The dynasty that formed a large part of Florence's history
Wherever you turn in Florence, you'll run into traces of the Medici family left over the course of six centuries. Whether you're a history buff or not, you'll end up learning something, because in Florence you're surrounded by it — even now. In fact, it could be said that very "air of history" is what draws the majority of its daily visitors. So who were the Medici?
Simply put, they were a family of smart, politically-savvy men (and women) who gained power and influence in a deceptively unassuming manner. Little by little, this power and influence led to them making an economic fortune with which they created a bank - and made even more money.
They used their large amounts of money to keep and expand their power and influence over the course of the centuries not just in Florence, but also in Italy and Europe. It is said at one point they were the wealthiest family in Europe. They were patrons of the arts and humanities and their support in turn ensured Florence was at the center of Europe during the Renaissance, drawing many people to the city. For this reason, their influence can still be felt in the city.
While I'm not trying to offer a detailed history of the House of the Medici, I think knowing some of the basics will help anyone visiting Florence. I've planned to offer this outline of the history of the family as a first general introduction to the main members of the family and the marks they've left on the city, hoping your visit to Florence is a bit more interesting as a result.
The Medici family can be traced to the Mugello valley just north of Florence where it was mentioned in a document from the year 1230. The Medici villa of Cafaggiolo was the family's Mugello home, located near present day Barberino di Mugello. So, they are not one of the original noble families from the city of Florence. This is of fundamental importance, because their rise to power and influence was a thorn in the side to other families in Florence who, up until then, had control over the city, its politics and economy.
Rise to power: Giovanni di Bicci
In the late 14th century, Giovanni de' Medici (also called Giovanni di Bicci) started the Medici bank in Florence. It was through this influential role that he was asked to serve in Florence's governing Signoria. It is important to note that as a trade town, the guilds of commerce or trade ran Florence through this Signoria, essentially a council made up of guild members drawn randomly from a select pool of eligible members. The 9 elected officials ruled for only 2 months and lived in Palazzo Vecchio - called Palazzo della Signoria at that time - during those two months of office to avoid being "corrupted" by outside influences.
It was through Giovanni's election to the Signoria that he started gaining supporters and thus influence. The family's prominence in Florence grew quite rapidly. He was never actually in a political position of power and his interested in politics extended only as far as it impacted the family business, which was both banking and the wool industry. They were still far less notable that other leading families in Florence, such as the Strozzi or the Albizzi but supporting the pope in Rome was a wise move. The popes made the Medici bank their official bank and this is really the crucial point in what increased the family's power and wealth.
Part of Giovanni's popularity was also this: even as a wealthy property owner, in 1426 he went against his own interests and of others in his class (rich nobles) in favor of the poor when he voted to create a property tax to go into the city's coffers.
In an era when the guilds were sponsoring works of art with conspicuous donations by private citizens to build places such as the Ospedale degli Innocenti (as the city's orphanage) and the Doors of Paradise for the Baptistery by Ghiberti, Giovanni commissioned Brunelleschi to remodel the Church of San Lorenzo. It was to become the Medici family church but he died before it was completed. He left the job to his son and grandson. The Medici Chapels behind San Lorenzo are the family's crypt.
The 15th century - 3 generations to rule over Florence
Giovanni's son, Cosimo, was carefully taught by his father to expand and maintain their influence and wealth of their bank. Cosimo's grandson, Lorenzo, not only continued the task but greatly enhanced it. Cosimo is now known as the Pater Patriae, or "father of the Country" and as "Il Vecchio" or "the Elder" while Lorenzo is known as "the Magnificent".
Stop here and imagine this: in just 3 generations, the Medici's went from virtual unknowns to becoming the unofficial heads of state of the Florentine city-state. (I leave out mention of Piero, Cosimo's son and Lorenzo's father, because he was not in good health thus we was not too interested in the family business or politics. He actually got the family exiled and the Florence turned into a Republic in just 5 years!).
Cosimo took over as Gran Maestro in 1434, still an unofficial position of power in Florence. The Medici were not elected, but relied on their financial power and control of the selection process for office of the now Republic to establish their dominance. It actually took them until 1531 to acquire the formal title of Grand Duke of Tuscany and to abolish all vestiges of a republic of Florence.
I'm getting ahead of myself since we want to focus on Cosimo for a bit: his business savvy expanded the family's fortune at the same time as spending a good amount of it to sponsor the arts and culture! Had he not, Florence would not be what you see today. He commissioned Michelozzo Michellozi to create Palazzo Medici (now known as Medici-Riccardi), supported Fra Angelico, Fra Filippo Lippi and Donatello. His patronage got Brunelleschi the task to complete the dome of the cathedral. He founded the first public library in Florence at San Marco, which was central to the humanist movement in Florence during the Renaissance. He gladly sponsored the effort to renew Greek and Roman civilization through literature, ensuring his grandson, Lorenzo, got a proper education in the humanities. Cosimo had an inestimable influence on the intellectual life of the Renaissance.
Lorenzo the Magnificent continued in his grandfather's footsteps with sponsorship of the arts and culture. He sponsored Botticelli and Michelangelo, artists whose talents might not have been recognized had they been born elsewhere at another time. It could be said he was less talented at the family business, banking, since the bank collapsed during his tenure because of bad loans.
Lorenzo's heir and eldest son, Piero, called "the Unfortunate", squandered the family's remaining money and brought down the Medici dynasty in Florence in 1494. Luckily, the second son, Giovanni, had become Pope Leo X and retook Florence less than 20 years later. In 1537, when the first Duke of Florence, Alessandro de' Medici (a cousin), was assassinated, the "senior" branch of the family ended. Power was passed to the "junior" branch, to those descended from Lorenzo the Elder (Cosimo Il Vecchio's brother) and thus started the reign of Cosimo the First, known as Cosimo the Great and Grand Duke of Tuscany.
Thus, as a general start to the rise of the House of the Medici, I end this first part. I will continue with Cosimo the Great in an upcoming article!