new Church of Florence
Cosimo de Medici
changed the world and specifically Mankind’s vision of himself.
From a slave, subjected to the will of a faraway God, the Renaissance
redefined a human being to a divine spark waiting to be ignited
through knowledge and exploration of the universe.
was the home of the Renaissance and the man behind the Renaissance
was Cosimo de Medici. Much has been written about this banker
and how he financed a cultural revolution that should be seen
as one of the most pivotal moments in Western European civilisation
of the 2nd millennium AD.
But what is less known is that Cosimo de Medici and his father
had financed Pope John XXIII, one of the controversial “anti-Popes”
of the 15th century. Baldassare Cossa, (ca. 1370 – November
22, 1419), was pope during the Western Schism (1410–1415)
and is now officially regarded by the Catholic Church as an antipope
– hence why another John XXIII, Angelo Roncalli, became
the “real” John XXIII in 1958.
Baldassare Cardinal Cossa was born in Procida or Ischia and one
of the seven cardinals who, in May 1408, deserted Pope Gregory
XII. With those belonging to the obedience of Antipope Benedict
XIII (Pedro de Luna), he convened the Council of Pisa, of which
Cossa became the leader. They elected Pope Alexander V in 1409
and Cossa succeeded him a year later.
In an effort to squash the rebellion, John XXIII was charged with
piracy, murder, rape, sodomy and incest, with the more serious
charges being suppressed and the others no doubt trumped up. Still,
the fact that there were 23 popes named John during the first
1400 years of the Church and then none for over 500 years underlines
this man’s controversial figure.
of John 23, Baptistry, Florence
the aid of the Emperor Sigismund, Pope John XXIII convened the
Council of Constance in 1415. During the third session, the rival
Pope Gregory XII authorized the council and soon both popes abdicated
in favour of Pope Martin V. Cossa, as he was known as again, was
briefly imprisoned in Germany, before being freed by Martin V
After stepping down as Pope, Cossa remained close friends with
Cosimo. In return for his true friendship, the Pope gave Cosimo
a precious relic: John the Baptist’s right index finger.
Whether or not this was the same as the one previously in the
possession of the Knights Templar is unknown, but it is clear
that this talisman would inspire the most important man of Florence,
a town dedicated to John the Baptist, to great heights.
When John XXIII died, Cosimo paid for an impressive tomb inside
Florence’s Baptistry, dedicated to John the Baptist. Above
the Baptistry’s entrance remains the only surviving sculpture
of Leonardo da Vinci. It seems that the possession of this talisman,
with which John had allegedly identified Jesus Christ, was the
imperative that the Medicis had needed to bring about a philosophical
revolution that would change the world.
Catholic Church stated that all knowledge Mankind was in need
of, was already in its possession. Therefore, recapitulation of
knowledge, not a search for, was the only philosophical goal.
The Church’s vision of Man, Earth and the Universe were
largely based on Aristotle, whose theories were mostly incorrect.
The desire to become acquainted with information outside the boundaries
of currently available knowledge was the main propelling force
of “the Renaissance”: Man re-evaluated his position
in the Creation. This changed image of Mankind would eventually
lead to the era of science.
Philosophers have described the Renaissance as the spiritual awakening
from the “sleep of the soul”, which suddenly perceived
a vision of a personal and social transformation. Interestingly,
this awakening did not stem from a sudden desire to explore the
world and our existence, but through the re-familiarisation with
ancient – but forgotten – knowledge, knowledge that
was integrated into other cultures, but that was absent from western
the early decades of the 15th century, many travellers were crossing
Europe in search of ancient manuscripts that predated Christianity.
The most famous of these was the papal secretary, Poggio Bracciolini,
who not only greatly travelled and left intriguing portraits of
the countries and people he encountered, but he also rediscovered
many texts of various Roman and Greek authors.
Cosimo himself tried various experiments that had to shed light
on the origins of our existence. In the presence of Pius II (Piccolomini),
Cosimo shut a giraffe in a pen with lions, bloodhounds and fighting
bulls, to see which species was the most savage. Few have observed
this seems to have been an early experiment in the “evolution
theory” and the “survival of the strongest”,
centuries before Darwin would tackle such subjects again. They
learned that the lions and dogs dozed, the bulls quietly chewed
their cuds, and the giraffe huddled against the fence, shaking
in fear. They discovered there was no bloodshed – as had
been expected – and no savagery.
Such practical experimentation was a clear sign that a desire
to explore reality and the world had set in. The result of these
practical experiments and the availability of lost manuscripts
contributed to the explosion of new knowledge. Some have labelled
this era the “First Information Age”.
knowledge, however, soon resulted in radically new thinking. Contrary
to what most people might expect, it were most often – if
not always – members of the clergy themselves who were the
instigators of novel ideas, some which were in direct opposition
to the dogma of the Church.
The best example was Nicolas de Cusa, a Catholic Cardinal of German
birth, who directly opposed the God of the Church. Cusa defined
Deity as “the Absolute Maximum and also the absolute minimum,
who comprehends all that is or can be”. De Cusa believed
in a heliocentric solar system and the existence of life on other
planets, the opposite of the Catholic doctrine on Man and Earth’s
unique and central position in God’s Creation. He wrote
that “the divine Word is united to the intellect... and
the intellect itself is the place where the Word is received...
For the Word of God illumines the intellect just as the light
of the sun illumines this world”. The roots of science,
with its central position of intellect, rather than belief, were
Cardinal Nicholas de Cusa was, however, more than just a scientist:
he was also a politician. Together with Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini
(then soon to be Pius II) and the Medici family, he would literally
save western civilisation from “the Turkish danger”
by intervening in the Council of Florence in 1439. Six hundred
Greek Orthodox scholars had come to Florence to attend this Council.
Cusa, Piccolomini and Cosimo were amongst many who were exposed
to another side of Christianity that had been absent from the
Western civilisation for a thousand years. Whereas most saw a
threat, they saw a revelation and an opportunity.
such Orthodox scholar was George Gemistus Plethon, who was hostile
to contemporary Christianity and preached against the Aristotelian-based
doctrine of the Church. He dreamed of restoring pagan traditions,
which excelled in vitality and dynamism; he believed in the unifying
principle of one soul, one mind and one teaching and hoped that
the whole world would become susceptible to the true religion.
His enthusiasm was shared by de Cusa and Cosimo de Medici, who
were both aware of the precarious position of the Christian Church,
specifically of its over-conservative dogmatic stance, with which
they could not identify. Though they had been able to save the
Catholic Church from annihilation, they realised the time for
a long overdue change was immediate, otherwise the Church would
not make it to the year 1500.
So the group of reformers had an open-minded approach to religion.
They were willing to entertain the pagan notion that direct experience
of the divine was possible, both in this realm and in “heaven”.
This radically undermined the dogma of the Christian Church, which
declared that such contact was only possible through the intervention
of a priest and at the Second Coming of Christ. The new thinking
completely revised Man’s position in the universe, upgrading
him from a mere “also ran” to a being that was fully
equipped to explore this reality, and God, directly, personally,
completely. It was the difference between the status of slave
and that of a free man. If anything, the gift of the Renaissance
was the opportunity for Man to turn his self-image of slave into
that of a free man.
new thinking became incorporated into reality when Cosimo de Medici
realised Pleton’s dream with the establishment of a “Platonic
Academy”, to revive the “pagan” knowledge of
the divine, as had been, amongst others, expressed by the Greek
philosopher Plato in the 5th century BC.
The son of Cosimo’s physician, Marsilio Ficino, was nominated
director of the new “Platonic Academy”. Ficino was
in charge of the main focus of the Academy: the translations of
ancient manuscripts. These texts had to provide the fuel for vivid
philosophical and religious debates. These texts included the
“Argonautica”, the Greek legend of Jason and the Argonauts,
which was the main theme of the Order of the Golden Fleece. But
also Homer’s “Hymns” and the doctrines of the
Plotinus, Plutarch, Proclus, Iamblichus and many others were translated
Some of these books were about Greek civilisation, but others
spoke about Egypt – the Egypt that had been known to the
Greeks. Iamblichus and Plutarch in Of Isis and Osiris and other
authors spoke about the existence of Egyptian mystery cults, in
which the initiates received divine knowledge. In the Mysteries,
the culminating splendour was said to be the face-to-face meeting
with one’s Higher Self, and the deities. This had been the
goal of the alchemists of the Middle Ages; it was the dream of
the Platonic Academy, who thus received a genuine “Holy
Grail” when a monk sold Cosimo a copy of the Corpus Hermeticum.
It were these translations that proved to the Academy that Mankind
was a being with a divine spark, which the “rebirth”
of this movement was meant to ignite.