Civic Humanism and the Rise of the Medici [*]

By Jurdjevig, Mark | Renaissance Quarterly, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

Civic Humanism and the Rise of the Medici [*]


Jurdjevig, Mark, Renaissance Quarterly


This article analyzes the intellectual content of civic humanism in the specific context of Medici power, asking the question: what ideological role did civic humanism play in Medicean Florence? It argues that there is no contradiction between the ideals of civic humanism and support for the Medici regime. On the contrary, civic humanism could he used to justify and legitimate Medici power. The article analyzes the writings of principal humanists such as Leonardo Bruni, Poggio Bracciolini, and Francesco Filelfo, showing that Hans Barons republican "civic humanism" was compatible with different constitutional forms and different distributions of power.

The most striking political development of the Florentine Quattrocento, a century with no shortage of dramatic conflicts and personalities, was the sudden and unexpected rise to power of the Medici family as unofficial lords of Florence. The most distinctive intellectual development was the genesis of what Hans Baron dubbed "civic humanism," a movement that influenced and shaped Italian philosophy throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and western European philosophy in subsequent centuries. [1] This article connects these two developments by assessing the personality and career of the first architect of Medicean political domination in Florence, Cosimo "il Vecchio" de' Medici, in light of some of the principles and assumptions held by the city's civic humanists.

Still today, after forty years of debate and revision, Baron's thesis continues to provide the backdrop for current reevaluations of civic humanism and its role in Florentine politics. [2] In The Crisis of the Early Italian Renaissance, Baron formulated one of this century's most influential and articulate arguments for the impact of politics on the intellectual life of the early Quattrocento. [3] Baron identified the territorial aggression of the tyrannical Milanese Visconti as a critical catalyst for the birth of Florentine civic humanism. To make sense of their lonely stand against the awesome power of Visconti Milan, Baron argued, Florentines were forced into a process of rigorous self-analysis that affirmed the values for which they were fighting: freedom of speech, free access to political office, equality of all citizens before the law, and self-government -- in short, the fundamentals of modern democracy. Only the unexpected death of Duke Giangaleazzo in 1402 saved the Florentine republic from becomi ng yet another addition to the growing territory of despotic Milan. Florentine humanists saw their salvation as a human triumph of freedom over tyranny, republicanism over despotism. Baron believed that the influential and intense republican philosophy of civic humanism grew out of this perception, thereby ensuring the transmission of democracy from antiquity to the modern era.

Baron's bold and extreme claims for the legacy of civic humanism and the democratic nature of Florentine politics generated instant controversy and debate. In the ensuing academic exchange on the validity of Baron's theories, almost every aspect of his argument, from his methodology to his assumptions about Florentine politics to the republican component of civic humanism itself, has come under close scrutiny, resulting in some cases in a demand for revision, qualification, or outright rejection. The literature on Baron and his thesis is too vast to summarize here, nor is it necessary to do so because this paper focuses on only one aspect of civic humanism -- its relationship to Florentine domestic politics. [4] Baron received cogent criticism for being insufficiently critical in his analysis of civic humanism's relationship to Florentine political reality. Current scholarship on this question is moving towards a consensus.

Recent interpretations now see civic humanism as evidence of the triumph of oligarchic and elitist republicanism. [5] John Najemy has provided the most sustained and explicit argument for this interpretation.

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