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Myth, Ritual and Orthodoxy: Cosimo de’ Medici and Saint Peter Martyr.

Apart from San Marco, Saint Peter Martyr is used as a figuration for Piero di Cosimo in a lunette painted by Fra Filippo Lippi, probably for the Medici palace in Via Larga, (fig.8)

Fig.8 Fra Lippo Lippi

and an altarpiece painted by Baldovinetti for the Medici villa in Cafaggiolo. (fig.9) The lunette by Filippo Lippi depicting seven

saints is almost certainly a Medicean commission, but whether it was excecuted for old palace on the Via Larga, inhabited by Pierfrancesco di Lorenzo de’ Medici or for the new palace, inhabited by Cosimo and Piero de’ Medici, is uncertain. Unlike the other works treated so far, this lunette, although religious in iconography, was secular in function, and was probably painted to serve as furniture.The central position is occupied by the patron saint of Florence, John the Baptist. He is flanked by Saints Cosmas and Damian, and, on the right, by Saints Francis and Laurence, and on the left, Saints Anthony Abbot and Peter Martyr.

Fig. 9 Baldinovetti

The saints are typical of the paintings

discussed so far, although here John the Baptist replaces John the Evangelist,

and Saint Anthony Abbot makes his first onomastic appearance. Litta referred

to two brothers of Cosimo who died in infancy: his twin, Damiano, and another

child, Antonio, who died in 1398. Ames-Lewis noted the clear presence of

a dead tree behind Anthony Abbot, which could indicate a figuration of a

dead brother of Cosimo, and strengthens his argument (accepted here) that

the brothers of Cosimo are figured, as well as the following generation,

Pierfrancesco di Lorenzo and Piero di Cosimo (by Saints Francis and Peter

Martyr respectively). Further, both he and Davies suggest that it was painted

in 1448 after the birth of Lorenzo di Piero.

The Cafaggiolo altarpiece is usually dated to after 1454 due to the presence of Saint Julian, the name saint of Giuliano di Piero, born in 1453. However, Kent demonstrates that the chapel had already been dedicated to Saints Julian and Francis when it was in the ownership of Averardo de’ Medici, and that Giuliano di Piero and Giuliano di Averardo may both have been named after the chapel (or the cause of the chapel’s devotion). The Virgin, here looking down on a prostrate Child in a pietà arrangement, is surrounded by, on the left Saints Cosmas, Damian and John the Baptist, and on the right, Saints Laurence, Julian and Anthony Abbot. Kneeling in front (in a similar pose to Saints Cosmas and Damian in the San Marco altarpiece), are, on the left, Saint Francis, and on the right, Saint Peter Martyr. The location of these saints in the front may refer to their ecclesiastical reforms, and to the names of Cosimo’s son, Piero, and Lorenzo di Giovoanni’s son, Pierfrancesco, as well as to the dedication of the chapel to Saint Francis.

Saint Peter Martyr versus Saint Peter Apostle

Thus, although the presence of Saint Peter Martyr in San Marco itself is not surprising, his prominence within Medicean iconography there and elsewhere (in the Franciscan Bosco ai Frati, particularly, there is no reason for a Dominican saint) clearly identifies him as the onomastic patron of Piero di Cosimo de’ Medici. In the early 1430s there seems little reason why Saint Peter Apostle could not have been depicted as an onomastic saint for Piero di Cosimo. Saint Peter Apostle was naturally identified with the papacy, and was certainly not ignored in Medicean commissions. He appears in the San Lorenzo sacristy, and in the predella panel of the Bosco ai Frati altarpiece. However, certainly in the latter, his position in the predella panel indicates that he does not appear as Piero’s name saint. The Medici were the pope’s bankers and a semiotic association with the papacy could easily have been drawn by the choice of Saint Peter Apostle. The relationship with the papacy was not always untroubled, but papal associations are, as Kent has observed, generally to be welcomed. The identification with Saint Peter Apostle would appear to be more appropriate, given his role as apostle of Christ, founder of the Christian church and gatekeeper not only of the church, but of heaven itself.

The feast of Saint Peter Apostle was important in this ardently Guelph city. Every Easter Monday the chapter of the cathedral processed to the ancient church of San Pier Maggiore. On the feast of Saint Peter Apostle the church received civic honours, when the chief magistrate of the city would offer wax and the following day a horse race was run in the saint’s honour. The Benedictine church of San Pier Maggiore was dominated by the patronage of the Albizzi, a family synonymous with the ruling oligarchy that had exiled Cosimo. This family had patronal rights to at least five chapels within the church, including the high chapel, dedicated to Saint Nicholas. On the feast day of Saint Nicholas, the nuns were to remember the Albizzi family by giving gifts of falcole (torches or large candles) to each member of the family and to provide a meal for the clergy who had participated in the Mass that morning. The nuns were also to present two tinche (tench fish) in gelatine to the oldest of the family, with seven almonds each. And, at the beginning of the gospel the sixteen falcole would rise over the chapel containing the holy relics brought from Jerusalem by Lando degli Albizzi. The tombs of the Albizzi were in this church, including that of Maso, the father of Rinaldo degli Albizzi, the leader of the faction responsible for Cosimo’s exile.

The church itself had been founded long before 1067 and occupied an important place in Florentine religious ritual. Whenever a new bishop of Florence (or, after 1419, a new archbishop), he would stay overnight in the convent of San Pier Maggiore and give its abbess a ring, in a ritual which symbolised the marriage of the bishop to the Florentine church. The bishop would also cede the horse used in his entrance to the city (mirrored on Christ’s entry to Jerusalem) to the abbess, and then give the saddle and reins to whatever family had won rights to it. In the fifteenth century, this was the Strozzi, like the Albizzi, another anti-Medicean oligarchic family. In 1442 this ceremony was conducted by the Bishop of Rome himself, Pope Eugenius IV.

Another important Petrine monument was the fresco cycle by Masaccio and Masolino in the Brancacci chapel in Santa Maria del Carmine. The choice of scenes referring to Christ’s views on taxation has been convincingly linked to the imposition of a new tax, the catasto, in 1427. The ‘Tribute Money’ scene, in which Christ both acknowledges his exemption from the tax but submits to taxation anyway, can be seen as a reflection of contemporary events. Felice di Michele Brancacci, one of the wealthiest men in Florence, came from the very oligarchic background that clamoured against the imposition of this tax, yet he paid it anyway, thus showing his love and duty towards the city of his birth. Such a cycle must have inevitably reminded the viewer not only of taxation (which was an ever-present burden due to the continuous warfare of the 1430s and 1440s) but also of figures such as Felice Brancacci, who had been exiled along with many other citizens on Cosimo’s return in 1434.

Why then, in 1434, after Cosimo’s return from exile, was Saint Peter Martyr identified with Medicean patronage? Linked with the attractions of Saint Peter Martyr as a saint of Florentine monastic and church reform, there may have been also have been some difficulty with the cult of Saint Peter Apostle. If Peter Apostle was identified as a name saint of Piero de’ Medici, then Medicean exclusion from the ritual surrounding S. Pier Maggiore would be evident. It must be noted that those rituals honoured two Florentine families that were hostile to the Medici: the Albizzi and the Strozzi. The presence of a powerful fresco cycle of the life of Saint Peter focusing on the uncomfortable issues of taxation and submission and recalling the exile of so many prominent citizens may also have made the cult of Saint Peter apostle less attractive. Perhaps too the ubiquity of Saint Peter Apostle would also prove to be useless in promoting a familial identity; after all, the patron of the city, Saint John the Baptist, could be identified with no single family despite, or perhaps because of, the numerous children named Giovanni in Florence. The 1440s saw an increased interest in Saint Peter the Apostle as the battle of Anghiari was won on his feast day, the 29th June. The Medici did take account of the feast, with Cosimo leading a procession of the Confraternity of the Purification of the Virgin and Saint Zenobius in San Marco in 1444. The desire to deflect attention from Petrine rituals celebrated by anti-Medicean families, if it existed, was, however, weaker than the interest in and devotion to Saint Peter Martyr, the Dominican saint who had triumphed over heresy in Florence itself, who had witnessed the origins of Dominican history and who had finally been assassinated for his beliefs.

Observant reform

The Observant movement aimed at returning the religious orders to the original ideas of their founders, before corruption, as it saw it, came in. It was strongly supported by Eugenius IV, who had joined an Observant order himself and of whom Vespasiano said: ‘He imposed it in lieu of the Conventual rule wherever he could: indeed, he would say that, if God would give him grace enough, he would bring all religious persons under the Observantists.’ Originally the Observant aim had been to introduce reform in at least one house in each province, but not to introduce competition with the older Conventual houses. Instead, the principles of reform would spread from the Observant house to the Conventual ones. The Dominican General Chapter of 1421 made its aim to have at least one observant house in every province. The Observant Dominican reform began with Giovanni Dominici’s foundation of San Domenico in Fiesole, in 1406.

The near contemporary chronicle of the convent of San Marco written by its prior, Giulio Lapaccini, explicitly attributes the acquisition of the convent to the influence of Cosimo and Lorenzo de’ Medici. San Marco had been occupied from the 1290s by the Silvestrine Order, a branch of the Benedictines. However, an enquiry was launched on the feast of the Epiphany, 1419 by Martin V into charges, brought by parishioners, into Silvestrine corruption. The Observant Dominicans obtained a bull from Pope Martin V on the 16th January 1420 which gave them the Silvestrine property of San Marco in Florence, although they were unable to force the Silvestrines to move. By 1435 they were strong enough to renew their attacks on the corruption of the Silvestrines and the monks were ordered to vacate the premises but contested the order. By January 1436 (when Cosimo de’ Medici was Gonfaloniere di Giustizia), the Dominicans and Silvestrines were ordered to exchange residences by Pope Eugenius IV. The litigation continued at the Council of Basel, with the Observant Dominican case being argued by the eminent Juan de Torquemada (1388-1468).

Cosimo’s private intentions in patronising San Marco can only be guessed at: probably, at 45 years old and suffering from gout, his devotional and political aims were closely intertwined. The devotional aim was that of any other Christian with money, to spend it for the glory of God, and the political aim, to consolidate Medicean power. The manifestations of that power were visual, expressed in the civic and devotional spheres. A programme of building and decoration began in San Marco shortly after the Dominican takeover. Cosimo personally bankrolled the construction of a new dormitory, was an executor of the will of the humanist Niccolò Niccoli and thus ensured that a rich collection of texts went to San Marco. He then financed the construction of the conventual library by the architect of the Medici palace, Michelozzo Michelozzi. Within the church of San Marco he prevailed upon the patrons of the high altar, the Caponsacchi family, to sell their ius patronatus to him. The consecration took place on the feast of the Epiphany, 1443 in the presence of Eugenius IV, and the church was dedicated not only to its former patron, Mark, but also to Saints Cosmas and Damian. The consecration was accompanied by the spectacle of the Magi procession, a procession by a youth confraternity that took place once every five years only, due to its enormous cost and opulence. This year happened to be one of the five. The Epiphany was also the anniversary of Pope Martin V’s bull granting San Marco to the Dominicans. After the consecration, Eugenius spent the night, his last in Florence, in Cosimo’s cell.

Cosimo was clearly interested in the monastic life; as already mentioned, Cassian’s Monastic Institutes was a heavily annotated manuscript of Cosimo’s library in 1418 and Cosimo had private cells built for him both in San Marco and the Observant Augustinian Badia in Fiesole. He supported the Dominican Observant reform in San Domenico and San Marco, the Franciscan Observant reform at Bosco ai Frati and the Augustinian reform at the Badia in Fiesole. Cosimo also gave alms to the Observant nuns of San Domenico in Pisa. He gave support to the Observant Franciscans who looked after the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Linked with Cosimo’s interest in the reformed orders was his close interest in the reform and unity of the church.


The Council of Florence

A close relationship had been forged between the Medici and the papacy, and, for commercial reasons at least, both Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici and Cosimo followed the church councils. Cosimo had attended the Council of Constance, a council which had the two- fold aim, to resolve the Great Western schism and to eradicate heresy. It was there that he forged a friendship with the humanist Leonardo Bruni, and instigated searches throughout Europe for humanist texts. Other important figures in the nexus of relations between the papacy, the Medici and the Observance were also at the Council in Constance: figures such as Juan de Torquemada, who had defended the Observant Dominicans against the Silvestrines at Basel, Giovanni Dominici, the founder of San Domenico, Fiesole, and Leonardo Dati, the General of the Dominican Order who helped the Observant Dominicans build up their convent in Fiesole. The Medicean relationship with the papacy was confirmed by the post-Conciliar Martin IV, who, in 1421, made the Medici bank responsible as the curia depositary of the apostolic chamber. Cosimo had a more personal association with Eugenius IV. In 1434, Eugenius, resident at that time in Santa Maria Novella, sent the archbishop of Florence, Giovanni Vitelleschi to intervene and prevent the anti-Medicean attempt to depose the new pro-Medicean government and thus facilitated the return of Cosimo.

A council for the union of the Greek and Latin churches had always been desirable, and in the 1430s, for the Greeks, threatened with increased Turkish power and needing western money and support, essential. Florentine planning for the union of the Greek and Roman churches dated to at least 1434, with the involvement of Bartolomeo Lapacci, a learned Dominican friar of Santa Maria Novella. The Council of Basel opened in 1431, the Medici had opened a bank there by 1433. The Council had the aim of furthering conciliarism as a force to withstand papal plenitude of power and of ending heresy. Eugenius IV had wished to transfer the conciliarist Council of Basel to an Italian city, but his desire had been opposed by many conciliarists. The Turkish advance into Thrace forced the Greek Emperor to look to the West for military aid while contemporaneously, in an effort to secure the support of the pope, propose that unification be sought. Eugenius’ arguments for transfer were now strengthened by the possibility of Greek involvement: it was neither desirable nor practical for the Greeks to travel inland as far as Basel. The transfer of the Council to Florence was suggested in 1436 by Roberto Martelli, the Medicean agent in Basel, but conciliarists such as Giuliano Cesarini withdrew from the Council altogether when the Florentine suggestion was put forward. Rumours that the approach to Florence was insecure led to Ferrara being chosen as the host instead, despite Florentine assurances of considerable financial support.

An outbreak of plague provided the pretext, and Eugenius IV’s chronic shortage of funds provided the opportunity for Cosimo and his brother Lorenzo to persuade the pope to move the Council to Florence in early 1439. Cosimo was elected as Gonfaloniere di Giustizia on the 28th December, 1438 and thus was able to welcome the papacy as a civic representative. Eugenius declared the move formally on the 10th January, 1439 and cited not only the purity of the air in Florence, but also its mid-way status between the Mediterranean and Adriatic seas which made it convenient for eastern and western delegates. The enormous costs of moving the Council to Florence were met by Cosimo himself who personally provided the horse transport between the two cities. The transfer of such an important church council to Florence was a diplomatic triumph for Cosimo and Lorenzo de’ Medici. The arrival and departure of prelates, both eastern and western, the pope and the Greek emperor, was marked with pomp and ceremony and was recorded by contemporaries. After many debates and sessions held all over Florence, but primarily in Santa Maria Novella, the bull of union, Laetuntur Coeli was proclaimed on the 6th July 1439.

The council, with its large number of delegates from Europe and the East, was a significant event in Renaissance Florence, and, had been engineered by Cosimo. The spectacle and pageantry, processions and colour were recorded by contemporary chroniclers and diarists. As Holmes has pointed out, Cosimo’s humanist interests provide some motivation for hosting the Council in Florence. The crises that Florence found itself in on the eve of the Council, documented by Buoninsegni and discussed by Molho were manifold: there was a new, uneasy political regime, threatened internally by factional conflict and externally by its own exiles and foreign threats; years of war had taken its toll upon the citizenry and indeed the finances of the city. The benefits to the city of hosting a council would be enormous both in economic terms and in the prestige won. The attention of the city would be focussed upon the Medici and the Council. One immediate practical result of the Council was the concession of trade rights in Byzantium. Diplomatically, Florence had been trying for many years to obtain the confirmation to Florence of privileges that Pisa (conquered by Florence in 1406) had won with Byzantium. These were conceded to Florence only in August 1439.

Saint Peter Martyr was a saint famed, particularly in Florence, for his stance against heresy. It is presumed here that distinction between schismatic and heretic was, not clearly defined in the world of popular imagery and the associations conveyed by that imagery. Further, many of the unions achieved at the Council of Florence make reference to heresies that various confessions believed or were tempted to believe. Saint Peter Martyr was not only a Dominican from the earliest years of Dominican history, but he was also a person who had confronted heresy within Florence itself and conquered it. It must also be remembered that although heresy was not common in Italy by 1439 it was an ongoing problem in Bohemia with the Hussite heresy. The great western schism had ended only with the Council of Constance in 1418: theoretically, half of Europe had been schismatic and excommunicate during the period of the schism. The confusion and difficulties of those times was witnessed by Cosimo and most of his colleagues at the Council of Florence. One of the actions performed by Pope Martin V in Florence on Holy Thursday 1418 (in the piazza of Santa Maria Novella) had been the excommunication of all heretics, schismatics and simonists. Pope Pius II himself had been a follower of the anti-pope elected by the Council of Basel and was brought back into the orthodox Catholic fold only in 1445. Heresy was still seen to be a problem by Antoninus, archbishop of Florence, who prosecuted one Giovanni del Cane of Montecatini in 1450 for the crime and passed him to the secular authorities for burning. In his episcopal constitutions, he urges Florentines to denounce neighbours suspected of heresy. As noted above, Cosimo had good reason to associate himself with the (short-lived) triumph of Laetuntur Coeli and the union of the churches. The preoccupation with church union continued throughout the fifteenth century, with visits to Constantinople by figures such as Bartolomeo Lapacci and Cardinal Bessarion.

A visual reminder of victory over heresy, such as Saint Peter Martyr, was not only useful for Medici family, but, perhaps, also for the Observant Dominicans themselves, who had, like the Observant Franciscans, zealous preachers who had been suspected of heresy. In 1424 the Observant Dominican Manfredi da Vercelli had been summoned from Florence, where he had already been excommunicated by Archbishop Amerigo Corsini and the Dominican Vicar General Leonardo Dati, to answer charges of heresy. A few years later, his Observant Franciscan rival, Fra Bernardino da Siena, had to answer the same charges. Whether the Observant Dominicans were sensitive to suspicions of heresy or not, the ongoing mission of the Dominican order against heresy had been followed by the founder of San Domenico, Giovanni Dominici, who had died in Bohemia preaching against the Hussites. The cult of Saint Peter Martyr was fostered by the Dominicans in San Marco: the biographer of Antoninus Pierozzi, Francesco Castiglione, also wrote a life of Saint Peter Martyr which was kept in the convent, while the vita used by the Bollandists in the seventeenth century was a fifteenth-century manuscript version of the thirteenth-century life composed by Saint Peter’s contemporary, Fra Tommaso de’ Agni of Leontino which they had found in San Marco.

The Medici had little or no involvement in the Santa Maria Novella quarter; its churches were dominated by old patrician families, many of whom, such as the Strozzi and Rucellai were hostile to or suspicious of the new regime. Santa Maria Novella itself was the prestigious residence of Popes Martin V, Eugenius IV, and Pius II when they were in Florence, and hosted many of the Council of Florence sessions. The Santo Spirito quarter was similarly largely free from Medicean ceremonial influence. It contained the large mendicant parishes of the Carmelite Santa Maria del Carmine and the Augustinian Santo Spirito. The Observant Dominican convent of San Pier Martire, dedicated to Saint Peter Martyr, was also in this quarter. It had been founded partly by the da Uzzano family, prominent in the Albizzi oligarchy of the 1420s. The Medici had shown an interest in the Bigallo; Cosimo de’ Medici had served as confraternity captain in 1425, the year in which it merged with the Compagia della Misericordia.. Although the Bigallo was within the Medicean quarter of San Giovanni, it was in a part of it dominated by the Baptistry and the Cathedral, the two most potent symbols of the religious heart of the city, resistent, for the most part, to impositions of familial patronage or identity.

Fig.10Fra Girolamo Savonarola

By the symbolic relationship between Saint Peter Martyr and his client, Piero di Cosimo de’ Medici, his his cult could develop another centre, in the Medicean endowed San Marco. Images of Saint Peter Martyr found elsewhere, in the Franciscan Bosco ai Frati, and in the Medici residences, could remind the viewer not only of the Medici but also of the Observant Dominican reform, undertaken in San Marco. The cult of Saint Peter Martyr could be celebrated there, which would draw attention away from the old Conventual Dominican house of Santa Maria Novella to both Medici and Observant Dominican advantage. It would similarly detract from the da Uzzano foundation of San Pier Martire in Santo Spirito. The use of Saint Peter Martyr, a Dominican who had fought against heresy by armed combat in Florence itself was surely a potent symbol for the Medici family, instead of a saint that could all too easily be confused with the Pope himself or indeed, with rival families. As a Medicean onomastic saint, his presence could also remind the viewer (be he a Florentine citizen or a religious) of Cosimo’s role in a Church council that had united Eastern and Western traditions and brought many erstwhile heretics into the light of the true faith. Some of these images were not for public consumption and were intended only for friars or the family to meditate upon. The identity, patronal relationships and ancestral memory evoked by these images were as important for Cosimo himself and his family as for any projected Florentine or foreign audience. However, the fusion of Saint Peter Martyr with Medicean identity was not as successful as his fusion with the centre of San Marco: by the end of the fifteenth century the Dominican friar and artist Fra Bartolomeo painted an image of Saint Peter Martyr depicting not Piero di Lorenzo de’ Medici, but the Medicean nemesis, Fra Girolamo Savonarola.. (fig.10).

This article is republished with the kind permission of the Social History Society. The article was first published in the Society’s journal, Cultural and Social History

Dr. Catherine Lawless is a lecturer at the University of Limerick, and co-editor of

Victims or Viragos Volume 4 of the Studies on Medieval and Early Modern Women [Editors Lawless & Meek, Four Courts Press 2005].

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