The Medici Family’s Influence on the Florentine Renaissance

posted in: Chris | 1

As we prepared to go to Florence, I wanted to learn more about the Medici family

The Medici were a family of power and influence and intrigue with few rivals. Most of the great sites of Florence have been influenced by them. They definitely contributed heavily to the flourishing of culture and arts, known as the Renaissance, which was centered in Florence, Italy.

The Renaissance was the rebirth of the appreciation of the arts, architecture, and designs of the former Romans and Greeks. It was also accompanied by huge advances in science, medicine and architecture. It is said that if New York was the place to live at the turn of the 20th century and Paris was the hot spot of the 1800’s, then Florence was where it was at during the Renaissance.

One huge reason was the Florentine Republic led by the Medici family. They got their power many generations before by amassing wealth from successful banking operations. Soon they had a large amount of both money and influence.

Beginning with Cosimo Medici in the 1500’s, the course was set for the family to use their wealth and influence to patronize the arts. Imagine a time when there were no artists working unless they had a patron (a wealthy supporter who provided the money to fund the artist and the project.) Cosimo’s love of the arts and the long lasting impact the resultant art would have on his family’s reputation set in motion many familiar masterpieces.

One of the most interesting works I wanted to see in Florence was not a painting or sculpture but a dome–Brunelleschi’s amazing Dome.

So this church was started in 1296 and by 1418 they had a serious problem. They started out to build an amazing cathedral with a huge dome bigger than any other in Europe. The problem was in 1418 the church still had a giant hole in the roof because nobody could figure out how to construct such a huge freestanding dome. The technology did not exist.

They also didn’t want to use gothic flying buttresses, as this was too much like their rivals in Milan. They wanted something special, but how? There is not enough lumber to reach to the top to support it; and as you started to build towards the center, it would all just collapse without interior wooden scaffolding for support.

Enter a cantankerous, eccentric, squat man name Brunelleschi, who explained that he could build the dome. He was an early Renaissance man who dabbled in goldsmithing, painting, architecture, sculpture, clock-making, and the list goes on and on. He babbled on that he could do it, and they barely believed him;  but the rain was falling in all the time, and they felt the madman may be right.

Many people wanted him to fail as the construction began. The Medici had full faith in him and supported him fully. He had to overcome an amazing amount of technical problems and had to engineer many different devices to lift the 13,000 tons of brick and material to the 180 foot high dome.

In the end Florence was celebrated, as the dome was successful; and Florence had one of the first Renaissance moments. Man seemed to be capable of scientifically reasoning and engineering solutions to the problems before him, created by the natural universe.

The Medici’s office building was known as the Uffizi, and here you can find major works from the Renaissance in Florence.

This is one of the first attempts at perspective. Hard to believe they didn’t know how to do this until the Renaissance, but notice how Mary is in a 3 dimensional throne and some angels are further back and others closer. This was one of the first times anyone was successful at creating this kind of perspective. Also note that pretty much all anyone painted was church art, but to the need for patrons. 

This is not really Renaissance but meant to be instructional for teaching that Mary has been made special and was going to have a baby. She looks real happy, doesn’t she? Not exactly how you picture it is it?

Donatelli’s Primavera, one of the most famous paintings in the Uffizi. Notice no Christian figures, but there is the return to the appreciation of the Greeks and Romans. My favorite part is the intricate and delicate hands of the intertwined dancers. Again the patron is the Medici.

This painting rocked the world. The artists, including Donatelli and Michelangelo, believed in expressing natural and human beauty they could reflect divine beauty, or the beauty of God. Here he is using The Birth of Venus, and the whole thing is a celebration of beauty. The nudity was unprecedented however. Only Eve was ever painted nude. This painting was divisive.

Later in the Renaissance, there was a backlash against the “Enlightenment.” A monk rose to influence in Florence, as the Medici’s powers began to fade, and began to preach hellfire and brimstone. Donatelli soon was swayed. The monk led book burnings; and Donatelli even burned some of his own paintings, seemingly to repent from pushing the envelope so far. These were “bonfires of the vanities.” Above is Donatelli’s Slander, which was completed during this phase of his life.

Interior of Brunelleschi’s Dome.

The Medici also supported Michelangelo. They identified him at age 13 and nearly raised him from then on. He was exposed to amazing artists, deep conversations, and this inevitably influenced the youngster. He had talent that they could see even at this early age. 

Michelangelo took hold of a huge slab of marble that other artists had rejected. In it, he chiseled away, revealing the symbol of the Renaissance.

There is at some angles fear, while at others there is steely confidence. Michelangelo captured both. The pose can be interpreted as man’s foray into the world of reason. He is looking ahead at the world and calmly, cooly working through the problems, then finding the solutions and becoming victorious. Others see it as symbolic of the Republic of Florentine conquering the neighbors in Milan–the brutish giants. I even read, some think it was Michelangelo looking at the Medici and conquering them. (At this point their corruption was starting to bother him greatly) Maybe it’s something else entirely. 

This was the kids’ favorite.

Michelangelo’s Prisoners

The story is long, but the Medici’s wealth and patronage of the arts influenced most of the prominent artists, who created their works during the Florentine Renaissance. This is a period that is celebrated greatly to this day–as evidenced by the huge crowds at the museums and in the streets of the Medici’s Florence.

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