By Wade Maki
Early in the 15th century an ex-pirate enters a small shop in Florence. A visit to the shop is not his goal. In the back of the shop is a small family bank from which the ex-pirate hopes to gain a large loan. The man running the bank, Giovonni de’Medici, grants the loan. The ex-pirate uses the money to fund a new career in the church and within a few years he becomes Pope John XXIII. As a reward the Medici become the bankers to the church expanding Medici Bank’s reach across Europe.
Giovonni represents a successful business career. Of course, during this time in Florence business, family, and politics (including murder) were all interconnected. To promote and protect the family, more than just money was needed. To rise in social standing without noble blood required a different display than business success. The Medici began to fund the arts making themselves patrons of the Renaissance.
Giovonni’s son, Cosimo, had the luxury of a classical education in literature and philosophy. He also grew up in the banking business. Cosimo continued to run the bank, fund the arts, and collect classical texts which had been lost since the fall of the Roman Empire. The Medici became patrons to the architect Brunelleschi who would create the largest dome in the Christian world. In addition, Cosimo commissioned works from many artists such as Lippi, Donatello, Michelozzo and Gozzoli. The Medici even took in a young boy and raised him with their own children because of his artistic aptitude. That boy was Michelangelo.
Late in the 15th century, Lorenzo de’Medici, known as “the Magnificent”, would go on to run the city of Florence and commission work from Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, and Michelangelo. All of the Medici successes, the Renaissance they helped create was not appreciated by all. In 1492 Lorenzo was murdered and the family driven out by religious fundamentalists who then held a “bonfire of the vanities” to publicly incinerate classical “pagan” literature and non-Christian artistic works.
Exiled from Florence, Lorenzo’s son Giovonni, a cardinal in the church, sought to reclaim Florence, which had become a republic. Giovonni found the Pope sympathetic and with papal support raised an army to march on Florence. One of the young advisors to the republic arranged a citizen army to defend the city. This defense would not succeed, as Giovonni’s tactics were so brutal (massacring an entire village) that the leaders of the republic surrendered rather than risk a more violent end. The young advisor who led the resistance to Giovonni de’Medici was arrested, tortured, and exiled. His name was Niccolo Machiavelli who went on to write a book, The Prince, dedicated to the Medici in the hopes of regaining a government job. This did not earn him a job, but the book has made him one of the most infamous political writers in history.
After retaking the city, Giovonni went on to become Pope Leo X by 1513. His financial mismanagement of church funds led to the selling of papal indulgences (you simply paid for a document forgiving various sins). Pope Leo’s actions caused a little known German priest to protest church corruption. The Priest’s name was Martin Luther who started a little thing called the Protestant Reformation (maybe you’ve heard of it).
During this period, Medici patronage allowed Michelangelo to complete the statue of David (which was damaged during an anti-Medici revolt in the city), paint the Sistine Chapel, and the Last Judgment (which included nude people, who the church had another artist paint undergarments on the exposed genitals).
Other Medici ruled Florence as Duke, became Popes, and one even went on to rule France as Queen (with a belief in the writings of Nostradamus). In the 16th century the Medici hired a tutor who taught three generations of Medici students. The tutor was especially skilled in science and astronomy. His name was Galileo and he remained with the Medici until the Pope sent the Inquisition after him for writing that the earth revolved around the sun. Not even the Medici could save Galileo from the Papal Inquisition.
We often talk about interconnectedness and complexity within the human experience. This is reflected well in the lives of the Medici. Their motivations were very human. They desired wealth, power, and status and found business, religion, and the arts useful methods to achieve those ends. They also had a sincere appreciation for history, philosophy, and the arts—especially for the classics—which had been lost since the fall of the Roman Empire. They were greedy bankers, ruthless rulers, corrupt Popes, patrons of the arts, promoters of science, preservers of culture and essential to the Renaissance. All of these things connect to a single family within a 200 year period. It doesn’t get much more human than that.