Medici Family

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MEDICI FAMILY. The dominant family in early modern Florence, the Medici produced several popes and cardinals, married into Europe's Catholic royal houses, and either dominated or ruled Florence from the early fifteenth century until 1737.

In 1434 the banker Cosimo de' Medici the Elder (13891464), outwardly respecting the republican constitution, became the power behind the scenes in Florence. Following unsuccessful coups against them in the 1460s, the Medici strengthened their position through the balìe (small extraordinary councils). The perception that the Medici were in fact, if not in law, lords of Florence lay behind an unsuccessful 1478 conspiracy by members of the Pazzi and Salviati families. Following its failure, Lorenzo the Magnificent (14491492) pushed through constitutional changes, vesting more power in balìe and hunting down his enemies with a vengeance that the historian Francesco Guicciardini would call uncivilized.


Two years after Lorenzo's death, Florentine republicans and followers of the Dominican Girolamo Savonarola (14521498) forced Piero di Lorenzo (14711503) and his brothers into exile. Upon Piero's death, leadership of the house passed to his brother Cardinal Giovanni (14751521; reigned as Pope Leo X 15131521), who reinstalled his family in Florence in 1512. The Florentine patriciate, disillusioned with broad-based government, acquiesced reluctantly in Medici domination under Lorenzo, duke of Urbino (14921519), and Giuliano, duke of Nemours (14791516).

The sack of Rome during the pontificate of Clement VII (15231534) (Giulio de' Medici, 14781534) gave impetus to rebellion against the Medici. In May 1527 the family suffered exile again. But Clement made his peace with the emperor and, in 1530, after a brutal siege, installed Alessandro (15111537) as capo (head) and, soon, as duke of Florence.

Following Alessandro's assassination in 1537, Florence's influential patricians, or Ottimati, faced the problem of the succession, for Alessandro had left no legitimate male heir. Looking to the progeny of Cosimo the Elder's brother, they discovered Cosimo, son of Giovanni delle Bande Nere ('of the Black Bands') de' Medici and Maria Salviati. The teenaged Cosimo lacked an independent political, territorial, or financial base, the family bank having collapsed in 1494. He appeared, therefore, to be the perfect candidate, subject to direction by the Ottimati. That he proved to be one of the most independent rulers in Florentine history came as a surprise. By the mid-1540s, he freed himself from domination by both the patriciate and his Spanish allies. He conquered Siena and, in 1569, won from the pope the coveted hereditary title grand duke of Tuscany. His reign elevated the house of Medici to parity with the great Catholic houses of Europe. In 1564 he handed over governance to his son Francesco (15411587) in what may have been the smoothest transferal of power in the history of Florence. The family remained grand dukes until the death of the last male, Gian Gastone, in 1737.


Guicciardini wrote that, to dominate Florence, the Medici needed popes. They obtained what they needed; between 1513 and 1521, and again from 1523 to 1534, Medici ruled in Rome. Virtually every generation of the Medici in the early modern period produced at least one cardinal.

After Giovanni's departure for Rome, Lorenzo sent him a letter urging him to piety, but adding that, in serving the church, Giovanni would surely find occasion to serve the house of Medici as well. With this advice, Lorenzo implied that the state's interests had become identical to the Medici's interests. Some contemporaries alleged a change in Medici behavior with Giovanni's election, claiming that the Medici, upon return from exile in 1512, lived like other citizens; once Giovanni became Pope Leo X in 1513, however, they ignored the constitution and went about, like lords, with armed retainers.


The Palazzo Medici (constructed 14441464) was designed by Michelozzo for Cosimo the Elder. As dukes, the Medici lived first in the Palazzo Vecchio and, as of about 1550, in the Palazzo Pitti. They also owned substantial property outside Florence.

For most of the fifteenth century, the Medici followed a pattern common among their peers: making astute parentadi (marriage alliances) with other Florentine patrician families. Lorenzo the Magnificent signaled expanded family ambitions with his marriage into the Orsini, powerful Roman magnates. He arranged parentadi for two offspring with the Orsini and the house of Savoy. Alessandro wed Margaret of Austria, illegitimate daughter of the Holy Roman emperor Charles V, and, later, duchess of Parma and stadtholder of the Netherlands. Cosimo I's marriage to Eleonora of Toledo, daughter of the viceroy of Naples, brought both wealth and a Spanish connection. The destinies of some of his fourteen children included marriage into the Orsini and the houses of Toledo, Este, Habsburg (this time to a legitimate daughter of the emperor), and Lorraine (to which the succession would fall in 1737). Catherine, a great-grand-daughter of Lorenzo the Magnificent, wed Henry II, king of France, and exercised great power as queen mother; she was blamed for the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre of 1572. Maria, the daughter of Francesco I, brought a dowry of 600,000 florins to Henry IV, king of France. Cosimo III married Marguérite Louise, daughter of the duke of Orléans and granddaughter of Henry IV.


Cosimo the Elder and his successors were patrons of the Neoplatonist movement. Lorenzo the Magnificent studied Greek and Latin under the foremost humanists, including Cristoforo Landino and Marsilio Ficino. Both Lorenzo and his mother, Lucrezia, were poets. Giovanni, the future Leo X, received an outstanding humanist education and studied canon law at Pisa. Cosimo I established the Accademia Fiorentina (Florentine Academy) and subsidized printing. Eleonora purchased and restored the Pitti palace and gardens. Francesco, Ferdinando I, and Cosimo II showed interest in literature, science, and mathematics. Francesco founded the Accademia della Crusca (crusca refers to wheat grain) to purify and promote the Tuscan language. The young Galileo Galilei served as chief mathematician and philosopher to Cosimo II.

Among the painters, goldsmiths, sculptors, and architects who worked for the Medici were Filippo Brunelleschi, Filippo Lippi, Domenico Ghirlandaio, the della Robbias, Andrea del Verrocchio, Sandro Botticelli, Michelangelo Buonarroti, Giorgio Vasari, Bartolomeo Ammanati, Baccio Bandinelli, Jacopo Pontormo, Buontalenti, Guiliano and Francesco da Sangallo, Agnolo Bronzino, Benvenuto Cellini, and Giambologna. Catherine de Médicis brought Italian style to France, built the Tuileries gardens and a new wing of the Louvre, and collected a great classical library. Vittoria della Rovere, wife of Ferdinando II, transported to Florence important paintings, including works by Raphael and Titian. Justus Sustermans (15971681) brought Flemish baroque portraiture to Florence in his numerous depictions of members of the family and court. Anna Maria Ludovica, the last descendant in the line of Cosimo I, left the family's fabulous art collection to Florence as a public trust.

See also Art: Artistic Patronage ; Catherine de Médicis ; Florence ; Florence, Art in ; Marie de Médicis ; Papacy and Papal States ; Patronage ; Rome, Sack of .


Primary Sources

Machiavelli, Niccolò. History of Florence and of the Affairs of Italy. Edited by Felix Gilbert. New York, 1960. An account by an eyewitness to the events of the turbulent late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries.

Medici Archive Project at An excellent, searchable Web site with numerous original documents, some in English translation, on the Medici from Florence's state archive.

Secondary Sources

Acton, Harold. The Last Medici. New York, 1980 (revised illustrated edition). A lively classic, first published in 1932, and still the standard account of the Medici from Cosimo III to the Lorrensian succession.

Cochrane, Eric. Florence in the Forgotten Centuries, 15271800. Chicago, 1973. Colorful and well written, an impressionistic work for a general audience, with detailed information about the Medici.

Hale, J. R. Florence and the Medici: The Pattern of Control. London, 1977. Well-written history that emphasizes the continuity in Medici domination of Florence.

Rubinstein, Nicolai. The Government of Florence under the Medici (14341494). 2nd ed. Oxford, 1997. Newly revised version of the 1966 classic account of how the Medici came to, and preserved, power in the fifteenth century.

Carol M. Bresnahan

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