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Republicanism’s rise and fall

Early 15th century Florence and
the rise of Cosimo de’Medici
by Michael Nolivos, Student # 209203795
Imagine this setting: the Republic of Florence, early 14th century. The powerful duke of
Milan is bent on conquering the entirety of Italy. Other city states around Florence join
this emerging tyranny unwillingly by force and by diplomacy. The Milanese power
alliance ends up eventually surrounding the Florentine city-state on all sides. Florence is
the last major city in the area, rich in resources that are just waiting to be plundered.
Florence becomes the last significant bastion of republicanism against this new threat of
tyranny. The duke employs the strategy of allying with city states that surround Florence
on all sides, and conquest of Florence seems all but inevitable. When all hope seemed
lost, Florentine liberty is saved by the death of the duke by natural causes, and the end
of the war, in 1402.
In view of this Florentine defense of republicanism against tyranny in the early
15th century, how does one account for the rise of Cosimo de’Medici and the decline of
the republic in the mid and later 15th century? Cosimo de’Medici did not hold public
office, yet rose to power to become the de facto leader of Florence, and was named
pater patriae: father of the country, upon his death by public decree. Florence was the
model example of a successful republic, yet the events of the mid and later 15th century
led to a Medici hereditary monarchy in Florence in the 16th century. Despite Florence’s
defense of republicanism in the early 15th century, Cosimo de’Medici was able to rise in
the mid 15th century because the assessment and measurement of the ideal public
leader had changed: the need for an influential leader skilled in foreign policy,
developed during the wars against the duke of Milan and the widespread adoption of
civic humanism complemented Cosimo’s preeminent position in Florence as an
extremely wealthy, intellectual and patron citizen.
The question of how the Medici rose to power is explored often in scholarship.
Some of the common reasons given include subversion of electoral and political
procedure, factional politics and economics. In The Rise of the Medici by Dale Kent, the
subject of Cosimo’s rise is explored, but Dr. Kent does not claim to have fully explained
it. As the author J.K. Hyde puts it in the review of Dr. Kent’s book, “There is still
something inexplicable about the way the Florentines, who had fought so tenaciously
against the dominance of any family or individual for over a century and a half, allowed
Cosimo to take over so easily.”
This question, indeed, has proved difficult to answer.
Therefore, this document will not be so ambitious by attempting to answer it. Instead,
the differences in the assessment of the ideal public leader between the two time
periods will be demonstrated using literary evidence, and will show that Cosimo’s rise to
power could only have happened in the mid and later 15th century.
The wars of the early 14th century set the stage for Cosimo’s ascent to power.
Florence was under constant threat of foreign conquest, which led to the development
of an ideal foreign policy known as libertas Italia: an Italy free from tyrannical and
monarchical rule. They reinforced the need for Cosimo’s wealth and influence to ensure
Hyde, J.K.. "The Rise of the Medici by Dale Kent." The English Historical Review 97, no. 382 (1982):
peace and stability in the republic. For these reasons, many people accepted the
preeminent position of Cosimo in Florence. How bad could these wars have been?
The first threat against Florentine republicanism and liberty during the 14th
century came in the form of Gian Galleazo Visconti, prince of Lombardy, duke of Milan.
In the year 1990, he began a great war against the Florentines
. He believed that he
could become king of Italy by force after he had become Duke of Milan. This war, using
Machiavelli’s own words in Florentine Histories, was “frightening”. It appeared that, had
Galleazo not died during the assault of Bologna
, which is situated next to Florence and
would have been his next stop, the Florentines would have lost
. It was only the death
of Galleazo that saved Florence from tyranny. The next threat came in the form of King
Ladislas, King of Naples, in the 1410‘s, who began annexing nearby cities with the end
goal of pillaging the wealth of the city of the Florence. This war also ends with the death
of the king in 1414, and Machiavelli writes that, “if it had not ended with his death, as the
war with the duke of Milan had already ended, he too would have brought Florence, as
had the duke, into peril of losing its liberty.”
Once again, Florence was in peril of losing
the war and their liberty had King Ladislas not died before reaching Florence.
Furthermore, during the 1420’s to the 1440’s, Florence becomes threatened newly
against Fillipo Maria Visconti of Milan, the successor of Gian Galleazo Visconti, ending
when the Venetians allied with the Florentines to end the war. These wars took their
Machiavelli, NiccoÌo. Florentine histories. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1988, 139
Bartlett, Kenneth R.. "Humanism." In The civilization of the Italian Renaissance: a sourcebook. 2nd ed.
North York, Ontario: University of Toronto Press, 2011, 85
Baron, Hans. The crisis of the early Italian Renaissance; civic humanism and republican liberty in an
age of classicism and tyranny.. Rev. 1 vol. ed. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1966, 183
Machiavelli, Florentine histories, 145
psychological and economic toll on the people of Florence. They were a time of great
turmoil, fear and division amongst the people. They threatened their liberty, economic
ambitions and intellectual and cultural growth.
The people of Florence knew, as the Venetians did, that having Cosimo on their
side was a great advantage in times of war. Machiavelli describes this advantage in
Florentine Histories:
No one in his time was equal to him in his understanding of the states of
princes and civil governments...Hence not only did he conquer domestic
and civil ambition, but he overcame that of many princes with such
prosperity and prudence that whoever allied with him and with his
fatherland would come out either equal or superior to the enemy, and
whoever opposed him would lose his time and money or state. Of this,
the Venetians can give good testimony, who were always superior
against Duke Filippo when they were with him and when they were
disunited from him were always conquered and beaten, first by Filippo
and then by Francesco; and when they allied with Alfonso against the
republic of Florence, Cosimo with his own credit emptied Naples and
Venice of money, so that they were constrained to accept the peace that
he was willing to concede to them.

Cosimo’s political sense and influence, both domestic and foreign, was a
characteristic that the Florentines valued. Also, Machiavelli describes how the
Neapolitans and Venetians were forced into accepting his terms when he threatened to
withdraw credit from their cities, a threat no doubt enabled by his position as head of the
Medici Bank. As a citizen, Cosimo fit the changing requirements for this leadership role.
The need, however, for a ruler skilled in foreign policy resulted from the wars of
the early 14th century. Baron finds that the Renaissance author Gregorio Dati provides
an account in Istoria of Florence 1380-1406, written in the year 1406, of the idea that
Florence needs a defensive foreign policy in order to survive intact. The new element in
Machiavelli, Florentine histories, 282
Florentine diplomacy, Baron writes, is the “consistent progress of the system of
Florence’s alliances through the whole of central and northern Italy”
, and that
“Florence’s fortunes had become dependent on diplomatic and military changes in far-
away lands”. A description of an advantage in politics, Baron describes, “lies with those
who are so intimately familar with all parts of the world ‘that, because of their alertness
and industry, they can form an idea of the conduct, the condition, and the resources of
the opposite party.’”
This description mirrors the portrait of Cosimo by Machiavelli, who would have
familiarity with distant lands through operations of the Medici bank and extensive
personal travels. This “advantage in politics” could not be matched by any single citizen,
faction or family in Florence. Therefore, when Cosimo did assume power, his position
could have been strongly defended.
The development of Florentine foreign policy paid off during the wars against
Fillipa Maria Visconti during the 1420’s to the 1440’s
Venice and Florence formed an
alliance that opposed the newly dominant Milanese threat. Baron also describes how
this attitude toward a free Italy required a generation to ferment. The doge of Venice at
the time, Doge Tommaso Mocenigo, had argued in a speech that it was in the interest of
Venice, when framed economically, to not assist Florence. This was because Milan was
their trading partner, and he had hoped that Florentine wealth, labor and expertise
would flow to Venice after the conquest from Milan. Baron describes a shift in attitude to
Baron, The crisis of the early Italian Renaissance, 174
Ibid, 174-175
Ibid, 387
the realization that “future peace in Italy was bound up with the survival of the libertà of
The ascent of Cosimo de’Medici could only have happened after these wars had
occurred. He brought peace and a sense of security to the people of Florence by his
shrewd diplomatic ability, vast amounts of wealth and great influence in foreign politics.
The ideal of the scholar-statesman presented in the philosophy of civic
humanism suited Cosimo’s rise to power. The issue at hand is whether the adoption of
this particular ideal in the philosophy was widespread in the early or mid (and later) 15th
century, during Cosimo’s ascent as de facto ruler of Florence. Once the fact that this
philosophical ideal accommodated Cosimo’s rise to power is established, we will assess
the differences in the level of belief and adoption of this philosophy between early and
mid 15th century Florence. The differences become distinguishing characteristics of
each respective time period, and therefore account for the possibility of the rise of a
principate and the decline of the republic in the mid and later 15th century, despite the
events of the early 15th century.
Recent scholarship by Mark Jurdjevic argues that “many ideas in civic humanism
complemented Cosimo’s prominent position in Florence and could thereby be used to
defend his authority and unrivaled social prestige.”
Jurdjevic concludes that
“humanistic exaltation of the scholar-statesman and humanistic interpretations of
wealth, history and ideal government buttressed and extended the political implications
Ibid, 392
Jurdjevic, Mark. "Civic Humanism and the Rise of the Medici." Renaissance Quarterly 52, no. 4 (1999),
of Cosimo’s reputation for prudence, wisdom, generosity, and learning.”
The ideal
Cosimo, then, would have adhered to this model of the ideal citizen. Cosimo indeed was
notable for his academic pursuits as well as the “political” role he played in Florence as
a behind-the-scenes leader, even though he was not actually a formal member of
government. The cultural and intellectual nobility of Florence would have understood the
concept of civic humanism, and many of them were supporters of Cosimo. Indeed,
these citizens, had both the political potential and the necessary status to check the
growth of the Medici at an early stage, and they were the authors and supporters of
civic humanism.
There are specific examples of the civic humanist ideal of the scholar statesman
mentioned above increasing in widespread adoption during the first half of the 15th
century. The late 14th century discovery in 1392 of Cicero’s Epistolae Familiarea
(Letters to Friends) by Coluccio Salutati, from which Salutati begins justifying the vita
activa civilis, or the active public life,
is the first sign of the humanist ideal that a
scholarly life should be coupled with active civil duty.
Salutati would later reverse his position when he wrote the De Tyranno, a
vindication of Ceasar’s monarchical rule. This reversal in position - first advocating for
the scholar-statesmen, and then later recanting - was mirrored by Salutati’s own
student, Pietro Paolo Vergerio. The ideology of civic humanism, specifically concerning
the ideal of the scholar-statesman, was clearly still in transition during the late 14th to
the early 15th century. Given that these were the first signs of this philosophical strain of
Ibid, 1015
Ibid, 1008
Baron, The crisis of the early Italian Renaissance, 124
civic humanistic thought being formulated, it becomes clear that during the early 15th
century this thought could not have been widespread. Jurdjevic mentions, however, that
by the 1430s and 1440s [sic], when Cosimo de’Medici was consolidating his political
preeminence in Florence, Bruni and his fellow humanists had already fully articulated
the belief that an ideal ruler in both a republican and monarchical context should be able
to draw upon the deep and rich well of philosophy to ensure the sound governance of
the state.
We now have chronological evidence of the gradual rise of civic humanism,
particularly concerning the ideal of the scholar-statesman, starting from the early 15th
century. This ideal suited Cosimo because he was recognized as a scholar as well as
having an active civil life. Therefore, the fact that Cosimo’s rise to power occurred during
the solidification and vindication of this philosophical ideal helps one to account for his
rise in the mid 15th century.
Cosimo de’Medici would not have been able to rise to power as swiftly and
securely as he did during the early 15th century. It was only after significant changes in
society, particularly the political climate and widespread adoption of civic humanism,
that allowed his rise, along with the rest of the noble Medici. This is not to say that his
rise was caused by these generational changes. It is more akin to the example of the
computer pioneer Bill Gates, who was able to build an extremely successful software
company because he had the fortune to grow up in a time in which the value of desktop
computer software was to grow exponentially. This is not to detract from his intellect or
Jurdjevic, Civic Humanism and the Rise of the Medici, 1001
The ideal of the scholar statesman is but one strain of civic humanism; Jurdjevic further explores how
the novel interpretations of wealth, history and ideal government accomodated Cosimo’s ascent
abilities, in the same way Cosimo’s success cannot solely be attributed to the
circumstances of his time. In the hypothetical situation where two of the same Cosimo
de’Medici’s existed in alternate, disjointed timelines, one in the 14th and the other in the
15th, with the same variables constant (wealth, etc), the one in the 14th century would
not lead to the Medici empire that we know and study today.
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liberty in an age of classicism and tyranny.. Rev. 1 vol. ed. Princeton, N.J.:
Princeton University Press, 1966.
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sourcebook. 2nd ed. North York, Ontario: University of Toronto Press, 2011.
Bruni, Leonardo. "Laudatio Florentinae Urbis or Panegyric to the City of Florence (c.
1403-4)." The University of York.
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Godman, Peter. From Poliziano to Machiavelli: Florentine humanism in the high
Renaissance. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1998.
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Jurdjevic, Mark. "Civic Humanism and the Rise of the Medici." Renaissance Quarterly
52, no. 4 (1999): 994 - 1020. (accessed
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Kent, Dale V.. The rise of the Medici: faction in Florence, 1426-1434. Oxford [Eng.:
Oxford University Press, 1978.
Machiavelli, NiccoÌo. Florentine histories. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press,
Translated by Laura F. Banfield and Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr
Martines, Lauro. April blood: Florence and the plot against the Medici. Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 2003.