(‘Virgin and Child with members of the Medici Family as saints’ (1575), by Giovanni Butteri, in the Cenacolo di Andrea del Sarto, Florence.)

My historical novel Galileo’s Revenge is set in sixteenth-century Florence, ruled by the Medici Dukes of Tuscany. Originally a family of merchants and bankers, the Medici had dominated the government and culture of Florence throughout most of the 15th century. They oversaw the first flowering of the of the Italian Renaissance. In 1492, on the death of Lorenzo the Magnificent1 (1449-92), their position seemed impregnable. Within two years, however, the Medici were ignominiously expelled from Florence.

There followed 36 or more years of political turmoil. The government see-sawed between a reaffirmation of the city’s republican tradition and the restoration of the autocratic Medici. The definitive establishment of the Medici as hereditary Dukes of Florence (later, of Tuscany) only happened in the 1530s. Thereafter their rule persisted into the next century and beyond.


I. 1494-1530 Republics and restorations

II. 1530-37 The Medici dukedom established

III. 1537-74 Duke Cosimo I

IV. After 1574 Cosimo’s heirs


I. 1494-1530 Republics and restorations

Between 1494 and the middle of the sixteenth century, Italy – prosperous but politically fragmented – became a battleground for the rival French and Spanish-Imperial super-powers.2 France won the toss and invaded first in pursuit of an ancient claim to the Kingdom of Naples in the south of Italy. Lorenzo the Magnificent’s heir, his inexperienced young son Piero de’ Medici (1471-1503), handled the crisis in an inept and high-handed fashion. He and his brothers were driven out of Florence.

The Duomo, Florence, from south of the Arno. Noric Laruelle on Unsplash

In principle, since its emergence as a medieval ‘commune’, Florence had been a democratic republic, albeit dominated by an elite group of wealthy families – the Strozzi, the Guicciardini, the Rucellai, the Davanzati and so on.3 But now a revised republican constitution was drawn up, founded upon a Great Council, which greatly extended popular participation in government.

This constitution survived until 1512, when the French finally withdrew from Italy. The Medici, with a Spanish army at their back, were now invited to return to Florence. For the next fifteen years a series of young Medici ruled the city, although none were of the calibre of Lorenzo the Magnificent or his forbears.4 Then, in 1527, renewed hostilities between the French and Spanish-Imperial forces culminated in the devastating Sack of Rome, and the humiliation of the Medici pope, Clement VII (1478-1534). Once again this gave an opportunity for the expulsion of the Medici from Florence, and the restoration of the republican constitution. It was to be short-lived. In 1530 Spanish forces – now with the backing of Pope Clement – invaded Tuscany and laid siege to Florence. The city’s fortifications, supervised by Michelangelo, withstood cannon and every assault. Nevertheless, weakened by starvation and disease, the city surrendered after ten traumatic months.

‘The Siege of Florence’ by Giorgio Vasari, 1558.

II. 1530-37 The Medici dukedom established

On the night of Epiphany in 1537, young Alessandro de’ Medici stripped naked and made himself comfortable in the bed that had been prepared. His clothes – and the sword that he was going to need – were discarded nearby. He was awaiting Caterina Ginori, the beautiful and hitherto faithful wife of an elderly Florentine dignitary. Supposedly ready to submit, she was to be brought to Alessndro by his cousin and accomplice in such escapades, Lorenzino de’ Medici (1514-48). As Alessandro dozed, the door opened to admit Lorenzino and… not Caterina but Scoroncolo, a hired assassin or bravo. Both men carried drawn swords. In the ensuing struggle the unprepared and unprotected Alessandro was slaughtered, but not before he had bitten his cousin’s fingers to the bone as he tried to stifle Alessandro’s screams.

‘Alessandro de’ Medici’ by Jacopo Pontormo – The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. ISBN: 3936122202., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=156590

It may be that Lorenzino saw himself as a heroic Brutus figure ridding the city of a tyrant. Alessandro de’ Medici (?1511-37), had been installed as Duke of Florence in the aftermath of the city’s surrender in 1530.5 Although eccentric and self-indulgent and, as we have just seen, sexually predatory, Alessandro was a skilled politician, with a genuine interest in the problems of the ordinary people. Once the Emperor had endorsed Alessandro’s title as hereditary, the Medici were, finally, established as undisputed rulers of Florence.

Ironically, Alessandro, the first Medici Duke of Florence, was the last male heir in the line of Lorenzo the Magnificent. He was, indeed, the last of the whole ‘senior’ line of the Medici descending from Cosimo the Elder (1389-1464). There was, therefore, an immediate problem of succession.6

III. 1537-74 Cosimo I

Cosimo I de’ Medici at about 19 years of age (by Jacopo Pontormo, c. 1538)

Urgent negotiations amongst the ruling elite turned up a relatively unknown and inexperienced youth, another Cosimo de’ Medici (1519-74), albeit from a junior line of the family. The Florentine patricians and the Spanish-Imperial representatives who chose this young Cosimo as the next Duke expected him to be a tractable stooge for their own agendas. He wasn’t.

Cosimo turned out to be one of the most radical and effective rulers anywhere in sixteenth-century Europe. Extraordinarily gifted both mentally and physically, once installed as Duke he set about steadily moulding Florence (and Tuscany) to his own autocratic purposes:

  • Firstly, he gradually eased Florence away from the control of his Spanish-Imperial backers. Through a combination of subtle diplomacy and hard cash payments, he persuaded the Emperor to withdraw his garrisons from Tuscany. Meanwhile Cosimo systematically strengthened the fortifications of Florence and other Tuscan towns.
  • At home, Cosimo rapidly concentrated all political power into his own hands. He marginalized the patrician elite that had, one way or another, governed Florence for centuries, reducing its members to the status of mere courtiers. Endowed with a remarkable memory and an appetite for the detail of administration, Cosimo established instead a new class of professional bureaucrats, often middle-class or provincial men.
  • And his grasp was total. Anxious to avoid the political upheavals of previous generations – and to avoid the recent fate of Alessandro at the hands of Lorenzino – Cosimo operated an extensive network of spies and informers. Political dissent or even discussion was a serious crime. Even the Tuscan language itself was to be regulated by his foundation (1540) of the Florentine Academy. Cosimo was the prototype of the centralized, autocratic/bureaucratic totalitarian states of the following centuries.7
  • He devoted himself to glorifying the Medici family – and himself in particular:
    • he commissioned sympathetic histories;
    • he commissioned art works, both individual portraits or statues of family members (such as Lorenzo the Magnificent or the Medici Pope Leo X), and also grand frescoes depicting their military and political triumphs;
    • he staged extravagant pageants celebrating the family’s achievements.

Ever jealous of his reputation, in 1569 Cosimo managed to persuade the Pope to elevate his title from ‘Duke of Florence’ to ‘Grand Duke of Tuscany’. But, apparently devastated by the deaths of his beloved wife and two of his sons in 1562, Cosimo had already abdicated in 1564, the year of Galileo’s birth. He died in 1574.

IV. After 1574. Cosimo’s heirs

Giovanni Butteri, Virgin and Child with members of the Medici Family as saints (1575), Cenacolo di Andrea del Sarto, Florence

This time there was no crisis of succession. Cosimo had been as good at procreation as at most other things. His adored wife, Eleonora of Toledo (1522-62), had delivered him eight adult children. Even after the loss of two sons there remained three more: Francesco (1541-87), Ferdinando (1549-1609), and Piero (1554-1604).

Cosimo must have been a difficult act to follow. His eldest son Francesco – aloof, moody, self-absorbed – largely lacked his father’s huge ability and intense engagement with government. Fortunately, the bureaucracy established by Cosimo continued to run itself. Francesco was thus free to devote himself to collecting (coins, gems, antiquities and curiosities), to alchemy, to extravagant entertainments and to mistresses. He is mostly remembered for the first and the last of these passions. That is, firstly, for the exquisite, dark, and richly decorated room, his ‘Studiolo’, that he constructed in the Palazzo Vecchio to house his collections.

Lastly, he is remembered for his charismatic mistress Bianca Cappello (1548-87). After the death of his first wife, Joanna of Austria, in 1578 – and contrary to all expectations and etiquette – Francesco married Bianca. They were to die in 1587, within twelve hours of each other, whilst on a hunting holiday with his brother, Cardinal Ferdinando. This inevitably caused much speculation. But whatever suspicions there were about the ducal couple’s deaths – given out as due to malarial fever – there was little opposition to Ferdinando’s succession. This was despite the fact that he was a cardinal, and despite the fact that Francesco had a young son, Antonio, by Bianca.

A far more hands-on ruler than his brother, Ferdinando revitalized and stabilized the government and the economy after the years of Francesco’s neglect. Although as wealthy if not wealthier than any of his forbears, Ferdinando lived relatively modestly. Times had changed: the Catholic (or Counter-) Reformation had generated (or imposed) a mood of piety and moral restraint. In his will Ferdinando declared ‘that he was to be buried without fuss and that the normal expenses for a grand-ducal funeral were to be set aside as a trust for poor children in Florence and Siena.’ (Hale 152)


The Medici continued to rule Tuscany through the seventeenth century, until the line died out without male heir in 1743. Appropriately, however, given the shift of economic power away from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, Francesco’s daughter Maria (1573-1642) became Queen of France, and her daughter Henriette Marie (1609-69) married Charles I to become Queen of England.


J. R. Hale, Florence and the Medici (1977). Readable and interesting , scholarly without being dry.

  1. Actually, ‘Il magnifico’ was a fairly common label, like ‘eccellentissimo’ and such.
  2. Not to mention the Ottoman empire in Istanbul.
  3. Almost all the other similar cities in medieval Italy had long since fallen under the dominion of hereditary ruling families: the Sforza in Milan, the Gonzaga in Mantua, the d’Este in Ferrara. Only Venice persisted with a (limited) democracy with an elected Doge.
  4. Although the family did produce two capable popes, Leo X and Clement VII.
  5. He was given out to be the illegitimate son of the Lorenzo de’ Medici who ruled Florence 1513-19, but it is more likely that his father was in fact Giulio de’ Medici (1478-1534), by now Pope Clement VII.
  6. It is worth noting that Alessandro’s (legitimate) sister Caterina de’ Medici (1519-89), overlooked as a ruler for Florence, went on to become an extremely powerful and effective Queen of France.
  7. Think especially of Louis XIV of France, The Sun King: ‘L’etat, c’est moi’.