by HannahHannah and Meg are co-authors of Florence for Free, a cultural blog specializing in self-guided walks that bring the streets of Florence to life for city explorers. Both are trained art historians, meaning their posts are often colored with interesting tidbits on famous works of art. It’s also regularly updated with upcoming events, travel tips, and insider secrets about how to make the most of living in Florence on minimal funds. For more walks like the one featured here, visit florenceforfree.wordpress.com.
Meet the Medici: imprisonments, affairs, mysterious murders, and money. A pet giraffe, a dwarf muse, and the world’s first water park. Just when you thought your family was weird, the Medici swoop in with more drama than the Sopranos and more crazy than the Kardashians.
Far more than an entertaining story, the Medici (and their family bank) influenced almost everything in Florence. Inevitably, your trip to see David, the Uffizi, and the Dome will become about the Medici; therefore, we suggest a warm-up. Join the gals of Florence for Free as we take you on a stroll from the first Medici home to the final Medici palazzo. Walk with us as we explore the evolution of a small family from the Mugello, to the ushers of the Renaissance, to the Grand Dukes of Tuscany, and the footprints they left in Florence along the way.
Distance: 2 km
Time: 90 minutes
For dramatic effect (well ok, for convenience’s sake), we are starting this walk where the Medici journey ends – the Church of San Lorenzo. The behemoth basilica, although the original cathedral of Florence, is more commonly known today for being the eternal resting place of these financial fathers of the Renaissance. Although a sprawling structure, the church practically blends in with the scenery as its unassuming and unfinished exterior is lost in the pulsing crowds of the San Lorenzo market.
A foreboding Giovanni dalle Bande Nere, father of Duke Cosimo de’ Medici (we’ll meet him later), sits high above the crowds in the corner of the piazza. The pedestal of the statue boasts the first of hundreds of Medici crests that you will see adorning the city. The Medici made no qualms about dropping their balls on everything in Florence (and outside of Florence) that their family, or their money, had something to do with – which is pretty much everything. Typically, I would apologize for such a lewd reference, but since the pun has been tossed around since the 15th century, I would consider it an historical disservice if I did not share it with you.
To see how those Medici balls got so big, head to the northeast corner of the piazza. There sits the residence of Cosimo il Vecchio, honorary Pater Patriae and the founder of the Medici phenomenon. Under Cosimo, the family bank grew exponentially. Although his money put him in a position to take over the city in a hot second, he knew that discretion was the key to longevity in power.
The positioning of the palazzo alone speaks to Cosimo’s wisdom in handling his wealth. He understood that he could pull more political strings from behind the scenes rather than threatening Florence’s beloved Republic. Therefore, instead of positioning the palazzo directly across from San Lorenzo, as a prince might typically do, he chose to take up residence catty-cornered from the church. Walk to the west side of the palazzo along Via San Gallo, and peek your head through the gate (note: free-loader travel with Hannah and Meg requires excessive neck-wrenching and gate-peeking). From this view, you can gaze into the Medici limonaia and garden.
Despite Cosimo’s best efforts to remain discrete, Florentines caught on to his puppeteering of the Republic. In 1433, Cosimo was imprisoned in the tower of the Palazzo Vecchio and shortly thereafter exiled from the city. But things didn’t pan out quite as well as Florentines had hoped, and Cosimo returned bigger and stronger one year later. His Humanist and Neo-Platonist leanings, beliefs that would boil in Medici blood for centuries, drove him to bring Renaissance ideology to the city and play patron to some of the greatest Renaissance artists. So despite being a thug, in the end we can’t hate you, Cosimo. Not at all.
Now stroll to the east side of the palazzo along Via Cavour. The main entrance is on this side, but for the sake of pinching pennies we will go for another gate peek. Poke your head into the courtyard to see Michelozzo’s Renaissance marvel. This architecture served as the prototype for nearly all Italian Renaissance palazzi. After the home was built, every great Florentine family strove to “Keep Up With the Medici” and made a knock-off for themselves.
Piazza del Duomo
Head south on Via Cavour to Piazza del Duomo. As we walk, let’s chat about Lorenzo the Magnificent. Lorenzo, the grandson of Cosimo is, personally, our second favorite Medici. Let us tell you why. After his father Piero died, Lorenzo became de-facto ruler of the Republic in 1469 at the ripe old age of twenty, and over the next 23 years he brought more than a little flair to Florence. Lorenzo was not only a lover and patron of arts, literature, science, and Antiquity; an impressive political leader; and a sensitive guy with a knack for poetry; but he ALSO had a pet giraffe. High-five Lorenzo! No question in our minds why they tacked Magnifico onto your name.
The life of il Magnifico wasn’t entirely charmed by great art and a roaring fan club, however. In1478, the infamous Pazzi Conspiracy, a plot to take down the Medici once and for all, came to fruition. The conspirators included members of noble Florentine families, the Archbishop of Pisa, Duke Federico of Urbino, and even the Pope, who supported the Medici downfall as long as no one was harmed. Disregarding the Pope’s request, the Pazzi and Salivati families stormed the Duomo on Easter morning, where the Medici, along with nearly 10,000 others, gathered for mass. The siege left Lorenzo wounded and his brother, Giuliano, was stabbed to death.
Things clearly didn’t work out so well for poor Giuliano, but lucky for Lorenzo, the attack sparked a renewed spirit of Medici loyalty in Florence. The city turned on the conspirators and took brutal pleasure in systematically – publicly – executing them all, including the Archbishop of Pisa.
By now, you have most likely arrived at the scene of the chaos - Santa Maria del Fiore, the Florentine Duomo. While the cathedral was built before the Medici, Lorenzo believed the family had earned the right to mark their territory even here with those good ol’ Medici balls. Lorenzo commissioned Andrea del Verrocchio, probably with the help of apprentice Leonardo da Vinci, to create a large Medici ball that he dropped directly atop the religious center of the city. I would call the move ballsy – but I think I have already made enough puns in this post.
Piazza della Signoria
Continue south toward Piazza della Signoria as we discuss a few Medici missteps that – in classic Medici fashion – eventually led to dukedom. It seems Lorenzo drained all the brilliance for a few generations, as his son and predecessor was dubbed Piero the Unfortunate – seriously, they called him that. It is no surprise, then, that Florentine Republicans seized upon Piero’s ineptitude and drove the Medici into exile by 1494. The family remained ousted until 1512. During this time, the city restored the true Republic, untainted by Medici masterminding.
Once in the politically hot piazza, head straight for the reproduction of Michelangelo’s David. In 1504, the statue was positioned here strategically for a dash of anti-Medici propaganda. The statue stands tall in front of the Palazzo Vecchio, protecting the seat of the Republic from the Medici’s prying power. He was also rotated to gaze south toward Rome, where the Medici took up residency during their exile. David’s glare practically shouts, “And stay out!” Clever, huh?
The David wasn’t the only Medici snub in the politically charged piazza. The statue of Judith and Holofernes, to the left of David, is a particularly sharp blow to the family. The Donatello reproduction (the original is held inside Palazzo Vecchio) was originally commissioned by Cosimo de’ Medici. The Medici intended the statue of Judith beheading the tyrannical Holofernes to be a message to the Florentines that they were protectors of their sacred Republic. Once the Medici were out of town, however, the Florentines snagged it, plopped it in front of the Palazzo Vecchio, and reversed on the meaning – Judith now represented Florence, and Holofernes, the Medici. Zing!
So at the dawn of the 16th century, Florence seemed to be in the clear of the manipulating Medici. It’s never that easy though, is it? We suggest a mental break at one of our favorite piazza cafés (Riviore if you’re in the mood for a sinful hot chocolate, and the Gucci Café if you’re feeling extra stylish). Enjoy a cappuccino with a side of Medici history before we plunge into (spoiler alert) the greatest political comeback in history.