Who Were the Medici? A Nutshell History of Florence’s Ruling Family

Looking for a history of the Medici family? You’ve come to the right place!

The Medici family of Florence holds a prominent place in history as the unrivaled dynasty of the Renaissance period. They were not only renowned but also held immense power during that time.

When people think of Florence, they think of the Medici, and vice versa. The connection between the city and the family is inseparable.

Ponte Vecchio in historic Florence
Ponte Vecchio in historic Florence

The Medici family made their fortune in banking, but their impact went far beyond financial success. They wielded authority as benevolent despots and played a significant role in shaping the cultural landscape of their time.

Their influence extended to the highest echelons of power, with three popes, two queens, and numerous rulers of Florence hailing from their lineage.

In essence, the Medici family’s legacy is intertwined with the history of Florence, earning them a place as one of the most influential families in the Renaissance era.

Pinterest pin for history of the Medici
Pinterest pin for history of the Medici

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. Much of that artistic legacy is on display in Florence’s best museums.

The Medici were one of the longest lasting dynasties in history, ruling from the 13th to the 17th centuries. They weren’t just great patrons of the arts. They were 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.

courtyard of the Medici-Riccardi Palace in Florence
courtyard of the Medici-Riccardi Palace

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.

Sandro Botticelli, Primavera, 1482
Sandro Botticelli, Primavera, 1482

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, Sandro Botticelli’s famed painting Primavera (shown above) in the Uffizi Gallery is set in an orange grove.

Cristofano dell'Altissimo, Portrait of Giovanni di Bicci de'Medici, 1429
Cristofano dell’Altissimo, Portrait of Giovanni di Bicci de’Medici, 1429

History of the Medici

1. 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.

Pontormo, Cosimo the Elder, 1520 -- in the Uffizi Gallery
Pontormo, Cosimo the Elder, 1520 — in the Uffizi Gallery

2. 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.

Benozzo Gozzoli frescos in the Chapel of the Magi of the Riccardi Palace, commissioned by Cosimo the Elder
Benozzo Gozzoli frescos in the Medici-Riccardi Palace

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.

>>> Click here to book a ticket to the Bargello

Donatello, Bronze David, 1440s -- once in the Palazzo Vecchio courtyard, now in the Bargello Museum
Donatello’s Bronze David in the Bargello
facade of San Marco Monastery in Florence
facade of San Marco Monastery

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.

READ: Guide To the Medici Palaces

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.

>>> Click here to book a ticket to San Marco Monastery

Bronzino, Piero de Medici, circa 1550-70-- in the National Gallery of London
Bronzino, Piero de Medici, circa 1550-70– in the National Gallery of London

3. 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.

Giorgio Vasari, Portrait of Lorenzo the Magnificent, 1533
Giorgio Vasari, Portrait of Lorenzo the Magnificent, 1533
a bust of Lorenzo the Magnificent (who was considered very ugly) greets you at the entrance of the Uffizi
bust of Lorenzo the Magnificent

4. 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.

Lorenzo 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, Lorenzo gathered together the leading artists, intellectuals, and philosophers of the day.

Botticelli, Birth of Venus, 1486 -- in the Uffizi Gallery
Botticelli, Birth of Venus, 1486 — in the Uffizi Gallery

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 two years in the Medici Palace (Palazzo Medici-Riccardi), learning from the foremost Florentine artists.

READ: All the Paintings of Leonardo da Vinci

5. Pazzi Conspiracy: Medici Rival

Though the people loved the Medici family, other wealthy Florentine families despised them, including the Pazzi family.

Palazzo Vecchio and the Tower of Arnolfo
Palazzo Vecchio and the Tower of Arnolfo

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 high 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.

courtyard of the Palazzo Vecchio
courtyard of the Palazzo Vecchio

They were hung from the second floor ramparts of the Palazzo Vecchio. Incensed, Pope Sixtus VI promptly excommunicated Lorenzo.

>>> Click here to book a ticket to the Palazzo Vecchio

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.

Fra Bartolomeo, Girolamo Savonarola,1495 -- in San Marco Monastery
Fra Bartolomeo, Girolamo Savonarola,1495

6. 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.

Painting of Savonarola’s execution in the Piazza della Signoria
painting of Savonarola’s execution in the Piazza della Signoria

According to Giorgio Vasari, even Botticelli threw some of his paintings into the blaze. He thereby plunged himself into poverty and never picked 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 by Savonarola. 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.

the plaque in the Piazza della Signoria, which marks the spot of Savonarola's execution in Florence
the plaque in the Piazza della Signoria, which marks the spot of Savonarola’s execution
Raphael painting of Pope Leo X, in the Pitti Palace
Raphael painting of Pope Leo X, in the Pitti Palace

7. 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.

the Ponte Vecchi, a landmark in Florence
the Ponte Vecchio

8. 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.

Cigoli's Portrait of Cosimo I de’ Medici -- in the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi
Cigoli’s Portrait of Cosimo I de’ Medici

9. 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.

It was decorated with frescos by Giorgio Vasari, a prominent Florentine painter, architect, and art historian. Behind the Vasari frescos, the hall may hold a lost Leonardo da Vinci fresco.

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.

the Pitti Palace
the Pitti Palace

Eleanora purchased and expanded the Pitti Palace, when the Palazzo Vecchio seemed too small for her burgeoning family. Today, the palace is an incredibly unique combination of splendor, in situ art collections, and beautiful gardens.

The Pitti Palace museums house world famous masterpieces, including the world’s largest collection of Raphael paintings. The in situ collection is arranged as part of the over-the-top decoration of the magnificent rooms.

Paintings are displayed in rich frames that cover the walls beneath gilded and frescoed ceilings.

>>> Click here to book a ticket to the Pitti Palace

Cosimo was succeeded by six more grand dukes. The descendants of Cosimo I ruled into the 18th century in relative stability.

Giorgio Vasari frescos in the Hall of the Five Hundred in Palazzo Vecchio
Giorgio Vasari frescos in the Hall of the Five Hundred in Palazzo Vecchio

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.

READ: 30 Masterpieces To See in Florence

entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio
entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio

Medici-Related Tours In Florence

I am definitely not the only one obsessed with the Medici.

There are plenty of Medici themed tours you can go on when you’re visiting Florence. For example, you can book:

Giuliano's tomb by Michelangelo in the Medici Chapel of the Basilica of San Lorenzo
Giuliano’s tomb by Michelangelo in the Medici Chapels

I hope you’ve enjoyed my guide to the history of the Medici dynasty. If you’d like to explore more of Florence’s magnificent art and architecture, check out my other Florence travel guides:

If you’d like to visit Florence and see the Medici’s legacy of amazing art and architecture, pin it for later.

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3 thoughts on “Who Were the Medici? A Nutshell History of Florence’s Ruling Family”

  1. I have been to Europe on several occasions to attend academic conferences and also do extensive research on Indian banking in UK. From my school days I have heard of the Medicis and am now enthralled to read about them and Florence through the guided tour.
    Thank you and looking orward to a visit

    • I have enjoyed this whole article on the Medici family history, I have
      been reading their history since I I became aware that my name is
      Theresa D. Medici. I love the history and trying to find my heritage
      for a long time. Its not easy to do that, well anyway Im proud to have the Medici name.
      Thank you.
      Theresa D. Medici


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