House of Medici

Summary

The House of Medici is an ancient and powerful Florentine noble family of Tuscan origin, which made itself one of the leading and centrally important dynasties in the history of Italy and Europe from the 15th century through the 18th century.

Medici power lasted almost uninterrupted, except for a few short-lived periods, from 1434 with the city rule of Cosimo de” Medici, known as “the Elder,” until 1737 with the heirless death of Grand Duke Gian Gastone de” Medici, the last of his dynasty and also the last legitimate male member of the main line.

Of humble origin and hailing from the geographical region of Mugello, the Medici are attested from at least the 12th century; the activities of their first generations involved mercatura, weaving, agriculture, and only sporadically banking. The Medici, however, began their rise to power thanks precisely to a banker, Giovanni di Bicci de” Medici, who made a great fortune with the bank he founded, the Banco dei Medici. In this way the family acquired wealth and luster over time, becoming financiers of the most influential entities on the European political scene, so much so that they became the Pope”s bankers and financed such feats as Francesco Sforza”s conquest of the Duchy of Milan and Edward of York”s victory in the War of the Roses.

With Giovanni”s son Cosimo de” Medici, known as “the Elder,” the family gained de facto full control of the Republic of Florence, which was later transformed into noble dignity with control of first the Duchy of Florence and then the Grand Duchy of Tuscany.

With the advent in government of Cosimo”s grandson, Lorenzo de” Medici, known as “the Magnificent,” the embodiment of the humanist prince, the Medici power was one of the main propelling poles for the birth and development of the Renaissance: the lords of Florence were treated as sovereigns by other European monarchs, and the artistic and cultural life of 15th-century Florence was a point of reference for all of Europe, thanks in part to the tireless work of cultural promotion carried out by the Magnificent. Politically, Lorenzo took care to preserve the balance of the Italian states through the preservation of the Italic League promoted by his grandfather, ensuring Italy a long period of internal peace and development. After his death in 1492, his heirs were not as capable, helping to plunge the Peninsula into the ruinous series of conflicts known as the Wars of Italy, which marked the increasing marginalization of the Italian states in the Europe of the great national powers. The Medici family was also the birthplace of three Pontiffs of the Catholic Church: – Leo X, son of Lorenzo the Magnificent and Clarice Orsini, was the last pope to be a simple deacon at the time of his election; he brought to the papal court the splendor and pomp typical of the culture of Renaissance courts. On January 3, 1521, he excommunicated Martin Luther with the papal bull Decet Romanum Pontificem. – Clement VII, cousin of Leo X, denied a divorce to Henry VIII of England and had to suffer the Anglican Schism; also, during his papacy there was the Sack of Rome in 1527. Both popes were great patrons of the arts in the family tradition. – In contrast, Leo XI reigned for less than a month in April 1605.

The family also counts two important queen consorts of France: Catherine de” Medici, one of the most powerful and influential French queens and the last direct descendant of the Magnificent, and Marie de” Medici, daughter of Grand Duke Francis I de” Medici and grandmother of Louis XIV of France, known as “the Sun King.”

With Cosimo I de” Medici and the advent of the Grand Duchy in the second half of the 16th century, the Medici became sovereigns in their own right, unifying much of Tuscany under their scepter, with the sole exception of the independent Republic of Lucca and the Presidi State, under Spanish rule.

The rule of the Medici grand dukes was initially as enlightened as that of their ancestors: they boosted trade, proclaimed religious tolerance with the famous Leghorn Laws of 1591-1593, and were patrons of the arts and science, patronizing Galileo Galilei, the court astronomer of Cosimo II de” Medici, and founding, with Cardinal Leopold de” Medici, the Accademia del Cimento, the first scientific institution in Europe to promote the Galilean scientific method.

The misrule of the last grand dukes and the heirless death of the last Medici ruler Gian Gastone de” Medici in 1737 brought the Grand Duchy into the hands of Francis I of Lorraine, husband of Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, remaining with their descendants until the Unification of Italy.

Gian Gastone”s sister, Anna Maria Luisa de” Medici, the last actual legitimate member of the grand ducal branch, entered into the famous “Family Pact” with the Habsburg-Lorraine, in which she left her immense artistic and cultural heritage to the city of Florence in her will. The agreement stipulated that the new successors could not move “or remove out of the Capital and State of the Grand Duchy, Galleries, Paintings, Statues, Libraries, Gioje and other precious things, of the succession of the Most Serene Grand Duke, so that they might remain for the ornament of the State, for the utility of the Public and to attract the curiosity of Foreigners,” as she wrote.

Only two cadet branches currently survive: that of the Medici, princes of Ottajano and dukes of Sarno, transplanted to the Kingdom of Naples since the 16th century; and that of the Medici Tornaquinci, former marquises of Castellina, who remained in their original Tuscany.

Origins

The family came from the Mugello countryside and traces its origins to Medico, castellan of Potrone, born around 1046. Some members of the family, all descendants of Medico di Potrone, gained considerable wealth between the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries from wool manufactures, which at that time saw a period of growing demand, in Italy and abroad, especially in France and Spain. By the early fourteenth century the Medici had two Gonfalonieri di Giustizia, the highest office of the Florentine Republic, and throughout the first half of the century they were part of the oligarchy that dominated the city.

Usually sources and literary tradition recall that the Medici were originally from Mugello, the area northeast of Florence today comprising the municipal territories of Barberino di Mugello, San Piero a Sieve, Scarperia, Borgo San Lorenzo and Vicchio. This information indeed has no certain documentary basis, but it is the most probable as it is based on the fact that from the 14th century the Medici appear to have been landowners in the area. Indeed, it was natural for thirteenth-century merchants, who fed their economic fortunes in the city, to purchase land in the area of the contado from which they came. Supporting this hypothesis are the legends that flourished especially in the grand ducal era (16th-17th centuries), when the imagination and pen of court scholars were exercised to lend luster to the origins of the lineage then reigning in Tuscany. According to a seventeenth-century manuscript now in the Biblioteca Moreniana, in the early Middle Ages the Medici were linked to the Ubaldini, then very powerful feudal lords in Mugello, and from at least 1030 they owned the castles of Castagnolo and Potrone precisely, located near present-day Scarperia.

The manuscript in the Biblioteca Moreniana no. 24, which passes down a kind of courtly romance entitled “Origin and descent of the house of Medici of Florence” and attributed to Cosimo Baroncelli (1569-1626), footman to Don Giovanni de” Medici, presenting as the progenitor a certain Averardo de” Medici (a name later recurring in the family between the Two and Fourteenth Centuries), who was a commander in the army of Charlemagne the emperor, as well as the “re-founder” of Florence, reports a tale that intends to ennoble the origins of the Medici lineage and its coat of arms by narrating how the valiant Averardo, while engaged in liberating the Tuscan territory from the invasion of the Lombards, had to defeat a giant called Mugello, who was terrorizing the area of the same name in the Alta Val di Sieve”. During the clash, the giant Mugello is said to have thrust his toothed mace (or perhaps the scourge balls) into Averardo”s golden shield: the marks left imprinted on the knight”s weapon suggested the heraldic emblem of the balls or “bisanti” in the Medici coat of arms.

Thus, after the mythical feat of Averardo, the distant ancestors of Cosimo the Elder and Lorenzo the Magnificent would have moved to the Mugello region. The news that the Medici settled in Mugello at such an early time (the last quarter of the 8th century) seems, however, to be dwarfed by another piece of evidence. In fact, the “Book of Memories of Filigno de” Medici” written in 1374 records that the Medici made their first substantial land purchases in Mugello between 1260 and 1318, while they owned properties of some importance in Florence at least as early as 1169.

Using the scarce data available, it is in any case difficult to determine whether the Medici, in the early days of their history, were very affluent landowners who sought new opportunities for rise and development in the city, or whether instead they were wealthy citizens who, in order to extend their influence and power, made favorable alliances with noble families and investments in the countryside.

First components of the Doctors

However, the first certain news about the Medici, albeit meager and fragmentary, comes from the 12th century onward.

From the Book of Memoirs written in the 14th century by Filigno de” Medici, we learn that even then his ancestors were residents of Florence: in 1169, with the Sizi and others, they had the tower built in the people of San Tommaso near the Mercato Vecchio (moreover, in 1180 the Medici and Sizi went before Bishop Julius to vie for patronage over the same church of San Tommaso (also known as San Famaso).

Between the 12th and 13th centuries lived Giambuono, considered the progenitor of the lineage. From the thirteenth century we have the first documentary records of family members, beginning with a deed from 1201, in which Chiarissimo di Giambuono is mentioned among the delegates of the Florentine Republic who signed a pact with the Sienese. In the first half of the 13th century, the Medici were divided into three main lines of descent, headed respectively by Bonagiunta (branch extinguished in 1363), Chiarissimo and Averardo.

He is documented in 1216 as a councilor of the municipality and in 1221 as a witness to a deed. Bonagiunta”s sons were Ugo and Galgano, creditors of Count Palatine Guido Guerra. In the middle of the century Ugo married Dialta di Scolaio Della Tosa, a noble and prestigious family, with whom Bonagiunta”s branch thus entered into consorteria.

From the marriage Scolaio and Gano (or Galgano) were born. Between 1267 and 1268 Scolaio was among the “mayors” of the Guelph party. In 1269 the two brothers, still owners of the tower of St. Thomas, were compensated for the damage inflicted by the Ghibellines on their real estate in the Mercato Vecchio. Gano”s son was Bonagiunta, mentioned in 1278 with Averardo among the city councilors of the new Guelph government. In the acts of peace between Guelphs and Ghibellines stipulated by Cardinal Latino Malabranca Orsini, there are among the Guelph signatories Scolaio and Bonagiunta.

Ardingo, son of the Guelph Bonagiunta, seems to be the first to assume prestigious public offices: in fact, he was elected prior of the Arts in 1291, 1313, and 1316; he was also treasurer of the Commune and Gonfalonier of Justice in 1296 and 1307 (he finally married the noblewoman Gemma de” Bardi. His brother Guccio was also gonfalonier in 1299. Between 1296 and 1343 Ardingo and eleven other members of the Medici family assumed the title of prior 27 times. In addition, Ardingo”s son Francesco followed in his father”s footsteps and was also an important politician: he was among the XIV probiviri charged with restoring republican government after the expulsion of the Duke of Athens in 1343 (at whose hands another Medici, Giovanni di Bernardo, had been beheaded the same year), while in 1348, the year of the Black Death, he was gonfaloniere of Justice. In general, the Bonagiunta branch between the Two and Fourteenth Centuries appears to have been quite engaged in politics and honored with prestigious public offices, thanks in part to its consortium ties with the Della Tosa. Some of the family engaged in banking, albeit probably modestly, fueled from the beginning by interest-bearing loans, but they soon had to cope with a severe economic crisis. Thus in 1348 Bonagiunta”s descendants sold the houses and land they had acquired a few decades earlier on the line now on Via de” Martelli-via Cavour, where the 15th-century Palazzo Medici would later be built.

The last representative of the male line descended from Bonagiunta was Fantino, an associate of Giovanni di Bicci between 1422 and 1426 and great-grandson of one of Ardingo”s brothers. This line died out in the mid-15th century.

Chiarissimo di Lippo di Giambuono appears in 1240 to be a creditor against the monastery of Camaldoli and in 1253 was knighted. His son Giambuono was an officer in the army assembled to face the Sienese at the ruinous Battle of Montaperti. Among those elected to the Priory of Arts in 1322 was Bernardo di Giambuono, who in the early fourteenth century among the ranks of the Black Guelphs was responsible for heinous violence against the Whites. Bernardo”s son Giovanni, too, despite a death sentence for murder later revoked, was repeatedly called to the Priory of the Arts and other important public offices: he was in fact gonfalonier of the Republic in 1333 and 1340, ambassador to Lucca in 1341, and was beheaded in 1343 by order of the Duke of Athens because of his popular sympathies. A cousin of his, Bonino di Lippo (Filippo) di Chiarissimo, was also gonfaloniere in 1312.

His grandson Salvestro di Alemanno, great-grandson of Chiarissimo, is perhaps the most famous Medici of the 14th century for his participation in the Ciompi riot in 1378.

Prior to that he had distinguished himself by assuming prestigious public offices and important diplomatic duties. In 1351 he successfully engaged in the war against the Visconti in defense of the castle of Scarperia. In 1378 he was gonfaloniere when he let the revolt led by Michele di Lando emerge unchecked to oppose his conservative political opponents. For this he was sentenced to exile in 1382 for five years. He died in 1388 and was buried in the cathedral. Miserable fate amid recklessness and prevarication also befell Salvestro”s family members: his son Niccolò was murdered in 1364; his uncle Bartolomeo di Alemanno was accused of the crime and managed to have the death sentence overturned. The latter in 1360 attempted a coup d”état. In 1377 Africhello di Alemanno, another brother of Salvestro, was notable for abuse of a poor widow whose land he wanted to take from her. Toward the end of the century, Antonio di Bartolomeo participated in an uprising led by Donato Acciaioli, which cost him and his cousin Alessandro exile.

In general, therefore, in the 14th century, while Bonagiunta”s descendants were experiencing an unstoppable economic crisis, many other members of the Medici family were faced with exile, disqualification from public office or even the death sentence, for acts of violence, abuse, aggression and even murder.

Finally, the last branch, that of Averardo. He turns out to have been the first Medici engaged in buying land in Mugello: in fact, in 1260 he initiated a vast work of purchases in this area of the Florentine countryside, finished in 1318 by his son of the same name. Averardo di Averardo, already prior (1309) and then gonfaloniere (1314), divided these properties among his six sons in 1320.

Averardo”s sons (Jacopo, Giovenco, Salvestro, Francesco, Talento, and Conte) gave rise to a flourishing banking business by founding the compagnia filii Averardi, of which, however, we have news only until 1330. After that date there are no records of other financial activities concerted as a group by members of the Medici family, perhaps partly because of the frequent disagreements and quarrels that arose among the various members, usually raised over questions of property or inheritance. Lending at interest continued, however, to be widely practiced, even if only individually.

A son of Talento, Mario, became gonfalonier in 1343. In the difficult situation in which the Medici found themselves from the mid-14th century, a number of personalities stood out who lifted the family”s fortunes. In particular, Giovanni, son of Conte and nephew of Averardo, was very active in public life: he was gonfaloniere in 1349, 1353, and 1356; he was vicar in Pescia (he was charged with various diplomatic and military missions outside the Florentine borders (Lucca, Piedmont, Pistoia, Siena, Milan). In 1351 Giovanni became captain of the province of Mugello and, with his uncle Salvestro, engaged in the military defense of the castle of Scarperia from the siege of Visconti troops. The following year he was in Naples among the ambassadors sent by the Florentine Republic to pay homage to the new Queen Giovanna I. In 1355 with Antonio Adimari, in command of 200 Florentine knights, he escorted Charles IV to Rome for the coronation.

Between 1335 and 1375 Giovanni and his brothers, including Filigno di Conte, bought for about 9,000 gold florins 170 plots of land mostly in the Mugello area. The same Giovanni and Filigno were also concerned with increasing the real estate in the city they owned, although they invested much less money in it than in land holdings in the countryside. Between 1348 and 1373 they bought several houses and stores in the area between the Mercato Vecchio and the Ponte Vecchio. They resided precisely in the Mercato area, as did their ancestors, and there they owned among other things the tower of St. Thomas and a loggia. They decided, however, to go and reside elsewhere and to reserve the ancient properties for business and trade. Indeed, in 1349 they bought the first nine parts of a “palagio” on Via Larga. On that same street, Bonagiunta”s descendants had owned houses and land, sold just the year before. In 1361 Giovanni di Conte and his brothers purchased the remaining eleven parts of the building, which would later become the family”s “old house” in the fifteenth century. In 1375 Conte de” Medici”s sons also appear to own six other adjacent houses.

In 1374 Filigno di Conte wrote the ”Book of Memories,” which is an important source of news about his family and its properties from the 12th century onward.

Rise of the Medici

In general, as can be seen from the above data, the Medici were active protagonists in the public and economic life of the city well before their great rise, although it was only with it that they assumed international fame and prestige.

Giovanni di Bicci (1360-1429) was a very wealthy man and, thanks to his benignity, well-liked by the citizenry. Little is known about the early part of his life, for, a very modest and prudent man, he avoided prominence on the political scene but devoted himself only to increasing his wealth, which quickly became very large. Despite this reserve, he was prior in 1402, in 1408, in 1411 and finally in 1421 he was gonfalonier of Justice (this would show that he was never persecuted by the aristocratic government, which in fact tried to assimilate him).

His solid wealth had come from his activity as a banker, through the creation of a network of business companies, which had a very important branch in Rome, where he contracted the revenues of papal tithes, a very rich and prestigious market that he gradually managed to have cleared of other competitors. It was mistakenly believed in the nineteenth century that Giovanni di Bicci supported the institution of the catasto, a system of taxation that for the first time struck proportionally according to the income and possessions of individual families, a measure in short that affected the entire wealthy class in Florence, but relieved the minor classes and small-to-medium entrepreneurs from increasingly heavy taxation as a result of the many wars against the Visconti of Milan. This fallacy was based on what was said by Giovanni Cavalcanti in his Florentine Histories but actually contradicted by the documents that conclusively show that the Land Registry Law was proposed and defended and pushed through by Rinaldo degli Albizzi and Niccolò da Uzzano, the two leading members of the aristocratic party. Moreover, there was no real hostility on Giovanni di Bicci”s part to the law itself, but to its mode of application, especially on the grounds that the proceeds of the new taxation would be used to finance an unnecessary war against Milan promoted by the oligarchs and to which Giovanni was firmly opposed.

From his two sons, Cosimo and Lorenzo, came the two main branches of the family, the one called “di Cafaggiolo” and the “Popolano” branch. His fortune, as was the custom of the time, was inherited only by his eldest son, Cosimo, so as not to fragment the family fortune.

Cosimo (1389-1464) had an energetic character, in the sign of his father, though in substance very different. Indeed, he had a domineering temperament that led him to be even more powerful and wealthy than his parent. In addition to his remarkable ability as a businessman, as well as being a passionate man of culture and a great patron of the arts, he was above all one of the most important politicians of 15th-century Italy.

Cosimo soon realized that the family wealth was now too great to be protected without political cover, due to financial transactions of increasingly large and therefore risky amounts. Therefore he began his ascent toward the levers of power in the Florentine Republic. His proverbial prudence was immediately apparent: he did not aim to become lord of the city, perhaps by a coup dӎtat or by seeking election to the most prestigious roles of government, but his figure remained in the shadows, the true puppeteer of a series of trusted figures who held key positions in institutions for him.

Power was at that time held in particular by the Albizzi, Niccolò da Uzzano, some Strozzi, Peruzzi, Castellani.As Cosimo”s popularity and the number of his friends grew, those in power began to see him as a threat. On September 1, 1433, according to the wishes of Rinaldo degli Albizzi, Bernardo Guadagni was extracted as Gonfaloniere di Giustizia and a Signoria deeply linked to the Albizzi and his followers. The new Signoria had Cosimo imprisoned in September 1433 on charges of fomenting conspiracies and plots within the city and knowingly and maliciously working for Florence to go to war with Lucca. These were confusing and false charges that should have led Cosimo to death.

Rinaldo degli Albizzi lacked the cool determination to take things to the extreme. A series of “bribes” cleverly distributed by Cosimo saved the latter from being sentenced to death, with the sentence converted to exile.This was the so-called first Medici expulsion. After Cosimo”s departure for Padua and Venice, the republican institutions had continuous instability.Rinaldo degli Albizzi was not a man of the same temperament as his father, and in the precipitating situation he did not have the courage or strength to exert control over the extractions, a mistake that Cosimo did not repeat, however, who once in power totally conditioned the names of the imborsati and in fact avoided the adventurous lottery extractions. Thus in September 1434 a Signoria completely favorable to the Medici was drawn. Cosimo was then recalled to Florence just a year after his departure and his opponents were sent into exile.

Cosimo”s triumphal entry, acclaimed by the people, who preferred the tolerant Medici to the oligarchic and aristocratic Albizzi and Strozzi, marked the first great triumph of the Medici lineage.He, a very able politician, continued to keep free institutions intact, favored industries and trade, increasingly attracting the sympathies of the people and maintaining peace in Florence. In 1458 he created the Council of One Hundred.Finally appointed pater patriae for the remarkable beautification and development he gave to the city, Cosimo died, leaving the state in the hands of his son Piero (1416-1469). The latter was a wise ruler, but the illness that earned him the appellation de il Gottoso allowed him to lead the city”s government for only five years.

The figure of Lorenzo the Magnificent (1449-1492), son of Piero, has been alternately glorified or downplayed over time. Educated as a prince, he was born with his destiny already marked by his blazoning; he rose to power upon his father”s death, without major upheaval. Married to the Roman noblewoman Clarice Orsini, he was the first of the Medici to link his name to a blue-blooded personage. At the age of 29, after nine years of rule, he suffered the most serious attack in Medici history, the so-called Pazzi Conspiracy, in which his brother Giuliano died and he himself was wounded, coming out exceptionally alive. Following the conspiracy, in which some of his Florentine opponents had participated with the support of the pope and other Italian states, the people of Florence sided even more strongly with him. His supporters (called Palleschi in reference to the ”balls” in the Medici coat of arms) punished those responsible harshly, giving Lorenzo the opportunity to further centralize power in his hands through a reform of republican institutions, which became subordinate to him.

In terms of foreign policy, Lorenzo mended relations with other Italian states, often traveling there in person, pursuing the great diplomatic enterprise of a general peace in Italy through the concept of peaceful coexistence.

A great man of finance and politics, Lorenzo also loved to entertain himself with poetry and literature. Indeed, his literary personality was of remarkable stature, so much so that it overshadowed even his political role. He was also involved in philosophy, collecting, and always had a passionate love for the arts in general, of which he had nonetheless learned from his predecessors the fundamental role as an instrument of prestige and fame. It was in fact thanks to his interest that the Sistine Chapel, already entrusted to Umbrian artists such as Perugino, was later frescoed by the best Florentine painters, exporting to Rome those distinguished novelties of the Florentine Renaissance. Leonardo da Vinci”s departure for Milan can also be framed in the same light.

Lorenzo”s avowed enemy was Girolamo Savonarola, who could only clash with the cultural climate of recovery of the ancient (which he considered a neo-paganism), the centrality of man, and free thought promoted by Lorenzo. The Magnifico tolerated him as if he were a lesser evil, while still maintaining a relationship of mutual respect with him, so much so that there was never an open direct confrontation between the two.

Second Expulsion of the Medici (1494-1512)

With Lorenzo”s death, his son Piero (1472-1503) rose to power in Florence, educated from childhood to fill his father”s role. All eyes in the city were on him, and it is clear how everyone was trying to figure out whether or not he had what it took to live up to the office he held. However, the peace maintained by Lorenzo cracked with his death, and already two years later Charles VIII of France descended on Italy with his army. The crisis overwhelmed Piero: intimidated by the sovereign and the French army, he acquiesced to any request, gifting four piazzeforti on the borders of Tuscany and throwing open the gates of the kingdom (the chroniclers most adverse to him even spread the news that he had kissed the king”s babouches while kneeling). Accused of cowardice and weakness, he was driven out of the city by a sentence dated November 9, 1494. The city then became a “theocratic” state ruled by Savonarola. The Dominican friar”s triumph, however, was short-lived: overwhelmed by struggles between factions and especially overwhelmed by opposition with Pope Alexander VI, he was excommunicated by the same and sentenced to be burned at the stake by his son, then Cardinal Cesare Borgia. Meanwhile, the Florentine Republic was sailing in bad waters due to the difficult international situation.

After Piero”s death, drowned in the Garigliano River in 1503, authority as head of the family passed to another son of Lorenzo, Cardinal Giovanni de” Medici, who returned to Florence in 1512 after defeating the French of Louis XII, Florence”s allies. Returning with Giovanni to Florence were his brother Giuliano and the son of the ill-fated Piero, Lorenzo, who, now in his twenties, had hardly ever seen his city having followed when still in swaddling clothes the fate of his father.

Medici popes

Giovanni de” Medici, thanks in part to the support of the Ursinian party to which his mother Clarice had belonged, was elected pope under the name Leo X in 1513. The government of Florence now took place in the Vatican Palace instead of the Palazzo Vecchio. Leo, remembered among the most magnificent popes of the Roman curia (or most profligate, according to detractors), was a great patron of artists (especially Raphael Sanzio and Michelangelo Buonarroti) and a nepotist without qualms. While, to his great satisfaction, his brother Giuliano was sent to the King of France, where, thanks to his services, he obtained his first noble title, the “Duchy of Nemours,” his son Lorenzo was sent by his uncle the Pope to an expensive and futile war against Francesco della Rovere, lord of Urbino, at the end of which he was crowned “Duke of Urbino.” Both had brides of high lineage and brought to the Medici Palace in Florence a princely etiquette and those highly sophisticated manners of high nobility that had little to do with the solemn simplicity of Cosimo the Elder. But Leo”s triumph was short-lived, for both Giuliano and Lorenzo died in their early thirties of illness, aggravated by the hereditary predisposition to gout typical of the main branch of the family. For the two scions he loved so much Leo X had Michelangelo build the New Sacristy in San Lorenzo. Leo, moreover, also died suddenly at the age of 46.

After the initial anti-Medici moment, a reforming pope was chosen in Rome, the Flemish Adrian VI, who could combat and recompose the rift that had arisen at the time of Leo X with the schism of the Protestant Reformation: but his conduct, perhaps too extremist, did not please the curia milieu, which, upon his sudden death after only a year of pontificate, chose to elect again a Medici, Cardinal Giulio de” Medici, son of that Giuliano (brother of the Magnifico) killed in the Pazzi conspiracy, and already among the most trusted advisers of his cousin Leo X.

Clement VII, this was the name chosen, delegated the administration of Florence to Cardinal Silvio Passerini, while it was questioned as to who should become the new lord of the city: Ippolito, illegitimate son of Giuliano di Nemours, or Alessandro, son of Lorenzo, born of a passion with a mulatto slave girl. The Pope”s predilection for Alessandro, pointed out by many to be the son of the Pope himself, born while the latter was still a cardinal, was such that the choice leaned toward the latter, despite his bad reputation and the low esteem the Florentines had for him.

Clement had one of the most difficult papacies in history: choosing an alliance with the French rather than with the new emperor Charles V, with the usual option of reversing alliances according to the greatest profit, did not please the emperor at all, who organized a German-Spanish army with the dreadful Lansquenets and marched to Rome, in a kind of Protestant crusade against the corruption of the papacy.

Giovanni dalle Bande Nere, the family”s only leader of valor, attempted to block the Lanzichenecchi, but died amid great suffering after being shot by an arquebus in a battle near the Po River.

With the news of the Sack of Rome (1527), the Florentines themselves rebelled against Alexander, driving him and all the Medici out of the city (Third Medici Expulsion).

Clement also suffered the consequences of the tremendous sacking of the city by the Landsknechts: it, fierce and heinous, was made more cruel by the assailants” belonging to the Lutheran religion, so much so that the emperor himself was grieved by it (perhaps for this reason his coronation, a few years later, was celebrated in Bologna, fearing the reaction of the Romans). On June 5 the Pontiff himself was taken prisoner; on November 26 the agreements with the Imperials were ratified: as a guarantee, the Emperor obtained “six hostages, the ports of Ostia and Civitavecchia and the cities of Forli and Civita Castellana.” In December the Pope was freed on the promise of the payment of heavy compensation: he had to pay the Prince of Orange 400,000 ducats, of which 100,000 immediately and the rest within three months; the surrender of Parma, Piacenza and Modena was also agreed. Clement VII, in order to avoid complying with the conditions imposed by the Emperor, abandoned Rome and, on December 16, 1527, retreated to Orvieto and later to Viterbo.The Emperor Charles, precisely grieved by the turn of events, sent an embassy to the Pope to make amends for the episode: Clement eventually, not holding him directly responsible, forgave him.

So after these agreements, around the end of 1529, the Peace of Barcelona was made, under the terms of which the pope, on February 24, 1530, officially crowned Charles V emperor in Bologna, as a public sign of reconciliation between papacy and empire, and, in return, Charles pledged to re-establish the Medici family”s lordship in Florence, overthrowing the Florentine republic, and to grant Burgundy to Francis I, who in return promised to disinterest himself in Italian affairs. Charles V thus helped Clement VII win Florence back to the Medici family, with the famous siege of 1529-1530 by imperial troops ending in the capture of the city and the investiture of Alessandro as duke, which definitively sanctioned the Medici”s rule over the city. Alessandro de” Medici also married Margaret, the natural daughter of Charles V.But as a storm subsided, lo and behold, the refusal to grant the annulment of the marriage to King Henry VIII of England turned into a further clash with the pope and began the Anglican schism.

Pope Leo XI (1535-1605) was the son of Ottaviano de” Medici and Francesca Salviati.

Catherine de Medici

Caterina de” Medici (1519-1589), orphaned as a newborn by her father Lorenzo d”Urbino, was the favorite niece of Clement VII. When it came to choosing a husband for her, negotiations opened with numerous Italian and European noble families. Although many were critical of Catherine”s very recent nobility, her princely dowry and kinship with the reigning pope made just as many jealous. To Clement”s great satisfaction, Catherine went in marriage to Henry II of France, second son of Francis I. This marriage aroused much controversy, but King Francis persevered in his choice on the grounds that Catherine would never become queen of France, being the wife of his second son. But things turned out differently, and after the Dauphin”s untimely death, Catherine became queen when her husband became Henry II of France.

She was the mother of Kings Francis II, Charles IX, Henry III and Queens Elizabeth (Queen of Spain) and Margaret (Queen of Navarre and France). First queen then Regent of France, Catherine de” Medici is an emblematic figure of the 16th century. Her name is linked to the wars of religion, against which she fought her whole life. An advocate of civil tolerance, she tried numerous times to follow a policy of conciliation with the help of her advisers, including the famous Michel de l”Hôspital.

A black legend that has haunted her since time immemorial has made her an austere, power-attached and even evil person. Catherine de Medici, however, has been gradually reevaluated by historians who now recognize her as one of the greatest queens of France. Her role in the St. Bartholomew”s Night Massacre, however, still contributes to making her a controversial figure.

Alexander de” Medici

Alessandro de” Medici, known as the Moor because of the dark color of his skin, due to his mulatto origins, had been appointed Duke by Charles V, finally ending the centuries-long season of the Florentine Republic and its libertas. The government was centralized in his sole hands, and his rise was also sanctioned by the promise of marriage to Margaret, the natural daughter of Emperor Charles V.The new Duke, however, was sadly known for his vicious and cruel character, marked by excesses: he was always accompanied by a picket of imperial guards who were accustomed to terrorize the citizens with sudden and disconcerting actions.

His cousin Lorenzino de” Medici, accustomed to living on an equal footing with Alexander, was surprised to have to submit to the latter”s new rank (moreover, the relations of complicity

None the less, Lorenzino also suffered a similar fate: a refugee in northern Italy and then in France from Caterina de” Medici, he returned and finally settled in Venice, where he was joined by Cosimo I”s assassins, who stabbed him just outside his lover”s house (1548).

Grand Dukes of Tuscany

With the death of Alexander, the main branch of the Medici, that of Cosimo the Elder, was exhausted in legitimate and illegitimate ramifications. Amid the general uncertainty, amid proposals to restore the Republic or to have an imperial emissary come to Florence, the name of an eighteen-year-old boy, Cosimo (1519-1574), son of Giovanni delle Bande Nere and Maria Salviati, who in turn was the granddaughter of Lorenzo the Magnificent, thus of recent and direct kinship with the old family branch, popped up. It is said that the Florentines themselves were charmed by the mild and obsequious character of the young man who had hitherto grown up in the shadows, so they gave up what was in fact their last chance to regain republican freedom. With the imperial investiture (only clause: leave power to the Council), the succession was confirmed. It was not long before the young man showed his face as a strong ruler (with the battle of Montemurlo, against the Republicans led by Filippo Strozzi), and at times even tyrannical and ruthless, who held the state for 37 years often resorting to the dictatorial use of terror: among the blackest pages of his rule is the suppression of the Republic of Siena. According to the various sources, however, the judgment also fluctuates quite a bit: for Franco Cardini for example, he was a wise and far-sighted ruler, who undeniably carried out a shrewd management of the state, financially adept and a promoter of economic activities, and of the arts (with the birth of a real school of “court artists” such as Bronzino, Vasari, and others).

Having moved into the Palazzo della Signoria (as if to emphasize that governmental power and his person were one and the same), he was the first nobleman in the family to be able to enjoy this status on a lasting basis: he had a high-ranking wife, the beautiful and sophisticated Eleonora di Toledo, daughter of the Viceroy of Naples, and a veritable palace, that of the Pitti Palace, specially enlarged for him and his court. From 1569 he had the title of grand duke from the pope, for his acquired dominion over Tuscany.

The second Grand Duke of Tuscany was Cosimo I”s eldest son, Francesco I de” Medici (1541-1587). At times similar to his father, at times dissolute and despotic, he had a more crepuscular streak, however, which led him to spend periods in solitude, with an unbridled passion for all that was mysterious and occult in the knowledge of the time. Not surprisingly, it was he who had the emblematic Studiolo in Palazzo Vecchio built, permeated with the initiatory and alchemical culture of the time, or the magnificent Villa of Pratolino, where everything was surprise and wonder for the five senses.He also bought in 1581 the Villa La Magia, in the Pistoia area, on the slopes of Montalbano.

His household was now on a par with other European ruling houses; in fact, he received as his bride none other than a sister of Emperor Maximilian II, Joan of Austria. However, the marriage between the two did not turn out to be a happy one: while only female daughters were born (as many as six and one male who died in infancy), Francis fell fatally in love with another woman, the Venetian Bianca Cappello, with whom he experienced a shameless love affair, despite the fact that she herself was already married. In addition to the inevitable scandal, held in check only by her position as head of state, Cappello was frowned upon by the Florentines, even accused of witchcraft, not to mention deeply hated by the Grand Ducal family.

After years in hiding, the two were both widowed (also an affair with many dark points) and were able to marry in 1579. Their idyll lasted until the October night of 1587 when they both died within hours of each other amid excruciating spasms caused by tertian fever or, according to a stubborn doubt, by the poison administered by Cardinal Ferdinando I de” Medici. This age-old conundrum seemed solved in December 2006, when toxicological scholars from the University of Florence found traces of arsenic in the remains of Bianca and Francesco”s liver tissue, administered to them in a lethal but not massive dose, so that they suffered 11 days of agony. However, in 2010, a team of researchers from the University of Pisa identified Plasmodium falciparum, the agent of pernicious malaria, in Francesco I”s bone tissue, thus confirming death from malaria.

Cardinal Ferdinando de” Medici (1549-1609), second son of Cosimo I, renounced the cardinal”s purple by papal dispensation when his brother”s sudden death necessitated his ascension to the government of the grand duchy, under the name Ferdinand I.

Excluding the aforementioned shadows about his brother”s death, Ferdinand was the only grand duke to succeed in earning a lasting reputation: he restored order to the country and restored the integrity of government; he promoted tax reform and supported trade; he encouraged technical-scientific progress and carried out great public works such as the reclamation of the Val di Chiana and the strengthening of Livorno”s port and fortifications. In what was then a modest fishing village, he built important infrastructure, but important above all was the law declaring it a free port, which attracted refugees and persecuted people from all the Mediterranean countries, causing the population to grow rapidly and thus bringing in the labor needed for the development of what would soon become one of the most active trading ports on the mare nostrum.

It was also with him that the Medici villa system reached its maximum extent and great splendor, thanks in part to the collaboration of architect Bernardo Buontalenti.

Daughter of Francis I, Marie de” Medici (1575-1642), through the intercession of her uncle Grand Duke Ferdinand, married Henry IV of Bourbon at the age of twenty-five, becoming the second Queen of France of the house of Medici, after Catherine.

Although little esteemed by Henry, Mary was able to influence the domestic and foreign policy of 17th-century France. After her husband”s assassination (1610), she was appointed regent on behalf of her son, the future Louis XIII, who was still a child. Surrounded by Tuscan advisers and courtiers (admittedly disliked by the French), she revived relations with Spain and distanced herself from the Protestants. Following revolt movements, she was deposed by her son in 1617, then found an ally in Richelieu, who became a cardinal through his support, and entered the royal council in 1624. After seeing the alliances she had built revolt, despite her staunch opposition, she lost all authority in 1630 and retired into exile.

On Ferdinand”s death he was succeeded by his son Cosimo II (1590-1621). A personality of brilliant intelligence and vast culture, he was ill with consumption, a disease that led to his premature death just past the age of 30.His figure is remembered for two main events:

This keen scientific interest was a Leitmotif of all descendants of the Grand Ducal branch of the Medici, founders of Academies and protectors of scientists, and counterbalances the patronage toward the arts typical of the Cafaggiolo branch.

Forfeiture

From the seventeenth century, the Grand Duchy experienced the period of slow decline that characterized the rest of the Italian peninsula, with stagnant trade, plagues, and provincialism. The ruling house not only failed to remedy these problems, but rather hastened their impact with a mediocre government, characterized by irresolution, arranged (and ill-matched or unwisely arranged) marriages, crude influences of uninterested advisors.

However, there were no lack of isolated flashes of light in the general inertia of the rulers, mainly due to the cardinals of the Medici house: the founding of the Accademia del Cimento by Cardinal Leopoldo de” Medici, an institution that continued scientific research according to Galileo”s experimental method, or the Accademia degli Immobili through Cardinal Giovan Carlo de” Medici, which was the origin of the first “Italian-style” theater, La Pergola, the cradle of melodrama.

The rest was marked by an increasingly apathetic administration, now far removed from the glories of the past, such as the long rule of Cosimo III, who was deaf to the demands of an increasingly hungry people in misery due to the unfair burden of taxes, to which he ironically responded with the almost Spanish-style pomp of the court.

Already in his time, the problem of succession presented itself dramatically: of his three sons, the eldest (Grand Prince Ferdinand) died of syphilis at the age of fifty without an heir, his sister Anna Maria Luisa was sterile, and his brother Gian Gastone was manifestly homosexual and unwilling to marry. While the fate of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany was being decided at the table by other European sovereigns, the political and civic pre-eminence of the Medici family finally faded. After his death, the Grand Duchy passed to the Habsburg-Lorraine, despite the claims of cadet branches including the still-existing branch of the Medici of Ottajano, descended matrilineally from Lorenzo the Magnificent.

The last act of the lineage, however, was worthy of their fame: in 1737 Anna Maria Luisa stipulated with the new Habsburg-Lorraine successors the so-called “Family Pact,” which stipulated that they could not transport “or remove out of the Capital and State of the Grand Duchy, Galleries, Paintings, Statues, Libraries, Jewels and other precious things, of the succession of the Most Serene Grand Duke, so that they would remain for the ornament of the State, for the utility of the Public and to attract the curiosity of Foreigners.”

The pact was not fully respected by the new grand dukes, but it nevertheless allowed Florence not to lose most of its works of art and not to suffer the fate of, for example, Mantua or Urbino, which upon the extinction of the Gonzaga or Della Rovere lineage were literally emptied of artistic and cultural treasures. If the many masterpieces in the Uffizi, the Pitti Palace, and the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana-just to name a few of the most illustrious examples-can still be admired in Florence and not in Vienna or some other city, it is surely due to the wisdom, steadfastness, and foresight of Anna Maria Luisa de” Medici.

Origins

A look at the origins and development of the various branches of the family.

Maximum splendor

Overview of the heyday of the Medici family, bringing together, primarily, the Cafaggiolo, Popolano and Granducale branches. During this phase the Medici family expressed three popes, seven cardinals, an archbishop, seven grand dukes, two queen consorts of France regents, the most powerful bank in the 15th century, Lorenzo the Magnificent, and Giovanni delle Bande Nere.

In addition to the most famous main branch of Giovanni di Bicci, which was divided into the Cafaggiolo branch (of Cosimo the Elder) and the Popolano branch (of Lorenzo the Elder) and reunited into a single branch called Granducale with Cosimo I, there are also other derivative branches, the splitting of which dates back to before the fourteenth century, with the cousins of Giovanni di Bicci, his father Averardo de” Medici, and so on. Among these branches three others gained nobility or other recognition over time.

An alleged Milanese branch from which Cardinal Giovan Angelo de” Medici, later Pope Pius IV from 1559, derived, may have a connection dating back to before the 14th century with the Florentine branch. These lines of kinship have never been proven, and their genealogy was not compiled until after Pius IV”s election to the papal throne. Due to the lack of accredited historical sources, sixteenth-century reconstructions are not considered reliable.

Like other important Italian and European families, the Medici had several cardinals. The first was Giovanni de” Medici, future Pope Leo X, and his appointment to the cardinal”s throne was most likely aided by his alliance with the Roman Orsini family, Giovanni”s mother herself being an Orsini, Clarice. From then on there was no lack of at least one cardinal per generation in the family, second-born males being generally destined for a religious career. Leo X then appointed at least one nephew for each of his brothers and sisters as cardinal, thus arriving at a conspicuous “clan” representation in the sacred college, which for example allowed the rapid election of a new Medici pope after Leo”s death, Clement VII.

The cardinals of the Medici family never distinguished themselves for their religious work, although in some cases it was meritorious and diligent, but they are most famous for the magnificence with which they adored surrounding themselves, supporting the work of numerous artists of whom they were patrons.

The family also counted neither saints nor blessed for the Church.

Cardinals belonging to the main branch of the Medici family

Cardinals belonging to other cadet branches of the Medici family

Cardinals belonging to the Medici family on their mother”s side

The various steps the Medici coat of arms has taken through the centuries.

The reasons why the Medici family consistently excelled in such a diverse and pluralistic landscape as Florence from the 15th century onward can be summarized in a few key factors.

Undoubtedly the prosperity of the Medici Bank over time was the primary basis on which the family fortune was grafted, although the Medici were neither the only nor “the most” wealthy citizens of Florence. They certainly knew how to make the most of during the generations of Giovanni di Bicci, Cosimo and Lorenzo the Magnificent the fact that they had become papal bankers and, from about 1460 for a few decades, monopolists of the alum mines, the basic component of wool dyeing, which was mined in the papal territories precisely, near the Tolfa Mountains.

The support of the more popular classes of the city of Florence was crucial for the Medici, and they were able to gain and maintain it through a series of small but significant actions toward the less well-off: Salvestro de” Medici had supported the Ciompi revolt, Giovanni di Bicci had reformed the exchequer by disadvantaging the fat people, and Cosimo il Vecchio had for the first time used the magnificence of the individual for the benefit of the entire community, leaving indelible traces in the collective imagination (think of the arrival of the Byzantine and papal elite at the time of the Council of Florence). Such support, which other families such as the Albizzi did not have, proved decisive on at least two key occasions: the expulsion of Cosimo, and his subsequent return with acclamation, and the Pazzi conspiracy, in which it was the people themselves who avenged the murder and outrage towards the Medici. Such support with the disappearance of Lorenzo the Magnificent came to crack, so much so that twice his descendants were driven out of the city by the angry mob, not to mention the individual conspiracies against the head of the family of the day, but by then the lineage had other options suitable for ensuring its success.

Having two popes with fairly long pontificates and in such a close time span was the factor that allowed the Medici to make the quantum leap: from citizens of high rank to full-fledged nobles. Underlying the election of Leo X and Clement VII was both the family wealth and the personal ability of the two, but also a clever marriage policy of their ancestors, who had enabled an alliance with the Orsini, which certainly paid off when it came to the first cardinal”s title coming to the family. The papal alliance with other foreign states, particularly Spain, always allowed the city of Florence to be retaken after the expulsions, thanks to external military aid.

Finally, the final Medici consecration occurred at the time of the duchy, when the great Emperor Charles V of Habsburg granted the government of Tuscany to Cosimo I, perhaps as part of the compensation to the Medici for the consequences of the Sack of Rome that had caused them to be ousted. The presence of imperial troops was crucial in the Siege of Florence, the Battle of Montemurlo, and the Siege of Siena. From then on, the Medici dynasty reigned unshaken until its extinction.

Interest in the Medici family occurred only after the extinction of the grand ducal lineage, through the attention of a few foreign scholars, mainly British. Before the mid-eighteenth century, it is indeed rare to find studies on 15th-century members of the family, while the grand ducal lineage did indeed attract interest on a par with other European rulers, but mainly insofar as it concerned scandalous events, scandalous happenings and gossip. After all, even Florence itself and its art were still held in low regard by Grand Tour visitors, who went mainly to Rome and Venice. Absurdly, much more was known about the bloody deeds of Lorenzino de” Medici, Cosimo I”s mistresses and Bianca Cappello than about their patronage, political moves and the nature of ducal and grand ducal government.

One of the few family members to enjoy some attention, even as a patron, was Leo X, sung for example by Alexander Pope in 1711. Pope”s friend John Boyle, Earl of Cork and Orrery, who had been forced to stay in Florence for a year because of gout, was able to inquire extensively about the city and its history, and in a 1755 letter (Anna Maria Luisa had been dead for just over a decade) he wrote:

In 1759 the English diplomat Horace Walpole was one of the first to express a desire to write a history of the Medici family, as did Edward Gibbon in 1762, projects that in both cases failed.

In the late eighteenth century more serious studies of the Medici family and its members began, thanks to a number of favorable conditions that the subject matter presented:

Dating from 1796 was the first monograph on a single family member, William Roscoe”s Life of Lorenzo de” Medici, in which the author highlighted the combination of economic acumen and artistic patronage, a theme dear to the new rich of the Industrial Revolution. This work was also highly successful because it came out at the same time as a new interest in the Italian and, in particular, Florentine Renaissance.

In 1797 Mark Noble published Memoirs of the Illustrious House of Medici, the first general treatment of family history.

This contrast between tyranny and culture continued to exert attraction even as historians began to erase, through the study of sources, the various rumors of depravity that were now circulating widely about multiple members of the family.

Among the most studied figures were Cosimo the Elder and Lorenzo the Magnificent, as the ones responsible for the revival of classical knowledge and renewal in artistic forms in Florence, according to a pattern that has also been overemphasized and is now being downplayed.

On the other hand, there was no shortage of publications that harshly criticized the Medici, especially in the political arena, as tyrants who took away not only freedom but also the vitality of the Florentine Republic. In the volume on the history of Florence within the Universal History published in the early nineteenth century, Enlightenment trends cast the Medici”s seizure of power in a bad light, branding them unequivocally as tyrants.

In Anglo-Saxon historical studies of the time, one can also read reflections of contemporary events: when Napoleon conquered the small nations of Europe, there was a lively admiration for regional autonomies and, on the other hand, blame for all tyrannies, including the Medici tyranny. In 1812, when Napoleon was attempting to include Russia in the continental bloc against England, a writer in Quarterly Review pointed to Florence as the best example of resistance to tyranny, specifying “not Florence under Medici rule, but during the age of its true greatness.” Very negative judgments were also expressed by Adolphus Trollope and Mark Twain, among others.

Swinging judgments thus manifested themselves in the following centuries as well: on the one hand, the story, with positive connotations, of the Medici who accomplished the unexpected miracle of the “Renaissance” thanks to the money from their banks; on the other hand, the story, in negative connotations, of the lords who took away the freedom of a people happy in their democracy. This controversial nature is still part of the stimulus to imagination and interest in the Medici dynasty.

In 1995 the Medici Archive Project was founded, an online archive containing documents pertaining to the Medici and the centuries of their influence in Florence.

A recent study conducted by several research groups coordinated by the Second University of Naples and the Circe Center in Caserta, the University of Minnesota and the University of Pisa, reconstructed the diet of the Medici family, which was found to be that typical of wealthy families, rich in protein and fat.

Annotations

Sources

Sources

  1. Medici
  2. House of Medici