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
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
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
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
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,