Who Were the Medicis? The Family That Ruled Florence

Léonie Chao-Fong

Early Modern Renaissance
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The Medici family, also known as the House of Medici, was a banking and political dynasty during the Renaissance period.

By the first half of the 15th century, the family had risen to become the most important house in Florence and Tuscany – a position they would hold for three centuries.

The founding of the Medici dynasty

The Medici family originated in the agricultural Mugello region of Tuscany. The name Medici means “doctors”.

The dynasty began when Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici (1360–1429) emigrated to Florence to found the Medici Bank in 1397, which would become Europe’s largest and most respected bank.

Using his success in banking, he turned to new lines of commerce – trading spices, silk and fruit. At his death, the Medicis were one of wealthiest families in Europe.

Portrait of Cosimo de' Medici the Elder
Portrait of Cosimo de’ Medici the Elder by Pontormo (Credit: Uffizi Gallery).

As the pope’s bankers, the family quickly acquired political power. In 1434, Giovanni’s son Cosimo de’ Medici (1389-1464) became the first Medici to de facto rule Florence.

The three branches of the Medici family

There were three branches of Medicis that successfully gained power – the line of Chiarissimo II, the line of Cosimo (known as Cosimo the Elder) and the descendants of his brother, who went on to rule as grand dukes.

The House of Medici produced 4 popes – Leo X (1513–1521), Clement VII (1523–1534), Pius IV (1559–1565) and Leo XI (1605).

Catherine of Medici
Portrait of Catherine of Medici (Credit: Uffizi Gallery).

They also produced two French queens – Catherine de’ Medici (1547–1589) and Marie de’ Medici (1600–1630).

In 1532, the family gained the hereditary title of Duke of Florence. The duchy was later elevated to the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, which they ruled until the death of Gian Gastone de’ Medici in 1737.

Cosimo the Elder and his descendants

Cosimo the Elder
Sculpture of Cosimo the Elder by Luigi Magi (Credit: Uffizi Gallery).

During Cosimo’s reign, the Medicis gained fame and prestige first in Florence and then across Italy and Europe. Florence prospered.

Because they were part of the patrician class and not the nobility, the Medicis were seen as friends of the common people.

After his death, Cosimo’s son Piero (1416-1469) took over. His son, Lorenzo the Magnificent (1449-1492), would subsequently rule during the pinnacle of the Florentine Renaissance.

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Under Cosimo’s rule and that of his son and grandson, Renaissance culture and art flourished in Florence.

The city became the cultural centre of Europe and the cradle of the new humanism.

The Pazzi conspiracy

Hanging of Bernardo Baroncelli
Hanging of Pazzi conspirator Bernardo Baroncelli by Leonardo da Vinci (Credit: Public domain).

In 1478, the Pazzi and Salviati families attempted a plot to displace the Medicis with the approval of Pope Sixtus IV, who was an enemy of the Florentine family.

The brothers Lorenzo and Giuliano de’ Medici were attacked during High Mass at Florence Cathderal.

Giuliano was stabbed 19 times, and bled to death on the Cathedral floor. Lorenzo managed to escape, seriously but not fatally wounded.

Most of the conspirators were caught, tortured and executed, hung from the windows of the Palazzo della Signoria. The Pazzi family were banished from Florence, their lands and property confiscated.

The failure of the plot served to strengthen the position of Lorenzo and his family’s rule over Florence.

The fall of the House

Portrait of Cosimo I de’ Medici by Cigoli (Credit: Palazzo Medici Riccardi).

The last of the great banking Medici line, Piero il Fatuo (“the Unfortunate”), only ruled Florence for two years before being expelled. The Medici Bank collapsed in 1494.

Upon the defeat of the French armies in Italy by the Spanish, the Medicis returned to rule the city in 1512.

Under Cosimo I (1519-1574) – a descendant of Cosimo the Elder’s brother Lodovici – Tuscany was turned into an absolutist nation state.

These later Medicis became more authoritarian in their rule of the region, which led to its decline as a cultural hub.

Procession of the Youngest King
Medici family members placed allegorically in ‘Procession of the Youngest King’ by Benozzo Gozzoli (Credit: La Capella dei Magi).

After the death of Cosimo II in 1720, the region suffered under ineffectual Medici rule.

In 1737 the last Medici ruler, Gian Gastone, died without a male heir. His death ended the family dynasty after almost three centuries.

Control over the Tuscany was passed to Francis of Lorraine, whose marriage to Maria Theresa of Austria sparked the beginning of the reign of the Hapsburg-Lorraine family.

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The Medici legacy

Over a period of just 100 years, the Medici family transformed Florence. As unparalleled patrons of the arts, they supported some of the greatest artists of the Renaissance,

Giovanni di Bicci, the first Medici arts patron, encouraged Masaccio and commissioned Brunelleschi for the reconstruction of the Basilica di San Lorenzo in 1419.

Cosimo the Elder was a dedicated patron to painters and sculptors, commissioning art and buildings by Brunelleschi, Fra Angelico, Donatello and Ghiberti.

Sandro Botticelli Birth of Venus
Sandro Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. commissioned by the Medicis (Credit: Uffizi Gallery).

A poet and humanist himself, his grandson Lorenzo the Magnificent supported the work of Renaissance artists such as Botticelli, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci.

Pope Leo X commissioned works from Raphael, while Pope Clement VII hired Michelangelo to painter the alter wall of the Sistine Chapel.

In architecture, the Medici were responsible for the Uffizi Gallery, St Peter’s Basilica, Santa Maria del Fiore, Boboli Gardens, the Belvedere, the Medici Chapel and Palazzo Medici.

St. Peter's Basilica
St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City (Credit: Didier Moïse / CC).

With the Medici Bank, the family introduced a number of banking innovations which are still in use today – the idea of a holding company, double-entry bookkeeping and lines of credit.

Finally in science, the Medici are remembered for the patronage of Galileo, who tutored multiple generations of the Medici children – for whom he named the four largest moons of Jupiter.

Tags: Leonardo da Vinci

Léonie Chao-Fong