The Medici’s, Bankers that influenced the Renaissance

The Medici’s, Bankers that influenced the Renaissance

 

Eric Wynn

The Medici’s, Bankers that influenced the Renaissance

     When we think of the Renaissance, we think of new ideas in art, science and religion as defined by the works of Michelangelo, Galileo and Martin Luther. These are men who we remember as the undisputed leaders of the Renaissance in their respective disciplines.  What we don’t think of are the business people who were able to influence and in some cases finance these titans of intellect.  Successful business men of the Renaissance had to apply the same business practices 500 years ago, as the business men and women of today.  They had to focus on the basics such as accurate bookkeeping, and loss prevention and they had to also networking and advertising, just like the Fortune 500 companies of today do.

     The undisputed leaders in the banking arena were the Medici’s and their influence of the Renaissance is without parallel.  In fact, if you are to study the Renaissance, you cannot fully understand how the era evolved without studying the Medici.  The Medici influence, however, was not all positive and many decisions that were made by family members in the name of their business continue to impact society today.  This paper will argue that the influences of the Medici family members and the business concepts and ideas that they used would propel the Renaissance era into the artistic and scientific rebirth that we know it as today. And in this process they would establish a standard of community service by which modern day wealthy families continue to emulate today.                                                           

     The Medici family banking dynasty is credited to Giovanni De’ Medici (1360-1429); a wool merchant who expanded into community banking.[1] Based in FlorenceItaly, Giovanni would start the family banking dynasty in motion by taking a series of calculated risks on loans to local merchants, adventurers and fellow risk takers much the same way as venture capitalist do today.  The role of venture capitalist was not unknown, and in fact had been in place as far back as the 11th century. [2]  However, banking was just emerging into its present form which included the practice of charging interest, which for centuries had been prohibited by the Catholic Church.[3] To advertise his success, Giovanni began a campaign of sponsoring great architects and artist such as Filippo Brunelleschi and Michelangelo Simoni to design and decorate buildings to honor the family’s banking success.[4]  As the Medici became successful, Giovanni’s children followed him into the family business, as was the tradition, and they continued their fathers love of the arts and his respect for advertising.  For the purposes of this paper we will focus on three members of that family.  Each person would at some point serve as the family head and control the family banking enterprise.  Their influence on the Florentine community, European Community and the world as a whole would be felt.

Giovanni De’ Medici, Pope Leo X (1475-1521)

     To be successful in developing a business you have to be able to network.  You network with like minded businessmen, you network with your customers and you network with your competitors. Giovanni the senior instilled in his family to continually invest in people and to do that you had to network and find these people.  That is how Giovanni had built his business, and that is what he taught his children to do.[5]  Giovanni’s son, Lorenzo the Magnificent understood very simply that having access to the Catholic Church, any access, would be economically beneficial for the Medici business, as it had been for his father.  Lorenzo the Magnificent respected his father’s networking philosophy, but he opted to shortcut this basic business fundamental.    Lorenzo, decided the easiest way to gain access, was to buy into the Catholic Church and he would use his son Giovanni as his networking ticket to the church.[6] 

     Traditionally, those people who enter the service of the church are called into that service.  Giovanni was not called; he was pushed by his father.  This could explain the less than reverent position for which he found himself in.   With the ongoing aid of his father, Giovanni very quickly found himself rising to the rank of Cardinal while at the same time assuming the head of the Medici family and banking operations when his father passed away unexpectedly.  In these dual roles, Cardinal Giovanni divided himself between his service to the church and the all important family banking business and family matters.  As the family head it fell to on his shoulders to continue his family responsibilities such as negotiating the marriage of his niece, Clairce de Medici, with a rival businessmen’s son.  And, as the tradition of the time, Giovanni was required to engage in extensive negotiations and a legal contract producing a dowry of 6,000 Florins.[7] 

      Cardinal Giovanni, who was ever focused on his personal advancement, realized his opportunity when Pope Julius II passed away in February 1513[8].  During conclave, Giovanni set about networking with the other Cardinals who were in attendance and he began applying his networking and deal making skills to win himself the position of the papacy.  After a week of negotiations, promises, and bribes, Giovanni was voted in to represent the Catholic Church as its chosen figure head and he adopted the name of Pope Leo X.[9]

      Pope Leo X found himself the undisputed leader of the Catholic Church, a position he had obtained not through his work with the poor and downtrodden, his piety or even by friends alone.  Pope Leo X won the position by applying the skills he had learned through the family business negotiations. [10]  Those skills which are best suited for bankers, politicians and venture capitalist, but not so becoming to a man of the cloth.  Pope Leo X, while successful at deal making and banking, was not so successful at being the Chief Executive Officer of the Catholic Church.  Pope Leo X, promptly proceeded to ignore the advice of the founding father Giovanni, which was to live without drawing attention to one’s self. He proceeded to use the Vatican coffers as his own personal bank, all the while making sure the family firm handled the banking.[11] 

      Pope Leo X engaged in lavish spending sprees, he hosting elaborate dinner parties, joined in extensive hunting trips and purchased palaces for the church.  For the people of Italy he spend heavily on the arts, created a University and had a printing press installed at the Vatican[12]. However, it was for his personal behavior that Pope Leo X would soon earn him the nickname as the Hedonistic Pope.[13]  His personal behavior and differences with his cardinals would come back to haunt him in a failed assassination attempt, a not uncommon method of dealing with disagreements in Italy, even for men of the cloth. [14].  Within his first year, Pope Leo X had succeeded in depleting the coffers of the Vatican, and was in the process of pawning off the Vatican treasures to continue funding his extravagant lifestyle.[15] 

      Pope Leo X, like many financially challenged business men, was in a desperate situation; over two short years he had succeeded in undoing hundreds of years of fiscal restraint and was alienating the clergymen about him with his behavior.  Pope Leo X, needed a solution to his financial problems; in fact what he needed a miracle. Unfortunately, when people you the Hedonistic Pope you can bet the miracle tap is turned off.  So Pope Leo X settled on what his family knew best, a business solution.  What Pope Leo X had at his disposal was an infinite supply of church forgiveness because, of course, he was the Pope and he had that printing press.  What the rest of the European world had was an infinite supply of sins, misdeeds, guilt and loose change.  The end solution that Pope Leo X would settle on was pure business genius; he would print and sell forgiveness (known as indulgences) to the masses[16].  

      Pope Leo X put the Vatican printers to work and the clergy on the go throughout Christendom and very quickly the money began pouring back into the coffers.  However, Pope Leo X love of free enterprise did not transcend to everyone on his Vatican payroll and he failed to take into account an Augustinian friar with a conscious by the name of Martin Luther.  Martin Luther should be remembered as the first whistleblower;  he began to seriously object to Pope Leo X practice of selling Indulgences and the behavior of the Catholic Church as a whole.  Luther’s thoughts on the Catholic Church and its practices including the sale of Indulgences would come to be known as the 95 theses[17].

      Pope Leo X was a man on a mission, who had no time for Martin Luther; his efforts to silence him simply empowered Luther and his followers into deserting the Catholic Church.  Pope Leo X’s love of money had succeeded not in empowering the Catholic Church; he succeeded in breaking the Catholic monopoly on Christendom and sparking the beginning of the Protestant reformation. [18] Upon arranging the execution of Martin Luther, Pope Leo X would die unexpectedly at the age of 45. The reported cause of death - he caught a cold.[19]  Pope Leo X would also introduce the world to a term coined by business consultant Peter Senge, known as the “Law of Unintended Consequences” was from Senge’s fifth book.  As a side note, the selling of indulgences never really ended within the church, it simply morphed into a concept that we now know as the church bake sale. 

Cosimo I (1519-1574)

     When Cosimo I assumed the family Patriarchal duties he was just 17 years of age.  The Medici dynasty was in a state of collapse, their customers had deserted them, and the remaining members of the family were in fear for their lives (apparently, Italians have a thing for vendettas).  Cosimo I was a fourth cousin and as such had never had the formal education, business experience or exposure to cultural society as his other family members had. So removed from the family affairs was he that Cosimo I did not even live in the family compound; he lived outside of the city in a small farm house.  The challenges facing Cosimo I were daunting; he realized very quickly that if he was to assume the business helm he needed help.  And, like any astute businessmen who realizes that he is in over his heads, Cosimo I hired a business consultant. [20]

     Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) was an artist foremost and a business man second.  When he approached young Cosimo I he offered a simple proposal;  Vasari wanted to be hired to repair the famous Michelangelo statue of David which had been damaged during an uprising.  Vasari, had been a student of Michelangelo and it troubled him to see the famous David statue broken and in disrepair.  In return, Vasari argued, Cosimo I would receive the credit for fixing the statue and the statue’s repair would serve as a symbol of the Medici families return to business viability.  Vasari was selling advertising and public relations and the young Cosimo I needed all he could get.  He hired Vasari on the spot.[21]

     The team of Cosimo I and Vasari was an instant business success.  Vasari constructed the fixes to Michelangelo’s David (visible to this day) and Cosimo I received the positive public publicity that he desperately needed.  The Florentine people realized Cosimo I was a Medici and the Medici’s were back in business; the masses soon returned for loans.  Vasari had created just the right positive publicity that Cosimo I needed.  Cosimo I quickly realized the power of advertising and creating a brand name; he retained Vasari on numerous projects, all designed to generate the image of a successful in control business man.[22]

     Vasari was a public relations expert and he introduced a systematic campaign of counseling Cosimo I on projects ranging from public displays of art and business operations to community relations, all in an effort to enhance Cosimo I persona.  Cosimo I proved to be an eager student and he excelled at elevating his business operations to a higher level.  Cosimo I, under the tutelage of Vasari, recognized the need for educated and trained employees who went beyond the family and he introduced a permanent bureaucracy to facilitate business operations.  To enhance his public persona, Vasari encouraged Cosimo I to undertake numerous endeavors to include creating an endowment for the building of a new school of art and design in Florence.  Known as the Academy of the Arts and Drawing, it was established in 1563 and continues to draw students to this day. [23]

     As a child Michelangelo had been raised with the Medici children, and when Michelangelo passed away in Rome he was buried in a small tomb. Vasari and Cosimo I decided to smuggle the body out of Rome and bury Michelangelo in a tomb worthy of him in his hometown of Florence.  Cosimo I had the deceased removed from Rome and transported to Florence where a tomb worthy of Michelangelo was designed and build by Vasari.  Vasari’s last major effort for Cosimo I was the undertaking of a book on art history. This was the first ever of its kind; it was dedicated to and funded by his patron.  In his book “Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects”, Vasari introduces the world to the term to describe his era as the “Rebirth” or the “Renaissance”,  the term that is still used to describe this era.[24]  Cosimo I would die of kidney failure in 1574.[25]

Ferdinando II (1610-1670)

     Ferdinando IIfollowed in his father’s (Cosimo II) footsteps and continued to operate the families banking enterprise upon his father’s early death.  Ferdinando II’s influence with the Renaissance dealt not with religion or art but the third leg of the Renaissance, science.   Not that Ferdinando II was a scientist, which he was not,  he had been the eager student of Galileo and now having assumed the role as head of the family he  found himself to be the employer of his former teacher.[26]

      Galileo had been retained as the personal tutor to the children of the Medici, by Cosimo II, and provided residence and protection of the family and the title of “Head Mathematician of the Grand Duke”.[27]  In effect what Cosimio II and Ferdinando II were creating was a foundation; they did this by providing for Galileo’s needs of housing, food and protection and they allowed Galileo to focus on his research activities.  During his time with the Medici Family Galileo would make many of his famous discoveries.  Discoveries in the fields of astronomy and physics, of which included the moons of Jupiter which he made known to the world in his text on astronomy dedicated to his patron, the Medicea Sidera[28].  As Galileo’s fame increased and word of his discoveries spread throughout Europe, the Medici’s were recognized as Galileo’s benefactor and personal protector.  It was brand recognition on a grand scale.[29]

     As we look back on Galileo, we recognized and revered him as the scientific genius that he was, yet in his day, the Catholic Church viewed him as heretic.  In an effort to silence Galileo the Catholic Church turned lose its most formidable weapon, the men of the Inquisition.  Ferdinando II, was forced into a precarious position;  as the benefactor of Galileo the Medici’s were responsible for his work.  In fact, Galileo’s books and discoveries had been dedicated to the family; this left no room for denying their involvement with the great mind.  Ferdinando II had to make a choice; he could either side with the Catholic Church or he could side with Galileo, he could not do both.  Faced with alienating the Catholic Church Ferdinando II made a basic business decision, he would terminate the family sponsorship of Galileo. This was done  in an effort to keep a positive relationship with the church.  After all, it was just business. [30]  Ferdinando II would die of a parasitic lung in 1670.[31]

Conclusion

     We cannot think of the Renaissance era without being in awe of the great thinkers, artists and scientist that were challenging preconceived ideas.  However, behind every great thinker was an even greater business man.  No painting was done, no marble was chiseled, and no structure was ever built unless someone was there to finance the project.   The Medici’s actions were always designed for one purpose; their goal was to put their name, their prestige and their business first. They would do it in the same manner that the great corporations employ today, which includes advertising, stadium sponsorship and hiring sports stars. 

     The Medici’s would advertise, and they would hire the scientific and artistic giants of the era as their corporate face.  Of course, as in business today, not all ideas were successful; the selling of Indulgences was a flop, but Galileo’s discoveries were a success.  In the end, the Medici’s business empire would slowly crumble away. However, their ideas of advertising, creating foundations, and sponsoring scientific research would continue to this day.  So when we think of the Bill and Melissa Gates Foundation sponsoring science research, the Annenberg Foundation sponsoring the arts, or the Carnegie Foundation for building libraries, at their roots we can still find traces of the Medici influences at work.

 

Bibliography

Aslanian, Sebouh.  “The circulation of men and credit: The role of the Commenda and the family firm in Julfan Society.  Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, (2007) 124-171.  

Cesati, Franco.  The Medici, Story of a European Dynasty LaMandragora Firenza, Italy 1999

Bullard, Melissa Meriam.  “Marriage Politics and the Family in Florence:  The Strozzi-Medici Alliance of 1508 (2001) American Historical Review, 84 Issue 3, 668-687

Empires: The Medici, Godfathers of the Renaisance.  With Peter Guiness, Pip Torens, James Innes Smith, ian Bustard, Niccolo Cioni, Ben de Sausmarez, Frederico Steffanell.  PBS, 2003.  

Pirenne, Henri. Economic and Social History of Medieval Europe, Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc. New York 1937

Hibbert, Christopher. The House of Medici: It’s Rise and Fall, Morrow Quill New York 1980

Parks, Tim.  Medici Money,  W.W. Norton and Company, New York 2005

Lippi, Donatella, Marco Matucci Cerinic, W.R. Albury and George M. Weisz,. “Longevity and Causes of Death of Adult males in the Medici Di Bicci Family, Journal of Family History, Vol 34 No. 3, (2009) 243-250.

Hazeltine, Harold D.. The Gage of land in Medieval England,  Harvard Law Review, Jun1904, Vol. 17   Issue 8, p549-557, 9p;

Unger, Miles J.  Magnifico Simon and Schuster, New York. 2008

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Annotated Biography

Aslanian, Sebouh.  “The circulation of men and credit: The role of the Commenda and the family firm in Julfan Society.  Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, (2007) 124-171.  This paper discusses the banking practices of Muslims within the European and Muslim community.  Banking was the grease that allowed merchants to carry out their business, and this paper discusses the banking between different cultural groups.

Cesati, Franco.  The Medici, Story of a European Dynasty LaMandragora Firenza, Italy 1999.  A text on the Medici’s, perhaps the most influential banking family of the era.  To understand how business banking worked in this era, it is important to understand the Medici.

Bullard, Melissa Meriam.  “Marriage Politics and the Family in Florence:  The Strozzi-Medici Alliance of 1508 (2001) American Historical Review, 84 Issue 3, 668-687.  Business, politics, war and peace often centered around who married who.  To understand the business philosophy of this era it is important how these alliances were built and fortified.

Empires: The Medici, Godfathers of the Renaissance.  With Peter Guinness, Pip Torens, James Innes Smith, ian Bustard, Niccolo Cioni, Ben de Sausmarez, Frederico Steffanell.  PBS, 2003.  A very informative period piece by PBS exploring the lives of the Medici over several generations.

Pirenne, Henri. Economic and Social History of Medieval Europe, Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc. New York 1937.  A text examining economic history of Medieval Europe from the ownership of land, to the movement of goods and services.  Important to understand the economics to further support a paper on banking.

Hibbert, Christopher. The House of Medici: It’s Rise and Fall, Morrow Quill New York 1980.  A detailed account of the families, prominent players and factors that would affect the family.

Parks, Tim.  Medici Money,  W.W. Norton and Company, New York 2005.  A informative book regarding the Medici dynasty.  Not as detailed as it could have been considering the wealth of information on the family.

Lippi, Donatella, Marco Matucci Cerinic, W.R. Albury and George M. Weisz,. “Longevity and Causes of Death of Adult males in the Medici Di Bicci Family, Journal of Family History, Vol 34 No. 3, (2009) 243-250.  This kind of stuff makes you wonder how people get published, however, they were successful at it, while I have not.  Actually, a very detailed account of the prominent men in the family and their causes of death.

Hazeltine, Harold D. The Gage of land in Medieval England,  Harvard Law Review, Jun1904, Vol. 17   Issue 8, p549-557, 9p.  A paper detailing out land transaction procedures and economic transactions in Medieval England.  Interesting information as local laws dictated different customs and methods of conducting business.

Unger, Miles J.  Magnifico Simon and Schuster, New York. 2008. Another rehashing of the family, this one addressing Lorenzo the Magnificent, specifically and his immediate family and business.   

 

 


[1] Hibbert, Christopher. The House of Medici: It’s Rise and Fall, Morrow Quill New York 1980, 34.

[2] Aslanian, Sebouh.  “The circulation of men and credit: The role of the Commenda and the family firm in Julfan Society.  Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, (2007),124. 

[3] Pirenne, Henri. Economic and Social History of Medieval Europe, Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc. New York 193,  14.

[4] Empires: The Medici, Godfathers of the Renaisance.  With Peter Guiness, Pip Torens, James Innes Smith, ian Bustard, Niccolo Cioni, Ben de Sausmarez, Frederico Steffanell.  PBS, 2003.

[5] Ibid

[6] Parks, Tim.  Medici Money,  W.W. Norton and Company, New York 2005, 234.

[7] Bullard, Melissa Meriam.  “Marriage Politics and the Family in Florence:  The Strozzi-Medici Alliance of 1508 (2001) American Historical Review, 84 Issue 3, 670.

[8] Cesati, Franco.  The Medici, Story of a European Dynasty LaMandragora Firenza, Italy 1999, 58.

[9] Cesati, Franco.  The Medici, Story of a European Dynasty LaMandragora Firenza, Italy 1999, 57.

[10] Hibbert, Christopher. The House of Medici: It’s Rise and Fall, Morrow Quill New York 1980, 217.

[11] Empires: The Medici, Godfathers of the Renaisance.  With Peter Guiness, Pip Torens, James Innes Smith, ian Bustard, Niccolo Cioni, Ben de Sausmarez, Frederico Steffanell.  PBS, 2003

[12] Cesati, Franco.  The Medici, Story of a European Dynasty LaMandragora Firenza, Italy 1999, 58.

[13] Empires: The Medici, Godfathers of the Renaisance.  With Peter Guiness, Pip Torens, James Innes Smith, ian Bustard, Niccolo Cioni, Ben de Sausmarez, Frederico Steffanell.  PBS, 2003

[14] Empires: The Medici, Godfathers of the Renaisance.  With Peter Guiness, Pip Torens, James Innes Smith, ian Bustard, Niccolo Cioni, Ben de Sausmarez, Frederico Steffanell.  PBS, 2003

[15] Hibbert, Christopher. The House of Medici: It’s Rise and Fall, Morrow Quill New York 1980, 227.

[16] Empires: The Medici, Godfathers of the Renaisance.  With Peter Guiness, Pip Torens, James Innes Smith, ian Bustard, Niccolo Cioni, Ben de Sausmarez, Frederico Steffanell.  PBS, 2003

[17] Cesati, Franco.  The Medici, Story of a European Dynasty LaMandragora Firenza, Italy 1999, 60.

[18] Empires: The Medici, Godfathers of the Renaisance.  With Peter Guiness, Pip Torens, James Innes Smith, ian Bustard, Niccolo Cioni, Ben de Sausmarez, Frederico Steffanell.  PBS, 2003

[19] Lippi, Donatella, Marco Matucci Cerinic, W.R. Albury and George M. Weisz,. “Longevity and Causes of Death of Adult males in the Medici Di Bicci Family, Journal of Family History, Vol 34 No. 3, (2009) 245.

[20] Empires: The Medici, Godfathers of the Renaisance.  With Peter Guiness, Pip Torens, James Innes Smith, ian Bustard, Niccolo Cioni, Ben de Sausmarez, Frederico Steffanell.  PBS, 2003

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Hibbert, Christopher. The House of Medici: It’s Rise and Fall, Morrow Quill New York 1980, 274.

[24] Empires: The Medici, Godfathers of the Renaisance.  With Peter Guiness, Pip Torens, James Innes Smith, ian Bustard, Niccolo Cioni, Ben de Sausmarez, Frederico Steffanell.  PBS, 2003

[25] Lippi, Donatella, Marco Matucci Cerinic, W.R. Albury and George M. Weisz,. “Longevity and Causes of Death of Adult males in the Medici Di Bicci Family, Journal of Family History, Vol 34 No. 3, (2009) 248.

[26] Hibbert, Christopher. The House of Medici: It’s Rise and Fall, Morrow Quill New York 1980, 284.

[27] Cesati, Franco.  The Medici, Story of a European Dynasty LaMandragora Firenza, Italy 1999, 114. 

[28] Hibbert, Christopher. The House of Medici: It’s Rise and Fall, Morrow Quill New York 1980, 282.

[29] Empires: The Medici, Godfathers of the Renaisance.  With Peter Guiness, Pip Torens, James Innes Smith, ian Bustard, Niccolo Cioni, Ben de Sausmarez, Frederico Steffanell. 

[30] Cesati, Franco.  The Medici, Story of a European Dynasty LaMandragora Firenza, Italy 1999,  119.

[31] Lippi, Donatella, Marco Matucci Cerinic, W.R. Albury and George M. Weisz,. “Longevity and Causes of Death of Adult males in the Medici Di Bicci Family, Journal of Family History, Vol 34 No. 3, (2009), 248.

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