What you need to know about the Medici family, the dynasty that ruled first over Florence and then all of Tuscany for three centuries.
Who were the Medici?
The Medici were one of the most powerful of all the European dynasties. They ruled Florence for over 300 years, they founded the powerful Medici bank, and financed some of the greatest works of art produced during the Renaissance. Later they took over most of Tuscany creating the Gran Duchy of Tuscany. Their influence was enormous, and you’ll see traces of them everywhere in Florence and throughout the region.
Where were they from?
The family came from the Mugello, a rural area just north of Florence. They were not of noble origin. They moved to Florence in the 13th century to try their luck with commerce.
How did it all begin?
The ‘Godfather’ was Giovanni di Bicci (1360-1429) who was the first to amass a huge fortune. He founded the Medici Bank that opened branches all over Europe and was best friends with Pope John XXIII, who gave his bank access to administrate the Pontifical coffers. He was a loyal friend, and when the Pope fell into disgrace and was deposed, he paid 30.000 florins to free him.
He was also loyal to his city, offering a significant contribution to the betterment of his most beloved neighbourhood, today’s San Lorenzo quarter. It was Giovanni who commissioned Brunelleschi to renovate San Lorenzo Church. When Giovanni died, his son Cosimo became a very influential figure in Florentine politic and paved the way to the rise of the Medici family.
How did they come to power?
The path to political power wasn’t a straight one for the Medici family. They used money, influence and powerful friendships to negotiate their way through European politics. They also suffered exile (Cosimo the Eldest in 1432 and the sons of Lorenzo the Magnificent in 1494), conspiracy and murder (Giuliano, Lorenzo the Magnificent’s brother was brutally killed in Florence Cathedral during the Pazzi Conspiracy in 1478). They also had to deal with the hatred of the fanatically religious prior of San Marco Convent, Savonarola, who managed to briefly take over Florence and transform it into a theocratic state.
Cosimo I, the Gran Duke of Tuscany
When Cosimo I came into power in 1537 the family’s position was made official and became hereditary. In short, a monarchy was born, one that would stay in power until 1737, when the last Medici Gian Gastone died without an heir, the last generations having squandered all of the family money.
Cosimo I created the Gran Duchy of Tuscany. He took over the whole region with exception of Lucca, and with him Tuscany grew in wealth and political importance. After him the dynasty grew in strength with his son Fernando I, an able politician that loved to live like a king.
After his death in 1609, the decline of the Medici family started. They gradually lost their money and political influence. Tuscany’s fate was then decided by Europe’s greatest powers, and in 1737 ended up in the hands of the house of the Lorena, making Tuscany a de facto Austrian province.
The Medici family and the Arts
If it hadn’t been for the Medici family, you’d probably not be coming to visit Florence today. It was this family who, with their immense fortune, financed most of the works of art you find in Florence now.
The Medici literally shaped Florence and Tuscany , in every sense. With their love for art, that was also used as a means to glorify their power, they allowed artists to flourish, so much so that the city became the cradle of the Renaissance. Cosimo the Elder financed the renovation of San Marco Convent and his palace in Via Larga – today known as Palazzo Medici Riccardi. Under Lorenzo the Magnificent’s patronage, Florence became European capital of culture and arts.
A lasting legacy
Their influence on, and interest in art, was so great that the Uffizi was created as a space to house their private collection. Michelangelo learned to sculpt in the school opened by Lorenzo the Magnificent, Brunelleschi was the favourite architect of Giovanni di Bicci, and Galileo was for years protected by his admirer Cosimo II. The relationship they had with these artists is one of the many interesting facts about the Medici dynasty.
The Medici’s places in Florence:
The first Medici residence was Palazzo Medici–Riccardi (situated in the old Via Larga, today Via Cavour, 3), then in Palazzo Vecchio (town hall) and finally Palazzo Pitti, for which they created the Boboli Garden. All three palaces can be visited.
Where are they buried?
San Lorenzo Church – Some of the members of the Medici family are buried inside the church and in the Old Sacristy by Brunelleschi. Others are in the Medici Chapels, that include the New Sacristy designed by Michelangelo, and can be visited with a different ticket.
Medici: Masters of Florence television series
In 2016 the Medici became television celebrities with the 8-episode mini series “Medici:Masters of Florence”. It shows how Giovanni di Bicci and his son Cosimo the Elder shaped the future fame of this powerful dynasty. Though not historically accurate, it’s an engaging drama that transport you back to 15th century Florence.