The story of the House of Medici traces a familiar arc: an inspired, ambitious leader stakes a claim to power, heirs struggle to defend and consolidate it, and their descendants eventually succumb to decadence. But the Medici arc was a long and splendid one, spanning roughly four centuries, producing four Popes, and fostering some of the most artistically productive conditions in all of human history. Not many royal families can claim such achievements, but what makes the Medici most remarkable is that they weren’t royal at all, at least not at first. Their city, Florence, was fiercely democratic, and the fact that a single family was able to wield such power for so long in a climate so hostile to the very idea of it, is worthy of curiosity.
Despite their name (Medici is the plural of “doctor” in Italian), the Medici were a banking family. However, Renaissance banks like that of the Medici did much more for their wealthy clients than simply lend money.
As well as undertaking all the customary services of a bank, the Medici houses undertook all manner of commissions for their customers, supplying tapestries, sacred relics, horses and slaves, painted panels from the fairs at Antwerp, choir boys from Douai and Cambrai for the choir of St John in Lateran, and even, on one occasion, a giraffe. They were also importers and exporters of all manner of spices, of silk and wool and cloth. They dealt in pepper and sugar, olive oil, citrus fruits, almonds, furs, brocades, dyes, jewellery, and above all, in alum, a transparent mineral salt essential to the manufacture of fast, vivid dyes and widely used in glassmaking and tanning.
This helps explain how the Medici parlayed their business acumen into political power. It might have been enough that they could bail their wealthy clients out of a fiscal tight spot, but the fact that they were also their clients’ source of commodities and rarities earned the Medici a lot of favors.
The man who did more than any other to increase the family’s fortune and power was the first of many Cosimos, known to history as Cosimo the Elder. Expanding one’s family’s power was a dangerous prospect in 15th-century Florence, and the Medici would be exiled briefly from the city for fear of their dominance over Florentine politics. Throughout the Medici dynasty, Florence remained an uncommon republic amidst a sea of monarchy, and her citizens were ever-wary of any one of them amassing too much influence over the state’s affairs. To this end, Florence was ruled by a rotating council of nine male citizens called the Signoria, whose names were randomly chosen every two months from a leather bag. So, as the author makes clear, “If Cosimo were to rule successfully, he must appear scarcely to rule at all.”
And Cosimo the Elder’s political genius consisted in doing just that. He never held public office, yet his input was sought on every important decision. Visiting foreign dignitaries would pay their first respects at his palazzo. How did he do this? Primarily through the Medici bank, he made the powerful depend upon him, which, along with his considerable persuasiveness, gave him sway over their votes. In effect, this earned Cosimo many of the benefits of power without its messy detriments. For example, the appearance of not wielding power allowed Cosimo to decline burdensome requests from people one hesitates to disappoint, like the Pope. As Cosimo replied:
…with regard to your present proposition, most blessed Father…you write to me not as a private man who is satisfied with the mediocre dignity of a citizen, but as though I were a reigning prince…You well know how limited is the power of a private citizen in a free state under popular government.
Second, Cosimo increased the Medici reputation and influence through his patronage of the arts and letters. In addition to sponsoring high-profile works of art and architecture which magnified Florentines’ pride in their city, he amassed an enormous private library, “the first library of its kind in Europe, and a generation later [it] served as a model for the Vatican Library in Rome.” And it wasn’t merely a status symbol. By all accounts he placed great value in learning:
Cosimo acquired and developed that deep respect for classical learning and classical ideals, combined with an interest in man’s life on earth which was to remain with him for ever. He became, in fact, a humanist.
To his credit, Cosimo’s humanism and respect for the arts led him to defend the great Donatello against those who regarded the sculptor’s homosexuality as a scandal:
Cosimo grew deeply attached to Donatello, for whom he assumed a kind of paternal responsibility. He saw to it that he was never short of work, either by giving him commissions himself or by recommending him to his friends.
Perhaps from his devotion to learning, Cosimo was impressively self-aware (especially when compared to some of his scions), which no doubt contributed to his long reign as de-facto ruler of a democratic state. He avoided ostentation in his dress and property, and urged his heirs to do the same. And he had masterful control over his emotions. “Envy is a weed that should not be watered,” he would say. As a man with the wealth and power to indulge any whim, he knew that if you give envy the least bit of sustenance, it can grow to consume you.
The third major factor contributing to Cosimo’s political success was his official (and sometimes self-styled) role as ambassador. This gained him entry into royal courts and earned him more powerful friends, which proved useful when the Medici were exiled from Florence in 1433. As a result, much of the money and interesting people followed Cosimo to Venice, and by 1434 Florence was asking the Medici to return.
Altogether, Cosimo’s 30-year rule of Florence is an exceptional lesson in how to wield influence without holding power. Make those who do hold power depend on you, support and associate yourself with popular causes, appear humble, generous, and interesting, and build a network of influential friends.
The Last of the Medici
Cosimo had a son, Piero the Gouty, whose embattled tenure as ruler of Florence lasted a mere five years. However, Piero’s son Lorenzo, who we know as Lorenzo the Magnificent, ruled Florence with much of the success and style of his grandfather. Following Lorenzo, the Medici star rose and fell. Lorenzo’s son ruled for only two years, earning him the appellation Piero the Unfortunate. This second Piero had a son also named Lorenzo (the Medici were quite fond of recycling names) who brought the Medici their first noble title as Duke of Urbino. His son Alessandro became Duke of Florence, further undermining Florence’s pretensions to democracy. And Alessandro’s successor and cousin, Cosimo I, expanded the title to become Grand Duke of Tuscany. However, Cosimo I became Duke of Florence through some major shenanigans:
The discussion continued for hours and would have continued longer had not Vitelli, the captain of the guard, who had been promised the lordship of Borgo San Sepolcro for his support of Cosimo’s nomination, intervened decisively. Tiring of the wrangle in the council chamber, he contrived a noisy scuffle between his soldiers under its windows. There were shouts that “Cosimo, son of the great Giovanni, must be Duke of Florence! Cosimo! Cosimo! Cosimo!” And an authoritative voice cried out, “Hurry up. The soldiers can’t be held any longer!” This settled the matter.
The Medici dynasty would continue through six more generations: two more Cosimos, two Ferdinandos, a Francesco, and finally Gian Gastone. By then, the Medici bank had suffered some bad loans to delinquent kings from which it never truly recovered. Furthermore, Florence’s once-vibrant economy had dimmed:
The city was a sad place now, poor, gloomy and disconsolate. Tourists reported it as being full of beggars, vagabonds and monks, passing in dreary procession beneath dark buildings with windows of torn oiled paper.
By the 18th century, the city-state of Florence could not hold its own in an era of nation-states and was consequently conquered by Austria. Anna Maria, widowed wife of the last Medici patriarch, Gian Gastone, was allowed to live out her days in the Pitti Palace:
She received few visitors, and when she did so, as the poet Thomas Gray discovered, she remained standing and unsmiling beneath a black canopy in a comfortless room full of silver furniture. She was always very conscious of the fact that she was the last of the Medici. So were the people of Florence. Resentful and humiliated to be once again ruled by foreigners whose cannon in the city’s fortresses were turned against them, they looked back to the great days of the Medici with pride and a sense of loss.