The Medici Family – The Leaders of Florence

“The Medici Family: The Leaders of Florence” is a series being presented over the course of the next few weeks. The notorious and prominent Medici family first attained wealth and political power in Florence in the 13th century through its success in commerce and banking. The dynasty left a lasting legacy that spanned across Italy and throughout the world, as the Medici’s produced four popes and married into many of Europe’s royal families. This series takes an in depth look into the lives of Florence’s most famous family, from the humble beginnings of founder Giovanni di Bicci and his tyrant son Cosimo, to the extraordinary life of Lorenzo the Magnificent and his outstanding professional relationship with Renaissance Master Leonardo da Vinci. This week we look at Florence after the death of Lorenzo the Magnificent and examine the brief rule of his eldest son, Piero.

Florence was deeply shaken after the death of Lorenzo the Magnificent, yet the city took solace in the fact that Lorenzo’s eldest son, Piero, would take his father’s place as leader. Piero, who would later be known as “Piero the Unfortunate,” took control of Florence in 1492 at the age of 20.

While the Medici dynasty had enjoyed years of wealth and decadence, Lorenzo’s patronage of the arts took a heavy toll on the family bank, making Piero the first Medici to attempt to control Florence without an ample supply of funds.

Portrait of Piero de' Medici, Agnolo Bronzino, circa 1490s.

Portrait of Piero de’ Medici, Agnolo Bronzino, circa 1490s.

Early in his reign it became clear that Piero lacked his father’s astute diplomatic skills. The young leader showed signs of abandoning Lorenzo’s equal-handed relationship with Naples and Milan, inclining instead to Naples. As Milan and Florence had troubled relations in the past, Piero’s decision to side with Naples increased tensions between the city and the powerful leadership of Milan. Aware of Piero’s shifting allegiances and fearing a change in the balance of power, Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan, hatched a plan. The Duke invited the King of France to march through his territory so that he could claim the Angevin throne of Naples. King Charles VIII of France, eager to acquire new territories for his country, agreed. This marked the beginning of the end of the brief two year rule of Piero de Medici.

When King Charles VIII crossed the Alps in 1494, he did so with a massive army of 30,000 men. The militia passed peacefully through the territory of Milan and no doubt expected to do the same through Florence’s Tuscan lands. Since France’s quarrel was only with Naples, they did not foresee trouble in Florence. However, Piero had recently identified his city as an ally of Naples, thus making his city an enemy of France. Sensing a crisis, the young Piero de’ Medici attempted to imitate his father’s famous 1479 act of diplomacy, when Lorenzo personally visited the King of Naples to quell tensions between the two cities. Piero decided it would be a good idea to attempt this course of action with the French King. Without informing the Signoria, the official government of Florence, Piero made his way to the camp of King Charles VIII.

The outcome of the meeting between the Florentine ruler and the French King had dire consequences for not only Piero, but for the entire Medici family. In the encounter between two inexperienced young rulers, both in their early twenties, the Frenchman had the better of the bargain. King Charles VIII emphasized that all he wanted was an assurance of Florence’s good will, and off-handedly mentioned that a convincing token of Florence’s good intentions would be to give France several important Tuscan castles along with the ports of Pisa and Livorno. Records indicate that the French were utterly astonished when Piero actually agreed.

When the Signoria of Florence learned of this preposterous deal they were outraged. The government of Florence vehemently protested that Piero had no authority to cede these Florentine possessions, but it was too late. The French entered Florence to confiscate their newly acquired castles and seized control of Pisa before moving on south.

Upon his return to Florence, Piero was summoned to appear before the Signoria. The young leader made the foolish mistake of entering the meeting with an armed guard, alarming the Florentine government. The Signoria tolled the city’s bells to summon the people to the piazza. Chaos ensued and an angry Florentine mob ransacked the Medici palace.

Piero was tried for his political “incapacity” and he and his brothers were exiled from the city. The Medici family would not return to Florence for nearly 20 years.

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