Under the Medici duchy Florence’s ottimati were transformed from a civic elite into a disciplined courtly aristocracy. Although the process began with the elder Lorenzo and was not complete until the seventeenth century, Cosimo’s reign was crucial. Backed by his imperial protectors, he finally deprived the ottimati of their traditional political role, even if they relinquished it quite as much as it was taken from them. Cosimo compensated them with protection from the popolo and with new forms of social prestige, including the court and its rituals, a military-religious order that defined aristocratic status, and the beginnings of what became a flood of “noble” titles that persist to this day. Alliances between monarchy and aristocracy were common in early modern Europe, since they needed each other, as Machiavelli said in the Discourses. But in Florence this alliance was new to a political culture that had known neither, and it finally made of the Florentine elite a “nobility” in a compact in which it yielded power in return for prestige and honors, just as the popolo had 150 years earlier.
Florence’s republican traditions and urban physiognomy constrained the emergence of the Medici court. One problem was where to put it; another was whether and how to keep court, government, and ducal residence distinct. Symbolically rejecting old notions of the Medici as citizens among others, in 1540 Cosimo abandoned the family palace on the via Larga and moved with his new bride Eleonora da Toledo into the old palace of the priors, thus physically occupying and politically transforming the seat of former republican sovereignty. But the palace was still the locus of government, and the awkward cohabitation of ducal residence and government offices recalled the days when Piero Soderini also lived in the palace with his wife. Since this was not a comparison Cosimo wanted to encourage, in 1549 he and Eleonora bought and moved their growing family into Luca Pitti’s palazzo across the river. But the “palazzo vecchio,” as the “old” or former quarters of the ducal family was now referred to, remained the official residence and ceremonial site, with the former hall of the Great Council transformed into the “sala d’udienza.”738 But Cosimo lived regularly neither in the old palace nor at Pitti, preferring to move among his many residences in the city, countryside, and even Pisa. To the extent that the court followed him, it was thus mobile and had slow and small beginnings. Even by the 1560s it supported only 168 persons, less than half the average size of other Italian courts. Only in the early seventeenth century did the court count a “respectable” 457 persons with annual expenses of 130,000 scudi. Cosimo spent much less than that and took dwindling interest in defining protocol and ceremonial rituals; indeed, the earliest diaries of Florentine court etiquette date only from 1589. In 1561 the Venetian ambassador reported that, whereas Cosimo once had a lavish table to which any and all courtiers were invited, kept a “regal stable” of horses, and spent much on hunting, now “he keeps only what he needs” and “is quite withdrawn and solitary. At home he doesn’t really live like a prince with the exquisite luxuries that other princes and dukes are accustomed to. He lives like a grand padre di famiglia and always eats with his wife and children at a moderately elaborate table.” Cosimo apparently lost his taste for court life, but he initiated the acculturation of his elite subjects into a courtly discipline that took deeper root under his successors.739
Since Florence had never had a titled nobility, Cosimo had to create one, or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof. His chief instrument was the Order of the Knights of Santo Stefano, named in honor of the martyr pope and saint commemorated on August 2, the date of the victories over the rebel exiles in 1537 and 1554. Established in 1562 with its own endowment (hence, again, at no cost to the government) Santo Stefano was a military and pseudo-religious order whose mission, formally at least, was to constitute a navy and make the duchy a Mediterranean power. Its ranks were filled by ducal decree, with Cosimo himself as Gran Maestro. In a memorandum in his own hand, Cosimo outlined the knights’ obligation to give service at court each year in designated rotations, with lifetime annuities awarded to the “worthiest” among them who thus “become the prince’s slaves.” According to the statutes written by auditori Francesco Vinta and Lelio Torelli and court historian Benedetto Varchi, admission required application and “proofs of nobility” for both paternal and maternal grandparents. Implementing such notions in a society whose elites had eschewed titles, and whose intellectuals from as early as Dante had insisted that nobility was in deeds and not blood, took creativity, flexibility, and no doubt a sense of humor, as merchants, cloth manufacturers, doctors, and even some ducal secretaries made the case for their “nobility” while enhancing their chances of approval by providing their own endowments. Cosimo admitted whomever he wanted, and acceptance into the Order was more than anything a sign of the prince’s favor. Florentines were actually a minority among the knights of Santo Stefano, as Cosimo and his successors admitted large numbers of non-Florentines from their Tuscan dominions, Italians beyond Tuscany, and some foreigners, including of course Spaniards. Of 392 applicants accepted in the first decade, half were Tuscan and only a hundred Florentine; by 1631 over 400 Florentines and 600 other Tuscans had been admitted, and by the end of the grand duchy in 1737 the 1,000 Florentines made knights of Santo Stefano since 1562 constituted little more than a third of all Tuscans given the honor. Having to wait in line with “upstarts” of humble origins from the city and the dominion to join the ranks of the knights constantly reminded the ottimati that their place in the new ducal order depended on the prince’s pleasure.63 Cosimo’s improvised and socially heterogeneous “nobility” rendered increasingly obsolete the division between the old social elite and the popolo, as well as that between Florentine citizens and inhabitants of territories they once considered subject to them. As families from throughout the dominion became increasingly prominent both locally and in the ducal administration,64 the city elite that for so long competed with the popolo and the Medici for supremacy in the republic now contented itself with its share of the new noble order and with its decidedly un-noble role as functionaries in the ducal bureaucracy.65
63 F. Angiolini, I cavalieri e il principe: I’Ordine di Santo Stefano e la societa toscana in eta moderna (Florence, 1996), pp. 1-45, 67-82; Angiolini, “Politica, societa e organizzazione militare nel principato mediceo: a proposito di una ‘Memoria’ di Cosimo I,” Societa e storia 9 (1986): 47-51.
64 G. Benadusi, A Provincial Elite in Early Modern Tuscany: Family and Power in the Creation of the State (Baltimore, 1996).
65 Litchfield, Emergence of a Bureaucracy.
What the Order of Santo Stefano did for ottimati, the academies did for writers and artists. In 1540 a small group of literati began meeting informally and then organized themselves into the Accademia degli Umidi for the promotion of the Tuscan vernacular. Cosimo and his advisers were suspicious of unauthorized associations, and within weeks new members, mostly from his inner circle, joined the association, rewrote its statutes, changed its name to the Accademia Fiorentina, and prepared it for incorporation in 1542 into the ducal administrative apparatus. Among its officers were censors who monitored members’ writings and public lectures. Cosimo and his secretaries controlled the membership and intervened with further reforms in 1547 and 1553 to contain disputes with tactical exclusions and readmissions.740 To a few carefully selected writers and humanists among the exiles he offered the chance to return without abjuring their republican pasts. Piero Vettori, an orator of the last republic, returned to a university post in 1538; in 1543 Benedetto Varchi returned and accepted a stipend, a prominent role in the Accademia Fiorentina, and, shortly thereafter, the commission to write the history of the last republic.741 In 1562 Cosimo created the Accademia del Disegno for painters, sculptors, and architects, and had its statutes drafted by six artists, including Bronzino and Giorgio Vasari, under the supervision of his first secretary Torelli and the humanist and ducal official Vincenzo Borghini, who presided over the academy as the duke’s lieutenant. The statutes emphasized obedience to the duke as the “benevolent father of the men of the arts” and reminded the consuls that they were administrative officers who “must not presume to act on their own authority.” When protests over exclusions followed the admission of the first seventy-five members, Borghini assured Cosimo that they were nothing more than the “outbursts of children.” In providing aspiring artists with instruction in mathematics, geometry, anatomy, and other subjects, and also functioning as a confraternity for charity, devotional activities, and funerals, the Academy offered both social and professional benefits and impressed upon its members the “rewards of conformity.”742
Religious policy was largely a function of the duchy’s relations with the papacy. Because of his many disputes with Paul III (1534-49), Cosimo initially tolerated heterodox religious ideas, particularly the “evangelism” of Juan de Valdes and the mix of Lutheranism and Calvinism in the immensely popular Benefit of Christ of Benedetto Fontanini of Mantua. Only when the decrees of the Council of Trent and the necessity of better relations with subsequent popes mandated a tougher policy did Cosimo’s government join the suppression of heresy, although never with the consistent severity practiced elsewhere. But with one group, the Dominicans at San Marco who continued to venerate the memory of Savonarola, albeit with no following in the laity, Cosimo had no patience whatsoever. When, in 1545, he was told that a friar was preaching Savonarolan doctrines, questioning the legitimacy of Cosimo’s rule, and calling for a return to popular government, Cosimo accused them all of conspiring with France against him and tried to have the Dominicans removed from San Marco and replaced by Augustinians. Paul III blocked this, but two years later Cosimo persuaded the Dominican order to allow him to banish any friars he saw as threats.743 By this time the old Savonarolan prophetic message had lost its appeal, and Cosimo probably overreacted. But in the mid-1540s a still insecure regime needed to deliver the message that, despite its tolerance for mild religious heterodoxy, there would be none at all for political dissent.