The Medici family, also known as the House of Medici, first attained wealth and political power in Florence in the 13th century through its success in commerce and banking. Beginning in 1434 with the rise to power of Cosimo de’ Medici (or Cosimo the Elder), the family’s support of the arts and humanities made Florence into the cradle of the Renaissance, a cultural flowering rivaled only by that of ancient Greece. The Medicis produced four popes (Leo X, Clement VII, Pius IV and Leo XI), and their genes have been mixed into many of Europe’s royal families. The last Medici ruler died without a male heir in 1737, ending the family dynasty after almost three centuries.
Birth of the Medici Dynasty
The Medici story began around the 12th century, when family members from the Tuscan village of Cafaggiolo emigrated to Florence. Through banking and commerce, the Medicis rose to become one of the most important houses in Florence. Their influence had declined by the late 14th century, however, when Salvestro de’ Medici (then serving as gonfaliere, or standard bearer, of Florence) was forced into exile.
Another branch of the family, descended from Salvestro’s distant cousin Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici, would begin the great Medici dynasty. Giovanni’s elder son, Cosimo (1389-1464), rose to political power in 1434 and ruled Florence as an uncrowned monarch for the rest of his life. Known to history as Cosimo the Elder, he was a devoted patron of the humanities, supporting artists such as Ghiberti, Brunelleschi, Donatello and Fra Angelico. During Cosimo’s time, as well as that of his sons and particularly his grandson, Lorenzo the Magnificent (1449-1492), Renaissance culture flourished, and Florence became the cultural center of Europe.
The Descendants of Cosimo de’ Medici
Lorenzo was a poet himself, and supported the work of such Renaissance masters as Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo (whom the Medicis commissioned to complete their family tombs in Florence). After Lorenzo’s premature death at the age of 43, his eldest son Piero succeeded him, but soon infuriated the public by accepting an unfavorable peace treaty with France. After only two years in power, he was forced out of the city in 1494, and died in exile.
Thanks in part to the efforts of Piero’s younger brother Giovanni (a cardinal at the time and the future Pope Leo X), the Medici family was able to return to Florence in 1512. The next few years marked the high point of Medici influence in Europe, as Leo X followed in his father’s humanistic footsteps and devoted himself to artistic patronage. Piero’s son, also named Lorenzo, regained power in Florence, and his daughter Catherine (1519-1589) would become queen of France after marrying King Henry II; three of her four sons would rule France as well.
A New Medici Branch Comes to Power
By the early 1520s, few descendants of Cosimo the Elder remained. Giulio de’ Medici, the illegitimate son of Lorenzo the Magnificent’s brother Giuliano, abdicated power in 1523 to become Pope Clement VII, and the short and brutal rule of Alessandro (reputed to be Giulio’s own illegitimate son) ended with his assassination in 1537. At this point, the descendants of Cosimo the Elder’s brother (known as Lorenzo the Elder) came forward to launch a new Medici dynasty. Lorenzo’s great-great-grandson Cosimo (1519-1574) became duke of Florence in 1537, then grand duke of Tuscany in 1569. As Cosimo I, he established absolute power in the region, and his descendants would rule as grand dukes into the 1700s.
Cosimo’s elder son Francis succeeded his father, but proved a less effective ruler. His daughter Marie would become queen of France when she married Henry IV in 1600; her son would rule as Louis XIII from 1610-43. Francis’ younger brother Ferdinand, who became grand duke in 1587, restored Tuscany to stability and prosperity. He also founded the Villa Medici at Rome and brought many priceless works of art to Florence.
The Medici Dynasty in Decline
In general, the later Medici line renounced the older generation’s republican sympathies and established more authoritarian rule, a change that produced stability in Florence and Tuscany but led to the region’s decline as a cultural hub. After Ferdinand’s son Cosimo II (who supported the work of the mathematician, philosopher and astronomer Galileo Galilei) died in 1720, Florence and Tuscany suffered under ineffectual Medici rule.
When the last Medici grand duke, Gian Gastone, died without a male heir in 1737, the family dynasty died with him. By agreement of the European powers (Austria, France, England and the Netherlands), control over Tuscany passed to Francis of Lorraine, whose marriage to Hapsburg heiress Maria Theresa of Austria would begin the long European reign of the Hapsburg-Lorraine family.
Medici Family: Origins and History
A name synonymous with the Italian Renaissance, the Medici family arose from humble origins to rule Florence, sponsor artists, and dominate Florentine culture for nearly 300 years.
Their political contributions to Florence are rivaled if not exceeded by their patronage of a few of the Renaissance's greatest artists, including Sandro Botticelli and Michelangelo.
The city of Florence, like a number of Italian city-states, came to power through conquest and commerce.
A relatively obscure city before the 12th century, Florence managed to grow and prosper despite both external conflicts, especially those the city inaugurated against her neighbors in an effort to control the territory around the Arno River and internal conflicts, the greatest of which was the battle between rival sections of the Guelph family that began around 1300.
The power of Florence depended on trade, especially in wool, and banking. Those families who managed these sources of capital played an important part in ruling the city. While nobility and birth continued to engender more prestige and influence as it did elsewhere in Europe, the wealth and importance of the burghers to the city's prosperity meant that merchants had a share in government. The rise of the Medici is partly explained by their involvement in civic affairs, particularly in the highly influential merchant guild.
The fame and prominence enjoyed by the Medici was largely the result of ambitious and industrious predecessors. Originally from the farmlands north of Florence, Italy, the first Medici left their native Mugello ca. 1200 for Florence. Like many families, the Medici seem to have made a living as merchants, though banking became an important line of work for the Medici in the 13th century as well. Ardingo de' Medici became the prior, or head, of the Florentine merchant guild in the 1280s. His rise to such an important position presaged the elevation of other Medici to Florence's ruling council, the Signoria, over the next few centuries. The Signoria, comprised of nobles, important burghers, and intellectuals, was the oligarchic institution that ran the Florentine republic.
Medici political clout grew even more through their financial acumen as bankers. Originally in the hands of cousins in Rome, the Medici Bank arrived in Florence thanks to Giovanni di Bicci de' Medici . Founded in 1397, the Medici Bank quickly expanded and opened up branches as far away as England. In time, the Medici Bank became the main financial institution of the papacy. With a ready source of capital, the Medici were able to turn to such new lines of commerce as trading spices, jewelry, silk, and fruit. In addition, their ever-increasing financial power opened up new opportunities in civic government.
The early 15th century saw the advance of the Medici into the highest ranks of Florentine government. By mid-century, the Medici began to outdistance their main political rivals, the Albizzi, and under Cosimo de' Medici , Medici ascendancy was assured. Cosimo did not gain control easily. His chief rival, Rinaldo degli Albizzi, filled one council with his supporters in an attempt to place blame on Cosimo for the war with the city of Lucca, a campaign that had proved costly. While Rinaldo's allies were unable to order Cosimo's execution, they were able to exile him to Venice in 1433, a hollow victory that soon allowed the chief Medici to return to Florence in strength. Using his family's bank, his own political supporters, and relying on his popularity with the populace, Cosimo was able to return a year later, and the Albizzi's hopes for dominance were crushed.
As the leading citizen of Florence, Cosimo de' Medici was able to advance his family's interests while serving his city. For 30 years, he wisely managed state affairs. A shrewd politician, Cosimo tended to back projects with his wealth and act through supporters, tactics which downplayed his own importance and gave his rivals little room to attack him. He did, however, take full advantage of those events that would solidify his popularity, His connection to the Peace of Lodi in 1454, a treaty between Venice and Milan that brought peace to the region, is an example of that political savvy.
Lorenzo de' Medici , known as "Lorenzo the Magnificent," who ruled Florence during 1469&ndash1492, was as able an administrator as his grandfather Cosimo. His style of rule was similar as well. Like Cosimo, he cleverly worked in conjunction with the civic council. Of importance to subsequent Medici, Lorenzo married into an important and well-established noble family, the Orsini, which gave the wealth and political clout of the Medici the support of aristocratic blood.
Lorenzo's relationships outside the family were important too, for through his diplomacy he was able to secure Florence against her enemies, gain new allies, and increase the security of his own position.
His success as a diplomat and politician enabled Lorenzo to gain influence with the papacy, which had relied on the Medici Bank for many years. Giovanni, Lorenzo's son, became a cardinal and then Pope Leo X . Michelangelo, who had found a patron in Lorenzo, later found one in Pope Leo, under whose patronage he began work on the Medici Chapel.
While known for their incredible rise in Florentine politics, the Medici are equally well known as patrons of the arts.
Patronage of artists and intellectuals was not only normal but vital, for without it, most artists could not find work, and thus had a difficult time supporting themselves. While patronage gave artists a livelihood, it also garnered the patron prestige. Works of art, especially those on public display, gave fame to artist and patron alike. Medici money backed some of the brightest luminaries of Renaissance art, like Donatello, famous for his bronze statue of David, and Michelangelo, who worked for the Medici off and on during much of his career. Michelangelo had even attended an art academy set up by Lorenzo in the Medici gardens near the Piazza San Marco.
Cosimo and Lorenzo both patronized artists and humanist scholars. Donatello and Michelozzo di Bartolommeo, the architect of the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi (one of the Medici palaces), both found an enthusiastic patron in Cosimo. Lorenzo, moreover, was a well-read poet himself and given to sponsoring cultural pursuits. It was Lorenzo that gave Michelangelo access to the classical statuary in his garden. Humanists too benefited from the Medici. Both Cosimo and Lorenzo helped scholars locate and acquire ancient and medieval manuscripts. A Platonic school under Marsilio Ficino, a library at the monastery of San Marco, and manuscript production were all Medici-sponsored projects.
The contributions of the Medici to the culture and history of the Renaissance are hard to ignore. Florence was home to many Renaissance figures, men like Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Niccolò Machiavelli, all while the city was under Medici administration. Despite the fact that Florence was a republic, the Medici were so powerful that they essentially ruled the city, even representing it diplomatically. The family's rise from obscure peasantry to a leading house in Europe highlights certain aspects of what scholars have come to define as the "Renaissance." For example, Renaissance thinkers believed that humans had the potential to change their situation, and improve their lives through education and diligence. Often reflected in the art and writing of the Renaissance is the idea that educated, worldly individuals were better able to serve and improve society,. The Medici used their talents not only to gain power and prestige for themselves, but also used their influence to improve the quality of life of those in their charge, to sponsor cultural endeavors, and to keep Florence free from foreign domination.
From their roots as relatively obscure farmers and merchants, the Medici eventually produced two popes ( Leo X and Clement VII ) and one queen of France, Catherine de Médici , not to mention humanist statesmen like Lorenzo. In many ways, the accomplishments of the Medici serve as prime examples of Renaissance ideals. Defining the Renaissance is always difficult as it meant different things at different times and in different places the Medici bridged those differences in their long tenure as public figures, their importance to the history of art, and their intimate involvement in affairs of state. The Medici made news in 2005 due to the discovery of an infant's body in a tomb that should have held Filippino, a boy nearly five when he died. Italian anthropologists opened 49 Medici tombs in order to conduct a thorough study of the family's bloodline. In the process of exhuming the bodies from their crypts in the Church of San Lorenzo in Florence, the experts discovered the remains of nine infants, none of which they expected to find and all of which add to the mystery that often characterizes the Medici.
Top Ten Books on The Medici Family during the Renaissance
Love them or hate them, the Medicis played an important role in Florence during the Italian Renaissance. They were patrons of the arts, politicians, bankers, and rulers. Some historians have argued that the Medicis helped foster the Italian Renaissance while others have pointed out they were little more than petty despots. Regardless, the Medicis were a fascinating and important family of unique and unusual characters. Here are some books that will help you understand them better.
A dazzling history of the modest family which rose to become one of the most powerful in Europe, The Medici is a remarkably modern story of power, money and ambition. Against the background of an age which saw the rebirth of ancient and classical learning - of humanism which penetrated and explored the arts and sciences and the 'dark' knowledge of alchemy, astrology, and numerology - Paul Strathern explores the intensely dramatic rise and fall of the Medici family in Florence, as well as the Italian Renaissance which they did so much to sponsor and encourage.
Magnifico is a vividly colorful portrait of Lorenzo de' Medici, the uncrowned ruler of Florence during its golden age. A true "Renaissance man," Lorenzo dazzled contemporaries with his prodigious talents and magnetic personality. Known to history as Il Magnifico (the Magnificent), Lorenzo was not only the foremost patron of his day but also a renowned poet, equally adept at composing philosophical verses and obscene rhymes to be sung at Carnival.
The Intellectual Struggle for Florence is an analysis of the ideology that developed in Florence with the rise of the Medici, during the early fifteenth century, the period long recognized as the most formative of the early Renaissance. Instead of simply describing early Renaissance ideas, this volume attempts to relate these ideas to specific social and political conflicts of the fifteenth century, and specifically to the development of the Medici regime.
Lauro Martines, April Blood: Florence and the Plot Against the Medici (Oxford, Oxford University Press 2003
On a Sunday in April 1478, assassins attacked Lorenzo and his brother as they attended Mass in the cathedral of Florence. Lorenzo scrambled to safety as Giuliano bled to death on the cathedral floor. April Blood moves outward in time and space from that murderous event, unfolding a story of tangled passions, ambition, treachery, and revenge. April Blood offers us a fresh portrait of Renaissance Florence, where dazzling artistic achievements went side by side with violence, craft, and bare-knuckle politics. At the center of the canvas is the figure of Lorenzo the Magnificent--poet, statesman, connoisseur, patron of the arts, and ruthless "boss of bosses."
Hibbert, Christopher. The House of Medici: Its Rise and Fall. (William Morrow, 2012)
It was a dynasty with more wealth, passion, and power than the houses of Windsor, Kennedy, and Rockefeller combined. It shaped all of Europe and controlled politics, scientists, artists, and even popes, for three hundred years. It was the house of Medici, patrons of Botticelli, Michelangelo and Galileo, benefactors who turned Florence into a global power center, and then lost it all.
A dazzling history of the modest family that rose to become one of the most powerful in Europe, The Medici is a remarkably modern story of power, money, and ambition. Against the background of an age that saw the rebirth of ancient and classical learning Paul Strathern explores the intensely dramatic rise and fall of the Medici family in Florence, as well as the Italian Renaissance which they did so much to sponsor and encourage. Strathern also follows the lives of many of the great Renaissance artists with whom the Medici had dealings, including Leonardo, Michelangelo and Donatello as well as scientists like Galileo and Pico della Mirandola and the fortunes of those members of the Medici family who achieved success away from Florence, including the two Medici popes and Catherine de' Médicis, who became Queen of France and played a major role in that country through three turbulent reigns.
By the end of the fifteenth century, Florence was well established as the home of the Renaissance. As generous patrons to the likes of Botticelli and Michelangelo, the ruling Medici embodied the progressive humanist spirit of the age, and in Lorenzo de' Medici (Lorenzo the Magnificent) they possessed a diplomat capable of guarding the militarily weak city in a climate of constantly shifting allegiances between the major Italian powers.
Mary Hollingsworth argues that the idea that the Medici were enlightened rulers of the Renaissance is a fiction that has now acquired the status of historical fact. In truth, the Medici were as devious and immoral as the Borgias—tyrants loathed in the city they illegally made their own. In this dynamic new history, Hollingsworth argues that past narratives have focused on a sanitized and fictitious view of the Medici—wise rulers, enlightened patrons of the arts, and fathers of the Renaissance—but that in fact their past was reinvented in the sixteenth century, mythologized by later generations of Medici who used this as a central prop for their legacy.
Catherine Fletcher, The Black Prince of Florence: The Spectacular Life and Treacherous World of Alessandro de' Medici (Oxford University Press, 2016) Ruler of Florence for seven bloody years, 1531 to 1537, Alessandro de' Medici was arguably the first person of color to serve as a head of state in the Western world. Born out of wedlock to a dark-skinned maid and Lorenzo de' Medici, he was the last legitimate heir to the line of Lorenzo the Magnificent. By the age of nineteen, he was prince of Florence, inheritor of the legacy of the grandest dynasty of the Italian Renaissance. Catherine Fletcher tells the riveting tale of Alessandro's unexpected rise and spectacular fall, unraveling centuries-old mysteries, exposing forgeries, and bringing to life the epic personalities of the Medicis, Borgias, and others as they waged sordid campaigns to rise to the top.
Caroline P. Murphy, Murder of a Medici Princess (Oxford University Press, 2009)
Caroline Murphy here illuminates the brilliant life and tragic death of Isabella de Medici, one of the brightest stars in the dazzling world of Renaissance Italy, the daughter of Duke Cosimo I, ruler of Florence and Tuscany. Murphy is a superb storyteller, and her fast-paced narrative captures the intrigue, the scandal, the romantic affairs, and the violence that were commonplace in the Florentine court. Isabella, in fact, conducted numerous affairs, including a ten-year relationship with the cousin of her violent and possessive husband. Her permissive lifestyle, however, came to an end upon the death of her father, who was succeeded by her disapproving older brother Francesco. Considering Isabella's ways to be licentious and a disgrace upon the family, he permitted her increasingly enraged husband to murder her in a remote Medici villa.
The downfall of the bank and transfer of wealth to patronage and politics
With increased size comes more overhead. As many different branches and departments began to grow, there were problems in coordination between administrators in disconnected branches and even other governments. Without a strong leading presence to carry out the banks' function and governance, following Cosimo’s death in 1464 the seeds for disintegration were already set. His son Piero and grandson Lorenzo were less apt to the banking business than their elder.
Piero who was bedridden because of gout had no experience in the banking sector nor did his son, who put more stock on the Medici family’s fortune rather than continuing to run the bank. As these descendants lost their grip on the banking empire, economic troubles with debt-ridden foreign nationals and the Pazzi conspiracy – a coup by rival banking families backed by the Catholic Church to usurp Medici control in Florence – had brought the Medici Bank to an end. By 1494 the bank had closed all of its branches and was nearly bankrupt.
Although the bank was lost, the fortune was not. Dealing with coups and exiles, the Medici family went through a tumultuous time during the end of the Renaissance. Lorenzo carried on with the Medici fortune and name, consolidating new forms of power from their riches and sponsoring the likes of Botticelli and Michelangelo. The once financial kingpins and businessman had shifted their expertise to the artistic and political realm.
Throughout the years they would install Medici men as popes and would wed their lineage to far reaching kingdoms in France and England. Although the Medici regained their power after the bank fell in Florence, they’d never again rebuild the Medici Bank, instead, the dynasty would move on to influence the world in ways beyond money.
The Rise and Fall of the Medici – Renaissance Italy’s Most Powerful Family
The ascent of the Medici family from poor wool farmers to vast political dynasty began with Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici.
By all accounts a shrewd and innovative businessman, he started as a moneylender in Rome and used the dowry from his marriage to set up a private bank in the center of Florence.
In the early 15th Century, Giovanni won the favor of the Papacy, and the Medici’s gained control of the Papal treasury, becoming the official bankers to Pope Martin V and many subsequent popes after that.
Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici
Thanks to its connection to the Church, the Medici bank became the most prominent and most respected in Europe, managing the money of royalty and the merchant classes.
The bank was so influential that they issued their own currency, the florin, which became accepted for trade and commerce.
The Medici were also at the forefront of banking innovation, which helped raise their profile among the rich of Europe.
They were one of the first banks to implement double-entry bookkeeping and — thanks to the size of their banking network — they could issue credit across the continent at a time when money lending was a sin.
The bank is considered one of the first multinational holding companies in Europe and at its heyday it had franchises from London to Constantinople.
The Medici Wedding Tapestry of 1589. Photo by Vergil123 CC BY SA 4.0
Banking not only made the Medici family rich, but it also made them extremely powerful. While Giovanni was a shrewd banker, his eldest son and heir was an even shrewder politician.
Cosimo de’ Medici used his wealth and diplomacy to become the first of the Medici to rule the Republic of Florence from the shadows.
Cosimo di Medici (Bronzino)
Cosimo resisted having a political title but was widely known as the first among equals. An observer at the time of his rule said: “Political questions are settled in Cosimo’s house. The man he chooses holds office… He it is who decides peace and war… He is king in all but name.”
The late medieval mark of the Medici Bank (Banco Medici), used for the authentication of documents. Florence, Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale, Ms. Panciatichi 71, fol. 1r.
Under the auspices of Cosimo de’ Medici, the Palazzo Medici and the Duomo di Firenze were completed, and the first public library of Florence was built that was free for all to use. Cosimo also supported, among others, the artist Donatello and commissioned the first Latin translation of the complete works of Plato.
Rich Interior of Palazzo Vecchio (Old Palace) a massive Romanesque fortress palace in Florence, Italy.
Cosimo’s heir, Piero de’ Medici, was a sickly man who had no love for the arts and was often in bed suffering from chronic gout.
He managed to hold onto power in Florence for five years before passing it on to his son Lorenzo.
Piero di Cosimo de’ Medici
Lorenzo de’ Medici was the last great ruler of the Medici banking dynasty, and perhaps it’s greatest patron.
Unlike his father before him, but thanks to the education his wealth provided, Lorenzo was a great diplomat and became known as Lorenzo Il Magnifico (the Magnificent).
Among his successes was peace between the northern principalities and a rise in the general standard of living in Florence.
During his reign, Florence became the epicenter for arts. Great thinkers and painters of the Renaissance were welcomed and cared for at the Medici Academy, and Medici money financed almost all the greats of the era including da Vinci, Botticelli, and Michelangelo.
The Angel appearing to Zacharias in the Tornabuoni Chapel in Florence contains portraits of members of the Medici Academy: Marsilio Ficino, Cristoforo Landino, Agnolo Poliziano and either Demetrios Chalkokondyles or Gentile de’ Becchi.
Unfortunately, Lorenzo was not so magnificent at finances. After series of bad investments and shady dealings, the bank of the Medici fell into liquidation. By this time, the Medici dynasty was so powerful that it had branched out of politics in Florence into the Papacy of Rome.
Facade of the Museo Galileo in Florence, Italy.
The first of four Medici Popes was Lorenzo’s son Giovanni, who became Pope Leo X. The Papacy at the time was corrupt and power hungry the word “nepotism” has its roots from this period of papal rule.
Leo X was no different from his peers, and he seems to have ruled Rome as a kingship rather than a holy land, driving the papal states into unpopular wars and huge debts that paved the way for Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation.
In keeping with Medici tradition, it was the Medici pope Clement VII who commissioned Michelangelo’s ‘The Last Judgement’ and Raphael’s ‘The Transfiguration.’
He also approved of the ideas of Copernicus and was generally considered a good leader. Unfortunately for Clement, his rule coincided with the Sack of Rome and the separation of England from the Catholic Church under Henry VIII.
Cracks began to show during the 17th century, and the inevitable decline of the Medici dynasty had begun.
They are perhaps most famous during this time for their patronage and eventual betrayal of Galileo under pressure from the Inquisition.
By the 18th century, the pursuit of power had bankrupted the dynasty and infighting had decimated the line of succession. Europe was in turmoil and continued warfare threatened to overwhelm Florence.
To save the centuries of artifacts the Medici had amassed, Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici signed a pact, handing over the Republic of Florence to the Tuscan State and in return, none of the Medici property could leave Florence.
Unlike the Medici bloodline, Florence has survived the ravages of time and thanks to the art collections of the Medici, it is one of the main tourist destinations in Italy.
A new exhibition at the Met reveals how the Florentine banking dynasty drew on art to cement its power and legacy
When Cosimo I de’ Medici, a 17-year-old from a lesser-known branch of Florence’s famed Medici family, came to power in 1537, the republic’s elite expected him to serve as a mere figurehead. Instead, the young duke wrested control from the city’s elected officials, establishing himself as an autocratic ruler at a turbulent point in Florentine history.
“[Y]ou, Cosimo I—you rose to power after an assassination (of a cousin) in the 1530s, when Florence had lost its identity and become a pawn in European politics,” writes James Barron for the New York Times. “You made Florence matter again, even if you were a tyrant, and Florence was grateful.”
As Peter Saenger reports for the Wall Street Journal, a new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art explores how Cosimo and the rest of the Medici used the era’s dominant medium—art—“as propaganda, making clear that Florence was still a power to reckon with.” Featuring more than 90 works by the likes of Raphael, Jacopo da Pontormo and Benvenuto Cellini, “The Medici: Portraits and Politics, 1512” traces the banking dynasty’s cultural initiatives across nearly six decades, demonstrating how the family’s patronage cemented Florence’s status as the epicenter of the Italian Renaissance.
“The brilliance of Cosimo I de’ Medici was the way he employed culture both to create a sense of legitimacy and as a means of assuring Florence a place in a transformed political map,” Keith Christiansen, chairman of the Met’s department of European paintings, tells the Times. “He nurtured the idea of Florence as the intellectual powerhouse of the Renaissance and the Medici as the key players.”
Benvenuto Cellini, Cosimo I de' Medici, 1545 (Museo Nazionale del Bargello / Su concessione del Ministero della Cultura / Photo: Antonio Quattrone) Bronzino, Cosimo I de’ Medici as Orpheus, 1537 (Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art)
Per a statement, the exhibition opens with an imposing bronze bust of Cosimo created by Cellini around 1545. On loan from the Museo Nazionale del Bargello in Florence, the larger-than-life sculpture is newly restored according to Agenzia Nazionale Stampa Associata (ANSA), experts realized that its eyes, long hidden under a dark sheen, were actually crafted out of silver—a practice pioneered by the classical civilizations that Renaissance artists strived to emulate.
In 1557, the much-lauded bust found a permanent home above the main entrance of a fortress on the island of Elba. Looming over the stronghold’s gate, its piercing gaze and Roman-style armor conveyed Cosimo’s power, building on “imperial iconography” to draw an explicit connection between the Medici and Italy’s ancient leaders, writes guest curator Carlo Falciani in the exhibition catalog.
Other works in the show similarly connect the family to classical culture. Bronzino’s Cosimo I de’ Medici as Orpheus (1537), for instance, casts the duke as the mythological musician Orpheus, aligning “him with forces beyond the world of mere mortals,” as the Met’s exhibition primer points out. A marble bust of an aging Cosimo by the sculptor Giovanni Bandini, meanwhile, shows him as a “Roman emperor, suggesting the timelessness of his authority.”
Bronzino, Portrait of a Young Man With a Book, mid-1530s (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, H. O. Havemeyer Collection) Bronzino, Portrait of a Woman With a Lapdog, c. 1532 (Image © Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main)
“Portraits and Politics” is split into six thematic sections that follow the Medici from the early 16th century, when the family was newly returned from exile and struggling to maintain Florence’s dominance in a changing political landscape, to 1569, when Pope Pius V named Cosimo Grand Duke of Tuscany in recognition of his successful unification of the Italian region.
“For us to see how the High Renaissance rulers cemented their power through commissioning art and associating with artists and culture is important,” the Met’s director, Max Hollein, tells the Times. “A fairly calibrated image was being presented to enhance the idea of their rulership even then. That gets forgotten. These works are taken out of context and put up in museums to be admired for their aesthetic merits.”
The first two sections of the exhibition cover the years 1512 to 1534, introducing visitors to such famed family members as Pope Clement VII, nephew of Lorenzo the Magnificent, and Alessandro de’ Medici, who was likely the son of Lorenzo di Piero, Duke of Urbino, and an enslaved African woman. (Alessandro’s assassination in 1537 paved the way for Cosimo’s rise to power.) Next, the show shifts focus to Cosimo himself, examining how the duke and his immediate family, including his first wife, Eleonora of Toledo, used portraits to “project power, assert the continuity of the dynasty and convey cultural refinement,” per the statement.
Jacopo da Pontormo, Alessandro de' Medici, 1534 (Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art) Petticoat with sleeves, ca. 1560, likely owned by Eleonora of Toledo (Museo Nazionale di Palazzo Reale, Pisa / Photo by Arrigo Coppitz, from the archive of the Regional Directorate of Museums of Tuscany)
As Falciani writes in the catalog, Bronzino painted multiple portraits of Eleonora posing alongside her sons. The curator adds, “[T]he presence of each next to his mother [suggested] that the next generation would bring forth shoots from a newly invigorated dynastic trunk.” Also on view at the Met is a sumptuous red velvet dress likely gifted by the Spanish noblewoman to a convent in Pisa.
The second half of “Portraits and Politics” zooms in on the individuals whose art elevated Florence to such cultural heights. One section juxtaposes the work of Bronzino, the Mannerist artist who served as Cosimo’s court painter, and Francesco Salviati, whose “pan-Italian style” competed with Bronzino’s “insistently Florentine-based art,” according to the statement.
Another area of the show celebrates the city’s literary culture, which was inextricably linked to portraiture. As the catalog explains, “however lifelike the image of a face might be, this alone could not convey the most intimate aspects of the sitter’s identity, which as the century wore on, became increasingly entrusted to symbols, allegories or a codified formal language capable of giving visibility to concepts that had previously been confined to poetry.” A highlight of this section is Bronzino’s newly restored portrait of poet Laura Battiferri. The Journal notes that Laura’s likeness references two other famous Florentine poets: Her profile is “deliberately styled to resemble Dante,” and she holds a book of verses by Petrarch.
Bronzino, Laura Battiferri, c. 1560 (© Musei Civici Fiorentini—Museo di Palazzo Vecchio) Francesco Salviati (Francesco de' Rossi), Bindo Altoviti, c. 1545 (Private collection / Photograph © Bruce M. White, 2020) Bronzino, Lodovico Capponi, 1550 (The Frick Collection)
Not all of the figures featured are as well-known as Cosimo, his cousin Catherine and his namesake ancestor (also known as Cosimo the Elder). As the Times observes, a Bronzino portrait of Lodovico Capponi, whose main claim to fame was getting “into a dust-up in church, during a Mass, with … the husband of a woman he fancied,” graces the cover of the catalog.
The painting’s subject is of little historical note (he wasn’t actually a Medici, but rather the son of a wealthy Florentine banker), but the work itself—described in the catalog as a “masterpiece” of 16th-century portraiture—aptly summarizes the exhibition’s broader message about the power of art as propaganda. Depicting a young man holding a medallion portrait of a woman (perhaps the subject of his latest infatuation) close to his chest in front of a green backdrop, the portrait is filled with symbolism: Per the catalog, it appears “to exalt the ability of young Ludovico to resist the adverse blows of destiny, whether in love or, more broadly, in a future beyond the vigor of his youth.”
The “Portraits and Politics” primer closes with a quote from the Renaissance’s most renowned artist: Leonardo da Vinci, whose early career was shaped by Lorenzo the Magnificent.
Acknowledging the staying power of great art—and the rulers who commissioned it—the Old Master observes, “How many emperors and how many princes have lived and died and no record of them remains, and they only sought to gain dominions and riches in order that their fame might be ever-lasting.”
“The Medici: Portraits and Politics, 1512” will be on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City from June 26 to October 11.
The Medici Family - HISTORY
Their fame stemmed as much from their longevity as from their achievements. Their rivals burned just as bright - they just didn't last as long.
The Albizzi were one of the oldest families in Florence and led the republican government for two generations. By 1427, they were the most powerful family in the city, and far richer than the Medici. They had been the patrons of genius and cultural icons, but the family was more interested in waging war than sustaining commercial viability. By 1430, their military policy had cost the Florentine taxpayer a fortune and much of their support. Pragmatic pacifists marshaled around Cosimo de'Medici.
Maso degli Albizzi, patriach of his family, had two sons, Luca and Rinaldo. From a young age, Luca was friends with Cosimo de'Medici. They shared a passion for classical learning and good conversation. During the 1420s, Luca declared his public allegiance to the Medici family, even marrying Cosimo's cousin. For his hot-headed brother Rinaldo, this was a humiliation too far. The bitter family rivalry had just got personal.
Rinaldo's impatience got the better of him. Eager to flush Cosimo out of Florence, he allowed the head of the Medici family to stay alive, gathering support whilst in exile. And Rinaldo's rash decision to besiege the Palazzo Vecchio when he didn't get his way allowed Cosimo to return triumphant. The Albizzi were banished, never to return to power in Florence.
Like the Albizzi, the Pazzi were an older, nobler lineage than the Medici. They could trace their ancestry back to Pazzino de'Pazzi, the first knight to scale the wall of Jerusalem during the First Crusade. The Pazzi were also wealthy bankers, and enjoyed good commercial terms with their Medici rivals. They even sealed these friendly relations through inter-marriage.
But Lorenzo de'Medici, wary of Pazzi ambition, kept his rivals out of government office during the 1470s. When a greedy nephew of Pope Sixtus IV approached the younger Pazzi with a plan to seize Medici land, they found the chance for power in Florence irresistible. The ambitious sons of Jacopo de'Pazzi led an audacious plot against the Medici.
The plot failed. Executed at the hands of furious Florentines, the name of Pazzi was erased from the city, their homes looted and destroyed. One conspirator was hunted down in the streets of Constantinople, and handed over by the Ottoman Emperor. Even he knew that Lorenzo de'Medici was not to be messed with.
Perhaps by coincidence, the Italian noun for a hot-headed fool is pazzo - and some have suggested that the Italian-American slang, patsy, meaning a scapegoat or stooge, is derived from the unfortunate Pazzi assassins.
Their name has become a byword for murder and incest, making the Borgia the most notorious family in Renaissance Italy. They were not friends of the Medici.
Rodrigo Borgia, the corrupt Pope Alexander VI, had at least two illegitimate children. His sociopath son, Cesare, was born just a year after Giovanni de'Medici, in 1476. Cesare was made a cardinal in 1493 and his presence in Rome under the rule of his father made the city off-limits to the Medici cousins.
Cesare marched through Rome with weapons barely hidden under his silk robes, taking pot-shots at prisoners and murdering close relations. Rumored to have committed incest with his beautiful sister, Lucrezia, he stabbed her lover to death at the feet of the Pope, and strangled her second husband, who was only 18-years-old. After his father's death, Cesare was exiled to Spain, where he died in 1507. Lucrezia went on to patronize some of the greatest talents of the High Renaissance, including the poet Ariosto, and the artist Titian.
What is the most important thing you would like others to know about the history and present of the Medicis?
The Medici are one of the 10 most influential families in the world in history for innovations in the arts, sciences, and banking: [They] literally changed the world. The Medici are committed to giving a good direction in the world and came to a period of “enlightenment” from a period of great darkness and truly put the concept of the “individual” into the world by recognizing and acknowledging the “ethos” and individual soul of every human being, believing that every human being held value and deserved respect.
The Medici were so wise and created individual law protections and freedom for the arts and sciences. They were the first that gave freedom and protection to the artist(s) to create the most beautiful art pieces. Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Galileo were all benefactors. The Medici also invented modern banking through the creation of checks, branch banking, and the general ledger system which led to a safer society since money could be kept in banks securely and transferred between parties securely without requiring a physical transfer of money between parties and over great distances. This is something we are still grateful for today.
Finally, I think the Medici have always had a great sense for living in the present, while striving for a better tomorrow. It has often been said in my family, “Enjoy today for its greatness, as we never know what tomorrow will bring.” [We] believe it is important to live well in the present while looking towards and investing in the future. Carpe Diem.
How Catherine de Medici Made Gloves Laced with Poison Fashionable
Throughout history, Catherine de’ Medici has been considered something of a sorceress, a 16th-century French queen and banking heiress adroitly trained in the mixing of potions and capable of murder without a hint of remorse. One legend that has helped this reputation to endure is the story of Jeanne d’Albret, the Queen of Navarre.
France in the 1500s was a place of constant civil war between Catholics and Protestants. Jeanne d’Albret fiercely defended the Protestant cause in France and declared it the official religion of her kingdom, much to the displeasure of Catherine, a strict Catholic who was married to King Henry II of France. In an effort to unite the country, a marriage was arranged between d’Albret’s son, Henry, and Catherine’s daughter, the Princess Marguerite. What happened next has long baffled historians.
Correspondence from mother to son in the months leading up to the wedding is wrought with suspicion and hesitation about the arrangement, not to mention frustration at Queen Catherine’s cruel and often duplicitous ways. On March 8, 1572, d’Albret wrote:
I have spoken to the Queen three or four times. She only mocks me, and reports the contrary of what I have said to her, in order that my friends will blame me. I do not know how to deceive as she does. When I say, “Madame, they say that you have made such and such a proposal”, and it is the very thing she has said, she denies it, and laughs in my face…Others only command me to make you come, but I tell you the contrary.
Two months before the strategic wedding, Jeanne d’Albret died suddenly, along with all her resistance to keep the marriage from going forward. Many of the Protestants whose religion she championed during her lifetime believed the death to be murder and pointed to Catherine as the prime suspect. The choice of weapon? A pair of poisoned leather gloves.
When Catherine de’ Medici came to France by way of marriage, she brought with her several trends from her native Florence, including cooking utensils and techniques, Italian architecture, and beauty rituals. Italy in the 16th century was a fragrant place where perfume was used to scent skin as well as all articles of clothing. Catherine arrived in France with her personal perfumer, René le Florentin, and a vast collection of custom perfumes.
She promptly introduced perfumed gloves–or sweet gloves–to the French court, where men and women wore them as the ultimate emblem of prestige. Leather was the most popular choice for sweet gloves, but scenting a leather glove was no easy feat. To start with, the leather tanning process at the time used animal excrement, which gave the finished product a smooth finish but a repulsively rancid odor. This was why leather glove makers had turned to perfume to mask the less than luxurious smell in the first place.
A pair of embroidered leather gloves from from c.1615. (Photo: Valerie McGlinchey/WikiCommons CC BY-SA 2.0 UK)
Perfumers in the 16th century had to use many different natural ingredients for this to be successful, though. Sweet gloves were most commonly scented with herbs, spices, woods, and flowers such as jasmine, violet, iris, and orange blossom. It was a time consuming process: First, the ingredients were mixed with animal fat or oil, then boiled, and later separated. Gloves were then dipped into the fragrant liquid and left outside to dry. Depending on the material used and the power of odor desired, the process was repeated several times.
But although her sweet gloves became popular in court and throughout France, Queen Catherine was never truly accepted by the French people she ruled over, who viewed her as a manipulative foreigner with a passion for the Dark Arts. The French had long considered Italians masters of poison and witchcraft, and Catherine’s interest in and support for science–especially astronomy and astrology–was accepted as proof of her occultism.
She was also known for the unusual methods she experimented with to become pregnant, like ingesting the urine of pregnant animals. Of all of the challenges that Catherine faced during her lifetime, perhaps the most difficult was the accusation of her infertility. It took ten years for the King and Queen to conceive a child and all blame was placed upon the Queen. The public viewed all her attempts to influence the process as immoral.
A scene from a ball in Rouen, for Catherine and her husband Henry II. (Photo: Public Domain/WikiCommons)
The French already distrusted Queen Catherine, and the death, at 43, of her known enemy Jeanne d’Albret only added fuel to the fire. Protestants, in particular, were quick to accuse Catherine of the death of their prominent champion one rumor that began to circulate was that Queen Catherine had murdered d’Albret with a pair of poisoned gloves.
Poison was a common killer in France at this time, and the rise of “The French School of Poisoners” is said to have inspired as many as 30,000 poisoners by 1572. Catherine’s image as a sorceress as well as her access to skilled specialists in the fields of science prompted many of her adversaries to allege she was involved in Jeanne d’Albret’s sudden death. After three religious civil wars in a period of ten years and constant assassination attempts on leaders of both religions, the death of a Protestant queen was assumed to be unnatural.
After all, the outspoken Queen of Navarre had been viewed by Catholics as a threat in need of silencing for some time. Furthermore, gloves were a common gift of the royal court, valued not only for their precious materials, but also for their symbolism. Gifted gloves, especially coming from a queen, conveyed a sentiment of loyalty and affection. Such was the intention of the Queen of Portugal, who in 1521 awarded the winning jousters of her court with a pair of perfumed gloves. Sweet gloves, of course, were indelibly linked with Catherine.
Henry of Navarre, son of Jeanne d’Albret, and Margaret of Valois, Catherine’s daughter. (Photo: Public Domain/WikiCommons)
Even though the discord between the two women was well known throughout France, many Protestants assumed that Queen Catherine would surely have sent a pair of sweet gloves to the mother of her son’s betrothed. It would have been rude not to. But was the royal gift laced with poison as well as scent?
The answer to this question came far too late to save Catherine de’ Medici’s reputation. The theory of Jeanne d’Albert’s death by poisoned gloves has since been discredited by modern historians, who consider it much more likely that d’Albert succumbed to tuberculosis. But the intrigue of the myth continues to prosper. It seems that we are more willing to believe a rumor about gloves infused with poison than we are to accept the mundane reality of a common malady.
What is certain is the Catherine brought to fashion the use of perfumed gloves in France. The artistry and symbolism of fragranced gloves is as exceptional as poisoned gloves, and would have certainly been a much lovelier gift to receive. In fact, the trend of the perfumed glove continues to this day, with brands like Guerlain and Maître Parfumeur et Gantier producing limited edition leather gloves saturated with fine fragrances. Perhaps this is all thanks to Queen Catherine de’ Medici.