Renaissance and Reformation Cosimo il Vecchio de' Medici
Stella Fletcher
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0259


The reputation of Cosimo de’ Medici (b. 1389–d. 1464) is that of the head of a successful business empire, banker to successive popes, director of Florence’s foreign policy, the first member of his family to subvert Florence’s republican constitution, and a cultural patron of such generosity that he could single-handedly change the appearance of his city. While there is truth in each of these assessments and Cosimo has become a key figure in even the most popular histories of the Renaissance, his reputation has not been matched by the quantity of publications that it has generated. Nor are there obvious fault lines in Cosimo’s biography: the business interests, relations with popes and princes, political activity and cultural patronage were all so interrelated that it is difficult to separate them. The categories in this article have therefore been kept to a minimum, and many of the individual books and articles could reasonably appear under a number of headings. After Reference Works and Primary Sources, the section devoted to Histories and Biographies is subdivided into works written and/or published between the 16th and 19th centuries and those published in the 20th and 21st centuries. Collections of Papers deals with more detailed topics than the wider-ranging histories and biographies. Cosimo’s wealth and influence came from his direction of the Medici Bank and associated businesses, determining its place in the article. As the bank had branches beyond Florence, it in turn determined the nature of his Relations with Other States. As far as foreign princes were concerned, he was the face of republican Florence and a man with whom they could deal quite comfortably. That contributed to his status within Florence, but the employment created by his businesses counted for more, and his wealth mattered most of all. Wealth bought influence in the world of Florentine Politics, and the works in that section explore the detail behind that familiar generalization. Political patronage and cultural patronage operated along the same principles of mutual back-scratching, but the means by which Cosimo emerged as a significant cultural patron take us back to the world of commerce and Cosimo’s guilt at the means by which he amassed his fortune. Of his Religion there is perhaps relatively little to say, except that his conventional faith was manifested in his patronage of various religious communities. Such communities required buildings and were natural repositories of learning. This determines the order in which the bibliography addresses his Cultural Patronage: after General Surveys that range across the visual arts and literary works, there are subsections on Architecture, Libraries, Humanists and their texts.

Reference Works

While Cosimo de’ Medici and his contemporaries feature in a host of reference works of the single-volume variety—particularly those devoted to the Renaissance as a period or as a cultural phenomenon—two of works selected here are of a completely different magnitude. Dizionario biografico degli Italiani is the first port of call for researching many figures in Italian history, but it remains incomplete and the volume containing the Medici is among the more recent additions to this mammoth enterprise. By way of contrast, Turner 1996 is an encyclopedic resource for all aspects of the visual arts. Grendler 1999 is on a more modest scale and is focused on the Renaissance as a whole. The focus of Camerani 1964 is on the Medici family itself. Grassellini and Fracassini 1982 partly fills the bibliographical gap and also accounts for far many more members of the family than does Dizionario 1960–, albeit in a cursory fashion.

  • Camerani, Sergio. Bibliografia medicea. Florence: Leo S. Olschki, 1964.

    The thematic part of this bibliography includes sections on archives and libraries, palaces and villas, relations with men of letters, cultural patronage, and tombs, before dividing the material by individual family members, arranged chronologically. The latter includes Cosimo, Contessina de’ Bardi, Cosimo’s legitimate sons Piero and Giovanni and illegitimate son Carlo. The bibliography is an excellent guide to works published up to 1964.

  • Dizionario biografico degli Italiani. 77 vols. Rome: Istituto della Enciclopedia Italiana, 1960–.

    Volume 73 (2009) contains Dale Kent’s entry on Cosimo, together with those for other members of the Medici family, each of which is supplemented by a bibliography. The entry on Cosimo (pp. 36–43), which benefits from Kent’s lifelong study of early 15th-century Florence, is the most recent biographical account and is also available online.

  • Grassellini, Emilio, and Arnaldo Fracassini. Profili medicei: Origine, sviluppo, decadenza, della famiglia Medici attraverso i suoi component. Florence: Libreria SP44, 1982.

    Hundreds of members of the Medici family, across twenty-one generations, appear first in a chronological list—some meriting a paragraph of biographical coverage, most merely a sentence—and then in an alphabetical list, with the relevant sources of information. Cosimo and each of his kinsmen, whether close or otherwise, receive entries. Two bibliographies deal with the Medici and contextual reading.

  • Grendler, Paul F. Encyclopedia of the Renaissance. 6 vols. New York: Scribner, for the Renaissance Society of America, 1999.

    A standard reference work for the Renaissance, whether it is interpreted as a period of time or a cultural phenomenon. Contains biographical and thematic entries, with Cosimo and other members of the Medici family featured in Volume 4.

  • Turner, Jane, ed. The Dictionary of Art. 34 vols. Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan, 1996.

    In addition to the entry on the cultural significance of Cosimo de’ Medici, which can be found in Volume 21 of this substantial work, there are also individual entries on each of the principal architects, artists, and sculptors who received Cosimo’s patronage. See Oxford Art Online.

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