Masters of Florence, the series about the Medici dynasty, has just made its debut on Netflix. This period drama mixes together history, fiction and passion in fifteenth century Florence. In case you’re wondering who this family was and why they were so important to the Renaissance city of Florence, here is a quick crash course to help fill in your Medici blanks.
Who were the Medici?
The Medici dynasty was one of the most powerful and prestigious families in Italy, and their fame ran throughout Europe from the 14th to the 18th century. They weren’t of noble origin and most likely came to Florence from the nearby Mugello in the 13th century, to make their fortune as merchants. They ended up founding the Medici Bank that became one of the most powerful in Europe.
Why was the Medici dynasty so important in Florence?
From Giovanni di Bicci onwards, the Medici amassed a great deal of money and influence. They had strong ambitions to climb the ladder both politically and socially, which meant going against the existing aristocratic Florentine families like the Albizzi that you’ll see in the series.
Fortunately for Florence they were great art enthusiasts, and spent a large part of their fortune on improving and embellishing their city. They took pride in financing great artists like Brunelleschi, Donatello and Michelangelo to name but a few.
Who was Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici?
In the series, Giovanni di Bicci (1360-1429), played by Dustin Hoffman, is portrayed as a “godfather” figure. Giovanni was in fact the first member of the Medici dynasty to accumulate a great fortune, and the one who brought his family from obscurity to fame. He was a great business man, founding a great bank with branches all over Europe that lent money to kings and popes.
His involvement in politics came later, but for Giovanni business affairs always came first. He became prior of the Bankers and Money Changers Guild. But his ambition was balanced by a sense of civic duty. He helped his city during a plague in 1417, and spent lots of money on urban improvements over his lifetime.
His favourite architect was Brunelleschi. The architect worked on San Lorenzo Church which was in the neighbourhood where the family lived. This was the church where the family would attend Sunday mass. And it’s where many members of the family are buried, both the church and in the annexed Medici Chapels.
Spoiler alert: There’s no evidence to suggest that Giovanni was poisoned and in fact, according to historians, he died of natural causes.
Who was Cosimo the Elder?
Cosimo, the eldest son of Giovanni, had the difficult task of maintaining the fortunes of his family and the Medici bank after his father died.
Cosimo the Elder (1389-1464) was an astute and able politician who learned and improved on the strategies of his father. He carefully and craftily manipulated himself to the top of political life in Florence. He really was banished from Florence by the aristocratic party that had Rinaldo degli Albizzi at his head, as the growing prestige of the Medici was seen as dangerous.
When in prison, Cosimo really did refuse to eat the food for fear of being poisoned. He asked to have meals brought to him from home, but again there’s no historical proof that anyone tried to murder him.
However it is true that Cosimo was an art enthusiast, friend with many humanist scholars. He really marry the ever-faithful and beautiful Contessina de’ Bardi. Though judging by portraits of Cosimo, he himself wasn’t as good-looking as the series makes out.
Read more about Contessina de’ Bardi and her fascinating life.
Who was Lorenzo the Elder?
Lorenzo the Elder (1395-1440) was the second son of Giovanni di Bicci. He was very close to his brother Cosimo, helping him with his career. He followed him into exile in Venice and helped him establish himself on his return. Though he worked for the family bank, he lived his political life in the shadow of his brother.
It was his branch of the family that eventually produced Cosimo I, the future Grand of Duke of Tuscany. Our introduction to the Medici gives you a good overview of this famous family.
If you’re interested in the TV series “Medici: Masters of Florence”, you’ll enjoy our post that divides the historical truth from the fiction.