Florence is the city at the center of the Italian Renaissance. It is home to some of the great rulers, artists and writers of the period. Knowing this information forces the historian to ask why this particular place was so unique as to produce such repeated greatness. Using the sources below please try and address this question of the unique conditions in Florence.
The Political Life of Florence: The Rule of Cosimo d'Medici
Cosimo di Giovanni de Medici was of most honourable descent, a very prominent citizen and one of great weight in the republic…
He had a knowledge of Latin which would scarcely have been looked for in one occupying the station of a leading citizen engrossed with affairs. He was grave in temperament, prone to associate with men of high station who disliked frivolity, and averse from all buffoons and actors and those who spent time unprofitably. He had a great liking for men of letters and sought their society. . . . His natural bent was to discuss matters of importance; and, although at this time the city was full of men of distinction, his worth was recognized on account of his praiseworthy qualities, and he began to find employment in affairs of every kind. By his twenty-fifth year he had gained great reputation in the city. . . . Cosimo and his party took every step to strengthen their own position. . . . Cosimo found that he must be careful to keep their support by temporising and making believe that [they would] enjoy power equal to his own. Meantime he kept concealed the source of his influence in , the city as well as he could. . . .
I once heard Cosimo say that the great mistake of his life was that he did not begin to spend his wealth ten years earlier; because, knowing well the disposition of his fellow-citizens, he was sure that, in the lapse of fifty years, no memory would remain of his personality or of his house save the few fabrics he might have built. He went on, "1 know that after my death my children will be in worse case than those of any other Florentine who has died for many years past; moreover, 1 know 1 shall not wear the crown of laurel more than any other citizen." He spoke thus because he knew the difficulty of ruling a state as he had ruled Florence, through the opposition of influential citizens who rated themselves his equals in former times. He acted privately with the greatest discretion in order to safeguard himself, and whenever he sought to attain an object he contrived to let it appear that the matter had been set in motion by some one other than himself and thus he escaped envy and unpopularity. His manner was admirable; he never spoke ill of anyone, and it angered him greatly to hear slander spoken by others. He was kind and patient to all who sought speech with him: he was more a man of deeds than of words: he always performed what he promised, and when this had been done he sent to let the petitioner know that his wishes had been granted. His replies were brief and sometimes obscure, so that they might be made, to bear a double sense. . . .
So great was his knowledge of all things, that he could find some matter of discussion with men of all sorts, he would talk literature with a man of letters and theology with a theologian, being well versed therein through his natural liking, and for the reading of the Holy Scripture. With philosophy it was just the same. . . . He took kindly notice of all musicians, and delighted greatly in their art. He had dealings with painters and sculptors and had in his house works of diverse masters. He was especially inclined towards sculpture and showed great favor to all worthy craftsmen, being a good friend to Donatello and all sculptors and painters; and because in his time the sculptors found scanty employment, Cosimo, in order that Donatello's chisel might not be idle, commissioned him to make the pulpits of bronze in St. Lorenzo arid the doors of the sacristy. He ordered the bank to pay every week enough money to Donatello for his work and for that of his four assistants. . . . He had a good knowledge of architecture, as may be seen from the buildings he left, none of which were built without consulting him; moreover, all those who were about to build would go to him for advice.
History of Florence: Lorenzo de' Medici
Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527)
After the successful termination of the war of Serezana, the Florentines lived in prosperous tranquillity until the death of Lorenzo de' Medici in 1492; for after having established peace by his good judgment and authority, Lorenzo devoted his attention to the aggrandisement of the city and of his own family. He married his eldest son Piero to Alfonsina, daughter of the Cavaliere Orsini, and had his second son promoted to the dignity of cardinal, which was the more remarkable as it was unprecedented, the youth having hardly completed his thirteenth year. This was in fact a ladder by means of which his house was enabled to mount to heaven itself, as indeed it happened in the course of time. He could not provide equally good fortune for his third son, as he was still too young when Lorenzo died. Of his daughters, one was married to Jacopo Salviati, another to Francesco Cibo, and a third to Piero Ridolfi; but the fourth, who, by way of keeping the family united, had been married to Giovanni de' Medici, her cousin, died. In his commercial affairs, however, Lorenzo was very unfortunate; for through the irregularity of his agents, who managed his affairs, not like those of a private individual, but of a prince, the greater part of his private fortune was consumed; so that he was obliged to call upon his country to aid him with large sums of money. In consequence of this he gave up all commercial operations, and turned his attention to landed property, as being a more safe and solid wealth. He acquired large possessions in the districts of Prato and Pisa, and in the Val di Pesa, and erected upon them useful and elegant buildings, not like a private citizen, but with truly royal magnificence. After that he directed his attention to extending and embellishing the city of Florence, in which there was still much vacant land. Here he had new streets laid out and built up with houses, whereby the city was greatly enlarged and beautified. And to secure greater quiet and security within the state, and to be able to resist and combat its enemies at a greater distance from the city, he fortified the castle of Firenzuola, in the mountains towards Bologna; in the direction of Siena he began the restoration of the Poggio Imperiale, which he fortified in the most complete manner. Towards Genoa he closed the road to the enemy by the acquisition of Pietrasanta and Serezana. Besides this, he maintained his friends the Baglioni in Perugia with subsidies and pensions, and the same with the Vitelli in Citta di Castello; and in Faenza he kept a special governor; all of which measures served as strong bulwarks to the city of Florence.
In peaceful times he often entertained the people with various festivities, such as jousts, feats of arms, and representations of triumphs of olden times. He aimed to maintain abundance in the city, to keep the people united and the nobility honoured. He had the greatest love and admiration for all who excelled in any art, and was a great patron of learning and of literary men, of which his conduct towards Cristofano Landini and Messer Demetrius the Greek furnishes the strongest proof. For this reason the Count Giovanni della Mirandola, a man of almost supernatural genius, was attracted by the magnificence of Lorenzo, and preferred to establish his home in Florence rather than in any other part of Europe, all of which he had visited in his travels. Lorenzo took the greatest delight in architecture, music and poetry; and many of his own poetic compositions, enriched with commentaries, appeared in print. And for the purpose of enabling the Florentine youths to devote themselves to the study of letters, he established a university in the city of Pisa, where he employed the most eminent men of all Italy as professors. He built a monastery for Fra Mariano da Chianozzona, of the order of St Augustine, who was a most admirable pulpit orator. And thus, beloved of God and fortune, all his enterprises were crowned with success, whilst those of his enemies had the opposite fate. For besides the conspiracy of the Pazzi, Battista Frescobaldi also attempted his assassination in the church of the Carmine; and Baldinatto of Pistoia tried the same at his villa. Each of these, together with their accomplices, suffered the most just punishment for their nefarious attempts.
Thus Lorenzo's mode of life, his ability and good fortune, were recognised with admiration, and highly esteemed, not only by all the princes of Italy, but also by those at a great distance. Matthias, King of Hungary, gave him many proofs of his affection; the Sultan of Egypt sent ambassadors to him with precious gifts; and the Grand Turk gave up to him Bernardo Bandini, the murderer of his brother. These proofs of regard from foreign sovereigns caused Lorenzo to be looked upon with the greatest admiration by all Italy; and his reputation was daily increased by his rare ability, for he was eloquent and subtle in speech, wise in his resolves, and bold and prompt in their execution. Nor can he be charged with any vices that would stain his many virtues, though very fond of women, and delighting in the society of witty and sarcastic men, and even taking pleasure in puerile amusements – more so than would seem becoming to so great a man, so that he was often seen taking part in the childish sports of his sons and daughters. Considering, then, his fondness for pleasure, and at the same time his grave character, there seemed as it were united in him two almost incompatible natures. During his latter years he was greatly afflicted with sufferings from his malady, the gout, and oppressed with intolerable pains in his stomach, which increased to that degree that he died in the month of April, 1492, in the forty-fourth year of his age. Neither Florence nor all Italy ever lost a man of higher reputation for prudence and ability, or whose loss was more deplored by his country, than Lorenzo de' Medici. And as his death was to be followed by the most ruinous consequences, Heaven gave many manifest indications of it. Amongst these was that the highest pinnacle of the church of the Santa Reparata was struck by lightning, so that a large part of the pinnacle fell to the earth, filling every one with terror and amazement. All Florence, then, as well as all the princes of Italy, lamented the death of Lorenzo; in proof of which there was not one who did not send ambassdors to Florence to express his grief at so great a loss. And events very soon after proved that they had just cause for their regrets; for Italy being deprived of Lorenzo's counsels, no means could be found to satisfy or check the ambition of Lodovico Sforza, governor of the Duke of Milan. From this, soon after Lorenzo's death, there began to spring up those evil seeds of trouble, which ruined and continue to cause the ruin of Italy, as there was no one capable of destroying them.
The Historical, Political and Diplomatic Writings of Niccolò Machiavelli, trans. C. E. Detmold, 4 vols, Boston 1882. Extract from `The History of Florence', Vol. 1, Book 8, 36.
April 6, 1341: Francesco Petrarch is Crowned Poet Laureate - Many historians cite this date as the beginning of the Renaissance.
1397: Giovanni de Medici Moves to Florence - Giovanni de Medici, the papal banker, headquarters his business in Florence and becomes involved in Florentine public life and patronage of the arts, laying the groundwork for the rise of his son Cosimo de Medici to power.
1401: Ghiberti Wins the Right to Sculpt the Northern Doors of The Baptistry - Ghiberti is commissioned and takes 28 years to sculpt the bronze doors of the Florentine church. The doors remain one of the most valued treasures of the Renaissance
1420: The Papacy Returns to Rome - The Papacy, having been located in Avignon since 1305, returns to Rome, bringing with it the prestige and wealth necessary to rebuild the city.
1423: Francesco Fosari Becomes Doge of Venice - Fosari assumes the position of doge and attempts to usurp great political power, to the distaste of the Great Council, Venice's oligarchic ruling body, which asserts its power over the doge and torments him until his resignation.
1429: Cosimo de Medici Takes Over his Father's Business - Cosimo de Medici becomes head of the bank after his father dies, using his economic power to consolidate political power. Within five years he runs the city without question.
1447: Pope Nicholas V Ascends to the Throne - Pope Nicholas V takes the first steps toward turning Rome into a Renaissance city, undertaking many construction projects and strongly encouraging the arts.
1450: Francesco Sforza Seizes Control of Milan - After a short experiment with republican government, Milan returns to monarchy when Francesco Sforza takes control of the city. His most prominent successor is Ludovico Sforza.
1453: Constantinople Falls - The center of the Byzantine Empire, Constantinople falls to the Ottoman Turks, provoking an exodus of Greek people and works of art and literature into the Italian city-states.
1454: Johann Gutenberg Prints the Gutenberg Bible - Gutenberg is credited with the invention of the printing press in Europe, and ushers in the age of printed books, making literature more accessible to all Europeans.
1464: Lorenzo de Medici Ascends to Power in Florence - After Cosimo's death in 1464, his son Piero rules until his death in 1469, when power falls into the hands of Lorenzo, who rules until 1491, raising Florence to its greatest heights of the Renaissance.
1471: Sixtus IV Becomes Pope - Sixtus IV becomes pope, undertaking many successful projects in Rome, but disgracing the Church through his corruption and practice of nepotism.
1486: Pico Publishes His Collection of 900 Treatises - Pico's philosophy often conflicts with that of the Catholic Church and he is declared a heretic. He is saved from demise by the intervention of Lorenzo de Medici.
1492: Rodrigo Borgia becomes Pope Alexander VI - Alexander VI is widely known as a corrupt and manipulative pope, scheming for his family's benefit. Many claim that the Papacy reaches its greatest moral decline of the Renaissance during his pontificate.
1494: The Medici are Ousted from Florence by Girolamo Savonarola - Savonarola, preaching a return to simple faith, leads a popular uprising against the Medici, who are forced to flee. Savonarola's rule is short-lived, and he is burned as a heretic in 1495.
1494: Ludovico Sforza Permits the French Invasion of Italy - In an attempt to weaken his enemy, the King of Naples, Ludovico invites the French to invade Italy, granting them free passage through Milan. Though this invasion fails, the French return in 1499, turning on Ludovico and taking Milan, and opening an era of foreign competition for Italian land.
1503: Pope Julius II Assumes the Papal Throne - The ascension of Pope Julius II begins the Roman Golden Age, during which the city and Papacy both prosper. Julius II reverses the trend of moral degradation in the Papacy and takes great steps in the rebuilding of Rome.
1513: Pope Leo X Succeeds Julius II - Pope Leo X, the son of Lorenzo de Medici, continues the trend of the Golden Age, proving himself a gifted administrator and intelligent patron of the arts. Rome prospers.
1513: Niccolo Machiavelli Publishes The Prince - Often considered the most influential political book of all time, The Prince outlines the argument that it is better for a ruler to be feared than loved.
1517: The Reformation Movement Begins - Martin Luther posts his 95 Theses on the door of a church in Wittenburg, Germany, igniting a movement which provokes an enormous split in the Roman Catholic Church.
1519: Leonardo da Vinci Dies - Leonardo, perhaps the most remarkable individual of the Renaissance, dies in France, having established himself as a painter, sculptor, engineer, and scientist.
1523: Pope Clement VII Ascends to the Throne - Pope Clement VII comes to power in difficult times, following Pope Leo X. He soon proves himself an incompetent politician, and his poor decisions lead to the sack of Rome.
May 6, 1527: The Sack of Rome - After Pope Clement VII refuses to grant the imperial army a ransom, it attacks the city of Rome, taking the city in just over twelve hours. The sack of Rome symbolizes the downfall of Renaissance Italy, much of which is subjugated to Imperial-Spanish rule by the settlement of Bologna in
Additional Sources: Ms Susan Pojer and Ms Carol Avery