The Medici Family: Stories Of The Most Important Family You've Never Heard Of
Lorenzo the Magnificent (1585-1644) with the major artists of the time, in a 1635 fresco by Ottavio Vannini. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)
Before the Rockefellers, the Kennedys, and the Kardashians, there was the Medici family. Between 1434 and 1737, the Medici family ruled the cultural hub of Italy at a time when Italy was the cultural hub of the world, amassing a huge fortune. They influenced art, music, architecture, commerce, business, banking, politics, nobility, and religion. How did one family become so important? And what happened to end their reign? Let's look at some of the stories of the Medici family, the most important family you've never heard of.
Who Were The Medicis?
The Medicis hailed from Florence, Italy, and during their 300-year reign, they're credited with making Florence an important centerpiece of the Renaissance movement. Under the Medicis, the culture of the region reached a peak that was second only to that of ancient Greece. The Medicis financed this cultural revolution by establishing a network of merchants, supply routes, and banks that extended lines of credit to their business associates. They imported silk, spices, and exotic fruits from the Far East. Such bold and innovative business practices gave the family massive wealth and power.
Who Was Cosimo de' Medici?
Although the Medici family was one of Tuscany's more well-known families since the 12th century, the exile of the family patriarch, Salvestro de' Medici, in the 14th century threatened to send the family's wealth and reputation spiraling downward. Thankfully, a cousin of Salvestro, Giovanni di Bicci de' Medici, and his son Cosimo swooped in at the 11th hour, took over the family's commercial interests, and grew them into a political powerhouse. Cosimo, who lived from 1389–1464, became known as Cosimo the Elder. Cosimo ruled Florence like his was a king, but he was famously humble, designing his palace to look like a modest merchant's house. He was well-read and well-educated, and he had a reputation for being wise and thoughtful. With his wealth, he built towering libraries and churches.
A Lover Of The Arts
Cosimo de' Medici and other members of his family were great lovers of the arts and humanities. Believing that Florence could rise to greatness under his patronage, he supported many of the greatest Renaissance artists, including Michelangelo, Donatello, Da Vinci, Raphael, and many others who didn't get radioactive turtle superheroes named after them.
Little Brother Lorenzo
Giovanni di Bucci de' Medici's second son, Lorenzo de' Medici, was a true Renaissance man. He was a businessman, poet, scholar, diplomat, artist, and patron of the arts. Lorenzo is credited with maintaining the balance of power between the Italian states, creating a stable political climate for the region that allowed for the focus to be placed on monumental construction projects. He initiated the Peace of Lodi treaty of 1454 between Milan, Naples, and Florence that ended warring factions in the banking and trade industries.
During this time, the Medici family was expanding their influence on the political affairs of Europe. Lorenzo's lifetime is referred to as the Golden Age of Florence, but after his unexpected death at age 43, the peace treaty collapsed. Perhaps not as humble as his brother, this member of the Medici family became known as Lorenzo the Magnificent.
The Medicis And Science
Education and intellect were important to the Medici family. They supported the construction of universities and libraries across the region and provided patronages to several notable scientists, among them Leonardo da Vinci. (He wasn't just an artist, you know.) Another noted scientist, Galileo Galilei, was hired by the Medici family to tutor their children. With the money he earned, he built a telescope, mapped the sky, and developed his theories about the inner workings of the universe.
The Medicis And Popes
The Medici family understood that only kings and popes had more power than they did, so they cozied up to them whenever they could. It was easy, in some cases: Four popes (Leo X, Clement VII, Pius IV, and Leon XI) came from the Medici family. Although one could argue that these men legitimately earned their appointments as head of the Catholic Church, the Medici family power and wealth probably helped. One of them was Lorenzo the Magnificent's second-born son, Giovanni, who was prepped for the papacy his whole life, even becoming the youngest cardinal ever at age 13. His time as pope was one of lavish spending: He commissioned the construction of universities, churches, hospitals, libraries, and even St. Peter's Basilica, nearly driving the Vatican into the poorhouse in the process. It takes an impressive level of opulence to do that. Have you seen those guys' hats?
The Medicis And The Royal Families Of Europe
It's difficult for the men of a bourgeoisie family like the Medicis to ascend the throne, but there were fewer obstacles for the women of the Medici family. The wealth, power, and influence of the family, as well as their patronage of the arts, put the Medici ladies in all the right circles to mingle with royalty, so several of them married into royal families. One of them, the granddaughter of Lorenzo the Magnificent, was Catherine de' Medici, wife of King Henry II of France. She had four sons, three of which also ruled France. Another Medici woman, Marie de' Medici, also became the Queen of France when she became the second wife of King Henry IV. Medici genes spread through the royal houses of Europe like expensive cheese.
The Last Medici Ruler
In 1737, Gian Gastone de' Medici, the last head of the Medici family, died without a male heir, ending the 300-year reign of the Medici family. (The female line of the Medici family was absorbed into many of the other prominent families of Europe.) The end of the Medici line created a void that was filled by other powerful European families, including the Hapsburgs, but the Medicis left a lasting mark on Florence and all of Europe, from art and architecture to institutes of higher learning to the finance industry to the Catholic Church.
Tags: biography | empire | Italy | renaissance | royal family
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