Strange Connections: Giorgio Vasari And Galileo Galilei

Cosimo I

It could be argued that had it not been for the influence of the Italian painter, writer, historian and architect, Giorgio Vasari (July 30, 1511 –  June 27, 1574) on Cosimo I de’ Medici, the first Grand Duke of Tuscany (pictured above right), the then hated de’ Medici dynasty would have ended right then and there shortly after Cosimo I was elected Duke of Florence at age 17, after his 4th cousin, Duke Alessandro de’ Medici had been assassinated in 1537.

Cosimo I, coming from a minor branch of the de’ Medici family and having lived in the country for most of his life had not had the benefits of a secular humanist education as did his predecessors such as Giulio di Giuliano de’ Medici, who later became Pope Clement VII during the Protestant revolt and the Sack of Rome (1527); Giovanni di Lorenzo de Medici who later became Pope Leo X, the Pope who had excommunicated the German monk, Martin Luther for publishing in 1517 his Ninety-Five Theses in protest of Pope Leo’s unprecedented sale of indulgences–all of this eventually leading to the Protestant revolt; Lorenzo the Magnificent who had saved Florence from a conspiracy from powerful rival families in Naples and the Vatican itself, through his charm, skills at diplomacy, and hard cash and of course Còsimo di Giovanni degli Mèdici who was patron to the genius Filippo Brunelleschi (1377 – April 15, 1446), the architect and engineer of the dome for the Duomo of Florence, Santa Maria del Fiore as well the inventor of linear perspective in painting.

So Cosimo I was considered an upstart and of little threat to the enemies of the de’ Medici family. But, Giorgio Vasari, who as boy had saved and safely had hidden the broken arm of Michelangelo’s David, saw great potential in Cosimo I and encouraged and guided him to become the man he became.

During the Renaissance one of the ways to establish preeminence politically was through the patronage of public works. So under the orders of Cosimo I, the arm of Michelangelo’s David, which had been broken off by a bench thrown from the top of the tower of what was then the government building during a riot in Florence in protest of de’ Medici dominance over the city, was carefully reattached and the David was fully restored to its former glory.


Cosimo I realized something that none of his predecessors had. He realized that the only way to secure the family’s position in the Florentine Duchy was through a strong military and a permanent bureaucracy. Cosimo I was a warrior and politician first. He even had two governmental buildings constructed known by the Italian word for office, the Uffizi (pictured above) along a street connected by a suspended corridor. It was from this building that the machine of government bureaucracy could be administered efficiently from one central location. Cosimo I was also the first to build a Florentine Navy. But perhaps Cosimo shrewdest move was to court and marry the daughter of the Spanish viceroy and diplomat to Naples, Don Pedro Álvarez de Toledo, Eleonora di Toledo (1522 – 1562). With the marriage of Cosimo I and Eleonora di Toledo (pictured below), the reign of Cosimo I was not only legitimized by the Spanish court, but Cosimo also received a handsome dowry plus a strong army as well.

Eleonora di Toledo

One of Cosimo I boldest moves was to take the city of Sienna in one decisive battle, after which the whole of Tuscany came under the rule of Cosimo I by capitulation. As a result of gaining control of Middle Italy from coast to coast, Cosimo I was crowned by Pope Pius V in 1569 as the first Grand Duke of Tuscany, and from then on the de’ Medici ruled Florence and the rest of Tuscany until the death of Gian Gastone de’ Medici, in 1737.

Giorgia Vasari

Giorgia Vasari (pictured above) had studied under the great Michelangelo Buonarroti himself and knew personally most of the great masters such as Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael. He was a competent but not a great painter or sculptor or architect. Vasari’s genius was in his ability to organize and supervise other painters, sculptors, craftsmen, architects, masons and laborers. He decorated, under Cosimo I supervision, the old government building with scenes of Cosimo I achievements and victories, thus glorifying his patron in frescoes on the walls and ceilings. He also had frescoes painted of all of the predecessors of the de’ Medici dynasty. He was in word the best public relations man of the time. But perhaps his greatest accomplishment under the patronage of Cosimo I was the writing and publication in 1550 of the first work of art history ever written, namely Le Vite delle più eccellenti pittori, scultori, ed architettori (Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects) in which Vasari finally gave a name to the artistic movement, which started with Cosimo the Elder (pictured below), the “Renaissance” (rinascita)–the rebirth of the art and architecture of classical civilization and in doing so, secured the legacy of the de’ Medici family in history for all time.

Cover of Le Vite delle più eccellenti pittori, scultori, ed architettori (Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects)

Cosimo the Elder

Cosimo I had fathered nine children with Eleonora and was said to have been a devoted husband and father. Francesco I de’ Medici the second eldest child, was successor to Cosimo I and became Grand Duke in 1574. Later his younger brother and the fifth son of Cosimo I and Eleonora, Ferdinando I de’ Medici succeeded Francesco as Grand Duke in 1587. Ferdinando I in turn was succeeded by his eldest son, Cosimo II who was 10 years of age when his father died.

Galileo Galilei

It was Cosimo II who became patron to Galileo Galilei (pictured above) who had also been Cosimo’s II childhood tutor. Galileo was also tutor to the children of Cosimo II.

Galileo served two functions for the de’ Medici family. The first function of course was that mentioned above, namely giving a scientific education to the de’ Medici children, the future rulers of Florence and Tuscany. The other function was as a courtier, to dazzle and amaze those at court by taking what would otherwise be dry scientific demonstrations and turning them into awe-inspiring spectacles.

Remembering his beloved teacher, Cosimo II in 1610, appointed Galileo Royal Professor of mathematics and philosophy at a generous salary of 1,000 scuti per year. Galileo by this time had gained a reputation of being both a brilliant thinker and a trouble maker. So the de’ Medici legitimized Galileo iconoclastic boldness by granting him celebrity and protection as his reputation spread throughout Europe. In return, Galileo promised that all of his discoveries would first be presented at the court of the de’ Medici.

Ferdinando II de' Medici

Of all of the children of Cosimo II, perhaps Galileo favorite pupil was Ferdinando II de’ Medici (pictured above). Ferdinando as a youth assisted Galileo in his experiments of falling bodies and in his astronomical observations of the Moon, the phases of Venus and the moons of Jupiter, which in honor of his patrons, Galileo named the Medicean planets. It was Ferdinando who night after night would assist Galileo at the telescope as he made detailed drawings of the surface of the Moon (pictured below). Ferdinando remained deeply devoted to his mentor and close friend all of his life and as Grand Duke of Tuscany even tried to protect Galileo from the Roman inquisition after Galileo had published his work, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. But after the Protestant revolt and the Sack of Rome, the Roman Catholic church and in particular the Pope was in no mood for what they regarded as a challenge to their authority.

It was only through the freedom afforded to him by the de’ Medici court that Galileo was able to explore new ideas and make the discoveries that he did. He would not have been able to accomplish that in the university setting of the day. So it could be argued that had it not been for the de’ Medici court, Galileo most likely would have never been able to make the contributions to science that he did–at least not to the degree to which he did, and the Enlightenment possibly might not have taken off the way it did. And had it not been for Giorgio Vasari and his encouragement of Cosimo I, there probably wouldn’t have been the de’ Medici court in which Galileo was able to flourish. And that is the connection.

Recommended reading:

April Blood – Florence and the Plot against the Medici – Lauro Martines
Brunelleschi’s Dome – Ross King
Catherine de’ Medici – Leonie Frieda
Cosimo de’ Medici and the Florentine Renaissance – Dale Kent
Dynasty and Destiny in Medici Art – Janet Cox Rearick
Florence and the Medici – J.R Hale
Florentine politics 1502 – 1515 – Humfrey Butters
Galileo – Courtier – Mario Biagioli
Galileo’s Daughter – Dava Sobel
Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling – Ross King
Patronage – Art and Society in Renaissance Italy – F.W. Kent
The French wars of Religion – R. J. Knecht
The Last of the Medici – Harold Acton
The Lives of the Artists – Giorgio Vasari
The Pope’s Elephant – Silvio Bedini
The Prince – Niccolo Machiavelli
The Renaissance Bazaar – Jerry Brotton
The Rise and Decline of the Medici Bank – Raymond de Roover
The Rise and Fall of the House of Medici – Christopher Hibbert
The Rise of the Medici – Faction in Florence 1426-1434 – Dale

Plus you might want to check out the Vatican’s Web site for more

Vatican: the Holy See


One Comment on “Strange Connections: Giorgio Vasari And Galileo Galilei”

  1. Debbie Says:

    That was an excellent article. Very informative.

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