The Medici family were not exempt from the usual failings of Renaissance tyrants, but
early on in his rise to power Cosimo the Elder (1389-1464) revealed a surprisingly en-
lightened self-interest and an exceptional eye for art. Although he held no elected office,
Cosimo served as ambassador for the Church, and through his behind-the-scenes diplomat-
ic skills managed to finagle a rare 25-year stretch of relative peace for Florence. When a
conspiracy led by competing banking interests exiled him from the city in 1433, some of
Cosimo's favourite artists split town with him, including Donatello and Fra' Angelico.
But they weren't gone long: Cosimo's banking interests were too important to Florence,
and he returned triumphant after just one year to crush his rivals, exert even greater behind-
the-scenes control and sponsor masterpieces such as Brunelleschi's legendary dome for
Florence's duomo (cathedral).
But sponsorship from even the most enlightened and powerful patrons had its downside:
their whims could make or break artists and they attracted powerful enemies. Lorenzo de'
Medici (Lorenzo Il Magnifico; 1449-92) was a legendary supporter of the arts and human-
ities, providing crucial early recognition and support for Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botti-
celli and Michelangelo Buonarroti, among others.
But after Lorenzo escaped an assassination attempt by a conspiracy among the rival
Florentine Pazzi family, the king of Naples and the pope, the artists he supported had to
look elsewhere for sponsorship until Lorenzo could regain his position. Religious reformer
Savonarola took an even darker view of Lorenzo and the classically influenced art he pro-
moted, viewing it as a sinful indulgence in a time of great suffering. When Savonarola ous-
ted the Medici in 1494, he decided that their decadent art had to go, too, and works by Bot-
ticelli, Michelangelo and others went up in flames in the massive 'Bonfire of the Vanities'
on Florence's Piazza della Signoria.