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


Charles V, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire



 Villa Medicee II



 Villa dell'Ambrogiana



 Villa del Trebbio



 Villa Cafaggiolo



 Villa di Castello 



 Villa La Petraia



 Villa Medicee I



Some images from Castle Chenonceau in France, Caterina de' Medici's favorite castle, from where she ruled France for most of her reign.

This is the impressive tree-lined walkway leading to the Castle that sits on the banks of the Cher River in the Loire Valley.


The Castle is actually the construction between the tower on the right, and the walkway/corridor built across the River Cher on the left. 



These gardens are the Diane de Poitiers Gardens.


When Caterina de' Medici took the Castle from Diane de Poitiers, she had it remodeled putting a definite de' Medici and Italian stamp on it.  The Medici balls and Florentine crest now decorate the ceiling of the bedroom of her former rival.  An Italian garden was added.  Italian majolica and terracotta tiles decorate the floors, the terracotta tiles stamped with the Florentine symbol.

One of the changes was this staircase she had built of Italian design, that was the first staircase in France of a style that wasn't round.  It is elaborately decorated and well-lit by a window and balcony that looks onto the River Cher.  It goes up the 3 stories of the Castle, but not down into the kitchens.



Another improvement was the conversion of a walkway across the River Cher into a corridor used for state functions and parties, as seen here from a castle window.

And here, from inside.


The kitchens were in the basement and they have been wonderfully preserved as you can see here in these images.

The butcher's block with knives and the drawer in the bottom for blood and bits that were used for sausages.  The hooks are for hanging fowl and other meats.

Another butcher's block, well-used, with the handy drawer underneath.



One of the hearths with cooking pots hanging, and the table full of produce.




The bread oven with bread forms and a ready supply of wood.

If you step back, you can see the bread paddles, the same type that are used by pizza makers around the world.

Here you can see that the bread oven sit next to a cooking hearth.


The sink with a pump that pumps water from the River Cher below.









Visit my Italian History pages


The End of Florentine Independence

Pope Clement VII (Giulio de' Medici), Alessandro, and Caterina de' Medici

Giulio de' Medici (1478-1534) was his cousin's advisor all through his papacy as Leo X, so he understood the situation of the church and the politics when he was elected to the position, after the death after only two years as Pope, of Adrian VI, in 1523. 

Giulio took the name Pope Clement VII.  He reluctantly made12-year-old Ippolito the nominal head of the de' Medici family interests in Florence, over his own illegitimate son Alessandro.  As Giulio was illegitimate too, his illegitimate son had less claim on the title.  Giulio made Alessandro the Duke of the Italian city Penne, in compensation.

Pope Clement VII (1478-1534) c.1526

All Giulio's experience didn't mean he was a particularly skilled Pope from our point of view.  But from his point of view, there wasn't much he could do but try to walk a tightrope between the two other great European powers of the time:

  • the French King Francois de Valois and
  • the Holy Roman Emperor in Germany Charles V.

Giulio also tried to straddle the fence on the Lutheran problem.  He and the other Cardinals had opposed Pope Adrian VI's attempts to reform the Catholic Church from within to counter the Lutheran points.  The Cardinals continued this opposition under Pope Clement VII. 

So when Henry the VIII of Britain wanted a divorce, they stuck to the letter of the current law and denied it, being especially angered by his betrothed's sympathies with the Lutherans.  This denied divorce resulted famously in the schism that established the Church of England

Giulio, as Pope Clement VII, didn't neglect his artistic duties to his family.  He had Michelangelo design and create a building worthy of the de' Medici library, a collection begun by Cosimo the Elder.  The beautiful Laurentian Library still stands today in Florence and is open to the public. 

Charles V sacked Rome in 1527 when the mercenaries under Giovanni delle Bande Nere, a de' Medici from the junior branch, was defeated.  Giovanni died defending Rome.  During the resulting sack of Rome, thousands were murdered and tortured, and the Vatican was looted of it's art and books.

Charles V, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire

Pope Clement VII was held prisoner in Castel Sant'Angelo until the Pope bribed some guards and managed to escape to Tuscany dressed as a peddler. 

This print ridicules the situation which does suggest something of the surreal about it. 

Filippo Strozzi happened to be with the Pope at the time, and the Pope turned him over to the enemy in the hopes of gaining his own release.  Strozzi was shipped off to prison in Naples.  This was yet another reason for the Strozzi to dislike the de' Medici, as if they needed one.

Castel Sant'Angelo, Rome

During all the confusion, the republican element in Florence reasserted itself and re-established the Florentine Republic

Alessandro and Ippolito fled with their protector, the Cardinal of Florence, but they left behind their 8 year-old cousin Caterina. 

The republican forces took possession of all the de' Medici property, again, and they took Caterina de' Medici captive, keeping her locked up in a convent. 

Florence was immediately hit by an epidemic that killed thousands of people.  The Republic lasted only 3 years this time.  Pope Clement VII signed a truce with Charles V and together they laid siege to Florence.

Michelangelo, who was in Florence during this time working on the de' Medici crypt and library, joined the republican forces and supervised defenses that helped keep out the advancing armies.  His defensive earthworks meant that the city was not overrun, but put under siege, a siege that lasted nearly a year

Pope Clement VII demanded the safe release of his grand-niece Caterina.  But the republicans were undecided whether to either place the child on the city walls exposed to the de' Medici artillery bombardments, or give her to the soldiers to dishonor.  Tough choice!  What a lovely era!

Catherine de' Medici as a child

Eventually, after a deal was brokered between the Pope and Charles V, the Pope's forces retook the city in 1530 and Caterina was brought to Rome.

Clement VII ordered that Michelangelo, a childhood friend, be spared death and be allowed instead to return to work on the family tombs and library.  But Michelangelo knew that he'd made an enemy of the younger de' Medici, and the failure of the Florentine Republic hurt him deeply.   

Clement VII and Charles V's deal:

  • Clement VII officially crowned Charles V as Holy Roman Emperor
  • Charles V made Florence a hereditary-run state under the de' Medici
  • Clement VII made Ippolito a Cardinal and sent him off to Hungary
  • Clement VII then named his illegitimate son, Alessandro Il Moro, the new de' Medici Lord of Florence in 1531
  • Charles V agreed to provide a wife for Alessandro from his family to seal the alliance.

Alessandro took little Caterina into his care as new head of the de' Medici family. 

Alessandro's nickname 'Il Moro' means 'the Moor', and was given to Alessandro because of his dark skin from his North African mother.  She was a serving girl in a de' Medici Palace when she conceived Alessandro with then Cardinal Giulio.  There are competing theories that she was either a black-African or of mixed parentage.  But from this portrait by the rather honest Pontormo, Alessandro looks very North African.

Alessandro de' Medici by Pontormo

A bit later on, Clement VII managed to get Charles V to sell a Dukedom to Alessandro making him the first Duke of the new Duchy of Florence in 1532.  Clement VII hoped the title and protection of the Holy Roman Emperor would make Alessandro appear more legitimate to the Florentines. 

This was a huge miscalculation.  The Florentines still harbored hopes of regaining their Republic, and the annexation of Florence by Charles V, angered many republicans, including members of the junior branch of the de' Medici family. 

Duke of Florence Alessandro by Vasari

A part of the deal, Charles V offered to Alessandro in marriage Charles's illegitimate daughter, Margaret, then 9 years old.  Alessandro married her in 1533 but kept the woman he loved as his mistressHis only children to live to adulthood were fathered with her and were named Giulio and Giulia de' Medici, after his father.

Alessandro's father, Pope Clement VII, hired Michelangelo, to paint the Last Judgment on a wall of the Sistine Chapel, but the Pope didn't live to see it completed.  Clement VII served as Pope until 1534, when he died from eating a poisonous mushroom.  That's not really as suspicious as it sounds in a time when there was little industrial mushroom production, and the Pope was a famous glutton.

Pope Clement VII was Michelangelo's protector against Alessandro, who hated the artist for his republican beliefs.  So when Pope Clement VII died in 1534, Michelangelo decided to remain in Rome rather than return to his beloved Florence.  Michelangelo was 54, and he was to live to be nearly 100 in Rome, never returning to Florence until after his death, brought there by another de' Medici for burial and royal honors, but more about that in the next section. 


Caterina de' Medici, Queen of France

And what of little Caterina at this time?  Caterina's great-uncle, Pope Clement VII, married her off in 1533 at the age of 14, with Alessandro's approval and assistance, to the second son of Francois I the King of France, Henry the Duke of Orleans, who was also 14. 

This was a strategic move by the Pope, trying to keep a foot in both camps:  the French House of Valois, and the Holy Roman Emperor with Caterina's marriage, and through Alessandro's link to Charles V through his marriage. 

For Caterina, in the long run, it was probably for the best.  Her mother was of the House of Tour de Boulogne and was closely linked to the French royal families.  Her mother also left Caterina great personal wealth. 

And Caterina was actually:

  • the niece of Francois I's first son, the Duke of Albany, and
  • was a cousin of her future husband's mistress Diane de Poitiers (nearly 2 decades his senior) and
  • was cousin to her future daughter-in-law, Mary Stuart, the future Mary Queen of Scots.

Diane de Poitiers Mistress of Henri II, King of France

Early on, Caterina had a low position in the rich French court, and her position was even more precarious after the death of her uncle, the Pope, in 1534. 

But when the King's first son, the Duke of Albany, died of poisoning, (other reports say he died of a chill after tennis) Caterina's husband became the next in line for the French crown, the Dauphin, and Caterina's stature rose as well.

The death of the Duke of Albany is very suspicious especially since:

  • his cup-bearer was brought over by Pope Clement VII on the same ships that brought Caterina. 
  • Alessandro had introduced the man, who was trained as a doctor, to his father the Pope. 
  • The doctor had been formerly in the service of the French enemy Charles V, and...

Well, when the de' Medici are involved, and they really, really wanted Caterina to be French Queen, anything is conceivable. 

So many conceived the assassination possible, that the man was arrested, tortured and tried.  But he never confessed to working for the de' Medici.  It served the French King, Francois I, to implicate his enemy Charles V, and when the prisoner helpfully confessed to this, he was killed. 

Years later, Caterina would kill an enemy in much the same way the Duke of Albany was killed, with perhaps the same poison.  One of the more popular, if gruesome, exhibits in France is Caterina de' Medici's poison cabinet at Versailles.

Portrait of Catherine de Medici, Facsimile of a 16th Century Drawing

I have more about Caterina below on this same page.  Her life was long and interesting, to say the least.


Alessandro Il Moro, Duke of Florence

After his father, Pope Clement, died, Alessandro felt less secure of his position.  In response to his insecurity and a weak nature, he took more and more power into his own hands.  And as it's known to do, the absolute power corrupted him absolutely

Alessandro tried to secure his position by having his cousin Ippolito, now Cardinal de' Medici, poisoned, in 1535.  Although Ippolito officially died of malaria, en route to Charles V to complain about Alessandro's rule of Florence, few doubt Alessandro had a hand in assassinating his cousin. 

Ippolito was only 24 years old, and was widely respected for his regal bearing and intelligence. 


Ippolito de' Medici, he just missed out an being head of the family, and by all accounts he would have been a worthy one

Alessandro began to indulge all his illicit desires, leaving himself vulnerable to hangers-on and courtiers who supplied him with whatever he desired.  Alessandro's cousin Lorenzino became one of those courtiers, but with ulterior motives.

One of Alessandro's whims, was to take possession of the Villa della Petraia, which wasn't much of a villa at all at the time.  It was a medieval fortress and farming estate.  Alessandro died before he could do much with it.  It's rebuilding was taken on by a later de' Medici.

Villa della Petraia

Alessandro was not everyone's first choice for Duke of Florence.  His illegitimate birth from an illegitimate father made many uneasy.  To make things worse, his rule was increasingly despotic and he raised the taxes on the people, always a support-loser.  And Florentine republicans saw Alessandro as a major obstruction to the return of the Florentine Republic. 

All this bad feeling gave the junior side of the de' Medici family an opportunity.  They saw that they had a good chance to finally take control of the family empire. 

Lorenzo de' Medici, the father of the junior line of de' Medici, had a great-grandson, Lorenzino (1514-1548), the same Lorenzino who had befriended Alessandro.  Lorenzino used his courtier status and false friendship to lure Alessandro undefended to his death

Lorenzino had his assassins stab Alessandro to death in 1537, as Alessandro arrived for an assignation with his beautiful cousin, Lorenzino's sister.   

Alessandro, born in 1510, died at the very young age of 27, and was buried in his uncle's tomb, Lorenzo the Duke of Urbino, in the New Sacristy made by Michelangelo. 

The reason he was buried in his uncle's tomb was because the de' Medici family had always put forth the lie that Alessandro was the Duke of Urbino's illegitimate child.  This was meant to save Cardinal Giulio the shame of fathering a child while a Cardinal. 

Lorenzino escaped to Venice and wrote an account of the killing called Apologia  (Apology),  which he had published and sold throughout Europe.  In his Apology, he said he killed his cousin to give the Florentine Republic a chance to return to power. 

Perhaps this is true, perhaps not.  Coming from a de' Medici, especially one from the devious junior branch of the family, many dismissed this claim.  The claim was beside the point, because the republican revolt never happened.  Lorenzino had killed the last viable de' Medici from the senior line, leaving himself, at age 23, the next in line to take over the family interests, so no one believed his Apology.

Granted, history is written by the victors, but Lorenzino's assassination of his own cousin, head of the de' Medici family, caused in his own lifetime for his nickname to become Lorenzaccio, the Bad Lorenzo. 

He had another nickname given by many people, Brutus Lorenzino, and this bust of Brutus, one of the men who betrayed Caesar and killed him, is by Michelangelo from 1540.  It's said Michelangelo was inspired by Lorenzaccio when he crafted the expression of contempt and arrogance.


Filippo Strozzi

Just so you know:  Not everyone condemned Lorenzino.  Filippo Strozzi, a longtime business rival of the de' Medici, and supporter of a republican Florence, ordered his sons to marry the daughters of Lorenzino to ensure his grandchildren would inherit his cunning, determination and courage for the sake of liberty.

Filippo Strozzi

Strozzi's sons did as their father wished.  Oddly enough, they lived in France at that time, attached to the court of Caterina de' Medici, who was their cousin by marriage, even before they married into the junior branch of the de' Medici family. 

Many years back, Filippo Strozzi had married Caterina de' Medici's aunt in a bid by the de' Medici to buy him off.  It didn't work, but Strozzi loved his wife, Clarissa, deeply. 

Strozzi's beloved wife Clarissa de' Medici, Caterina de' Medici's aunt, in a classic pose signifying love, supposedly love for Filippo Strozzi

On Clarissa's death, Strozzi returned to Florence, renewed ties with the de' Medici family, and eventually became head of Caterina de' Medici's household when she went to France to marry Henry de Valois. 

Strozzi returned to Florence after the death of Pope Clement VII, and possibly helped orchestrate the death of Alessandro

Filippo Strozzi was among the group who put the de' Medici back in charge of Florence after Alessandro's death, with the hopes that the de' Medici from the junior branch of the family would live up to their republican talk.


Caterina de' Medici

And Caterina de' Medici?  She became Queen of France in 1547 and eventually bore Henri II 10 children in 10 years, despite his continuing affair with his mistress Diane de Poitiers (and others), and his early inability to father children (for which she was blamed and threatened with divorce). 

It's been suggested that his repeated impregnation of a wife he didn't want, was a plot by Henry II to kill Caterina the way her own mother had died, in childbirth.  But the plot failed. 

Others say the pregnancies were a plot by Henry's mistress, Diane, to keep the young Caterina in maternity confinement for years and years so Diane and Henry II could run the country together.  This plot succeeded. 


Interesting to note how times change, Diane was ridiculed for keeping herself young and attractive for her much younger lover Henry II, by using false teeth and false hair and much makeup and fancy dress.  It sounds like an awful lot of work to keep this not-so-cheery-looking fellow, if you ask me, but I'm not a power junkie.

Henri II (1519-59), King of France, 1555

Caterina waited patiently for a chance to gain some influence for herself and her children.  And she maintained contact with her relations in Italy, but was careful not to have Italians in her retinue in France, to avoid any accusations of being a traitor to France. 

After Henry II's illness from injuries sustained in a friendly joust, and his subsequent death in 1559, Caterina banished his mistress and proceeded to skillfully take the reigns of power in France

She also took Castle Chenonceau from Diane, had it redecorated for herself, then lived there off and on for years.  I include in the left column some photos I took from a recent visit to the beautiful Castle.  I highly recommend a visit if possible.  You can read more about it at it's Wikipedia page.

Caterina held the country together under the House of Valois during the tumultuous:

  • period of Reformation revolts (the French Religious Wars),
  • republican movements, and
  • power-plays by the House of Bourbon for the French crown. 

And Caterina spent much of her time planning the marriages of her children, all for political gain, of course. 

Miniature of Catherine de Medici
Miniature of Catherine de Medici

Caterina's  third and favorite son, Alencon d'Anjou, was offered to Queen Elizabeth of England.  But Elizabeth objected to his young age and pockmarked face from an earlier bout with small-pox, a common condition in those days, one that Elizabeth herself had suffered leaving similar scars. 

When the English physicians offered to treat the scars to lessen then, Caterina told them to test the treatments on a court page first.  If the page lived, and the cure worked, they could then use them on her son.  Sweet lady!

In the end, Elizabeth rejected Alencon, scars or no scars, as she rejected all her suitors.  This was most probably because under the terms of her father, Henry VIII's, will, Elizabeth lost all power and all her wealth if she married.  Sounds like Henry wanted her to be the Virgin Queen she turned out to be.

Caterina was a famous spreader of Italian culture from cuisine, ceramics, couture and makeup, to perfumes, to the use of secret poisons to eliminate enemies over cocktails and dump them through trap doors in the floor. 

Caterina was also, like all the de' Medici, a patron of artists and architects, leaving grand buildings around Paris with her and her husband's initials on them, including The Louvre Museums and the Tuileries

Caterina died at the age of 70 in 1589, while giving political advice to her son, Henry III, on her deathbed. 

Here's a link to a biography of Caterina de' Medici, if you'd like to read more about her.


To the next section:

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