Giovanni di Bicci de Medici was the first member of the Medici dynasty to accumulate a great fortune, bringing his family from obscurity to fame. Born in Florence in 1360, he founded an important bank with branches all over Europe, lending money to kings and popes.

Giovanni di Bicci de Medici – the dawn of power

The achievements of Giovanni di Bicci had great repercussions throughout history. Not only in Florence but the whole of Italy. His father known as “Bicci”, was a well-to-do wool merchant, but Giovanni had other ambitions. He aimed high. He learned the trade working in his uncle’s bank, eventually buying it and building it into the most powerful bank in Europe.

the medici dynasty: the real masters of florence

Giovanni di Bicci de Medici ‘s portrait – Palazzo Davanzati, Florence

The dowry of his newly married wife Piccarda helped him to start his business. She turned out to be the perfect match, a strong woman from a wealthy family who gave him two sons who brought forward the Medici dynasty and fortune: Cosimo (he will be known as Cosimo the Elder) and Lorenzo.

The Medici dynasty: the real masters of florence

Cosimo the Elder – portrait by Rubens

A powerful friend – the antipope Baldassarre Cossa

Giovanni di Bicci needed powerful connections to achieve his ambitions. One of these was his good friend Baldassare Cossa.

Cossa (1370-1419) was elected pope as Giovanni XXIII, with the help of Giovanni’s money. He was a controversial character, who loved women and money more than religion. But most important for Giovanni was the fact that he granted the Medici bank the right to collect Vatican taxes, and taking a percentage of them.

Cossa’s fortune didn’t last long however. He was deposed and incarcerated in 1415, but Giovanni didn’t desert him in his misfortune. He paid for his liberation. The ‘antipope’ died in Florence, where Giovanni’s son Cosimo paid for his grand tomb in Florence’s Baptistry. A beautiful tomb by MIchelozzo and Donatello that can still be seen today.

Giovanni di Bicci de Medici

Tomb of Baldassarre Cossa in Florence’s Baptistry

Great ambition and civic duty in Florence

Giovanni di Bicci de Medici got involved in Florentine politics late in life. Though he never had a major political role, his money and connections did give him enormous power. Politically he opposed the more ‘conservative’ Albizzi family, and contributed to a more just and proportional system of taxation.

He offered a significant contribution to the betterment of his beloved city. His generosity included charitable projects such as the Spedale Innocenti (a hospital for orphans) employing Filippo Brunelleschi for the job. Brunelleschi was Giovanni’s favourite architect, and he chose him for the renovation of San Lorenzo Church, which at that time was falling into ruins.

These are just some examples that show how the Medici family shaped the city of Florence throughout the centuries.

Spedale Innocenti, Florence

By the time he died of natural causes in 1429, the 69 year old Giovanni had succeeded in redeeming the image of the Medici, and created a solid base from which the fortune of the Medici dynasty would grow. He is buried in the Church of San Lorenzo in Florence.

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Church of San Lorenzo

Giovanni di Bicci de Medici – legacy

Giovanni’s children sired the two historical branches of the Medici family that ruled over Florence and Tuscany for three centuries. The first branch (being from Cosimo the Elder and Contessina de’ Bardi, grandparents of Lorenzo il Magnifico) died out at the end of the 16th century. The second branch (that of Lorenzo the Elder) would survive through the first half of the 18th century.

There’s much more to know about the Medici family: if you’re interested, check out some facts and curiosities about this famous dynasty, and how it features in the TV series Medici: Masters of Florence.

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