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The House of Medici:
Its Rise and Fall

Christopher Hibbert

New York: Harper Perennial, 2003. ISBN: 0-688-05339-4. Pp.364, index, biblio., illust.

Review © 2006 Branislav L. Slantchev

The Medici are one of those nearly legendary families, like the Habsburgs or the Bourbons, that are inextricably linked with the political and cultural history of Western Europe and whose legacy as patrons of the arts can be seen even today (as it does constitute a formidable part of our heritage) even if the family itself has vanished and even if the political machinations that preoccupied its members for centuries have left only dim traces on the modern map.

Although a relatively old family, the Medici did not rise to prominence in their native city of Florence, the premier city of Tuscany, until they became highly successful bankers. As public servants, they fade in and out in the 13th and 14th centuries when the struggle for power in Florence was dominated by the great Albizzi clan. It was not until the Medici secured access to the Pope during the middle of the 14th century that they began to acquire enough clout to have their presence felt. It was during the turbulent years of the "great schism" of the Church when rival popes ruled in Avignon and Rome, with neither of them accepting the third pope, Alexander V, elected by the Council of Pisa in 1409. It was Alexander's successor, Gregory XXIII, whom the Medici supported and then backed in his war with Naples, and even though at the Council of Constance in 1414 the cause suffered a setback with the forced resignation of their patron, the Medici quickly managed to insinuate their ways into his successor's, Martin V's, graces. It was a start of a long and immensely profitable relationship with Rome that would sustain the family even through the darkest times when their own compatriots would banish them from Florence.

Hibbert's narrative account essentially follows all the trials and tribulations of the Medici as they rise to prominence starting with Cosimo (b. 1389), who found himself imprisoned in the Palazzo della Signoria on account of his supposed opposition to the powerful Albizzi. Driven to exile first to Padua and then to Venice, he plotted his return and in 1434 finally succeeded in getting the Albizzi banished with the assistance Pope Eugenius IV who had himself fled Rome for Florence and who the Medici had been helping financially. It is this triumphant return to Florence that marks the beginning of the Medici's rise more than any other event.

Hibbert goes into much detail tracing the lives of the principal members of the main branch of the Medici family and where information is available also briefly elucidates on their governing philosophy. The Florentines, as citizens of a prosperous republic, were initially quite jealous of their liberties and the early Medici were anxious to avoid any impression that would awake suspicions that they might be scheming to turn themselves into tyrants like the Sforza of Milan. So, the Medici would be the first among many for some time before they became the first among the few equals, which then would turn to be the simply the first, before the pathetic decline into irrelevance in the onslaught of the consolidating and much more powerful nation states.

The bulk of the book is naturally dedicated to the heyday of Medici power, the 15th and 16th centuries, in particular the gifted and charismatic Lorenzo di Piero de Medici (1449-1492), called il Magnifico (the Magnificent) for very good reasons. Hibbert spends some time on the famous Pazzi Conspiracy, the assassination attempt in 1478 that left Lorenzo's brother Giuliano dead in Santa Maria del Fiore with Lorenzo barely escaping with his life. It was a complex plot involving Pope Sixtus IV who was quick to excommunicate the government of Florence when the Medici took their bloody revenge, and then placed the city under interdict, hoping to coerce its citizens to hand over the Medici. However, the Florentines rallied to Lorenzo and excommunicated the Pope in turn, and then waged intermittent war with Ferdinand I (King of Naples) and his son Alfonso (Duke of Calabria). Without help from its traditional ally Milan, Florence started to lose its Tuscan holdings as Alfonso's superb leadership brought victories to its enemy. Lorenzo finally entered into secret negotiations with Ferdinand and then, also in secret, departed for Naples to negotiate the peace. His famous tearful letter to his fellow citizens, in which he presented himself somewhat disingenuously as the sacrifice for the deliverance of his beloved city, was instrumental in securing their lasting support when his mission succeeded and Florence averted a bloody invasion.

Lorenzo's rule would be peaceful, which was crucial for his support to the astonishing group of artists who would go on to create the masterworks of what is now known as the High Renaissance. Lorenzo sponsored the versatile Leonardo da Vinci, the sculptor Donatello, the painters Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, Verrocchio, and Filippino Lippi, not to mention that versatile genius Michelangelo, an unbelievable constellation. Even though his last years where somewhat darkened by the growing influence of Savonarola, Lorenzo died peacefully and did not see the disgrace that the city would suffer under the spell of that irascible Dominican, the decline of Lorenzo's branch of the Medici under the profligate "leadership" of his son Piero, and the subsequent restoration under Cosimo I, a distant relative, by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Cosimo I (1519-1574) would be the first Grand Duke of Tuscany, establishing a line that would rule until the death of Gian Gastone placed the Duchy into the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was Cosimo who developed the Florentine navy that took part in the decisive battle of Lepanto in 1571 when the united (for a change) Christian forces of Spain, the Papal States, Venice, and Genoa, among others, destroyed the Ottoman Fleet and thus initiated the long decline of the Muslim menace to Europe. Of course, it is also Cosimo I that we have to thank for the wonderful Uffizi Gallery even though he built it for office space (hence the name).

From this point on, the history of the Medici is that of a slow decline into decadence and irrelevance. As increasingly powerful foreign states begin encroaching into Italy, as the shifting patterns of trade decimate the Florentine industry, and as the banking fortunes drop precipitously, the Medici retreat into an escapist unreality refusing to deal with the crumbling institutions around them. We should only be thankful that the Habsburgs let his sister and the last of the Medici, Anna Maria, to live out her days at Palazzo Pitti, and that she bequeathed the family's enormous collection of art to the new Grand Duke on condition that it never leave Florence, where we can marvel at it to this day.

Hibbert gives a lively account of this remarkable family that gave history patrons of art, cardinals, a queen (Marie de Medici of France), popes (Leo X, Clement VII), no to mention the spicier scandals like Isabella's affair with her husband's cousin, Troilo Orsini, that led to her murder by Paolo Giordano, or the Venetian Bianca Cappello whose affair with Francesco (Cosimo I's son) led to the murder of her husband but the subsequent marriage to Francesco improved relations with Venice.

Hibbert gives a straight chronological account without much diversion to events that do not concern the Medici directly. This, however, is perhaps the major shortcoming of the book. There is no sense of a larger context (either geopolitical imperatives and foreign policies); all behavior seems driven by personal vendettas and lust for power but foreign rulers (close and distant) often emerge from the shadows only to be consigned there once again without much explanation of their role in the wider context. For example, the Duke of Calabria's conquests in Tuscany essentially brought Florence to its knees but then with a single cryptic sentence he is dismissed as he withdraws his forces to deal with the Turks who had just landed in the Otranto. For a reader not versed in the truly intricate politics of Western Europe at the time, when alliances shifted in kaleidoscopic fashion, dynasties exchanged thrones by marriage or bloodshed, and all had to deal with the menace from the East, this sort of thing can be quite confusing. It is also hard to understand how Florence fit in that larger picture (Norwich's A History of Venice errs in the opposite direction: we get an excellent account of the big puzzle with very little sense of how the individual pieces actually fit together).

Still, as an eminently readable history of the Medici, Hibbert's book is probably a must-read. It comes with black-and-white illustrations (inconveniently grouped in the middle, as is usually the case with cheap editions) that consist mostly of portraits of the various members and some views of Florence. For people who have never been to that delightful city (whose old town today still looks pretty much as it did back then), I suggest grabbing a book with some better photographs or illustrations. It would make reading a much more enjoyable experience: just imagine the Pazzi Conspiracy inside the Cathedral if you could actually see the interior (the somewhat ornate neo-Gothic facade that we see today was built in the 19th century). The book also comes with a helpful index, a brief bibliography, and a neat list of the most important portraits and busts of the various Medici, a list that includes not just the author but the present location of the work.

December 9, 2006