13 Fascinating Facts You Need To Know About The Medici

Even though we can’t travel at the moment that doesn’t mean we can’t be researching and planning for future trips. Sometimes just escaping for a few minutes with a blog post or a travel TV show can be the soul food that gets us through a stressful or worrying day. I hope the blogs I post over the next few weeks will give you some inspiration and add some extra dimension and points of interest to your future travels. Hang in there friend, we will get through all of this and one day find ourselves back in the beautiful piazzas of Italy

FLORENCE

Florence across the rooftops
Florence across the rooftops

Florence is a beautiful Renaissance city that most travelers to Italy seem to add to their itinerary. Today I want to give you 13 interesting things you may not have known about its most important, most influential family.

THE MEDICI

The Medici family ruled Florence for 300 years. Their family crest is everywhere in the city, and everywhere you turn you see their influence on art and architecture.

Inner courtyard Medici Riccardi palace Florence
The Medici-Riccardi Palace in Florence

Understanding the Medici and their impact on Florence can add a whole new dimension to your trip. They came from somewhat humble beginnings, started a bank and went on to become one of the wealthiest and most powerful families in all of Europe.

While in Florence you should visit the three Medici palaces (read about them here)

The Medici, Masters of Florence
Watch on Netflix

I recommend my Glam Italia Tour travelers watch the Netflix series The Medici, Masters of Florence. What it lacks in historical accuracy it more than makes up for in attaching you to the fascinating characters in the family, and introducing you to their amazing story, a story that for 600 years has held people all over the world completely spellbound.

13 Fascinating Facts About The Medici

You may already know some of the Medici family lore, but chances are you don’t know all 13 of the following facts:

1. They Invented Double Entry Accounting

In 1397 Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici opened a bank in Florence, the banking capital of Italy. (He already had one in Rome) During the 1400’s the gold coin of Florence, the florin, became the standard European currency. Leading Florentine banking families had gone bankrupt over the recent years but Giovanni thought up genius new ways to make his bank thrive. He made each branch of the Medici Bank a separate business so if one failed it wouldn’t bring down the others. He also invented a new way of keeping the ledgers and keeping track of the money, called double entry accounting. The practice we still use today!

 His son Cosimo grew the bank to become the richest and most powerful bank in all of Europe. From there Cosimo used his wealth to influence politics, and launched the Medici dynasty.

2. They Owned Much Of Florence

In the 1400’s the Medici family owned most of Florence. As their wealth and power grew they bought up much of Florence and surrounding Tuscany, and then awarded themselves more. They were the center of Florentine society as well as the behind the scenes power brokers.

3. There Were Four Medici Popes

The Medici Bank got the Papal account in 1410 after financing the campaign of a pirate from Naples named Baldassare Cossa, who became Pope John XXIII.

Giovanni de Medici, Poe Leo X, by Raphael

In 1513 Giovanni de’ Medici, son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, became the first Medici Pope, Pope Leo X. In 1523 his cousin and best friend Giuliano de’ Medici became the second pope in the family, Pope Clement VII. Two more family members became Pope over the years, Pope Pius IV in 1559  and  in 1605  Alessandro Ottaviano de’ Medici became Pope Leo XI (for one month).

RELATED POST: 10 Day Trips From Florence By Train

4. There Were Two Medici Queens

At age 14, Florentine Catherine de’ Medici was married off to Henry de Valois, son of King Francis I of France. Henry became king in 1547 and Catherine reigned as Queen of France until his death in 1559. She was mother to 3 French kings. Their son Francis was king for a year until he died in 1560. Then Catherine became regent to her 10 year old son Charles. Catherine was considered the most powerful woman in Europe in the 16th century.

Catherine de’ Medici played by Megan Follows in Reign

Catherine de Medici is a completely fascinating character. You can read more about her here and here in these two critically acclaimed and frankly, quite brilliant books.

In 1600 Marie de’ Medici became Queen of France when her husband was crowned King Henry IV. He died in 1610 and she became regent to their son Louis XIII, who took power in 1617 and promptly exiled her.

5. They Were The Godfathers of the Renaissance

After coming into power in 1434 Cosimo de’ Medici began the family legacy of becoming the world’s greatest patrons of the arts. He built the first public library in Florence, commissioned Michelozzo as his architect, changed the face of architecture in Florence, and commissioned art and sculpture all over the city.

His grandson Lorenzo (the Magnificent) is considered the world’s greatest and most influential patron of the arts. Not only did he commission works at an unprecedented level, Lorenzo also negotiated a balance of power that brought about peace in Italy for 50 years, allowing the Renaissance to flourish. The Renaissance began as a direct result of the Medici’s interest in the arts.

Michelangelo’s David

6. They Discovered Michelangelo

One way Lorenzo the Magnificent supported the arts was his creation of a sculpture garden and artist school in San Marco. He put some of his incredible collection of Greek and Roman sculptures in the garden for apprentice artists to study and learn from.

At age 13 Michelangelo was able to secure one of these apprenticeships when Lorenzo offered Ghirlandaio space for 2 of his students. Lorenzo observed Michelangelo’s skill quickly and moved him into the Medici palace, raising him as a son along with his own children and his orphaned nephew Giulio. Giulio and Lorenzo’s son Giovanni would go on to become the first 2 Medici popes.

Lorenzo understood artists were wired differently, temperamental and couldn’t thrive under regular rules, so he created the perfect environment for Michelangelo, gave him the best education, surrounded him with the greatest minds – artists, writers, philosophers, poets and gave him the freedom and the patronage to hone his craft.

7. One Of Their Biggest Enemies Was A Friar

In the 15th century a religious zealot by the name of Girolamo Savonarola came to Florence and became a friar at the Medici funded convent of San Marco. Savonarola was into deprivation and saw Florence’s love affair with the arts and the humanities as an affront to God.

Girolamo Savonarola

Two years after Lorenzo’s death his son Piero was overthrown and in 1494 Savonarola became Florence’s reformist leader. In 1497 he had his supporters collect priceless books, art, musical instruments, furniture and other items he called “vanities” and had himself a bonfire – The Bonfire of The Vanities.

In 1498 Savonarola was excommunicated and shortly thereafter hung til near death then burned at the stake in Florence’s Piazza della Signoria. A marble plaque in the ground marks the spot he was burned. (Just in front of the Fountain of Neptune.)

8. They Got Exiled Quite Often

Starting with Cosimo’s exile to Venice in 1433, the family was exiled several times. His great grandson Piero was exiled in 1494. Five years later the family was exiled again, returned to power in 1512 but then were exiled yet again in 1527.

RELATED POST: Where To Watch The Sunset In Florence

9. Western Europe’s 1st Black Leader

While Giulio di Giuliano de Medici (who would become Pope Clement VII) was living in Rome at the home of his cousin Lorenzo II, he got a black slave working in the home pregnant. The child was named Alessandro and was known as Il Moro, the Moor, due to his dark skin.

Alessandro de’ Medici, Duke of Florence

In 1532 his father, Pope Clement VII made Alessandro the first Duke of Florence, not only creating the hereditary succession that lasted until 1737, but by doing so making Alessandro the first black leader in the western world.

Alessandro was the last member of the main Medici bloodline. He had 2 illegitimate children, but no legitimate offspring, so with him Cosimo’s lineage ended.

10. The World’s 1st Ballet

In 1581 the world’s first ballet was performed in France for the court of Catherine de’ Medici.

11. The World’s 1st Opera

Ferdinando de’ Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany who sits astride his horse in Florence’s beautiful Piazza SS Annunciata had his own huge cultural achievement when he introduced opera to Europe. To celebrate the wedding of his niece Marie de’ Medici to King Henry IV of France in 1600 he put on a lavish performance of the opera Euridice.

12. Galileo Was A Medici Tutor

Galileo Galilei

Not only were the Medici patrons of the arts, they also supported scientists, including the physicist and astronomer Galileo Galilei.In the early 1600s Galileo needed money to support his family and took a job tutoring Ferdinando’ son Cosimo. When Galileo discovered the moons of Jupiter he named them after the Medici. He published a book  about the discoveries he had made with a telescope he invented, “The Starry Messenger”, and dedicated it to his former student, Cosimo. Cosimo hired him as mathematician and philosopher to the Grand Duke, a lucrative position.

13. A Debauched Duke Ended It All

The 7th and final member of the family to serve as Grand Duke of Tuscany was Gian Gastone de’ Medici. He came to power in 1723, led a wild life full of debauchery, and died without any heirs. The leading European powers decided he should be succeeded by Francis, Duke of Lorraine, who would in turn become Holy Roman Emperor and father of Marie Antoinette.

Gian Gastone de’ Medici, the end of a dynasty.

Gian Gastone’s only sibling, Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici died in 1743 without any children. She willed the Medici family’s enormous art collection, libraries and other treasures to the Tuscan state with the condition they must always remain in Florence.

When In Florence…

When you do go to Florence take time to explore the lives of the Medici. Their Florentine life took place in the historic center of town, and you can see them everywhere, if you know where to look. Just knowing a little about Cosimo, Lorenzo the Magnificent, Cosimo I, and one of my favorites, Ferdinando I can completely change your experience in the Renaissance city and add depth and color to the tapestry of your trip.

I have a free downloadable pdf of my Secret Florence, telling you my favorite bars, restaurants, places to buy jewelry and souvenirs and much more. You can download your Secret Florence pdf here.

Do you belong to my Private Members Newsletter? Twice each month it tells you about special foods to try, festivals happening in Italy and under the radar places to visit, both within the big cities as well as villages around the country. You can get on the list and become a member (for free) here.

Recommended Reading

Want to know more about the Medici? The following is a list of really tremendous books that give you insight into the fascinating lives, stupendous rise and ultimate fall of the Medici Family. Each book has an Amazon affiliate link.

Game of Queens: The Women Who Made 16th Century Europe by Sarah Gristwood

The Rival Queens: Catherine de’ Medici, Marguerite de Valois and the Betrayal That Ignited a Kingdom by Nancy Goldstone

The Medici: Power, Money and Ambition in the Italian Renaissance by Paul Strathern. Strathern has several brilliant Medici books. Also look out for The Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance.

The House of Medici, Its Rise and Fall by Christopher Hibbert.

Fascinating facts about the Medici

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