Come meet the Medici family.
Power, imprisonments, affairs, mysterious murders, scheming and lavishness. Money. And drama, a lot of drama.
Far more than an entertaining story, the Medici (and their family bank) influenced almost everything in Florence and the impression they left on the city is inescapable.
Join us on a stroll from the first Medici home to their final palazzo. Delve into the evolution of a small family from Mugello to the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, from the countryside to the height of the Renaissance.
You can choose to hate them or to love them, but everyone must admit that the city we flock to today would not be the same without them. You are in Medici territory now.
Speaking about drama... let's start the walk where the Medici journey ends: the Basilica of San Lorenzo and the Medici Chapels, the eternal resting place of the 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.
Giovanni dalle Bande Nere, father of Duke Cosimo de’ Medici, sits high above the crowds in a corner, on a pedestal that boasts one of the hundreds of Medici crests - a shield with six balls in it - that adorne the city. A (quite lewd) pun has been going around since the 15th century: 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.
Just a few meters away sits the residence of Cosimo il Vecchio, the honorary Pater Patriae and the founder of the Medici phenomenon. Under Cosimo the family bank grew exponentially and, 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 - nowadays known as Palazzo Medici-Riccardi - directly across from San Lorenzo, 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 through the gate to gaze into the Medici limonaia and garden.
Despite his best efforts to remain discrete, Florentines became aware of his plots and in 1433 Cosimo was imprisoned in the tower of 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 drove him to bring Renaissance ideology to the city and play patron to some of the greatest artists.
The main entrance of Palazzo Medici is along Via Cavour. The courtyard is a Renaissance marvel by Michelozzo. This architecture served as the prototype for nearly all Italian Renaissance palazzi.
While heading south on Via Cavour, towards Piazza del Duomo, let's chat about Lorenzo the Magnificent, the grandson of Cosimo. After his father Piero died, Lorenzo became de-facto ruler of the Republic in 1469 at the 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, but also an impressive political leader and a sensitive guy with a knack for poetry. And he also had a pet giraffe. No wonder they tacked "Magnifico" onto his name.
Despite his roaring fan club, in 1478 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. However, 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.
Now that you are in front of the site of the siege - the Florentine Duomo - a fun fact: while the cathedral was built before the Medici, Lorenzo believed the family had earned the right to mark their territory even here and therefore he 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.
It seems Lorenzo drained all the brilliance for a few generations: his son Piero was dubbed "il Fatuo" (empty) or "lo Sfortunato" (unfortunate). 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 and during this time the city restored the true Republic, untainted by Medici masterminding.
From Piazza Duomo, continue south toward Piazza della Signoria. The statue of Michelangelo’s David found here is a replica, but positioned exactly where the original one was placed in 1504, symbolically in front of Palazzo Vecchio, to protect the seat of the Republic from the Medici’s prying power. The statue was also rotated to gaze south, toward Rome, where the Medici took up residency during their exile.
The David wasn’t the only Medici snub in the politically charged piazza. To the left of David, the statue of Judith and Holofernes by Donatello (again a replica, the original one is today inside Palazzo Vecchio) was originally commissioned by Cosimo de’ Medici to message the Florentines that they were there to protect the 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.
So at the dawn of the 16th century, Florence seemed to be in the clear of the manipulating Medici. Not quite! Time for a break at one of the cafés overlooking the piazza, for a cappuccino or a drink with a side of Medici history: the comeback.
With the appointment of Lorenzo de’ Medici’s son as Pope (Leo X), the Medici had the necessary support to wiggle their way back into the city in 1512. By 1532, Medici Pope Clement VII locked down his family’s rule in Florence by appointing the young Alessandro de’ Medici as Duke of the city.
With the reigns firmly back in Medici hands, it was time for the Medici to make their artistic rebuttal in Piazza della Signoria. The family hired Baccio Bandinelli to sculpt a statue of Hercules and Caucus to stand opposite of David, a pretty brazen metaphor of how the Medici planned to run the show. Nevertheless, when the statue was revealed, the public was amused rather than intimidated by the bulky statue with the bubble butt – much to the chagrin of the Medici.
Duke Alessandro’s career ended up being almost just as much of a mess. His violent, tyrannical reign came to a halting screech when his cousin, Lorenzaccio (bad Lorenzo) plotted Alessandro’s assassination. Proof that history repeats itself, it turns out nothing kicks up Medici support quite like an assassination. The people rallied behind Alessandro and turned against Lorenzaccio.
Without a legitimate heir, the Medici scrambled to fill their seat of power. Florentine noblemen were eager to put a naïve young boy, named Cosimo, in power, wronlgy thinking they could pull the strings from behind the scenes. Instead, Duke Cosimo created political stability in Florence as never before. A large statue by Giambologna, depicting this Cosimo on horseback, stands on the side of the Palazzo.
Florentines knew Cosimo meant business when he decided to move his residence from the Palazzo Medici on Via Cavour to the Palazzo Vecchio, the symbol of the Florentine Republic for centuries. Then, through a series of impressive military campaigns, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V granted Cosimo the title of Grand Duke of Tuscany. After this political conquest, a delicate little crown appears on the Medici crests.
Like most Medici rulers before him, Cosimo felt the need to make a strong political statement or two via his court artists. The Loggia dei Lanzi is where we can admire his contribution: the statue of Perseus and Medusa by Cellini is qualitatively a masterpiece and historically a gem. Cosimo commissioned it to assert his power, but the previuos Alessandro’s Hercules debacle made the new ruler understandably apprehensive. At the unveiling of the statue, Cosimo hid behind the curtains of a window in Palazzo Vecchio as he awaited the crowd’s reaction. Only when he heard the crowd gasp in amazement did he step out to receive his due credit.
The statue quite overtly expressed Cosimo’s style of rule – scary. Perhaps the most interesting tidbit about this statue is its very strategic placement. The legend of Medusa holds that any man who looks upon her will turn to stone. Well, look at Medusa’s head held high in the sky by Perseus. Now, look back toward the Palazzo Vecchio and spot the three gentlemen (Hercules, David and Neptune) who are all made of stone – they’re all looking directly at the bronze medusa.
Time to stand in front of the majestic Uffizi building, constructed by Giorgio Vasari for Cosimo, whose wish was to bring together the 13 most important Florentine magistracies (called "offices") in a single building, placed under his direct supervision, to consolidate the government. The walls are lined with famous Florentines, and the most “influential” of all, Cosimo himself, stands tall between the allegorical figures of Equity and Rigor, just above the inner façade of the courtyard.
About halfway to the river, on the right, find a break in the building and a small alley that passes out of the courtyard. Turn and find a door immediately to the right. Next to the door is the Buca delle Suppliche (Mouth of Supplications): the opening, today filled, is where the public could submit requests, complaints, and pleas to the Medici Dukes.
Head towards the Ponte Vecchio, and look up: the line of windows that run from the Uffizi, all along the bridge, and on to the other side of the river, are the ones of the Vasari Corridor, an enclosed passageway connceting Palazzo Vecchio to Palazzo Pitti.
Using the passageway, the Medici and their guests could make hassle-free and safe trips from one residence to the other. From there they could even attend mass, as the Corridor passes through the church of Santa Felicita.
A hop and a skip from Santa Felicita comes the sprawling Palazzo Pitti – a Medici acquisition thanks to Cosimo’s wife, Eleonora of Toledo. Fed up with the medieval style, cramped quarters and loud lions (!) kept in cages too close to Palazzo Vecchio on Via del Leone, the Spanish Princess went house hunting. Palazzo Pitti, situated across the Arno, in what she considered the countryside, was perfect. Against Cosimo's opinion, but with her conspicuous dowry at hand, Eleonora purchased and renovated the palazzo, which nearly doubled its size. The majestic Boboli Gardens were constructed just behind it.
Cosimo is perhaps the only leader in all of history who did not take a mistress while his wife was alive. The two were an unstoppable team and appeared to have a true, genuine love for each other. Quickly after her death Grand Duke Cosimo sunk into a nasty depression the last ten years of his rule, and never quite bounced back. During his absence, his son and heir to the throne, Francesco de’ Medici, took over. Francesco was a classic case of a rebellious child. He was far more interested in making potions and entertaining prostitutes than ruling Florence.
Cosimo orchestrated a dream of a political marriage between Francesco and the Hapsburg princess, Johanna of Austria. Much to Cosimo’s disappointment, and Francesco’s delight, Johanna died after only thirteen years of marriage. Francesco then married his long-time mistress, Bianca Capello. Mysteriously (or not), the two both died on October 17, 1587. Legend has it that Francesco’s brother, Ferdinando, poisoned them, others say it was malaria.
Ferdinando continued to decorate the city with the prized family jewels and ruled Florence and Tuscany as royalty. All former qualms about legitimate claims to power were tossed out the window; the Medici finally let the royal crown sit on their heads with ease.