I recently put up a few pages on the Art History part of my site about the Renaissance. Anything written about the Renaissance will be centered on Florence and the influence of the Medici Family on the art of the period. How did this come to be?
Chieftains had artisans creating their bobbles and bangles in gold and precious jewels. The Chieftains became royalty with kingdoms and the kingdoms became empires. With empires came trade and wealth. The Roman Empire had wealthy merchants and senators that supported large studios of artisans creating all manner of doodads for their villas. When the Roman Empire collapsed, power and what wealth was left shifted to the Church and a rigid feudal society developed. It remained unchanged for 1000 years until the Renaissance when art, science, and wealthy merchants once again became prominent in society. Why the change?
The Black Death happened. The Black Death was a plague that ripped across Europe between 1347 and 1351. During this four-year period 45–50% of the European population died. The plague ran four years consecutively in Italy, the south of France and Spain, and there it was probably closer to 75–80% of the population. Monasteries were particularly hard hit. The effect on society was massive. People starved as crops died in the fields because there wasn’t the labor available for the harvest. There was a drastic reduction of the amount of land under cultivation and many landowners were ruined. They were compelled to pay wages. The feudal system that tied peasants to the land exchanging labor for services was finished. People worked for who was paying the highest wages and money began circulating through society and with money came banks.
The Medici fortune began as a small bank in the back room of a wool shop in 1397. Giovanni de’ Medici the founder took a chance and financially backed a former pirate, Baldassarre Cossa on his new career in the church. In 1410, he was elected Pope John the 23rd and the Medici became the church's bank. Under Cosimo de’ Medici, they became the richest family in Europe and the ruling family in Florence. The Medici used the media of the time: architecture, sculpture, and painting (the printed book was still a couple decades off) to increase their visibility and influence. Lorenzo de’ Medici, as head of the family, was more interested in politics than banking and the family businesses declined. He became the Renaissance’s largest patron of the arts bringing the leading artists of the Renaissance to Florence; or did he?
Much of what is written about the artists of the Renaissance comes from one man: Giorgio Vasari. He was an artist and architect and consistently employed by members of the Medici family in Florence. In 1550, he published his book: Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects and became the first art historian. The work has a definite bias in favor of Florentines and likes to attribute to them all the developments in Renaissance art. When you read about how a young Giotto painted a fly on the surface of a painting by Cimabue who repeatedly tried to brush it away or how Leonardo di Vinci died in the arms of the king of France it comes from Vasari. Is it true? Maybe. His anecdotes of the artists of Florence have the ring of truth and have been quoted for over 400 years. There were artists producing Renaissance art in other city-states around Italy as well as in Northern Europe. Their work may survive and their names may be known, but not much is known or can be written about their lives. Florence had the press. Vasari humanized the artists he wrote about and because of that his words echo on in the writers that have followed.