The story of the Medici family is closely associated with four historical developments of great interest to scholars in the social sciences: the history of Florence, Italy, and the Florentine “republic” in particular; the development of humanism and the attendant rise of a new association of humanist scholars and artists; the life story and scholarly career of Niccolò Machiavelli; and the history of the Roman Catholic Church.
The Medicis first arrived in Florence around 1200 CE from the Mugello region north of Florence. During the thirteenth century the city of Florence became increasingly famous and prosperous due to its success in the cloth and woolen trade, but also became increasingly divided between those who supported the pope, the Guelphs, and those who supported the German emperor, the Ghibellines. These developments provided the framework for two changes central to an understanding of Florentine history and to the rise of the Medici to power. Success in commerce and trade led to the creation of trade guilds, among which was the guild of bankers (Arte del Cambio ), and the division between papal and imperial partisans continued to plague Florence well into the sixteenth century. The Medicis made their fortune and achieved their status in the banking business and within the greater guilds of Florence. And, for the most part, the Medicis aligned themselves with the interests of the papacy.
The first reference to the Medicis in the records of the city is to Ugo de Medici in the year 1280. He was banished from the city for disturbing the peace. Shortly after, in 1293, the city adopted the Ordinances of Justice, which all but guaranteed that the most important guilds, the Arti Maggiori, would govern Florence. Most workers, the ciompi (wool combers), were ineligible for membership in these guilds and had no share in city governance. Following a revolt of the ciompi and a brief period of shared rule (1378–1381) the trade guilds reasserted control and came to be dominated by the Albizzi family, all in the name of a “republican” form of government. The Medici family, under the leadership of Giovanni di Bicci de Medici (1360–1429), emerged in the late fourteenth century as a challenger to the Albizzi, eventually replacing them as the dominant family in the republic. With the death of Giovanni, his son Cosimo assumed leadership of the family and the city of Florence.
For reasons having to do with excessive wealth and ambition, Cosimo de Medici (1389–1464) was exiled from the city in 1433 along with his younger brother Lorenzo. Largely due to his wealth and influence outside of Florence, however, Cosimo was able to have his exile decree lifted a year later, and upon his return to the city worked with the signoria, city executives, to encourage legal and political reforms to strengthen Florence’s independence and free the city from outside threats. Within this more stable political climate, and for the next thirty years, Cosimo began to act as generous patron to the artists and scholars who began to gather in the city.
For his many contributions to Florence, Cosimo de Medici earned the honorific title Pater patriae, father of the country. Among his most notable deeds was his patronage of artists and scholars such as Leonardo Bruni (1370–1444), Sandro Botticelli (1445–1510), Poggio Bracciolini (1380–1459), and the famous Platonist Marsilio Ficino (1433–1499). Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi (c. 1476) depicts four generations of the Medici as models for characters at the birth of Jesus. Cosimo also funded the construction and filled the shelves of Europe’s first public library, a library dedicated primarily to housing classical and early Christian manuscripts. Cosimo had two sons, Piero (1416–1469) and Giovanni (1421–1453). Piero suffered throughout his life with a severe case of gout and served as head of the family only briefly (1464–1469). It was Piero’s son Lorenzo, however, who assumed leadership of the family from 1469 and who came to be called il Magnifico, the magnificent.
Lorenzo the Magnificent (1449–1492) was only twenty years old when he assumed his duties as both head of the Medici family and shaper of Florentine policy. Following his grandfather Cosimo’s lead, Lorenzo dedicated himself to assisting the rising generation of young artists and scholars. Among the numerous recipients of his patronage were some of the leading creative spirits of the Italian Renaissance, including Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475–1564), Pico della Mirandola (1463–1494), and Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519). As a young man in his teens, Michelangelo actually lived in the Medici house. He later sculpted the Medici tombs and designed the New Sacristy Chapel of San Lorenzo, which houses them. Lorenzo is also credited with establishing internal stability and external diplomacy to secure Florence’s independence. Soon after Lorenzo’s death, however, Charles VIII entered Florence with his French army, the Medici were banished from Florence, and the Dominican monk Savonarola (1452–1498) became the charismatic leader of the republic for the next three years. It would be another fifteen years before the Medicis returned in 1512. The years 1498 to 1512 are widely regarded as the period of the republic, though Florence had been nominally a republic from the late thirteenth century. The dominant figures during this period of Medici absence were Piero Soderini (1450–1513) and Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527).
Machiavelli is most famously associated with the Medici family for his dedication of Il Principe (The Prince ; originally De Principatibus, About Principalities ) to Lorenzo (1492–1519), the Duke of Urbino, grandson of Lorenzo the Magnificent, and father of Catherine de Medici (1519–1589). Catherine, as wife of King Henry II, would serve as queen of France. According to a famous letter of December 10, 1513, Machiavelli originally intended to dedicate the work to Giuliano de Medici (1479–1516), but Giuliano died unexpectedly in 1516. So the dedication went to Giuliano’s nephew instead. In either case, the dedication was intended to curry favor with the Medicis, who were back in control of Florence. Though Machiavelli never returned to a position of authority in Florence under the Medicis, he did go on minor diplomatic missions on their behalf, to Lucca in 1520, and to Carpi in 1521. He was also commissioned by the Medici to write one of his most famous works, the Istorie fiorentine (History of Florence ). It is somewhat ironic that in the last years of Machiavelli’s life, from 1523 to his death in 1527, Florence was for all practical purposes under the rule of Ippolito and Alessandro, the illegitimate sons of Giuliano and Lorenzo de Medici, the two dedicatees of The Prince.
The Medici family also played an important role in the history of the Roman Catholic Church. Indeed, Lorenzo the Magnificent’s son, Giovanni, and nephew, Giulio, were elected pope. Giovanni de Medici (1475–1521), brother of Giuliano, for whom Machiavelli originally intended The Prince, became Pope Leo X in 1513. He is perhaps best remembered as the pope who excommunicated Martin Luther (1483–1546) in 1521. Giulio, who was a cardinal and close associate during his cousin’s reign as pope (1513–1521), became Pope Clement VII in 1523. Pope Clement VII is the pope who famously refused to grant King Henry VIII (1491–1547) of England a divorce from Catherine of Aragon (1485–1536), which prepared the ground for the establishment of the Church of England.
SEE ALSO Banking; Enlightenment; Humanism; Machiavelli, Niccolò; Roman Catholic Church
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Young, Colonel G. F. 2005. The Medicis. 2 vols. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger.