Patrons and politicos

The Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance by Paul Strathern. Pimlico 2005

Despite their name (medico means physician in Italian) the Tuscan de’ Medici family rose to prominence as bankers in the 14th century beginning with Cosimo the Elder. With money comes power, and by 1531 the family became hereditary Dukes of the powerful city state of Florence, then Grand Dukes of Tuscany.

Two centuries later, however, the Grand Duchy became bankrupt and then sputtered out with the death of the last Duke, Gian Gastone de’ Medici, in 1737. Over some four hundred years the family had held sway in Tuscany as monarchs in all but name.

Paul Strathern’s chronicle of the rise and fall of the Medici family charts the characters who made it as merchants, dukes, popes, queens, scientists, patrons and villains from Medieval to Enlightenment Italy.

Real characters that one can alternately cheer or boo but rarely be indifferent to, their lives are described in some detail against a backdrop of international intrigue, trade and war in a narrative that at times almost feels like fiction if we didn’t know that it really happened. Strathern strikes just the right balance between scholarship and accessibility, and the text is complemented by a selection of maps and portraits.

It’s difficult not to attribute characteristics to the faces that one can see on canvases, even ones that were painted many years after the subject had died, but one is tempted to apply adjectives like ‘ruthless’, ‘determined’, ‘arrogant’, even ‘cruel’. What rarely springs to mind is ‘humorous’, ‘compassionate’ or ‘sensitive’, but we owe the Medici some gratitude as patrons of the arts, even if it was mostly for their own aggrandisement and future renown rather than pure altruism.

Everywhere one goes in Florence stands evidence of their legacy and sometimes largesse, from former offices (now the Uffizi gallery) to the Pitti Palace (which they acquired from former rivals), from public artwork in the Piazza Signoria and the Palazzo Vecchio to work they commissioned for various churches in the city. Without their input over those four centuries Florence might not be the same gorgeous tourist trap it is today.

Repost of review first published 5th March 2014