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The influential House of Medici

Cosimo de Medici I

Cosimo de Medici I

No one family or dynasty has had more impact or influence in Italy, in particular Tuscany and Florence than the Medici. The dominance of the Medici still reverberates some 300 years beyond their golden era and eventual demise.

The Italian banking family and political dynasty gathered prominence under Cosimo de’ Medici in the early 15th century. Originating from the Mugello region of Tuscany, the Medici produced of note three popes and two regent queens of France. In 1531 the family became hereditary Dukes of Florence. By 1569 the duchy was elevated to a grand duchy following territorial expansion and ruling Tuscany from its inception until 1737 with the death of Gian Gastone de’ Medici. The grand duchy witnessed degrees of economic growth under the earlier grand dukes but by the time of Cosimo III de Medici Tuscany was fiscally bankrupt.

Their wealth and influence initially derived from the textile trade and dominated their city’s government to the point where they created an environment where art and humanism could flourish. Along with other notable families they are credited with fostering and inspiring the birth of the Italian Renaissance.

The Medici Bank was one of the most prosperous and respected institutions in Europe and are said to have been the wealthiest family in Europe for a time. Their political power and wealth extending throughout Italy and Europe.

The Medici family were connected to most other elite families through marriages of convenience. Throughout the centuries despite conspiracies, assassination attempts, battles, exile, discoveries and monopolies the Medici eventually fell with the death in 1737 of Anna Luisa de’ Medici, with no other senior member male heirs, the dynasty which had ruled for 200 years expired.

Legacy

The accomplishments of the Medici are wide and varied, no area of life was untouched from improving agriculture to the boundaries of Tuscany itself. Among their many and considerable contributions to the fields of accounting, improving the general ledger system with the development of double entry bookkeeping for tracking credits and debits. In the fields of art and architecture, their achievements included the sponsorship of art and architecture, mainly early and high Renaissance. Their patronage was significant as generally artists of the time were commissioned in advance. Included, Brunelleschi’s reconstruction of the Basilica of San Lorenzo, Florence, patronage of Donatello and Fra Angelico. The most well known being Michaelangelo, of whom Lorenzo the Magnificent, (an artist in his own right) was said to be extremely fond, inviting him to study the family collection of antique sculptures as well as Leonardo da Vinci for seven years.  After Lorenzo’s death the puritanical Dominican friar Girolama Savonarola rose to prominence warning Florentines against excessive luxury, under his fanatical leadership many great works were ‘voluntarily’ destroyed in the Bonfire of the Vanities (Feb 7 1497). Some two years later Savonarola was burned at the stake in the Piazza della Signoria, the same location as his bonfire.

The Medici were prolific collectors and today their acquisitions form the core of the Uffizi museum in Florence. Their architectural legacies include many of the most notable buildings in Florence.  Later in Rome the Medici Popes continued the family tradition of patronizing artists, in Rome, Pope Leo X who chiefly commissioned works from Raphael, Pope Clement VII who commissioned Michaelangelo to paint the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel just before his death in 1534. Elenore Of Toledo, Princess of Spain and wife of Cosimo I the Great purchased the Pitti Palace from Buonaccorso Pitti in 1550. Marie de’ Medici, widow of Henry IV of France and mother of Louis XIII commissioned paintings for the Luxembourg Palace by Rubens in 1622-3.

Although none of the Medici were scientists themselves they were well known patrons of Galileo who tutored multiple generations of Medici children, Galileo naming the four larger moons of Jupiter after four Medici children he tutored. Grand Duke Ferdinado, obsessed with technology had a variety of hygrometers, barometer, thermometers and telescopes installed in the the Palazzo Pitti and his younger brother established the Accademia del Cimento to attract scientists for Florence for all over Tuscany to study. Tuscany participated in the Wars of Castro (the last Medicean Tuscany proper was involved in a conflict) defeating the forces of Pope Urban VIII in 1643, leaving the not inconsiderable coffers almost bankrupt and for a time the economy was so afflicted that barter trade became prevalent in rural market places.