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Marrissa Ballard
Dr. Trainor
Pell 299/Eng 399
2 December 2014
The Medici and Boccaccio: Renaissance Men
During the Renaissance in Florence, citizens began to move on from classical, medieval
values and embrace new ideas such as humanism and integration. The “Renaissance
Man/Woman” emerged as a description of those who became masters of many different trades.
Many famous Florentines were scholars, poets, painters, architects, politicians, and
mathematicians all at once. Two areas that changed drastically during this period were art and
banking, both of which involved the famous Medici family. The Medici ruled in every part of
Florentine life, including art, politics, and the papacy. Literature also changed and developed
during the Renaissance to fit the new values of the time. Boccaccio laid the foundation for
humanism and helped raise vernacular literature to a higher status. He wrote The Decameron, an
enormous body of work made up of 100 stories, which describes contemporary life during the
Renaissance. The Medici’s rule over Florence and Boccaccio’s contributions to literature,
particularly The Decameron, exemplify the values of the Renaissance; humanism, personal
freedom, and integration.
The Medici were an example of the ideal “Renaissance Man” because they dabbled in so
many areas; they were bankers, scholars, art collectors, and some of the Medici were also
amateur architects. The Medici also ruled and integrated themselves into every area of Florentine
life, including “statesmanship and financial capacity…in civil administration and sympathy with
the feelings of the people,” (Young 11). One of the Medici’s largest contributions to Florentine
society was the creation of the Medici bank and wool factories. The first Medici bank was
founded by Giovanni di Bicci in 1397. New techniques such as double-entry book-keeping and
bills of exchange made the bank successful because the Medici were able to keep neat and
accurate records of the bank’s activity. The Medici’s success came from their political
connections and their roles as both bankers and merchants. The Medici would purchase goods
like spices and tapestries from abroad for their rich clients and sell the goods at higher prices to
make a profit. The Medici also founded wool and silk factories and gained immense wealth from
the wool and silk trades. They were also able to build a hidden interest rate into their loans by
working with foreign currency. The bank would lend money out in one currency and collect the
debt in another. This technique helped them gain more money than their competitors, which
allowed the bank to last for nearly a century.
After the death of Giovanni, Cosimo de’ Medici took control and was responsible for the
expansion of the bank. Under Cosimo, more branches were created in other Italian states such as
Rome and Venice. Cosimo set up alliances that gave the Medici control over most businesses in
Florence. The Medici made most of their money through lending to royalty and public officials.
The branch in Rome was most successful because of its connections to the pope and many other
small parishes. By the 15th century, the Medici bank in Rome became the official bank of the
papacy and the Medici were known as “God’s Bankers” ( The connection
to the papacy brought the Medici immense wealth and power because most Italian citizens
wanted an account with the pope’s personal bank. The Medici presence in Rome and Florence
allowed them to gain political positions in both states. Their innovations revolutionized banking
and these innovations still impact banking today.
The Medici used their wealth and connections to gain political control of Florence. The
Medici started as merchants and bankers and rose gradually until “they became the most
powerful family in Europe,” (Young 10). Through the bank and connections to most businesses
and the papacy, the Medici became well-liked in Florentine society and were able to gain
political positions. Four of the Medici were popes and eventually “there was a Medici on the
throne of nearly every principal country,” (Young 10). Cosimo de’ Medici was exiled by a rival
family in 1433 but he was able to come back because of his many political connections. Cosimo
then furthered the power of the Medici by funding the humanities and arts, which “made
Florence into the cradle of the Renaissance,” where the most innovative art and architecture of
the time was created ( Famous artists such as Botticelli, Brunelleschi, and
Michelangelo were funded by the Medici. Michelangelo and Brunelleschi built several
monuments to the Medici in San Lorenzo, which demonstrated the Medici’s power and
The Medici’s decision to use their wealth to support art and the humanities gave artists
the ability to create new styles and techniques. The Medici collected ancient Greek and classical
texts, creating what is known today as “the most important and prestigious collection of antique
books in Italy,” (Museums in Florence). Their collection of classical texts demonstrates yet
another value of the Renaissance; honoring classical works. Because the Medici were so
wealthy, the artists they commissioned did not have to worry about money, and could often
spend as much as they wanted. This gave the artists in Florence personal freedom over their
projects and allowed them to create beautiful structures like the Laurentian Library. Not only did
the Medici commission beautiful works and buildings, but many of them were actively involved
in the creation process. Pope Clement VII, the Medici responsible for commissioning the
Laurentian Library, traded letters with Michelangelo every other day to check on the progress of
the buildings (Wallace 136). The Medici’s patronage of the arts and humanities emphasized the
importance of humanism and personal freedom. The artists were free to create whatever they
wanted, and could spend as much as they wanted to do so. The Medici also successfully
integrated themselves into the art and architecture of the Renaissance, the areas that are still
closely studied today. Through the buildings and paintings created in their honor and with their
patronage, the Medici immortalized their influence and power.
Through his mastery of business, law, and literature, Giovanni Boccaccio emerges as yet
another example of the “Renaissance Man.” Boccaccio was born in 1313 in Italy. Many of the
details of his early life are unknown but scholars believe he married a woman name Margherita
de’ Mordoli. Margherita’s mother “was a close kin to Dante’s Beatrice,” (Bergin 31). Boccaccio,
through their marriage, had a connection to Dante, a poet whom he loved and admired. He
received most of his information about Dante from Margherita, which fueled his love and study
of poetry. Boccaccio went on to study business but abandoned his business career to pursue
cannon law. His study of law brought him into contact with many famous lawyers of the time,
such as Cino de Pistoia. Pistoia was a lawyer of “great prestige” but was more famous for being
“a friend of Dante” and “a poet himself,” (Bergin 37). Many scholars believe that Boccaccio
learned more about poetry than he did about law under Pistoia’s teaching. Boccaccio’s
admiration of Dante led him to write a biography about the poet in 1355. Later in his life,
Boccaccio gave lectures on Dante’s poems. Boccaccio also held many public offices and served
as a consul on the Arte del Cambio, the Guild of moneylenders. Eventually Boccaccio dedicated
himself fully to literature and poetry and wrote many famous works such as The Decameron. By
the end of his life, Boccaccio could be described as a public official, lawyer, scholar, banker, and
writer. All of these titles demonstrate how Boccaccio mastered many skills and was an example
of a “Renaissance Man.”
Boccaccio is most famous for his contributions to literature and poetry. His work
contained the values of the Renaissance and displayed new themes and characters that differed
from classical works. Boccaccio is “sometimes accredited as the founder of Humanism” because
his stories focused on humans living on earth and in the present ( He studied
Dante and other classical writers, but his stories described life in a contemporary way. Boccaccio
wrote in the vernacular, Italian, which was a departure from the classical tradition of writing in
Latin. The Decameron, finished in 1358, is one of Boccaccio’s most well-known works. The
book includes 100 stories about 7 women and 3 men who leave Florence to escape the plague.
The group reinstates a social order by electing a king or queen each day and telling stories that
reflect the values of the Renaissance. Each story, whether it is tragic or comedic, contains a
moral lesson and most of the stories end with love and virtue triumphing over evil. He focuses
often on all forms of love and how they transcend mortality. The moral code within The
Decameron is less strict than medieval moral codes; the characters embrace human sexuality and
wit while still honoring the importance of appearance and manners. Many of the stories
demonstrate how manners and behavior mattered more than birth or titles. Boccaccio’s
Decameron marks a shift in literature because instead of focusing on the afterlife or God, it
focuses on human life in the here and now.
Story V on the fourth day, the story of Lisbetta, demonstrates Boccaccio’s main theme of
love transcending mortality. In this story, sexual love becomes true love when it is crossed by
death and tragedy. Lisbetta and Lorenzo have a secret affair, which ends when Lorenzo is
murdered by her brothers. She is “sick at heart” and calls for Lorenzo every night (Boccaccio
88). Lorenzo appears to her in a dream and tells her the truth about his murder. When Lisbetta
finds his body, she keeps the head and puts in a pot with the “goodliest basil” (Boccaccio 89).
The most striking image from the story is Lisbetta, crying over the pot of basil until it grows to
become a beautiful plant. When her brothers take the pot away from her, she “ceased not to weep
and crave her pot,” and dies weeping (89). The pot of basil “enshrined her Lorenzo,”
immortalizing him and their love (89). The story emerges as a portrait of true love, crossed by
tragedy, but immortalized in the pot of basil as well as future songs and paintings inspired by the
story. The group listening to this story are surrounded by death and sickness but the story of
Lisbetta proves that true love transcends mortality.
The story of Griselda on day ten, Story X, also demonstrates another of Boccaccio’s main
themes; that manners and behavior create a distinguished woman, rather than class or
upbringing. Gualtieri, the Marquis of Saluzzo, decides to get married but chooses a poor girl to
be his wife. The poor girl’s name is Griselda, and Gualtieri requests that his friends “pay her the
honor due to a lady,” (Boccaccio 160). Griselda acts with noble manners despite her poor
upbringing, which “caused as many as she had known before to marvel” at her grace (Boccaccio
161). Gualtieri then tests her by pretending to kill their children and feigning that he will divorce
her. Griselda, who promised to obey him and be a dutiful wife, faces each test with grace and
calmness, even when he pretends to marry a new bride. Griselda impresses Gualtieri and the
other nobles with her composure. When Gualtieri reveals that his actions were tests and brings
the children back, Griselda is honored for her grace and devotion to Gualtieri. At the end of the
story, Dioneo questions “Who but Griselda had been able, with a countenance not only tearless,
but cheerful, to endure the heard and un-heard trials to which Gualtieri subjected her?”
(Boccaccio 167). Dioneo is implying that only Griselda could have passed Gualtieri’s tests.
Despite her upbringing, Griselda behaves nobly and proves that behavior matters more than
birth. Griselda’s story demonstrates that humans have control over their lives because even
though she was born a farmhand, she was able to rise up and earn honor through her actions.
During the Florence Renaissance, there was a drastic shift from classical and medieval
values and styles to humanistic and nontraditional styles. While the art and literature of the
Middle Ages focused on a strict moral code and promises of the afterlife, the works of the
Renaissance portrayed life in the present. Instead of specializing in only one area, Renaissance
men and women became masters of several trades. The Medici family used that same mentality
in their effort to rule over every part of Florentine society. Not only did they conquer and rise to
powerful positions in the papacy and Florentine government, they amassed an enormous amount
of money through banking and trade. The Medici then cemented their place in history by
recycling that wealth back into Florence by funding the work of amazing artists like
Michelangelo. Boccaccio, like the Medici, also mastered many trades including banking and
writing. Boccaccio’s writing emphasizes life in the present, even surrounded by death and the
plague. The stories in The Decameron portray love’s triumph over evil and social mobility not
confined by birthright or bloodlines. The Decameron emerges as a portrait of Florentine life and
society, complete with a humanistic moral code. The Medici family and Boccaccio embodied the
ideas and values of the Renaissance through their studies and work, which demonstrated the
advancements and changes in Florence during the Renaissance.
Works Cited
Bergin, Thomas Goddard. Boccaccio. New York: Viking Press, 1981. Print.
Boccaccio, Giovanni. The Decameron. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 2011. Print.
"Giovanni Boccaccio." Famous Authors. Famous, n.d. Web. 25 Nov. 2014.
"The House of Medici: Rise and Fall of a Banking Family." Education Portal. Education Portal,
n.d. Web. 23 Nov. 2014. <>.
"Laurentian Library." The Museums in Florence. Hidden Italy, n.d. Web. 14 Nov. 2014.
"The Medici Family." A&E Television Networks, 2009. Web. 23 Nov. 2014.
Wallace, William E. Michelangelo at San Lorenzo: The Genius as Entrepreneur. Cambridge:
Cambridge UP, 1994. Print.
Young, G. F. The Medici. New York: Modern Library, 1930. Print.