For dramatic effect (well ok, for convenience’s sake), we are starting this walk where the Medici journey ends – the Basilica of San Lorenzo and the Medici Chapels. 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 - a shield with six balls in it - 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, the 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 -nowadays known as Palazzo Medici-Riccardi - 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.
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. 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. 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.
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.
The early years of the 16th century boded well for a Medici-free Florence. But 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. It was 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 statue. His violent, tyrannical reign came to a halting screech when his cousin, Lorenzaccio (bad Lorenzo) plotted Alessandro’s assassination (via a weird, incestuous seduction that we won’t get into here). 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, who claimed to have been attempting to save the Republic from the Duke.
Without a legitimate heir, the Medici scrambled to fill their seat of power. A boy named Cosimo (yes, Cosimo) came to mind. Florentine noblemen were eager to put the naïve youngster in power, thinking they could really pull the strings from behind the scenes, as Cosimo il Vecchio had done a century before. Oh boy, were they wrong.
Duke Cosimo is our first favorite Medici at Florence for Free, and not even because he bore an uncanny resemblance to Justin Timberlake (ok, maybe a little?). He created political stability in Florence that had never been previously achieved. Head to the large statue of the man on horseback to see Giambologna’s depiction of Duke Cosimo himself.
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. I don’t imagine that sat well with most Florentines. 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, we start to see a delicate little crown added to the Medici crests. Nice touch, huh? Like most Medici rulers before him, Cosimo felt the need to make a strong political statement or two via his court artists. Head over to the Loggia dei Lanzi for our favorite of Cosimo's contribution to the piazza. The statue of Perseus and Medusa by Cellini is qualitatively a masterpiece and historically a gem. Cosimo commissioned it to assert his power, but remembering 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. See what Cellini and Cosimo did there? These guys!
Time to pry ourselves from the pretty piazza and glide down the majestic Uffizi Corridor. Giorgio Vasari constructed the Uffizi at Cosimo’s request. The Uffizi (offices) were built as part the Duke’s efforts to consolidate the government. The walls of the corridor are lined with the famous Florentines. And, as he intended, the most “influential” Florentine, Cosimo himself, stands tall above the rest 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 your 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. As you stroll across the river, look up. The Vasari Corridor is the enclosed passageway that connects the Palazzo Vecchio to Palazzo Pitti (our final Medici palace).
Using the passageway, the Medici and guests could make hassle-free trips from one residence to the other, to the offices, and even to mass. From the street, you can follow the corridor windows from the Uffizi, across the Ponte Vecchio, through the church of Santa Felicita (just past the Ponte Vecchio on the Oltrarno), and all the way to…
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 (yes, 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. Cosimo said, “No,” and Eleonora, with a hefty dowry from her Spanish family, said, “Watch me.” Eleonora purchased and renovated the palazzo, which nearly doubled its size. The majestic Boboli Gardens were constructed just behind it, completely redefining our concept of a backyard. It didn’t take much to convince Cosimo to move in.
The bare, brick piazza, emphasizes the sheer sprawl of Pitti. Reliefs of Florentine lions wearing the Ducal crown emphasize its prestige. For a sneak peek of the Boboli Gardens, walk to your left along the palazzo wall. You’ll find a large iron gate, but when has that stopped us before? Poke your head through for a peek into the magnificent Medici garden. Look left to check out the statue of Nano Morgante, Cosimo’s favorite dwarf friend and muse. All the fancy statues and homes didn’t guarantee happiness, however. Grand Duke Cosimo sunk into a nasty depression the last ten years of his rule. Many historians give many different explanations – but here are our completely unsubstantiated thoughts on the matter. 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. Cosimo’s depression quickly followed her death and he 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 so mysteriously), the two both died on October 17, 1587. Legend has it that Francesco’s brother, Ferdinando, poisoned them. Others say it was malaria. But we’re always inclined to go with the more exciting story, so we say poison.
Florence was happy to be out with surly Francesco and in with personable Ferdinando. 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.
Now aware of the Medici melodrama, you’re ready to start exploring the rest of your Florentine itinerary. The Medici was a family made of intrigue, power, scheming, and lavishness. Their history runs deep, and the impression they left on the city is inescapable. Some chose to hate them, others chose 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.