This blog is part of a series on five influential Italian Renaissance families that shaped Italy, especially during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It is based on both our Italian Renaissance Summer School course, and our Small Group Tour of Italy, structured around the story of these five families.
The Medici Family
Today, the legacy of the Medicis is most visible in Italian art and architecture, with galleries such as the Uffizi owing their existence to the family’s success. However, there is much to be learnt beyond the remaining physical evidence, with many fascinating power struggles and personalities underlying the centuries of impact. They were a vital force in the renaissance, pouring money into the arts and sponsoring many of the period’s great artists. They were also profuondly influential in the banking sector, and are sometimes given credit for popularising the revolutionary method of double-entry bookkeeping.
The Medicis originally came to power in Florence. Florence is the best known of the five cities. By the 15th century the city was both large and wealthy with its wealth resting primarily on banking and industry. Throughout much of the period, officially, it remained a republic but few ordinary people had the right to vote and the power rested in the hands of the guilds and the wealthy families. The Medici family, through its money and though a series of alliances, was able to assert authority much of the time.
First gaining power in the thirteenth century, the Medicis originally made its money from banking and by the 15th century there was enough money to spend some of it on enhancing their status in the city. For the vast majority of time between 1434 to 1737 The Medicis ruled Florence and, later, Tuscany. Their power extended throughout the region, and during that time, four Medici Popes took office: Pope Leo X (December 11, 1475 – December 1, 1521), Pope Clement VII (May 26, 1478 – September 25, 1534), Pope Pius IV (31 March 1499 – December 9, 1565), and Pope Leo XI (June 2, 1535 – April 27, 1605).
Among the most significant and influential Medicis was Cosimo Di Giovanni de’Medici. Born in 1389, he was educated at the school of Santa Maria degli Angeli. Even at this early date the school was noted for its interest in the classical learning of Greece and Rome. Cosimo’s education helped to make him a humanist with an interest in literature, philosophy and all forms of art while still retaining the family’s astuteness and practical ability to make money.
Cosimo Medici, 1389-1464
When his father, Giovanni, retired in 1420, Cosimo became head of the family bank. Cosimo now headed the major financial institution in Florence and on his father’s death became leader of its influential faction in Italian politics. From that time on, despite political upheavals at various times, Cosimo became a major player in the development of art and architecture of Florence.
In 1430 Cosimo decided that the Medici should have a palazzo of their own, one befitting their status. He hired Brunelleschi, the leading architect of the time, to draw up the plans. He decided, however, that these plans were too elaborate and settled for a more modest design with a more modest façade but with some quite sumptuous features away from the public gaze. Today, the Palazzo Medici Riccardi still stands in Florence.
For the inner courtyard Cosimo had the great Donatello produce a bronze statue of the Biblical David. This was the first free-standing, life-sized bronze statue to be created since classical times. The statue, however, in its expression of inner humanity and sexual beauty, rose above classical perfection. The old and the new had combined to produce a masterpiece of Renaissance art.
Also within the palace can be found one of the most beautiful and politically revealing frescos of the period.
The frescos, by Benozzo Gozolli, were completed in 1463 and depict a religious subject with highly political overtones. The Journey of the Magi might be the ostensible subject but the frescos show three generations of the Medici family playing important roles. Other significant political players of the day have also been included. Among these are Sigismondo Malatesta of Rimini, Galeazzo Maria Sforza from Milan, a couple of emperors and the painter himself.
The Dome of Santa Maria del Fiore, designed by Brunelleschi, was finally completed in 1436. In order to complete the dome Brunelleschi was obliged to combine historical research and contemporary invention. The spectacular new feature of the church transformed the skyline of Florence.
At the same time as the dome was being completed Brunelleschi continued to work for Cosimo on the Medici Chapel in the Church of San Lorenzo and on many other projects within the city. Once his father died Cosimo felt free to begin pouring money into a number of schemes and a new Renaissance city began to appear. Apparently when Cosimo’s grandson Lorenzo examined the banks books many years later, he was astonished to learn that Cosimo had spent (or caused to be spent) a staggering 663,755 gold florins. With this money Cosimo had funded the construction or renovation of buildings ranging from palaces to churches, monasteries and libraries. Florence became a very different place under Cosimo’s leadership.
When Cosimo died he was followed by his son Piero. Piero suffered from a long illness and conducted most of his business from bed. During his short time as head of the Medici family (from 1464 to 1469), though not officially the leader of Florence, Piero proved to be efficient and quick thinking. He managed to thwart a coup against the family with the help of a number of allies including Federico da Montefeltro of Urbino. Ultimately, the coup was undone when Piero’s son Lorenzo encountered a road block that was meant to catch Piero. Lorenzo managed to go unrecognized and return to his father to warn him.
By the time Piero died in 1469, the Medici family was securely in control of both Florence and a huge fortune, through the continued success of its banking and financial businesses.
Piero the Gouty, by Bronzino.
While his father was alive, and during the short period of his own rule, Piero regularly commissioned works by a number of painters including Donatello and Fra Filippo Lippi.
Lorenzo, the Magnificent.
Two days after the death of his father in December 1469, a delegation of Florentine dignitaries arrived at the Medici palace asking to speak with Lorenzo. Despite his youth (he was only 20) they asked him to take on the care of the state just as his father and grandfather had done before him.
Lorenzo, not quite as handsome as his father, but longer lived!
From an early age Lorenzo had been prepared by his father for leadership. At the age of 15 he was already being sent on missions, in his father’s place, as a representative of the Republic of Florence.
In the family tradition he received a fine humanist education. No prince in Europe could have been so well tutored in the new learning. His education extended beyond book learning and he was known to enjoy hunting and hawking as well as ball games.
Lorenzo was one of the most significant patrons of the Renaissance, and sponsored Botticelli and Michelangelo. Lorenzo himself wrote poetry and made art, and started the book collection that eventually became the Medici Library. His love of education and knowledge caused him to create a workshop which copied out books and disseminated them throughout Europe.
There were many ups and downs throughout the Medici’s reign, and the final years of Lorenzo’s life proved to be difficult ones for the dynasty. Bad loans caused a number of the family’s banks to collapse, and Lorenzo himself had financial difficulties which he navigated by misappropriating state funds.
Lorenzo had 10 children, two of whom were especially historically consequential.
Lorenzo’s heir, “Piero the Unfortunate” essentially brought about an end to the Medici dynasty in Florence. It was recaptured, however, by another son of Lorenzo, Giovanni, who went on to become Pope Leo X.
The Pazzi conspiracy.
On Sunday the 26th of April 1478, in the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiori, an attempt was made to assassinate Lorenzo and his brother Giuliano. The attempt was made by a rival Florentine banking family and sanctioned by the pope, Sixtus IV. Just as the priest raised the host, Giuliano, who was standing by the door, was stabbed violently in the head and then many times in the body. At the same moment Lorenzo, already at the altar, was attacked by two priests standing directly behind him. Lorenzo escaped but his brother was killed.
The conspiracy had failed. The ring-leaders, including an archbishop, were dealt with promptly and brutally. For two days mobs roamed the city taking vengeance when and how they see fit. The news soon spread to Rome where the pope, who had backed the attempt, was infuriated by the failure of the plot and by the public hanging of one of his archbishops (still in his ecclesiastical robes). Lorenzo was immediately excommunicated and the whole of Florence put under interdict. No mass was to be said in any Florentine church until Lorenzo had been handed over to the pope. The people of Florence treated the pope’s announcement with scorn and Sixtus IV declared war on the republic.
Eventually, after a long and bitter struggle, a peace treaty was signed and Lorenzo, who had been living in Naples, was allowed to return home a free man. Once back in Florence, Lorenzo was welcomed as a hero and once more took control of the government.
Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi, includes several generations of the Medici family, including a sixteen year old Lorenzo and his horse, just about to set off on a diplomatic mission.
The Medicis remain a significant influence on the classical art we enjoy in museums and galleries today. For instance, when Lorenzo decided to patronise Michelanngelo, he took the artist under his wing. Michelangelo was able to live at the Palazzo Medici, and was treated as an equal, remaining in the palace for four years. Lorenzo was also the patron of Leonardo Da Vinci. It’s said (although the precise history remains uncertain) that Da Vinci was one of Lorenzo’s favourite proteges, and he was employed in the Gardens of Florence’s Piazza di San Marco.
One interesting piece of trivia: Later in life, Leonardo wrote ‘Li medici mi crearono e distrussono.’ This is often translates as ‘The Medici created me and destroyed me.’ However, it can also be translated as ‘Physicians created and destroyed me.’ The latter is more likely, as there is no real reason to suspect that Leonardo would have felt much animosity towards the family.
Girolamo Savonarola, although born and raised in Ferrara, is most remembered for the impact he had on life in Florence. He was born in 1452 and raised under the influence of his physician grandfather, a man steeped in medieval morality and given to tirades against the evils of modern life. This was a very different upbringing to that of the young Lorenzo.
Savonarola was educated at home until his grandfather’s death when he attended the university at Ferrara and first came into contact with humanist ideas. These he rejected. After an unhappy first infatuation, Savonarola increasingly turned against all women and his attitude towards humanist ideals hardened. In 1475 he ran away from Ferrara and went to Bologna where he entered the Dominican order and became a monk.
In a letter to his father Savonarola wrote, “I can no longer bear the wickedness of the people of Italy…As the instincts of the body are repugnant to reason, I must fight with all my strength to stop the devil from leaping on my shoulders.”
In 1482 Savonarola was posted to the monastery of San Marco in Florence which had been rebuilt at huge expense by Cosimo de’ Medici. Here he quickly gained a reputation for extreme asceticism. Savonarola prayed and fasted, asking God to reveal the purpose for his existence on Earth. Finally he got an answer. God wanted him to warn the people of the horrors that lay in store for the wicked. He set about delivering his message with a new intensity.
His superiors at the monastery became troubled by his new vehemence and sent him back to Bologna as master of religious studies. Ironically it was Lorenzo de’ Medici, looking for a good influence on his young son Giovanni, the 13 year old cardinal, who caused Savonarola to be recalled to Florence.
Once back in Florence Savonarola found the city ripe for his message of hell- fire and brimstone. Crowds flocked to hear his sermons. According to him the new humanist ideas had led only to senseless luxury and sensual pleasure. As his audience grew his sermons became bolder and he began to denounce the tyrants ruling Florence and it was obvious that he meant Lorenzo de’ Medici.
Although only in his early forties, Lorenzo was not a well man. He was suffering from the family gout and painful arthritic joints. As his illness progressed, word reached him of Savonarola’s increasing influence over the citizens. As Lorenzo lay dying he sent for Savonarola. The reason for this is not clear but apparently Savonarola demanded that Lorenzo give up his wealth and his family’s claim to rule Florence. Lorenzo was not prepared to do either of these. A short time later, on the 8th of April 1492, Lorenzo the Magnificent died.
Lorenzo was succeeded by his twenty one year old son Piero.
Savonarola continued to preach his fiery sermons. He railed against the corruption in the church and in society at all levels and called upon the citizens to repent. He had already prophesied the death of Lorenzo and of Pope Innocent VIII, now his prophesies became much more wide ranging, all were doomed unless they followed Christ’s teachings more stringently. Savonarola demanded that all unnecessary luxuries be abandoned.
When Charles VIII of France invaded Italy it appeared that another of Savonarola’s prophesies had come true. When Piero de’ Medici failed to deal satisfactorily with the French threat he, and his family were exiled from the city. Savonarola had more success with the French king and eventually became the de facto ruler of the city at the head of a much more democratic government. At first he had wide popular approval and mobs of young people roamed the city consigning “vanities” (including wigs, perfumes, trinkets, “pagan” books and humanist inspired art works) to the bonfire.
But the city was deeply divided. Savonarola had made many enemies, particularly the new Borgia pope, Alexander VI, who excommunicated him in 1497. Savonarola ignored the excommunication and continued to preach. Eventually the city turned against him. He was arrested, tortured, hanged and his body burnt at the stake. Two of his disciples died with him.
A painting of Savonarola’s execution in the Piazza della Signoria
Piero de Medici, known as Piero the Unfortunate, never managed to re-establish himself in Florence. He drowned when the boat he was in capsized leaving the 28 year old Cardinal Giovanni as head of the Medici family in exile.
With the Medicis in exile, and Savonarola dead, Florence found itself going from bad to worse. The city was impoverished by war with Pisa, the populous was disgruntled and the streets were becoming increasingly lawless. It was during this period that Piero Soderini, the gonfalonieri, (elected leader), suggested that pride be restored by asking Michelangelo to sculp a giant statue of of David, the symbol of Florentine republican pride. Astonishingly it took Michelangelo only eighteen months to complete the work.
Machiavelli was one Florentine who came to prominence during the republic under Soderini. Niccolo Machiavelli was born in 1469 into a once wealthy Florentine family which had fallen into difficulties by the time of his birth.
Little is known about his early life though he obviously had a humanist education with a grounding in Latin and some knowledge of Greek. In a letter to a friend he mentions having listened to a sermon by Savonarola and of having been impressed by his learning and rhetorical skill.
Several days after Savonarola was hanged, Machiavelli emerged from obscurity aged 29. It is not known why but Machiavelli was appointed by Soderini to the prestigious position of head of the second chancery, that is, head of Florence’s foreign affairs. He held the post until the fall of the republic 14 years later.
While in office he persuaded Soderini to reduce the city’s reliance on mercenary soldiers and to establish a citizen militia. He also undertook a number of diplomatic missions including to France and to Cesare Borgia. During his 14 years in office he undertook some 40 diplomatic missions.
In 1512 the Florentine Republic was overthrown and the gonfalonier deposed by a Spanish army in the pay of Pope Julius II. With the return of the Medici, Machiavelli was thrown into prison where he was tortured and then exiled to the small farm south of Florence once owned by his father. It was here that he wrote The Prince and Discourses on Livy, both published after his death in 1527.
The Medici Return
On the 1st of September 1512 Cardinal Medici, later to become Pope Leo X, returned to Florence at the head of an army and under orders from Pope Julius II. After eighteen years the Medici were back as rulers of the city. For the next few months Giovanni ruled before handing over to his younger brother Giuliano.
Lorenzo II de Medici
Born in Florence in 1492, Lorenzo was the son of Piero the Unfortunate. He became ruler of Florence in 1516 and remained so (as well as Duke of Urbino) until his death of syphilis in 1519. His daughter Catherine de Medici, later Queen of France, was born only 21 days before his death.
The most outstanding figure of the 16th century Medici was Cosimo I, who, coming from a secondary branch of the family, and relatively modest beginnings in the Mugello, rose to supremacy over the whole of Tuscany, conquering the Florentines’ most hated rival Siena and founding the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. Cosimo purchased a portion of the island of Elba from the Republic of Genoa and based the Tuscan navy there. He died in 1574, succeeded by his eldest surviving son Francesco, whose inability to produce male heirs led to the succession of his younger brother, Ferdinando, upon his death in 1587.
Francesco married Johanna of Austria, and with his consort produced Eleonora de’ Medici, Duchess of Mantua, and Marie de’ Medici, Queen of France and of Navarre. Through Marie, all succeeding French monarchs (bar the Napoleons) were descended from Francesco.
Cosimo I Medici (1519-1574)
Florence and the River Arno.
The New Sacristy Medici Family Chapel
In the 16th and 17th centuries, two structures – the New Sacristy and the Chapel of the Princes – were built at the Basilica of San Lorenze in Florence as chapels for the Medici family. The New Sacristy in particular is well renowned, designed by the Renaissance master architect and sculptor Michelangelo. The tomb was intended by Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici and his cousin Pope Leo X as a mausoleum or mortuary chapel for members of the Medici family, following the deaths of two young Medici family heirs (named Guiliano and Lorenzo after their forebears) in 1516 and 1519.
The tomb was commissioned in 1520 by Pope Clement VII (formerly Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici), executed largely by Michelangelo from 1520 to 1534, and completed by Michelangelo’s pupils after his departure. It is adorned with sculptures representing Giuliano di Lorenzo and Lorenzo di Piero, plus four allegorical figures representing different times of the day, and the Madonna and Child.
Michelangelo’s disciple Asconio Condivi describes it in a biography of his master published in 1553:
“”The statues are four in number, placed in a sacristy . . . the sarcophagi are placed before the side walls, and on the lids of each there recline two big figures, larger than life, to wit, a man and a woman; they signify Day and Night and, in conjunction, Time which devours all things…”
Indeed, even the New Sacristy itself risked being devoured by time, with dirt and grime accumulating on the structure over the centuries. One part of the tomb was in a particularly bad state, with organic fluids having seeped from the corpse of Allessandro Medici, a ruler of Florence who had been buried in the tomb without being properly eviscerated.
Eventually, restorers were forced to resort to an unconventional solution to save the structure: bacteria. Over eight years, a team used bacteria-infused gel during the final stage of the restoration project to remove the most stubborn dirt marks. After testing 11 strains of bacteria on marble, scientists decided that three non-toxic varieties would be the most effective. Serratia ficaria, a bacterium that causes urinary tract infections was the most so, managing to remove the dirt from the tomb in two days. With the restoration successful, the New Sacristy remains safe, at least for the time being, from the devouring of time.
Originally published February 21, 2018.
Updated on March 11, 2022.