A Florentine family, the members of which, having acquired great wealth as bankers, rose in a few generations to be first the unofficial rulers of the republic of Florence and afterwards the recognized sovereigns of Tuscany.
Born 1389, died 1 August, 1464, the founder of their power and so-called "Padre della Patria", was the son of Giovanni di Averardo de' Medici, the richest banker in Italy. He obtained the virtual lordship of Florence in 1434 by the overthrow and expulsion of the leaders of the oligarchical faction of the Albizzi. While maintaining republican forms and institutions, he held the government by banishing his opponents and concentrating the chief magistracies in the hands of his own adherents. His foreign policy, which became traditional with the Medici throughout the fifteenth century until the French invasion of 1494, aimed at establishing a balance of power between the five chief states of the Italian peninsula, by allying Florence with Milan and maintaining friendly relations with Naples, to counterpoise the similar understanding existing between Rome and Venice. He was a munificent and discerning patron of art and letters, a thorough humanist, and through Marsilio Ficino, the founder of the famous Neo-Platonic academy. Sincerely devoted to religion in his latter days, he was closely associated with St. Antoninus and with the Dominican friars of San Marco, his favourite foundation. His son and successor, Piero il Gottoso, the husband of Lucrezia Tornabuoni, a man of magnanimous character but whose activities were crippled by illness, contented himself with following in his footsteps.
On Piero's death in 1469, his sons Lorenzo, b. 1449, d. 8 April, 1492, and Giuliano, b. 1453, d. 26 April, 1478, succeeded to his power. The latter, a genial youth with no particular aptitude for politics, was murdered in the Pazzi conspiracy of 1478, leaving an illegitimate son Giulio, who afterwards became Pope Clement VII. Among those executed for their share in the conspiracy was the Archbishop of Pisa. A war with Pope Sixtus IV and King Ferrante of Naples followed, in which Florence was hard pressed, until, Lorenzo, as Machiavelli says, "exposed his own life to restore peace to his country", by going in person to the Neapolitan sovereign to obtain favourable terms, in 1480. Henceforth until his death Lorenzo was undisputed master of Florence and her dominions, and, while continuing and developing the foreign and domestic policy of his grandfather, he greatly extended the Medicean influence throughout Italy. His skillful diplomacy was directed to maintaining the peace of the peninsula, and keeping the five chief states united in the face of the growing danger of an invasion from beyond the Alps. Guicciardini writes of him that it would not have been possible for Florence to have had a better or a more pleasant tyrant, and certainly the world has seen no more splendid a patron of artists and scholars. The poets, Pulci and Poliziano, the philosopher and mystic, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola , and a whole galaxy of great artists, such as Botticelli and Ghirlandaio, shed glory over his reign.
Posterity has agreed to call Lorenzo "the Magnificent", but this is, in part, a misunderstanding of the Italian title "magnifico", which was given to all the members of his family, and, indeed, during the fifteenth century, applied to most persons of importance in Italy to whom the higher title of "Excellence" did not pertain. Lorenzo sums up the finest culture of the early Renaissance in his own person. Unlike many of the humanists of his epoch, he throughly appreciated the great Italian classics of the two preceding centuries; in his youth he wrote a famous epistle on the subject to Federigo of Aragon, which accompanied a collection of early Italian lyrics. His own poems in the vernacular rank very high in the literature of the fifteenth century. They are remarkably varied in style and subject, ranging from Petrarcan canzoni and sonnets with a prose commentary in imitation of the "Vita Nuova" to the semiparody of Dante entitled "I Beoni". His canzoni a ballo , the popular dancing songs of the Florentines, have the true lyrical note. Especially admirable are his compositions in ottava rima : the "Caccia col Falcone", with its keen feeling for nature ; the "Ambra", a mythological fable of the Florentine country-side; and the "Nencia da Barberino:, an idyllic picture of rustic love. His "Altercazione", six cantos in terza rima , discusses the nature of true felicity, and closes in an impressive prayer to God, somewhat Platonic in tone. To purely religious poetry belong his "Laude", and a miracle-play, the "Rapresentazione di san Giovanni e san Paolo", with a curiously modern appreciation of the Emperor Julian. In striking contrast to these are his carnival-songs, canti carnascialeschi , so immoral as to lend colour to the accusation that he strove to undermine the morality of the Florentines in order the more easily to enslave them.
At the close of his life, Lorenzo was brought into conflict with Savonarola, but the legend of the latter refusing him absolution on his deathbed unless he restored liberty to Florence is now generally rejected by historians. By his wife, Clarice Orsini, Lorenzo had three sons: Piero, Giuliano, and Giovanni, of whom the third rose to the papacy as Leo X. Although a man of immoral life, his relations with his family show him under a favourable aspect, and, in a letter from one of the ladies of the Mantuan court, a charming account is given of how, on his way to the congress of Cremona in 1483, Lorenzo visited the Gonzaga children and sat among them in their nursery.
Lorenzo's eldest son, b. 1471, d. 1503, a licentious youth with none of his father's ability, proved a most incompetent ruler, and, on the French invasion of 1494, he was expelled from Florence by the people, led by the patriotic Piero Capponi. After several fruitless attempts to recover his position, he was drowned at the battle of the Garigliano while serving in the French army. On the restoration of the Medici in 1512, his son Lorenzo was made ruler of Florence. With him, in 1519, the legitimate male descent of Cosimo the Elder came to an end. By his wife, Madeleine de la Tour d'Auvergne, he was the father of Caterina de' Medici, afterwards Queen of France.
The Medici were again expelled from Florence, and the republic once more established, in 1527. But in 1530, after the famous siege, the city was compelled to surrender to the imperial forces, and Charles V made Alessandro de' Medici, an illegitimate son of the younger Lorenzo, hereditary head of the Florentine government. All republican forms and offices were swept away, and Alessandro ruled as duke until, in 1537, he was assassinated by his kinsman, Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici, who fled to Venice without attempting either to assert his own claims to the succession or to restore the republican regime.
Usually known as Cosimo I, b. 1519, d. 1574, was the descendant of a brother of Cosimo the Elder and representative of the younger Medicean line. He was the son of Giovanni delle Bande Nere, the great soldier, and Maria Salviati. On the murder of Alessandro, he came into Florence, and was formally recognized as head of the government both by the citizens and by the emperor. At the outset, with the aid of imperial troops, he crushed the last efforts of the republicans, who were led by Baccio Valori and Filippo Strozzi. Various constitutional checks were at first put upon him, but these he soon discarded, and openly used the title of Duke of Florence. Although ruthless and implacable, he proved himself the ablest Italian ruler of the sixteenth century, and gave a permanent form to the government of Florence, finally developing the shapeless remains of the fallen republic into a modern monarchical state. He thoroughly reorganized the laws and administration, created a small but efficient fleet to defend the shores of Tuscany, and raised a national army out of the old Florentine militia. He married a Spanish wife, the noble and virtuous Eleonora da Toledo, and in foreign affairs leaned to a large extent upon Spain, by which power, however, he was prevented from accepting the crown of Corsica. His great desire of absorbing the neighbouring republics of Lucca and Siena into his dominions was fulfilled only the case of the latter state; he conquered Siena in 1555, and in 1557 received it as a fief from the King of Spain.
Tradition has invested Cosimo's name with a series of horrible domestic crimes and tragedies, all of which have been completely disproved by recent research. After the death of Eleonora da Toledo in 1562, he appears to have abandoned himself to vice. A few years later he married his mistress, Cammilla Martelli. In 1570 he was crowned in Rome by Pius V as Grand Duke of Tuscany, thereby taking place among the sovereigns of Europe. The title was confirmed to his son and successor, Francis I, in 1575, by the Emperor Maximilian II. Cosimo's descendants reigned as Grand Dukes of Tuscany in an unbroken line until 1737, when, on the death of Gian Gastone de' Medici, their dominions passed to the House of Austria.
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