The Rise and Fall of the House of Medici


They were one of the wealthiest and most powerful families in Europe, ultimately producing two queens, three kings, and four popes. As the de facto rulers of Florence for nearly 300 years, the House of Medici also provided the foundation of the Italian Renaissance.

Let’s take a closer look at these fascinating Florentines…

10. Once Upon A Time…

Before launching their empire, the Medicis started out as poor farmers from Cafaggiolo in northern Tuscany. By the late 13th century, Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici had reversed the clan’s humble origins with the founding of a successful bank.

To complement the family’s newly elevated standing, they manufactured an equally impressive ancestry, proving deep pockets can buy almost anything — even a legend. According to the tale, a distant relative named Averardo fought as a valiant armored knight to Charlemagne the Great. Not bad, eh? It gets better.

One day the warrior was riding his horse when he encountered a fearsome giant who had been terrorizing the local townspeople. Seizing the moment, Averado slew his foe (or had the guy whacked — accounts vary), thus earning cult status for future generations to immortalize. In 1537, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V officially awarded the family the nobility they craved by establishing the Grand Dukes of Tuscany.

Today, the Medici coat of arms can still grace many buildings in Tuscany. The ubiquitous emblem features a series of red balls on a gold shield, symbolizing the dents Averendo incurred during his heroic feat. However, a more cynical view suggests the design represents coins as the leading money-changers of the day.

9. Wheel of Fortune

The Medici banking empire would rapidly expand to become the largest financial institution in Europe, with branches as far away as Naples, Geneva, and London. The long list of wealthy clients also included the Vatican, forging a strong alliance that generated more than just heavenly profits.

Under Cosimo de’ Medici (Giovanni’s son), Florence emerged as the premier banking hub, elevating the florin, the city’s gold coin, as the standard currency across Europe. The family’s burgeoning wealth allowed them to acquire large tracts of land and gain vast political influence — crucial factors for surviving the perpetually turbulent state of affairs engulfing Italian city-states.

Although they would ultimately produce several historically important figures, their financial wizardry ended with Cosimo. Following a string of bad investments and weak leadership, the business closed its doors in 1494.

8. Papal Power

Having piles of loot and political clout affords a lifestyle that most people can only envy. For the Medici’s, living large even included direct access to God.

The 1500s saw four blood relatives elected as pontiff, starting with Pope Leo X in 1513. His scandal-plagued reign would be a tough act to follow. Known for his support of the arts, lavish spending, and debauchery, the Holy Father (born Giovanni di Lorenzo de’ Medici) infamously declared, “God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it.”

And that’s just what he did, turning the Vatican into his personal pleasure palace. As far as we know, he never installed a shark tank or a stripper pole, but his decadent excesses directly led to the Protestant Reformation. Furthermore, his beef with Martin Luther, who he had excommunicated in 1521, produced one of the greatest all-time feuds of the Renaissance.

7. They Owned The Stars, Too

Before becoming the ‘father of modern science,’ Galileo Galilei earned extra money as a tutor for rich kids in Europe. The side hustle eventually led him to be named court mathematician to the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo II de’ Medici, yielding an out of this world result for both parties.

The well-paying gig allowed Galileo to devote more time to his study of physics as well as advance the heliocentric theory. In his spare time, the pioneering astronomer also improved the telescope, which he used to discover what appeared to be four small stars near Jupiter. As a tribute to his patron, he named them the “Medicean Stars.”

Galileo eventually figured out that objects followed an orbital path around the enormous planet. Today, the celestial bodies are known as the Galilean moons of Jupiter.

6. Kate the Great

As the great-granddaughter of Lorenzo the Magnificent and niece of Pope Clement VII, Catherine de’ Medici channeled her lofty pedigree into emerging as one of the most powerful women of her era. Her seductive charm and shrewd wits allowed to hold sway over France as a queen consort, regent and the mother of three kings.

At the age of 14, Catherine became betrothed to Henry, the son of King Francis I of France, cementing a strategic alliance while securing future royal bloodlines. She eventually gave birth to 10 children, including monarchs Francis II, Charles IX, and Henry III. Also, two of her daughters became queen consorts in Spain and France, respectively.

Catherine’s influence in the 16th century — especially during the Wars of Religion — made her both a beloved and vilified figurehead. Whether deserved or not, she was largely blamed for the carnage resulting from St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, in which thousands of Huguenots were slaughtered. Catherine’s lifelong interest in the occult and association with the legendary soothsayer Nostradamus, only added to her sinister reputation.

5. You Scream, I Scream…

It’s been said that music and cats provide the best means of refuge from the miseries of life. One might also add gelato to that list. Although the invention of ice cream dates all the way back to ancient China, the creamy, Italian variety was created specifically for the House of Medici.

Two conflicting versions lay claim to concocting the frozen dessert — but both point directly to Florence’s most famous family. One of the stories involves a 16th-century poultry butcher named Ruggeri, who won a prestigious competition for creating the “most unusual dish.” So taken was Catherine de’ Medici with the delicacy that she had the chef transplanted to the French Royal Court in Paris for her wedding in 1533.

An alternative scoop credits the renowned Italian architect, Bernardo Buontalenti, for introducing his tasty, egg and cream recipe in 1565. Regardless, gelato can be unequivocally defined in two words: molto bene.

4. All in the Family

The Medici’s extensive support of the humanities played a vital role in attracting Europe’s best artists to Florence. This deep talent pool included an aspiring teenager from the small Tuscan village of Caprese, who the world came to know as Michelangelo.

In 1490, the 15-year-old prodigy accepted an invitation to take up residence at the Palazzo Medici. There, he became part of the family while refining his precocious, artistic skills.

Michelangelo would receive commissions from three Medici Popes (Leo X, Clement VII, and Pius IV). During this period, he produced some of his finest work such as the sculpture of Moses, and his fresco of the The Last Judgement, covering the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel.

3. Enemies at the Gate

The sport of politics can be a brutal game. One day you’re wildly cheered at rallies only to be tossed in the trash like rotten garbage. During their long reign, the Medicis maintained constant vigilance while making plenty of enemies along the way.

In 1478, the Pazzi family launched a coup to assassinate the co-ruling Medici princes, Lorenzo and Giuliano. Although the younger brother died of his wounds, Lorenzo survived and eventually saw his rivals exiled and killed.

Another attack, this time by a radical preacher named Girolamo Savonarola, would be more successful. The puritanical Dominican friar managed to take control of Florence in 1497 and encouraged his rabid supporters to burn books, art, and other items deemed as evil “vanities.” But a year later, Savonarola was excommunicated and later hanged. Game over.

2. Il Magnifico

Arguably the best-known member of the Medici clan, Lorenzo the Magnificent, lived up to his grandiose nickname as a ruler, poet, and patron of the arts. From an early age, he demonstrated remarkable intelligence and charisma, qualities that served him well throughout his exceptional (albeit brief) lifetime.

Born in 1449, Lorenzo was groomed for excellence by his father Piero de’ Medici, who frequently dispatched his young son on diplomatic missions representing the Republic of Florence. These meet and greets included trips to Rome, where he hobnobbed with the pope and established strong relationships with other key religious and political figures. In short, the kid knew how to work the room.

While handling the responsibilities of running a republic, he also found the time for music and poetry. As a generous patron of the arts, he helped establish Tuscany at the epicenter of the Italian Renaissance, and his death in 1492 coincided with the end of the Golden Age of Florence.

1. End of an Era

If history teaches us anything, it’s that nothing lasts forever — including dynasties. In 1737, Gian Gastone de’ Medici died without any heirs, thus ending the Medicean stranglehold on the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. His sister, however, would rescue the family legacy.

Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici, the last direct descendant, created a legally binding pact that preserved their trove of artwork for the city of Florence. As a result, numerous cathedrals and museums such as the Medici Chapel and Uffizi Gallery can be found brimming with priceless treasures.

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