The Medici story of a European dynasty

Franco Cesati
April 21, 2005

THE DAWN OF POWER

 

During the 12th and 13th centuries the renewed splendor of urban life in Florence—and its accompanying economic promise—lured many people, nobility and peasant stock alike, from the surrounding countryside. Among those who arrived seeking fortune in the city were the Medici, an obscure family from the Mugello.

 

THE DISPUTABLE ORIGINS OF THE FAMILY NAME

 

The Medici originated in rural Mugello, some thirty miles north-east of Florence. Moving to the city in the late 13th century, they abandoned agriculture to dedicate themselves to commercial activity.

What are the origins of their family name? According to one theory later discarded as legendary, they were called ‘Medici’ because one of their ancestors was a doctor (or medico); the six red balls on a field of gold portrayed on their family coat-of-arms might represent pharmaceutical pills. In fact, there is no proof to substantiate that in the past any of the Medici were actually medici.

 

Others claim that the spheres on the coat-of-arms represent bisanti. The bisante was a weight of Byzantine origin (hence the name), used by medieval merchants and bankers to check their coins.

 

GIOVANNI DI BICCI

 

The first Medici to amass a real fortune was Giovanni, son of Averardo known as Bicci and great-grandson to another Averardo, who had served as Gonfaloniere in the 14th century. Giovanni’s children sired the two historical branches of the family. The first branch (that of Cosimo the Elder, grandfather to Lorenzo the Magnificent) died out at the end of the 16th century, while the secondary branch (that of Lorenzo the Elder) would survive through to the first half of the 18th century.

 

Giovanni was first of all a businessman, proprietor of a bank with branches in Italy and throughout Europe: France, England, Germany, the Netherlands. His influence over Florentine public life was largely indirect. Patron and friend to the powerful, he hosted the disgraced antipope John XXIII in Florence, and upon his death he commissioned Donatello and Michelozzo for a funeral monument inside the Baptistery of San Giovanni. The first forty years of Giovanni’s life were dedicated exclusively to the administration of his affairs: it was only at the beginning of the 15th century that he began to involve himself in city politics. In 1402 he was elected prior of the Bankers and Moneychangers Guild, and would be re-elected to the post in 1408 and 1411. He confirmed his reputation as a generous man in his aid to the citizens in 1417, when Florence was struck by a terrible plague epidemic that reaped 17,000 victims.

 

In spite of this catastrophe Florence was a thriving city, full of artistic initiative. In 1401 a competition was announced for the Baptistery doors: it was won by a very young Ghiberti, who triumphed over contenders as distinguished as Filippo Brunelleschi and Jacopo della Quercia. In these same years the palace of Orsanmichele was remodeled with funds from the Wool Guild, and decorated on the outside with the patron saints of the various guilds, sculpted by the foremost artists of the time.

 

Giovanni himself offered a significant contribution to the betterment of his city. Protagonist and patron to his most beloved neighborhood (situated between the Duomo and the Porta a San Gallo), he financed the foundation of the charitable Spedale degli Innocenti (‘Foundling’s Hospital’) in 1419. Filippo Brunelleschi dedicated almost seven years of work to the edifice, drawing it to a finish in 1425. In this same period Michelozzo superintended the expansion of the Church of Santissima Annunziata. The wealthy banker had a marked predilection for Brunelleschi’s architecture, inspired by the new principles of symmetry, harmony and proportion. Not coincidentally, he picked out the designer of the dome for the renovation of San Lorenzo’s ancient basilica, at the time literally falling into ruin.

 

By the time death claimed him in 1428, sixty-eight-year-old Giovanni had succeeded in quieting the malicious rumors that formerly circulated regarding the Medici, fostered by their rivals in finance and commerce: their reputation as a coarse and unscrupulous people, vulgar nouveau riches animated only by the logic of profit and personal interest. The credit accrued by his image as a generous and visionary man constituted the solid base from which the future fortunes of the dynasty would grow.

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