The Medici: Portraits and Politics, 1512–1570

Power struggles in 16th-century Italy were epic. One family crushed it.

What’s art got to do with it?

What becomes a dynasty most?

Cosimo I de’ Medici was just 17 when he became Duke of Florence. The young upstart from a “minor” branch of an elite family was selected by establishment insiders who believed they could control him. But the old guard underestimated Cosimo’s ambition and political savvy, including his instinct for how to promote, solidify, and extend power.

Here, in conjunction with the exhibition The Medici: Portraits and Politics, 1512–1570, we take a closer look at what one young Florentine understood about influence, and the central role that arts and culture played in Renaissance politics. What were the social media channels of Cosimo’s day? This Primer will give you a glimpse of how he and his inner circle leveraged them to promote the Medici brand.

1. Build your brand

Be bold

Like most people of privilege, Cosimo I de’ Medici wasn’t exactly self made. Members of his wealthy, extended family had ruled Florence in the previous century before being exiled. When Cosimo came to power in 1537, he was determined to restore the Medici name to glory. Savvy and sly, he leveraged the era’s most popular media channel: art.

Detail of a painted portrait of Cosimo I de’ Medici in lustrous armor posed in three-quarter view while looking sideways in the opposite direction; the image itself takes the shape of a long rectangle with rounded edges like a mobile smart phone and floats against a color gradient background transitions from black to luminous turquoise, picking up on the fabric backdrop colors in the portrait
2. Grow your reach

Leverage the community

Becoming duke was just the beginning of Cosimo’s vision for himself, his family, and his city. He used arts to amplify his profile, and also knew the value of alliances with the cultured elite. Through political maneuvers and arts patronage, he solidified Florence’s position as a great Renaissance capital with his family at the center.

Detail of a painted portrait of two friends wearing dark attire and facing one another while looking directly at us; the image itself takes the shape of a long rectangle with curved edges like a mobile smart phone and floats against a color gradient background transitions from dark purple to antiqued gold, picking up on the colors in the portrait
Hype Man Poet

Like all good influencers, Cosimo aligned himself with other power players.

Meet the squad:

Partner Paragon
Hype Man

Benedetto Varchi

Court intellectual and writer Benedetto Varchi went from exile to accomplice. Previously hostile to Medici rule, he became a key component of the propaganda machine established by Cosimo, promoting Florence as Italy’s cultural hub and the Medicis’ role in the city.


Laura Battiferri

Laura Battiferri was a well-known poet during Medici rule and her first collection of poetry was dedicated to Eleonora. Here, the book is open to sonnets by Petrarch, the early Renaissance poet whose verses celebrated his unrequited love for a woman also named Laura.



The most famous artist of his day was also dangerous: Michelangelo opposed Medici control and chose to live in exile in Rome. Cosmio won the battle when Michelangelo died, transferring the body to Florence as quickly as possible and throwing a next-level funeral.


Eleonora di Toledo

As a promoter of Medici rule, Cosimo met his match in Eleonora of Toledo, whom he married in 1539. She took it upon herself to commission portraits of her family to be sent as diplomatic gifts, and also cultivated connections with the imperial court.


Come, follow me,
and let people talk.
— Dante, Purgatorio, Canto V, XIII


Get lit

In Renaissance Italy, visual arts weren’t the only game in town. Literary arts—in particular, poetry—held an influential role in asserting social status and swaying politics. Poems were tacked onto walls and sculptures, copied and exchanged, memorized, read out loud, and debated. In Cosimo’s world, poets were rockstars.

3. Secure your legacy

Think global, act local

By the time he was 50, Cosimo I de’ Medici had ascended from duke of Florence to grand duke of Tuscany. But fame can be fleeting, even for influencers. What about the long game? Once again, he turned to art. The Grand Duke understood the power of investing in lasting monuments to ensure that his name—and that of his family—lived on.

Detail of a painting showing various figures gesturing and encircling a globe; the image itself takes the shape of a long rectangle with rounded edges like a mobile smart phone and floats against a color gradient background transitions from deep turquoise to luminescent yellow-green, picking up on colors in the painting
Emperor’s clothes Show me the money

Even influencers need to think about aging gracefully and what they’ll leave behind.

See Cosimo’s vision board:

Rest in power Next gen

Florence or bust

In Florence, busts of Cosimo sat above the entrances to important families’ palaces and major public buildings. In this example, created shortly after Cosimo became grand duke of Tuscany, he’s shown as a Roman emperor, suggesting the timelessness of his authority.

The currency of fame

These medals are from a series celebrating Cosimo’s architectural patronage in Florence. More than 400 years later, his many public commissions are still among the most visited landmarks in Europe, if not the world.

Succession plan

Cosimo abdicated in favor of his son Francesco in 1564 to concentrate on consolidating the Tuscan state and obtaining the title of grand duke. This picture of Francesco in armor conveys the same sense of authority as those of Cosimo in his earlier years.

One last party

This drawing shows the plans for an elaborate, luxurious catafalque, or funerary support, to hold Cosimo’s coffin. Funded by his son Cardinal Ferdinando, it includes figures representing the cities of Tuscany as well as highlights from Cosimo’s career as a statesman.


… Any pleasure in the world is a brief dream.
— Petrarch, Il Canzoniere, Sonnet XV


So extra

Cosimo was still alive and in power when this engraving was commissioned. Having transferred active rule to his son Francesco, thereby ensuring the family’s continued position, he could spend his “golden years” (a.k.a. his 40s) reflecting on his success. It must have been that much sweeter remembering all the haters.


How many emperors and how many princes have lived and died and no record of them remains, and they only sought to gain dominions and riches in order that their fame might be ever-lasting.
— Leonardo da Vinci


Life is short, art is long

Although—or perhaps because—he was young, Cosimo I de’ Medici’s unparalleled understanding of how to leverage influence allowed him to develop and secure his family’s power. Indeed, his descendants ruled Florence through 1737, 200 years after he first became duke. And while Cosimo’s military and political acumen played central roles in his ascent, his lifelong patronage of the arts made him synonymous with the Medici name and ensured his legacy for five centuries and counting.

Before you launch your own career as an influencer, come see the works of art featured in this Primer—and many more—in person. The Medici: Portraits and Politics, 1512–1570, on view at The Met June 26 through October 11, 2021, offers a rare opportunity to experience the power of these stunning portraits in person.

Listen to the Exhibition Podcast:

Need more Medici in your life? Our related podcast features Costume designer Alessandro Lai, head of the School of Historical Dress Jenny Tiramani, contemporary portraitist Bisa Butler, and Renaissance scholars, Linda Wolk-Simon and Victoria Kirkham discussing the power of Renaissance portraiture and its lasting influence, narrated by Edoardo Ballerini. Listen for free on our website and on Spotify.


Plan Your Visit

Exhibition Details

  • Dates June 26 – October 11, 2021
  • The Met Fifth Avenue 1000 5th Ave, New York City
  • The Medici: Portraits and Politics, 1512–1570 Gallery 999
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Image and Quote Credits

Primer made possible by Barbara A. Wolfe.


Supported by


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and the Director's Fund.

© 2021 The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Exhibition Credits

Lead corporate sponsorship for the exhibition The Medici: Portraits and Politics, 1512–1570 is provided by

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Major support is provided by David S. Winter.

Additional funding is provided by the Sherman Fairchild Foundation, the William Randolph Hearst Foundation, Alice Cary Brown and W.L. Lyons Brown, the Gail and Parker Gilbert Fund, Laura and John Arnold,  the Diane Carol Brandt Fund, the Hata International Foundation, Mr. and Mrs. J. Tomilson Hill,  Denise and Andrew Saul, and The International Council of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.