July 18, 2023

Episode 27: Master of the Country (Part II)

Episode 27: Master of the Country (Part II)

In this episode, we continue to explore Cosimo de Medici's delicate balancing act of power and his unique approach to ruling without seeming to do so.  We broaden our gaze to the broader political landscape of the time, detailing how Cosimo deftly managed foreign policy and diplomacy.  With characters as colorful as the rotund and eccentric Duke Filippo Maria Visconti and the ambitious Francesco Sforza thrown into the mix, this episode promises a thrilling deep dive into the machinations of Medici-era Italy.

The History of Florence and the Affairs of Italy by Niccolo Machiavelli
The House of Medici: Its Rise and Fall by Christopher Hibbert
Florence and the Medici by J.R. Hale

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Intro Music: Hayden Symphony #39
Outro Music: Vivaldi Concerto for Mandolin and Strings in D


“Political questions are settled at his house.  The man he chooses holds office…He it is who decides peace and war and controls the laws…He is King in everything but name?”
Pope Pius II, 1458

Welcome back to the I Take History With My Coffee podcast and thank you for continuing our exploration of the Early Modern period.

I want to begin by mentioning that this podcast began one year ago.  I want to thank everyone for their support over that time and as this podcast continues to grow.  Let friends and family know how much you’ve enjoyed the podcast.  Listen to past episodes on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and other platforms.  Thanks.

In the last episode, we saw Cosimo de Medici take over the leadership of the Medici family upon his father's death.  Cosimo continued to build the Medici party in Florence, an organization akin to a 19th-century political machine than anything resembling a modern political party.  But the power of the Medici did not go unchallenged.  The Albizzi family represented the old-guard oligarchs running Florence since the uprising of 1378.  Rinaldo degli Albizzi, as the head of the family, worked to undermine Cosimo’s influence within the government.  Rinaldo engineered Cosimo’s exile to Padua and then Venice and excluded any member of the Medici clan from holding office.  This would be short-lived, fortunes would be reversed within the year, and Cosimo would return to Florence amid the triumphant cheers of citizens.  

     In an expected tit-for-tat, banishments had already begun before Cosimo set foot back in the city.  Rinaldo degli Albizzi, his sons, descendants, and others of the Albizzi family were banished.  Along with them were members of other prominent families in Florence: Strozzi, Peruzzi, Barbadori, and Guadagni, to name a few.  So many that one person observed that Cosimo meant to empty Florence of her leading citizens.  Cosimo replied with his usual sardonic wit, “Seven or eight yards of scarlet will make a new citizen.”

Despite all this, the city maintained its republican ideology. The humanist patricians and state officials who welcomed Cosimo didn't do so to become courtiers but held firm to their belief in republicanism and the importance of public service. The quashing of Cosimo's sentence symbolized a rejection of an unpopular regime but didn't imply an invitation to leadership. While the political climate was tumultuous, there was no indication that the city sought a single ruler as a solution. If Cosimo wanted to maintain power in Florence, he would need to do so without appearing to rule outright. In other Italian states, rulers used executions and military dictatorships to assert control, but such methods were unacceptable in Florence. Cosimo understood that to rule successfully, he had to appear as if he held little power and make subtle changes to the political structure that wouldn't offend anyone. 

The situation in Florence was not as it appeared on the surface. Although the constitutional institutions and offices remained unchanged, opponents of the Medici were conveniently excluded from the Signoria.  Upon Cosimo's return to Florence, the Balia decided to burn the old electoral lists used by the Albizzi regime and create new ones.  Although there were some adjustments, many families accustomed to being eligible for office remained on the rolls. The key to the quiet revolution was to give the appearance of broad eligibility for office while limiting the choices of those appointed to positions of authority.

A temporary measure was introduced while making the new lists and distributing name slips for various offices in Florence and its territories, allowing the electoral bags or bursae to have as few as seventy-four name tickets rather than the usual two thousand. This effectively determined the political makeup of the Signoria, even though the actual names of the members still needed to be selected.

Initially, restricted suffrage was justified by the incompleteness of the revised electoral lists. However, the regime continued to use this approach until 1455 by claiming successive states of emergency.

The Medici party constantly expanded its base. The party declared all Grandi as Popolani, theoretically making the nobles eligible for office, which pleased the nobles and the Popolo Minuto, who saw it as a democratic measure. Talented individuals from humble origins were considered for official positions for the first time, but the process was carefully controlled to maintain the Medici's power.

Despite these changes, the old noble families still lacked real political influence, and most of the population had no political rights. Many newly qualified citizens were relatives of those eligible for office in previous years.

Within a few years, the Medici party had become deeply rooted and identified with the interests of Florence as a whole. Their influence was so strong that Cosimo didn't need to suppress opposition voices.  

     At this point, it was clear, at least in terms of foreign policy, of Cosimo’s influence on the course of the Florentine state.  Officially, foreign affairs were conducted through the Signoria, but no decision was made without passing through the Medici Palace.  The strongest sign of this was in relation to Milan.

    For a long time, Cosimo had cultivated the idea that Florence’s position towards Milan was misguided.  The situation in northern Italy had changed since the beginning of the century.  After Gian Galeazzo Visconti’s death, the Venetians capitalized on a weakened Milanese state.  They expanded the Venetian hinterland by annexing Verona, Vicenza, and Padua.  After the defeat of a Turkish fleet, Venice took control of the entire Dalmatian coast.  At first, Florence was grateful to have such a powerful, wealthy ally in its struggle against Milan, now under Duke Filippo Maria Visconti, who was encouraged to continue the fight by the exiled Albizzi.  

The son of Gian Galeazzo, Filippo Maria Visconti, was considered by many to be mad.  Grotesquely obese and with poor hygiene, even by the standards of the time, he refused to have his portrait painted.  His deformed legs were so weak he needed assistance getting up from a chair.  He screamed at the sight of a naked sword and had a soundproof room built to block out the thunder.  He was willful, secretive, and paranoid.  But he was also an astute politician who had recovered much of Lombardy that was lost after his father’s untimely death.  Yet he was unsuccessful in expanding into Tuscany, despite being told otherwise by Florentine exiles.  His forces were defeated in 1437 and 1438, and then in 1440, his most talented commander, Niccolo Piccinino, suffered a devastating defeat near Anghiari along the Arno.  With all hopes of returning to power gone, Rinaldo degli Albizzi decided to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. 

Visconti had married twice but had no legitimate children by either marriage.  He did have a child born by one of his mistresses, a daughter named Bianca.  The condottiere Francesco Sforza, who had once been in the Duke’s service until bribed by the Florentines, was also illegitimate.  In 1424 he had taken over for his father as the commander of Italy's most highly trained mercenary band.  He showed himself to be a person of exceptional military skill.  A big, down-to-earth, straightforward man, Sforza had high ambitions.  And he proposed marriage to Bianca in the hopes of succeeding to the Duchy of Milan.  Filippo Maria Visconti was initially reluctant but, in 1441, agreed to the wedding.  

   But the duke proved to be an unreliable father-in-law, and upon his death in 1447, he instead named the Aragonese Alfonso, King of Naples, as his heir.   This plunged Italy into an uproar as the Duke of Orleans, the German Emperor, and Venice claimed the duchy.   The citizens of Milan, in a desire to control their destiny, declared the restoration of the old republic.

     Cosimo had met Sforza several years prior, and he had been impressed by the young man and developed a close relationship with him.  Of course, this relationship was aided by the generous loans of the Medici Bank.  Cosimo cashed in all his political and diplomatic clout to ensure that after three years of warfare, Sforza entered Milan as its rightful duke in March 1450.

     These efforts were not generally well-received in Florence.  Many questioned his support for a despot and believed it was because Sforza owed the Medici large sums of money.  Cosimo countered these arguments with his own.  Venice was becoming an unreliable ally.  Her interests and the interests of Florence were clashing in the eastern Mediterranean.  Venice had made an enemy of the Turks, with whom Florence enjoyed a profitable trade.  A grateful Sforza would be a valuable ally against the ambitious Venetians.  

When the Venetians allied with the King of Naples and threatened to invade Tuscany, Cosimo saw an opportunity to overcome opposition to his policies in Florence. In a rare appearance, he personally condemned the Venetian government as aggressors in a debate at the Palazzo della Signoria, leading to Florence forming a formal alliance with Milan in August.

The repercussions of the alliance were significant and immediate. The Venetians urged the German Emperor to break up the new alliance, and the Byzantine Emperor in  Constantinople withdrew privileges from Florentine merchants. Venetian agents were paid to intensify anti-Medici sentiment in Florence. In response, Cosimo closed his Venetian branch and opened a new one in Milan. He obtained concessions from the Turks to compensate for the privileges withdrawn by the Greeks. He made diplomatic overtures to France, countering the potential advantages Venice and Naples sought from approaching the German Emperor.

The negotiations in the French court required delicate handling, as neither Cosimo nor Sforza wanted to provoke French intervention in Italy. They aimed to gain favor in Paris by offering indeterminate assistance if the French King, Charles VII, insisted on his claims to the Kingdom of Naples. Medici agents skillfully managed these discussions leading to a treaty in April 1452. France agreed to support Florence and Milan if attacked, recognizing Sforza as Duke of Milan. In return, Charles VII received assurances of no interference from Florence or Milan should he move against Naples.  As we will see in a future episode, the French claim to the throne of Naples would later prove fateful for the Italian peninsula.

After the treaty with France was signed, Venice and Naples declared war on Florence and Milan, and Don Ferrante, King Alfonso's illegitimate son, marched toward Tuscany. The news of the approaching invasion caused great alarm in Florence, with citizens rushing to Cosimo's palace, seeking guidance on defending the city.  The story goes that one frantic merchant burst into his room, shouting, “Rencine has fallen! Rencine has fallen.” Cosimo responded as if he never heard of this small Tuscan town, “Rencine? Rencine? Where Rencine?”

Despite his outward confidence, Cosimo was concerned. The alliance with Milan proved dangerous and costly, as Florence had to bear the expenses for Sforza's defenses and her own. The heavy tax burden led to an increase in his enemies. He sent his agent back to France to seek help from Charles VII, but the French were reluctant to commit due to their ongoing conflict with England.

During this time, Cosimo fell ill, and demands for peace grew more vigorous. His leading supporters kept their distance from his palace for safety. Fortunately, good news arrived from France: René of Anjou agreed to support the alliance in exchange for help driving Aragonese forces out of Naples. The intervention of a French army, combined with the capture of Constantinople by the Turks in the spring of 1453, brought hopes of peace to Italy. These hopes materialized in Lodi in April 1454. With the fall of Constantinople, the Turkish threat grew, forcing Florence, Milan, the Pope, and Venice to form the Most Holy League to maintain the status quo in Italy and defend against external aggression.

At this point, the government’s main focus was economic recovery, as the city faced mounting indebtedness due to military expenditures. Tax increases were implemented to aid recovery but were met with growing unrest and conspiracy in September 1457.
Despite his desire to focus on his banking business, Cosimo recognized that a wealthy merchant in Florence couldn't avoid public office. He remained the most influential person in Florence by presenting himself as a prosperous banker who willingly undertook political and diplomatic responsibilities while guiding the state's financial policies. He held the position of Gonfaloniere only three times and never sought more permanent control of the government or attempted significant constitutional reforms.  His friend, Vespasiano da Bisticci, praised Cosimo's skill in preserving his power and noted that he always made it seem like others were taking the initiative, not him. Cosimo avoided displaying wealth and rode a mule instead of a horse, occasionally allowing Luca Pitti, a flamboyant but less intelligent individual, to appear as the most powerful figure in the Republic.

In 1458, amid economic stagnation and rumors of constitutional changes, tensions rose in Florence. Cosimo took precautions, renting a house in Pavia and fortifying his villa at Cafaggiolo.  In August, the Gonfaloniere, Luca Pitti, called a compliant Parlamento into existence to secure the Medici's power. With the approval of a new Balia, the authority of the electoral commissioners or accoppiatori, was extended for another ten years, and the Gonfaloniere's power increased significantly. A new Council of One Hundred was formed to handle legislation concerning war, taxation, and elections. The Hundred was also given the power to appoint key officials, ensuring loyalty to the organizers of the Parlamento.  Cosimo's elder son, Piero de Medici, became one of the accoppiatori. The Medici's supremacy was now assured, and Cosimo was recognized as the undisputed patriarch of Florence. 

     Pope Pius II wrote in 1458 that Cosimo de Medici was the “master of the country.”  And upon his death in 1464, the Florentines would inscribe upon his tomb the old Latin honorific of Pater Patrae:  “Father of His Country.”

     In the next few episodes, we will explore Cosimo’s role in Florence's art, culture, and intellectual life, transforming the city into the jewel of the Italian Renaissance.  We will begin with how he almost was able to mend the schism between the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church.  

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