The Medici family: A tale of princes, popes and palle

Debra Thimmesch | 17/02/2020
Medici Riccardi Palace
Palazzo Medici Riccardi in Florence

Hop on the train and head towards Florence to learn some of Italy's most interesting history. Any well-informed Florentine of the mid-15th century would have recognized the distinctive profile of Il Magnifico —  Lorenzo the Magnificent de’ Medici (b. 1449 - d. 1492). His was not a handsome face but it was a memorable one. He had a flattened, sloping nose that looked broken, a prominent jaw and wide, dark eyes lurking under bumpy, irregular brows. His was the visage of power. 

At age 21, Lorenzo was elected Gonfaloniere di Giustizia (a gonfalone is a kind of heraldic banner, so it would translate to something like “Banner Keeper of Justice”) of the Florentine Republic, a major leadership role with a traditional minimum age requirement of 45. He was the de facto leader of Florence and its territories.

The Medici's - Florence’s Renaissance family

Groomed for greatness, Lorenzo the Magnificent was one of the more influential members of the Medici (when you say “the Medici,” you’re referring to the family as a whole so saying “the Medici family” is redundant), arguably the most powerful family of the Italian Renaissance. The Medici ruled Florence, and later all of Tuscany as well as Rome (the latter mostly from behind the scenes). 

The Medici may be credited with, among other feats, financing and fostering the great flourishing of the arts, humanities, and sciences of that gold-gilded reawakening of humankind. From 1434 until 1737, aside from two short periods spent in exile (1494 - 1512 and 1527 - 1530), the wealthy and powerful family that made its fortune in banking and commerce earned its beloved city of Florence the title “Cradle of the Renaissance.”

From obscure origins to the seat of power

The story of the Medici family begins in the Mugello region, an agricultural valley north of Florence. The first historical document that mentions them is dated 1230. The origin of the family’s name is murky. “Medici” is plural for “medico,” which means “medical doctor” but no specific information is available concerning who might have been in the healing profession that far back. 

The family moved to Florence around 1200 to seek its fortune. Like virtually any family with ancient origins, the legends relating to their founding gradually obscured the upper branches of their family tree until they were virtually invisible in lofty clouds of invention and imagination. 

In 1397, the Medici star began to twinkle far more brightly in the sky above Florence: the family’s bank was founded and that changed everything. For much of the 13th century nearby Siena was the center of banking in Italy (although Italy didn’t become a sovereign state until 1861). In 1298 the Bonsignori of Siena, who had presided over the region’s banking, went bankrupt and the Medici moved in. They unseated the Bonsignori in Siena and usurped the position of authority of the Albizzi, who had until then ruled Florence. 

Enter the cunning Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici, his son Cosimo di Giovanni de’ Medici, and his great-grandson Lorenzo de’ Medici, all of whom successively ran the most powerful bank in Europe and a host of other business enterprises, particularly the wool trade.

Building the Medici Family legacy

In the newly anointed Florentine Republic, the Medici thrived and so did business, the humanities, the sciences, and the arts. While Giovanni got the ball rolling, Cosimo and Lorenzo are best remembered as powerhouses of that dynasty. 

Lorenzo was one of the most generous patrons of the arts and humanities of the Italian Renaissance, although he wasn’t especially devoted to the family business, which he neglected for other more compelling activities. In addition to being cultivated and well-educated, Lorenzo the Magnificent was politically astute diplomat. He participated in important statecraft, negotiated beneficial marriages for his children and groomed them for careers that would confer on them power and influence. For instance, Lorenzo’s son Giovanni was eventually elected Pope Leo X. His daughter, Maddalena, was married to one of the sons of Pope Innocent VIII, thereby creating a strong bond between the Medici and powerful Roman ruling families. Meanwhile, his son Piero II presided over Florence.

With power comes drama and intrigue

Like all of the ruling families of the Italian Renaissance and throughout history, the Medici were not without their own frequent drama and intrigue. In 1478, when Lorenzo the Magnificent was still a youth, he and his younger brother Guiliano were attacked in an assassination attempt by hired killers paid by the rival Pazzi and Salviati families, also Florentine bankers. Guiliano was killed and Lorenzo was injured. The conspirators had included Pope Sixtus IV in their plot as he had an ongoing, years-long rivalry with the Medici himself. While the pope didn’t officially agree to become involved in the assassination plot, he did nothing to obstruct it and actually proactively issued special dispensations for the attackers, characterizing their crimes as good deeds performed in the service of the Church. 

Lorenzo was a far better judge of good poetry, music, architecture, and art than business. While he did successfully install his adopted son (Guiliano’s child), Giulio in the office of Pope as Clement VII, his aspirations for his son Piero II were disappointed at nearly every turn. Piero ran the family banking business into the ground and was responsible for the Medici being exiled from their beloved Florence from 1494 to 1512.

Renaissance patrons of the arts

We have the Medici to thank for some of the best and most memorable art and architecture of the Italian Renaissance. Masaccio, a key figure in the proliferation of illusionism and naturalism in painting, had the confidence and financial support of Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici. So did the brilliant Filippo Brunelleschi, creator of the stately Basilica of San Lorenzo and the graceful, distinctive dome of Florence’s cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore, better known as the Duomo. 

Cosimo commissioned Donatello and Fra Angelico to produce some of the most sublime sculptures and paintings of the first quarter of the 15th century. It was Lorenzo the Magnificent who recognized Michelangelo for the genius he was, supporting him and also offering him access to the family’s library and incomparable collection of ancient Greek and Roman sculpture. Leonardo da Vinci worked under the patronage of Lorenzo for seven years and Lorenzo himself was a poet and songwriter. 

In an extensive allegorical fresco replete with rich, royal colors and gold leaf, The Procession of the Magi (c. 1459) in the Magi Chapel in the Palazzo Medici Riccardi, painter Benozzo Gozzoli depicted numerous members of the Medici family among the foreign, royal entourage making its way through the hilly Tuscan countryside to greet the newborn Jesus following his birth to the Virgin Mary. It was an audacious claim to make but many a patron of the arts had already done so and the chapel was private. 

Besides commissioning art, the Medici were avid collectors and a sizeable portion of their collection made its way to Florence’s Uffizi Gallery. Building projects in Florence sponsored by the Medici include the Uffizi itself, the Palazzo Pitti and the vast and beautiful Boboli Gardens, the Forte Belvedere, and the Palazzo Medici (later Palazzo Medici Riccardi). 

Some of those Medici popes were major patrons of the art in Rome. For example, we have Pope Clement VII to thank for persuading Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel and Pope Leo X was the chief patron of Raphael. Later in the 16th century, Marie de’ Medici, who’d been married to Henry IV of France and was the mother of the Sun King, Louis XIII, was patroness of Peter Paul Rubens. 

Extending their support of innovation beyond art and the humanities, the family also supported Galileo Galilei, who in turn served as tutor to several Medici children. In a gesture of gratitude, Galileo named the largest four of Jupiter’s moons after Medici children he had tutored (although the names were not in use for long — only for about four years).

Legends behind the famous Medici palle

In Florence the Medici have made themselves visible in perpetuity. It seems that around every corner they’ve affixed the family’s coat of arms on everything from churches and fountains to palazzos and bridges. With only slight variations, mostly in how elaborate the design is, the Medici emblem is a gold or yellow shield, point facing downward, on which are arranged five red balls — “palle” in Italian — beneath a larger, central blue ball. On the blue ball three gold fleur-de-lis appear. In the day of Cosimo the Elder, an observer once declared that in the Monastery of San Marco, Cosimo “had even emblazoned the monks’ privies with his balls!” 

The origins of the so-called “Medici Balls” is unclear. The war cry of the Medici during troubled times was “Palle! Palle! Palle!” One fun but almost certainly false explanation is that the balls are meant to represent dents in a warrior’s shield — specifically those of a famous knight of Charlemagne who is said to have defeated a giant. The Medici boasted descendancy from Charlemagne but it is highly unlikely that there’s any truth to claim. 

Another explanation insists that the balls represent pills and refer to the family’s possible distant past as medical doctors. However, it is likely that this story was invented by the French court as a means of slandering Queen Caterina de’ Medici (b. 1519 - d. 1589), by implying that her family had come from modest origins. Some say the red balls represent bitter oranges, referring to Medici trade in the East. Others assert that the balls depict bezants, Byzantine coins replicated from the coat of arms of the Arte del Cambio, the Guild of Moneychangers of which the family were members. 

Occasionally, the number of balls is different, as can be seen, for example on Medici family crests in the Old Sacristy of San Lorenzo there’s a shield featuring seven balls; a shield on the ceiling has eight; and the tomb of Cosimo the Elder has just five.

Where to see the Medici’s influence in Florence

For the full Medici experience in Florence, consider booking a private tour of important sites connected to the family. You’ll hear stories of the Medici’s rise from obscurity to greatness as you tour sites such as the Palazzo Medici Riccardi, the Piazza Signoria, the Palazzo Vecchio, the Uffizi Gallery, plus the Palazzo Pitti and attached Boboli Gardens. 

Complete your tour at the rear of the Basilica of San Lorenzo in the New Sacristy, where you’ll see Michelangelo’s architectural designs and famous sculptures of Night, Day, Dawn, and Dusk. Pop into the ostentatious Chapel of the Princes designed for the Medici Grand Dukes. Don’t skip the displays of peculiar reliquaries in the lower level, where it’s a bit dark, cold, and possibly haunted (according to local lore).

What are you waiting for? Book your tickets now!