The Medici in Florence: Political Dynasty, Patrons of Art

Unlike the Borgias, whose story is rife with blood and church office, the Medicis ruled indirectly through surrogates in city councils through bribes and strategic marriages. This is not to say turning one’s back on either family would’ve been advisable.

Coming to us on zoom from Tuscany, art historian Elaine Ruffolo begins when the modest family first left mountainous, inhospitable Mugello. We look at versions of a coat of arms which shows a number of balls. Ruffolo tells us there are multiple theories as to what these symbolize. As the family belonged to apothecary guilds, they may be pills. The balls may indicate drops of blood from fighting dragons; they may indicate sexual prowess. (Pawnbroker signage is often attributed to the family crest.)

Florence was then wealthy from textile businesses and luxury goods sold to powerful courts of Italy and the Middle East. We look at art featuring rich color and pattern. Textiles provided infrastructure. “Florentines were inventive and had great business sense.” The church, however, frowned on wealth. “Dante put usurers (the illegal action or practice of lending money at unreasonably high rates of interest) in a circle of hell.”

As the city’s Jewish population was not allowed to own property or join a guild, many became money-lenders. Interest amount was regulated by the city, hefty taxes levied. “So what do you do about getting rid of the sin of usury?” It was suggested Christians give back in the form of good works which would justify prosperity. “A kind of trickle-down approach.” Money was put into a secular system defined by charity. In Florence, this meant patronage, making the city a work of art, “il piu bello chesi puo” the most beautiful you can.

Banking families established the city as the center of credit. From the East came double entry bookkeeping, Arabic numerals (“try to multiply with Roman Numerals!”), and letters of credit. Exploration and pilgrimages garnered new ideas: the use of maritime charts, the compass, the spinning wheel, mechanical clocks, dividing a day into 24 hours, the production of paper…

When Giovanni di Bicci Medici arrived after being a lowly bank teller in Rome, Italy was a commercial hub divided into Kingdoms, Papal States, Duchies, the Holy Roman Empire, and republics such as Florence. “Republics put power in the hands of merchants. To hold office you had to belong to a labor union or guild, have no debt, and not be of royal lineage.”

Di Bicci married above his rank and settled in the Mercato Vecchio at the center of the city. (Now Piazza della Repubblica.) His wife’s substantial dowery allowed him to invest in textiles. As venerable banking operations failed, he filled the vacuum opening the first Medici financial institution. One could leave money to earn interest and write a check. (Charged interest was 27%.) Soon the family had 13 branch offices including Constantinople, London, and Basel.

Their most powerful hold, however, came from becoming bankers to the popes. Church offices were frequently purchased and as borrowers rose in the ranks, the Medicis held increasing sway. “Branch offices collected tithes from every good Christian. Banks got to keep the money and invest it for a year. Sounds like Visa or Mastercard.” The practice apparently lasted till 1743.

Cosimo de Medici

After Giovanni, Cosimo de Medici (1389-1464) took over. A natural leader, he began his career with enormous wealth and a humanist education. Starting in his early 20s, the young man wove a web of alliances outside Italy. He was, by all reports, astute, patient and an excellent financier.

Cosimo was also very conscious of the necessity to appear benevolent. In 1450, he became godfather to 200 children, which meant finding employment for the boys, providing dowries for the girls. Then the wealthiest citizen in Europe, he fulfilled his duties with patronage in the arts.

Palazzo de Medici

 “Life wasn’t all smooth sailing.” When Cosimo began to sense trouble, he surreptitiously moved money and art from Florence to Venice. In 1434, the family scion was arrested and imprisoned for treason. Ruffolo implies he got too big for his britches. Without missing a beat, he bribed the mayor. Sentence reduced from death to exile, Cosimo relocated to Venice. Florentine economy collapsed and he was back home a year later.

Next comes scholarly Piero the Gouty (1416-1469). His patronage extended only to cameos and coins with the exception of Chapel of the Magi by Benozzo Gozzolini inside the Medici Palazzo. Our expert refers to the style as “international gothic and throw-back.” Florentines didn’t have an opportunity to see what was only for the inner circle.

The work includes depictions of the patron’s family – Cosimo rides a donkey – images of movers and shakers in Europe, and one of the first painted images of a Moorish slave. Ruffolo identifies Pope Pius II at the back, looking put out for minor positioning.

Lorenzo de Medici

Self-named, Lorenzo il Magnifico “had exquisite taste and great humanity.” He fostered Neoplatonism: Neoplatonists believed human perfection and happiness were attainable in this world through philosophical contemplation. This is the Medici who ushered Florence’s Golden Age, which Ruffolo compares to Camelot. Lorenzo spoke several languages and wrote poetry. A born diplomat, he married a member of Roman nobility cementing ties between Florence and Rome. The strongest part of his legacy, however, was one of facilitating patronage. Some of those he nurtured were: Antonio de Pollaiuolo, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Michelangelo, and Leonardo da Vinci. Commissions for the Sistine Chapel fell under his  influence.

Sistine Chapel ceiling portion by Michelangelo

In 1474, Pope Sixtus decided he wanted the kingdom for himself and asked Lorenzo for a loan. The Medici said “no” afraid he’d take over Florence. Sixtus was so angry, he moved his banking to the Pazzi family. “It’s always about power.” The Pazzis attacked Lorenzo and his brother at Sunday Mass, killing Giulaino, driving a wounded Lorenzo into the sacristy. Lorenzo listened at the door wondering whether the people of Florence would support him. They did, chanting “Balls! Balls! Balls!” Conspirators were caught and hung. Failure of the plot served to strengthen the position of the Medici. The Pazzi were banished from Florence.

The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli

Lorenzo is responsible for some of Florence’s greatest art. Sandro Botticelli, a favorite, created The Birth of Venus. “It was an era when many believed contemplation of beauty could bring one to the ideal.” Mythology was all the rage. Ruffolo contends that you have to understand the myth to appreciate the art. In both this and Botticelli’s Primavera, she calls out the identity of every represented figure and notes symbolism such as Venus’ shell signifying rebirth.

Things came to a head in 1492. Columbus discovered “the new world,” Jews were expelled from Spain, the Spanish Inquisition began. Italians, Ruffolo comments, were exploring for countries other than their own. The Peace of Lodi treaty between Venice and Milan ended the war of succession to the Milanese duchy marking the beginning of a 40-year period of relative peace. Lorenzo il Magnifico died that year. He was briefly followed by Piero de Lorenzo de Medici or Piero, The Unfortunate, who was apparently feeble, arrogant, and undisciplined. He drowned fleeing a battle.

Girolamo Savanarola

Then Girolamo Savanarola “took over.” A fire and brimstone preacher, he encouraged the destruction of secular art and culture, denounced clerical corruption, despotic rule, and the exploitation of the poor. It was Savanarola who created the “Bonfire of the Vanities,” which publicly burned thousands of objects representing sin. These included things like cosmetics, books and art. Savanarola dug his own grave by called Pope Alexander VI (a Borgia) the Anti-Christ. He was hanged then burned at the stake.

“Weakened by syphilis, the Medicis died out in 1743.”

Another fascinating and entertaining program by Smithsonian Associates.

Elaine Ruffolo and Ruth Robbins

All quotes are attibuted to Art Historian Elaine Ruffolo, under the aegis of Smithsonian Associates, Ruth Robbins Curator.

Opening photo: View of Florence by unknown artist 1470. US Public Domain
1. Medici coat of arms by Lax: Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain
2. Portrait of Cosimo I de’ Medici in armor by Agnolo Bronzino (National Museum in Poznan). Public Domain
3. Bologna palazzo Malvezi Medici. Public Domain
4. Portrait of Lorenzo de’ Medici by Bronzino and workshop. Public Domain
5. Sistine Chapel ceiling – Creation of Adam by Michelangelo. Public Domain 
6. The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli. Public Domain
7. Portrait of Girolamo Savonarola by Fra Bartolomeo. Public Domain

About Alix Cohen (1162 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of nine New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.