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
- Who Were the Medici of Florence?
- 15th Century: Merchants and Bankers
- 16th Century: Grand Dukes of Tuscany
- Beyond Florence: the Medici Popes
- Beyond Italy: Queens and Progenitress of Kings
- Patrons of the Art: The Medici Legacy
- Related Posts
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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.
For a complete list of sources and resources used on this webpage, please see the References page.
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