The House of Medici: Rise and Fall of a Banking Family

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  • 0:06 Introduction to the Medici
  • 1:59 Giovanni and Cosimo de' Medici
  • 5:04 Lorenzo de' Medici
  • 7:06 The Medici Popes
  • 8:39 Medici Family Given Title
  • 10:43 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will focus on the Medici family of Florence, Italy. It will explain their rise to power through banking. It will also highlight their influence on the Renaissance era and how they gained influence without violence.

Introduction to the Medici

If you open up almost any world history textbook, you will read phrases like, 'The Renaissance gave us Michelangelo' or, perhaps, 'The Renaissance gave us Leonardo da Vinci.' These are famous men, which most people will know. However, there are lesser known men, an entire family, in fact, who also played a crucial role in this time period.

Their name? The Medici family of Florence, Italy. Their claim to fame? Well, let's just say if the Renaissance gave us Michelangelo or da Vinci, then the Medici themselves gave us the Renaissance! The Renaissance, a period beginning in the late 14th century in which people began taking an interest in the learning of earlier times (specifically the cultures of Greece and Rome), is the backdrop for which our lesson takes place. As the French word Renaissance implies, it was a rebirth in the appreciation of classical times and the Medici were, perhaps, its greatest supporters!

Giovanni di Bicci de Medici founded the Medici Bank.
Giovanni di Bicci de Medici

To begin, the Medici family, also known as the House of Medici, emigrated to Florence from the Tuscan hillside sometime during the 12th century. Through banking and commerce, this family soon rose to become one of the wealthiest families in Italy. However, it wasn't until the 15th century that the Medici began turning their wealth into political capital, making themselves the unofficial, yet undisputed, rulers of Florence.

As we take a look at this powerful, mafia-like family, let's keep three things in mind.

  1. The Medici won their powerful status through wealth, not by war or birthright.
  2. The Medici sustained their power by using art as their personal propaganda machine.
  3. The Medici cemented their power through family connections and a vast social network.

Giovanni de' Medici

The first Medici we see using wealth to win power was Giovanni di Bicci de' Medici. In fact, we could say it was he who got the influential Medici ball rolling through the founding of the Medici Bank. Through shrewd, behind the scenes business transactions, Giovanni wormed his institution to the top of the ladder.

By the early 15th century, the Medici bank had become the official bank of the Papacy, earning themselves the title of God's Bankers. However, Giovanni never sought political office; instead, he used his wealth to strongly 'encourage' the official politicians of Florence for tax reform. This move made him extremely well liked by the people of Florence and added popular support to his growing political cache.

Cosimo de' Medici

Botticelli painted Medici family members into this painting.
Adoration of the Magi Botticelli

If Giovanni got the Medici ball rolling, his son, Cosimo de' Medici (or Cosimo the Elder), had it dipped in gold. During the 1430s, Cosimo used the family fortune to set up an elaborate network of behind the scenes alliances that benefited his bank and ruined his competitive enemies. In true mafia style, he loaned money for favors. Within years of taking over the family reigns, Cosimo controlled the strings to almost every business in Florence. This gave him the ability to call in favors at will. He also set up branches of the Medici Bank all over the known world, from Barcelona to Cairo to Bruges. Soon, almost every parish in Europe sent its money to the Medici. The Pope himself opened a huge credit line, giving the Medici the purse strings of the church. Again, money won power, making the House of Medici a ruling dynasty without birthright or title.

Of course, this made Cosimo very unpopular with the old, influential families of Florence. So much so that in 1433, he was arrested and exiled by a rival family. However, bribes - along with his well-crafted political network - saw his enemies quickly destroyed. Cosimo returned to reign unchallenged for over 30 years.

With his rule undisputed, Cosimo further cemented his popularity by throwing his money to the arts. He commissioned Brunelleschi to finish the dome of the Florence Cathedral, and then 'suggested' the Pope personally travel to Florence to consecrate the cathedral upon its completion in the mid-1430s. Now remember, Cosimo held His Excellency's money in his hand. This move made him extremely popular with the masses, as their city was turned into the cultural center of the day, and the Renaissance began to flourish. With this, Cosimo seized the opportunity to use art to his political advantage, holding at his charge men like Brunelleschi and Donatello. Craftily, Cosimo the Elder continued to fund the arts, earning his city fame and himself the posthumous title, Father of the Fatherland.

Lorenzo de' Medici

If Cosimo seized the opportunity to use cultural works as propaganda, his grandson, Lorenzo de' Medici, made it an art form. Lorenzo, known as the Magnificent, threw the doors of art open to the public, again breathing life to the Renaissance. He funded a public art school, fostered the talent of Michelangelo, supported the brilliance of da Vinci and flaunted the racy works of Botticelli. This grasping of power through art is blatantly seen in Botticelli's work, the Adoration of the Magi. In this masterpiece, the artist actually painted members of the Medici family as the kneeling wise men! What could give the appearance of power more so than having a wise Medici kneeling and actually touching the feet of the Holy Child?

Cardinal Giovanni de Medici became Pope Leo X in 1513.
Cardinal Giovanni de Medici

Although Lorenzo was charming and a fan favorite, he had little interest in the family banking business. Instead, he used family connections to ensure his power and success. He married the niece of a church cardinal, and then, married his own daughter off to the son of Pope Leo VIII. Not satisfied with this, he also spent a fortune buying his teenage son, Giovanni , the title of Cardinal. Although these moves did widen the Medici influence, it also lessened the family's personal bank account in Florence. Lorenzo, being more interested in his popularity than the business side of his position, soon began losing some of his power and sway. In short, as his money began to dwindle, his social network began crumbling. In fact, during the latter part of his unofficial reign, Lorenzo came under great criticism by the powerful monk Savonarola. This outspoken clergyman condemned Lorenzo for his sinful taste in art, his sinful extravagance and his sinful abuse of church power. Without the full force of their former fortune, the Medici line began to weaken.

The Medici Popes

However, never fear, the Medici had an ace up their sleeves, when Cardinal Giovanni de' Medici (remember Lorenzo's son who got a cardinalship for his birthday) became Pope Leo X in the year 1513. With this rise to such heights, Giovanni (or His Excellency) refilled his family coffers through the sale of indulgences - or in simpler terms, the freedom from punishment of sins. This practice, although it played a role in spurring on the Reformation, made Giovanni a very wealthy man, with a strong appetite for parties, Renaissance art and prestige.

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