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The de' Medici Dynasty



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The family's history parallels Italy's history.  I've divided it into sections listed in the left column.

This concise history is a helpful guide to read before traveling to Florence and the Vatican.




The de' Medici Dynasty and Italian History

The Late-Middle-Ages, Early Renaissance, Giovanni:  The Founder

The Early Renaissance, Cosimo and Lorenzo:  The Elders

The High Renaissance, Piero and his son, Lorenzo the Magnificent

Florentine Independence and the End of the Florentine Renaissance, Piero II and Lorenzo II in Exile

The Roman Renaissance, Cardinal Giulio de' Medici and Pope Leo X (Giovanni de' Medici)

The End of Florentine Independence, Pope Clement VII (Giulio de' Medici), Alessandro, and Caterina de' Medici

The Late Renaissance, The Grand Duke and Duchess of Tuscany:  Cosimo de' Medici and Eleonora di Toledo

The Age of Discovery, Francesco and Ferdinando:  Two Very Different Brothers

The Age of Reason and The Enlightenment, The Decline of de' Medici Reason and Enlightened Governance
























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The de' Medici Dynasty and Italian History

The de' Medici family of Mugello, Tuscany, a small town north of Florence, built a commercial empire, then they used cunning and at times cut-throat tactics to gain political power over several centuries (1380s - 1700s), spanning the Late-Middle-Ages, the Renaissance, and the Age-of-Discovery, as:

  • Lords and Duke of Florence,
  • Dukes of other Italian cities,
  • Bishops, Cardinals and Popes,
  • Grand Dukes of Tuscany
  • And through intermarriage into many of Europe's ruling families including the French monarchy, resulting in two French de' Medici Queens and one Consort. 

The de' Medici became the richest family in Europe.

The family coat-of-arms decorates much of Florence because they financed building and renovation projects throughout the Italian Renaissance, decorating the buildings by the most illustrious Italian artists

An early de' Medici, Cosimo the Elder, said that Florentine politics was iffy, but buildings last.  He was right about that and many more things. 

If you're interested in coats-of-arms, click on the image below to go to a heraldry site with all the Medici coat-of-arms from the beginning of the dynasty to its end.

The name de' Medici means 'of the doctors', suggesting the early family members were medical men.  This could mean they were barbers who made plant and herbal potions, or doctors who visited the sick, drew blood with leeches, made pills, teas or drops from herbal and plant extracts. 

Interestingly, the de' Medici family members, from beginning to end, showed more than usual interest in botany, the science behind herbal and plant potions.  Their gardens were treasure troves of medicinal herbs. 

Their family name and especial interest in plants could explain the popular association of poisons with the de' Medici family, which was further fueled by the sudden deaths of many of their enemies and less-liked relations.

Honore de Balzac, the French writer, described the House of the Medici as being the sovereign house with the greatest contempt for legitimacy anywhere in the world

"To whichever the crown goes, he is true, the legitimate sovereign." 

Here's how Balzac described Italy and the era of the Italian Renaissance

"At this epoch Venice had the commerce of the world; Rome had its moral government; Italy still reigned supreme through the poets, the generals, the statesmen born to her

"At no period of the world's history, in any land, was there ever seen so remarkable, so abundant a collection of men of genius.  There were so many, in fact, that even the lesser princes were superior men. 

"Italy was crammed with talent, enterprise, knowledge, science, poesy, wealth, and gallantry, all the while torn by intestinal warfare and overrun with conquerors struggling for possession of her finest provinces. 

"When men are so strong, they do not fear to admit their weaknesses.  Hence, no doubt, this golden age for bastards.  We must, moreover, do the illegitimate children of the house of the Medici the justice to say that they were ardently devoted to the glory, power, and increase of wealth of that famous family."

It is now believed that a special, secret crypt found beneath the Basilica di San Lorenzo was created specifically for the illegitimate de' Medici children

Cosimo the Elder had at least one illegitimate child, Carlo, who lived a long life linked to the family and the family business, and it was Cosimo the Elder who planned with the architect what was built under the church, including his own grave.


That the de' Medici, a powerful and wealthy family, had so many openly recognized illegitimate children is no surprise.  The Renaissance was a time of:

  • high child mortality,
  • ineffective birth-control methods,
  • arranged loveless marriages,
  • forced priesthood on minor sons,
  • and accepted male infidelity. 

That meant for the de' Medici men that:

  • all your children were cherished,
  • you had many unplanned children, 
  • you had to avoid marriage if you were destined for Holy Orders,
  • you often had to look outside of marriage for love,
  • and you had the freedom to take lovers (concubines/mistresses). 

Balzac notes that it wasn't until the late 1500s that there was an orderly, legitimate and peaceful succession of power from one de' Medici Duke of Tuscany to the next. 

Also, I believe not coincidentally, that's when the de' Medici heirs begin their moral and intellectual decline, the line becoming extinct in 1737 with the long-wished-for passing of the last, disgraceful, de' Medici Grand Duke of Tuscany, leaving no heirs. 

The marriages to cousins did not help their health nor intelligence, so the earlier competition for the title among all the heirs, legitimate or not, made sure the strongest, worthiest contender won, and helped the House of Medici survive as long as it did.


To the next section:

The Late-Middle-Ages, Early Renaissance, Giovanni:  The Founder