Once one of Italy’s most powerful and influential families, the Medicis amassed a banking fortune in 15th century Europe and used their wealth to help foster the Italian Renaissance and establish a political dynasty that ruled Florence for 300 years. Find out more about the Medici family, who encouraged the careers of such luminaries as Michelangelo and Galileo and whose members included popes, queens and a long line of dukes.
Legend says the dynasty descended from a giant-slaying knight.
The family’s roots supposedly are linked to one of Charlemagne’s eighth-century knights, named Averardo. As the story goes, Averardo was riding through an area north of Florence known the Mugello when he encountered a giant who’d been frightening people. Averardo fought and killed the giant, and in the process his shield was dented by the iron balls of his opponent’s mace. The Medici family coat of arms, which includes red balls on a gold shield, supposedly was inspired by Averardo and his battered shield. Whether this is true remains unknown; among other theories is the suggestion that the coat of arms was derived from a symbol for medieval money-changers (the balls represent coins), the profession of some early members of the Medici clan. Today, the Medici coat of arms still can be seen on buildings throughout Florence that once were connected to the family.
The Medici bank once was Europe’s most powerful financial institution.
In 1397, Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici started the bank in Florence on which the Medici fortune was built. At the time, Florence had emerged as an important center for banking (the city’s gold coin, the florin, became a standard currency across Europe in the 14th century). Under Giovanni’s son Cosimo, the Medici bank grew into the most powerful in Europe in the 15th century, with branches in Rome, Venice, Naples, Milan, London, Geneva and other locations. The Vatican was a major client, and the bank also was involved in the textile and alum trades. Cosimo used his wealth to influence Florentine politics, launching the Medici political dynasty. As an important patron of the arts, he helped put Florence at the center of the Renaissance. Following Cosimo’s death in 1464, the bank went into decline and by the end of the 15th century had shuttered most of its branches. The Medici dynasty continued, though, and family members served as dukes of Florence and grand dukes of Tuscany from the early 1530s to 1737.
Michelangelo lived with the family.
As a teenager Michelangelo was recommended for admission to a school for sculptors established by Lorenzo de’ Medici, one of the most prominent members of the dynasty (he also was known as Lorenzo the Magnificent). There, Lorenzo noticed the young artist’s burgeoning talent and invited him to live at the Palazzo Medici, where he was treated like a member of the family. Lorenzo even found employment for Michelangelo’s father, who initially opposed his son’s intention to become an artist. Michelangelo stayed at the Medici palace for four years before going on to eventually create such Renaissance masterpieces as the “Pieta” and “David” sculptures and Sistine Chapel ceiling paintings. Sandro Botticelli was another artist who lived at the Medici palace as a young man and benefitted from the family’s patronage throughout his career. Historians have suggested a young Leonardo da Vinci might have resided with the Medicis for some time as well.
One of their chief enemies was a friar.
In the 15th century, fundamentalist preacher Girolamo Savonarola criticized what he viewed as the Medicis’ tyranny and corruption, as well as Renaissance Florence’s general sinfulness. In 1494, two years after the death of Lorenzo the Magnificent, his son and successor Piero was overthrown by an invading French army. Afterward, Savonarola acted as Florence’s reformist leader, and in 1497 his supporters collected books, art, musical instruments and other items deemed “vanities” and burned them in a massive bonfire. However, the friar, who also challenged papal authority, was excommunicated and hanged in Florence in 1498. The Medicis returned to power in 1512.
Galileo was a family tutor.
In addition to backing artists, the Medicis helped support scientists, such as the astronomer and physicist Galileo Galilei. In the early 1600s, Galileo, who was cash-strapped and had a family to provide for, took a job tutoring Cosimo de Medici, the teenage son of Ferdinando I, grand duke of Tuscany. Galileo later was hired to tutor Ferdinando’s wife, who reportedly thought he was an astrologer rather than an astronomer and had him do the duke’s horoscope. In 1610, Galileo published “The Starry Messenger,” a work describing recent discoveries he’d made with a telescope, including the fact that Jupiter had moons, which he named after the Medici. Galileo dedicated the book to his former student Cosimo, who had inherited his father’s title, and was rewarded with a lucrative post as mathematician and philosopher to the grand duke.
The Medicis produced two queens.
The Florence-born Catherine de’ Medici was an influential monarch in 16th century France and the mother of three French kings. Orphaned shortly after birth, Catherine was married at age 14 to Henry, the second son of King Francis I of France. When Henry became king in 1547, Catherine reigned as queen until her husband’s death in a jousting tournament in 1559. Afterward, the couple’s sickly teenage son, Francis, served as king until his death in 1560. Catherine’s son Charles then inherited the throne and because he was just 10 his mother was made regent, and ruled France during a period of civil and religious conflict. Upon Charles’ death, his brother Henry was king from 1574 to 1589, during which time Catherine remained involved in France’s political affairs. Another Medici, Marie, was queen of France from 1600 until the 1610 assassination of her husband, King Henry IV. Marie then was appointed regent for her young son, Louis XIII, who in 1617 took power and exiled her.
The dynasty collapsed with a debauched duke.
The curtains closed on almost 300 years of Medici rule in Florence with the death of Gian Gastone de’ Medici, the seventh family member to serve as grand duke of Tuscany. Gian Gastone, who came to power in 1723 and led a life of debauchery, died without any heirs. Through an agreement of the leading European powers, he was succeeded by Francis, duke of Lorraine (who later became the Holy Roman Emperor and the father of Marie Antoinette, queen of France). When Gian Gastone’s only sibling, Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici, the last of the family line, passed away in 1743 without any children, she willed the Medicis’ enormous art collection and other treasures to the Tuscan state, on the condition they always remain in Florence.