Sunday, May 6, 2007
THE RISE OF THE MERCHANT CLASS-THE MEDICI FAMILY
During the late Middle Ages, Italy was positioned in the middle of many important trading routes between the Near East and the rest of Western Europe. With increased travel and trade between east and west, pioneered by sea traders such as Marco polo, Italy developed a thriving commercial sector.
The rise of the merchant classes
By the end of the 14th century, the city of Florence, in Italy's central-north, had established itself as the heart of the European wool industry. Wealthy textile merchants, such as the Medici family were the profiteers of this fruitful industry. Along with other wealthy families, they began investing their money in the banking sector to increase the profit they were gaining from trading. Before long, Florence had also become the centre of European finance.
These merchants (or traders) became the new 'rich' class, gradually taking power and prestige away from the nobility (or the land-owning upper class). Within this class of merchants, wealth was commonly held within families.
Patronage - the beginnings
The word 'patronage' is derived from the Latin word for father. It describes a trend that emerged in Renaissance Italy, whereby rich merchant families became the 'patrons' (or sponsors) of people who displayed talent or potential in esteemed fields, such as art, science, literature and philosophy.
Patronage became common in Italy during the 15th century. As the merchant classes continued to generate more and more wealth through trading and banking, some decided to put some of their money back into the community, rather than spend it all on upholding their increasingly lavish lifestyles.
Being a patron usually involved providing things like money, accommodation and materials to gifted individuals, so that they could devote all of their time and energy to excelling at their passions. Patronage enabled many great people of the Renaissance to create masterpieces of art and architecture and make ground-breaking scientific discoveries. See animation one
Patronage - the word spreads
Upon hearing about what was happening in Italy, budding artists, writers and inventors soon began travelling to Italy from other parts of Europe, lured by the prospect of being sponsored by a wealthy patron. After nurturing their talents, developing their skills and sometimes even achieving great fame and fortune, these foreigners would often return home to share the skills and knowledge they had acquired in Italy.
As the spirit of renaissance in the northern cities of Italy continued to flourish, competition amongst patrons increased. In particular, wealthy families within the merchant class began to compete against one another, to see who could commission the greatest artworks, books, discoveries and inventions. As much as they were concerned with helping their cities prosper, these patrons also wanted to be remembered themselves, by having the most amazing achievements of the Renaissance attributed to their philanthropy (generosity).
During the Middle Ages, large groups of craftsmen and merchants often grouped together to form 'guilds'. A guild is an association of people of a similar occupation, who join together because they share a common interest or goal. During the Renaissance, this goal was often to support the advancement of a certain field, such as science or the arts. This is why many guilds also took to patronage during Renaissance times.
Examples of guilds in Renaissance Italy were the Artists Guild and the Textile Guild. The leader was known as il signore. During the Renaissance, as well as sponsoring people, guilds often concerned themselves with ensuring the general well-being of the city. When an issue surfaced that may have been of potential concern to the city, members of different guilds would meet in the town's central plaza to discuss possible solutions.
The Medici Family
The Medici family was the most respected of all the merchant families of Renaissance Italy. They held a great deal of power and influence in the city of Florence for a significant part of the 15th and 16th centuries. They were also the patrons of some of Italy's most famous artists and intellects.
The rise of the Medicis can be traced to the wealthy banker named Giovanni de Medici, who moved from Rome in 1397 to establish a branch of his Medici bank in Florence. Giovanni already had branches of this bank all over Italy and in other parts of Europe. By the 1420s the Medici family had become a dominant player in the textile industry, the spice trade and the international financial scene.
Given his considerable wealth, it was not long before Giovanni became an important figure in Florentine social and political life. When Giovanni de Medici died in 1429, his son Cosimo de Medici inherited his fortune.
Cosimo de Medici
As the son of a wealthy banker, Cosimo de Medici received a privileged education and was influenced by the philosophy of humanism during his adolescence. A firm believer in the theory that people should think independently in order to reach their highest potential, Cosimo continued the legacy of patronage that his father had begun to establish.
By the time of his death in 1464, Cosimo de Medici had done well to extend the Medici family's political and economic stronghold in Florence. While Cosimo had also maintained the spirit of patronage set by his father Giovanni, it was his grandson, Lorenzo de Medici, who was to become Florence's greatest and most generous patron.
Lorenzo de Medici - 'il Magnifico'
Lorenzo de Medici was the ruler of Florence for a little over two decades during the late 15th century. Lorenzo came to power in 1469, following a short period of rule by his father, Piero. During the period of Lorenzo's rule, the Florentine economy prospered and Florence earned its name as the most beautiful city in Europe.
Lorenzo de Medici was the most powerful and influential patron of the Medici family and is remembered as the greatest patron in the history of Italy. Lorenzo sponsored some of the most remarkable artists and inventors of the Renaissance, including Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonarroti. For the support and commitment he displayed to the exceptional people that formed the Italian Renaissance movement, Florentines often referred to Lorenzo as 'il Magnifico' (the 'magnificent one').