House of Medici
The Medici family, which originated from in the Mugello agricultural region north of Florence, became a banking family, political dynasty and eventually a royal house. The family name was first mentioned in a document in 1230 in Florence. The origin of the name is not known, but in Italian, Medici is plural for 'medical doctor.' Members of the family were in the wool-trading business with Spain and France during the 14th century so were not considered nobility, as compared to families like the Albizzi's and the Strozzi's.
Salvestro de' Medici was the wool makers' guild speaker during the wool worker revolt in 1378, and for political reasons Antonio de' Medici was exiled from Florence in 1396. Another political plot in 1400 resulted in all but two members of the family being banned from Florentine politics for 20 years. Averardo de' Medici was one of those members and was the originator of the Medici dynasty.
The Medici family was connected to most other elite families of the time through influential marriages, employment and strategic partnerships so the family had a position of influence in the Florentine social network. This meant that several families had partial access to other elite families through the Medici family, and those relationships were similar to banking relationships in the early 15th century.
Averardo's son, Giovanni de Bicci, started the Medici Bank and became one of the richest men in Florence. Giovanni didn't hold political office but was popular in the city because he proposed a proportional tax system. When Giovanni's son, Cosimo the Elder, took over as grain maestro in 1434, the Medici family became the unofficial leaders of the Florentine republic.
Three generations of the Medici family ruled over Florence during most of the 15th century without abolishing the established government; they simply dominated it. The three members – Cosimo, Piero and Lorenzo – had great management skills. Piero, Cosimo's son, stayed in power for five years and did little to further the family's control over the city due to his poor health and aversion to the arts. Piero's son Lorenzo, who died in 1492, was called 'the magnificent' when he was alive. Lorenzo and his brother Giuliano lead the city skillfully but neglected the family's banking business, the catalyst for its demise.
Lorenzo married into the House of Orsini, the Roman noble house known for producing political leaders, mercenaries and two popes. The people of Florence weren't happy with the marriage and discontent developed from the Medici family's ambitiousness. The pope also had an issue with the family over the sale of Imola. The conflict with the papacy grew, sparking the Pazzi Conspiracy.
The Pazzi Conspiracy was lead by Francesco de' Pazzi. The Pazzi family, one of the oldest aristocratic families in Florence and banking competitors of the Medici family, wanted Lorenzo and his brother Giuliano dead. With the Medici brothers dead, the Pazzi family would rule the banking industry. Francesco managed to kill Giuliano in front of a crowd of people but Lorenzo escaped with a neck injury. There was an immediate backlash from the angry citizens and all members of the Pazzi conspiracy were either hanged, imprisoned or exiled.
Lorenzo's son, Piero II, took over in 1492, but was inept. That provoked a revolt and that part of the Medici family was banned from Florence from 1494 to 1512. Descendants of Cosimo the Elder were able to rule on and off until 1537 when power was passed to a descendant of Lorenzo the Elder, Cosimo I the Great. Cosimo was involved in banking, manufacturing and other franchises, and at one point half the city of Florence worked for him.
During the 17th century, Cosimo II reigned for 12 years and then his young son, Ferdinando, took control with the help of his mother and grandmother. Ferdinando died in 1670 and his son, Cosimo III Grand Duke of Tuscany, took control. Because he introduced new taxes to the city and persecution of Jews his popularity dissipated quickly. His rule was the beginning of a city transformation as the population declined and the treasury was almost bankrupted.
To a great degree the Medici family was the catalyst for the Renaissance. They were responsible for sponsoring the art and architecture that makes Florence the city it is today. Lorenzo was a patron of Da Vinci and Michelangelo, and Cosimo the Elder was friends with Donatello and Fra Angelico.