Monday, August 12, 2013

Grandfather of his country: Giovanni di Bicci de' Medici

Giovanni di Bicci de' Medici (1360-1429)

Was Giovanni di Bicci de' Medici really known as the grandfather of his country?

Well, no, probably not.  That would have required some prescience.  But his son, Cosimo de' Medici, was known as Pater Patriae, so I've taken a bit of a liberty.

Cosimo de' Medici, Pater Patriae (1389-1464)

And if we can get away with that, then surely we can refer to Cosimo's grandfather and Giovanni's father, Averardo (called Bicci) de' Medici, as the great-grandfather of his country:

Averardo ("Bicci") de' Medici (?-1363)

"Bicci" seems to have been a common nickname in Florence, though I don't find it associated with a particular given name.  Dante's friend Forese Donati was also known as Bicci, for example.

And before we go any further with Giovanni's life, let's dispense with one bit of business too often neglected - the women, all from wealthy, noble, and influential families.  Averardo (Bicci) was married to Jacopa Spini (the great-grandmother of her country?); Giovanni was married to Piccarda Bueri (grandmother of her country); and Cosimo was married to Contessina de' Bardi (mother of her country, and we even have a picture of her):

Contessina de' Bardi

Today's peek at the Medici family, our Medici-of-the-week, if you will, is Giovanni.  Called the founder of the Medici dynasty, he was certainly the creator of the vast Medici fortunes and the founder of the great Medici banking empire.  Let's take another look at that Bronzino portrait above, because it has caused several historians to wax lyrical.  Don't bother scrolling up; here it is again, reminder-sized.

We are confronted with the homely visage of a shrewd, unimaginative trader as far removed as possible from the traditional conception of a merchant prince.  The most conspicuous feature is the set jaw, the hard effect of which is softened by a general expression of troubled kindliness. - Ferdinand Schevill, Medieval and Renaissance Florence, Vol. II
... shrewd, attractive face, with its kindly, hooded eyes, and thin, expressive mouth above a determined chin stares out apprehensively... - Christopher Hibbert, Florence:  The Biography of a City

Shrewd and kind, they tell us.  Troubled, apprehensive.  Machiavelli tells us that Giovanni was "of a kindly and humane nature" and "very rich."  Further, he had this to say about the totality of Giovanni's life:

He loved everyone, praised the good, and had compassion for the wicked.  He never asked for honors yet had them all.  He never went into the palace unless he was called.  He loved peace, he avoided war.  He supported men in their adversity and aided their prosperity.  He was averse to public plunder and an improver of the public good.  Gracious in his magistracies, he had not much eloquence but very great prudence.  In appearance he was melancholy, but then in his conversation he was pleasing and witty.  He died very rich in treasure but even richer in good reputation and good will. - Niccolò Machiavelli, Florentine Histories (translated by Laura F. Banfield and Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr. 
(Not meaning to be at all cynical, here, but Florentine Histories was dedicated to Pope Clement VII - a Medici.)

Giovanni di Bicci de' Medici

So what did this remarkable man do, exactly?  A brilliant businessman, a banker, honored Florentine citizen, he served in high public office more than once and was respected by his fellow citizens, his opinion being sought as a matter of course in policy debates and official decision-making, even when he was not currently in office.  He lived modestly and gave much to his city.  He was a loyal friend to a man who became Pope and was then deposed and called Antipope (John XXIII); even then, Giovanni's friendship and support did not waver. He was a patron of the arts, and he supported his city's frequently bellicose foreign policy with enormous loans when private funds were needed to shore up the treasury.  He was a leading member of two major guilds.  He was a banker to popes, a businessman with vast international holdings and enterprises.  He put his funds behind a rebuilding of the sacristy in the Church of San Lorenzo, where his tomb rests today. 

Tomb of Giovanni di Bicci de' Medici and Piccarda Bueri

And he did all of this at a time when men usually rose to power with the help of their extended families, yet his own family was in political and economic decline, following some unfortunate choices of which factions to support during the previous couple of decades.  In fact, in 1400, after an unsuccessful coup attempt, the Medici were barred from public office for twenty years, though an explicit exception was made for Giovanni, his brother Francesco, and for the heirs of one of their relatives.  And this was not the first of the sanctions the family had suffered during those years.

It is not my purpose here to trace the details of Giovanni's career, nor to detail the complex political currents of late 14th century Florence.  Rather, I wanted to take a look at Giovanni the man, how he fit into his environment, and how he advanced the fortunes of his family.

One thing that forms quite a contrast with the lifestyles of his descendants is Giovanni's penchant for living modestly (relatively speaking, at least).  Hibbert tells us that Giovanni avoided ostentation, living in a home that was far less imposing than his income (and his wife's substantial dowry) would have permitted.  He is said to have advised his sons (Cosimo and Lorenzo) to "take no more from the state than man and the law allow" - a guiding principle that was by no means always observed by Florentines of his time.  He told them, too, that while it was good to become rich,  a successful merchant had a duty to honor his city.

Unlike his descendants, Giovanni was not noted for his scholarship.  An inventory taken in 1418 indicates a library of only three books.

One way that Giovanni honored his city was through his patronage.  He was one of the donors of the North Doors of the Baptistery, commissioned in 1402, a plague year, as a plea to God to save Florence from the pestilence.  An open competition for this commission, in which seven prominent artists were invited to submit designs for a bronze panel depicting Abraham about to sacrifice Isaac, resulted in a draw between Filippo Brunelleschi, who would later go on to design the famous dome of Florence's cathedral, and Lorenzo Ghiberti, two young Florentines who both went on to do great things.  The panel of judges, which included Giovanni, suggested a collaborative effort, but Brunelleschi threw a bit of a tantrum and stormed out - all the way to Rome, in fact - leaving Ghiberti to get on with it.  Which he did.

North doors, Baptistery

Then, too, there's that fortune.  The catasto (tax) records of 1427 show Giovanni in possession of a large personal fortune.  Historian Gene Brucker tells us that the 80,000 florins ascribed to Giovanni would pay the annual salaries of 2000 of Florence's wool workers - among the lowest-paid laborers in Florence.

Yet, unlike all the Medici who came after him, Giovanni did not inherit a fortune.  His father, Averardo (called "Bicci"), left a modest estate to be divided among his widow and five sons.  He took a position in Rome, serving in the international bank owned by a distant relative and later branching out to form his own company.  He had a genius for business, and he built a commercial empire that extended throughout the medieval world. 

That's enough to give you an overview of this remarkable man, who single-handedly set the family back on the path to wealth and power.  But I can't resist a quick peek at his friend, the Antipope John XXIII, before we end.

  John XXIII
Giovanni befriended the Neapolitan cardinal Baldassare Cossa well before the latter was elected as one of three rival (and simultaneous) popes.  Some said that Cossa purchased his cardinalate with Medici money.  Cossa was one of the seven cardinals who broke away from Pope Gregory XII in 1408 to follow Antipope Benedict XIII, the pope installed in Avignon during the Great Schism.  The Council of Pisa, attempting to undo the schism, deposed both Gregory XII and Benedict XIII and elected Alexander V.  However, neither Gregory nor Benedict considered himself deposed, and so things carried on, with all three of them claiming to be pope.  But Alexander died soon after, and Baldassare Cossa was elected in his stead (after having been ordained to the priesthood only one day before).

John XXIII had a bit of a reputation, though admittedly these were polarizing times.  He was accused of everything from murder to heresy to seducing no fewer than 200 women while serving as a papal representative in Bologna.  In 1415 he was deposed and imprisoned in Germany.  The Medici bank paid his ransom, and he moved to Florence, where the Medici found him a house.  When he died in Florence in 1419, he was buried in the Baptistery, in a magnificent tomb designed for him by Donatello and Michelozzo, and paid for by the Medici.

My next Medici post will take a look at Salvestro de' Medici and his role in the Ciompi revolt.  Could a Medici really have led a populist revolt, and if so, why?

Images in this post are in the public domain, with the exception of the photos of Giovanni's tomb, the North doors of the Baptistery, and the tomb of John XXIII, all of which are licensed to Sailko via the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license, Wikimedia Commons.

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