The Medici Family

The Early Medici

The first member of the Medici family to hold high public office was Ardingo de Medici, elected Gonfaloniere in 1296. Two more members of the family held the office again within the next 30 years. The family went through a short period of decline afterward until Salvestro de Medici returned the Medici to prominence, holding the office of Gonfaloniere in 1370 and 1378. But Salvestro rose to power on the backs of a popular mob, the ciompi. As the ciompi fell, so did Salvestroís political fortunes . But Giovanni increased the family's economic status, and in the Florentine Republic, economic power was equivalent to political power. Giovanni was returned to the office of Gonfaliere in 1421. He would actually be the last of the Medici to hold such a high office until the 16th century - the truly powerful Medici chose to rule from behind the scenes.

Cosimo the Elder

Cosimo de Medici, or Cosimo the Elder, was born in 1389. Growing up, Cosimo had the best education available in 14th century Florence, and grew up with a sense of respect for classical knowledge and ideals. He became a humanist. Florence during Cosimo's early years was split between two factions - the faction of the upper class, captained by the Albizzi family, and the middle class, also supported by a few important families such as the Medici.
When Giovanni died of natural causes in 1429, Cosimo took over the helm of the family enterprises. In 1433, Cosimo moved to the outskirts of Tuscany, letting matters cool off in the partisan battles. But Rinaldo degli Albizzi was still nervous. He arranged for the arrest and detention of Cosimo, and eventually, his banishment to Venice. Popular unrest in Florence led to a new Signory, and Cosimo was brought back to Florence and given vast power. He continued to build that power, however. He consolidated all power in his hands in dealings with the rest of Italy and finance.Under the rule of humanism, Florence increased both its wealth and its cultural prestige. Among the most lasting impacts of Cosimo's reign are his large library (including a large classical collection) and his patronage of artists such as Donatello and Fra Angelico.
Cosimo's successor, Piero, was less successful than Cosimo, but generally followed his policies and so survived his term leaving Florence much the same as he found it.

Lorenzo the Magnificent

Following the rule of Piero came the tyranny of his sons, Lorenzo and Giuliano. Giuliano died young. Lorenzo, who became known as Lorenzo the Magnificent, did not have the economic ability of his predecessors, and was a tyrant and a hedonist. But he also patronized the arts, and presided over Florence's Golden Age. Such noted artists as Boticelli and Michaelangelo flourished during this height of the Renaissance. Lorenzo's political ineptitude would hurt him in foreign affairs, and his tyranny deprived him of what had always been the Mediciís strongest base of support: popular acceptance of their rule.
After 1492, as notable for the death of Lorenzo de Medici to some as the Spanish defeat of the Moors and the voyages of Columbus, Piero de Lorenzo took control of the family affairs. He was a violent and arrogant man.

The Monk Who Would Be King

Girolamo Savonarola was born in 1452. One feast day in 1475, Savonarola left home to seek admittance to the monastery of San Domenico at Bologna, a Dominican monastery. Savonarola was sent out by the monks to preach everywhere in Italy. In 1489 he settled in 1489 at the monastery of San Marco. His preaching was famed within Florence for its sincerity and fervor, and he attracted huge crowds. Lorenzo respected him greatly, even though Savonarola preached against the Medici Tyranny. After Lorenzo's death, Savonarola's warnings of disaster and criticisms of the Medici increased in magnitude. 'Repent, O Florence, while there is still time.'
And disaster did indeed come. In 1494, Charles VIII of France invaded Italy. Without the support of the cadet branches of the family, and with the populace aroused against him by Savonarola, Piero had no chance to fight. Florence now belonged to Charles. As Charles continued his march south, Florence was now under the control of Savonarola. He made changes in Florence: unbecoming dress was outlawed; fasting was continuous. Savonarola was not listening to the Pope very well, however. In 1495, he was forbidden to give any more sermons. In February 1496, he returned to the pulpit, and in 1497, Savonarola was excommunicated in June. In 1498 the Franciscan monks of the area challenged Savonarolaís claim. Eventually, the challenge was resolved in a 'duel', where a Franciscan monk and a Dominican would walk through fire. But when their challenge failed to materialize, the pent-up energy of the mob turned against Savonarola. He was tortured and burned to death.

The Return of the Medici

In December 1503, Piero de Medici drowned. His son Lorenzo was 12. Therefore his uncle, Cardinal Giovanni de Medici, was the head of the family. Under the steady approach of the Spanish army to the city of Florence, the pro-Medicean partisans skillfully encouraged by Giovanni, regained control of Florence in 1512. In the purge of the previous officials, Machiavelli was replaced by a Medicean. He then went to his country house in Percussina and wrote The Prince.
Cosimo I was the next truly important duke within the Medici family. Cosimo purged the House of Medici and the city of Florence from the foreign entanglements, and from the interference of his ministers, two areas of control which had been strong since the Savanarolan era. He became the 'Grand Duke' after conquest of the neighboring areas in 1569. Cosimo was not an extremely popular figure. While he brought Florence stability, he took away its freedom. The heirs of Cosimo lacked even his heavy-handed ability to promote stability and pursue business interests.

Decadence and Decline

The next hundred years saw many lurid tales of murders, intrigues, and affairs, but little of actual political or economic consequence. It was yet another Grand Duke Cosimo who saw the end of the Medici line. His oldest son, Ferdinandino, had a barren wife. His younger son was having an affair with a groom named Giuliano Dami, and showed absolutely no interest at all in his wife. Since none of his children were going to produce heirs, his brother Francesco Maria was reluctant to give up the privilege of a cardinalcy, and his wife was not interested in sleeping with an ancient, fat, blotchy-faced man known to prefer young boys. He died two years later, ending the prospect of an heir. The state was nearly bankrupt and so were most of the noble families. On July 1, 1737, the second son Gian, then Grand Duke, died. The remaining Medici was Anna Maria, Cosimoís daughter, and control of Tuscany now passed to the Austrians. She died in February 1743, thus ending the Medici line. She bequeathed all the Medici treasures to the next Grand Duke, with the condition that nothing ever be removed from Florence.


Cleough, James. The Medici: A Tale of Fifteen Generations. Robert Hale & Co., London, 1975.
Hibbert, Christopher. The Rise and Fall of the Medici. Allen Lane, London. 1974.