The earliest records we have of the Medici family tell us that they came from the Mugello valley and arrived in Florence around 1200.
The earliest origins of this family are difficult to track because the Medici later tried to ennoble their lineage by inventing legends and stories.
The founder of the family would be Medico di Potrone, who lived around the year 1000 and was a doctor by profession. Medici is the Italian word for doctors.
As often happened, the Medici went into Florence in search of fortune, and we must say that they found it! Almost immediately they were enrolled in the guild of doctors and apothecaries.
Historical chronicles recount that they went to live at the Old Market (in the area close to Piazza della Repubblica) and easily mingled with the underworld there.
As many as five death sentences were reported out of respect of the Medici family!
In a deed dated 1201, a man named Giambuono is considered to be the historical founder of the family. At the end of thirteenth century, two members of the family (Scolaio and Gano) were part of the Guelph party, the same family as Dante Alighieri.
In 1348, the year of the terrible Black Death, one of the Medici was Gonfaloniere di Giustizia, the highest office in the city.
Members of the Medici family were the protagonists of Florentine life long before their dynasty passed into history.
Giovanni di Bicci (1360–1429) is the first member of the family who created a dense network of merchants around him and his family.
The Medici family became a wealthy family of bankers, and Giovanni was one of the richest Florentines in the early fifteenth century.
With the son of Giovanni, Cosimo the Elder, the Medici became the bankers of the Vatican and as such became famous throughout Europe.
Wealth and prestige are the commandments of this family: Cosimo was famous not only for his skills as a businessman but also for his patronage and artistic taste.
And so were all his successors.
Along with the success of the Medici was also a growing opposition from other Florentine families and factions.
Some families who supported the Medici were Tornabuoni, Salviati, Cavalcanti, Bardi. Some opponents were Albizi, Guicciardini, and Corsi.
Today, we find all of these family names represented by the names of streets in Florence.
As a result of these power struggles, some of the Medici were subjected to exile, but after a short time Cosimo and his brother Lorenzo returned to Florence.
We must pause to speak of Cosimo the Elder (Cosimo il Vecchio): He built the great wealth of the family, but his fame is also linked to his wisdom.
He was a great man without wanting to appear so. He built a palace (located in via Larga) for himself but wanted it to look like the home of a merchant. He enriched Florence with works of art and also donated to libraries and churches.
When Cosimo died in 1464, the Florentines gave him honors fit for a king, and he was thereafter called pater patriae.
The prestige of the Medici soon extended beyond the confines of Florence, and some members of the family were elected pope, such as Leo X and Clement VII.
The story reminds us of Lorenzo the Magnificent (Lorenzo il Magnifico, 1449–1492) as the greatest of the Medici.
He was a poet, humanist, skilled politician, writer, and patron of the arts.
At the time of Lorenzo, the Medici overcame the opposition of the monk Savonarola and the famous Pazzi conspiracy (1478) during which Lorenzo was wounded, and his brother Giuliano lost his life.
Growing internal opposition forced the Medici to leave Florence after the death of Lorenzo the Magnificent.
The new Republic, however, lasted only a few decades, and the Medici family came back, thanks to help from the king of France.
After these events, a period of misfortune followed for the Medici, as they became more involved in European affairs and were forced into exile several times.
The fate of the family changed, thanks to Cosimo I (1519–1574), who descended from Cosimo the Elder and Lorenzo the Magnificent but not directly. He was the son of Giovanni delle Bande Nere, a mercenary captain.
Despite his quite humble origin, though, Cosimo managed to reign over Florence and married a princess. He was vigorous and astute, often used force against his opponents, and always wanted to celebrate his power.
We know him as Cosimo I, Grand Duke of Tuscany.
Under his government, Florence was united as never before.
Cosimo married Eleonora of Toledo―who came from one of the most noble Spanish families―and together they decided to live in the Palazzo Vecchio, which was also a symbol of power in the city when Florence was a republic.
The grand project of Cosimo was to unify all of Tuscany, and to that end he undertook wars with Pisa, Lucca, and Siena. He managed them all, and his victories are celebrated in the frescoes of the Hall of the Five Hundred, including the magnificent Battle of Marciano.
There were many sons of Grand Duke Cosimo, but three of them, along with their mother Eleanor, died of malarial fever during a family trip in Maremma, where Cosimo had ordered the reclamation of the marshes.
Grief stricken, Cosimo decided to retire from politics and left his son Francesco I in command.
During this period, the Pitti Palace had become their residence, and the city was enriched by buildings and streets worthy of the best European capitals.
Cosimo died in 1574, and with his disappearance begins the decline of the dynasty.
Francesco I liked chemistry and science rather than politics, but he knew he could not show his weakness and was sometimes ruthless.
Ferdinando I, brother of Francesco, was his successor. The fate of the family seemed to recover, thanks to European alliances.
In the meantime, two women of the family became queens of France: Caterina and Maria. Caterina, however, was a strong adversary of Cosimo I.
Ferdinando married Christina of Lorraine and had numerous descendants.
The successor to the throne―Ferdinando II―was too young to reign, so his mother and grandmother reigned for him and―just to summarize―caused a lot of trouble! He died without heirs.
Some members of the Medici family tried to keep up the family name, but it was near the end of the dynasty, and the city of Florence was in the midst of disputes and barters of the ruling houses all over Europe.
The last great act of the Medici for their city was made by the last descendant Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici.
She made an agreement with the Lorraine family―the new sovereigns of Florence―and forced them to leave intact the heritage of the Medici family, which had to be kept in Florence.
Thanks to that arrangement, Florence now hosts the Uffizi Gallery, the Pitti Palace museums, and many other world-famous museums.
It was the last precious gift from the Medici family to their beloved Florence.
If you want to learn more about the Medici Family, we recommend an interesting book, The House of Medici: Its Rise and Fall.
The Medici’s coat of arm
The coat of arms of the Medici family has undergone several changes, and there are many different versions: the most famous is the one with six red balls on a gold background.
Theories about the origins of this blazon have multiplied over time, and some are quite funny.
Some say that the six balls were medicinal pills and alluded to the meaning of the family name; others said that they were the symbol of bitter oranges to indicate trade with the East.
The Medici themselves invented a not credible legend to ennoble the story of their origins: the red balls were signs of blows inflicted on the shield of the progenitor Averardo by a giant who lived in Mugello.
We know that many Florentine families had balls of different colors and numbers in their coats of arms.
Maybe they were derived simply from the studs on the shield that were colored for becoming decorative.
The most likely hypothesis says that the Medici had some red bisanti on the crest (the bisanti are metal discs whose name derives from the Byzantine coins), and that this design is derived from the symbol of the guild of moneychangers and bankers, which features gold bisanti on a red background.
We cannot count later versions of the Medici coat of arms as well as the different branches of the family.
One successful version is decorated with a blue ball from the lilies of France, thanks to the concession of the king of France.
As if that were not enough, the number of balls contained in the coat of arms is not always the same throughout history.
Originally there were eleven and then nine. Cosimo the Elder reduced the number to eight. It was Lorenzo the Magnificent who made the last change: just six balls.