Medici Family

Medici Family
   Florentine mercantile and banking family that played a significant part in local politics and from 1434 dominated the political system of Florence through a combination of careful po-litical alliances and outright corruption of the electoral system. Al-though officially they were just one of the wealthy merchant families who shared political leadership, between 1434 and 1494 the Medici exercised an increasingly overt hegemony over the city. In 1494 after proving weak in the face of the French invasion of Naples, the cur-rent Medici leader was exiled; in 1512 the Medici were restored to power by a papal and Spanish army, and after they had been again ejected by a popular uprising in 1527, they were again brought to power by foreign troops in 1530. This time they suppressed the old republican constitution and openly became despotic princes as dukes of Florence (1532) and later as grand dukes of Tuscany.
   The family's political rise began very hesitantly under the first head of the family to make the Medici a major European banking and mercantile power, Giovanni di Bicci de'Medici (1360-1429), who preferred to avoid politics and to concentrate on his international banking business. As a prominent citizen, however, he came to be perceived by the ruling Albizzi faction as a potential threat to their control of the republic. This hostility emerged openly in the career of his son Cosimo de'Medici (1389-1464). Arrested on trumped-up charges of political conspiracy in 1433, Cosimo was fortunate to es-cape execution and merely to be exiled. In 1434 a swing of the elec-toral lottery brought into power a group of citizens who resented the arbitrary treatment he had suffered and the arrogance of the Albizzi leaders. Hence in 1434 he was called back from exile, the Albizzi were exiled, and Cosimo and his political allies established a long-lasting control over the political machinery. He crafted a political system in which he occasionally held leading public offices for the normal two-month term but usually remained in the background, al-lowing others in the group of families that suported him to hold the public offices and exercise nominal control. Only in foreign policy, where in the 1450s he pushed through a revolutionary realignment of alliances among the Italian states, did he play a consistently dominant role. With Cosimo begins the family's history as great patrons of hu-manistic learning and the fine arts.
   His son and successor, Piero di Cosimo de'Medici (1416-1469), nicknamed "the gouty," was far less effective, in part because of chronic ill health, but he was able to put down two conspiracies by disgruntled opponents. At his death in 1469, his son Lorenzo di Piero de'Medici (1449-1492) took charge of the family's political and fi-nancial interests despite his youth. Lorenzo, who received the popu-lar nickname "the Magnificent," was challenged by families kept out of power by his grandfather and father, including the exiled Pazzi and Salviati families. Lorenzo's foreign policy ran counter to the interests of Pope Sixtus IV. The pope supported the dissidents and may have been a leading participant (as some of his close associates certainly were) in a plot (the Pazzi conspiracy) to remove the Medici from power by assassinating Lorenzo and his younger brother Giuliano. The attempt occurred in April 1478 as the brothers attended mass in the cathedral. Giuliano was stabbed to death; Lorenzo was wounded but survived. In reaction, a mob of citizens hanged several of the con-spirators, including the Archbishop of Pisa. The killing of this high-ranking clergyman served as an excuse for the pope to excommuni-cate Lorenzo and lay the whole city under an interdict. War inevitably followed, in which the pope was supported by the king of Naples. Al-though the Pazzi conspiracy rallied popular support behind Lorenzo, the military situation of the city was dangerous. Lorenzo skillfully negotiated a political settlement and then organized a new league be-tween Florence, Milan, and Naples that forced the pope to agree to peace. This alliance served to stabilize Italian politics for a whole generation by restraining the aggressive ambitions of Italy's two rogue states, the Papal States and Venice, which sought to expand at the expense of the other Italian powers.
   Lorenzo became an active patron of learning and the arts, support-ing the humanist scholars Angelo Poliziano and Cristoforo Landino, the Neoplatonic philosopher Marsilio Ficino, the painter Sandro Botticelli, and a number of other writers, philosophers, and artists who made the unofficial "court" in Lorenzo's household a ma-jor center of Renaissance culture. Lorenzo was genuinely interested in the work of the scholars and artists whom he patronized and was himself a talented poet writing in the Italian vernacular. This court society produced writings and art directed not to the tastes and inter-ests of the general public but to the concerns of a restricted elite.
   Lorenzo's one area of failure was in the banking business that had been the basis of his family's rise to power. The semi-independent branch banks that Cosimo had formed in Lyon, Bruges, London, Venice, and several other Italian cities, as well as the papal court, proved hard to control, especially when the senior executive in Flo-rence was neither personally experienced in their complex banking operations nor interested enough to supervise the branch managers closely. In Lorenzo's time, several branches got into serious financial difficulties, and even Lorenzo's ability to use his control of the Flo-rentine government to help his business (whether this went so far as embezzling public funds is debated) was not enough to return the branches and the home office to a sound footing. When the Medici were driven from power and exiled in 1494, the business collapsed. Lorenzo seems to have inherited the ill health that had plagued his fa-ther, and he died at the age of 43.
   His son Piero di Lorenzo de'Medici (1471-1503) succeeded to his political leadership. Piero had been reared almost as a prince and had not developed the kind of close personal links that his ancestors had formed with the heads of other wealthy Florentine families. He man-aged to take charge of the government when his father died in 1492, but when he faced his first major crisis, the French invasion of Italy in 1494, he acted so ineptly and indecisively that Florence not only was humiliated by the passage of the French army through its territo-ries but also was threatened with becoming a French satellite. The cit-izens reacted by rioting and overthrowing the Medici regime and ex-pelling its leaders from the city.
   In exile, the leader of the Medici was Piero's younger brother, Gio-vanni, who had been made a cardinal at age 13. Giovanni enjoyed the favor of Pope Julius II, and in 1512 an army raised by the pope and King Ferdinand of Spain besieged Florence and forced it to surren-der, ending the reform efforts of the anti-Medicean leader Piero Soderini and restoring the Medici to power. The election of Cardinal Giovanni as the first Medici pope, Leo X, in 1513 strengthened the family's control of the city. Policy was directed from Rome, and lo-cal administration was handled first by the pope's nephew Lorenzo and then by his cousin Giuliano, who despite his illegitimate birth was made a cardinal and sent as papal legate to Florence. The Medici retained control of the city after Giuliano's election as Pope Clement VII in 1523 and during the intervening pontificate of Adrian VI, but the unsuccessful foreign policy of Pope Clement and the ensuing sack of Rome by an imperial army in 1527 encouraged the Floren-tines to make another effort to end Medici control and restore their old republican constitution.
   A Spanish army in 1530 forced the city to surrender after a long siege; several of the anti-Medicean leaders were executed, and Alessandro de'Medici (1510-1537) was given control of Florence in 1531 and allowed to assume the title of duke of Florence in 1532. The republican constitution was abolished. Alessandro was assassinated in 1537 by a conspiracy led by his kinsman Lorenzino, and since there was no direct Medici heir, the leaders of the pro-Medici aris-tocracy turned to a more distant relative, Cosimo, a youth of 18. De-spite his youth, he proved to be a skilled politician. He ruled as duke of Florence (1537-1569) and near the end of his reign secured papal approval to change his title to Grand Duke of Tuscany. Under this ti-tle, the Medici ruled their principality until the last Medici grand duke died without heirs in 1737. The European powers then trans-ferred the duchy to the family of the dukes of Lorraine.

Historical Dictionary of Renaissance. . 2004.

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