In this article we will talk about the Medici, one of the largest, most powerful and richest Italian families ever, who remained in power for about 300 years. They have been popes, sovereigns and patrons, they have promoted art and culture and they have given to their territory such glory and prestige that they can never be replicated again!
The Medici family’s origins
The roots of the Medici family are in the Mugello valley, one of the most sensational places in Italy, about 30km from Florence, and more precisely in the Medici Villa of Cafaggiolo!
Certainly the first Medici worthy of note is Giovanni de’ Medici, called Bicci. Right from the start, Giovanni learns the profession of banker and thus opens the family bank, THE MEDICI BANK! In 1397 he moves its seat to Florence, at that time governed by the Signoria, constituted by nobles. Giovanni, however, who was very smart, thanks to his fruitful activity, manages to get an armchair at Palazzo della Signoria.
And it is here that the rise to success and power of the Medici begins thanks to Bicci!
Giovanni de’ Medici, also known as Bicci
In reality, Giovanni is not interested in politics. What really interests him is… the money and the prestige of his family. In short, he wants to become rich and important. So he works to fill the pockets of the bank and at the same time invests in the family wool mill.
But he doesn’t think only of himself! In fact he also cares about the people and its popularity grows when it decides to impose a fair reform of the land registry, for which those who were richer paid more taxes. In doing so, he filled the city’s coffers and helped the poorest, receiving the title of FRIEND OF THE PEOPLE.
With his money, Giovanni – who loves beautiful things – finances various works of art, including the completion of the Church of San Lorenzo by Filippo Brunelleschi, which in reality he won’t see finished because he dies first. The bank and all its wealth then pass to his son Cosimo, called Pater Patriae or the Elder.
In any case, Cosimo really is the Pater Patriae, since he manages not only to consolidate, but also to expand the wealth and prestige of the Bank and the Medici family, becoming the richest man of his time, the then Bernard Arnault or Jeff Bezos, to be clear.
The firts enemies of the Medici family
With him, the blood of the Medici melts with the noble blood, since it marries the scion of one of the oldest and most prestigious families of the time: Contessina de’ Bardi. But the other noble families of the Signoria, such as the Albizzi and the Strozzi, do not like these merchants who are getting richer and richer. In fact, in the meantime, the Medici Bank has become the official bank of the Pope no less than the Pope!
So, Albizzi and Strozzi accuse Cosimo of aspiring to dictatorship, imprison him and try to kill him, but he manages to escape and is exiled. He spends a golden exile in Venice, and then returns to Florence a year later, during a political crisis.
He then sends his opponents into exile and begins to commission artistic works to the left and right, among which, stands out without a doubt the construction of the Dome of Santa Maria del Fiore, by the hand of Filippo Brunelleschi, incredible work that no one for years had succeeded in accomplishing. He also commissions Michelozzo Michelozzi to create the Palazzo Medici, and among the other artists he finances, there is also Donatello. I mean, he’s like… the lord of the Italian Renaissance!
The Medici dynasty continues
If Cosimo is so powerful, influential, amazing and incredible… his son doesn’t have his own charisma… indeed, his health is rather precarious because of gout, illness that prevents him from doing many things, and this saddens the father very much, who hoped for a son… cool like him. Cosimo, however, is heatened when he realizes that his nephew Lorenzo, son of Piero, has many of his own gifts. At the end genetics doesn’t lie very much…
When Cosimo dies, Piero, known as Gottoso for obvious reasons, remaines in power for 5 years and then it comes the turn of his son Lorenzo, who, like his brother Giuliano, receives a humanistic education and good political preparation.
Like his grandfather, he is a great enthusiast (and financier) of great works and artists, and it is thanks to him that Botticelli, Michelangelo and Leonardo can give free rein to their creativity. But he is also a supporter of poetry, philosophy and science, all of which give him the title of Lorenzo the Magnificent!
The Medici now aim to have a voice in the Pope’s Roman affairs and so Lorenzo marries Clarice Orsini, scion of one of the noblest Roman families.
The Pazzi’s conspiracy
During his government, Lorenzo has to face what went down in history as one of the most important events related to his family: the conspiracy of the Pazzi, who were not crazy people, but an important Florentine noble family. After Lorenzo refuses a loan to Pope Sixtus IV, the latter turns to a series of people intending to take out the Medici, including the Pazzi, frightened by their growing power. After four years of preparations, on April 26, 1478, during the Mass at Santa Maria del Fiore, the two young Medici were attacked. Giuliano is stabbed and dies, while Lorenzo is slightly wounded thanks to the fact that his faithful friend Francesco Nori protects him with his body, sacrificing himself for him. Lorenzo is saved by hiding in the sacresty.
Lorenzo’s revenge for the murderers of his brother and his friend is terrible, because it is an example for anyone who wants in the future to attempt the life of a Medici. In fact he kills of all those responsible for the conspiracy through a public execution in the city square.
Politically, thanks to his extraordinary gift of eloquence, he is very skilled in diplomacy and manages to maintain a general peace in Italy, of which he dreams Florence as a political and cultural center.
Lorenzo’s enemy is also the friar Girolamo Savonarola, who, in simple words, envies Lorenzo because of the luxury, corruption, violence and depravity surrounding him.
But if Lorenzo is a great man of politics, art and culture, he is weak in the management of the bank and its money. At his death, from gout just like his father, the bank collapsed because of his bad investments.
Piero de’ Medici and Pope Leone X
After Lorenzo the Magnificent, the power and the bank pass to his son Piero, called the Unlucky or the Fatuous, who, rather than say unlucky, he is a real incompetent! He has neither talent nor political sense nor passion for art: he squanders all the money of the family, he cannot govern and, after two years, in 1494 he is sent into exile by the regime established by Savonarola in the meantime.
The reputation of the Medici family recoveres when Piero’s brother, Giovanni, becomes Pope Leo X in 1513. He moves the power to Rome and, since he has more artistic sense than his brother, he commissiones Michelangelo to build the New Sacristy, where today the bodies of Lorenzo the Magnificent and his brother Giuliano rest. His artistic sense is also demonstrated by its beautiful rooms at Palazzo Vecchio. And it is always with him that the Medici family can return to Florence in 1512, after Savonarola was condemned and burned at the stake.
The power gets dislocated
The Medici continued their power in Rome when Giulio de’ Medici, son of a relationship with Giuliano and then entrusted to the care of Lorenzo the Magnificent, becomes Pope Clement VII in 1523.
He appoints as the new lord of the city of Florence Alessandro, known as The Moore because of his olive complexion, son of Lorenzo II, Duke of Urbino and only son of Piero the Fatuous, despite his bad reputation of being cruel and vicious.
Both because of his behaviour and because he wants to centralize the power in his hands, Alessandro is killed by a hit man of Lorenzino de’ Medici (also called Lorenzaccio), who is his second cousin. After the murder, he leaves everything and flees into exile.
The young Cosimo I
With the death of Alessandro, the primary branch of the Medici family closes and, since it remains an empty seat at the government, this is filled by a young man, such as Cosimo, son of the daughter of the daughter of Lorenzo the Magnificent. (Lorenzo the Magnificent was his great-grandfather) So, Cosimo comes to power at just 18 years, becoming Cosimo I de’ Medici, and shows the nobles who want to manipulate him that he has a great charisma (the Medici gene) and, in a short time, takes absolute power and gets rid of his enemies.
In 1539 he marries Eleanor of Toledo, daughter of the Spanish viceroy of Naples. With him Tuscany gradually becomes a modern and well-administered state and the power of the Medici is consolidated again, as it happened only with the largest. Among other things, Cosimo also proves to be a good patron. For example, it expands Palazzo Pitti, transforming it into its new home, and connects it, through the Vasari corridor, to Palazzo Vecchio, which later becomes its official residence.
As if that was not enough, he also completes the Boboli Gardens and in 1569 was appointed Grand Duke of Tuscany by Pope Pius V.
The end of the Medici’s dynasty
Their power continues between ups and downs, between capable and incompetent rulers. Ferdinand I, son of Cosimo I, is certainly worthy of note. He builts the wonderful Chapel of the Princes, which is located in the Medici Chapels, near the New Sacristy of Michelangelo, as a burial place of the Medici family. This chapel is all made in damped and dark colors of porphyry and granite to give it a mournful tone. In the niches there should have been statues of all the Medici buried there, but in fact we can find only those of Ferdinand I and his son Cosimo II .
The last members of the Medici family are distinguished by the bigotry and extreme pomp of their court, to the detriment of the people who instead lives in extreme poverty because of the high taxes to sustain the rhythm of life of the Grand Dukes.
After the death of Cosimo III (1723) the Medici dynasty can be said to have ended, since one of his three sons dies without heirs, another is homosexual and another is sterile.
A woman with a throne
After over 300 years of domination, the history of the Medici comes to an end. The European sovereigns decide by default the fate of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, which passes to the Habsburgs-Lorraine. And here we must certainly mention a woman who played a fundamental role for the city of Florence and the artistic and cultural heritage that her ancestors had struggled to realize and to build and erect: Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici, sterile daughter of Cosimo III.
In fact, she stipulates with the Lorraines the “Pact of Family” (1737), which provides that the Lorraines can not transport or «take out of the capital and state of the Grand Duchy… Galleries, Paintings, Statues, Libraries, Gioje and other precious things… so that they would remain for the ornament of the State, for the benefit of the public and to attract the curiosity of foreigners». The pact was respected by the new Grand Dukes, who allowed the city to preserve its art and its beauty until us.
Here concludes our brief summary of the 300 years of the Medici family, one of the most important, rich and prestigious families in Italy. If you want to know more about the history of Italy, do not miss the article dedicated to the italian unification and all its protagonists.
In addition, we remind you that if the story of Cosimo the Elder and Lorenzo the Magnificent fascinates you and you want to know more about these two great characters and their family, you can watch the beautiful TV series in 3 seasons entitled «The Medici», available on various video streaming platforms.
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