The Santa Maria Basilica facade resembles something out of the Arabian Nights. It is one of the most recognisable and authentic of the great basilicas in Florence. The basilica also houses some of the most important works of art in Florentine history. It attempts above all to create a relationship between science and art and in so doing, becomes the essence of Renaissance thought. Like many Renaissance and post Renaissance works in Florence, the Santa Maria Basilica or Basilica di santa Maria Novella was not only a product of intense artistic change, but also a product of one of the most important family cartels in artistic history.
The name Medici is one that is synonymous with gracious buildings and immaculate architecture, as well as large amounts of money. When considering the Medici family, it must borne in mind that not only were they great architects and patrons, but they also had great power within the church. In fact the Medici family had more influence on most aspects of Florentine life, than any other family. They were and remain in history, the Renaissance version of the Rothchilds, Rockerfellers and Getty’s.
This enigmatic family is one whose legacy remains in art history, not because of what they created, but because of what they encouraged. Who were the Medici? In order to better understand how and why the Medici family became so influential, we need to understand where they came from and what their social standing allowed them to achieve. The Medici family is associated with great wealth, but also with some controversy. The Medici family can be traced back to the 12th century and were not seen to be nobility but rather belonged to a line of the patrician class (Van Helden).
By the 13th century the family had acquired great wealth through commerce and banking, something that leant itself to political power. Eventually the Medici family became a strong political force in Florence (Van Helden). This political power led to Salvestro de’Medici moving into high ceremonial office (otherwise known as gonfaliere). Salvestro, in the 14th century led a revolt with the ‘common people’, ultimately culminating in the Medici downfall. It was Giovanni di Bicci de’Medici who restored the family name to its former glory as well as even increasing their political prowess (Van Helden).
Despite this historical discussion, there was of course, a line Medici’s with whom we are specifically concerned. It was Giovanni’s son who bore the children with whom the Renaissance is associated (Van Helden). It was also this family line in which murder would become a central interest. Guiliano and Lorenzo, the grandsons of Cosimo the elder and sons of Piero were killed and wounded respectively during an internal battle (Van Helden). The Medici family crest is recognisable wherever the Medici influence reaches.
Among the distinguished Medici’s are Popes and Grand Dukes, meaning that the family as a whole stretched beyond simply the commercial and financial world. These were the Grand Dukes of Tuscany and to name but a few consisted of Cosimo I, Giovanni and Pietro. The Medici Popes included Clement VII and Leo X (Wikipedia). Indeed, to undertake a more involved discussion will be beyond the scope of this discussion and to this end is far too complicated. However, certain Medici members were of greater influence in the art world than others.
The Legacy of the Medici The legacy of the Medici family is well known and remembered particularly due to their rise from ordinary or patrician’s to nobility. Perhaps most clearly of all, we see them as the creators who planted the seeds of modernity during a Renaissance that proved irrevocable in its changes. In fact the Renaissance as such appears to be “less as the rebirth or revival of a distant and glorious antiquity than as the origin and beginning of the modern world, the prototype of modern European civilisation. ”(Garraty and Gay, 488).
The Renaissance was not merely about the production and emancipation of art, but also about the creation of a modernised medicine, science and finance. The Medici were at the forefront of all three, with the Medici bank cleverly avoiding the fall of the economy following the Black Death (Garraty and Gay, 489). So far, we are able to ascertain that the Medici were a family of great political and economic concern but that the types of Medici also included clergymen, tyrants and nobility. We also know that with the amount of money available to the Medici, patronage was not only acceptable but expected.
The legacy left by the Medici is not only financial and noble, but also available to us for viewing at any time we want. Patronage To be a patron of a specific form of art or indeed, any art, meant that you had great social standing and great wealth. To commission works of art was costly and time consuming, meaning that you were not only able to appreciate it, but that you could also afford ongoing work. Patronage was an important part of Italian Renaissance life, based on the societal norms and values.
To patronise a community or an artist meant that you were not only gracious but also wealthy enough to put money into something that essentially did not create more wealth for you. Was this merely a status symbol or was there more to the practice of patronage than we believe at this stage? First of all, patronage included the embellishment and growth of public buildings and artefacts (Annenberg Media). Art during the Renaissance required the outside and the inside to both resemble works of art in different mediums.
Brunelleschi and Botticelli were two of the best known artists patronised by the Medici and who uphold the proposition of art as an interior and an exterior (Anneberg Media). The Medici remained the forerunners of artistic patronage mainly because of their love of the extravagant and larger than life lifestyles (Harness). I can thus, given their humble beginnings, understand why the Medici might want to share their wealth with the rest of the world by virtue of creating beautiful surroundings that the public could also enjoy.
Although this may be difficult to assimilate given the previous feudal system, it is perhaps relevant to note that the Black Death incited what is known today as philanthropy. Philanthropists generally enjoy alleviating pain and suffering through the aid that they are able to meter out to their fellow humans. Prior to the Renaissance, this was perhaps not a common occurrence, but like AIDS today, the Black Death knew no boundaries. It affected whoever, wherever. For this reason, perhaps it became more necessary to attend to the needs of other people.
It was also important to the merchant community of Florence, to spread the education of art, science and mathematics (Harness). Hence the saying that knowledge is power comes to mind. It is also notable, that a patron becomes more politically popular if they uphold the growth of knowledge for their minions as well as providing an income for those who would largely find their career difficult to pursue. The purpose of this civic duty became, although not perhaps initially intended to, a political tool to provide trust between the civil servant and the government (Trexler, 27).
In a sense, it was meant to bridge the gap of inequality but was not altogether successful, creating a great deal of stress for the patron (Trexler, 28). “This sub-governmental system was the patronage network, the everyday lines of communication regulating social relations. In this network, as in formal government, men styled themselves each other’s true amici, and despised “the love of the merchant: You help me, and I’ll help you. ””(Trexler, 27-28). The Medici Crest Above on Figure 1 is a basic picture of the Medici family crest.
It shows six balls of red placed in an oval shape upon a mustard yellow background. The Medici “balls” as they became sarcastically known as were not only a feature emblazoned on all Medici buildings, but also one that became known for its overt publicity. Rivals of the Medici were outraged at the Medici blazon being so clearly visible to the public and thought it to be in rather bad taste (Fillipo). Despite this, the blazon’s origin is surrounded by much debate although it is clearly visible on all Medici buildings.
One thought on the origin is that the balls represent either coins (merchant origins) or pills (medical origins) based on the Medici practices and occupations. Some believe that rather than it being swathed in apothecary history, it is the sign of Arte del Cambio, a guild of moneychangers and exchangers (Fillipo). Nonetheless, this blazon has become well known as the essential historical beginnings of the merchant bank. Below is an example of how the Medici blazon is used on buildings that were built on Medici money. The Medici Artists Artists who were patronised by the Medici included the aforementioned Sandro Botticelli and Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, Donatello, Fillipino Lippi, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Brunelleschi. These all make up some of the greatest names in Florentine art history. It pays to note that all of the above artists were great names and we need to not how much of this greatness might have been due to the presence of the Medici. Fillipo Brunelleschi Fillipo Brunelleschi had a love-hate relationship with Cosimo de’Medici, despite completing many works with the man.
Brunelleschi, along with artist Ghiberti vied for the artistic attentions of Cosimo, but did not always win the bids. He created for Cosimo, the Santa Maria Novella sculpture, the Crucifix and the Santa Maria del Fiore cupola alongside arch-rival Ghiberti. His bid for the design of the Pallazzo was overturned in favour of his pupil Michelozzo (Provincia di Firenze). Allesandro Botticelli Botticelli served as an apprentice to a goldsmith and is thought to have become the closest of all artists to the Medici (Pottinger, 118).
Botticelli is famed as having painted the interior of the Santa Maria Novella with a fresco of the Adoration of the Magi, in which he painted three Medici’s as the Kings: Cosimo, Guiliano and Giovanni (Pottinger, 118). However, his relationship with the Medici was not with Cosimo, but with Lorenzo, a member of a different branch of the Medici (Pottinger, 118). Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci Leonardo Da Vinci was supported by Lorenzo in his early career, although it is largely agreed that Medici neglected the talents of the young Da Vinci (Pottinger, 119).
Michelangelo, similarly fell under the patronage of Medici, given his tutorship with another Medici artist Ghirlandaio (Pottinger, 119). Medici therefore did support the earlier careers of the two geniuses that would become the greatest artists of the later Renaissance period. Domenico Ghirlandaio Ghirlandaio is best known as the first of Michelangelo’s esteemed teachers. He also became known, like Botticelli, for his reverence towards Lorenzo. This was seen in his subjects’ likenesses to the man who patronised him (Pottinger, 117). The Refectory of the Ognissanti shows a fresco of the Last Supper with such likenesses present.
The Sassetti Chapel at Santa Trinita also reveals this portraiture although his painting remains in the earlier style of Renaissance painting. Ghirlandaio did not enjoy painting women and found the male form far more intriguing. This is seen in the Santa Maria Novella choir paintings of the Tornabuani family, where the female features, though still beautiful, are considered lifeless (Pottinger, 117). Fillipino Lippi Lippi was one of Botticelli’s proteges and shows the style of Botticelli very well. Working primarily for Cosimo, Lippi landed himself in a number of problems due to his insatiable appetite for the gentler sex.
In fact, working for Cosimo meant that commissions had to be done under the watchful eye of the Medici to prevent his romantic pursuits that led to melancholic intervals where he refused to leave his room (Life of an Artist). Donato di Niccolo di Betto Bardi (Donatello) Donatello was a close friend of Cosimo de’Medici and for this reason he was assigned the painting of the frieze in the Palazzo Medici (Pottinger, 132). He recreated the antique cameo’s to provide a divine and luscious frieze and roundels (Pottinger, 132).
He apprenticed under Ghiberti, another famous and interactive artist in the Italian Renaissance. Donatello sculpted the figure of the dead pirate Baldassare Cossa in bronze, for Cosimo (Devillier Donegan). What we have in the above discussion, is a list of some of the finest artists not only of the Renaissance, but of all time. The pertinence of this is the reach that the Medici had as the proponents of fine art. The abovementioned artists are all quite different both in character and in style, but all contributed to some of the most famous and revered works in history.
It is notable that the Medici are credited with finding and upholding this classicism as well as reaching for a new and modernised world. The artists also all contributed to the arts in different ways: sculptors, painters, inventors and architects. Medici Buildings Touring Florence, I became irrevocably aware of the influence of the Medici on architecture and art of that period. What is most fascinating is the length and breadth of the ability of the Medici to make them memorable and also to make art something of great value. The crest of the Medici is visible all around Florence, in churches, libraries and museums.
The Medici performed the same tasks as other great personalities such as Peter the Great of Russia and the Athens of Pericles. It was this influence that I noticed beyond all, that this family had the ability and the motivation to create a Florence that would last it must be said, longer than the previously mentioned empires. Not only have they succeeded in producing the future and the past in one capsule, but they have also managed to preserve their legacy. We have a lot to be grateful for in terms of being able to make contact with our past through the works that the Medici sponsored.