Here you find information and history about the Medici family, the world famous Italian noble family that had a great power in Florence, Italy from the 15th to the 18th century.
Who were the Medici?
The Medici family, also known as the House of Medici, was the Italian family that ruled Florence, and later Tuscany, during most of the period from 1434 to 1737, except for two brief intervals (from 1494 to 1512, and from 1527 to 1530).
They first attained wealth and political power in Florence through their success in commerce and banking. Beginning in 1434 with the rise to power of Cosimo de’ Medici (or Cosimo the Elder), the family’s support of the arts and humanities transformed Florence into the cradle of the Renaissance, a cultural flowering rivaled only by that of ancient Greece.
The Medici produced four popes (Leo X, Clement VII, Pius IV, and Leon XI), and their genes have been passed through many of Europe’s royal families. The last Medici ruler, Gian Gastone, died without a male heir in 1737, ending the family dynasty after almost three centuries and beginning the long European reign of the Hapsburg-Lorraine family.
The origins and the history of the Medici dynasty
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, one of the citizens selected who formed the government, or Signoria. The Signoria, comprised of nobles, important burghers, and intellectuals, was the oligarchic institution that ran the Florentine republic.
Giovanni di Bicci
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 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. Giovanni’s two sons, Cosimo (1389–1464) who acquired the appellation of “the Elder,” and Lorenzo (1394–1440), founded the famous bloodlines of the Medici family.
Cosimo the Elder
With 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.
Lorenzo the Magnificent
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.
Anna Maria Luisa, the last descendant
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.
What is the Medici family best known for?
The Medici are best known for being patron of the arts. Their financial support of the arts and humanities helped to make Renaissance-era Florence a thriving cultural center.
Florence was known as the center of the Renaissance, attracting thinkers and artists alike to the city through the reputation of its benevolent rulers, and producing thinkers and artists from schools sponsored by the Medici and others. The city welcomed the ideals and philosophies of distant lands, absorbing them into the writing and art that it produced.
While the Medici used their talents to gain power and prestige for themselves, they 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.
Why were the Medici important to the Renaissance?
The biggest accomplishments of the Medici lay in the sponsorship of art and architecture. They were responsible for the majority of Florentine art during their reign.
Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici, the first patron of the arts in the family, helped Masaccio and commissioned Brunelleschi for the reconstruction of the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence in 1419.
Cosimo the Elder commissioned Filippo Brunelleschi for the building of the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral. He also demonstrated tremendous support for education, establishing the Platonic Academy for the study of ancient works. It is estimated that before his death in 1464, Cosimo spent approximately 600,000 gold florins supporting architecture, scholarly learning, and other arts. Cosimo the Elder’s notable artistic associates were Donatello and Fra Angelico.
The most significant addition to the list over the years was Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475–1564), who produced works for a number members of the Medici, beginning with Lorenzo the Magnificent, inviting him to study the family collection of antique sculpture and whom the Medici commissioned to complete their family tombs in Florence.
Lorenzo also served as patron to Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) for seven years. Lorenzo was indeed an artist in his own right, and was an author of poetry and song. His support of the arts and letters is considered a high point in Medici patronage.
Later, in Rome, the Medici Popes continued in the family tradition of patronizing artists in Rome. Pope Leo X would chiefly commission works from Raffaello.
Pope Clement VII commissioned Michelangelo to paint the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel. Eleanor of Toledo, princess of Spain and wife of Cosimo I the Great, purchased the Pitti Palace from Buonaccorso Pitti in 1550. Cosimo in turn patronized Vasari, who erected the Uffizi Gallery in 1560 and founded the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno in 1563.
Marie de’ Medici, widow of Henry IV of France and mother of Louis XIII, is the subject of a commissioned cycle of paintings known as the Marie de’ Medici cycle, painted for the Luxembourg Palace by court painter Peter Paul Rubens in 1622-23.
The family is well recognized for having been the patrons of the famous Galileo Galilei, who tutored multiple generations of Medici children.
In addition to commissioning art and architecture, the Medici were prolific collectors, and today their acquisitions form the core of the Uffizi museum in Florence. In architecture, the Medici are responsible for some notable features of Florence, including the Uffizi Gallery, the Boboli Gardens, the Belvedere, the Medici Chapel, and the Palazzo Medici.
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.
“Medici: Masters of Florence,” the TV drama about Italy’s Medici family
“Medici: Masters of Florence” is an eight-part drama series chronicling the rise of the Italian Renaissance political dynasty known as the Medici family.
It was produced by Matilde and Luca Bernabei’s Lux Vide, and Frank Spotnitz’s Big Light Productions. Richard Madden played enterprising son Cosimo de’ Medici, while Dustin Hoffman played a pivotal role as family patriarch Giovanni de’ Medici. The story focuses on the family’s ascent from simple merchants to power brokers who sparked an economic and cultural revolution. Along the way, the family also accrues a long list of powerful enemies.
“The legacy of the Medici family is so profound that its impact on the Renaissance is immeasurable. The foundations they laid in business and culture reach into the modern world today, which gives our story great breadth and depth,” said Matilde and Luca Bernabei, Lux Vide’s Chairman and CEO, respectively. “After seven centuries, their story remains a compelling one, full of intrigue, power, art, and faith. The historic and artistic heritage they left us still lives on, and we hope that it will inspire a new Renaissance in Italy, Europe, and throughout the world. Because of the project’s cultural importance, we wanted to bring the best talents to the series; excellent writer/executive producer Frank Spotnitz, and the incomparable actors Dustin Hoffman and Richard Madden.”
RAI Tv, the Italian national TV network, aired episodes 1 and 2 on Tuesday, October 18, 2016. According to the Italian ratings compiler Auditel, it attracted a record 7.6 million viewers. Rai TV will air 2 episodes each Tuesday, and with season 1 comprising 8 episodes, it will take 4 weeks to be broadcast. The series has been sold to many European channels, while sales in the USA have been delegated to WME. However, there is presently no word on when it will be aired in other countries. The episodes are 60 minutes long. The theme was the song Renaissance played by the English singer Skin.
Season 1 focuses on the rise of the Medici, with the protagonists being Giovanni (1360-1429, Dustin Hoffman) and his son Cosimo (1389-1464, Richard Madden). Season 2, which has been commissioned for the end of 2016, will focus on the life of Lorenzo, grandson of Cosimo.
Filming spanned 18 weeks between Rome and Florence, where producers had the opportunity to shoot in historical sites such as Palazzo Vecchio, Bargello Palace, the church of San Lorenzo, and inside the Duomo. Other shoots occurred in Pienza, Montepulciano, Pistoia, Bagno Vignoni, San Quirico d’Orcia, and the UNESCO site of Val d’Orcia.
The historical drama was made in English because of the international sales potential with its outstanding international cast. Rai 1 announced on October 28, 2016, that it is now possible to watch Medici Masters of Florence in the English language on his online platform Raiplay. Previously, this was only possible by choosing the language option during the live show and only with a terrestrial or satellite decoder.
Pictures: Palazzo Vecchio by Shirley de Jong CC BY-NC 2.0 ; Cosimo the Elder by Robert Scarth CC BY-SA 2.0 ; Lorenzo de’Medici by Jim Forest CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 ; Medici coat of arms by Michael Colburn CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 ; Bronze of Cosimo de Medici, Piazza della Signoria CC BY-ND 2.0
This post was originally published in September 3, 2013, and has been updated and enriched on November 14, 2016.