There was one particular Florentine family that changed the world and moved it to a new era – that of the Renaissance. This was a period of a cultural flowering and rebirth of ancient Greece. At that time Medieval dogmas were a bit left aside in order for art and science to flourish and develop. And that particular family contributed greatly to all this…. The House of Medici…… Their astute flair of banking and commerce, scent of art and diplomatic skills helped them turn into the Godfathers of the Renaissance whose cultural heritage has always expired and evoked admiration up to now all over the world.
And here is how and where their story started. 🙂
The House of Medici descended from a knight called Averardo who fought on the side of Carl the Great during the conquest of Lomabradia in the 8th century. According to one legend he was passing through Mugello when he heard about a giant who had turned into a real monster for the locals. The knight started looking for it and found it. They had a duel and the giant threw its mace and hit his shield. Finally, the knight was the winner when he killed the monster.
Thus the story of the Medici family started in the small village of Cafaggiolo (in the region of Mugello) near Florence while Averardo’s damaged shield is supposed to be the basis of the family’s coat of arms that contains five red balls placed in a golden field. Another theory about the distinctive sign of the Medici (and maybe about the origin of their name, i.e. medici means pharmacists/doctors in Italian) is the fact that they prepared and gave away medicines to people and namely these balls resemble pills. And there’s another third suggestion that explains the origin of their family’s coat of arms and it is connected with the coin sign that hang in front of the craft shops, i.e. the balls are coins and money exchange was the primary family trade activity.
The future powerful dynasty left for Florence at the end of the 13th century but they never broke the tight bond with their place of origin. When they came to the town they settled down in the district of San Lorenzo clustered around the basilica with the same name and subsequently the Saint became the protector of the family and lots of members bore his name.
The first registered de’ Medici in the annals of Florence is Chiarissimo about whom is known almost nothing nowadays. In the beginning the family had three priors (i.e. heads) of the merchant guild of Florence due to the fact that they made a living as traders and merchants. But, for sure, their main line of work was the exchange of money and banking that were flourishing at that time. I will open a bracket here. The new developing banking industry of the 13th century was mainly an Italian discovery and even the name came from the Italian “banco” (today’s bank is, actually, the counter where bankers lend money to us). Italy of that time was the main economic force in Europe while in 1252 Florence began to mint fiorino d’oro (with 54grams of gold) that was known as gold florin that was the officially used coin in whole Europe. The bracket closed.
Well, the Medici managed to avail of that new industry. They opened The Medici Bank in 1397 and had numerous branches in Rome (it served as the major financial institution of papacy for a long period of time), Florence (opened thanks to Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici), Venice and other big centres all over Europe. But despite the ups and downs their activities as bankers helped them through the century in all aspects.
And surely, the major aspect was art and definitely the House of Medici had a fine scent of art, painting and poetry. Florence of the 14th century experienced one of its golden periods when three of the greatest Italian authors (Dante, Boccaccio and Petrarca) cut the bond with the clerical traditions and started to use the Tuscan dialect not the language of the Church (i.e. Latin) thus establishing Dante’s language as the basis of today’s Italian. Geniuses like Giotto and Bruneleschi, also Pisano and others left their masterpieces that have still been regarded as the greatest Renaissance landmarks.
In that period of time the Medici themselves commissioned the construction and renovation of buildings, paintings, sculptures to great architects, painters and sculptors like Michelozzo, Leonardo da Vinci, Donatello. The greatest contribution to the development of the Renaissance art had Cosimo’s grandson Lorenzo il magnifico (the Magnificent) who became the center of a humanist circle of painters, artists, philosophers and poets such as Marsilio Ficino, Pico della Mirandola, Angelo Poliziano, Bertoldo di Giovanni, Michelangelo, Raffaello, and of course, Botticelli and Leonardo da Vinci.
The House of Medici spread out their power in Europe through the pontificates of the two Popes the family produced – Pope Leo X (Giovanni de’ Medici) and Pope Clement VII (Giulio di Giuliano de’ Medici) in the 16th century. On the other hand, two members of the fair gender became Queens of France. This way they all contributed to the “diffusion” of the Medici’s Renaissance world and culture outside Italy.
Catherine de’ Medici got married to King Henry II in 1533 and was the mother of three future French Kings. She was very influential in the politics at that time but apart from this there are some interesting facts about her. She laid the foundations of the French cuisine. Before her arrival in France the French court recognized Medieval meals and concoctions only. When she got married and came to France she brought several Italian cooks with her. They introduced more refined recipes for more balanced and healthier dishes to their French colleagues which were immediately copied and used in France. Moreover, The Queen also brought with her some sweet treats al dente like ice cream and zabaglione (an Italian dessert and sometimes a beverage from egg yolks, sugar and Marsala sweet wine).
In the second place, Catherine changed the “order at the table”. In Italy the whole family (men, women, children and even servants) sat together at the table. While in France women were allowed to be present at the table only on special occasions. Moreover, the French Queen introduced refined cutlery like wine glasses and carafes (they substituted rough cups) and forks (before Catherine’s coming to France the French cut meat, for instance, with knives but ate it with fingers; by the way, it was strange to them to use forks and that’s why after the Queen’s death they were abandoned and left out and adopted again in the late 18th century).
In the third place, Catherine introduced ballet art to the French court by inviting well trained Italian ballet dancers. Last but not least, the French Queen ordered the Tuileries Palace on the right bank of the Seine. She also ordered the construction and renovation of some of the other most beautiful palaces of France.
The second “de’ Medici” Queen of France was Marie. She was the second wife of King Henry IV of France. She wasn’t so influential in politics as Catherine but definitely she somehow continued some of the changes started by her. For example, while French cooks simply copied Italian recipes in the beginning; they got acquainted with the theoretical principles of Italian cooking and adopted Italian cooking techniques at the time when Marie was in France. Like her predecessor the Queen ordered a palace – the Luxembourg Palace which had to be built following the model of the Florentine Palazzo Pitti and in that connection the design plans of the latter were sent from Florence. And Marie showed for the nth time the fine scent of art typical for the whole House of Medici by commissioning paintings and art works to Rubens and not only.
Unfortunately, this great Florence’s family ended due to the particular personal preferences of the last two members and their spouses in the 18th century. The last members of the House of Medici were Gian Gastone de’ Medici and his sister Anna Maria Luisa who could not leave an heir who would continue the dynasty. In spite of this end, the House of Medici remains forever in history with their banking abilities and especially their passion for art and innovations blurring their moments of adversity and shortsightedness.