About the Book

About the Author

List of Illustrations


Medici Family Tree

Medici Leaders and Rulers in Florence


Title Page


Prologue: High Noon

Part 1: Origins of a Dynasty

1 Ancient Beginnings

2 The Origins of the Medici Bank

3 Giovanni’s Legacy

4 Cosimo Rising

5 The Moment of Truth

Part 2: Out of the Darkness

6 The Medici in Exile

7 The Dawn of Humanism

8 East Meets West

9 Art Reborn: The Egg Dome and the Human Statue

10 ‘Father of the Country’

11 Piero the Gouty

Part 3: The Prince and the Prophet of Doom

12 The Renaissance Prince

13 Murder in the Cathedral

14 Plato in the Piazzas

15 A Succession of Masters

16 The Tide Turns

17 The Bonfire of the Vanities

Part 4: The Pope and the Protestant

18. Il Gigante – A Statue of Biblical Proportions

19. Rome: The Medici’s New Home

20. Machiavelli Meets His Match

21. Rome and the Lion Pope

22. The Pope and the Protestant

23. The Papacy Stays in the Family

Part 5: The Battle for Truth

24. A Grim Aftermath

25. Aristocratic Rule

26. Medici – European Royalty

27. Godfathers of the Scientific Renaissance

28. Godfathers No More?

29. Finale

Picture Section





About the Author

Paul Strathern studied philosophy at Trinity College, Dublin. He is a Somerset Maugham prize-winning novelist; the author of the series of books Philosophers in 90 Minutes and The Big Idea: Scientists who Changed the World; and most recently, Mendeleyev’s Dream (shortlisted for the Aventis Science Book Prize), Dr Strangelove’s Game: A History of Economic Genius and Napoleon in Egypt. He lives in London.

About the Book

A dazzling history of the modest family which rose to become one of the most powerful in Europe, The Medici is a remarkably modern story of power, money and ambition. Against the background of an age which saw the rebirth of ancient and classical learning, Paul Strathern explores the intensely dramatic rise and fall of the Medici family in Florence, as well as the Italian Renaissance which they did so much to sponsor and encourage.

Strathern also follows the lives of many of the great Renaissance artists with whom the Medici had dealings, including Leonardo, Michelangelo and Donatello; as well as scientists like Galileo and Pico della Mirandola; and the fortunes of those members of the Medici family who achieved success away from Florence, including the two Medici popes and Catherine de’ Médicis, who became Queen of France and played a major role in that country through three turbulent reigns.

The Medici

Godfathers of the Renaissance

Paul Strathern

Imprint Name

to Kathleen


I WOULD PARTICULARLY like to acknowledge the assistance provided to me in the writing of this book by Jörg Hensgen, whose meticulous editing contributed so much to the style and content of this work. I would also like to thank his readers, whose advice on matters of fact proved invaluable. Any remaining infelicities of style or content remain my own doing.

I would also like to take this opportunity to offer long overdue thanks to the ever-helpful and friendly staff of the British Library, and the Science Museum Library on Imperial College Campus, who have for many years assisted me in my researches.

P. S.



Cosimo de’ Medici, painting by Jacopo da Pontormo, c. 1518–19, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence (akg-images/Erich Lessing).

Federigo da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino, painting by Piero della Francesca, c. 1460–75, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence (akg-images/Erich Lessing).

Madonna and Child by Fra Filippo Lippi, 1452, Palazzo Pitti, Florence (akg-images/Orsi Battaglini).

Primavera (Allegory of Spring) by Sandro Botticelli, c. 1477–78, Galleria degli Uffizi (akg-images/Erich Lessing).

Pope Leo X, with Cardinals Luigi de’ Rossi and Giulio de’ Medici by Raphael, 1517–18, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence (akg-images/Rabatti-Domingie).

The Last Judgement by Michelangelo Buonarroti, 1536–41, Sistine Chapel, Vatican, Rome (akg-images).

Marie de Médicis, painting by Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1622–25, Museo del Prado, Madrid (akg-images).

Ferdinando II de’ Medici, painting by Justus Sustermans, Galleria Palatina, Florence (© 1990 Galleria Palatina/Photo Scala, Florence; courtesy of the Ministero Beni e Att. Culturali).


Lorenzo de’ Medici, fifteenth or sixteenth century, probably after a model by Andrea Verrocchio and Orsino Benintendi (Samuel H. Kress Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington).

Copy of the map known as the ‘Carta della Catena’, depicting Florence around 1480, Museo di Firenze com’era (© 1990 Photo Scala, Florence).

Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici, painting by Agnolo Bronzino, Museo Mediceo, Florence (© 1990 Museo Mediceo/Photo Scala, Florence; courtesy of the Ministero Beni e Att. Culturali).

Palazzo della Signoria with Palazzo Vecchio and Loggia dei Lanzi, Florence (akg-images/Orsi Battaglini).

Santa Maria del Fiore, dome built by Filippo Brunelleschi (akg-images/Rabatti-Domingie).

David with Goliath’s Head by Donatello, c. 1430, Museo Nazionale del Bargello (akg-images/Erich Lessing).

Detail from Confirmation of St Francis of Assisi’s Rules of the Order of the Pope Honorius III by Ghirlandaio, c. 1483–85, Cappella Sassetti, S. Trinità, Florence (akg-images/Rabatti-Domingie).

Portrait of Pico della Mirandola, Gioviana Collection, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence (© 1990 Gioviana Collection, Galleria degli Uffizi/Photo Scala; courtesy of the Ministero Beni e Att. Culturali).

Girolamo Savonarola, painting by Fra Bartolomeo, Museo di San Marco, Florence (akg-images/Erich Lessing).

Execution of Savonarola on the Piazza della Signoria (1498), anonymous painting, contemporary, Museo di San Marco, Florence (akg-images/Rabatti-Domingie).

David by Michelangelo Buonarroti, Galleria dell’Accademia, Florence (akg-images/Erich Lessing).

Niccolò Machiavelli, painting by Santi di Tito, Palazzo Vecchio, Florence (akg-images/Rabatti-Domingie).

Three Landsknechte by W. Huber, 1515 (akg-images).

Castel Sant’Angelo, Rome, copperplate engraving by Matthäus Merian, c. 1650 (akg-images).

The Siege of Florence by Giorgio Vasari, c. 1560, Palazzo Vecchio, Florence (akg-images/Rabatti-Domingie).

Alessandro de’ Medici, portrait by Agnolo Bronzini, Museo Mediceo, Florence (© 1990 Museo Mediceo/Photo Scala, Florence; courtesy of the Ministero Beni e Att. Culturali).

Cosimo I Medici, bronze sculpture by Benvenuto Cellini, 1545–48, Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence (akg-images/Rabatti-Domingie).

Catherine de Médicis, sixteenth-century painting, French School, Musée du Louvre, Paris (akg-images/Erich Lessing).

Galileo Galilei, coloured drawing by Ottavio Leoni, Biblioteca Marucelliana, Florence (akg-images).

Bust of Gian Gastone de’ Medici, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence (© 1990 Galleria degli Uffizi/Photo Scala; courtesy of the Ministero Beni e Att. Culturali).

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Ancient Beginnings

THE MEDICI FAMILY is said to have been descended from a knight called Averardo, who fought for Charlemagne during his conquest of Lombardy in the eighth century. According to Medici family legend, Averardo was travelling through the Mugello, a remote valley near Florence, when he heard tell of a giant who was terrorising the neighbourhood. Averardo went in search of the giant, and challenged him. As they faced each other, the giant swung his mace. Averardo ducked and the iron balls from the giant’s mace smashed into his shield; but eventually Averardo managed to slay the giant. Charlemagne was so impressed when he heard of Averardo’s feat that he decreed that henceforth his brave knight could use his dented shield as his personal insignia.

The Medici insignia of red balls (or palle) on a field of gold is said to derive from Averardo’s dented shield. Others claim that the Medici were, as their name suggests, originally apothecaries dispensing medicines to the public, and that the balls of their insignia were in fact pills. This story was always denied by the Medici, and their denial is supported by historical evidence, as the medical use of pills did not become commonplace until some time after the appearance of the Medici insignia. The most likely origin of their insignia is the sign that medieval money-changers hung outside their shops, depicting coins. Money-changing was the initial Medici family business.

The legendary knight Averardo settled in the Mugello, the fertile valley of the River Sieve, which runs through the mountains twenty-five miles by road to the north-east of Florence. Even today, the region remains a picturesque spot with vineyards and olive groves either side of the curving river, beneath steep wooded hills and the mountains beyond. This isolated region of less than twenty square miles must have had an exceptional gene pool: not only did it produce the multi-talented Medici, but also the families of geniuses as disparate as Fra Angelico, Galileo and Giotto.The Medici family came from the village of Cafaggiolo, and was always to retain strong links with this spot.

Some time before the turn of thirteenth century the Medici family appears to have left Cafaggiolo to try their luck in Florence. They were not the only country people to seek their fortune in Florence at around this time, and between the mid-twelfth and mid-thirteenth centuries the population of Florence is said to have increased fivefold to more than 50,000. Medieval methods of ascertaining the population were notoriously fanciful, which leaves such figures open to question. The census-taking methods of Florence were a case in point: births were registered by the simple method of counting beans – when a child was born, the family was expected to drop a bean into the local census box: black for a boy or white for a girl. However, we know that Florence experienced an unprecedented increase in population during this period, making it larger than Rome or London, though it remained smaller than the great medieval centres of Paris, Naples and Milan.

The Medici settled in the neighbourhood of San Lorenzo, clustered about the church of San Lorenzo, the earliest part of which had been consecrated in the fourth century. As a result, San Lorenzo would become the patron saint of the Medici, and some of the family’s most illustrious sons would be named after him. From San Lorenzo it was just a few minutes’ walk to the Mercato Vecchio (Old Market), the hub of the city’s commercial life (now the large central Piazza della Repubblica). Here visitors came from miles around to buy the cloth for which the city was famous, with bolts of brightly coloured material laid out on the trestle stalls, cut to measure against the customer as he bargained. Early in the morning the streets leading to this large square would be filled with the carts of farmers bringing their wares to market, the squeals of driven pigs, bleating sheep, the mooing of milk cows. Amidst the cries of the sellers and animals, there were stalls selling freshly caught fish from the Arno, slices from hooked slabs of bloody meat, varieties of cheeses, wine from the barrel. Along the walls were neatly stacked piles of coloured vegetables and fruit – onions and withered greens in the spring; fennel and figs, cherries and oranges in summer; and in winter, meagre piles of earthy root vegetables. Amidst the throng of townsfolk and yokels, the mendicant friars in their threadbare robes begged from passers-by. The blare of a herald’s trumpet, and the crowd would throng the entrance to the Via del Corso to watch a bloodied, stumbling criminal in rags and chains being whipped through the street amidst jeers, on his way to the Bargello and a public hanging on the morrow.

The first Medici mentioned in the records of Florence is one Chiarissimo, who appears on a legal document dated 1201. Little is known of exactly what happened to the family during this period; all we know for certain is that the Medici became money-changers and gradually prospered – to such an extent that by the end of the thirteenth century they had become one of the better-known business families in the city. Even so, the Medici were not regarded as one of the leading families, who were all either noble landowners or well-established merchants. Then in 1296 Ardingo de’ Medici became the first member of the family to be chosen as gonfaloniere.

Florence was an independent republic, theoretically run on democratic lines. It was ruled by a nine-man council known as the Signoria, the chief of whom was the gonfaloniere, who presided for a period of two months. The gonfaloniere and his Signoria were selected by lottery from amongst members of the guilds. These lotteries were increasingly fixed, so that the Signoria generally represented whichever leading family, or families, held sway at the time. In 1299 Guccio de’ Medici was the second member of the family to become gonfaloniere. Guccio must have shown his benefactors that the Medici could be relied upon, for in 1314 Averardo de’ Medici became the third Medici Gonfaloniere.

Florence may have been lacking in power and historical greatness, compared with such cities as Paris and Milan, but it soon made up for this in the creation of wealth. This was mainly due to the new growth industry of the thirteenth-century – banking, which was to a large extent an Italian invention. (The English term derives from the Italian word banco, referring to the original counters on which the bankers conducted their trade.) At this time Italy was the main economic power in Europe, with the Genoese and the Venetians controlling the import of silk and spices from the Orient. Marco Polo even records that in the last decade of the thirteenth century Genoese merchant ships were trading on the Caspian Sea; and as early as 1291 two Genoese galleys disappeared searching for a route to the Orient by way of West Africa. International trade was on the increase, despite hazardous rutted turnpikes and shipping routes raided by pirates. The overland journey from Florence across the Alps to the northern trading city of Bruges in Flanders, a distance of some 700 miles, usually took between two and three weeks. The less dangerous sea journey, via the port of Pisa and the Bay of Biscay, could take twice as long.

Image Missing
Fig 2 Florence around 1480

Goods such as cloth, wool and grain were supplemented by luxury goods from the Orient, which were mainly destined for the courts of powerful noblemen and royalty. The setting up of banks in the main trading centres greatly facilitated this burgeoning international trade, and in the process merchant bankers accumulated large assets at these centres, which they soon began loaning out at interest, despite the Church’s ban on usury. Many banks managed to circumvent the Church’s ban by maintaining that there was always a possibility of loss in their business; any extra charge was merely a payment against ‘risk’, so this was not really usury at all. Others claimed that they were not actually charging interest on their loans – any increase in the size of the repayments was due entirely to fluctuations in the exchange rate. Despite the spuriousness of its justifications, banking soon became an accepted practice.

At the end of the thirteenth century the main banking centre was Siena, the smaller city over the mountains some forty miles south of Florence; but in 1298 the leading Sienese bankers, the Bonsignori family, went bankrupt. This was largely because they had loaned huge sums to royalty and powerful courts, the main borrowers in this market, whose requests were often impossible to refuse. The difficulty was that banks simply had no power to enforce these debts: such rulers were quite literally a law unto themselves, as the Sienese bankers found to their cost. Siena never recovered from the Bonsignori collapse, and Florence quickly took over the banking trade. This was soon dominated by three leading Florentine families: the Bardi, the Peruzzi and the Acciaiuoli, which became the greatest banking houses throughout Europe, with the Peruzzi house having a network of fifteen branches, stretching from Cyprus to London.

In its early heyday one of the symbols of Florence was a lion, which occasionally appeared stamped on commemorative medals, rather than the more usual Florentine lily. This lion was to become more than a fanciful symbol, for it was during this period that the city acquired its first real lions, probably through its trading link to the Levant. The lions were kept in a large cage on the Piazza San Giovanni, close to the cathedral, and these exotic creatures were a source of wonder and pride to the citizens; their occasional roars, which resounded through the streets, became regarded as omens by the superstitious population. Some time during the mid-fourteenth century the lions were moved to a site behind the Palazzo della Signoria, where their cage stood in the street still known as Via dei Leoni. Yet despite their popularity, and their central appearance in the life of the city, they were not adopted as the symbol for the city’s most successful coinage, an honour that fell to the lily.

Florence’s banking supremacy, and the trustworthiness of its bankers, led to the city’s currency becoming an institution. As early as 1252 Florence had issued the fiorino d’oro, containing fifty-four grains of gold, which became known as the florin. Owing to its unchanging gold content (a rarity in coins of the period), and its use by Florentine bankers, the florin became accepted during the fourteenth century as a standard currency throughout Europe. This was a considerable advantage to bankers, who otherwise had to deal with flexible exchange rates between a range of different coinages.

It was during this period that the foundations of modern capitalism were laid, business practice was established, and banking evolved many of its skills. Double-entry bookkeeping was invented (first appearing in 1340); fiduciary money (that is, credit based on trust, and not matched by assets) was conjured up out of nothing; and payment by ledger transfers and bills of exchange was developed. Despite these advances, the Florentine bankers soon repeated the Sienese mistake, by opening loan accounts for King Robert of Naples and Edward III of England. In 1340 Europe suffered an economic depression, and the kings who were unable to repay their debts simply reneged on them. By this stage Edward III had embarked on what would come to be known as the Hundred Years War against France, and it was reckoned that he owed the Peruzzi bank ‘the value of a realm’. As a result, the three leading banking families in Florence went bankrupt in quick succession.

Even before this catastrophe, the early fourteenth century had seen volatile times in the Florentine Republic, with political power frequently changing hands in violent fashion. The population was divided into two main parties, the Guelfs and the Ghibellines, and there were of course factions within these two parties. The Ghibellines drew their support mainly from the noble families, while the Guelfs were supported by the wealthy merchants and the popolo minuto, meaning ‘the small people’ – that is, the general public or working class. (Besides being disparaging, the term popolo minuto also contained an element of truth, mainly because the poorer classes endured a severely reduced diet, which restricted their growth: the popolo minuto were literally small people.)

Despite such political instability, the early fourteenth century saw Florence’s first cultural golden age, with the city producing three of Italy’s finest writers – Dante, Boccaccio and Petrarch – in just half a century. In a break with clerical tradition, they chose to write in Tuscan rather than Latin, and this not only established the Tuscan dialect as the standard form of Italian, but introduced a secular humanist element by dispersing literature beyond the language of the Church. This secular humanism was also reflected in the interests pursued by these authors. Petrarch, for instance, would become renowned for seeking out the manuscripts of ancient classical authors, which had long lain forgotten in monasteries throughout Europe. Boccaccio, on the other hand, would become notorious for his Decameron, a sequence of sometimes obscene and often humorous tales depicting life as it was actually lived amongst the people of the time, rather than the way the authorities (particularly the Church) considered it ought to be lived. The two finest artists of the period, Giotto and Pisano, also lived in Florence and showed humanist inclinations, with their figures breaking away from the medieval formalism of the day to assume a more modern, lifelike manner with recognisable expressions of emotion. Such luminaries brought Florentine culture to the brink of the Renaissance; but before this could develop further, Europe was struck by the greatest disaster in its history.

The economic depression of the early 1340s was followed by the catastrophe of the Black Death. This arrived in Europe from China, by way of Genoese ships from the Black Sea, in 1347. Contemporary chroniclers, confirmed by recent research, record that during the next four years around one-third of Europe’s population was wiped out by the plague. Owing to bad sanitation and ignorance of how the disease spread, the situation was worst in the cities, where families suspected of having the plague were sometimes simply bricked up in their homes and left to die. Those who could afford to do so fled from Florence into the surrounding Tuscan countryside; of those who remained behind, well over half perished. Not surprisingly, the first stirrings of the new humanism were quickly replaced by superstitious morbidity; yet the comparative social stasis of medieval Europe had begun to crumble, and fundamental change was inevitable.

The Medici family in Florence had by now expanded to include some twenty or thirty nuclear families. The affiliation of these families, recognisable by name, would have been looser than that of a single family, more akin to that of a clan, with its own internal rivalries but overall group loyalty. The Medici appear to have taken advantage of the vacuum left by the bankruptcy of the three leading Florentine banking families, with several Medici going into banking, establishing their own separate small enterprises. Brothers or cousins would have joined together as partners to provide shares of the original capital, often working together in the daily running of the bank, which would have involved such business as foreign-currency exchange, small deposits, and seasonal loans to wool traders, weavers and the like. At least two of these enterprises were sufficiently canny, or lucky, to survive the economic ravages of the Black Death, and were thus able to consolidate the Medici power base. The Medici now provided the city with more than the occasional gonfaloniere. Giovanni de’ Medici (a direct descendant of the first-documented Chiarissimo) departed from the usual Medici preserve of civil affairs, and became a military leader. Keen to demonstrate his prowess, in 1343 he encouraged the Florentines into a war against the small city state of Lucca, some forty miles to the west. Giovanni tried to take Lucca, failed, then laid siege to the town; but the campaign turned into a fiasco, and on his return to Florence Giovanni was executed. After this, the Medicis stuck to civil affairs – yet on occasion these could prove just as dangerous.

In 1378 Giovanni’s cousin Salvestro de’ Medici became gonfaloniere, and during his two-month period in office a revolt broke out amongst the wool-workers, who were known as the ciompi (after the sound that their distinctive wooden clogs made on the stone-slabbed streets). The ciompi revolt was ostensibly led by Michele di Lando, who fronted a mob of fellow wool-workers and artisans demanding the right to form their own guilds – and thus the right to vote, and at least theoretically have a chance of getting onto the ruling Signoria. Despite being gonfaloniere, Salvestro sympathised with the revolt, though it appears that he also saw it as an opportunity to advance the Medici cause. In order to stir up trouble and intimidate the noble faction that had balked the Medicis, Salvestro secretly threw open the prisons. What had begun as a protest quickly became a riot, with Salvestro and the other eight members of the Signoria forced to barricade themselves in the Palazzo della Signoria while the mob went on the rampage, looting the palaces of the nobles and merchants, setting fire to houses and roughing up members of the guilds. In a characteristic political homily, Machiavelli would later remark of these events in his History of Florence: ‘Let no one stir things up in a city, believing that he can stop them as he pleases or that he is in charge of what happens next.’

Salvestro’s house was spared, allegedly because of his sympathy with the protesters, though this caused some to believe that Salvestro may well have instigated the revolt. Even given the deviousness of Florentine politics, this seems unlikely, especially in the light of what followed. In the immediate aftermath of the disturbances a commune was set up by the mob, Salvestro was deposed as gonfaloniere and the mob-leader Michele di Lando was installed in his place. Despite the continuing atmosphere of instability, this state of affairs would last for more than two years, though in time Michele di Lando found himself more and more out of his depth, and took to consulting secretly with Salvestro about what to do next. The ciompi and their supporters eventually got wind of this, and fearing an undercover return of power to the old rulers, took to the streets, threatening to destroy the city rather than let this happen. Michele di Lando panicked and turned to Salvestro de’ Medici, who proposed that they use their joint influence to call out the militia. It responded to their call, whereupon the mob backed down without a fight, dispersed and returned to their homes: the revolt was over.

The guild workers and the shopkeepers, as well as the nobles and merchants, had been horrified by the ciompi revolt; the new guilds formed by the ciompi were dissolved, and the nobles took firm control. Salvestro de’ Medici and Michele di Lando would normally have been executed, but instead they were merely exiled, in recognition of the part they had played in ending the revolt. The exile of Salvestro put paid to the bid of the Medici clan to become a leading force in Florentine politics, and was also a severe blow to the family business, which was run only with difficulty from exile.

When Salvestro died in 1388, the main Medici banking business was taken over by his cousin Vieri. The new head of the Medici firm was not interested in politics and devoted himself entirely to building up the business, opening exchange offices in Rome and Venice and conducting an export–import trade through the river port of Pisa. Vieri was the first Medici to achieve any business success that extended beyond the city itself, and according to Machiavelli: ‘All who have written about the events of this period agree, if Veri [sic] had been possessed of more ambition and less integrity, nothing could have stopped him from taking over as prince of the city.’ As Machiavelli was writing 130 years after the event, his assessments are not always to be trusted; here he was almost certainly exaggerating, in order to glorify the Medici. Even so, the political integrity of the Medici clan, and its loyalty to the constitutional government of Florence, was certainly put to the test during this time, no matter the precise extent of their potential political power. Just over a decade after the ciompi revolt there was another revolt, this time by the popolo magro, literally, ‘the lean people’ – the distinction being that they were the near-starving unskilled underclass, rather than the powerless artisans of the popolo minuto. But when the mob took to the streets, all those excluded from power joined them in voicing their grievances. The mob still remembered how the Medici family had been sympathetic to their cause, and they called on the elderly Vieri to lead them; but Vieri tactfully declined this dangerous offer. According to Machiavelli, he told the disappointed mob ‘to cheer up, for he was willing to act in their defence as long as they followed his advice’. He then led them to the Signoria, where he made an ingratiating speech to the council members. ‘He pleaded that the ignorant behaviour of the mob was none of his doing, and besides, as soon as they’d come to him he’d brought them straight here, before the forces of law and order.’ Miraculously, everyone concerned appeared satisfied with this performance: the revolutionaries dispersed, while the Signoria accepted Vieri’s word, allowing him to return home, and there were no reprisals. Yet despite Vieri’s skilful handling of this affair, the strain of it all had evidently been too much for him, because later that same year he died; and with Vieri the senior line of the Medici family vanished from history.


The Origins of the Medici Bank

THE MEDICI FAMILY fortunes now passed into the hands of Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici, head of the Cafaggiolo branch of the family, so called because it retained property in the Medici’s home village in the Mugello. Giovanni was born in 1360, the fourth son of Averardo detto Bicci, who was the owner of a smallholding in Cafaggiolo. Averardo was not rich, but was of sufficient social standing to marry into the aristocratic Spini family, though when he died in 1363 his property was divided up between his wife and five sons, leaving none of them well off.

Giovanni di Bicci was eighteen at the time of the ciompi revolt, and was almost certainly in Florence during the two-year period of the commune, which was covertly supported by his distant relative Salvestro de’ Medici. Possibly as a consequence of this, Giovanni was to retain a secret sympathy for the popolo minuto all his life, although the ensuing political climate hardly favoured such sympathies. After the collapse of the commune, the old families quickly reasserted their authority: an oligarchy was set up by the powerful Albizzi, Capponi and Uzzano families, led by Maso degli Albizzi, and this situation would continue for the next thirty years. Despite the occasional disturbance, such as the one that Vieri de’ Medici helped to defuse in 1393, this was a period of prosperity and comparative stability in Florence; the oligarchy was firm, but was not particularly unpopular.

The powerful families of the oligarchy were strongly opposed to the Medici and their allies, which may well have accounted for Vieri’s unwillingness to become involved in politics, as much as any innate humility on his behalf. This unwillingness also extended to his remote cousin Giovanni di Bicci. It is difficult to tell whether the political modesty of these two early Medici was instinctive, feigned, or simply a matter of clan loyalty, or even clan policy. Self-consciousness in the late fourteenth century was still firmly rooted in medieval mores: people tended to regard themselves as members of a family, rather than as individuals. According to such a way of thinking, these early Medici would naturally have sunk their individual political ambitions in the long-term ambitions of the family as a whole, accepting that political power would only be achieved by the family in more propitious times; meanwhile it was best to lay the foundations, firmly establishing the family and its wealth to an ever greater degree, in preparation. However, such foresight would appear to display an extremely well-developed sense of political ambition. Did the Medici harbour secret long-term ambitions for political power, or was their early accumulation of wealth merely an ambition in itself? From such a distance it is impossible to tell the secret machinations and plans of the Medici family at this stage.

Being a member of the Medici family certainly helped Giovanni di Bicci, for shortly after the ciompi revolt the new head of the family business, his uncle Vieri de’ Medici despatched Giovanni to Rome where he was apprenticed to the local branch of Vieri’s bank. Familial ties always played their part in businesses, especially in banking where trust was so essential. Even so, Giovanni evidently had an aptitude for the business, because within a few years he was made a junior partner, and three years later he became manager of the Rome branch. In that same year, 1385, he married Piccarda Bueri, who brought him a sizeable dowry of 1,500 florins, which he almost certainly used to invest in various personal business projects.

From all accounts, the Vieri business flourished through the 1380s, much of this being due to the success of the Rome branch under Giovanni di Bicci, which provided a large share of the profits. But by now Vieri was approaching seventy, a venerable age in late medieval times, and in the early 1390s he retired, dissolving his business. This gave Giovanni di Bicci the opportunity to set up the Rome branch as his own firm, and in accordance with the practice of the day he was obliged to take over the assets and liabilities of Vieri’s Rome office. According to the State Archives in Florence, Giovanni lost 860 florins on the deal, which suggests either that the Vieri business had taken a recent downturn, or that Vieri indulged in some creative accounting before handing on the business to his manager. Six centuries later there is no extant evidence either way, as indeed there may not have been at the time.

On 1 October 1397 Giovanni established a head office in Florence, and this is generally accepted as the date for the founding of the great Medici Bank. Rome, with the Curia (the papal court) and all its attendants, certainly provided a good source of income, but Florence was the banking capital of Europe, providing the best opportunities for investment. Details of the founding of the Medici Bank and its early trading are revealed in the bank’s libro segreto (literally, ‘secret book’), which is preserved in the State Archives in Florence. This ‘secret book’ is in fact no more than the bank’s private records, but its literal name gives a flavour of the romance and conspiracy of early banking.

The Medici Bank’s initial capital was 10,000 florins, with the controlling 5,500 florins put up by Giovanni di Bicci, and the rest being provided by two partners who were not immediate members of the Medici family (though such partners were almost invariably related to the family by marriage). In its first year’s trading the bank made around 10 per cent profit, and it was customary for such profits to be withdrawn from the bank so that they could be invested privately by the partners. Giovanni appears to have bought some farmland near his home village of Cafaggiolo, prudently diversifying his assets beyond the vicissitudes of the financial world.

Besides being pre-eminent in banking, Florence was also an important centre of the wool-processing industry, with cloth-trading links as far afield as Flanders and England. The well-established merchant families often had interests in both businesses, and in 1402 the Medici Bank put up 3,000 florins to finance a cloth-producing workshop. Later in the year, the records show that the Medici Bank opened an office in Venice, with Neri Tornaquinci as manager, so that it could benefit from the Venetian trade with the Orient (whose actual practice was strictly monopolised by the Venetians, though outsiders were able to profit from the ancillary commerce that grew around this trade). By now the Rome office had expanded, opening sub-offices in Naples and the port of Gaeta eighty miles south-east of Rome. Yet apart from financing another wool workshop in 1408, this was to be the limit of the Medici Bank’s expansion during the first twenty years: Giovanni di Bicci was a cautious man and preferred to consolidate. This was a trait he shared with his predecessor as head of the Medici clan, his distant relative Vieri, and he certainly passed it on to his son; as bankers, the Medici made their money through caution and efficiency, rather than innovation. Contrary to banking lore, they did not invent the bill of exchange, though they may have had a hand in the invention of the holding company; their success was based almost exclusively on the use of tried-and-trusted techniques pioneered by others. The Medici Bank never underwent rapid expansion, and even at its height was not as extensive as any of the three great Florentine banks of the previous century, those owned by the Bardi, Peruzzi and Acciaiuoli families – the Medici did not believe in over-stretching themselves. As the bank’s profits increased, Giovanni di Bicci displayed further evidence of his essentially conservative nature by continuing to buy up farmland in the Mugello and in the Tuscan hills around Florence; and as he became more prosperous still, properties within the city itself. Giovanni not only founded the Medici Bank, and the Medici banking code of practice, but also laid the solid foundations of the extensive family fortune that was to become its power base.

The head of the Medici Bank soon became a prominent figure in Florence, and as early as 1401 Giovanni di Bicci served on the committee of leading citizens that was to judge the winner of an international competition to create new bronze doors for the Baptistery. This was the first instance of a Medici being involved in artistic patronage, though in this case the actual patron was the city itself. What part Giovanni di Bicci played in choosing the winner is not known – the artist who received the commission for the bronze doors was Lorenzo Ghiberti, a young Florentine sculptor who was later to become one of the founders of Renaissance art, just as Giovanni di Bicci was to become the founder of the Medici patronage that did so much to engender this movement. Yet at this stage the twenty-three-year-old Ghiberti was merely talented, and the forty-two-year-old banker was merely interested in making money. It is no exaggeration to say that this occasion launched Ghiberti on the road to greatness, but at the same time it may well have opened Giovanni di Bicci’s eyes to something greater than the accumulation of riches.

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Fig 3 Portrait of Giovanni di Bicci by Bronzino

At this distance, and on such scant evidence as we have, it is difficult to discern the finer points of Giovanni di Bicci’s character. The best physical likeness we have of him is probably the portrait by Bronzino in the Medici Museum in Florence, which is a detailed and perceptive painting, giving many possible clues to the nature of its subject. The trouble is that Bronzino was born more than seventy years after Giovanni died, which leaves a question as to this portrait’s veracity on the physical level, let alone the psychological one. However, although painted at the height of Medici aggrandisement, it is not a flattering portrait; it also bears a more than passing resemblance to other likenesses, while the cast of its features uncannily echoes that of his son Cosimo. This suggests that there could be some truth in the unverified story that the painting was copied from an earlier, contemporary portrait for which Giovanni di Bicci may well have sat. Bronzino depicts a shrewd, perhaps wise man, whose features retain an element of peasant earthiness and cunning. The tilt of his chin indicates a certain pride, and the eyes have a clear unwavering stare, but the finely lined forehead suggests a man who worried deeply and constantly, while the wide but thin lips hint at the repressed sensuality of an ascetic, calculating temperament. In other words, much the kind of man one would expect from the little we know of his actual life: even if this portrait is not ‘true’, it certainly seems fitting.

In 1402 Giovanni di Bicci became prior of the Florentine Arte del Cambio (the guild of bankers and money-changers) and held a seat on the ruling Signoria. This sounds very grand, though in actuality Giovanni’s bank in Florence was a distinctly humble affair – apart from its profits, that is. During this period, a bank usually consisted of a single largish room, divided by the banco or counter that gave it its name, and behind the counter sat the clerks, together with the bookkeeper and his abacus. Most banks had fewer than half a dozen employees, though according to the Medici libro segreto, in 1402 the bank employed seventeen in all – five at the head office in Florence, with the remaining dozen divided between Rome, Venice, Naples and Gaeta. Bank clerks earned around fifty florins a year, which was enough to live modestly – when one considers that with an annual income of 200 florins a year a man could support a large family and live in a sizeable town house with two servants, a horse and a donkey. Employees in the Medici Bank, and other Florentine banks, were not always promoted on merit, but often on account of their connections – either within the family or to important personages outside it. And to cement trust, branch managers were usually made junior partners in their particular branch – though despite this, things could still go wrong, as happened in the Venice office of the Medici Bank where Neri Tornaquinci was manager. His partnership agreement explicitly forbade him from doing business with the Germans, whose business methods were considered backward and devious by the Italians. Evidently Neri was made a tempting offer and decided to risk a loan to some German traders, whereupon the Germans decamped back home across the Brenner Pass without repaying. Neri was left with a large discrepancy in his accounts, which of course made no mention of his illicit German venture. In a panic lest head office should find out, Neri borrowed money which more than covered the debt – so that the books for the Venice office actually showed a healthy profit. Unfortunately, this money was borrowed at ruinous rates, and no matter how desperately he tried, Neri was unable to generate sufficient profit from the daily running of the bank to cover the interest and also balance the books. According to the records, on 25 April 1406 Neri Tornaquinci was summoned to Florence, where Giovanni di Bicci dismissed him, and sued him for the missing money. Neri was forced to sell everything, including his home, but this was not enough to cover the debt, so he gamely set off north across the Alps to try and track down the Germans. It seems that he finally caught up with them in Poland, at Cracow, where he managed to collect part of the debt; but by now he was so far from home that he decided against sending the money back to Giovanni, and chose to begin a new life on the proceeds. Such a tale vividly illustrates the circumstances of banking in the early fifteenth century: as ever in commercial practice, risk and trust were finely counter-balanced, even for someone as cautious as Giovanni di Bicci.

Yet despite all his caution, Giovanni was not above the odd lapse of judgement himself. The explicit ban on trading with Germans, which was written into house contracts, suggests that Giovanni too may have had his fingers burned by Teutonic commercial enterprise; and even his major business connections were sometimes far-from-trustworthy characters. This was certainly the case with Baldassare Cossa, whom Giovanni befriended during his spell at the Rome office. Baldassare was descended from impoverished Neapolitan nobility, and as a young man had run off to sea, where he made a fortune as a pirate. Back on land he used this money to obtain a doctorate in law at the University of Bologna; he then bought himself a position in the Church, where he soon began to prosper. In 1402 he decided to buy a cardinal’s hat, and approached Giovanni di Bicci for a loan of 10,000 ducats (approximately 12,000 Florentine florins). Astonishingly, Giovanni obliged – and this decision becomes even more surprising when one considers Baldassare Cossa’s character. According to a contemporary writer, during Baldassare’s nine years as cardinal legate at Bologna, his spiritual qualities were ‘zero, or minus zero’, and the cardinal’s residence quickly became notorious for its ‘two hundred maids, wives and widows, with many nuns’.

So why did the cagey Giovanni become involved with an unscrupulous profligate like Baldassare? Let alone ‘loan’ him such a large sum? The answer was simple: Giovanni took a gamble on Baldassare Cossa because he knew that he was in the running for the papacy, and Giovanni had worked long enough in Rome to understand that being banker to the pope was the biggest financial prize of all. If the Medici Bank could handle the financial affairs of the Curia, it could establish itself as one of the major commercial institutions in Europe. For eight long years Giovanni di Bicci befriended Badassare Cossa and acted as his banker, regularly corresponding with him and doing his best to limit Baldassare’s extravagances, which remained a constant drain on the Medici Bank’s resources. Then in 1410 it all paid off: Baldassare Cossa was elected pontiff, becoming Pope John XXIII, and the Medici Bank took over the handling of the Curia’s finances.

By the early fifteenth century, banking had become an essential arm of the papal executive. Unlike any other European power of this period, most of its revenues were earned abroad, coming largely in the form of remittances from the vast number of sees throughout Europe. These sees extended to the very limits of the Western world – as far as Iceland and even Greenland (whose bishop paid in sealskins and whalebones, which were converted into cash in Bruges). Another form of income was the selling of holy relics, which often fetched an enormous price, as they had the power to transform an entire economy, turning the region that possessed them into a centre of pilgrimage. Even more lucrative was the trade in indulgences, which offered the purchaser the pope’s pardon for his sins, the price increasing dependent upon the magnitude of the sin involved. Another constant source of revenue was the selling of appointments to holy office, which involved offices from the lowest rank up to and including that of cardinal.

The sums involved in this continent-wide commercial enterprise were enormous – porportionately far larger than those accumulated by any present-day multinational – and the bank that handled them would of course receive its commission, which would amount to a huge annual income. Whichever bank was chosen to handle the papal business would need to have proven expertise: it would have to deal with monies gathered from sources throughout Europe, and would also have to be utterly trustworthy, answering in utmost confidence to the pope alone. By the time Baldassare was appointed Pope John XXIII, Giovanni di Bicci had done enough to convince him that he was utterly competent, utterly trustworthy and, above all, utterly loyal.

Apart from dealing with such revenues, the Rome office of the Medici Bank had now also attracted trade from the cardinals, prelates and sundry advisers who made it their business to attend the Court of Rome. Yet curiously, according to the Medici records, the Rome branch of the bank spent more of its time lending money than receiving it. High office in the Church may have been rewarded with a high income, but seemingly it often involved even higher expenditure: the Medici accounts reveal that the accounts of many cardinals were frequently overdrawn, and to a considerable sum. Despite these loans, the Court of Rome branch yielded no less than 30 per cent on investment for Giovanni di Bicci and his partners. Indeed, this branch was responsible for over half the profits of the entire bank. According to the libro segreto for 1397–1420, the Court of Rome branch provided 79,195 florins profit, out of a total 151,820 florins. This easily exceeded the combined efforts of the branches in Florence, Venice, Naples, Gaeta, miscellaneous agents and the two wool workshops. Such sums may seem small in comparison to modern financial statistics, but this represented an annual income for Giovanni di Bicci of almost 1,900 florins – when a gentleman could live comfortably for a year on 200 florins, and a skilled craftsman had to support his entire family on an annual income of less than 100 florins.