The Renaissance: Cue the Medici

Cue the Medici

The Medici family is terribly important to Florentine history—a major banking family that rose to become the city's most prominent citizens in the 15th century, then rulers in all but name.

By the 16th century—following a few interregnums when republican forces kicked them out and a kind of democratic rule prevailed (plus Savonarola's brief reign as a theocracy)—the Medici became, under Cosimo I, the city's rulers in actual fact—first as Dukes of Florence, then as Grand Dukes of Tuscany.

The early years

The Medici came from the hills of the Mugello in the early Middle Ages, quite possibly charcoal burners looking for the good life of the city. The family found moderate success and even had a few members elected to public office in the comune government.

At the turn of the 15th century, Giovanni de’ Bicci de’ Medici made the family fortune through a series of shrewd moves establishing the Medici as bankers to the papal curia in Rome. His son, Cosimo de’ Medici, called Cosimo il Vecchio, orchestrated a number of important alliances and treaties for the Florentine Signoria, gaining him prestige and respect. Though wary enemies like the Albizzi feared Cosimo’s growing power—even though he rarely held any official office—and got him imprisoned and then exiled in 1341, he was soon recalled by the Florentine people.

As Cosimo il Vecchio’s behind-the-scenes power grew, he made sure to remain almost always a private citizen and businessman, serving the needs and interests of the working and middle class without needlessly overangering the big fish in town. While his position also helped him increase his personal fortune, he took care to spend lavishly on the city, building churches, establishing charities, and patronizing artists. He was a humanist leader who believed in the power of the emerging new art forms of the early Renaissance, and he commissioned works from the greatest painters, sculptors, and architects of the day.

Cosimo grew so attached to the sculptor Donatello that, as Cosimo lay dying, he made sure his son, Piero the Gouty, promised to care for the also aging artist and to see that he never lacked for work. Cosimo, as a properly modest ruler, was so beloved by the people that they buried him under the inscription pater patirae (father of the homeland). Piero’s rule was short and relatively undistinguished, quickly superseded by the brilliant career of his son, Lorenzo de’ Medici, called Lorenzo the Magnificent.

Under the late-15th-century rule of Lorenzo, Florence entered its golden era, during which time it became Europe’s cultural and artistic focal point. It was Lorenzo who encouraged the young Michelangelo to sculpt, and he and Medici cousins commissioned paintings from Botticelli and poetry from Poliziano. Lorenzo founded a Platonic academy to further the study of the classical world and was himself an accomplished poet. His political reign was a bit rocky at times; though he continued in his grandfather’s manner to be a behind-the-scenes manipulator and adjudicator (and never actually led his city by title), he was a bit more overt about who was actually running the show.

Although Lorenzo fought to maintain the precious balance of power between Italian city-states, in doing so he incurred the wrath of the pope and the Pazzi family, Florentine rivals of the Medici. The young Medici leader’s troubles came to a head in the infamous 1478 Pazzi Conspiracy, in which Lorenzo and his brother were attacked during High Mass. The coup failed, and the Pazzi were expelled from the city, which in the end helped solidify Medici power over Florence.

Lorenzo, however, was less adept than his grandfather at managing the family bank (losing the papal account had something to do with it, along with well-meaning mismanagement by assistants).

His son and successor, Piero de’ Medici, was almost immediately forced to flee the invading armies of Charles VIII in 1494 (although Charles quickly withdrew from the Italian field).

Into the power vacuum stepped puritanical preacher Girolamo Savonarola. This theocrat’s apocalyptic visions and book-burning (the original Bonfire of the Vanities) held the public’s fancy for about four years, until the pope excommunicated the entire city for following him, and the Florentines called it quits, putting the torch to Savonarola as a heretic.

A free republic took Savonarola’s place, happily governing itself and commissioning artworks from the likes of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, and placing Machiavelli in charge of organizing a citizen’s militia. In 1512, however, papal armies set another of Lorenzo’s sons, the boring young Giuliano de’ Medici, duke of Nemours, on the vacant Medici throne. Giuliano, and later Lorenzo de’ Medici (Lorenzo the Magnificent’s grandson via the ousted Piero) were merely mouthpieces for the real brains of the family, Giuliano’s brother, Cardinal Giovanni de’ Medici, who in 1513 became Pope Leo X and uttered the immortal words “God has given us the papacy, now let us enjoy it.”

Pope Leo’s successor as leader of the Medici was his natural cousin, Giulio de’ Medici, illegitimate son of Lorenzo’s brother Giuliano. Although blackguards such as Ippolito and Alessandro de’ Medici held sway in Florence, they really took their orders from Giulio, who from 1523 to 1534 continued to run the family from Rome as Pope Clement VII.

Charles V’s imperial armies sacked Rome in 1527, sending Clement VII scurrying to Orvieto for safety and giving the Florentines the excuse to boot Alessandro from town and set up a republican government again. In 1530, however, the pope and Charles reconciled and sent a combined army to siege Florence, which hired Michelangelo to design part of the defenses, and eventually Alessandro was reinstated. This time he had an official title: Duke of Florence.

After decadently amusing himself as a tyrant in Florence for seven years, during which time Clement VII died and Alessandro inherited full power, Alessandro was murdered in bed while awaiting what he thought was a secret tryst with a virtuous woman but in reality was a setup by his distant cousin Lorenzaccio de’ Medici, who plunged a dagger into the duke’s belly and fled to Venice (where he was later assassinated).

The man chosen to take Alessandro’s place was a Medici of a different branch, a descendant of Cosimo il Vecchio’s brother and the son of the virtuous and valorous warrior, Giovanni delle Bande Nere. All the hidden powers of Florence thought young Cosimo de’ Medici would be easily controlled when they named him duke of Florence. They were wrong.

Contrary to his immediate Medici predecessors, Cosimo I actually devoted himself to attending to matters of state. He built up a navy, created a seaport for Florence called Livorno, ruled firmly but judiciously (he never was very popular, though), and even conquered age-old rival Siena after a brutal war from 1555 to 1557.

His greatest personal moment came in 1569 when his—and through him, Florence’s—authority over Tuscany was recognized by the pope, who declared him Cosimo I, Grand Duke of Tuscany.

Except for the tiny Republic of Lucca, which happily trundled along independently until Napoléon gave it to his sister in 1806, the history of Tuscany was now firmly intertwined with that of Florence.

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