Medici, House of

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Medici, House of

The Medici family dominated the Italian city of Florence throughout the Renaissance and beyond, from 1434 to 1737. The Medici headed Europe's largest bank, became Florence's richest family, and controlled Florentine politics. Three Medici men became popes, and many Medici children married into the Catholic royal houses of Europe. In 1569, Cosimo I de' Medici won from the pope the hereditary title of grand duke of Tuscany, the region around Florence.

The house of Medici rose to prominence around 1291, when a Medici served in the signoria, Florence's city council. The family's fortunes swelled with the success of their bank starting in the 1390s, when Giovanni di Bicci de' Medici moved some of the family's banking operations from Rome to Florence. His son, Cosimo the Elder (1389–1464), turned the bank into a fast-growing business that operated throughout Europe. The bank handled financial affairs for the papacy*, which gave the Medici great power. They could sometimes arrange for their supporters to receive positions within the church.

Medici Rulers. During the 1430s the Medici, headed by Cosimo the Elder, took over the leadership of Florence. Although Cosimo rarely held important political posts, he placed power in the hands of special councils packed with Medici supporters. Another of Cosimo's tactics was to pay some of the city's military captains from his own pocket, making them loyal to him personally. In addition to building up a core of followers through the use of wealth and favors, Cosimo and the leaders of the other Medici households gained support from the general public by spending large sums on charity and public works, such as the repair of churches.

In 1469 Cosimo's grandson Lorenzo the Magnificent (1449–1492) became head of the family and, for all practical purposes, ruler of Florence. He managed to hold onto power despite a rebellion by prominent Florentines and a war with the pope. A few years after his death, however, the French invaded Italy. When Lorenzo's son Piero gave in to French demands, the Florentines rebelled and exiled the most prominent members of the Medici family. This led to the collapse of the Medici bank in 1494.

Cardinal Giovanni de' Medici (1475–1521, later Pope Leo X) arranged for his exiled relatives to return to Florence in 1512, and the family set about regaining power. Another rebellion against the Medici in 1527 led to a second period of exile from Florence, but in the 1530s the leading citizens of Florence, weary of decades of civil strife, coups, and exile, accepted Medici rule in return for stability. Cosimo I de' Medici (1519–1574), descendant of a secondary branch of the family, rose to power in 1537. He proved to be one of the strongest and most independent rulers in Florence's history. He acquired new territories—including the city of Siena—and the title of grand duke of Tuscany, which his descendants held until 1737. The reign of Cosimo I placed the Medici on a level with many of the other ruling families of Europe.

Medici Influence. Several strategies helped the Medici gain and hold power. One was the shrewd use of marriage. At first, members of the family arranged marriages for their children to seal economic and political alliances with other Florentine families. Lorenzo widened the family's horizons, marrying into the Roman nobility, and from then on the Medici gained status through marriages with noble families throughout Europe. Medici sons and daughters married into royal houses in the Holy Roman Empire*, France, and Spain.

The Medici also used the Roman Catholic Church to further their ambitions. Lorenzo maneuvered for years to have his son Giovanni appointed a cardinal. As Pope Leo X, Giovanni labored to make the Medici the rulers of Florence. So did his cousin Giulio (1478–1534), who became Pope Clement VII. Their pursuit of policies that advanced the Medici drew their attention from vital matters such as the Protestant Reformation*. Pope Leo XI also a Medici, was less influential.

The Medici were major patrons* of Renaissance intellectuals and artists. Cosimo I did much to make Florence a center of art and culture, providing financial support for painters and encouraging scholarship. Several later Medici, including Cosimo II, showed strong interest in mathematics, literature, and science. The Medici collected books, founded libraries, and supported the studies of humanist* scholars and philosophers. The Medici's greatest cultural contribution, however, was commissioning works by many of the major artistic figures of the Renaissance, including Filippo Brunelleschi, Michelangelo, Benvenuto Cellini, and Sandro Botticelli. Through the exercise of their wealth and their taste, the Medici helped shape the art and cultural life of an era.

(See alsoCatherine de Médicis; Marie de Médicis; Medici, Cosimo de'; Medici, Lorenzo de'; Popes and Papacy. )

* papacy

office and authority of the pope

see color plate 4, vol. 3

* Holy Roman Empire

political body in central Europe composed of several states; existed until 1806

* Protestant Reformation

religious movement that began in the 1500s as a protest against certain practices of the Roman Catholic Church and eventually led to the establishment of a variety of Protestant churches

* patron

supporter or financial sponsor of an artist or writer

* humanist

referring to a Renaissance cultural movement promoting the study of the humanities (the languages, literature, and history of ancient Greece and Rome) as a guide to living


Medici, House of