It was a political dynasty that produced queens and popes, strengthening its influence and wealth in Europe over the course of more than 300 years – sometimes using bloody or ruthless methods. The Italian Medici family was an extended banking family that also contributed to birth of the Renaissance.
April 13, 2019, marks the 500th birthday of Catherine de’ Medici. Her role in European history is heavily debated. Some see her as the instigator of the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, in which thousands of Huguenots were murdered, while others believe that she promoted the reconciliation between Catholics and Protestants.
Reconciler or instigator?
At the age of 14, Catherine de’ Medici was married off to the second son of the King of France. Years later, she was made regent to rule on behalf of her 10-year-old son during a period of civil and religious conflict.
The St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre describes the pogrom against the Huguenots, French Protestants, in August 1572.
The occasion was a wedding supposedly arranged by Catherine de’ Medici to reconcile the faiths. The marriage between her Catholic daughter Margaret of Valois and Protestant Henry IV of France brought high-ranking Huguenots to Paris for the celebrations.
The activities of the Medici family remain a historical model for the clan system.
Origin: The Medici family had Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici to thank for the beginnings of its prosperity. The Florentine merchant had turned to money-lending before joining his uncle’s bank, whose Rome branch he later bought. In 1397, he established his own bank on which the Medici fortune was built. Giovanni quickly grew his contacts, becoming a banker for antipope John XXIII, whom many authorities recognized as such due to a split within the Catholic Church.
Influence: The Medici dynasty dabbled in politics, finance and religion. They were merchants who joined the city council in Florence and became grand dukes. In 1513, Leo X became the first Medici to become Pope. Ten years later, his cousin Clement VII followed in his footsteps. Exerting power and influence through cliques has always been a cornerstone of a successful clan.
Money: The Medici Bank charged excessive interest and was the largest financial power in Europe for over a hundred years until the end of the 15th century. The bank pioneered the private banking business as we know it today and was what is known today as “systematically important.”
Opposition: As in today’s clan system, there were also powerful enemies in early modern Europe, such as the House of Borgias. Families that stood in the way of the Medicis were quashed either through bribery or marriage — or sometimes through tougher means. The Medicis were no strangers to assassinations and poison. In 1512, they even decided on a coup d’état to protect their fading influence. There was no police protection for renegades at this time. The Medicis also set up a secret police force.
Art: As a result of their wealth, the Medicis were able to support and promote artists like Botticelli and da Vinci. Anna Maria Luisa, the daughter of Grand Duke Cosimo III and sister of Gian Gastone, was the last living member of the Medici family until her death in 1743. Today, Florence owes its significance in the fine art world to her. She protected paintings, sculptures and natural history collections and ensured that all the Medici art treasures remained in the city after her death.
Sexuality: Historically, the Renaissance was not at time of prudishness and so the members of the Medici family did not live in such a way. Stories of mistresses, lovers and orgies permeate the Medici family history up to the Baroque era. Gian Gastone de’ Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, is said to have held an orgy with toyboys on the day of his wife’s funeral.
Self-indulgence: Catherine de’ Medici, whose 500th birthday it would have been, is said to have influenced the formerly rather hearty French cuisine. The Italian chefs she brought with her to France after her wedding introduced a taste of the finest ingredients. Catherine also made snuff tobacco more socially acceptable.
End: Like all empires, the Medici dynasty was inevitably set to fall. Risky financial decisions and geopolitical influences, like the Ottoman activity in Italy, contributed to the demise of the family. Since the last Grand Duke Gian Gastone left no successors, the Medici era ended with the death of his sister Anna Maria Luisa.