Medici Family

House of Medici

Salvestro de’ Medici, in the 14th century, was the first of the family to make a bid for political power when he led the revolt of the the small artisan class against the nobility who governed the city. Salvestro overbid his hand and became virtually a dictator in Florence, causing all Florentines to unite and banish him from the city in 1382.

After Salvestro’s ejection from the city, Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici was able to restore both the family’s wealth and its social standing in the community, important in the tightly knit fabric of the Italian city-states of the period. Giovanni made the Medici the richest family in Italy, perhaps in Europe.

The Medici family became paramount in Florence due to Giovanni’s son, Cosimo the First, or Cosimo the Elder (Cosimo il Vecchio). However, at first, taking advantage of the death of Giovanni in 1429, the powerful Albizzi family banished Cosimo from Florence in 1433. Cosimo’s exile was brief.

The Florentines brought Cosimo back in triumph to the city the next year. He respected the republican character of the city and did not make an obvious grab for power. However, through his great wealth and personal ability, Cosimo nevertheless became the first citizen of Florence and the virtual ruler of the city.

Indeed, Muslim pirates, or corsairs, had been preying on Venetian shipping for some time. However, boasting one of the largest navies in Renaissance Europe, the Venetians at this time were a great power at sea.

A great shift in the Italian balance of power took place when Cosimo shifted the historic Florentine support to the rival city of Milan, where the Sforza family was fighting for supremacy. While Muzio Attendolo Sforza made his name as a condottiero (mercenary leader), it was his son Franceso who became duke of Milan in 1450 with the aid of Cosimo de’ Medici.

Portrait of Cosimo I de' Medici
Portrait of Cosimo I de' Medici

Meanwhile, Cosimo was establishing himself as one of the great patrons of the Renaissance. Countless rare documents formed the foundation for Cosimo’s library; he also patronized the leading artists of his day.

Piero de’ Medici was a civic-minded ruler, as was his father, Cosimo. He already had experience in Florentine diplomacy and public affairs. He wed Lucrezia Tornabuoni, whose family had turned its back on its noble heritage.

Together, they had three daughters, Maria, Bianca, and Lucrezia, and two sons who would mold the future history of Florence, Lorenzo and Giuliano. Lorenzo was precocious and unusually gifted for his age. His father entrusted him with diplomatic missions throughout Italy.

However, within Florence, serious opposition was building to Medici rule. Luca Pitti, perhaps Piero’s chief adviser, was secretly planning to seize power. In March 1464, taking advantage of the death of Francesco Sforza, the conspirators made their plans.

When Piero was ill and left the city in August, they struck. Piero came back in force at the end of the month after Lorenzo had gathered loyal troops. The coup collapsed. Luca Pitti was pardoned; others were banished.

When Piero died in 1469, Lorenzo was the natural choice to take his place. Unlike Cosimo and Piero, he ruled more as a prince or an ancient Roman tyrant than a man of the people. At the same time, there was a chilling of relations between Lorenzo and the new pope, Sixtus IV.

The main reason was a struggle over the town of Imola, which Lorenzo wanted to gain for Florence because it guarded the strategic road from Rimini to Bologna. The pope wanted Imola as a gift for his nephew—possibly his son—Girolamo Riario. The cold feelings developing between Lorenzo and Sixtus led to the pope’s replacing the Medici as the papal bankers with the Pazzis, rivals of the Medici.

The enmity between Lorenzo and the pope, now allied with the Pazzis, led to one of the bloodiest incidents of the Italian Renaissance: the Pazzi Conspiracy. The conspiracy aimed at wiping out the Medici. The plotters knew too that Lorenzo suffered a serious weakness: His strong ally, Galeazzo Maria Sforza of Milan, had been assassinated in December 1476.

The conspirators struck on Easter Sunday, April 26, 1478, while Lorenzo and Giuliano were at mass. In the bloodbath that followed, Giuliano was stabbed 19 times, but Lorenzo escaped. In a purge that followed, many of the conspirators were killed, including five who were publicly hanged. Pope Sixtus continued his campaign to oust the Medicis from Florence.

Medici family members placed allegorically
Medici family members placed allegorically

Finally, in a bold move, Lorenzo decided to make a trip and attempt to make peace with one of Florence’s most implacable enemies, King Ferrante of Naples, in December 1479. Amazed at the Medici’s bravery, Ferrante made peace with Florence, and Sixtus’s war came to an end. Lorenzo returned to Florence in triumph. Under him, Florence entered a new era of greatness.

In January 1492, Lorenzo fell ill and died in April of that year. He was succeeded by his son Piero, who had the misfortune to rule at one of the most disastrous epochs of Italian history. King Charles VIII of France invaded northern Italy in 1494 with a large and well-equipped army.

His artillery, perhaps the most modern in Europe, destroyed Italian citadels and caused cities to surrender before he even approached them. Piero, lacking the fortitude of his father, fled Florence and died in exile.

During the next century, the rise of the family to the ranks of the Italian nobility gave proof of the singular determination of the family, and the faith of the Florentines in the Medici clan.

The Medici rise continued when Cosimo I became duke of Florence in 1537. Like Lorenzo the Magnificent, Cosimo I was young, coming to power at 18. However, like Lorenzo, he understood the art of politics but showed a ruthlessness more characteristic of a Borgia than a Medici. Cosimo I added Siena and Luca to his realm. In 1569, his rise to eminence was recognized when he became grand duke of all Tuscany.

On the death of Cosimo I in 1574, Cosimo’s son Francesco I ruled as grand duke until his death in 1587, and his rule proved to be a weak and uninspiring one. His son Ferdinand II restored luster to the Medici name. Cosimo II became grand duke in 1609 but died in 1620, never having fully recovered from a fever he had suffered in 1615. His son Ferdinand II became grand duke on his father’s death.

With the reign of Ferdinand II, the House of Medici began its period of decline. It was the misfortune of the heirs of Ferdinand II to live in the era of the rise of the European great powers. Ironically, Marie de’ Medici (Médicis) played a role in the demise of her family’s duchy. In 1600, she married King Henry IV of France, and when he was assassinated in 1610, she served as regent for her son, King Louis XIII.

In 1735, Austria and France arranged that France would take Lorraine and Austria would seize possession of Tuscany. By this time, the Medicis were powerless to defend their ancient lands. In 1737, Austrian troops entered Florence. In the same year, in July 1737, Grand Duke Gian Gastone died without a male heir at the age of 65. The House of Medici had ceased to rule in Florence.