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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





Portrait of Cosimo I, father of Francesco and Ferdinando, by Bronzino



























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The Age of Discovery

Francesco and Ferdinando:  Two Very Different Brothers

Francesco I de' Medici (1541-1587) eldest son of Cosimo and Eleonora, became regent for the Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1564, 10 years before his father's death. 

The family, including Francesco's wife, the sister of the Emperor Massimiliano II, who had be instrumental in getting the de' Medici the Grand Duchy title,  moved between the Palazzo Pitti, apartments in the Palazzo Vecchio, and other Palaces and country estates.

Francesco's first wife, the mistreated Giovanna 

These two portraits of Francesco are gloomier than the previous children's portraits, and it's said the difference is because of Francesco's famously dark and capricious character.  He has his father's forehead, but his mother's fine chin.

Portrait of Francesco I de' Medici (age 10)

After his father's death, Francesco let the Austrian and Spanish branches of the Hapsburg royals gain control over much of his Grand Duchy, while he entertained himself with science (alchemy) and other hobbies, like setting up Majolica and glassware factories.  The ceramics came to be known as Medici ceramics.

His glassworks, and one set up by his father in The Uffizi, were manned by Venetian glassblowers who came secretly to Florence during the summer months when their Venetian glass factories were ordered shutdown.  They had to come in secret because it was illegal for them to transfer the valuable technical knowledge outside of Venice.   They were paid very well for their efforts.

The main Florentine glassworks were eventually at Casino di San Marco, and artistic glass objects were often produced as gifts for foreign dignitaries and for the Grand Duchy's properties. 

One of Francesco's better known hobbies was his Venetian lover, Bianca Cappello.  It's said he arranged for the death of Bianca's Florentine husband so he could have her all to himself.

After Francesco's wife died suddenly at the young age of 30 (yes, people did assume she was murdered, but no, it's not yet been proved) he married Bianca, his longtime lower, against the family's wishes.

  Bianca Cappello di Bonaventuri by Bronzino

Francesco may have gone to such lengths because he and his first wife had failed to produce a male heir.  He clearly hoped he could produce one with Bianca, a woman he also happened to love.  Piero adopted Bianca's daughter, Pelligrina.

Pelligrina, Bianca's daughter, Piero's adopted daughter

Bianca was a crafty one, who when she realized they could not conceive children together (because of syphilis, possibly), purchased a child from a poor woman and tried to pass him off as their child saying a fairy-goblin brought him, or some such nonsense. 

Bianca's son Antonio

Bianca appears to have been a captivating woman, otherwise it would be difficult to explain why her husband, rejecting the story, then adopted the boy and her daughter by her husband.  She was captivating and he was desperate for an heir.

Francesco I was a de' Medici in more than the assassinations and despotism (he dismantled the Florentine system of justice).  He was patron to artists and architects

He had the architect Buontalenti expand Gli Uffizi to hold the de' Medici art.  He also had an extravagant garden installed above the Loggia dei Lanzi for special functions and for the relaxation of the de' Medici family in the evenings, and had a theatre built inside Gli Uffizi for entertainments for he and his guests.  The theatre and garden are both long gone. 

Francesco I built and decorated Villa Pratolino for his mistress / second wife, Bianca.  The paths you see in the lunette below crisscrossing the 74 acre estate, lead to elaborate water features designed like the villa by Buontalenti, and decorated by Giambologna, to make it into a fable-like world for Bianca. 

The villa and grounds went to the successors of the de' Medici, who sold it in 1872 to the Demidoff family.  The villa was in such a bad state of repair, it was torn down.  The Demidoffs restored the servants' villa (possibly the villa in the bottom right of the lunette) into their home, Villa Demidoff. 

They also restored the much-altered gardens as much as possible.  In 1981, it was purchased by the state and is now open to the public

To pay for all this, and the money the Emperor demanded of Tuscany in tribute, Francesco I taxed the Tuscans terribly, not making himself an especially popular Grand Duke.

Remember the villa that Alessandro Il Moro took possession of, the Villa della Petraia?  In 1568, Cosimo gave it to his younger son, Ferdinando, who took Holy Orders, which was the second-son custom by now. 

As Cardinal Ferdinando, he had Buontalenti re-build the villa, and Tribolo design and construct the classic Italian gardens.  The villa remained a favorite spot for the de' Medici and their later successors, eventually being donated to the state in 1919.  The grounds are open to the public.  Click on this link for more about Villa della Petraia

Francesco I died, officially, of malaria in 1587 on nearly the same day as Bianca, at the Villa Poggio a Caiano.  This has lead to rumors that they were murdered by order of Cardinal Ferdinando, Francesco's younger brother. 

If he did have his brother killed, the idea was obviously to prevent Francesco's adopted son from taking over the family.  At the time of Francesco's death, his adopted son was 11 years old and too young to take the family title.  So Ferdinando (1549-1609) became the new Grand Duke of Tuscany.

Recent excavations in the de' Medici crypts may settle this story one day.  One thing is certain, the despised Bianca (the youngest brother, Piero, called her 'the witch') was denied a burial in the family crypt, and buried elsewhere.  It is her body that will be tested for poisons to hopefully settle the story.

There's a well-accepted story that younger brother Piero had his wife's lover murdered, then strangled her when she was grieving her lover's death (Piero's sister was strangled by her husband for taking lovers).  Piero was said to be a playboy like his father, and his father married him off to Elenora, a childhood playmate and cousin, because his father wanted to hide from the gossiping public that she was pregnant with Cosimo's child.  Piero and Elenora lived a loveless marriage, each with many lovers.  I bet the Tuscans were very glad he wasn't next in line for Grand Duke!  In the end, they were pleased with Ferdinando's rule as Grand Duke. 

This book by a noted historian, recounts the murder story and the story of Isabella, another of Cosimo's daughters.


Before this time, Ferdinando had lived mainly in Rome.  He had purchased and developed a Villa now known as the Villa Medici at Rome, and today home to the French Academy of Art.  He had also begun an art collection that he brought back with him to Florence.

Ferdinando was supposedly ordained a Cardinal at the age of 14, but gave up the Holy Orders to become Grand Duke of Tuscany at the age of 38.  All the accounts in Catholic Italy say, however, that he never really took the Holy Orders, and was only pretending to be a Cardinal, it seems.

The only explanation I can think of for this silly story is that Italy, especially back then, was a very Catholic place, and perhaps this was the cover story to make it seem not so terrible for him to abandon the religious life to become Grand Duke.

Portrait of Ferdinando de' Medici, age 10 (1549-1609) (Ferdinand I, Grand Duke of Tuscany)

Becoming Grand Duke freed Ferdinando to marry, which he did with Cristina di Lorena, the grand-daughter of Caterina de' Medici, the last legitimate heir of Lorenzo the Magnificent.  He joined together the two sides of the family with his marriage.

Wedding Banquet of Ferdinand 

Ferdinando could also now father children, which he did with enthusiasm, producing 9 heirs.

Francesco and Caterina de Medici, two of Ferdinando I's many children

Ferdinando is referred to in Tuscan history with respect for a reign that was intelligent, prudent, tolerent and peaceful.  His life at court with Christine of Lorraine was considered an example of morality, grace and good taste.

Ferdinand I made Palazzo Pitti the family's principal home, rather than live in the apartments in Palazzo Vecchio.  He had painters decorate many of the rooms with fresco series

Over the course of his time as Grand Duke:

  • He improved the independence of Tuscany
  • Improved the financial standing of the de' Medici bank 
  • He funded public works projects to improve agricultural production
  • Funded a navy used to fight off pirates from the Tuscan coast
  • The navy also fought the Turkish navy for the Pope 
  • He had the port of Livorno built
  • Made Livorno a haven for those persecuted elsewhere  (read on-line in Italian his official invitation to merchants to settle in Livorno and Pisa, courtesy of Project Gutenberg)
  • He protected Jews and non-believers in official edicts
  • Reinstated the Justice system his brother had dismantled 
  • He set up an important glassworks in Pisa in 1592
  • Encouraged other manufacturing businesses to stimulate the Tuscan economy

Portrait of Ferdinand I De' Medici

Ferdinando also made a change with the Old Bridge that has remained a feature of it to this day Tanners and butchers used to live and work in the shops on the Old Bridge, Il Ponte Vecchio, at that time.  Tanners used horse urine to tan the leather, then dumped the remains into the river.  The butchers no doubt dumped the animal remains and blood into the river too. 

Ferdinando and his family objected to the odors, which reached them even in the corridor, and they objected to the filthy business being located on such a special Florentine monument.  Ferdinando saw to it that the rents on the bridge shops were raised until only jewelers could afford the location.  They remain there today. 

He added exhibitions to the Gli Uffizi that fitted with his tastes and interests of the day, science and men of science, the discovery of the world as shown by a large map collection, a room for scientific instruments, and a laboratory where artisans crafted fine art from stones and metals. 

He expanded the de' Medici decorations in the Basilica of San Lorenzo.

He supported the musical arts, staging in the Boboli Gardens behind the Pitti Palace the earliest precursors of today's Lyric Opera

Ferdinando I also commissioned Buontalenti to build Villa Dell'Ambrogiana in 1587 as his shooting lodge. 

That's the Arno river in the background.  The villa is situated in Ambrogiana, next to Montelupo, outside Florence.  Montelupo is an old ceramics center that celebrates it's history every year with an International Ceramics Festival.  Oddly, in the1800s the villa was turned into a prison hospital for the mentally ill.  Today it is open to the public.

Ferdinando's marriage to a French royal was a conscious decision to align the family more directly to the French, to restrict the power of the Spanish crown.  With this same intent, Ferdinando arranged the marriage of Francesco I's daughter (by his first wife), Marie de' Medici, to Henri IV the King of France

Ferdinando also loaned large sums of money to Henri IV and convinced him to convert to Catholicism.  But Henri IV never repaid the loans, hurting the de' Medici bank, starting its decline.

The Tuscan's lost a wonderful Grand Duke when Ferdinando died suddenly at the age of 60 in 1609.


Marie de' Medici, mother of French King Louis XIII, and a trouble-maker

Marie was famed for her beauty as a young woman, and married off in 1600 at the age of 27.  She was called the King's Consort, because her cousin Margarite, daughter of Caterina de' Medici, retained the title of Queen after divorcing Henri IV. 

On the death of King Henri IV ten years later, Marie became Regent in the name of her young son, King Louis XIII

Marie was a true de' Medici.  She shocked the French court with:

  • her salty, verbal attacks on her husband's mistresses when he was still alive,
  • spent his wealth liberally,
  • was implicated in her husband's assassination,
  • made power-plays all over Europe especially in Hapsburg Spain, and
  • schemed revolts against her son the King and his advisor Richelieu until her dying day.


To the next section: 

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