The Medici: Benefactors of Your Sightseeing in Florence (A Quick Introduction)

You can thank the Medici for the delightful works of art and architecture that have made Florence a significant tourist destination since the 17th century. If you are visiting Florence, Italy, it pays to know “just enough” about the Medici to appreciate their impact on 21st century tourism.


Featured photo: The Medici coat of arms is ubiquitous in Florence, and usually consists of 6 (sometimes more) balls. Reference (a-26).


Table of Contents

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Who Were the Medici of Florence?

The Medici was the most famous family in Florence and dominated the political scene in Tuscany for 3 centuries from the early 1400s until the last Tuscan Medici ruler expired in 1737.

They started as wool traders and rose from the merchant class as innovative and influential bankers in the 15th century. They were the power “behind the scenes” in Florence throughout the 15th century. This changed when they became a hereditary ducal family in the 16th century.

The family was exiled from Florence a few times by their political foes and republican advocates (1433-1434, 1494-1512, 1527-1530). They always returned with a vengeance – either through the clamor of the Florentine people, or the auspices of a European monarch. 

15th Century: Merchants and Bankers 

The best-known patriarchs of the Medici family were the early generation bankers, the progeny of Giovanni di Bicci (founder). His son Cosimo the Elder (pater patriae), and great-grandson Lorenzo il Magnifico, ruled Florence behind the scenes through their cronies at the Signoria or city council. Giovanni di Bicci had a younger son, Lorenzo the Elder, who helped his older brother Cosimo run the banking business.

They are credited for funding and sustaining the thinkers, architects, and artists who brought about the full flowering of the Italian Renaissance.

Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici (1360-1429) was the founder of the Medici dynasty and Medici Bank. From a painting by Cristofano dell’Altissimo at the Uffizzi.
Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici (1360-1429) was the founder of the Medici dynasty and Medici Bank. From a painting by Cristofano dell’Altissimo at the Uffizzi. Reference: (a-16).
Cosimo de' Medici (1389-1464), aka Cosimo the Elder was the son of Giovanni di Bicci de' Medici. He was the first Medici to hold absolute political power in Florence. Florentines considered him "Pater Patriae" (father of the country). From a painting by Jacopo da Pontormo.
Cosimo de’ Medici (1389-1464), aka Cosimo the Elder was the son of Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici. He was the first Medici to hold absolute political power in Florence. Florentines considered him “Pater Patriae” (father of the country). From a painting by Jacopo da Pontormo. Reference: (a-17).
Lorenzo the Magnificent (1449-1492) was the grandson of Cosimo the Elder. It was during his rule that the Renaissance reached its height. From a painting by Peter Paul Rubens.
Lorenzo the Magnificent (1449-1492) was the grandson of Cosimo the Elder. It was during his rule that the Renaissance reached its height. From a painting by Peter Paul Rubens. Reference: (a-18).

16th Century: Grand Dukes of Tuscany

The later generation of Medici was elevated to royalty upon the family’s return from their last expulsion from Florence (1530). This time, they exercised explicit power and used the arts to convey it.

The Grand Duke Cosimo I was front and center as the ruler of a consolidated Tuscany.

Cosimo I (1519-1574) was the Duke of Florence from 1537-1569, and the first Grand Duke of Tuscany from 1569-1574. His parents were Maria Salviati, a descendant of Cosimo the Elder and Giovanni dalle Bande Nere, a descendant of Cosimo the Elder’s younger brother, Lorenzo the Elder.
Cosimo I (1519-1574) was the Duke of Florence from 1537-1569, and the first Grand Duke of Tuscany from 1569-1574. His parents were Maria Salviati, a descendant of Cosimo the Elder and Giovanni dalle Bande Nere, a descendant of Cosimo the Elder’s younger brother, Lorenzo the Elder. Reference: (a-19).

He was the product of the merging of the 2 branches of Giovanni di Bicci’s family – the descendant of his 2 sons, Cosimo the Elder and Lorenzo the Elder. Cosimo I’s father was the famous condottiero, Giovanni dalle Bande Nere – a great-grandson of Lorenzo the Elder. His mother was Maria Salviati, Cosimo the Elder’s great-great-grand-daughter.

After Cosimo I, five more generations of Medicis continued to rule the duchy of Tuscany until 1737.

Beyond Florence: the Medici Popes

The Medici’s impact went well beyond that of Florence and Tuscany. Their character and cultural influence shaped the direction of Rome and the papacy, as well as the history of Europe.

The family produced 2 Renaissance-era popes, Cosimo the Elder’s great-grandsons. Pope Leo X (Giovanni di Lorenzo de’ Medici) and Pope Clement VII (Giulio di Giuliano de’ Medici) presided over momentous events in Catholic history.

Leo X was considered wily, worldly, and lived lavishly. His profligate use of indulgences to raise money for the papacy elicited Martin Luther’s 95 Theses in 1517 which signaled the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation.

Giovanni de' Medici (1475-1521) was the 2nd son of Lorenzo the Magnificent. He was Pope Leo X 1513-1521. From a painting by Raphael.
Giovanni de’ Medici (1475-1521) was the 2nd son of Lorenzo the Magnificent. He was Pope Leo X 1513-1521. From a painting by Raphael. Reference: (a-20).

On the other hand, Clement VII was considered smart and more principled than his cousin Leo X. However, it was his papal reign that brought about the last Sack of Rome (1527) as well as the rupture between the Catholic Church and the Church of England.

Pope Clement VII (Giulio di Giuliano de' Medici, 1478-1534). Head of the catholic church 1523-1534. From a painting by Sebastian del Piombo.
Pope Clement VII (Giulio di Giuliano de’ Medici, 1478-1534). Head of the catholic church 1523-1534. From a painting by Sebastian del Piombo. Reference: (a-21).

Beyond Italy: Queens and Progenitress of Kings

Medici women married into French royalty. They would become Queens and Queen Regents. Historical accounts depict them as women of strong will who exerted more than a little bit of influence on the governance of their adopted country through their children.

Due to their fecundity, their bloodline would become thoroughly intertwined with the ruling aristocratic families of Europe. From the mid-16th century, kings of France, Spain, and Britain can trace their ancestry all the way to Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici’s descendants, Caterina de’ Medici and Maria de’ Medici.

Caterina de’ Medici became Queen of France when she married the future King Henry II in 1533.

Caterina’s sons subsequently became kings of France (Francis II, Charles IX, Henry III), and her daughter Elisabeth married King Philip II of Spain. Caterina herself, ruled over France as the Queen Regent for her underage sons.

Born Caterina de' Medici (1519-1589), she married King Henry II, and was Queen of France from 1547-1563. She was Regent or Queen Mother to her 3 sons who ruled France until her death in 1589.
Born Caterina de’ Medici (1519-1589), she married King Henry II, and was Queen of France from 1547-1563. She was Regent or Queen Mother to her 3 sons who ruled France until her death in 1589. Reference: (a-22).

Maria de’ Medici became Queen of France when she married King Henry IV in 1600. Her son Louis XIII ascended the French throne.

Her daughter Elisabeth married the future King Philip IV of Spain. Elizabeth’s daughter, Maria Theresa would marry Louis XIV of France – whose grandson would later become King Philip V of Spain.

Maria de’ Medici’s other daughter, Henrietta Maria, married Stuart King Charles I of England, Scotland, and Ireland. The Stuart kings Charles II and James II were her sons.

Maria de' Medici (1575-1642) married King Henry IV and was Queen then Queen Regent of France 1610-1617. Painting by Peter Paul Rubens.
Maria de’ Medici (1575-1642) married King Henry IV and was Queen then Queen Regent of France 1610-1617. Painting by Peter Paul Rubens. Reference: (a-23).
Diana, Princess of Wales

Interesting fact: Diana, Princess of Wales was a 13th generation descendant of Maria de’ Medici through the Stuart line. Therefore, the future king of Britain, Prince William, has a few drops of Medici blood in his veins.

Patrons of the Art: The Medici Legacy

The Medici were a significant force in enabling many artists and humanists to innovate their craft and develop revolutionary ideas.

These creative individuals included, among others, Brunelleschi, Donatello, Verrocchio, Da Vinci, Filippo and Filippino Lippi, Michelangelo, Botticelli, Raphael, Cellini, Giambologna, as well as thinkers della Mirandola and Galileo.

The concentration of money, creative opportunities, and Medici patronage made Florence into the so-called Cradle of the Renaissance.

Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici inherited the vast Medici collection of art and properties on the death of her brother, the last Grand Duke of Tuscany. When she died in 1743, she left all these treasures to the Tuscan State. Today, we have the opportunity to enjoy these creations in and around Florence, with the most concentration at the Palazzo Pitti, and the Uffizi Gallery.

View of the Uffizzi Gallery from the Piazzale degli Uffizzi.
View of the Uffizzi Gallery from the Piazzale degli Uffizzi. Reference: (a-24).
The Uffizzi Gallery showcases the vast collection of arts and artifacts by the Medici over the centuries.
The Uffizzi Gallery showcases the vast collection of arts and artifacts by the Medici over the centuries. Reference: (a-25).

Virtual Scenes

VIRTUAL SCENE (instructions to view this 360 Google StreetView photo)
You can interact with 360 photos and see all around!
Move/Rotate the photo: Use your mouse or fingers to drag and rotate the view around or upward-downward.
On tablets or desktops: The square icon on the upper right corner maximizes or minimizes the photo.
Magnify the view: To zoom in or out, use the + or – sign on the lower right corner.

Inside the Bargello National Museum in Florence, Italy which houses many Renaissance sculptures by masters like Michelangelo, Giambologna, Verrocchio, and Donatello. 360 photo courtesy of Google StreetView, Reference (c-5, c-6).

Finally, you can now visit the Hall of the (Medici) Dynasties and explore other works of art at the Florence Uffizi Gallery virtually.

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For a complete list of sources and resources used on this webpage, please see the References page.


The Florence skyline, viewed from Piazzale Michelangelo, made even more beautiful by a glowing sunset. Photo by Heidi Kaden on Unsplash.

Take this 2-mile Firenze sightseeing walk and watch the sunset over The Florence Skyline from San Miniato al Monte.

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