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The House de' Medici - a Florentine Powerhouse during the Italian Renaissance

The de' Medici coat of arms.

The de' Medici coat of arms.

The de' Medici Family 13th - 18th centuries

The Italian Renaissance flourished in Florence, Italy and it is this city that was the heart of the Renaissance. One of the many reasons for the "rebirth" of knowledge and culture in Florentine lives was because of one dynamic family, the de' Medici's. This family was instrumental in bringing scholars. artists, poets and humanists to the forefront of Florentine life and "rebirth".

However, the de' Medici's were themselves an interesting, powerful, wealthy and important family to the rise of the Florence Republic in Italy during the Italian Renaissance. In fact, if it were not for the de' Medici's, we might not have had an Italian Renaissance, so great was their influence in this area.

The "House of de' Medici" was a political dynasty and banking family and later a royal house. The family originated in the Tuscany region north of Florence, Italy. They are mentioned first in 1230 and the word Medici is the Italian plural of medico meaning medical doctor. But, doctors they were not. They are the founders of the Medici Bank which grew in wealth and power throughout the Renaissance, Italy and all of Europe. The Medici Bank was the largest in Europe during the 15th century and the bank gave the de' Medici family political power in Florence. They were powerful as citizens but they were not a ruling monarchy.

Their wealth and influence originated from the textile trade which was guided by the guild, Arte della Lana. In the days preceding the Renaissance, Florence was the leader in textile trading in Europe and the de' Medici's were the leaders in the textile businesss and trade there. They were able to bring Florence under their family power and created a Florentine environment where art and humanism could grow and flourish. Along with other Italian Florentine families they fostered and inspired the Italian Renaissance.

The Medici Bank became the most prosperous and most respected institution in Europe and for a while, the de' Medici's were the richest family in all of Europe. They first acquired political power in Florence which then reached throughout Italy and Europe. In the banking business they made their greatest contribution to accounting procedures used in banks. Their improvement of the general ledger was syncronized through the development of the double-entry bookkeeping system for tracking debits and credits. This system was first used by the accountants working for the Medici Bank in Florence.

The de' Medici family produced four popes of the Catholic Church: Pope Leo X (1513-1521); Pope Clement VII (1523-1534); Pope Pius IV (1559-1565); and Pope Leo XI (1605).

They produced two regent Queens of France: Catherine de' Medici (1548-1559) and Marie de' Medici (1600-1610).

In 1531 the de' Medici family became hereditary Dukes of Florence, and in 1569 the Duchy was elevated to a Grand Duchy after territorial expansion in Tuscany. They ruled the Grand Duchy of Tuscany until 1737 when Tuscany went bankrupt.

The family rose to power by being connected to most of the other elite families through marriages of convenience, partnerships or employment. The de' Medici's had a position of centrality in the Florentine social network. Several Florentine families had systematic access to other elite families only through the de' Medici's and this was similar to banking relationships at the time.

The legacy of the de' Medici was their sponsorship of art and architecture during the Renaissance and they were responsible for the majority of Florentine art during their time in power.

The three leading and powerful men who lead the de' Medici family during the Itallian Renaissance were:

  • Giovanni di Bicci de' Medici
  • Cosimo de' Medici, also known as Cosimo the Elder
  • Lorenzo de' Medici, also known as Lorenzo the "Magnificent"

Portrait of Giovanni di Bicci de' Medici.

Portrait of Giovanni di Bicci de' Medici.

Giovanni di Bicci de' Medici

Giovanni was the first historically relevant member of the de' Medici family and was the father of Cosimo (the Elder) and the great-grandfather of Lorenzo (the Magnificent).

It was Giovanni who brought the Medici Bank in Florence to greatness. He was head of the early multi-national company as the family bank. The de' Medici Bank had branches throughout Florence, the other northern Italian city-states (Venice, Milan, Bologna etc) and also beyond in Europe. It was his meticulous and concentrated efforts in the banking business that made it great.

Giovanni also married well. He married a woman named Piccarda Bueri and married into one of the richest and most prominent Florentine families and this marriage also helped to boost the de' Medici wealth. His wife came with a rich dowry in money and land.

Because of the great reputation of the de' Medici Bank and of the family, even the popes in Rome made use of the de' Medici Banks and therefore, made the family and its bank richer and more powerful. Giovanni is credited with setting his family on the path to becoming one of the richest dynasties in Europe. He died one of the richest men in Florence.

Giovanni also started the de' Medici family commissioning art works. He commissioned Brunelleschi to reconstruct the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence in 1409. The sponsorship and commissioning of art works would continue greatly by the de' Medici family during the rest of the Italian Renaissance.

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Portrait of Cosimo the Elder

Portrait of Cosimo the Elder

Cosimo the Elder

While Giovanni was the first in the bankiing end of the family business, Cosimo, his son, was the first of the de' Medici political dynasty. He inherited his wealth from his father and his power stemmed from this wealth which he used to control votes and political decisions in Florence.

The Bishop of Siena ( a great rival of Florence and the de' Medici's) has said, "Political questions are settled in Cosimo's house." From 1433-34, Cosimo was exiled from Florence by his rivals in a power coup and when he left Florence he took his bank with him to Padua and Venice. Florence was unable to continue to grow and prosper without Cosimo and his bank, so the exile was lifted and he returned to Florence - bank intact.

However, Cosimo did not return without concessions from the political front in Florence. With his return, he instigated a series of constitutional changes in the city-state of Florence to secure his power through influences. He worked hard to create peace in northern Italy especially between Florence, Naples, Venice and Milan during the Lombardy wars. He also discouraged outside powers, France and the Holy Roman Empire, from interferring in the governing of Florence.

He brought notable Byzantine figures to Florence to start the rise of culture and arts in the city. The Byzantine figures he brought to Florence taught the classical Greek that had died out in Florence with the rise of the Roman Empire. He liberally spend the family fortune to enrich Florence and for the patronage of culture and the arts.

It was Cosimo that had the palazzo (palace) de' Medici built in Florence and he was the personal patron to artists Fra Angelico, Fra Filippo Lippi, and Donatello. Cosimo even financed Brunelleschi so he could finish constructing the dome of il Duomo (Florence Cathedral).

He even established the modern Platonic Academy in Florence for the study of the classics and humanism. He, therefore, had a great effect on Italian Renaissance intellectual and artistic life. He died in 1464 and was succeeded by his son, Piero I, and the father of Lorenzo de' Medici. His son's rule of the de' Medici family was weak and ineffectual and it was not until his grandson Lorenzo became head of the family that the de' Medici name and family was again great in Florence.

Portrait of Lorenzo the "Magnificent"

Portrait of Lorenzo the "Magnificent"

  • Catherine de' Medici - a powerful regent queen of France
    The de' Medici family of Florence, Italy continued for more than 300 years and one of its most famous and powerful women was Catherine de' Medici who eventually became the Queen Consort of France, Regent Queen of France and overseerer of the French..

Lorenzo the "Magnificent"

Lorenzo was an Italian statesman and de facto ruler of the Florence Republic during the rest of the Italian Renaissance. His life coincided with the high point of the early Italian Renaissance and his death marked the end of the Golden Age of Florence.

He was a diplomat, politician and patron of scholars, artists and poets. He is best known for contributing to the art world and gave large amounts of money to artists to create master works. Michaelangelo was a good friend of his and literally lived at the de' Medici home of Lorenzo for five years. His was a direct patron of Leonardo Da Vinci for at least seven years of Da Vinci's creative life.

When his father, Piero I died in 1469, Lorenzo was only twenty years old, but he was knowledgeable and powerful enough in his own right to assume a leading role in Florence. However, he had liffle success running the banking end of the family business and many of the de' Medici assets fell away during his lifetime.

His greatest personal asset was the ability to rule Florence indirectly through surrogates in city councils, through the use of threats, payoffs and strategic marriages of his children. Florence flourished under Lorenzo's rule, but he ruled indirectly as a despot and the Florentine people had little freedoms.

Lorenzo managed to survive an attempted assassination with only a stab wound, although his brother was killed during the same attempt. What made Lorenzo even more powerful, was his diplomacy. The Rome popes were rivals of the de' Medici's and at war with Florence quite often, but Lorenzo managed to bring peace and non-interference of the popes in Florence.

He helped bring maritime trade with the Ottoman Empire to Florence and this was also a major source of wealth for the de' Medici's as he controlled the trade.

Lorenzo's greatest contribution to Florence was in the commissions and as patron of the arts and artists living in Florence during his lifetime. He personally helped Michaelangelo, Da Vinci, Botticelli, and Ghirlandaio secure commissions. Lorenzo himself wrote poetry in his native Tuscan dialect. And, he supported the development of humanism.

When Lorenzo died the fragile peace he helped maintain between the various Italian states collapsed. His son, Piero II, was an ineffectual leader and the de' Medici's were exiled for many years from Florence during his lifetime. Lorenzo was buried in the de' Medici Chapel in Florence where his tomb can be viewed today.

Source: "The House of Medici: Its Rise and Fall" by Christopher Hibbert

Copyright (c) 2012 Suzannah Wolf Walker all rights reserved


Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on October 23, 2012:

Thank you for reading this. Yes, these families were so full of intrigue and mystery and a bit of corruption, too. I'm glad you enjoyed reading this and thank you for the vote and the share. Most appreciated!

A Anders from Buffalo, New York. on October 23, 2012:

The Italian families in the Middle Ages and Renaissance were always very exciting. Great article, voted up and shared!

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on July 09, 2012:

Alastar: Yes, this book is so good and very detailed. Glad you read it too. I read the book a while back so when I decided to write on this family I decided to write on these three because I felt they were the most important and interesting and lived during the Italian Renaissance. Giovanni certainly got things going with establishing a strong bank that branched out all over Europe. I find that fascinating for that time period. Cosimo started the art patronage and commissions and then Lorenzo picked up on that big time, although he let the bank go by the wayside for the most part. Thanks so much for reading this and for your comments. It was pretty hard to narrow all the information down for one hub and not leave out the "exciting" parts. This family sure was interesting - and so Italian! lol. I enjoyed writing this and thanks so much for stoppingy by to read this!

Alastar Packer from North Carolina on July 08, 2012:

Suzannah, I read Hibbert's book on the Medici's but your fine article was really like reading the salient facts and most interesting stuff anew. Giovanni sure started a powerful dynasty, and Cosimo I comes across as a decent individual in a decidedly indecent world- at least at times. Great job in condensing the book here!

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on July 07, 2012:

Beata: Thanks you so much. I'm glad you enjoyed this piece - it was fun to write. I appreciate you stopping by and taking the time to read and leave a comment. Thanks!

Beata Stasak from Western Australia on July 07, 2012:

Read a lot about the Medici, a great article, thank you for sharing:)

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on July 06, 2012:

Hi Hyphen: Yes, they were just like us. Completely human with all their flaws and flubs and with all their greatness and, as you say, ambitions. Thanks so much for reading this Hyphen, it was fun and interesting for me to write. I appreciate your visit!

Brenda Barnes from America-Broken But Still Beautiful on July 06, 2012:

This family has always fascinated me. I love that period in time anyway. The ambition these people had still makes me want to know more about them. Thanks for this great look into the lives of a family proud and talented, yet in many ways just like us.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on July 05, 2012:

Thank you so much for your comments and for reading this piece. I'm half Italian so this stuff is so interesting and fascinating to me. Thanks so much for stopping by - I always enjoy your visits!

Martin Kloess from San Francisco on July 05, 2012:

Thank you for this fascinating article.

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