Candida Martinelli's Italophile Site

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The de' Medici Dynasty



History Italy

Marco Polo

Florence Art


Florencia Stationary

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

Some works by Masaccio


Saint Peter baptizing a man



Saint John



Saint Peter paying taxes



Virgin and Child



A youth



Florence's cathedral with Brunelleschi's famous dome, a view from above










Visit my Italian History pages



The Late-Middle-Ages, Early Renaissance

Giovanni:  The Founder

In the Late-Middle-Ages, city-states grew rich from trade, especially those with access to ports, like Venice, Genoa, Pisa (Florence).  The growing trade required bankers, accountants, interpreters, craftsmen, salesmen, distributors…in short, a middle class. 


This growing counter-balance to the power of the evermore corrupt church dominated the end of the Middle Ages, and pushed Italy ahead of Europe into the Renaissance. 


Dante Alighieri was right there.  He is a late Middle Ages writer that is considered the bridge with the Renaissance.  He lived from 1265-1321.  


Petrarch wrote during this transitional period, and is considered the father of humanism, the main philosophy of the Renaissance.

And Giovanni di Bicci de' Medici was there as part of the growing middle class.  The enterprising but not well-off Giovanni di Bicci de' Medici (1360-1429) moved from Mugello to Florence.

Giovanni began by acquiring real estate in the New Market area.  That area was much later opened up by the demolition of the medieval buildings and made into Piazza della Republica. 

In this image by Dutch artist Jan Van der Straet, called Giovanni Stradoni in Italy, you can see the old Piazza with the small shops around it.

Piazza del Mercato Vecchio 1555

Giovanni built his property business into a commercial giant, adding a pawn-broking/banking business that he expanded with branches throughout the Northern Italian city-states and all then all of Europe. 

The banking business was like today's Hawala money-transfer system.  For example:

  1. If someone in Florence wanted to pay someone in Paris money, he would go to the Banco Medici and give them the sum in local currency. 
  2. The de' Medici would send a message to their bank in Paris and authorize them to pay the sum, converted to local currency, to the designated recipient. 
  3. The bank made money on fees charged for the service, and on the exchange rates used.

The earliest banks were also pawn-brokers, just as today's banks in Italy are also pawn-brokers.  Items were left in the bank safes as collateral for loans small and large for usually less than half the market value of the item. 

If the loans weren't repaid in a certain amount of time, the items were sold and the 'bank' owners made their profit.  It was a way of running a bank without charging interests, which was ruled a sin by the Vatican.  Like the Islamic banks today, and for the same reason, only fees were charged for services.

Today, people in Italy use this bank service as a substitute for credit cards.  Credit cards were introduced only recently in Italy, and the 18-25% interest on charges not paid off immediately, are substantial compared to the small fees charged by pawn-brokers. 

In fact, the famous Parmigiano cheese is actually 'pawned' to the banks in that region of Italy.  The banks offer loans to the producers, only if they store their valuable cheeses in bank-provided vaults.  If the loans are not repaid, the bank keeps possession of the cheese, technically called collateral for the loans. 

Giovanni's money bought him entry into the high circles of Florence, but he was never part of the aristocracy of the city, nor did he aspire to be.  Like his de' Medici relations before him, Giovanni de' Medici supported a popular government of the people

The people of Florence held dear to that dream with ever increasing tenacity over the coming years, ironically fighting the tyranny of the de' Medici along the way.


Florence's town hall in the Palazzo Vecchio

Giovanni made the family home in several connecting medieval properties along Via Cavour in Florence, then called Via Larga.

Rendering of a via Larga procession after the Medici built their palace, seen here to the right, on the corner 

He then began purchasing most of the property along with wide street, and rented the homes to the de' Medici employees, while retaining the orchards and vegetable plots for his sons to develop later. 

Giovanni was patron to many artists including Masaccio who is often called the first Renaissance painter.  And he supported the artist and architect Brunelleschi

Giovanni provided most of the money for the rebuilding of his local parish church, now the Basilica di San Lorenzo, and gave the contract for the work to Brunelleschi. 

The exterior of the church was never decorated, but the interior was embellished over the years by many famous Florentine artists under commission to the de' Medici family.


Interior of the Basilica of San Lorenzo

Giovanni lived to the age of 69.  He was well respected in Florence and seen as a fair and peace-loving man.  He brought prestige to the city through his powerful business contacts and hosting important guests. 

Before Giovanni died, he managed to secure the Papacy as his bank's client.  He was 'God's Banker', using a more recent term.  This was a coup because the Vatican was at that time, the largest multi-national organization in the world. 

The other bankers in Florence envied the de' Medici their big client, envy that would lead to much strife down the years. 

Giovanni built up a multi-national empire of commerce, property and banking, and set an example to his sons of artistic patronage and political moderation.  That's why he's considered the patriarch of the de' Medici empire.


To the next section:  The Early Renaissance, Cosimo and Lorenzo:  The Elders 


Florence's cathedral with Brunelleschi's famous dome, a view from the side