House of Medici

Godfathers of the Renaissance

What connects the Sistine Chapel, Florence Cathedral, and St. Peter’s Basilica? The Medici family played a role in the development of all these places. Also called the House of Medici, they were influential Italian bankers and a powerful political dynasty that governed Florence for most of the Italian Renaissance.

Italy was not a unified nation when the Medici family’s influence began. It consisted of city-states, unlike neighboring nation-states such as France. Some of these city-states included Siena, Venice, Naples, and Florence, with the Medici establishing their prominence in the latter. The peak of their power lasted from 1434 to 1737 and gave rise to individuals who expanded their influence beyond Florence. Notably, this included four popes of the Catholic Church and two queens of France.

Medici family members placed allegorically in the entourage of a king from the Three Wise Men in the Tuscan countryside in a Benozzo Gozzoli fresco, c. 1459.

Medici family members placed allegorically in the entourage of a king from the Three Wise Men in the Tuscan countryside in a Benozzo Gozzoli fresco, c. 1459.

The Medici family had three successive lines that sought or attained positions of power. The line of Chiarissimo II was unsuccessful in gaining control of Florence in the 14th century. In the 15th century, the line of Cosimo de’ Medici (or Cosimo the Elder) established a hereditary principate in Florence, albeit without legal authority or title. In the 16th century, a third line abandoned republican ideals and imposed their autocratic rule, establishing the Grand Duchy of Tuscany and transforming themselves into a dynasty of grand dukes.

But how did they really rise to power? The short answer—through the establishment of the largest bank in Europe during the 15th century.

Portrait of Cosimo de’ Medici the Elder by Pontormo, c. 1518-20. Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

Portrait of Cosimo de’ Medici the Elder by Pontormo, c. 1518-20. Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

Cosimo the Elder founded the Medici Bank in Florence, later expanding its operations to other Italian city-states and foreign cities. These branches facilitated the Papacy’s ability to order goods throughout Europe and allowed distant bishoprics to make payments. The Medici Bank also introduced essential financial practices still used today, including Double Entry Bookkeeping and Letters of Credit. These accomplishments played a significant role in making the Medici family the wealthiest in Europe.

For fifty years, I have done nothing else but earn money and spend money; and it became clear that spending money gives me greater pleasure than earning it.

Cosimo de’ Medici

Cosimo, unlike his successors, led a modest lifestyle. He also wholeheartedly supported the arts and humanities. During Cosimo’s era, as well as the reign of his sons and particularly his grandson Lorenzo (known as Lorenzo the Magnificent), the Italian Renaissance flourished, and Florence emerged as the cultural epicenter of Europe. The family generously patronized renowned artists like Lorenzo Ghiberti, Filippo Brunelleschi, Donatello, Sandro Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and others.

The family of Piero de’ Medici portrayed by Sandro Botticelli in the Madonna del Magnificat, 1481. Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

The family of Piero de’ Medici portrayed by Sandro Botticelli in the Madonna del Magnificat, 1481. Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

The Medici family’s influence extended beyond art and encompassed other fields such as science, music, and fashion. Notably, Galileo Galilei tutored Cosimo I de’ Medici, the first Duke of Tuscany, highlighting their support for scientific endeavors.

In 1737, the Medici dynasty reached its conclusion with the death of Gian Gastone de’ Medici, the last Grand Duke of Tuscany, who had no male heirs. Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici, the sole surviving member of the family, ensured that Florence would retain its status as the center of the Medici legacy. She accomplished this by establishing a Family Pact, declaring that all the art, books, maps, and properties owned by her family should remain in Florence.

The Medici family’s extraordinary impact serves as a timeless inspiration for generations, showcasing the profound change a single family can bring to the world.

Words of wisdom

“Learning never exhausts the mind.” —Leonardo da Vinci

“You cannot teach a man anything, you can only help him to find it for himself.” —Galileo Galilei

“He who wishes to be obeyed must know how to command.” —Niccolò Machiavelli

“Whenever anyone has offended me, I try to raise my soul so high that the offense cannot reach it.” —René Descartes

Bibliography

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