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The House of Medici

Of all the families enmeshed in the Italian Renaissance, the Medici are the most prolific. This dynasty of merchants-turned-bankers-turned-politicians produced three popes, two queens of France, and a plethora of dukes and grand dukes, all while cultivating one of the greatest artistic movements in history both in Florence and beyond. It was the Medici who financed the construction of the dome of Florence’s Cathedral, the Laurentian Library, the Uffizi Gallery, and the Boboli Gardens, and patronised the likes of Filippo Brunelleschi, Sandro Botticelli, Galileo Galilei, Niccolò Machiavelli, and all four of the Ninja Turtles.  

To examine the House of Medici, their role in society, and their extraordinary influence on Italian art and culture, we’d need a book, if not a series of books. So I’m focusing this post on three specific individuals: Giovanni, the “founding father”, his son Cosimo, the “father of the fatherland”, and Cosimo’s grandson, Lorenzo “the Magnificent”. 

But, before we start, it’s important to understand where they fit in the bigger picture.

Setting the Scene

The Renaissance is widely accepted as the period between 1400 and 1600, sitting between the Middle Ages (unaffectionately known as the Dark Ages) and the Baroque era. 

At this time, Italy was divided into city-states, with a different government or ‘prince’ ruling over them. Florence was a republic, a nod towards its ancient role as the capital of the Roman Empire. But republics are rarely true republics. Florence was, instead, unofficially ruled over by a few powerful families. 

While the Papacy had returned to Rome in 1377, antipopes had been trying to claim the Throne of Saint Peter, and the Great Schism was still very much underway. The Black Death had ravaged through Italy, claiming the lives of 100,000 Florentines alone (according to Giovanni Boccaccio). With the city’s wealth now available to a decimated population, merchants and bankers moved up in the ranks; among them, the Medici. 

In the agricultural region of the Mugello, north of Florence, the Medici’s roots were well established. The first documented record of them came from 1230 and their rise occurred through a booming textile business. Their fame, however, happened when they expanded into banking. 

The Medici as Bankers

For most of the 13th century, the banking centre was Siena with the Bonsignori and their Gran Tavola (the Great Table) as the most powerful bank in Europe. After Orlando Bonsignori died in 1273, the bankruptcy of the Gran Tavola resulted in Siena losing its title to its rival, Florence. 

The Medici Bank was established in 1397 by Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici, the ‘founder’ of the Medici family. It grew quickly: opening branches in Pisa, Genoa, and Milan; expanding borders by setting up banks in London, Bruges, Venice, and Avignon; and creating relationships with banks in Constantinople, Alexandria, and Cairo. 

Modern banking practices were pioneered by the Medici Bank. Double-entry bookkeeping was first used by the Medici, as were bills of exchange, which helped to facilitate trade and commerce across long distances, and fractional reserve banking, where only a fraction of deposits was retained and the rest was lent out, stimulating economic growth.  

Under the control of Cosimo, the bank went through its most profitable period, but his death in 1464, marked the beginning of its end. By 1478, both the London and Bruges branches were forced into liquidation. The War of the Roses left the London branch in debt for 51,533 gold florins, and poor management in Bruges lead to losses of upwards of 70,000 gold florins. A doomsday preacher snatched the Medici’s power in Florence a little over a decade later, and the Medici Bank to become insolvent in 1494. 

The Medici as Patrons

Throughout this entire period, the Medici supported numerous artists. 

Giovanni was on the opera (works commission) which selected Lorenzo Ghiberti’s designs for the bronze doors of the Baptistry, commissioned Brunelleschi for the reconstruction of the Basilica of San Lorenzo in 1419, and patronised the likes of Masaccio, the first true Renaissance Painter, and Donatello, the first true Renaissance Sculptor. 

Cosimo, was recognized for hiring Michelozzo Michelozzi to create the very first Florentine palazzo, within which Benozzo Gozzoli frescoed the Magi Chapel depicting portraits of the Medici family parading through the Tuscan landscape. He funded Brunelleschi’s dome on the Santa Maria del Fiore in 1436 and also patronised the artists Donatello, Fra Angelico, Fra Filippo Lippi. 

Cosimo’s collection of books was renowned. He financed trips for Poggio Bracciolini to scout books for him across Europe, Syria, and Egypt, and engaged 45 copyists under the bookseller, Vespasiano da Bisticci. He funded the creation of a library for his grandson, Lorenzo, which would later become the Laurentian Library, and founded the first public library in Florence at San Marco, which was central to the humanist movement of which he was deeply immersed. In fact, Cosimo also established a Platonic Academy in Florence in 1445 and commissioned Marsilio Ficino’s translation of the complete works of Plato. 

While Cosimo’s son, Piero, continued to commission works, his efforts paled in comparison to those of Lorenzo il Magnifico. Lorenzo held the reins of power in Florence all the way through the golden age of the Florence’s Renaissance. His court artists included Sandro Botticelli, Andrea del Verrocchio, Leonardo da Vinci, Domenico Ghirlandaio, and Piero and Antonio del Pollaiuolo. Additionally, he patronised Michelangelo Buonarroti, inviting him to study his private collection and live with his family for three years. He also created a sculpture garden in the Piazza San Marco with the hope of it becoming an educational institution for artists, adding sleeping quarters for the ease of the students. 

Lorenzo wrote poetry of his own and expanded the library his grandfather had created for him. He also supported the development of the humanism movement, adding such names as Ficino, Poliziano and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola to his circle and discussing the merging of Plato’s ideas with those in Christianity. 

Rather than commissioning pieces himself, Lorenzo used art politically. Legend has it that Lorenzo sent Leonardo da Vinci to present Ludovico Sforza a silver lyre, leading to commissions for the artist in Milan. It was also he who sent Ghirlandaio, Botticelli, Pietro Perugino, and Cosimo Rosselli to Rome to paint the Sistine Chapel for Pope Sixtus IV, sealing an alliance between himself and the pope after the Pazzi Conspiracy, which killed Lorenzo’s brother, Giuliano. 

The Medici as Politicians

In 1417, after the deliberations of the Council of Constance, the Council ended the Schism and brought the Papacy back to Rome under a single pope. Giovanni had helped this endeavour and, as a reward for his support, the Papacy began using the Medici Bank. Giovanni also secured tax-farming contracts, and the rights to the Tolfa alum mines: alum being the key ingredient in the dyeing of textiles and used extensively in Florence. At that time, only the Turks were exporting alum, and so Pius II granted the Medicis a monopoly in its mining, making them the primary producers of alum in Europe.

In 1433, the Albizzi, the then leading opposition to the Medici, had Cosimo imprisoned in the Palazzo Vecchio for his failure to conquer the Republic of Lucca. While some called for his execution, Cosimo’s imprisonment turned instead to exile. He travelled to Padua, then Venice. A year later, a pro-Medici Signoria, led by Tommaso Soderini, was elected in Florence, and lifted Cosimo’s exile. For the next three decades, Cosimo influenced the Florentine government, using his newfound power to create constitutional changes that would secure his position. Cosimo also worked to negotiate peace between the powers of Florence, Naples, Venice, and Milan during the Lombardy Wars, and was instrumental in Pope Eugene IV moving the Council of Ferrara to Florence, which brought figures such as Emperor John VIII Palaiologos to the city and, with him, even greater interest in Greek art and literature. Upon his death, Cosimo was awarded the title Pater Patriae, which translates to the Father of the Fatherland. Before him, only Cicero had been awarded such honour.  

Unlike Giovanni and Cosimo, Lorenzo’s family specifically prepared him for power. Though he was only 20 years old when he took control of Florence upon his father’s death, he had been engaged in political missions as early as sixteen. His power was such that he and his brother, Giuliano, fell afoul of a conspiracy in April 1478. Though it is known as the Pazzi Conspiracy, the plot to kill the Medici brothers involved more than just the one rival family. Francesco Pazzi was joined by Girolamo Riario, the Pope’s nephew, Francesco Salviati, the archbishop of Pisa, and Pope Sixtus IV. Guiliano was killed, Lorenzo survived the attack, and the Florentines executed the conspirators. Sixtus seized all the Medici assets and excommunicated the Medici and Florence, placing the city under interdict, as revenge for the executions. When the prohibition did not yield the result he hoped, Sixtus formed a military alliance with King Ferdinand of Naples and declared war on Florence. 

Knowing there was no support from their allies in Bologna and Milan, Lorenzo stowed away to Naples, becoming a prisoner of the king until he convinced him to end the war. It was this selfless act that cemented Lorenzo’s power in Florence and allowed him to create constitutional changes, as his grandfather had done, to pursue and maintain peace. He balanced power across Italy, and kept the major foreign powers outside of Italy, while striving to maintain a good relationship with them. It was under Lorenzo’s reign that Italy had its most peaceful decade. They called him il Magnifico.

The Future of the Medici

Though the Medici were subsequently once again ousted from Florence when the puritanical Dominican friar, Girolamo Savonarola, rose to power at the end of Lorenzo’s rule (it was under his leadership that the Bonfire of the Vanities occurred), Giovanni, Cosimo, and Lorenzo’s dreams for the future of the Medici family did eventually come to fruition thanks to Lorenzo planting his children in positions that cemented their power.

His first daughter, Lucrezia, was a celebrated patron in her own right, having paid to expand the convent of San Giorgio, build chapels throughout Rome, and was the mother of Maria Salviati, the mother of Cosimo I de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany. Maddalena was married to the son of Pope Innocent VIII. In the tradition of the Italians, Lorenzo’s eldest son, Piero, was groomed to follow in his footsteps, while his second, Giovanni, entered the church. In 1513, Giovanni took the name Leo X, and became Pope, reclaiming Florence in his family’s name. He placed his younger brother, Giuliano, as Duke of Nemours and his nephew, Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici, as Duke of Urbino.

After the Pazzi Conspiracy, Lorenzo had also adopted Giuliano’s illegitimate son, Giulio, who followed his cousin into the clergy and become Pope Clement VII. It was he who commissioned Raphael’s last masterpiece, the Transfiguration, and Michelangelo’s Last Judgement. Unfortunately, Clement’s rule coincided with the Sack of Rome in 1527 and Martin Luther’s protestant reformation. In 1530, Clement allied himself with Charles V and secured an engagement between his daughter, Margaret of Austria, to Clement’s nephew, Alessandro de’ Medici, naming him Duke of Florence. This began the Medici monarchs of Florence, which lasted two centuries. He also married his cousin, Catherine de’ Medici, to the son of Charles V’s enemy, Francis I of France, the future King Henry II, which connected the Medici to French Royalty. This connection ran through the marriages of Elisabeth and Claude of Valois, Catherine’s daughters, to the Spanish royal family. 

Of the Medici Dukes, it was Cosimo I – known now as Cosimo the Great – who rose through ranks to Grand Duke. Cosimo married Eleanora of Toledo, who purchased the Pitti Palace. They patronised Vasari, who would erect the Uffizi in 1560, and founded the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno in 1563. He was also a patron of Galileo Galilei, who tutored multiple generations of the Medici children. He named the four largest moons of Jupiter after the four Medici children he tutored, though they are no longer the names used.

The House of Medici came to an end in 1743 when Anna Maria Luisa, the only daughter of Cosimo III de’ Medici, died, bringing the dynasty to an end. Before her death, she bequeathed the Medici’s art collection to Florence on the condition that no part of it left the city. She was interred in the Basilica of San Lorenzo, to which she had added during her own lifetime of patronage. 

A Final Note

The Medici were far from perfect. They played dirty; they got things wrong; a few were even assassinated. But their influence on Italian History is undisputed and unparalleled. They will forever be remembered as the Godfathers of the Renaissance.

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