Who Were the Medici? A Nutshell History of Florence's Ruling Family
Updated: Dec 11, 2020
Here's my nutshell history guide to the Medici family of Florence, an unparalleled Renaissance dynasty.
If you're planning a trip to the magical city of Florence, you know that the city is overflowing with historic art and architecture. You're greeted with magnificent master works at every turn, both inside in Florence's world class museums and palaces and outside in its fabulous piazzas.
The Medici were the most celebrated family of the Renaissance. Florence is synonymous with the Medici and the Medici is synonymous with Florence. The Medici family commissioned virtually all of Florence's breathtaking art and architecture-- works by Brunelleschi, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Botticelli, Donatello, and Fra Angelico. Some of the Medici even became popes.
The Medici were one of the longest lasting dynasties in history. They weren’t just great patrons of the arts, but also key players in geopolitics. If you're thinking of visiting Florence, you may want to acquaint yourself with the Medici family history for a deeper understanding and appreciation of the must see sites in Florence.
History of Medici Family
So who were the Medici?
The Medici family didn’t originate in Florence. They came from the rural Mugello region of Tuscany, between Florence and Bologna. The name Medici translates into “doctors.” The early Medici may have been practitioners of medicine or apothecaries.
The Medici's unique coat of arms reflects this origin. The coat of arms consists of a shield decorated with balls or spheres (5 red, 1 blue generally). The number of balls and shape of the shield changes somewhat over time, but the two main elements remain.
Where does the balls symbolism come from? There are several different theories about the “balls of the Medici.” The most likely theory is that the balls represent stylized blood red oranges.
At the time, oranges were known to cure scurvy, and deemed a magical fruit. In fact, oranges and orange trees have often stood in for the Medici coat of arms in Medici-commissioned paintings and palazzos. For example, oranges appear in Sandro Botticelli’s famed painting Primavera in the Uffizi Gallery, which is set in an orange grove.
Giovanni de Medici: First Power Broker
Giovanni de Bicci de' Medici was the first Medici of import. He initiated the Medici's rise to power. Born in 1360, he essentially founded the Medici dynasty. Giovanni was a self made man with a rags to riches story, bringing his family from abject obscurity to nationwide fame.
Initially, he slaved away as a bank teller. But Giovanni had the good fortune to marry above his social rank, receiving a large cash dowry.
He used the money to make risky but incredibly lucrative investments in wool, textiles, and silk. With those riches, he founded the Medici Bank in 1397. The bank grew, with branches throughout Italy.
By 1410, Giovanni was the wealthiest man in Florence and one of the richest in Europe. He was essentially an investment guru, akin to a Warren Buffet of the era. The Medici Bank became the most profitable business in Europe.
Giovanni also kicked off Florence’s prominence in the arts during the early Renaissance period. He was a patron of the architect Brunelleschi, who he commissioned to restore the Basilica of San Lorenzo.
Cosimo the Elder: Master Politician
Giovanni was the father of Cosimo the Elder. (He’s called the elder because a century later there’s another famous Cosimo.) Cosimo was born in the year 1380. He lived a long life, not dying until 1464.
As the first born son of a wealthy banker, Cosimo was well read, well traveled, and well educated. But he was challenged from the get go by Florence's Pazzi and Albizi families. In 1433, threatened by Cosimo's popularity, the Albizi banished Cosimo from Florence.
But his exile only lasted one year. In 1434, at the request of the Florentine republic, Cosimo triumphantly returned. He vanquished his enemies, banished the Albizi, and consolidated his power. Cosimo the Elder became the Michael Corleone of the Medici family.
Florence remained a republic. But Cosimo was the de facto ruler. He was the biggest political boss of all the political bosses. He ruled Florence “from his workshop” behind the scenes, passing a yeah or nay on proposed government laws from his own study. Over 37 years, Cosimo created a dynasty that would endure for centuries and produce four popes.
But Cosimo the Elder wasn’t just a Machiavelli-like politician. He was also an avid art patron. He sponsored early Renaissance artists and architects like Donatello, Ghiberti, and Michelozzo. It was Cosimo who commissioned Donatello to create his Bronze David, one of the most important statues of the Renaissance. It's now in Florence's Bargello Museum.
Cosimo was perhaps even more famous for his architectural works, including building and/or restoring the Medici Palace (now known as the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi), the Basilica of San Lorenzo, the San Marco Monastery, and Florence's first public library.
In the San Marco Monastery, Cosimo hired acclaimed artist Fra Angelico, the "angelic painter," to lead the painting and fresco work involved in the project. One fresco, The Adoration of the Magi, is located in what was Cosimo's private meditation cell. Another painting, perhaps the artist's most famous work, Annunication, is at the top of a staircase in the north corridor.
Piero de Medici: the Gouty Medici
Cosimo’s successor was his eldest son Piero, who was given the sobriquet Piero the Gouty. Gout was then a rich man’s disease -- a rather painful pseudo arthritic condition caused by excessively rich diets. It caused swelling and joint pain.
Born in 1414, Piero was not a particularly distinguished Medici. He didn’t achieve anything terribly significant. Yet he maintained and defended the Medici’s dominance, once defeating an attempted Pitti family coup.
While not making a significant mark on Florentine history, Piero was nonetheless a significant arts patron. He commissioned the fresco cycles in the Medici-Riccardi Palace. He encouraged the rise of the talented sculptor Andrea del Verrocchio. And he commissioned the architect Michelozzo to construct San Miniato al Monte.
Piero was married to Lucrezia Tornabuoni. Of their 7 children, 4 survived, including Lorenzo and Giuliano, born in 1449 and 1453 respectively. Aware that he wouldn’t live long because of the progressing gout, Piero groomed his son Lorenzo in the world of politics and diplomacy.
Lorenzo the Magnificent: the First Renaissance Man
Perhaps the most powerful and influential Medici was Cosimo's grandson, Lorenzo. Born in 1449, Lorenzo adopted the nickname “Il Magnifico,” or the Magnificent. He came into power at just 20.
Lorenzo was an extremely charismatic man. He was essentially the John F. Kennedy of the Medici family, who ruled over a Camelot-like atmosphere. He was a warrior, savvy politician, connoisseur of arts, music composer, and even a romantic poet. His second son became Pope Leo X.
Lorenzo the Magnificent essentially kicked off the golden age of the Renaissance, when Florentine arts were at their apex. His palace was a lived in art gallery. At his humanist court, he gathered together the leading artists, intellectuals, and philosophers of the day.
Sandro Botticelli was a Medici court painter. Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo were both members of Lorenzo's court for some time. Michelangelo actually lived several years in the Medici Palace (Palazzo Medici-Riccardi), learning from the foremost Florentine artists.
Pazzi Conspiracy: Medici Rival
Though the people loved the Medici family, other wealthy Florentine families despised them, including the Pazzi family. In 1478, the Pazzi family tried, but failed, to oust the Medici in Florence's most infamous coup attempt. They plotted to kill both Lorenzo and his brother Giuliano during mass at the Duomo.
Giuliano was murdered, stabbed to death. Lorenzo escaped and exacted a swift revenge. In just a few hours, the Pazzi conspirators (including the pope's nephew) were captured and killed in a violent manner. They were hung from the second floor ramparts of the Palazzo Vecchio. Incensed, Pope Sixtus VI promptly excommunicated Lorenzo.
Lorenzo eventually died in 1492, of the same gouty ailment as his father. His first born son Piero, succeeded him. But Piero was a disappointment, ruling for only 2 years.
Piero had none of the iron or savvy of his father. He was a rather petulant spoiled rich boy. Think Joffrey from Game of Thrones. History dubbed Piero the “Unfortunate” after he was kicked out of Florence by the fiery Dominican preacher Girolamo Savonarola.
Rise of Savonarola: Medici Exile
Savonarola was an ascetic Dominican friar who preached the end of the world in passionate sermons. Originally from Ferrara, he arrived in Florence in the 1480s.
Some called Savonarola a prophet, while others denounced him as a terrorist. Savonarola decried the excesses of clerical and despotic power. He told Florentines the apocalypse was coming and to save themselves through godliness and self censorship.
In 1494, the doomsday preacher ousted and exiled Piero. For several years, Savonarola established a theocracy in Florence. But the extreme religious tyranny of Savonarola went too far.
In 1497, Savonarola hosted the "Bonfire of the Vanities," in an attempt to expunge vice from Florence. He destroyed works of art and other "vanities" (wigs, perfume, cosmetics, tapestries, manuscripts, fine clothing) in the Piazza della Signoria.
Legend holds that even Botticelli threw some of his paintings into the blaze, plunging himself into poverty and never picking up a paint brush again. The Bonfire of the Vanities was one of the most infamous moments in Florentine history.
The event divided Florence; not everyone was brainwashed. Many of the pleasure loving citizens had enough. They didn't want their cultural legacy destroyed. When the plague arrived in Florence, that was the final blow. Savonarola was blamed and branded a lunatic.
In 1498, Savonarola was defrocked and imprisoned in the Palazzo Vecchio for heresy. After being tried and convicted, he was executed in the Piazza della Signoria. A circular plaque near the Palazzo Vecchio's entrance marks the spot of Savonarola's execution.
Pope Leo X: Medici Rebound
Despite the distasteful Savonarola business, the Medici rebounded. Previously, with the help of his Roman wife Claire Orsini, Lorenzo had his second son, Giovanni, invested as a cardinal at age 14. The move paid off. In 1513, Giovanni was elected pope and became Leo X. This restored the Medici family to Florence.
But Pope Leo wasn't exactly revered. He was known as a lecher and wastrel, saying that "since God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it." Pope Leo’s “greatest” legacy was the Protestant Reformation of 1517. Rather an embarrassment, of course, with half of the church breaking away from Catholicism.
Pope Leo also made his cousin Giulio a cardinal. Cardinal Giulio would go on to become Pope Clement VII in 1523. During his tenure, Rome was sacked and King Henry VIII broke away from the Catholic church and formed the Church of England. The Medici popes left a trail of disaster in their wake.
Alessandro the First Duke of Florence
Somehow, Clement was able to muster an heir, Alessandro. Alessandro was either the son of Lorenzo (grandson of Piero the Unfortunate) or the illegitimate son of Pope Clement VII. But most likely the latter, a bastard son of the pope and an African servant.
Thanks to his pope-father, Alessandro was established as the first Duke of Florence in 1531. The republic of Florence officially came to an end. Upon the creation of a duchy, Florence became a hereditary monarchy.
The problem was that Alessandro was a sociopath, rotten to his core. He was a despotic ruler who was perverse in his personal habits, one of the all time most hated nobles of Florence. His life was full of bloody secrets, affairs, revenge, and backstabbing.
Alessandro was assassinated in 1537. His far superior replacement was his cousin Cosimo. Cosimo I de' Medici eventually became the first Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1569. He was described as a just and fair monarch.
Cosimo I: First Grand Duke
In 1539, Cosimo I married the beautiful Eleanora di Toledo. It was a love match. Cosimo fell for Eleanora when they met for the first time in 1536. Deeply pious, he was reputedly faithful to Eleanora -- a true aberration for that age.
In 1540, the pair moved into the Palazzo Vecchio and began redecorating. What you see there today is mostly the effort of Cosimo I, including the amazing Hall of Five Hundred with frescos by Giorgio Vasari, a prominent Florentine painter, architect, and art historian.
By all accounts, the pair were happily married. Eleanora was considered a “first lady” by modern standards, traveling with her husband and helping rule the city. Today, Cosimo is probably best known for building and/or renovating and expanding the Uffizi Gallery, the Vasari Corridor, the Convent of San Marco, and the Pitti Palace.
Cosimo was succeeded by six more grand dukes. The descendants of Cosimo I ruled into the 18th century in relative stability.
Legacy of the Medici Family
But decay had set in. This generation of Medici grand dukes ruled by force, and reduced Florence's reputation as a cultural capitol. The last Medici, Anna Maria de Louisa de' Medici, died in 1743. The Medici line was then extinct.
But the legacy of the Medici family lived on. In her will, Anna Maria bequeathed all of the Medici treasures — the family's entire artistic patrimony — to the people Florence. The only condition was that none of it could be sold.
So all the extraordinary art that the Medici commissioned, much of it in situ, is intact for today’s admiring visitors. The sheer quality and quantity of the art is overwhelming. That's why, today, Florence is one of Europe's best cities for art lovers.
If you'd like to explore more of Florence's magnificent art, check out my other Florence travel guides:
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