The Medici Family – The Leaders of Florence
This is the first in a series that will be 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 will take 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 begin with the patriarch of the Medici dynasty, Giovanni di Bicci.
The Medici family was the first princely dynasty to win their status not by warfare, marriage or inheritance, but through commerce. They come to Florence in the 12th century from their ancestral home in the Mugello valley, located nearby on the Tuscan countryside.
The founder of the Medici family as it emerged from obscurity was Giovanni, son of Averardo de’ Medici, also known as Bicci. Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici belonged to the Cafaggiolo branch of the Medici family and occupied the highest position in the Popular Party. There, he worked prudently and silently, in accordance with his mild, affable character. The Medici policy was always aimed at encouraging democratic aspirations, but the basic intention of the family was to turn those aspirations to their advantage. Giovanni was a skillful banker and intelligent businessman, thoughtful and reserved. He did not distinguish himself in dress or lifestyle; he lived simply in the serene peace of his family. Giovanni did not like to be involved with public appointments, unless the issues pertained to his family or bank. His name was often put forward to participate in the Florentine government, yet he chose to pay the fine rather than serve.
Giovanni’s wealth brought him into contact with the nobility, to whom he was politically opposed, since he belonged to another aristocracy of Florence, that of commerce and banking. Beneath a veil of apparent disinterest, he concealed a tenacious yet intelligent desire to accumulate wealth. He hoped that his patrimony may become an instrument of political power not only in his hands, but in those of his successors as well.
Giovanni was at the head of an early “multi-national” company, as the family bank, his main commercial interest, had branches throughout the northern Italian city-states and beyond. In 1414, Giovanni bet on the return of the papacy to Rome, and was correct. Rewarding Giovanni for his support, the Pope gave Giovanni’s general manager control of the Apostolic Chamber. Giovanni was also rewarded with tax-farming contracts and the rights to many mines. This set Giovanni and his family on the path to becoming one of the richest dynasties in Europe, thereby making an essential stride towards its later cultural and political eminence. One way in which he laid the groundwork for this was by marrying Piccarda Bueri in 1386, whose family was old and respectable and who brought a dowry. The couple had two sons, Cosimo and Lorenzo.
In 1420, Giovanni had given the majority of control of the bank to his two sons, Cosimo and Lorenzo. Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici died in 1429, at which time he was one of the richest men in Florence. He was buried in the Old Sacristy of the Basilica of San Lorenzo, Florence and his wife was buried with him after her death four years later.
Giovanni increased the Medici family wealth to unprecedented levels. Yet rather than give back to the city of Florence, he used his fortune discreetly for political purposes in a manner which would later be perfected by his son, Cosimo.