Today is the birthday (1389) of Cosimo di Giovanni de’ Medici founder of the Medici political dynasty, de facto rulers of Florence during much of the Italian Renaissance. He was also known as “Cosimo ‘the Elder'” (“il Vecchio”) and “Cosimo Pater Patriae” ( ‘father of the nation’). Cosimo was born in Florence and inherited both his wealth and his expertise in business from his father, Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici, founder of the Medici bank. Cosimo used his vast fortune of an estimated 150 000 gold florins to control the Florentine political system and sponsor a series of artistic accomplishments. His power over Florence stemmed from this wealth, which he used to control votes. As Florence was proud of its ‘democracy’, he pretended to have little political ambition, and did not often hold public office. Aeneas Sylvius, Bishop of Siena and later Pope Pius II, said of him:
“Political questions are settled in [Cosimo’s] house. The man he chooses holds office. . . He it is who decides peace and war…He is king in all but name.”
In 1433 Cosimo’s power over Florence, because it was exerted without occupying public office, began to look like a menace, so in September of that year he was imprisoned under trumped up charges. But he managed to turn the jail term into one of exile. He went to Padua and then to Venice, taking his bank along with him. Prompted by his influence and his money, others followed him. Within a year, the flight of capital from Florence was so great that the ban of exile had to be lifted. Cosimo returned in 1434, and controlled the government of Florence from then on.
In foreign policy, Cosimo worked to create peace in Northern Italy through the creation of a balance of power between Florence, Naples, Venice and Milan during the wars in Lombardy, and discouraging outside powers (notably the French and the Holy Roman Empire) from interfering. In 1439 he was also instrumental in convincing pope Eugene IV to move the Ecumenical council of Ferrara to Florence (a council designed to heal the schism between the Eastern and Western churches). The arrival of notable Byzantine figures from the Empire in the East, including Emperor John VIII Palaiologos, started the boom of culture and arts in the city.
Cosimo was also noted for his patronage of culture and the arts during the Renaissance, liberally spending the family fortune to enrich Florence. According to Salviati’s Zibaldone, Cosimo stated:
“All those things have given me the greatest satisfaction and contentment because they are not only for the honor of God but are likewise for my own remembrance. For fifty years, I have done nothing else but earn money and spend money; and it became clear that spending money gives me greater pleasure than earning it.”
His patronage of the arts both recognized and proclaimed the humanistic responsibility of the civic duty that came with wealth. He hired the young Michelozzo Michelozzi to create what is today perhaps the prototypical Florentine palazzo, the austere and magnificent Palazzo Medici.
He was a patron and confidante of Fra Angelico, Fra Filippo Lippi, and Donatello, whose famed bronzes, David and Judith Slaying Holofernes, were Medici commissions.
Cosimo’s patronage enabled the eccentric and bankrupt architect Brunelleschi to complete the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore (the “Duomo”) which was perhaps his crowning achievement as sponsor. Florence’s cathedral had been begun by Arnolfo di Cambio in 1296 and was still unfinished in Cosimo’s day. The principle concern was designing a dome that could span the 140 foot octagonal barrel already built to support it. No dome then existed that was this wide except the ancient Roman Pantheon which spans 142 feet but is made of concrete and is supported on massive walls. In the end, Brunelleschi’s ingenious design would allow the lantern above the dome to rise 375 feet above the pavement (the Pantheon’s dome is 125 feet high and well as wide) and would be built without the Pantheon’s massive walls or the buttressing that medieval architects had relied upon to counter the huge outward thrust created by arches (and domes) of this size.
In the realm of philosophy, Cosimo, influenced by the lectures of Gemistus Plethon, supported Marsilio Ficino and his attempts at reviving Neo-Platonism. Cosimo commissioned Ficino’s Latin translation of the complete works of Plato (the first ever complete translation) and collected a vast library which he shared with intellectuals such as Niccolo Niccoli and Leonardo Bruni. He provided his grandson, Lorenzo il Magnifico, with an education in the studia humanitatis. Cosimo had an inestimable influence on Renaissance intellectual life.
Although Cosimo’s father founded the Medici bank it was Cosimo who developed it into the largest in Europe and put his stamp on the family as rulers and patrons of Florence. The House of Medici produced four Popes —Pope Leo X (1513–1521), Pope Clement VII (1523–1534), Pope Pius IV (1559–1565), and Pope Leo XI (1605); two regent queens of France—Catherine de’ Medici (1547–1559) and Marie de’ Medici (1600–1610); and, in 1531, the family became hereditary Dukes of Florence. The dynasty survived well into the 18th century.
One of the most famous and oldest soups from Tuscany is ribollita, conventionally made from leftover soup and day old bread. There are many variations but the main ingredients always include leftover bread, cannellini beans and inexpensive vegetables such as carrot, kale, and onion. Its name literally means “reboiled.” Some food historians date to the Middle Ages when the servants gathered up food-soaked bread trenchers from feudal lords’ banquets and boiled them for their own dinners. The soup is quite thick, almost like a stew. It is common to use ciabatta (a crusty bread with a porous texture), but any crusty bread will work.
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus some for drizzling on bread
1 onion, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
4 ounces pancetta, chopped
2 cloves garlic, 1 minced and 1 whole
1 tsp salt
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 tbsp tomato paste
1 (15-ounce) can diced tomatoes
½ pound cooked kale
1 (15-ounce) can cannelloni beans, drained
1 tbsp thyme
3 cups chicken stock
1 bay leaf
4 to 6 ciabatta rolls, halved lengthwise or 1 loaf, sliced
grated Parmesan, for serving
Heat the oil in a heavy, large pot over medium heat. Add the onion, carrot, pancetta, minced garlic, salt, and pepper and cook until the onion is golden brown and the pancetta is crisp (about 7 minutes).
Add the tomato paste and stir until dissolved.
Add the tomatoes and stir, scraping the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon to release all the brown bits. Add the spinach, beans, herbs, stock, and bay leaf.
Bring the soup to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350°F.
Drizzle the ciabatta halves with olive oil and toast in the oven until golden brown. Remove from the oven and rub the top of the toasts with the whole garlic clove.
Place the toasts in the serving bowls and ladle the soup over them. Sprinkle with Parmesan and serve immediately.