Candida Martinelli's Italophile Site

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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


Giotto's famous bell-tower of the Cathedral of Florence


Giotto's early Madonna and Child in the Iconic style


Giotto's Annunciation altarpiece


Giotto's The Lamentation of the Death of Christ


Giotto's Adoration of the Magi with the rare view of Mary reclining after giving birth, instead of praying on her knees


Giotto's Nativity with the reclining Mary and Joseph who is sitting attending a fire to keep them warm.  I love the playful angels on the roof of the stables.


One of Giotto's many paintings depicting the life of Saint Francis of Assisi, decorating the Church of Saint Francis in Assisi


Ghirlandaio decorated Sala del Gigli in the Palazzo Vecchio done in 1482



Ghirlandaio's famous portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni, a relation by marriage of the de' Medici




Ghirlandaio's Adoration of the Magi, look closely and you may see a de' Medici!



Ghirlandaio's Christ in Heaven



Ghirlandaio's beautiful Last Supper, with the typical pose and depiction of effeminate Peter, crying in Christ's lap (Sorry to those who may like to believe Dan Brown's interpretation of Da Vinci's Last Supper, but Peter always looked like a girl during the Renaissance.)



Ghirlandaio's Nativity with a host of Florentine's in attendance



Ghirlandaio's beautiful Visitation



A Ghirlandaio Madonna and Child



Leonardo Da Vinci's most famous painting, a portrait of the young wife of a Florentine merchant, Giocondo, giving the painting it's Italian name, La Gioconda.  It's been recently said by art experts that she wears a veiled dress signifying a pregnancy or recent birth, dating the image soon after the birth of her second son.  She went on to mother 5 children.


Leonardo's Madonna with a Carnation, with his characteristic architectural and natural background



A Madonna by Leonardo Da Vinci



A portrait sketch of an old man from one of Leonardo's sketch books, sketches he used when working up his paintings



A Leonardo woman's portrait sketch, a face that he seems to have used in some of his paintings



A late self-portrait sketch of Leonardo made not long before his death.  He was famous as a young man for his striking beauty, a beauty that was the envy of Michelangelo, a man known for his small build, and rough and off-kilter features.



Doni Tondo by Michelangelo






This trilogy by historian/novelist Linda Proud is a real accomplishment.  She manages to bring to life Lorenzo de' Medici's Italy through characters key to the Italian Renaissance, but never loses sight of the human aspect of that time of clashing ideas from the Medieval and the rebirth of classic art and philosophy. 

Go to my Historical Novels set in Italy page, where I link to her publisher's site, Godstow Press, where you can read about the books and enjoy excerpts from the three novels.  You can purchase the books via
























Visit my Italian History pages

The High Renaissance

Piero and his son, Lorenzo the Magnificent

Just so you know what's happening with the junior branch while I trace the line of the senior branch...

Lorenzo's descendants were not happy being the junior branch of the family.  Over the years they rejoiced in any problems the senior branch suffered, and when possible, caused problems for them. 

One of them eventually murdered the last senior branch ruler, passing the Florentine Lordship and the family business to the junior branch.  But the murderer, who was the junior branch's rightful heir to the title, was in turn murdered by his cousin to secure the position of Lord of Florence for himself. 

When it comes to the de' Medici, truth is stranger than fiction.  More about all that's an image of Lorenzo the Elder by Bronzino, painted long after Lorenzo's death.

Lorenzo the Elder, father of the junior branch of the family, that will eventually take over from the senior branch when it dies out, by the hand of someone from the junior branch, so-Medici!

Cosimo had three sons, and his eldest was  Piero I de' Medici, il Gottoso (the Gouty).  We now know that his illness was more likely an inherited form of arthritis called Forestier's Disease that left him at times completely immobile.  Piero lived from 1416 to 1469.


Piero I from a fresco in the Medici Palace chapel by Gozzoli

Piero took over the family business and the power behind the Florentine state.  Piero suffered not only from Gout but also lung disease and general poor health all his life long. 

Piero I only ran the family business from his father's death in 1464 to his own death in 1469, 5 years in which he:

  • fought off several coups in Florence,
  • evaded capture by enemies, and
  • made more enemies by calling in old loans from prominent Florentine businessmen causing their bankruptcy.

Seemingly, he lacked his father's political savvy.

But one thing Piero I did excel in was his tastes in art and for rare books, perhaps inherited from his father Cosimo.  Unlike his father, Piero had a reputation as a studious and shy deep-thinker. 

Piero commissioned works from Botticelli including his famous Adoration of the Magi and a fresco series in the Medici Palace chapel by Gozzoli of the procession of the Magi to Jesus on his birth. 

Both those works famously depict members of the de' Medici family as participants in Biblical history

And in the procession in the fresco which shows the procession beginning at the Medici country seat of Cafaggiolo, members of the de' Medici family are shown together with other prominent Florentines in the procession behind the youngest of the three kings (fresco detail below).

Most of the attributions you'll see are fishy.  The best scholarship is on the Web Gallery of Art site. 

Having oneself added to the Bible may seem egotistical, but it can be argued that the paintings show not the Biblical story, but the yearly pageant by the Florentine Brotherhood of the Magi (of which Cosimo and his family were members) that went from the countryside into Florence down the Via Larga.

Villa Cafaggiolo is privately owned today and divided into luxury rental apartments.

Villa Cafaggiolo

Cafaggiolo in the fresco by Gozzoli

Piero I had two sons, Lorenzo and Giuliano

Lorenzo, the elder son, took over the family business and power in Florence at a time historians now call the Renaissance's Golden Age, when his father died in 1469 at the age of 53.  (Technically, Lorenzo shared power with his bother, Giuliano.)

Lorenzo lived from 1449 to 1492, taking power at the age of 20, and dying at the age of 43.  This wasn't a long life, but it was long enough to get himself the title of Il Magnifico, the Magnificent. 

Lorenzo immediately commissioned the artist Andrea Verrocchio to create the classically styled tombs for his father and uncle in the Old Sacristy of the Basilica of San Lorenzo

An interesting side note, is the introduction of printing in Florence in 1471.  Printers from northern Europe spread throughout all the rich Italian city-states around this time, setting up printing workshops either as private businesses, or under the patronage of a local merchant family.

Lorenzo de Medici 'The Magnificent'

Studious Piero had seen to it that his sons, Lorenzo and his Giuliano, were educated by the best minds in Florence, a center for learning, and he himself was patron to writers, artists, composers and architects.  But it was Lorenzo who had the mind and spirit to become the classical Renaissance Man

Lorenzo excelled in all the arts and diplomacy and politics and in physical challenges, but less so in the family business of banking. 

Part of the problem was a growing argument with Pope Sixtus IV who wanted to unite Italy under the Papal States.  The Pope eventually took away the Papal business from the de' Medici bank .


Like his father before him, Lorenzo also had himself painted into many of the frescos he paid for, so we have lots of images of him, not all consistent likenesses.  Some were painted after his death from other portraits. 

The portrait above appears to portray Lorenzo's squashed nose bridge correctly.  He inherited this trait from his mother, and both were unable to taste or smell anything because of it. 

 Lorenzo's Mother, Lucrezia

This posthumous portrait below seems to attempt to correct the nose, idealize his famous mane of dark hair, and show to a lesser extent is well-documented olive-colored skin.  He is wearing the red robe of a citizen of Florence.

Portrait of Lorenzo De' Medici 'The Magnificent'

Lorenzo was very fond of his four-year-younger brother, Giuliano, and co-ruler for the beginning of his rule.  Giuliano is the proud-looking man in the image below (although some call him 'pensieroso', thoughtful). 

Portrait of Giuliano de' Medici (1478-1534) c.1480

Giuliano fathered an illegitimate child, Giulio, who was born after Giuliano was murdered by the de' Medici business rivals, the Pazzi, who were backed by Pope Sixtus IV, in 1478.  The assassination took place while the brothers were attending Easter service in church, of all places. 

Lorenzo was stabbed in the attack too but managed to escape.  His brother couldn't escape and was stabbed to death in full view of everyone. 

Lorenzo named his next born son after his brother, and brought Giulio, who was born after the death of his father, up as his own son.  Lorenzo had all the boys educated by the brightest minds in Florence.

The three boys, Giuliano, Giovanni and Giulio, are depicted in this piece of the famous Ghirlandaio fresco 'Confirmation of the Rule', about the moment when the Pope allowed St. Francis to set up his community in Assisi.

The event in St. Francis's life is moved from Rome to Florence, and the de' Medici are painted in attendance, the masters of public relations that they were.  This image links to the Web Gallery of Art's explanation.


After the assassination of his brother and the attempt on his life, there was a popular revolt in Florence and all the supporters of the Pazzi family were killed by mobs.  In a bizarre bit, they even dug up the Pazzi father and had fun hanging him and throwing his body into the river, twice.  (Odd goings on in the days before television.) 

Lorenzo also had the Archbishop of Pisa, who was also behind the attack, hung.  This lead to a war with the Papal Forces, the excommunication of Lorenzo, and all of Florence

Leonardo da Vinci took advantage of the events to make a few unusual sketches, like this one below.  All I can say is, artists must be like cops and doctors, less affected by gruesome sights than most.

Here's a link to a book that recounts of all this in great detail, if you're interested in reading more.


Lorenzo personally brought about peace in 1479 by negotiating directly, and in person, alone, with the Pope's Neapolitan allies.  Actually he bribed them to stop supporting the Pope, but he spent a year in Naples cementing the friendship, and charming King Ferdinando d'Aragona with his company and high culture. 

Lorenzo also used the new printing technology to have his side of the whole Pazzi Conspiracy affair distributed to the people of Florence and beyond. 

When he returned to Florence in 1480, a council was created to run Florence's affairs, but like his grandfather Cosimo before him, Lorenzo made sure he controlled a majority of the council members.  He ruled Florence from behind the scenes.

Pope Sixtus IV died in 1484 and was replaced by Pope Innocent VIII, a supporter of the de' Medici, and from this point on, the de' Medici built their influence in the Vatican by sons ordained as priests and Cardinals, and even eventually 3 de' Medici Popes. 

Lorenzo spent much of his short life securing the peace by gathering all the power he could to himself, and keeping the masses happy, even if it meant breaking the bank, the de' Medici bank, which he cleaned out, and he even stole from the state to cover the debts. 

Lorenzo was also a famous patron of the humanities and the arts with projects such as:

  • sponsoring the Neoplatonic Academy at his Villa Carreggi, and
  • setting up an Arts Academy including the Sculpture Garden or Garden of San Marco in Via Larga, where important new and classical pieces were displayed for students to study, and
  • putting artists together with sponsors, like DaVinci, Donatello, Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, and del Verrocchio who was DaVinci's teacher at the Academy. 

Lorenzo even let a young prodigy, Michelangelo (when he was younger than in this portrait from his time in Rome where he died), live at the Palace as a member of his family and be educated together with Lorenzo's children. 

This was the beginning of a complex relationship between the de' Medici and Michelangelo

Michelangelo was grateful to the de' Medici for their affection and support of his art and architecture, but he was a patriotic Florentine above all else.  He wanted the Florentine Republic to return, with the powerful families subordinate to the will of the people.  The love-hate relationship lasted his whole life.

Lorenzo commissioned Giuliano da Sangallo, an architect in a long line of architects, to build the Villa Poggio a Caiano, near Prato, Tuscany, in 1485.  His son Giovanni completed it.  The grounds were altered greatly over the years.  The de' Medici successors donated it to the state in 1919.  Today it's open to the public.

Villa Poggio a Caiano from a Series of Lunettes Depicting Views of The Medici Villas, 1599

Lorenzo also expanded his father's and grandfather's library, now called the Laurentian Library.  He purchased rare books from the Near East and set up a translation and copy center to disperse the books throughout Europe. 

He supported the great minds of his time such as humanist-neo-Platonic philosophers, linguists and translators:

Lorenzo also hired illuminators to decorate his books.  This is a page of one of his prayer books (yes, he was a secular leader, but a religious man) decorated by the artist Cherico.

Lorenzo died in 1492, six months before Columbus reached the Americas.  Lorenzo died at the young age of 43.  Although he suffered from the hereditary arthritis that his father had suffered from, he died from some sort of stomach aliment, most likely.  Machiavelli reported that Lorenzo was suffering from severe stomach pains leading up to his death, possibly from bleeding ulcers but more probably from stomach cancer.

The encouragement of secular art and humanist thought, did not please everyone in this very religious time, when the Vatican exerted not just spiritual power but also secular power backed by Papal Armies.  

An account at the time of Lorenzo's death, by an eye-witness, says Fra' Girolamo Savonarola, a religious fanatic who had originally returned to Florence under Lorenzo's protection, but who now preached against Lorenzo and the de' Medici, came to pay his respects to the dying man. 

Despite popular claims to the contrary, it was a respectful parting, and Lorenzo died in peace at Villa Careggi.

Many scholars use Lorenzo's death as the marking of the end of Florence's being the center of the Italian Renaissance

From that time on, Rome and the Popes, one of whom was Lorenzo's son, the other his nephew, would be the main setting and sponsor of the Italian Renaissance, until it was crushed by the Vatican's counter-reformation and Inquisition.

Here's a link to a biography of Lorenzo.


Syphilis's Affect on the de' Medici and History

One result of Columbus's trips to the Americas was a flood of new food and plants from the New World to Europe, with the royal houses, including the de' Medici, enjoying everything first. 

An unpleasant import from the New World by Columbus and his crews was an extremely virulent form of syphilis

The sexually transmitted infection first hit Naples in 1494 and spread quickly across Europe.  After 100 years, it was reduced greatly in virulence, but there was still only minimal treatment for it, and no cure, until after WWII when antibiotics were available

The early treatments were mercury and later arsenic, besides treatments for the many symptoms which mimicked other illnesses.  A saying at the time was "spend a night with Venus and a lifetime with Mercury".  Venus represented love or sex with a prostitute, Mercury represented the medicine mercury for the syphilis you got from the prostitute.

Over the years described in the following sections, the de' Medici family suffered from the scourge like all others in Europe

The infection caused miscarriages, early deaths, insanity, heart problems, poor eyesight, and lethargy, among other symptoms. 

It was transmitted to children in the womb, causing still higher numbers of still-births and infant mortality rates, especially among boys, generally more susceptible to prenatal illnesses.

When you review the history of the royal houses of Europe during this period, it is clear that syphilis influenced much of European history

  • the difficulty of conceiving boys,
  • the difficulty of keeping their children alive long enough to inherit the title,
  • the early deaths of their consorts who got the infection from their partner and suffered more so because of their frequent pregnancies weakening them (much like HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa today).

When a ruler or his heir had syphilis, it was generally known to the royal physicians but also generally not made public for fear of risking the leader's position through admitting this weakness, a weakness that everyone knew led to insanity and erratic behavior. 

But rest assured, in this time of:

  • regular marital sex with legal prostitutes,
  • no concept of marital fidelity,
  • no antibiotics, and
  • poor hygiene,

the de' Medici suffered the consequences of the disease and it affected their reign.


To the next section:

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