The Medici Family: Ultimate Power and Legacy In The Renaissance

The Medici family are called the Godfathers of the Renaissance because they laid the groundwork for cultural prosperity in Florence. Their major innovations in banking, art, and architecture persist today.

Jul 28, 2020By Jacqueline Martinez, BA English Writing
medici coat of arms
The Medici Coat of Arms in the Vatican Museum, Vatican City


The Medici family is one of the most powerful and influential groups in European history. They innovated new banking systems and laid the groundwork to make Florence a cultural hotspot. Through their political strategy and patronage of major artists like Michelangelo, they created the High Renaissance. Such an extended family has a lot to talk about. Below are five highlights that outline the influence of the Medici family over hundreds of years. 


1. The Medici Family Influence Lasted 500 Years, Producing Popes, Queens, And Artists

map of florence
Map of Florence from the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493, via Barry Lawrence Ruderman Map Collection, Stanford University


Italy wasn’t a unified nation when the Medici family’s power began. It was organized into city-states, contrary to surrounding nation-states like France. Some of these states were Siena, Venice, Naples, and Florence; the last of which is where the Medicis took hold. 


The peak of their power lasted from 1434 to 1737, and produced figures who would extend their influence outside of Florence. These include four popes: Leo X, Clement VII, Pius IV, and Leo XI. As well as two queens of France: Catherine de’ Medici and Marie de’ Medici. 


How Did They Rise To Power? 

cosimo the elder
Portrait of Cosimo the Elder by Jacopo Carucci (Pontormo), 1519-20, via The Uffizi Galleries, Florence


The short answer is that they formed the largest bank in Europe in the 15th century, from 1397 to 1494. 

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Cosimo the Elder (1389-1464) established the Medici bank in Florence. He expanded it into other city-states, including Geneva, Venice, and Rome, where the Papal States would begin to work with his business. In his lifetime, he would eventually go on to establish branches in foreign cities like London, Bruges, and Lübeck. These branches made it easy for the Papacy to order goods across Europe, and for bishoprics to pay fees from afar.


Location is just one part of what made their bank prestigious. The Medici bank also developed some of the financial tools we still use today. They introduced Double Entry Bookkeeping, or the practice of recording a payer’s debits and credits in one log. This made it easier and more accurate to calculate one’s net worth. 


Additionally, it was dangerous to send large sums of money payments across the continent to pay for foreign goods in this era. The Medici Bank fixed this by inventing Letters of Credit. In practice, this could look like an Englishman paying a London Medici Bank in pounds for an art piece from Florence. The Florentine bank would then produce a Letter of Credit to the artist as proof of future payment. Then, the artist can deliver the work, and take his payout of the bank in his own currency. 


These achievements eventually helped the Medici family become the wealthiest in Europe.


2. Their Art Patronage Earned Them The Nickname “Godfathers of the Renaissance”

portrait of lorenzo de medici
Portrait of Lorenzo de’Medici by Giorgio Vasari, 1533-34, via The Uffizi Galleries, Florence (left), with Cosimo I de Medici in Armour by Bronzino (Agnolo di Cosimo di Mariano), 1545, via Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid (right)


What do the Sistine Chapel, the Duomo of Florence, and St. Peter’s Basilica all have in common? The Medici family helped develop all of them. Through a mixture of peace-harvesting policies, patronage, and sometimes personal relationships, they created an atmosphere for artists like Michelangelo to create masterpieces.


They Set A Peaceful State For Art To Flourish

pallas and centaur
Pallas and the Centaur by Sandro Botticelli, 1480-85, via The Uffizi Galleries, Florence


Between Florence, Milan, Naples, and Rome, Florence was not the most militarily powerful nation. This made it vulnerable to conquering in a period when Italian city-states would fight for power between each other. However, the Medici family were also astounding diplomats.


Cosimo the Elder believed war was bad for trade and negotiated the end to a series of wars in Lombardy. This helped establish a mutual territory agreement between the states.


His successor, Lorenzo de’ Medici (1449-1492) ardently continued to keep the Treaty of Lodi alive, the document which Naples, Milan, and Florence signed to keep their peace. Lorenzo also earned the love of Florentine citizens by doing acts such as freeing and clothing galley slaves.


In fact, Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) is said to have made the piece Pallas and the Centaur for him. Pallas Athena is the Goddess of Knowledge and wisdom, while the centaur represents humanity’s ferality. Lorenzo the Magnificent knew how to negotiate with Naples, even if Naples had a large army that could beat the Florentine’s. Yet, Lorenzo kept Florence independent and safe- Making Lorenzo Athena, and Naples the centaur.


On top of being a powerful political figure, he was one of the greatest Medici patrons. He funded several major artists, including Botticelli and Michelangelo.


Lorenzo De’ Medici Allowed Michelangelo To Live With Him Like His Own Son 

lorenzo de medici and artists
Lorenzo de’ Medici and His Artists in the Sculpture Garden by Ottavio Vannini, 1635, via The Uffizi Galleries, Florence


Lorenzo met Michelangelo when he was a young teenager studying at the Academy of San Marco. According to Ascanio Condivi’s 1533 biography of Michelangelo, Lorenzo found him carving an ancient fawn stone head. He praised the young artist’s skill but also teased him by pointing out an error: that an old fawn would not have a full set of healthy teeth. So Michelangelo knocked off a few teeth and showed Lorenzo the piece again. 


This mixture of quick skill and talent charmed Lorenzo, so he invited the young artist to live in his palace from 1490 to 1492. There, Michelangelo studied under the great Renaissance artist Donatello. He lived alongside Lorenzo’s sons, the future Pope Leo X and Pope Clement VII, who would commission his work for their Papal States in the future. So, when Lorenzo the Magnificent died in 1492, Michelangelo’s relationship with the family endured.


In 1508, Pope Julius II, a non-Medici, commissioned Michelangelo to paint the upper walls of the Sistine Chapel. There was a break of 25 years before Michelangelo would touch it again. When Pope Clement VII came into power, he brought Michelangelo back to the altar by asking him to paint The Last Judgment.


Donatello Made Statues Symbolic Of Medici Values

bronze david donatello
Bronze David by Donatello, 1430-40, via Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence


Cosimo the Elder commissioned Donatello’s most famous piece, the bronze David. He intended to place it in the Palazzo Medici courtyard in Florence. This was a major piece because it was the first freestanding bronze cast statue of the Renaissance era. It was also the first nude male statue in the area since those of Ancient Greece.


Donatello created Judith and Holofernes for the garden fountain of the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, as well. It stood alongside the bronze David in front of Cosimo the Elder’s family palace in 1457.


Both David and Judith’s stories in the Bible are symbolic of underdogs overthrowing tyranny. Likewise, Florence viewed itself as tyrant slayers, standing powerful against their neighboring city states. Donatello effectively captured the core values of Florence and the Medici family through his work.


Leonardo Da Vinci Studied In Their Network 

leonardo da vinci lorenzo de medici
The head and shoulders of a young man wearing a cap in profile (may be a portrait of Lorenzo de’Medici) by Leonardo da Vinci, 1480-85, via The Royal Collection Trust, London


Leonardo da Vinci didn’t have as strong a patronage by the Medici family as other artists, but he did begin his education through their network.


As a teenager, he became an apprentice of Andrea del Verrocchio. Verrocchio was a sculptor and painter who created tombs for Cosimo, Giovanni, and Piero de’ Medici from the 1460s-70s. Under him, da Vinci learned about painting, sculpture, engineering, and metalwork. He stayed working with Verrocchio for a decade. 


Despite this, Lorenzo de’ Medici did not include him on a list of great painters for the Pope to hire in 1481


In a diary entry from 1515, da Vinci wrote,


Li medici mi crearono e distrussono.”


This translates to “the Medici [or physicians] created me and then destroyed me.”


Scholars are unsure if he meant to reference the Medici family, or physicians [the literal translation of medici]. da Vinci was known to be critical of physician careers, but its meaning remains a curiosity.


Raphael Worked In The Vatican 

encouter of leo the great
Encounter of Leo the Great with Attila by Raphael, 1514, via Musei Vaticani, Vatican City


Pope Leo X was Raphael’s greatest commissioner. He hired him to do a set of ten tapestries intended for the lower walls of the Sistine Chapel. They illustrated the Acts of the Apostles, and can now be seen in the Pinacoteca Vaticana in Rome.


Before Leo X, Pope Julius II assigned him to paint some of his most famous frescoes, including School of Athens and Disputation of the Holy Sacrament. But after Julius II’s death, Leo X continued to fund his work for the Papal rooms. Leonardo had painted a piece called The Meeting of Leo the Great and Attila, based on Pope Leo I’s meeting with Attila the Hun in 452 AD. He later changed Pope Leo I’s face to resemble that of Leo X instead.


Patronage In Architecture: Building The Uffizi, Il Duomo, And More

the uffizi gallery
The Uffizi Gallery Entrance, Florence


The Medici family helped form the Uffizi Gallery, St. Peter’s Basilica, and the Florence Cathedral.


Cosimo I de’ Medici, First Duke of Tuscany (1519-1574), originally formed the Uffizi to be an administrative building for his family. The word Uffizi in fact meant offices. It opened to the public as an art gallery in 1765, shortly after the last member of the Medici family died. Today, it houses The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli, and Laocoön and his Sons by Baccio Bandinelli.


Pope Leo X also commissioned the completion of St. Peter’s Basilica. Martin Luther, the leader of the Protestant Reformation, attacked his funding of this piece as an example of the Papacy’s greed. In his 95 Thesis, the document which began the Reformation, he wrote ” why doesn’t the Pope build the basilica of St Peter’s out of his own money?”


brunelleschi dome
Brunelleschi’s Dome by Filippo Brunelleschi, 1436, via L’Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence

Cosimo the Elder commissioned the Duomo in the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore (the Florence Cathedral). There were many pauses since the cathedral began construction in 1296, and no dome yet. Architects wanted to build it without Gothic buttresses, but this was a technical challenge. There was a competition to see who could plan it, and Filippo Brunelleschi won. 


Brunelleschi believed he could build the dome without scaffolding, but many still doubted his abilities. The Medici family, however, believed him enough to fund this work. Today, Brunelleschi’s dome stands at 375.7 feet tall, making it one of the tallest domes in the world. 


3. Even the Enemies and Conspiracies Against Them Inspired Fascinating Work 

pazzi conspirator hanged
Pazzi Conspirator Bernardo Bandini Baroncelli Shown Hanged by Leonardo da Vinci, 1479, in the Musée Bonnat-Helleu, Bayonne


The Pazzi Conspiracy was a plot between Francesco de Pazzi and the Papacy to overthrow Medici power.


On April 26th, 1478, the Cathedral of Florence held a public mass with an audience of 10,000 people. Among the crowd were Lorenzo the Magnificent and his brother Giuliano de’ Medici. A group of men interrupted the mass, attacking the duo with knives. Giuliano de’ Medici was stabbed to death, but Lorenzo de’ Medici managed to the church sacristy with only wounds.


Seeing their beloved Lorenzo the Magnificent attacked, the Florentine citizens took matters into their own hands. They captured conspirator Jacopo de’ Pazzi, threw him out a window, and then dragged him to the Arno River. Salviati, a co-conspirator who was also an archbishop of Pisa, was hanged outside the Palazzo Vecchio. 


Ultimately, the attempt failed, and the Medici family threw remaining Pazzi members out of Florence. The event only strengthened control of their city and was commemorated in art by Stefano Ussi and Tancredi Scarpelli.


Michelangelo’s David: A Rebellion Against The Medici Family? 

statue david michelangelo
David by Michelangelo, 1501-04, via Galleria dell’ Accademia, Florence


The statue of David was originally commissioned by the Arte Della Llane in 1501 to be placed in the Cathedral of Florence. The Medici family had been in exile since 1494 due to political losses and would return later in 1512.


The government that replaced the Medicis was firmly anti-Medici. David, the biblical figure who defeated a giant with only a rock, was the perfect symbol for an unstable Florence. Not only was Florence surrounded by city-states who always threatened its power, but now, also by the Medicis, who some saw as tyrants.


In 1504, the government decided to place David in the city’s town hall instead. They oriented David’s eyes to point to Rome, where the Medicis were in exile. Considering that it was originally intended for a Cathedral, it’s unlikely that Michelangelo intended for it to be political. This is especially considering the Medici’s help in his own artistic development.


Even when a High Renaissance piece was spurred against the Medici family, it was still ultimately about them. David’s perfect Renaissance contrapposto and affiliation makes him one of the greatest Renaissance highlights today.


Machiavelli Wrote The Prince To Get On Their Good Side

portrait niccolo machiavelli
Portrait of Niccolò Machiavelli by Santi di Tito, late 1500s, via Palazzo Vecchio, Florence 


The Medici family was exiled from 1494 to 1513, when Piero de’ Medici surrendered control to France. Meanwhile, Machiavelli was a prominent political theorist and diplomat. In the vacuum of the Medici, he formed a network with Anti-Medici government figures.


The Medici family returned to power in 1513, and organized a list of conspirators who would likely plot to overthrow them. Machiavelli’s name was on the list, so they imprisoned, tortured, and exiled him. However, there wasn’t enough evidence of his direct involvement for them to execute him, so Pope Leo X allowed them to remain in exile.


Machiavelli dedicated The Prince to the next Medici ruler of Florence as a guide on how to capture and keep control of a state. He did this to get a position within the Medici court, but it failed. Only in 1520 did he re-enter public life, when Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici commissioned him to write a history of Florence.


4. They Stimulated Science, Music, And Fashion

early copy starry messenger
Early copy Starry Messenger (Sidereus nuncius magna, longeque admirabilia spectacula pandens) by Galileo, 1610, via Christie’s


Galileo Galilei was the tutor to Cosimo I de’ Medici, grand duke of Tuscany. In 1610, he published The Starry Messenger, where he described recent discoveries he made through a telescope. In it, he noted that Jupiter had moons, naming them the “Medicean stars.”


In music, Bartolomeo Cristofori was the first to invent the piano while working in Fernando de’ Medici’s court. The Renaissance also saw the birth of operas in the late 1500s. The Medicis provided financial support for major opera houses like the Pergola theater. 


Catherine de’ Medici married King Henry II of France. She was a short woman and wanted to appear taller before meeting the French court. So she commissioned a pair of high heel shoes, turning them into symbols of wealth and status. This was remarkable in a time where high heels were reserved for butchers who didn’t want to get blood on their feet. She helped to improve and popularize the horse side saddle, so women could ride without exposing themselves. 


5. The Last Of The Medici Family Secured Her Treasures In Florence

portrait of anna maria luisa
Portrait of Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici by Antonio Franchi, 1690, via The Uffizi Galleries, Florence 


The last Grand Duke of Tuscany, Gian Gastone de’ Medici, died in 1737 with no sons. Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici was the only member of the family left and didn’t have any children. With no one to continue their lineage, she knew that the power of Tuscany would go to Francis of Lorraine.


Anna Maria accepted that all the art, books, maps, and houses her family-owned would be transferred to them. However, she created a Family Pact, declaring that these treasures should not leave Florence. She detailed,


“That these things being for the ornament of the state, for the benefit of the people and for an inducement to the curiosity of foreigners, nothing shall be alienated or taken away from the capital or from the territories of the Grand Duchy.”


The next leaders followed her wishes. Anna Maria essentially succeeded at keeping Florence the capital of everything the Medicis created. Florence continues to see about 16 million tourists a year, who come to see what this fascinating family built. 

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By Jacqueline MartinezBA English WritingJacqueline Martinez graduated with her BA in English (Writing & Rhetoric, to be fancy) in 2019. During her time in college, she worked in a Miami-based art gallery. She has attended major art fairs like Art Basel and Art Miami, recording new exhibitions and art trends in her articles. In 2018, she studied abroad in France, where she learned about art history in some of the world’s major museums. Since graduating, she has aimed to keep learning while passing on her experiences to those who are novices like she once was.