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.