Medici Family: Origins and History

A name synonymous with the Italian Renaissance, the Medici family arose from humble origins to rule Florence, sponsor artists, and dominate Florentine culture for nearly 300 years.

Their political contributions to Florence are rivaled if not exceeded by their patronage of a few of the Renaissance’s greatest artists, including Sandro Botticelli and Michelangelo.

The city of Florence, like a number of Italian city-states, came to power through conquest and commerce.

A relatively obscure city before the 12th century, Florence managed to grow and prosper despite both external conflicts, especially those the city inaugurated against her neighbors in an effort to control the territory around the Arno River; and internal conflicts, the greatest of which was the battle between rival sections of the Guelph family that began around 1300.

The power of Florence depended on trade, especially in wool, and banking. Those families who managed these sources of capital played an important part in ruling the city. While nobility and birth continued to engender more prestige and influence as it did elsewhere in Europe, the wealth and importance of the burghers to the city’s prosperity meant that merchants had a share in government. The rise of the Medici is partly explained by their involvement in civic affairs, particularly in the highly influential merchant guild.

The fame and prominence enjoyed by the Medici was largely the result of ambitious and industrious predecessors. Originally from the farmlands north of Florence, Italy, the first Medici left their native Mugello ca. 1200 for Florence. Like many families, the Medici seem to have made a living as merchants, though banking became an important line of work for the Medici in the 13th century as well. Ardingo de’ Medici became the prior, or head, of the Florentine merchant guild in the 1280s. His rise to such an important position presaged the elevation of other Medici to Florence’s ruling council, the Signoria, over the next few centuries. The Signoria, comprised of nobles, important burghers, and intellectuals, was the oligarchic institution that ran the Florentine republic.

Medici political clout grew even more through their financial acumen as bankers. Originally in the hands of cousins in Rome, the Medici Bank arrived in Florence thanks to Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici. Founded in 1397, the Medici Bank quickly expanded and opened up branches as far away as England. In time, the Medici Bank became the main financial institution of the papacy. With a ready source of capital, the Medici were able to turn to such new lines of commerce as trading spices, jewelry, silk, and fruit. In addition, their ever-increasing financial power opened up new opportunities in civic government.

The early 15th century saw the advance of the Medici into the highest ranks of Florentine government. By mid-century, the Medici began to outdistance their main political rivals, the Albizzi, and under Cosimo de’ Medici, Medici ascendancy was assured. Cosimo did not gain control easily. His chief rival, Rinaldo degli Albizzi, filled one council with his supporters in an attempt to place blame on Cosimo for the war with the city of Lucca, a campaign that had proved costly. While Rinaldo’s allies were unable to order Cosimo’s execution, they were able to exile him to Venice in 1433, a hollow victory that soon allowed the chief Medici to return to Florence in strength. Using his family’s bank, his own political supporters, and relying on his popularity with the populace, Cosimo was able to return a year later, and the Albizzi’s hopes for dominance were crushed.

As the leading citizen of Florence, Cosimo de’ Medici was able to advance his family’s interests while serving his city. For 30 years, he wisely managed state affairs. A shrewd politician, Cosimo tended to back projects with his wealth and act through supporters, tactics which downplayed his own importance and gave his rivals little room to attack him. He did, however, take full advantage of those events that would solidify his popularity, His connection to the Peace of Lodi in 1454, a treaty between Venice and Milan that brought peace to the region, is an example of that political savvy.

Lorenzo de’ Medici, known as “Lorenzo the Magnificent,” who ruled Florence during 1469–1492, was as able an administrator as his grandfather Cosimo. His style of rule was similar as well. Like Cosimo, he cleverly worked in conjunction with the civic council. Of importance to subsequent Medici, Lorenzo married into an important and well-established noble family, the Orsini, which gave the wealth and political clout of the Medici the support of aristocratic blood.

Lorenzo’s relationships outside the family were important too, for through his diplomacy he was able to secure Florence against her enemies, gain new allies, and increase the security of his own position.

His success as a diplomat and politician enabled Lorenzo to gain influence with the papacy, which had relied on the Medici Bank for many years. Giovanni, Lorenzo’s son, became a cardinal and then Pope Leo X. Michelangelo, who had found a patron in Lorenzo, later found one in Pope Leo, under whose patronage he began work on the Medici Chapel.

While known for their incredible rise in Florentine politics, the Medici are equally well known as patrons of the arts.

Patronage of artists and intellectuals was not only normal but vital, for without it, most artists could not find work, and thus had a difficult time supporting themselves. While patronage gave artists a livelihood, it also garnered the patron prestige. Works of art, especially those on public display, gave fame to artist and patron alike. Medici money backed some of the brightest luminaries of Renaissance art, like Donatello, famous for his bronze statue of David, and Michelangelo, who worked for the Medici off and on during much of his career. Michelangelo had even attended an art academy set up by Lorenzo in the Medici gardens near the Piazza San Marco.

Cosimo and Lorenzo both patronized artists and humanist scholars. Donatello and Michelozzo di Bartolommeo, the architect of the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi (one of the Medici palaces), both found an enthusiastic patron in Cosimo. Lorenzo, moreover, was a well-read poet himself and given to sponsoring cultural pursuits. It was Lorenzo that gave Michelangelo access to the classical statuary in his garden. Humanists too benefited from the Medici. Both Cosimo and Lorenzo helped scholars locate and acquire ancient and medieval manuscripts. A Platonic school under Marsilio Ficino, a library at the monastery of San Marco, and manuscript production were all Medici-sponsored projects.

The contributions of the Medici to the culture and history of the Renaissance are hard to ignore. Florence was home to many Renaissance figures, men like Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Niccolò Machiavelli, all while the city was under Medici administration. Despite the fact that Florence was a republic, the Medici were so powerful that they essentially ruled the city, even representing it diplomatically. The family’s rise from obscure peasantry to a leading house in Europe highlights certain aspects of what scholars have come to define as the “Renaissance.” For example, Renaissance thinkers believed that humans had the potential to change their situation, and improve their lives through education and diligence. Often reflected in the art and writing of the Renaissance is the idea that educated, worldly individuals were better able to serve and improve society,. The Medici used their talents not only to gain power and prestige for themselves, but also used their influence to improve the quality of life of those in their charge, to sponsor cultural endeavors, and to keep Florence free from foreign domination.

From their roots as relatively obscure farmers and merchants, the Medici eventually produced two popes (Leo X and Clement VII) and one queen of France, Catherine de Médici, not to mention humanist statesmen like Lorenzo. In many ways, the accomplishments of the Medici serve as prime examples of Renaissance ideals. Defining the Renaissance is always difficult as it meant different things at different times and in different places; the Medici bridged those differences in their long tenure as public figures, their importance to the history of art, and their intimate involvement in affairs of state. The Medici made news in 2005 due to the discovery of an infant’s body in a tomb that should have held Filippino, a boy nearly five when he died. Italian anthropologists opened 49 Medici tombs in order to conduct a thorough study of the family’s bloodline. In the process of exhuming the bodies from their crypts in the Church of San Lorenzo in Florence, the experts discovered the remains of nine infants, none of which they expected to find and all of which add to the mystery that often characterizes the Medici.

Guido DeMedici, today is active in venture capital investing.

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