Who Were the Medici of Florence?
The Medici of Florence were the greatest of the many brilliant families who contributed to the cultural splendor and magnificence, as well as the political history, of the Renaissance in Italy. Their first successes were gained as merchants, but the real founder of their wealth and power was Giovanni de’ Medici (1360-1429) who amassed a great fortune and turned banker and patron of the arts. His sons Cosimo and Lorenzo founded the main branches of the family.
Their wealth and influence initially derived from the textile trade guided by the guild of the Arte della Lana. Like other signore families, they dominated their city’s government, they were able to bring Florence under their family’s power, and they created an environment where art and humanism could flourish. They along with other families of Italy, such as the Visconti and Sforza of Milan, the Este of Ferrara, and the Gonzaga of Mantua, fostered and inspired the birth of the Italian Renaissance.
The Medici Bank was one of the most prosperous and most respected institutions in Europe. There are some estimates that the Medici family were the wealthiest family in Europe for a time. From this base, they acquired political power initially in Florence and later in wider Italy and Europe. A notable contribution to the profession of accounting was the improvement of the general ledger system through the development of the double-entry bookkeeping system for tracking credits and debits. The Medici family were among the earliest businesses to use the system.
Cosimo de’ Medici (1389-1464) became the virtual ruler of Florence through his skill in securing the election of friends to positions of power in the city government. He greatly added to the family’s riches by developing a large banking and commercial business with branches in London, Rome, Venice Geneva, Bruges and other centres. He gave generous patronage to artists, writers and scholars, founded libraries and erected splendid buildings.
His most famous descendant, was his grandson Lorenzo the Magnificent (1449-92), who was the patron of Michelangelo and the painter Botticelli and himself a man of learning. He escaped the fate of his younger brother Giuliano, who was stabbed to death in a conspiracy by Florentine rivals, and proved himself an able administrator.
His influence among church leaders in Rome secured the election as Cardinal of his 14 year-old son Giovanni, who was later elected Pope Leo X (1513–1521). A nephew of Lorenzo became Pope Clement VII (1523–1534). In 1560 the two chief branches of the family were united under Cosimo the Great (1519-74), who took the title of Grand Duke of Tuscany. During the next 200 years members of the Medici married into various royal houses of Europe.
The most famous of these was Catherine de’ Medici (1519-89), great-grand-daughter of Lorenzo the Magnificent, who married one French King, Henri II, and became the mother of three others, Francis II, Charles IX and Henri III. She was held chiefly responsible for the massacre of Protestants on St. Bartholomew’s Eve, August 24, 1572. The ruling branch of the Medici died out in 1737, but descendants of other branches still live in Italy today.