The Medici family has shaped the city of Florence and made it into the splendid place we know today. But how exactly did Florence change under them, and where can you see their influence today?
The Medici in Florence – San Lorenzo, the first neighbourhood of the Medici
San Lorenzo was the neighbourhood where the Medici first called home. And this is where our itinerary starts, right in the square in front of San Lorenzo Church. This very ancient church was in bad condition at the time Giovanni di Bicci (1360-1429) and his sons Cosimo and Lorenzo used to attend mass here. That’s why the wealthy banker Giovanni decided to use some of his fortune for the restoration of his neighbourhood’s church. For the task he employed the genial architect Brunelleschi, the one behind the famous Dome of Florence’s Cathedral.
He was also thinking about creating a glorious burial place for his family. And where better than their beloved church of San Lorenzo? Most of the members of the Medici dynasty are buried here. Some inside the church (Cosimo the Eldest in the crypt), in the Old Sacristy (Giovanni di Bicci), and others in the later addition known as the Medici Chapels.
The latter contains the New Sacristy, Michelangelo‘s awe-inspiring work. Lorenzo the Magnificent is buried here. Giovanni also gave lots of money to the charitable Innocenti institution in Piazza SS. Annunziata and Brunelleschi worked on the facade.
San Marco Convent, a quiet retreat for Cosimo the Elder
A few steps from San Lorenzo Church you’ll find more evidence of the Medici in Florence. The Medici Riccardi Palace, the Florentine residence of Cosimo the Elder (1389-1464) and his wife Contessina. Cosimo had the palace redesigned in a sombre but elegant Renaissance style by Michelozzo Michelozzi.
San Marco Convent, up the road from the palace, is another place tied to the Medici family history. Cosimo the Elder, who paid for the restoration of the convent, used to have a cell here for private use. He would come here to pray and meditate – probably on the hardship of being a business man and an eminent personality in Florence politics. His cell can still be visited today.
Lorenzo the Magnificent and his circle of intellectuals in Florence
Later Cosimo the Elder’s grandson Lorenzo the Magnificent(1449-1492) an able politician and patron of the arts, took up residence in Palazzo Medici Riccardi. He opened a school of sculpture in the garden annexed to San Marco Convent (this garden does not exist anymore). Michelangelo was among the many artists who went there to study sculpture, copying ancient statues as a way to master his craft.
Lorenzo has been described as a “benevolent tyrant”. With him the political power of the Medici was nearly absolute, even if was still within the framework of the republic. But apart from the political achievements, he was the incarnation of Renaissance and humanist ideals, surrounding himself with intellectuals and artists. They were regular guests in his Florentine residence and the Medici villas. Under him, Florence became the universal capital of culture and the arts.
Florence Cathedral and the Medici
The building of the Cathedral Dome (1420-1436) was a great moment for Florence. Brunelleschi’s achievement made the city proud, especially since it was paid for by the citizens themselves. Cosimo the Elder would have been around at this time, appreciating the work of Brunelleschi, one of his favourite architects.
But there was an episode that stained the connection between the Medici family and Florence’s Cathedral. In 1478, during the so-called Pazzi conspiracy, Lorenzo the Magnificent’s younger brother Giuliano (1453-1478) was brutally murdered in the Cathedral by the enemies of the Medici that were hoping to put an end to their supremacy. Lorenzo escaped unharmed and took bloody revenge.
Medici in Florence – Gran Duke Cosimo I and his residences
Cosimo I (1519-1574) became Gran Duke in 1537, and from that moment onwards the Medici acted as absolute rulers of Florence. You can still see his statue on a horse dominating Piazza Signoria. Cosimo I lived in Palazzo Vecchio, traditional seat of the Florentine government, until his wife Eleonora got tired of the ‘smallness’ of the place and the lack of air. Eleonora had a lovely private chapel in Palazzo Vecchio ( that can be seen today, with frescoes by Bronzino) but that wasn’t enough keep her satisfied.
They bought Palazzo Pitti from the impoverished Pitti family, restored it and built the vast Boboli Gardens. In this grand mansion fit for a king, today home of different galleries, they entertained important guests from all over Europe.
The Medici’s offices Uffizi and the Vasari Corridor
Cosimo I also wanted the Corridoio Vasariano, a private, elevated passageway to travel between his office in Palazzo Vecchio and his new home, the Pitti Palace on the other side of the river Arno. So the face of Florence changed some more to suit the Medici’s endless ambitions. The butchers and fishmongers that used to sell their good on the Ponte Vecchio were removed and substituted with silver and goldsmiths – mainly to improve the smell that reached the Medici noses.
Finally, the Uffizi was originally built to host the Medici private office, hence the name. Their private art collection grew in prestige over time and opened its doors to the public in 1789, when the Medici dynasty was no longer ruling. It became the art gallery that is so famous today.
To find out more about the Medici in Florence, read about the Medici Palaces that can be visited today, and some curious facts about this great and controversial dynasty.