- The Medicean Succession: Monarchy and Sacral Politics in Duke Cosimo de’ Medici’s Florence by Gregory Murry
In The Medicean Succession, written with ambition and brio, Gregory Murry studies Cosimo I de’ Medici (Duke of Florence from 1537 to 1569, then Grand Duke of Tuscany to his death in 1574) as an example of how one early-modern ruler used religious themes and a sacred politics rooted in Florentine tradition to establish assent and legitimacy for a reign that began almost accidentally, when the city’s patricians plucked the seventeen-year-old Cosimo from obscurity and selected him to fill the ducal office. The accomplishment of Cosimo in forging one [End Page 652] of sixteenth-century Europe’s best-run states has long attracted the attention of historians, although, Murry argues, most of them have focused on questions of diplomacy, officeholding and bureaucracy, and political economy. The sort of “sacral politics” that the late Richard Trexler studied in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Florence has been relatively neglected by modern historians of the mid- and late-sixteenth-century city (although art historians have had a field day with it), and when religion has been investigated, the emphasis has been on heterodoxy and resistance (Savonarolism, evangelicals) rather than on mainstream Catholicism and the ways in which Cosimo and his court interacted with it.
In his first chapter Murry takes up the theme of apotheosis, arguing that the imagery propagated in Cosimo’s court that referred to him or portrayed him as “a god” deserves to be treated as a serious aspect of Cosimo’s striving for legitimacy. The fact that Cosimo succeeded so well was owing, Murry says, to a longstanding tradition, prominent in fifteenth-century humanist culture, concerning the ability of exceptional human beings to become “divine.” Whereas John O’Malley and others have found that in the Renaissance Christ (and, therefore, God) was seen as increasingly human, Murry has man becoming not only “divine,” “like a god,” or “a God on earth” (citing Pico della Mirandola and others) but now, in the case of Cosimo, simply “a god.” How seriously this was meant at the time remains an open question, and possibly Murry takes it too far, but the imagery was certainly there. The second chapter shows how contemporary debates over divine Providence offered arguments that could be used to explain Cosimo’s unexpected success as a manifestation of divine will. Machiavelli and Savonarola are treated in subsequent chapters that challenge the received view—by now a historical topos—of Cosimo as a ruthless prince who was following Machiavelli with every step. Here Murry shows the extent to which Cosimo’s court nurtured a bevy of anti-Machiavellians, and he demonstrates that Cosimo’s legislation on morals was obviously cribbed from Savonarola’s playbook. Chapters on Cosimo as a “patron”—involving some helpful, fresh digging in the sources concerning church benefices—and as a defender of “the sacred,” underline the extent to which Cosimo relied upon and manipulated traditional modes of government and social control in the wielding of princely power in formerly republican Florence.
The book’s narrative soft-pedals the brutal means that this Medici duke sometimes employed. Historians on the Left in Italy used to liken Cosimo I to Josef Stalin, thinking this a compliment to both men. Here instead we find soft power, gift-giving, and a morals campaign. Murry treats Cosimo as eager to be seen as a “peacemaker” (p. 128), although the Sienese surely thought of him the way present-day Ukrainians think about Vladimir Putin. But the propagandistic strategies that Murry persuasively documents were clearly essential to Cosimo’s success. Murry has done particularly fine work on a series of sixteenth-century treatises and elogia, on the archival documents concerning church benefices, and (in the manner of Samuel Cohn) on the pious bequests in testaments. In the notes the only significant study missed by this writer was...