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House of Medici
During the period 1389 - 1574
Medici is the name of an historical banking family that ruled the Republic of Florence and later the Grand Duchy of Tuscany.
The House of Medici, one of the most illustrious families in the Renaissance, was thought by many to be the main force behind the movement. They were the de facto rulers of the Florentine Republic, gaining prominence through banking. At one point, they were said to be the richest family in Europe, on par with the Rothschilds. Their issued currency, the Medici florin, was the accepted medium of exchange of large sums of money throughout Europe, a sign of their financial power. Despite their legendary wealth, they were by no means noble, only coming into prominence in the 13th century when Florence was experiencing civil unrest followed by a period of economic boom. The Medici's had been banking for their relatives for a long time, establishing themselves as upper-middle class in the Florentine social network. Although the banking operations were never small , it was Giovanni di Bicci that first put the Medici name on the tongues of every European. In 1397, the Medici bank was created when Giovanni di Bicci split the bank of one of his relatives.
First Citizens of Florence
By 1407, there were already three branches of the Medici bank, in Venice, Florence and Rome. Soon, they would spread to Pisa, Avignon, Lyon, Bruges, as far as London, at the height of the Medici bank. They became the papal bankers, and soon, as much as 60% of their revenue came from the Roman Curia.
Father of the Country
The founder of the dynasty is usually attributed to Cosimo de Medici, who was unobtrusive and wise. He was a great banker whose interest in the arts and in beautifying Florence gave him the name Father of the Country or "Pater Patriae". He was the patron of such artists as Donatello, Fra Lippi, Fra Angelico, Ghiberti, among others. In the realm of philosophy, he also employed men such as Leonardo Bruni and Marsilio Ficino. The great Duomo in Florence, the biggest dome of its day, was commissioned by Cosimo as a piece of propaganda for the Medici clan, done by the genius architect Brunelleschi (pictured above). He also commissioned the Palazzo Medici (pictured left), by Michelozzo Michelozzi. He spent the astronomical sum of 600 000 florins on beautifying the city (at a time when a family could live for less than 50 florins a year). Politically, he was the creator of the triumvirate between Florence, Milan and Naples, causing a balance of power that ensured relative peace in Italy for several decades and thwarted Papal Expansion. The first to shift Florentine alliance from Venice to Milan, Cosimo ensured the legitimacy of the Sforza clan by his financial backing. In 1439, he also invited the Ecumenical Council to Florence which marked the cultural and intellectual boom in the city.
After Cosimo, came Piero de Medici (the Gouty), who was thought to be weak compared to his father. During his reign, Luca Pitti, Niccolo Soderini among others caused a revolt against him, in which he showed his adeptness by his careful maneuvering out of the coup. He was the one that commissioned the La Cappella dei Magi, a tribute to the power of the Medici clan.
Lorenzo the Magnificent
After his death in 1469, the reigns of power passed onto his sons Lorenzo de Medici and Giuliano de Medici (historians have debated on whether Giuliano wielded actual power). Lorenzo was an adept politician but had to often choose between the banking interests of the family and the political interest. As a result, the Medici bank began to fail, fast approaching bankruptcy. The poet, Angelo Poliziano (depicted at left) was also a great friend of his and wrote sonnets complimenting him and his handsome brother, Giuliano de' Medici (1453-1478). Although Lorenzo was a brilliant politician and diplomat, he was not a banker. The bank had begun to fail and Lorenzo found himself pilfering money from the Florentine coffers and stealing money from his young nephews. The Medici Bank failed before his death in 1494, around the same time Savonarola came to power.However, the young Medici heirs had a great amount of power in Florence, known as the Kings without a crown. The intelligent Lorenzo had settled down into the calm, shrewd politician while the handsome Giuliano (bust by Verocchio below) kept up the personality cult of the Prince of Youth and the Golden Boy.
Lorenzo had married into the house of Orsini, a Roman noble house that brought about two popes, countless mercenaries and leaders. This stirred discontent in Florence, where the citizens saw the Medici as overly ambitious. The Pope also had a falling out with Lorenzo over the sale of Imola by the Duke of Milan. It was then that the conflict with the Papacy had begun to brew, culminating in what was known as the Pazzi conspiracy.
The Pazzi Conspiracy
The conspiracy, led by Francesco de' Pazzi, a member of one of the oldest aristocratic families in Florence (descended from the great crusaders) and a direct competitor in the banking industry to the Medici (outstripping them already at this time), was a plot to kill both Lorenzo and Giuliano, thus effectively destroying Medici domination. They knew they must kill both brothers as if only Lorenzo died, then the Medicean faction would rally around Giuliano, striking back against the Pazzi. The main perpetrators involved were the Pazzis, Archbishop Salviati, Girolamo Riaro, Pope Sixtus IV and the Count of Montefeltro.
On April 26th 1478, Giuliano was stabbed 19 times in front of a crowd of 10 000. Francesco de' Pazzi had attacked so violently that he stabbed himself in the leg. Lorenzo was able to escape with a minor neck injury and after an ordeal surrounded by friends, he was able to get back to the Palazzo Medici. There was an immediate backlash against the Pazzi family where they were either hanged, imprisoned or exiled. Many of the main conspirators were tossed from the Signoria windows, hanged, including Archbishop Salviati. What resulted was an interdict against Florence and a threat of war on Florence approaching from all directions. Lorenzo tried to maneuver his way out of the threats but in the end, was forced to travel to the enemy camp of King Ferrante of Naples to personally persuade him against the attack on Florence.
This move shocked all of Italy and none more so than the Florentines. Lorenzo was able to resolve the situation in Naples through diplomacy, using the legendary Medici generosity and Lorenzo's own charm to bend King Ferrante to his side. When he arrived back in Florence, he was known at last as Il Magnifico, the Magnificent.
The 1480s presented a time of general calm for the Italian Peninsula, as a result of Lorenzo de' Medici's diplomatic abilities. Lorenzo was a faithful patron of art and philosophy, an avid participant in the Neoplatonism discussions held at his various villas at Careggi and other places. Before the death of Giuliano, they would often debate philosophy together in Tuscan evenings. Lorenzo had artists such as Botticelli, da Vinci and Michelangelo all active in Florence. He was also a great friend of Poliziano (picture left), Pico, Ficino (picture left), Bruni and many others. He prided himself on being a connoisseur of arts, and it was said that no artist came to success without the approval of Lorenzo. It was he who first noticed the talented Leonardo in Verrocchio's studio and he that brought Michelangelo to live with his children after seeing his sculptures. It was the time of the Golden Age for Florence.
With all worries gone, Lorenzo now set to the forwarding of his own family. Pope Innocent VIII came to the Papal Throne and Lorenzo had ambitions to make his son Giovanni de' Medici a cardinal. In order to do this, he had to sacrifice his mother's favourite daughter, Magdalena, in marriage to Francesco Cibo, a nephew of Innocent, a drunkard and a gambler. However, this ensured that Innocent would make Giovanni de' Medici a cardinal at the age of fourteen, to be officially recognized after his graduation from the University of Pisa. Giuliano, Lorenzo's brother, had also left behind a son born in 1478 by his mistress Fioretta Gorini. Lorenzo had adopted this child, named Giulio and paved a career for him in the Church. (He was to become Pope Clement VII). However, foremost in his mind,Lorenzo dedicated his time and energy to forwarding the cause of Giovanni de' Medici. It was said that he once spoke of his sons "I have three sons, one stupid [Piero], one intelligent [Giovanni] and one sweet [Giuliano]" as reflective of the careers of his sons later on.
Lorenzo de' Medici was now in financial trouble, as the vast resources of Medicean wealth was already depleted. He turned now to pilfering out of the Florentine coffers, his actions disguised by the Balia. He also stole money from the younger nephews under his charge. Later, they were to claim that Lorenzo took the large sum of 20 000 florins from them. While this was secretly happening behind the Florentine people's back, a new monk from Ferrara was gaining say. Condemning the Florentine wealth and extravagance, Girolamo Savonarola (pictured above) swayed many noblemen and peasants alike, including Pico della Mirandola, a good friend of Lorenzo. When Lorenzo died in 1492, the peace in Italy had already begun to crumble. His son, Piero, was a rather lackadaisical, talentless and spoiled young man who did not have the ability to keep the peace. Lorenzo's cousins, Giovanni and Lorenzo il Popolano joined the anti-Medici faction to drive Piero and his family out of Florence.
The Dukes of Florence
After the execution and subsequent fall of Savonarola, Florence reverted back to a republic system. Piero and Giuliano spent their days in exile in Venice. Piero fought under Cesare Borgia, and then the French, eventually drowning in 1503 while fleeing from battle. Giovanni de' Medici decided it was unwise to stay in Rome, especially when there was a price placed on his head at the expulsion of Piero. He went on a trip abroad, traveling to the old remnants of the Medici bank capitals before finally going to Genoa to live with his sister Maddalena. He returned to Rome in 1500 to live under Alexander VI. He became a great favourite of Julius II and under his guidance, retook Florence in 1512 after the Sack of Prato through the War of the League of Cambrai. In 1513, Giovanni de' Medici was elected Pope Leo X.
As the first Florentine Pope, the people of Florence rejoiced. Giuliano de' Medici was placed in charge of Florence and ruled from 1512 to 1516. After his untimely death, Piero's son, Lorenzo, became the hope for the Medici's. His only daughter, Caterina, would later become the formidable Catherine de Medici. All this represented the cross of the Medicis from private citizens to the family of nobles. Giuliano di Lorenzo was born as the son of Lorenzo, he died as the Duke of Nemours and was made a Knight of the Garter by King Henry VIII of England. Lorenzo di Piero was also titled Duke of Urbino.
The Golden Age of Pope Leo X
Leo X was less concerned with war, preferring to
be extravagant. Some would call him an enlightened leader, others a hedonistic pig. In one year, Pope Leo X was able to bankrupt the papacy. Behind the scenes, his cousin, Giulio, was pawning the papal jewels. As a last resort, he began selling indulgences which incited the wrath of Martin Luther. One of his first acts as Pope was, in the nepotism characteristic of Renaissance Popes, make his cousin Giulio de' Medici a Cardinal and later obtain the Cardinal-Chancellorship of England for this future Pope. His reign marked a time of wealth and general excess in Rome, from opulent celebrations to extraordinary feasts. The Renaissance had moved with the expulsion of the Medici, from Florence to Rome, now known as the High Renaissance. The Cardinals and merchants in Rome followed Pope Leo X's example and threw the most sumptuous feasts, one consisting of 62 courses on gold plates, where as each course finished, the plates were thrown into the Tiber as a show of wealth. Leo X was also patron of some of the best artists of the time, including Raphael, Michelangelo and da Vinci. He delighted in theatre, which was seen as vulgar before his time, and popularized Machiavelli's plays. Arguably, his greatest contribution was the rebuilding of St Peter's Basilica, another reason in his selling of indulgences. The time where Leo X, or Giovanni de' Medici, presided as Pope was considered the Golden Age of Rome.
Pope Clement VII
After Leo's death, a band of Cardinals formed to prevent Giulio from becoming Pope. He was not well liked in Rome, but had the backing of Charles V of Spain. Adrian VI was elected but died within the year. Giulio was then elected Pope Clement VII. He switched papal policy from Charles V to Francois I of France, a fatal mistake that led to the Sack of Rome in 1527. Although Clement was thought to be responsible for England's break from Rome and the Sack of Rome, he was a well-known patron of the arts. The altar wall of the Sistine Chapel, painted by Michelangelo, was commissioned by Clement just before his death. Clement was also, unexpectedly, a lover of science who, after having the Copernican system explained to him, was so pleased that he rewarded the messenger generously. He married Caterina de'
Medici to Henri, the second son of Francois, paving the name of the Medici in the royal houses of Europe.
Now that the Medici officially crossed the border between mercantile to nobility, they turned out one of the most famous condottieri. Giovanni dalle Bande Nere (or Giovanni of the Black Band) was the son of Giovanni de' Medici il Popolano and Caterina Sforza. Inheriting his mother's infamous traits, he became one of the last condottieri. He defended Rome and Florence against the many invading forces in the Italian Wars. It is said that if he lived, he would have prevented the Sack of Rome. His death marked the end of the age of condottieri.
The Cadet Branch
After Clement's death, the major male branch of the Medici line died out. Instead, the Florentines had to look for the minor branch, the sons of Giovanni and Lorenzo il Popolano, descendants of the brother of Cosimo de' Medici. The surviving heir was Cosimo de' Medici, son of Giovanni dalle Bande Nere and Maria Salviati. His father had been a military genius, the last of the condottieri and his mother was the granddaughter of Lorenzo il Magnifico. He was instated as Duke of Tuscany, later becoming Grand Duke. This paved the way for the Medici dynasty of royalty that included another Queen of France. His granddaughter Maria de Medici became Queen Consort of France when she wed Henry IV of France following the annulment of his marriage to Marguerite de Valois, daughter of the last Valois king Henri II of France and Queen Catherine de Medici. Catherine is held partly responsible for exacerbating the French "Wars of Religion". She also ousted the very powerful Guise Family from the French Court. it is possible that she had many people assassinated including her brother-in-law who was to inherit the throne of France to insure that her husband and her sons would gain the throne of France. Another malignant and unproven rumour is that she may have ordered the "accidental death" of her husband when her oldest son became of age to rule. Another son may have died when he chose not to "obey her or take her advice" while he was King of France. Catherine de Medici is blamed for the Massacre of Saint Bartholomew's Day in which many French died. Later, the Medici clan commissioned scientists as well as artists. The Uffizi Gallery was built by Cosimo I while Eleanor of Toledo bought the Palazzo Pitti. The family were also famous patrons of Galileo, who tutored many generations of the family.
The Medici Grand Dukes of Tuscany ended with Gian Gastone, the last male of the Medici line in 1737, but the Ducal line truly ended in 1743 with Anna Maria Luisa, the last of the Medici. She willed her property to the Tuscan state provided that nothing ever left Florence. At that point, the grandeur of the Medici and Florence had faded into a thing of the past. Florence became an insignificant town whose population lowered substantially. Florentines still remember the age of Cosimo de' Medici and Lorenzo the Magnificent with nostalgia. The Medici line still exists in some of the lesser Medici branches. After the death of the Gian Gastone de' Medici, Tuscany fell to the Hapsburg-Lorraine dynasty.
The Medici as Patrons of Art and Culture
Adoration of the Magi
by Botticelli (1475)
depicting the various members of the Medici family and their friends. The wiseman kissing the foot of the baby Jesus is Cosimo de' Medici, the man in the red cloak kneeling on the ground is said to be Piero de' Medici, Cosimo's son. The man in kneeling in the white robe beside Piero is said to be Giuliano de' Medici while the man in black with the red stripe standing beside him is said to be Lorenzo de' Medici. Angelo Poliziano is the second one from the left and Botticelli incorporates himself as the blond man gazing out at the far right of the painting.
Venus and Mars
by Botticelli (1483)
It is thought by some art historians to be an allegorical painting depicting the metaphorical conquest of Venus over Mars (using her charms) Almost certainly influenced by the various poets, philosophers and discussions occurring in Florence at the time, the love themes of the painting suggests that it was commissioned for marriage. The wasps beside the god Mars's head is thought to be a symbol of the Vespucci family, possibly commissioned by them. Although not commissioned by the Medici, their influence is still evident. The reclining athletic God is said to be Giuliano de' Medici, brother of the famous Lorenzo il Magnifico while the model of Venus is Simonetta Vespucci, the famous beauty that was rumoured to be the lover of Giuliano.
La Capella dei Magi
by Benozzo Gozoli
This depicts the power of the Medici family. Any supporters of the Medicean faction made it into this fresco in the Medici Chapel and almost certainly made into the politics of Florence. It is a display of the magnificence and wealth of the Medicis. Every Florentine citizen aspired to be included in this fresco. The old man with the dark blue shirt is said to be Cosimo de' Medici while the man in red beside him is Piero. In the back, Lorenzo is barely discernible beside his brother Giuliano. The artist has boldly painted his name on the hat of his own likeness.
| Further Reading:|
- Magnifico: The Brilliant Life and Violent Times of Lorenzo de' Medici (Miles J. Unger)
- Cosimo de` Medici and the Florentine Renaissance: The Patron`s Oeuvre (Dale Kent)
- April Blood: Florence and the Plot against the Medici (Lauro Martines)
- The House of Medici: Its Rise and Fall (Christopher Hibbert)
- Medici Money: Banking, Metaphysics, and Art in Fifteenth-Century Florence (Tim Parks)
- Catherine de Medici: Renaissance Queen of France (Leonie Frieda)
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