From Cosimo to Cosmos: The Medici Effect in Culture and Technology

Xconomy National — 

Deep inside the Palazzo Vecchio, the tall stone fortress that has served as the seat of government power in Florence since the 14th century, there’s a room called the Sala delle Carte Geografiche, the Hall of Maps. The cabinets lining the walls, which once held scientific instruments and other precious items, are decorated with 53 large maps representing almost every part of the globe known to 16th-century explorers and navigators. Executed in oils by the Dominican priest and mathematician Ignazio Danti and painter Stefano Buonsignori, the marvelously detailed maps were created between 1563 and 1584 as part of a massive renovation of the palazzo instigated by Cosimo I de’ Medici, the first Grand Duke of Tuscany.

Danti’s maps strive to be comprehensive and scientifically accurate; they use the Mercator projection system, which was brand-new at the time. But they’re also dotted with visual jokes and curios. One section showing the horn of Africa (modern-day Ethiopia and Somalia) includes a cartoon of a creature that looks like a woolly mammoth. Above it is the tiny caption Questa regione produce molti elefanti—“this region produces many elephants.”

I spent a while in the Hall of Maps last week while on vacation in Florence. Gazing at this room-sized testament to the encyclopedic urge in exploration, it occurred to me that the hall was the Google Earth of its day: a convenient, centralized place to access high-resolution depictions of the planet’s surface.

For Cosimo, the leader of one of Europe’s most powerful city-states, the hall must have served both a symbolic and a functional purpose. It wasn’t simply a mark of the fabled Medici wealth or of Cosimo’s reputation as an art patron. It’s also easy to imagine the Grand Duke actually using the maps as he entertained dignitaries, pointing out the sites of his military exploits or gossiping about the latest reports from the Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese sailors establishing new trade routes to Asia and the Americas. (The hall so impressed visitors to the palazzo that Pope Gregory XIII later hired Danti to create the Gallery of Maps in the Vatican. But while the Vatican version is larger, it’s more parochial: it depicts only the Italian peninsula.)

Map geeks like me and Jeopardy champion Ken Jennings understand that there’s something thrilling, romantic, and inviting about maps and atlases. The Sala delle Carte Geografiche is one of the first places that passion went on full public display. The same love of exploration led serial entrepreneur John Hanke to found geospatial data visualization startup Keyhole in 2001, with money from Sony, NVIDIA, and the CIA’s venture wing, In-Q-Tel. Google bought the company in 2004 and used the technology in its main product, Earth Viewer, to build Google Earth and Google Maps, which now act as the free gateways to a vast, multi-layered virtual globe.

The Hall of Maps in Florence's Palazzo Vecchio

The Hall of Maps in Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio

I’d argue Cosimo’s map hall is, in a real sense, the great-great-great-grandfather of Google Earth. Further, I’d say there’s a parallel line connecting the Medici dynasty to Google and the other Silicon Valley companies that are the repositories of so much information, wealth, and thereby power, today.

In fact, if you live in the San Francisco Bay Area in the early 21st century, it’s hard not to feel a special connection to Renaissance Florence. The great artists, architects, and poets of that time felt they were inheriting and extending the wisdom of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Similarly, today’s software tycoons have eyed established industries—newspapers, book publishing, advertising, entertainment, telecommunications, business administration—and decided they know a better way to run things. They’ve applied pure brainpower (code is just electronically mediated thought, after all) to undermine all the old economic and social relationships and replace them with new, Internet-based systems that they hope will be more democratic, more flexible, and more efficient.

Of course, what these systems indisputably are is more profitable. Google’s gross profit margin in 2013 was an astronomical 56 percent. Facebook’s was an even loftier 76 percent. In what feels like an entirely new phase of capitalism, the inventions of a few thousand people can now reach a few billion, fueling licensing, advertising, and hardware businesses that have generated unprecedented riches in the big U.S. technology hubs. Apple has $160 billion in cash on hand. Microsoft has $83 billion; Google, $57 billion; Cisco, $47 billion; Oracle, $37 billion; Intel, $20 billion; Facebook, $11 billion [data updated 3/16/14]. Sum it all up, and add in the personal fortunes of these companies’ founders and CEOs, and you’re looking at half a trillion dollars for these seven companies alone. Not even the Medici family, at one time the bankers to the Popes, could dream of this kind of wealth.

And in the Bay Area, as in Florence, the riches are generating side effects—some of them troublesome, others awe-inspiring.

On the down side, so many people are coming here in search of their own fortunes that housing is now unsustainably expensive for people of average means. Popular resentment toward the Silicon Valley elite has boiled over in the form of protests, and even physical attacks, on Google’s employee shuttle buses.

But at the same time, the region is benefiting from Silicon Valley’s largesse. Last year Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan donated 18 million Facebook shares, valued at nearly $1 billion, to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, which makes grants to support local educational initiatives and other causes. The gift made them the nation’s most generous philanthropists in 2013, eclipsing even the ubiquitous Bill and Melinda Gates, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy., the search giant’s philanthropic wing, allocates $100 million in grants every year, much of it to Bay Area nonprofits such as … Next Page »

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17 responses to “From Cosimo to Cosmos: The Medici Effect in Culture and Technology”

  1. faze says:

    What a bunch of rubbish! San Francisco cannot hold a candle to Florence, then, or now! Renaissance? Ha! Go where the tech industry is building offices and housing – South of Market (SOMA). It looks like Soviet Style architecture. Absolutely NO class, boring, alienating. It’s a joke. Get over yourself.

    • Wade Roush says:

      I never said that the architecture in San Francisco or Silicon Valley is particularly inspiring. One glass cube or converted warehouse full of open-plan workstations, ping-pong tables, bean bags, and granola-bar stations is pretty much like the next. (I would argue, though, that there are some interesting parallels between San Francisco and Florence when it comes to location, climate, atmosphere, light, and geography, and other ineffables.) Mainly I was talking about the production of ideas.

      • faze says:

        The production of ideas has stagnated in Silicon Valley. There is an overvaluing of the contributions of VCs who are mostly “followers”; they are not at all like the philanthropists of Florence. There was a time when Silicon Valley was Renaissance-like, but that day is long gone. It’s about the money; valuations; hit-and-miss investments; me-too social networking rubbish; tech elitism, etc. etc.

  2. Fake Name says:

    Yes, the rich are getting richer at the expense of everyone else.
    We should not praise them for sprinkling crumbs after taking the cookie jar.
    The barons need drones to work for them, and that is why they throw money at the places that produce said experts. (or “immigration reform” if they don’t want to employ Westerners and their annoying “pay me for what I’m worth” thing)
    The more power they gain, the more the rest of us lose.

  3. Historian says:

    Good piece. It is good that some of the very wealthy of SF are using their wealth for worthwhile causes, unlike the Koch brothers who use it for evil. And the information about Cosimo I de’ Medici (1519-1574, ruler of Florence from 1537 and the rest of Tuscany from 1555) is accurate. The use of a comparison with a Florentine Renaissance figure once again shows America’s fascination with the Renaissance. Readers might enjoy this book: Paul F. Grendler, The European Renaissance in American Life (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2006), which points out examples, some of them amusing, of the resonance of the Renaissance in American culture.

  4. Sid Bradipao says:

    I was born in Florence (that Florence) and every day I can see the dome of the “Duomo” from the window of my bedroom, so I can tell you one big difference. The Medici were rich and poured a lot of that richness in study and arts, so much that even today, after 5 centuries, millions of people come to Florence to admire monuments, sculture, paintings and so on. That was Renaissance, and made them immortal.

    Also today huge profits are generated, but unfortunately almost none of them is poured into arts or science or something immortal for the humankind. Ask yourself: what will be remembered in year 2500?

    • Wade Roush says:

      Sid: Thanks for your comment. How amazing it would be to see the Duomo out your window every day! But I think it’s wrong to say that none of the profits from SIlicon Valley are being poured back into art, science, or something immortal. (Interesting choice of words, by the way, since immortality is exactly what folks at places like Singularity University have in mind.) I wrote this piece to call attention to the positive spillover we’re already starting to see. It may be too early for its effects to be obvious; there is no Duomo under construction in Palo Alto or Sunnyvale. But what if the Google-Facebook-Apple-Microsoft riches ended up allowing innovators to cure cancer, or extend lifespans by 20-50 years, or make big leaps in artificial intelligence? That’s the kind of thing that could be felt in the year 2500 even more than the Renaissance monuments and paintings shape our world today.

  5. laughtiger says:

    “I’d argue Cosimo’s map hall is, in a real sense, the
    great-great-great-grandfather of Google Earth. Further, I’d say there’s a
    parallel line connecting the Medici dynasty to Google and the other
    Silicon Valley companies that are the repositories of so much
    information, wealth, and thereby power, today.”

    Wow… who knew you could combine myopia with teleological reasoning?

    One big problem with the perspective on the Bay Area here, is that the progressive sentiments of these CEOs and technocrats is skin deep, and will disappear quickly with the next dotcom bust. At which time the enduring progressivism and beauty of the area can shake off this techie nightmare and return to its role as the Venice/Athens/Florence/insert-analogy-here of the West.

    And yes, as other commentators have noted, the current architecture being generated by the techno-elite absolutely betrays their comparison with the Medicis et al. One big difference is that in the rennaissance they were building to last, while making pointed connections to the past. The architecture that the current tech boom brings to San Francisco is erasing the past (not accidentally) and is absolutely throw-away, short term junk, not built to last, a product of the short term thinking at the heart of Silicon Valley philosophy.

  6. RobotEnomics says:

    Really great article – one slight omission, Apple’s Q1, 2014 numbers show they have $158.8 billion in cash far more than the $41 billion mentioned.

  7. Wade Roush says:

    Hey all — thanks for taking a look at this article. I wanted to respond to a couple of the themes in reader comments have expressed, here and on Twitter.

    – Folks like faze and laughtiger and Sid Bradipao say the Florence/Silicon Valley comparison is weak because that there’s no great or lasting public architecture in Silicon Valley, on the scale of the Duomo in Florence. It’s true that most of the architecture here is throw-away. And for good reason: no one wants to waste money on physical buildings when you could be using that money to hire people and sell stuff. Buildings here are just boxes to house engineers. But the key product in Silicon Valley (and in Renaissance Florence, too!) isn’t structures, it’s ideas. Today, those ideas are about how the flow of digital information can make everyone happier, more informed, and more productive. Mostly the ideas are right: find me someone who would really want to go back to the information environment of the 1980s. The intermediaries are taking their cut, of course; and their resulting wealth is now starting to make its way back to the community through philanthropy. That’s what I was trying to spotlight.

    – Others feel the article is an example of Silicon Valley arrogance or solipsism. If it comes off that way to some readers, it may be because I was writing with a specific, local audience in mind. Quite a few people in San Francisco and Silicon Valley are talking about the contrasts and pressures brought about by the Valley’s enormous success: the growing wealth inequity, the housing shortage and the outrageous rents, the fine line between redevelopment and gentrification.

    I worry about all those same things, and I think some kind of crash/correction is probably inevitable. But in this article I wanted to suspend my fear and jadedness for one day and bring attention back to the real marvels happening all around us.

    There’s a lot of upgrading going on: Elon Musk is moving us closer to the day when electric cars rule the roads. We’re going to get high-speed rail from Los Angeles to San Francisco one way or another. I don’t think people have yet realized exactly how breathtakingly tall the new Transbay Tower is going to be.

    And I forgot to include it in the article, but just look at the Bay Lights Project — a high-tech project to take one of the greatest bridges in the world and make it into a massive digital display. San Franciscans have fallen in love with the Lights, and the project is a perfect example of the kind of surplus I’m talking about in the piece. It wouldn’t have happened without cash from big tech donors like Matt Mullenweg (founder of WordPress) and Marissa Mayer.

    Granted, the benefits are not being distributed equally. And that’s a problem. But let’s not get too bogged down in envy and cynicism.

  8. Wade Roush says:

    Apropos of all this, see William Broad’s March 15 story in the New York Times: “Billionaires With Big Ideas are Privatizing American Science,” about all the new research in neuroscience, oceanography, disease treatment, and other fields being financed by people like Bill Gates and Eric Schmidt. Here’s the nut of the story: This is philanthropy in the age of the new economy — financed with its outsize riches, practiced according to its individualistic, entrepreneurial creed. The donors are impatient with the deliberate, and often politicized, pace of public science, they say, and willing to take risks that government cannot or simply will not consider.”

    • Robert Buderibbuderi says:

      Wade, I saw that article and couldn’t help but wonder if this isn’t an old trend coming back in some sense. I didn’t see it as at all surprising. Carnegie Institution in Dc does great science. Alfred Loomis was a great patron of science…I am sure there are untold other examples, and in Europe, too. I defer to you as an historian of technology tho…

      • Wade Roush says:

        It’s not new, but one thing is that there are a lot more billionaires now. Also it sounds like more of them are interested in science. Broad says 40 percent of the signers of the Giving Pledge “plan to finance studies in science, health, and the environment.” A century ago a lot of that money probably would have gone into art museums, concert halls, libraries, etc.

  9. Pascal Rossini says:

    Don’t forget the fall of the Roman Empire, and the equally (if not more) advanced Han, Mauryan, and Gupta Empires, as well as so many advanced Mesopotamian Empires, are all testimony to the fact that advanced, sophisticated, complex, and creative civilizations can be both fragile and impermanent

    • Wade Roush says:

      No argument there. That’s why folks ought to be a little more appreciative about the era they’re living through right now. They might even want to applaud the people who are spending money to figure out we can do to avoid or postpone the mistakes of these earlier civilizations.

  10. charley m. & friends says:

    Thanks, Wade. Love the comparison Exploring the world then and now through fiction, Out of Time. Teen STEM-smart girl creates Leonardo’s designs for a time machine and whisks her way back to see what lessons her Florentine idol can teach her. Instead, with her technology, she ends up teaching Leonardo. Translating story to Web ( and Twitter (@OutofTimeMovie) to create interactive storytelling and engaged learning a la the Humanist ideals of the di Medici’s with a modern twist. There are myriad lessons for young people growing up today that stem from the parallels of Renaissance largesse then-and-now.