Within the confined space of the walled city of Medicean Florence was a web formed of overlapping identities and loyalties: family and kin, parish, neighbourhood, gonfalone and quarter, confraternity, guild, and, of course, the city itself. Mediating these identities were the cults of saints, who were patrons of institutions and people. The relationship between patron saints, family identity, iconography, and sacred space was therefore a crucial one. This article will look at the Medici and their saints, but will concentrate on the choice of the Dominican saint Peter Martyr (1205-1252) as an onomastic figuration for Piero di Cosimo de’ Medici (1416-1469).
When an individual was named, he was given an identity, and metaphorically, his soul. Naming patterns of medieval and Renaissance Florence have been studied by Dale Kent, Francis Ames-Lewis, John Paoletti, Susan McKillop, John Herlihy and Christiane Klapisch-Zuber, among others. The tissue connecting names, saints, patronage and intercession is neatly demonstrated by a letter from Fra Romolo de’ Medici asking for Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici’s help in repairing the church of San Damiano in Assisi. Written in 1417, Fra Romolo reminds Giovanni of the crucifix that commanded Saint Francis to repair his church. Woven throughout the letter are references to saints Cosmas and Damian, and their importance to Giovanni. Added to the letter is the following: ‘Our lord Jesus Christ, who baptized Saint Francis. In Baptism he was given the name Giovanni; then he was called Francis in adult age, and he was [the] first [person] called Francis who was in the world, and you, Giovanni, in the will of God do not refuse but accept it.’
Between 1434 and 1455 a number of works executed for the Medici family depict Saint Peter Martyr as an onomastic saint for Piero di Cosimo de’ Medici. Although saints could be used to establish a recognisable familial identity, the motive was not necessarily cynical. Saints were, after all, intercessors between a terrestrial world that could be measured and sold, and a celestial one where one traded in the accumulated virtues of the treasury of merit. Florentine documents frequently refer to saints as ‘our advocates’ in the ‘celestial court of Paradise’. The word ‘advocate’ designates a practical relationship of patron and client. Where the foundation of chapels and the provision for their decoration was a transaction designed to ease the passage of one’s soul from this world to the next, the choice of patron saints that could also serve as dynastic symbols is not, surely, one that only seeks the advertisement of a family’s worldly status and glory. The memory of family members could perhaps be more easily retained in a few generations by the identification with a patron saint, especially if that saint was a powerful intercessor in the civic pantheon.
The Medici and Saints Names
A strategy appears to have governed the choice of Medicean names. In a practice departing from the common Florentine custom of naming one’s eldest child after one’s own father, Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici named his eldest son, born in 1389, Cosimo. Giovanni’s choice may have been influenced by the arrival of twin brothers (some sources maintain that Cosimo had a twin brother, Damiano, who died in infancy) and can also be seen against a backdrop of an increased practice of naming children after patron saints. Cosimo was born on the 11th April, nowhere near the feast day of SS. Cosmas and Damian on the 27th September. However, in later life, perhaps recognizing the usefulness in associating himself with the saintly doctors, Cosimo celebrated his birthday on that date. So successful was the association that Niccolò Machiavelli believed that Cosimo was born on the feast of Saints Cosmas and Damian. The names are not found in the lineage of Piccarda Bueri (1363-1433), Cosimo’s mother.
What could the cult of Saints Cosmas and Damian have meant to Giovanni in 1389? Saints Cosmas and Damian were early Christian physicians, martyred in 258 for refusing to worship idols. Their legend was well known, as it was included in Jacopo da Varazze’s popular Legenda Aurea of the thirteenth century. The most compelling reason for Giovanni to have chosen the name Cosmas for his son is the word play between the Italian word ‘Medici’, meaning ‘doctors’, and the roles of the early Christian saints themselves. The cult of Saints Cosmas and Damian was, while not a civic feast or a widespread one, certainly known. The church of San Martino was dedicated to saints Cosmas and Damin in the eleventh century and was only later re-dedicated to Saint Martin; as Kent points out, this may have played a role in Medicean involvement in the confraternity known as the Buonuomini di San Martino, founded by Antonino, the Observant Dominican archbishop of Florence, in 1442. Giovanni di Bicci worked predominately in Rome during the period of Cosimo’s birth, and would have known the Roman church of SS. Cosmas and Damian and seen the mosaics depicting the saints in its apse. Giovanni’s personal devotion to Saints Cosmas and Damian is shown by his ownership in 1418 of a private altarpiece depicting them. The letter of Fra Romolo, as noted above, uses Giovanni’s devotion to the saints to elicit funds for the reconstruction of San Damiano. The fact that one of the posthumous miracles attributed to the saints in the Legenda Aurea was the cure of gout may not be insignificant, given its continuous appearance in the family. Whatever the origins of Cosimo’s name, the continued devotion to and promotion of the cult of these saints by the Medici is in no doubt. By 1473, family identification with these saints was so complete that a correspondent of Piero di Cosimo’s wife, Lucrezia Tornabuoni could refer to them as ‘our protectors and advocates.’
Saint Cosmas is the only possible onomastic saint that could be identified with Cosimo di Giovanni de’ Medici (1389-1464). This is not the case with Piero, the name of Cosimo’s son. Piero di Cosimo, born on the 14th June 1416, was the eldest son of Cosimo, yet was not named after his grandfather, Giovanni. It was Cosimo’s second son, born on the 3rd June 1421, that bore his grandfather’s name. No significant saint named Peter has a feast day on or near the 14th of June, or indeed, the 16th June, the birth date that Piero claimed. The nearest significant date to Piero’s birth is the 29th June, the feast of Saint Peter Apostle. Why then, should the name Piero have been chosen instead of Giovanni? And at what stage was it decided that Saint Peter Martyr should be the patronal saint rather than Saint Peter Apostle?
Saint Peter Martyr and Florence
Saint Peter Martyr was born in Verona in 1205 and joined the Dominican order, receiving the habit from the hands of Saint Dominic himself in Bologna. Peter was himself the child of Cathar heretics and preached fervently in Milan against the heresy. He was martyred in Como in 1252 when he was set upon by bandits one of whom struck a blow at his head with an axe three times. In between the blows he wrote ‘Credo in te Deum’ on the ground. Originally buried in San Simpliciano, Milan, and then transferred to S. Eustorgio, he was canonised only a year after his death in 1253. He had been called to Florence in 1244 in order to preach against the Patarene heresy there. The Patarene heresy was rapidly associated with Ghibellinism in Florence as elsewhere, and in Florence, to be orthodox both in religion and politics was to be Guelph. According to the sixteenth-century historian, Scipione Ammirato, Peter fought the heretics not only with words but with armed combat, aided particularly by the Rossi family. The legend was that the white banner with the red cross of the popolo, given to Florence by Pope Clement III in 1187 and held by the Gonfalonier of Justice, had been blessed by Saint Peter Martyr and given to the head of the Rossi family before an important victory over the Ghibellines in 1244. His connection with Florence was important in the construction of city’s image as Guelph.
The cult of Saint Peter Martyr was strong in Florence, although perhaps not as ubiquitously celebrated as that of Saint Peter Apostle. The standard that he used, referred to above, was exhibited along with his relics every year on his feast day in Santa Maria Novella. A column that had been erected to celebrate the victory of the fourth-century Saint Zenobius over the Arian heresy in the area known as Croce al Trebbio was surmounted in 1308 by a granite cross to commemorate the victory of Saint Peter Martyr over different heretics in the thirteenth century. Saint Peter Martyr was also connected with the church of the Santissima Annunziata, the great site of patronage for Piero di Cosimo de’ Medici from the 1440s onwards. Peter Martyr had protected the original Servites from the papal ban on new orders and oversaw the instigation of their rule. The Servites too could be associated with Guelphism and orthodoxy by virtue of a bull issued by Innocent IV in 1252 in which all those who took the Servite habit were absolved from censure for having followed the Imperial cause.
In 1254 the General Chapter of the Dominican order directed that SS. Peter Martyr and Dominic were to be represented in every Dominican church. The cult of Saint Peter Martyr was naturally diffused by the Dominicans and found a ready home in their Florentine church of Santa Maria Novella. The confraternity of San Pier Martire e Laude della Vergine Maria, founded between 1244-5, met in Santa Maria Novella. It remained closely tied with the church, as one its captains always included a Dominican friar. The so-called Rucellai Madonna painted by Duccio was commissioned by this confraternity, and depicted Saint Peter Martyr, along with other Dominican saints and beati on its pilasters. Another confraternity, the Compagnia di Santa Maria, was founded by Saint Peter Martyr himself in order to combat the heresy. In 1267 it took responsibility for administering the Bigallo hospital, and became known popularly as the Compagnia del Bigallo. By 1325 the feast day of Saint Peter Martyr was celebrated by the city itself.