Florence is often named as the birthplace of the Renaissance. The early writers and artists of the period sprung from this city in the northern hills of Italy. As a center for the European wool trade, the political power of the city rested primarily in the hands of the wealthy merchants who dominated the industry. These merchants built enormous gilded mansions in the city, villas in the country, and contributed to the construction of grand cathedrals, spawning the physical rebirth of the city. A spirit of competition developed between the rich merchants, who often competed with each other to see who could commission the grandest buildings and the finest works of art. Competition augmented the fervor with which the city entered into the Renaissance.
The Medici family, which controlled Florence throughout much of the Renaissance, played a large part in the patronage of the arts and the political development of the city. In 1397, Giovanni de Medici, the banker to the Papal Court, established headquarters in Florence. As a wealthy and influential citizen, Giovanni had virtually no choice but to participate in public life, holding almost every political office in Florence at some point. Giovanni died in 1429, leaving behind a legacy of patronage for the arts, an immense fortune, and a son, Cosimo de Medici, who was educated in the principles of humanism. Cosimo de Medici took over the family banking business at the age of forty. A successful businessman, Cosimo built up his father's fortune and established business connections all over Europe.
By 1434, Cosimo de Medici had consolidated power for himself and his family in Florence, all the while maintaining the appearance of democratic government. Cosimo clung to his position as a private citizen, but it was clear to all that he ruled the city of Florence from behind the scenes. Though Cosimo maintained his power through the actions of a manipulative schemer, other aspects of his life were nothing if not admirable. He generously supported the arts, commissioning the building of great cathedrals, and commissioning the best artists of the age to decorate them. He demonstrated great support for education, establishing the Platonic Academy for the study of ancient works. It is estimated that before his death in 1464, Cosimo spent approximately 600,000 gold florins supporting architecture, scholarly learning, and other arts. When one considers that the unprecedented fortune left to Cosimo by his father totaled only 180,000 florins, this amount is clearly extraordinary.
From Cosimo's death in 1464, his son Piero ruled for five years, and then was succeeded by Cosimo's grandson, Lorenzo de Medici, known as 'Il Magnifico.' Lorenzo lived more elegantly than had Cosimo, and enjoyed the spotlight of power immensely. Under his control, the Florentine economy expanded significantly and the lower class enjoyed a greater level of comfort and protection than it had before. During the period of Lorenzo's rule, from 1469 to 1492, Florence became undeniably the most important city-state in Italy and the most beautiful city in all of Europe. The arts flourished, and commerce increased, but Lorenzo let the family business decline, and the Medici were forced to flee Florence two years after his death.
The popular uprising which ousted the Medici family was spawned by a fanatical priest, Girolamo Savonarola. Savonarola had attracted a following since 1491, when he began preaching against the worldliness and paganism of the Renaissance. He called for a return to simple faith. After the Medici were ousted in 1494, Savonarola assumed power, drafting a new draconian constitution, and attempting to revive the medieval spirit. He had burned many books and paintings he considered immoral. In 1495, Savonarola called for the deposal of Pope Alexander VI. By this time very little support remained in Florence for the renegade priest, and he was declared a heretic and burned at the stake.
Though the Medici returned, Florence would never return to its former position of preeminence.
To carry out the construction of the great architectural works of the times, rich merchants hired the most talented artists and paid them well to do their most inspired work. In constant efforts to maintain their position of power, merchants attempted to marry into nobility, and sometimes more importantly, gain public favor and recognition. To this end, merchants became great patrons of the arts. However, the grand artistic endeavors of the wealthy merchants did not always serve to impress the public. Masses of lower middle-class and lower- class citizens worked long hours at unpleasant tasks in the shadow of the wealthy merchants, known in Florence as "fat people." The lower classes knew there was little chance of their status improving, and watched with resentment as the city around them filled with exhibitions of the wealth of the upper- classes. As a result, class struggle was a major aspect of Florentine life, often escalating into violent conflict.
Many recent historians have argued that while the Medici were no doubt influential in the Florentine renaissance their role is often exaggerated by historians who have studied the period. William Roscoe, a historian writing near the turn of the nineteenth century, paints a picture of the Medici as virtually responsible for the entire Renaissance. This type of glorification of the family's power and influence has won for the Medici the great adulation of some, and later, the profound contempt of others, who view their legacy as one of tyrannical central government by a special interest group. However, current historians most often view the ruling family as enlightened patrons who encouraged an existing trend, playing a smaller role in the Renaissance than is often assumed.
The Medici played an ambiguous role in the history of Florence. Despite the appearance of democracy and republican government, the Medici were, in effect, the rulers of the city by heredity. Though the family undertook great measures to preserve its power, the Medici remained private citizens. In fact, Cosimo would often reject those who begged him for favors claiming he could do nothing to help them, being only a private citizen. However, this tongue-in-cheek rejection vastly belied the truth of the situation. The Medici were second only to the Papacy in power during the Renaissance, and likely contributed more to the spirit of the times than that body. Florence was known as the center of the Renaissance, attracting thinkers and artists to the city through the reputation of its benevolent rulers and producing thinkers and artists from the schools sponsored by the Medici and others.
Florence prospered during the Renaissance because of its lines of communication to the world around it. In the late Middle Ages, the city became important as a crossroads for wool traders. Giovanni and Cosimo de Medici used banking to make Florence a crossroads for finance. With these connections established, Florence became a crossroads for ideas. The city was opened up to the ideals and philosophies of distant lands, and absorbed these into the writing and art it produced; that art then flowed freely outward to the rest of Italy and the European continent. The Medici maintained the stability of these connections through financial and political means. The connection they established with the Papacy was particularly beneficial to both Florence and Rome. The two cities, which might have otherwise been rivals, mutually developed under the spirit of cooperation during the Renaissance: Rome provided a destination for many Florentine artists and writers, and Florence benefited from the management of the papal purse.