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.


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.


Grasse - At the Heart of the World of Perfume

Feted as the heart of the world of perfume and bestowed a ‘Ville d Art et d’ Histoire’ (town of art and history) in its own right, its population of just over 50,000 is devoted to its love of art history and perfume.

Grasse, Provence - France – where the sense of smell is revered, worshipped coming alive tantalising long embedded memories. Of all the senses – smell is perhaps the least acknowledged though no less powerful.

The elusive charms of Grasse trigger senses we’ve all experienced from time to time, a subtle scent drifting by casts us back through time .. it may be wild roses, lilac, jonquils, jasmine or violets. In Grasse those memories bottled and distilled unveil, releasing the essence and mystique of perfume.

The town itself against a background of fields of flowers is a breath of fresh air, elevated from the bustle of the coastal Riviera, with its elegant shops, houses and narrow laneways is steeped in history. The three major perfume houses of Grasse, Galimard, Fragonard and Molinard still very much in evidence, each offer glimpses into the origins and processes of perfume production with their own museums and tours.

On tour we visit the House of Fragonard, a unique experience to whet your appetite and tempt your nose to discover a little more of origins of perfume. Fragonard celebrate four generations and their 90th anniversary this year. The current heads of the family business, granddaughters Ann and Agnes and Francoise Costa enthusiastically continue the tradition of maintaining the history of the area, much of its heritage perhaps otherwise would surely have been lost. The Costas have established several museums showcasing the rich cultural history of the region including thousands of artefacts belonging to their family, ‘we were born into a family of collectors’ explains Agnes of the vast collections of paintings, fine artworks, costumes, ancient bottles, perfume paraphernalia and copper stills spanning years, displayed throughout the family’s museums, housed in nearby landmark buildings in Grasse and Paris. The most famous, the Musee de Parfums on the first floor of the original Fragonard perfume factory in Grasse.  Each year Fragonard feature one bloom of their signature range of fragrances – this year, 2016 being the year of the Iris.

Of particular interest for Australians is the use of ‘Mimosa’ what we call wattle, the trees first arrived from Australia in the mid 19th century, originally as a decorative plant for gardens though it wasn’t long before the unique fragrance of their distinctive blooms excited the ‘nose’s’ potential and  have become a perfumers mainstay – highly prized and a key ingredient in many high end fragrances produced today.  (Mimosa featured as Fragonard’s 2010 fragrance).

The beginnings – back in the 12th century the main trade of the town was leather and tanning, developed on the banks of the small canal running through the town, producing a strong unpleasant odour.

During the Renaissance period the production of gloves acquired a reputation for high quality as well as leather handbags and belts to meet the new fashion demands from Italy. The strong smell of the gloves was off putting.  Galimard, a tanner in Grasse came up with the idea of scented leather gloves offering Catherine de Medici a pair. She was smitten. The product spread through the Royal Court and society, thus securing a reputation and demand from Grasse.  The surrounding countryside’s micro climate, away from the sea with a reliable water supply was ideal for increasing production, masking somewhat the overpowering smell emanating from the tanneries. Trade with commercial interests in Genoa and Pisa intensified production of flowers. 

High taxes and competition from Nice later brought about a decline in the leather industry of Grasse and production of leather fragrance ceased making way for the now more lucrative commercial production of flowers and thus the perfume industry blossomed.

Jasmine the key ingredient of many renowned perfumes was originally brought to the town by the Moors in the 16th century and now harvests 27 tonnes annually.

Each spring Grasse pays tribute to its roses with a four day festival, this year May 5 to 8 bringing 50,000 roses from across France and Italy for the Rose Expo. During the six-week harvest lasting through mid-June, the roses in Grasse’s gardens are picked the same day they open to fully capture the signature scent.  August is the month for Jasmine harvest and the annual 2 day Fete du Jasmin attracts travellers from near and far to immerse themselves in the heady scent.

Not to be missed before you leave town is a visit to the Cathedral which features two works by Rubens and one by Jean-Honore Fragonard.

Other little facts of interest - the iconic Channel No 5 was developed from the fields of Grasse.

Today Grasse produces 2/3 of France’s natural aromas locally.

Visit Grasse on Day 11 on tour with TIKI TOURS Elegant Italy and France at Leisure tour. Departs Australia Wednesday, 28 September 2016  as well as 27 September 2017. 







Transport a little bit of Europe to your own garden

Surprisingly Australians now consume more olive oil per person than any other country outside the Mediterranean.

Olive trees can be grown successfully right across Australia as Cobram Estate has convincingly proved, fighting off over 700 contenders for the prestigious award of World’s ‘best extra virgin olive oil’ for 3 years straight at the New York International Olive Competition. Cobram posted a record harvest last year of 13.8 million litres, the future looks ripe for the picking for the humble olive in Australia.

Tough, hardy, productive or ornamental. Drought resistant, with few pests to contend with and a potential lifespan of ‘000’s of years. Olive trees will tolerate a range of average soils, though they do have an aversion to wet feet and a preference for cool/cold winters and hot summers.  Mature olive trees will survive and crop well even in the very coldest areas of Australia.

Handsome, hardy and a symbol of joy, peace and happiness an olive tree will enhance your home or make a thoughtful gift for even the poorest gardeners, they are very forgiving, happily adapting to pots for small gardens or as an elegant feature. 

Planting Guide

Best not to plant young trees during winter if your winter temps fall below minus 5 on a regular basis. Otherwise any time is fine. Traditionally in Europe planting is done in the autumn.

Don’t rush it....  To achieve optimal growth potential (meter in height & width per year) some simple pre planting preparation will amply reward you for many years to come. 

Add manure to the soil prior to planting (most are suitable as long as not too fresh) and apply generously. Olives prefer a neutral to alkaline soil with ph 7.0-8.0, add lime if under. 

Surprisingly the addition of blue-metal (basalt rock) crusher dust, at the same ratio and application as fertilizer will help as its very high in minerals and not easily water soluble therefore doesn’t leech out easily, excellent if you have a sandy soil.  (note cracker dust should be of 4mm or smaller particles).

Plant your tree to the same depth or a little deeper as the pot it came in – do not tease out the roots and water immediately.  Stake if your location is windy and mulch to 4mm from the trunk.

Staking is important for young olives, stakes need to be strong enough to support the tree while the anchor roots are developing yet flexible enough to allow the tree to move freely in the wind which will encourage strong roots and a thick trunk.

Olives need little water to survive once established however to maximise your crop, the tree will need at least one soaking good watering in winter.  It is important to note that wet feet are the olives worst enemy so good soil drainage is essential.

Keep weeds away from the base of the tree in the first couple of years and maintain a weed free zone of 300mm beyond the foliage canopy.

Pruning is important to maximise the shape, health and fruit production. Having said that olives are tough and can be neglected for many years and still bear well. Prune your tree to open up the centre, this will encourage vigorous growth and reduce pest and fungal problems.  Aim for a vase shape – hollowing out the centre.

Fertilize annually, preferably in autumn/winter after the fruit harvest.

Happy gardening!

There is an enormous range of olive varieties to choose from, check with your local nursery, if really keen check this link for an in depth guide.


Secrets of a Tuscan Kitchen

POLLO ARROSTO AL VIN SANTO –  (Roasted chicken with Vin Santo Sauce)

Vin Santo is a Tuscan dessert wine made from dried grapes.  Marsala makes a good substitute or use a good dry white wine if your local wine provider doesn’t stock it.

Erbe Aromatiche Al Sale is a fundamental seasoning for Tuscan cooks, made by blending aromatic herbs with salt. This handy blend usually sits by most Tuscan stoves ready to be sprinkled over a roast or grilled vegetables or to season a sauce.  Each cook has his or her own combination of flavours: rosemary, thyme, parsley and sage are some favourites. Mince a handful of fresh herbs with a teaspoon of salt. The salt adds flavour drawing out the essential oils back into the mixture. The salt also preserves the herbs, drying them and concentrating the flavours. (keeps for several days)


1 chicken

1 clove garlic, minced

3 tblsp extra-virgin olive oil

sea salt and freshly ground pepper

3 tblsp Erbe Aromatiche  (see recipe above)

2 cups Vin Santo or substitute



Preheat oven to 170 degrees. Lightly oil a small roasting pan or heatproof casserole dish.

In a small bowl, combine the herb mixture with the garlic.

Loosen the skin of the breast of the chicken and spread the herb mixture under the skin. Rub the chicken all over with the olive oil and season with salt and pepper.

Place the chicken on its side in the prepared pan and roast for 15 mins, then turn and roast the 2nd side for 15 mins.

Turn the chicken onto its back and roast for 30 mins or until the chicken is cooked.

Transfer the chicken to a serving platter and keep warm.

Set the roasting pan over medium heat and add the wine, stirring with a wooden spoon. Increase the heat to high and cook to reduce the liquid by half.

Add any juices from the resting chicken.

Drizzle the pan sauce over the roasted chicken and serve.

Serve with seasonal roasted vegetables or salad to suit the occasion.

Adjust cooking time according to the size of the chicken.

Tip: Chicken is cooked when the juices run clear when a thigh is pierced with a knife.

Now you may well have some Vin Santo left over, so what could be better than putting it to good use to finish off a delicious Tuscan meal with another delightful Tuscan treat.  Simply pour a small glass of Vin Santo and dip the biscotti in. The rule of thumb here is to dip and count to 5 for the best note.


By the way... if you just happen to be in Florence, perhaps, on the Elegant Italy and France at Leisure tour in September, we ought to let you know that on the city centre side bank of the Arno river just 100m left from the Ponte Vecchio lies a very well stocked bottle and gift shop, perfect for a bottle of Vin Santo and biscotti for yourself or a gift.