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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


This humanist philosopher was protected by Lorenzo de' Medici.  But Mirandola, together with another protectorate of Lorenzo, Angelo Poliziano, turned to Savonarola and against the de' Medici.  For this, it seems, they were poisoned to death with arsenic in 1494, after the de' Medici were banished from Florence.  Mirandola was over 6 feet tall and athletic in build.  Poliziano was 5 feet tall and slim built.  All this was discovered recently when their graves in the Church of San Marco were opened and their remains studied. 












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Florentine Independence and the End of the Florentine Renaissance

Piero II and Lorenzo II in Exile

Lorenzo the Magnificent had 3 daughters and 3 sons, besides bringing up Giulio, his nephew. 

Lorenzo's eldest son, Piero II de' Medici, Lo Sfortunato (the Unfortunate), lived from 1471 to 1503.  He suffered a physical handicap, possibly the inherited arthritis Forestier's Disease.  He took over the family business and the title of Lord of Florence at the age of 21, when is father died.    

Piero Di Lorenzo De' Medici

For the de' Medici to survive in the changing Italy and Europe, they needed to keep a balance between the various stronger forces at work:

  • The Vatican and it's Papal States under the Pope,
  • the Holy Roman Emperor,
  • the King of France,
  • and later the Spanish and Austrian powers. 

The discoveries of Christopher Columbus in the New World spurred the gradual beginnings of the Age of Discovery. 

Amerigo Vespucci and other map-makers and explorers began to broaden the world view, as well as ignite a desire to control the new territories and sources of wealth. 

A new age began with the death of Lorenzo the Magnificent, and the de' Medici would resort to new means to retain their power:

  • Cunning statecraft,
  • duplicitous maneuvers,
  • strategic marriages, and sometimes
  • outright bribery kept the de' Medici dynasty going until the 1700s.

Piero II the Unfortunate was unfortunate in more than just his health.  Under his reign, the de' Medici were kicked out of Florence in 1494 when Fra' Girolamo Savonarola, a religious fanatic, started an insurrection

Savonarola had been preaching for a while about an avenging angel that was going to arrive and clean Florence of all it's decadence.  So when the French under King Charles VIII arrived in Tuscany, on their way to attack the King in Naples, Savonarola claimed his predictions had come true.

Portrait of Savonarola

And when Piero II failed to stop Charles VIII from entering Florence, he was seen as assisting the taking of the city. 

Savonarola  played on this and managed to worked up support for a coup, which banished the de' Medici from Florence.  Savonarola proceeded to set up an oppressive religious moral-authority to govern Florence.

Just a note on the junior branch of the family:  they delighted in all this and to show their support for Savonarola and the Republican (popular) forces of Florence, the gave up the de' Medici name and renamed themselves Popolani (of the People).  All branches of the de' Medici were pretty good and public relations ploys.

When the de' Medici were routed from Florence, their property was looted, their coat-of-arms throughout the city defaced, and their palaces taken by the newly formed Republican government.  Much of the de' Medici wealth was sold at auction with the money going into the new state's coffers. 

But like all moral-authority rulers, Savonarola became increasingly fanatical.  The public eventually revolted at his strict edicts, and the Pope ordered his execution.  Savonarola and two of his monks were tortured, hung and burned in the main square of Florence, just as he had had done to sinners under his reign. 

Here are two images of the pier and pyre that were built in Piazza della Signoria for the occasion, with wood-carriers to fuel the fire, spectators including children and the officials officiating. 

The Torture of Savonarola

Savonarola's hangman supposedly said something like "this was what you were going to do to me".  Fun times.

Piero II the Unfortunate died in exile in 1503 at the young age of 32.  The peace Piero's father, Lorenzo the Magnificent, had held together collapsed as France invaded Italy, and French soldiers remained in Italy in one way or another until the full unification of Italy in the late1800s.

Piero II had a son and daughter.  His son Lorenzo II became the Duke of Urbino instead of the Lord of Florence as the other first born de' Medici sons, because his family was still in exile.  Lorenzo II de' Medici lived from 1492 to 1519.  

A portrait of Lorenzo II painted in 1586,  long after his death.

But in 1512, Lorenzo II did return to Florence.  The Republic fell to an army paid for by Pope Julius II (of Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel ceiling fame), and headed by Giulio and Giovanni de' Medici, both of whom had already taken Holy Orders. 

The de' Medici family took back their property and restored the damaged properties, added battle reinforcements to the Medici Palace, and moved back into the family homes.


Lorenzo II, the idealized version, by Michelangelo from the Medici Tomb

Lorenzo II did not live long enough to regain the family title of Lord of Florence.  He died two years after returning to Florence, in 1519, at the age of 27, of syphilis, only days after his wife's death in childbirth. 

The child lived, however, so little Caterina de' Medici was orphaned in her first week of life.  She was taken in by her great-uncle Giulio.  Little Caterina would go on to more than make up for her father's lost power and prestige, as Queen of France.


Just a side note...after Lorenzo the Magnificent's death, Michelangelo left the Medici Palace, but returned for a commission by Piero II the Unfortunate. 

When the Savonarola revolt happened, Michelangelo took refuge in a room under the Basilica of San Lorenzo, where he decorated the walls with sketches to pass the time.  The room was recently rediscovered and is sometimes allowed to be viewed by visitors to the Basilica. 

Michelangelo later escaped, but returned twice to Florence, once under Savonarola's religious control which he approved of in the beginning, and later under the Republic of Florence.  Michelangeo was 26 years old by then. 

The Republic of Florence commissioned Michelangelo to create the statue of David in 1504 for the new Republic, as a symbol of the Republic standing strong against the bigger 'Goliath' forces around it, namely the de' Medici with their hired armies.


The head of the Signoria dared to tell Michelangelo he thought David's nose was too large and to fix it.  People were shocked when feisty Michelangelo quietly climbed up the scaffolding and chiseled away at David's nose.  Marble dust fell to the ground below.  The head of the Signoria was pleased and said the nose was now perfect. 

Those in the know, however, saw Michelangelo take a handful of marble dust from his pocket and only pretend to chisel.  He dropped the dust as he play-acted, and never altered David's nose

The people of Florence understood the symbolism of the David, and expressed their gratitude by pasting thank-you notes to the base of the statue, addressed to Michelangelo.


Another interesting side note of this period is about the member of the new Florentine Republic's government most famous to us today:  Machiavelli

Machiavelli worked as an civil-servant, ambassador, and organizer of the Florentine military forces. 

Niccolo Machiavelli

As ambassador, he tried to get recognition for the young Republic from other city-states and their ruling princes.  He sought not only recognition, but protection because the de' Medici family had lots of pull when it came to garnering forces to wage their return to Florence, including many Dukes and the Pope and the Papal forces.

Machiavelli went into exile in 1512 when the Republic fell to the de' Medici forces, and he spent his evenings in exile writing two books: 

  • a long one about why the Republican form of government is best, and
  • a short one on the nature of prince-run governments to show why they are one of the worst forms of governance. 

Sadly, most people know Machiavelli for his short work, The Prince.  Even sadder, most believe he was advocating prince-run governance!


Machiavelli in his court dress in later life, which he always wore when writing his books

Machiavelli also wrote a History of Florence, that was dedicated to, paid for, and quite favorable to the de' Medici.  It was his way of trying to make a living and win favor with the returned rulers.  Here's a link to the document on-line.


To the next section:

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