking that new aristocrats could be made with a few yards of scarlet cloth"
Cosimo understood the importance of stability, having personally experienced the problems caused by the Lucca war. It was not moral - unlike today, back then, war was bad for business. And Cosimo - and the other Florentines - were businessmen, more than anything else. So when Milan seemed to be destined for chaos after the fall of the Visconti in 1447, he made sure that it did not happen, by financing Francesco Sforza2, allowing him to take over as Duke of Milan. When the Bentivogli, the rulers of Bologna, seemed to be in danger of dying out, he found an illegitimate son of Ercole Bentivoglio, who was at that time an apprentice wool carder in Florence, and sent him to Bologna. Sante Bentivoglio never forgot Cosimo's kindness, and turned out to be one of the better rulers of Bologna. Sante later married into the Sforza family, tying Bologna with Milan and Florence against the other city states.
When Venice and Naples decided to band together to fuck with his city, Cosimo started calling in the loans he and his bank had made to various prominent Venetians and Neapolitans. Needless to say, the Venice+Naples plan got nowhere. [4]. And while Wikipedia attributes the Balance of Power policy to Sforza and Lorenzo De Medici, it is quite obvious that Cosimo was the real master of that game.

//OK, this post has gone on too long, but I will post a follow up, in the hope that someone is reading :)

1. OK, It wasn't a victory over Lucca, but Cosimo's conduct during the war that endeared him to the plebs and scared the nobles.
2.More on Milan later.
3.Yeah, yeah - the word Machiavellian gets thrown about a lot when talking about the Patrician, but there's a whole deal about Machiavelli that remains to be discussed. And while Nick's role model was supposed to be Cesare Borgia, it seems inconceivable that he was not aware of Cosimo's reputation.
4. The more I read about Cosimo, the more I'm convinced that Terry Pratchett modeled Lord Vetinari3 partly on him. There's a scene in Feet of Clay, describing Ankh Morpork's foreign policy - summed up as  "If you fight, we'll call in your mortgages. And incidentally that's my pike you're pointing at me. I paid for that shield you're holding. And take my helmet off when you speak to me, you horrible little debtor." Cosimo also hated actors and mimes, much like Vetinari, who had them thrown into scorpion pits. Cosimo dressed very simply, in the traditional red robes of the citizen and lived simply as well. People used to be shocked at the austerity of his private life, when compared to the feasts he threw as a public citizen.
And look - I was right! From an interview with Pratchett here
"On the other hand, a gag that no-one's ever said they've got is the Patrician's name, Lord Vetinari. I always think of the Patrician as a vaguely Florentine prince, a sort of Machiavelli and Robespierre rolled into one. And of course there was Medici. So I thought if you had the Medici then you would have the Dentistri and the Vetinari. The Discworld is full of things which don't look like gags but are gags if only you can work out what the intervening step is which I haven't given. "