The Medici dynasty included bankers and ruthless politicians. A multi-talented humanist, controversial popes, patrons of the arts, an alchemist and two assassins.
Enough to stir your curiosity? Let’s find out some strange facts and curious details about the Medici family history.
Curious facts about the Medici family history
The origin of the Medici name is a mystery – Legend has it that the earliest ancestor was a Medico di Potrone (born around 1046). Apparently he was given this nickname as a result of his miraculous ability to transform people’s health. He may have been a physician (medico in Italian means ‘doctor’). There’s no proof of any of this, but it’s beyond doubt that his descendants had the capability to transform everything they touched into gold.
The Coat of arms is six red balls in a field of gold – another mystery yet to be solved. What do the balls represent? Pharmaceutical pills to go with the name “Medici”? Blood stains or holes made by weapons to recall an important victory in battle?
They may even represent ‘bisanti’, byzantine Medieval coins, that given the successful banking activities of the family seems the most likely theory. You’ll see their coat of arms everywhere you go in Florence, and all over Tuscany too. Once the Medici took over a town the coat of arms was always added to the city’s symbol.
The Medici weren’t hereditary nobles. It is thought that the family were originally merchants from the Mugello area north of Florence. Their wealth and influence was built up over time thanks to their extraordinary financial perspicacity. And the Medici Bank, founded at the beginning of the 15th century by Giovanni de Medici, became one of the most prosperous and respected banks in Europe. They eventually became grand dukes of Tuscany, a title that was conferred by Emperor Charles V in 1537.
The rise of the Medici was also helped by powerful marriage, like Cosimo’s union with Contessina de’ Bardi.
The Medici family – patron of the greats
A starry gift – What do you give the person who has everything? Name a star after them. That’s what Galileo, the father of modern physics, did. He was looking for patronage and when Cosimo II Medici, who had been his student at Pisa’s University, became Gran Duke in 1609, he wrote to him saying he wanted to name the newly discovered four moons of Jupiter after him. They settled on the name “Medicean Stars” (Medicea Sidera in Latin).
Friend of the artists – Cosimo the Elder employed the brilliant architect Michelozzo to renovate the convent of San Marco. Here he had a cell built for his private use, that can be still see today. Brunelleschi, Fra’ Angelico, Donatello, Andrea del Castagno, Luca della Robbia all worked for him. He was friend with many artists and humanist scholars, interested in the revolutionary Renaissance theories and style.
A school for Michelangelo – Lorenzo the Magnificent discovered Michelangelo when the artist was still a teenager, attending a school of sculpture financed by the Medici. This school was a hub for Renaissance art and thinking, a place where artists like Michelangelo would come to study and copy classical sculptures. Later he was employed by them to work at the Medici Chapels.
These are just some examples that show how the Medici shaped the city of Florence throughout the centuries, financing the building and restructuring amazing edifices and churches.
The dark side of the Medici family
A controversial pope – The Medici had faults as well as virtues. Pope Leo X, who was born Giovanni de’ Medici was embroiled in a controversy over Papal indulgences in 1517. It was during his papacy that Martin Luther initiated what would become the Protestant reformation.
Murders in the family – Ferdinando I was suspected to have killed his brother Francesco, a curious character that practiced alchemy and had locked his step-mother in a convent. It wouldn’t have been the first murder in the house either. Another Medici known as Lorenzino killed his own cousin with a dagger.
Alchemy in the Studiolo – Francesco I had a secret room in the Palazzo Vecchio, the Studiolo, that at his time would have been filled with magical objects and strange, exotic substances. You can see this room if you take the ‘Secret Passages Tour‘ of the palace.
The last Medici – The last Medici in power was the dissolute Gian Gastone who died drunk after having squandered all his money in 1737.
In Florence it’s possible to visit all the Medici residences and get an idea of their taste and the way they lived. At the end of 2016 the series “Medici: Masters of Florence” depicted the family using a lot of creative licence.
Find out about the Medici second series which will tell the dramatic life of Lorenzo Il Magnifico and his brother Giuliano.