Murder! Money! Power! Art! Meet the Medici Family

By: Dave Roos
"Adoration of the Magi,"
"Adoration of the Magi," also known as the Zenobi Altarpiece, shows representations of the Medici family as the Magi and members of their court, as well as a self-portrait of Botticelli to the far right. Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images

For more than three centuries (1434-1737), the fabulously wealthy Medici family of Florence, Italy, was one of the most powerful and influential dynasties in Europe. Two popes and two queens came from the Medici line. Art lovers can thank the Medici for fostering and funding great Renaissance talents like Donatello, Botticelli and Michelangelo. And in Florence, which had a love/hate relationship with the Medici, you can hardly walk a block without running into a palace, church or museum that bears the Medici crest or drips with the family's rich cultural inheritance.

But how exactly did the Medici get so filthy rich, and did they always use their outsized influence for good? We spoke with Kenneth Bartlett, a Renaissance historian at the University of Toronto and author of "Florence in the Age of the Medici and Savonarola, 1464-1498: A Short History with Documents," to understand the family's indelible stamp on the Renaissance world.


How the Medici Family Made Their Money

The family originally came from a village in Tuscany but eventually migrated to Florence, its capital. "They were bankers," says Bartlett. "Beginning with Giovanni di Bicci de' Medici (1360–1429), he established several branches of the Medici Bank, the most lucrative associated with the papal court. He made an enormous amount of money doing this, as did many Florentine bankers." (It's unclear where their surname came from but "medici" is the plural of "medico" or "doctor" in Italian. So, you should refer to the family members plural as "the Medici" rather than "the Medicis," according to Bartlett and others.)

Banks in the 14th century were not unlike banks today. The Medici Bank extended loans, held deposits and functioned like a Middle Ages ATM, issuing the most trusted and stable coinage of the era, the florin. Under Giovanni's son, the Medici Bank opened branches in Rome, Venice, Naples, Milan, Geneva, and as far away as London.


Cosimo di Giovanni de Medici
Portrait of Cosimo di Giovanni de' Medici, also known as the Elder or Pater (1389-1464).
Antonio Locatelli Publisher, Milan/Getty Images

That son was Cosimo the Elder (not to be confused with at least three other Cosimos in the Medici family tree), who grew incalculably wealthy from the family business while somehow remaining a "man of the people" and an artistic tastemaker.

At the time, Florence was a young republic, but its politics were still under the thumb of a handful of old-money oligarchs. Cosimo, a fierce defender of republican rule, stood up to the fat cats and was briefly exiled from Florence on trumped up charges. But after a popular rebellion, the oligarchs were ousted, and Cosimo was welcomed back as a hero and "the first citizen of the republic," says Bartlett.

Cosimo used his fame, money and political influence to the immense benefit of 15th-century Florence. In politics, he helped break down factionalism by ensuring that people of all political stripes were given the chance to be representatives. But by far his greatest contribution was to the art, architecture and culture of Florence, which became an early jewel of the Italian Renaissance.

"Cosimo saw art and patronage as an instrument of policy," says Bartlett. "He really believed in beautifying the city, but also bringing it dignity and that Italian thing called reputazione — "fame" or "reputation." Towns like to be talked about in positive ways and this gave people an opportunity to do just that."

One of Cosimo's largest architectural commissions in Florence was the Palazzo Medici, a palatial home designed by Michelozzo which functioned as the Medici family residence and headquarters for its banking empire. If the stately palace wasn't impressive enough, Cosimo filled it with groundbreaking works of art. He commissioned Donatello's David, the first free-standing male nude since antiquity and a masterwork of the early Renaissance, for the palace courtyard.

Medici family tree
The Medici family tree.

Cosimo's hand is visible throughout modern-day Florence. He completely rebuilt the Church of San Marco and commissioned its frescoes by Fra Angelico. He restarted the ambitious renovation of the Church of San Lorenzo, which features stunning bronze work by Donatello and a library later designed by Michelangelo. A committed Renaissance man, Cosimo acquired one of the largest libraries of classical texts anywhere, and later founded the Platonic Academy, a center of humanist thought.

"Cosimo did so much, partly because of his wealth and also because he wanted to be seen as not a first citizen wielding power, but as a first citizen benefiting the community," says Bartlett.

When Cosimo the Elder died in 1464, he was awarded the title of Pater Patriae, the "father of his people," and buried in the Church of San Lorenzo right in front of the altar.


Another 'Magnificent' Medici

Not every Medici was memorable. Cosimo the Elder's heir, Piero "the Gouty," was so crippled with the rich man's disease — gout in the ancient world was caused by a diet composed exclusively of fatty meat and booze — that he barely left the palace. But the next Medici would outshine them all.

Lorenzo de Medici
Portrait of Lorenzo de' Medici, also known as Lorenzo the Magnificent (1449-1492), ruler of Florence, painting from Agnolo Bronzino's workshop.
DeAgostini/Getty Images

"Lorenzo 'the Magnificent' was 20 years old when he took over the Medici party machine," says Bartlett. "Lorenzo was a great hero, a superb human being, cultivated, extremely intelligent, having both a natural wit and close association with both the common people and patrician class. He was a great patron of art and ideas, and came to define those glory years between 1469 and his death in 1492."


Botticelli was Lorenzo's favorite painter. Angelo Poliziano was his poet. When Lorenzo spotted the talent of a teenage Michelangelo, he enrolled him in a sculpture school (that Lorenzo also founded) and invited Michelangelo to live at the Palazzo Medici as an honorary member of the family.

Life wasn't all art and parties for Lorenzo, though. He was gravely wounded during the Pazzi conspiracy, when a rival banking family tried to stage a violent coup in Florence with the backing of the pope. Lorenzo's brother, Giuliano, was killed in the brazen attack as the two men were at church on Easter Sunday. The attack left Lorenzo paranoid and led to a political reputation as a tyrant.

But the real trouble came with the rise of a populist friar named Girolamo Savonarola who railed against the "pagan" neoplatonism espoused by Lorenzo and his ilk. Savonarola's preaching became increasingly apocalyptic, insisting that Florence needed to be "cleansed" to usher in the Second Coming. Savonarola excoriated the Medici from the pulpit of San Lorenzo and ultimately ran the family out of Florence after Lorenzo died.

In a twist, the Florentines embraced Michelangelo's incomparable statue of David as a symbol of their struggle against the "Goliath" Medici clan and prominently displayed the statue near Florence's main square.


Two Popes and Two Queens Were Medici

Technically four popes can claim a link to the Medici line, but only two were direct descendants of the famed Medici of Florence. The first was Giovanni di Lorenzo de' Medici, second son of Lorenzo "the Magnificent" (the first son, Piero "the Unfortunate," so-called because of his poor judgment, presided over the Medici's defeat by Savonarola in 1494). Giovanni became Pope Leo X, a free-spending art enthusiast who earned infamy for selling indulgences to help pay for the renovation of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. These indulgences, which promised absolution of sin to their owners, helped spark the Protestant Reformation.

The second Medici Pope was Giulio, the illegitimate son of Lorenzo's murdered brother, who took the name Clement VII. As pope, his most significant act was blocking Henry VIII's divorce and threatening him with excommunication, leading to England's separation from the Catholic Church.


Henry IV and Catherine de Medici
King Henry IV (second from left) and Catherine de' Medici, painted by Marguerite-Louise Virginie Ancelot.
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

The Medici women were no strangers to power, either. Catherine de' Medici (daughter of Lorenzo, Duke of Urbino and great-granddaughter of Lorenzo the Magnificent) married into the French monarchy at just 14 years old in 1533. Her husband, Henry, became king of France in 1547 and after his death, three of Catherine's sons served as kings. When the boys were young (her son Charles inherited the throne at 10), Catherine served as regent with untold political influence. Another Medici, Marie, was also queen of France in the early 17th century and was also regent for her young son, Louis XIII. Fun fact: Catherine allegedly introduced gelato to the world, via her personal chef.


Decline of the Medici Family

The Medici returned to Florence in the 1530s, but this time as monarchs. Cosimo I became the Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1569, and the family ruled as hereditary monarchs for the next nearly 200 years with varying popularity and political support. The last Medici, Gian Gastone, was a hard-partying profligate who died without an heir in 1737, effectively ending the long and storied run of the Medici dynasty.

Luckily, Gian had a sister who was far more capable. Anna Maria Luisa de' Medici, a dedicated patron of the arts, signed the " Family Pact of 1737" entrusting that three centuries of art and treasure collected by the Medici would forever remain a patrimony of Florence and never leave Tuscany.