From the Plague to the Medici: The early cultivating of the Rinascimento or Renaissance
The word 'Renaissance' is a French term first coined in the 19th century to describe the intellectual and artistic revival, inspired by a renewed study of Classical literature and art, which began in Italy in the early 14th century and reached its culmination in the early 16th century, having spread in the meantime to other parts of Europe. The equivalent Italian term is Rinascimento. The concept enshrined in the word 'Renaissance' is actually one of rebirth rather than revival and carries with it the loaded, and absolutely discredited, argument that the Middle Ages was a dead period intellectually and artistically. Such a view effectively renders Byzantine, Romanesque and Gothic art as being without aesthetic value. Though this position is untenable, the term 'Renaissance' is useful in so far as it denotes a view that was held by contemporary, especially Italian, thinkers and because the period covered by the term, in the leading artistic centres of Italy, exhibits a growing preoccupation with a coherent set of values based on antique Classical models. [Source] The Black Death

Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance

Interactive Tour of Florence

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Engraving of plague victims, 1411.

No one knows exactly why, but in the late 1320s or early 1330s, bubonic plague broke out in China's Gobi desert. Spread by flea-infested rats, it didn't take long for the disease to reach Europe. In October of 1347, a Genoese ship fleet returning from the Black Sea -- a key trade link with China -- landed in Messina, Sicily. Most of those on board were already dead, and the ships were ordered out of harbor. But it was too late. The town was soon overcome with pestilence, and from there, the disease quickly spread north along trade routes -- through Italy and across the European continent. By the following spring, it had reached as far north as England, and within five years, it had killed 25 million people -- one-third of the European population. [Source]

Map of Black Death's Devastation

Portrait of Cosimo de Medici (1389-1464) by Jacopo Pontormo, c. 1520, entitled Cosimo il Vecchio (the old man).

Cosimo de Medici is baptised in 1389. The son of a local merchant, Cosimo would eventually shrewdly cultivate friends and business associates, bringing his family to the height of Florentine power and making Florence the cultural capital of the Western World, ushering in what is now known as The Renaissance.

By 1400 Florence is a major trading center, and powerful families like Cosimo's vie for power. The Medici Bank is run from the small back room of a wool shop and managed into greatness by Cosimo's father Giovanni de Medici. He holds loyalty as the highest quality in someone he will choose to do business with. Giovanni understands the power in a patron/client relationship.

Engraving of Pope John the 23rd

Giovanni's first risk is backing a former pirate named Baldassare Cossa, who needs a campaign fund to ultimately become Pope. Giovanni's gamble pays off, and by 1410, Cossa becomes John the 23rd (one of several, by the way), and the Medici become "God's Bankers". Giovanni's next order of business is to build Florence into a port as beautiful as it is powerful, and he starts by trusting the tempermental architect Filippo Brunelleschi. Aside from loyalty, Giovanni also banks on innovation and ambition, and these twin traits are found in Brunelleschi.Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance

Benozzo Gozzoli, 1420-1497, Journey of the Magi, 1459–61
Palazzo Medici Riccardi in Florence

Benozzo Gozzoli was a popular Renaissance painter and contemporary of Brunelleschi and is best-remembered for his fresco inside the Medici palace. Many consider it one of the finest of the Renaisssance.

Anxious to please his patron, Gozzoli chose to illustrate a mythical procession of the three wise men, the Magi. It was a favorite subject of the Medici family. Gozzoli covered all four walls of the windowless chapel with fairytale landscapes, animals, figures and fabrics.

He experimented with gleaming colors, gold leaf and ultramarine. Such precious pigments cost Cosimo a fortune, but were well worth it. This was art in the service of Medici power, announcing to the world that Cosimo was rich beyond imagination.

The characters Gozzoli chose to portray were friends and associates of the Medici family, parading vividly through the hills of Tuscany. This was the Medici's precious network of “amici degli amici” (friends of friends).

Gozzoli had been inspired by the Council of Florence, a magnificent international festival which dominated the city when the artist was just 19. Cosimo had sent invitations across the known world. Delegates from India and Ethiopia brought with them creatures unknown to Italians. Camels, leopards, monkeys and giraffes were some of Gozzoli's exotic menagerie on the walls of the chapel. An excellent example of the idea that patronage is a political strategy! [Source]

Brunelleschi's response to the Church's challenge on his design of Il Duomo - the Dome of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore.

The Pantheon, (Pan = All, Theo = God), 126 CE
Brunellesci studied this Roman temple in preparation for Il Duomo.

Detail of above

Alternative view of above

Pantheon interior detail

Oculus (eye) - ceiling inside Pantheon

The Dome of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, finished 1436, Filippo Brunelleschi, 1377-1446

The dome itself is amazing. At nearly 142 feet, the dome is larger than the domes of the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., St. Paul's in London, the Pantheon in Rome, and even St. Peter's in Vatican City. The dome remained the largest dome in the world until modern materials permitted the construction of stadium-sized domes such as the Metrodome in Minneapolis. [Source]

Detail of above.
Brunelleschi also invented linear perspective - a system of creating the illusion of 3D on a flat surface.

Expulsion from the Garden, Masaccio, c. 1401-1428, Masaccio on Artchive.

Detail of above

Expulsion from Paradise, 1425-1428, Masolino da Panicale, c. 1383-c. 1447

David, 1430, Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi, aka Donatello, (c. 1386–1466)
The first full-sized, free-standing bronze since ancient times.

For more on the importance of David as a Florentine symbol, click here.

Il Magnifico (Lorenzo de Medici, aka Lorenzo the Magnificent, 1449-1492), 16th century, by Giorgio Vasari, Italian Mannerist Writer and Painter, 1511-1574

It is Lorenzo who will continue the work of his grandfather and father, bringing the Renaissance into full flower through continued, earnest scholarship and patronage (discovering such genius as Boticelli, Michelangelo, Leonardo, etc.) and vanquishing more family rivals - the Pazzis, after surviving an assassination attempt one Easter Sunday - at mass.

"Lorenzo de Medici (1449-1492) was the unofficial ruler of Florence from 1469 until his death. He was a humanist, arts patron - and a skillful politician. In 1489 he manages to have his son Giovanni made a cardinal, at the age of 14. Giovanni later ruled as Pope Leo X (reigned 1513-1521) and was also a patron of the arts. In the letter here [at the source] Lorenzo warns his son to avoid vice and luxury."