The rise and fall of the house of Medici

(My essay in Mint Lounge, July 8 2017)

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In the year 1740, residents of Florence welcomed a memorably named character called Lady Pomfret. It was a time of economic and cultural depression in the capital of Tuscany—an autonomous state, with the Italian unification a century away—and what was once a great city where the House of Medici patronized Leonardo da Vinci and Galileo Galilei, now confronted spectacular decline. The Florentine army was an assemblage of 3,000 decrepit men, its rolls reconciled to such gloomy observations as “has lost his sight” and “walks with a stick”. The great Florentine navy employed a grand total of 198 equally rickety sailors manning three prehistoric galleys. Florence, where the Renaissance birthed fabled works of art in monumental halls, now cradled heaps of beggars in streets that stank.

Like great lands before it, and in a lesson to societies even now, Florence was led to its decay by the downfall of vision, its pain alleviated only by wistful memories from happier times. There were many compelling figures who led it. But with the passage of time, their journey appeared to go backwards rather than forward. Many of the early Medici looked to the future, took leaps of imagination, and shaped great destinies. But by the end of the saga, there were those who looked dangerously to the past, favouring prejudice over wisdom, fearful of the uncertainties of progress. Tangled in a web of parochialism, they destroyed a magnificent legacy. By the time Lady Pomfret arrived, these later Medici had brought Florence to a perilous crossroads, glory fading as darkness loomed.

With the death of the last Medici grand dukes in the 1730s, a uniformly despised Austrian offshoot of that house inherited Tuscany. These new masters had little patience for the creative valuables accumulated by their predecessors, more interested as they were in gold to finance wars in their faraway homeland. “How great a pity it is,” fumed Lady Pomfret, “that a wretch should possess (the Medici inheritance) who only watches for an opportunity to destroy it!…. What the Medici aspired to by virtue, obtained by guilt, kept by fortune, and transmitted from generation to generation” had fallen into the hands of a line hated by its subjects. “The Tuscans,” another observer sniffed, “would give two-thirds of their property to have the Medici back, and the other third to get rid of the (Austrians).” They thought the Medici terrible, only to encounter worse.

Yet there was a strange kind of hope ahead: In only three generations, the foreigners would flee, never to return. And they left intact most of the Medici treasures. It was not out of generosity that they took nothing—they had no option. For unlike other dukedoms, it had long been settled that if there were no Medici in Florence, all that the Medici created would vest in the people of Florence. And in this, at last, a small triumph was seized from an ocean of bitterness, allowing a once-great city to remain at least a majestic reminder of a fascinating past, silent tales told by every building and each Medici portrait.

*

The saviour of Florence and its art was a haughty widow in black. Sensible and strong, she drove in carriages drawn by eight horses, receiving visitors in apartments furnished in silver. There is a stately portrait of her, rivers of black lace flowing, as she points to a painting of her decidedly dead husband. They had enjoyed a happy marriage, despite his syphilis, but when he died, Anna Maria Luisa de Medici, his childless spouse, returned to the wilting city of her birth. She did not then imagine that it would also fall upon her to serve as custodian of her family’s legacy; that it would be her duty to ensure something more than an uncertain future for all that her ancestors had enshrined in Florence.

The origin of the Medici depends on whom you ask. Once they achieved celebrity, mythology was fabricated: It was claimed that they were descendants of a giant-slaying knight whose issue were destined for greatness. Others scoffed that the early Medici sold vegetables. The Medici were men of commerce, either way, and early ventures into more glamorous public offices did not serve them well—one 14th century prototype was a military failure, while another flopped in a civilian role. In the fashion of their times, both lost their heads. At various moments the family was exiled from Florence, but eventually came to dominate the city, and indeed to shape it in their image—with courage, innovation, and mountains of gold.

The first of the great Medici was a 15th century banker who knew when to keep his head low, given the headlessness that was the fate of his ancestors, but who quietly embraced ideas without irony. Conscious that usury was prohibited in the Bible, Cosimo de Medici managed to build up a great financial empire nonetheless, mollifying god by constructing churches: The Duomo in Florence owes its magnificent dome to Cosimo’s perseverance. His advice to his family was pragmatic: “Be inoffensive to the rich and strong, while being consistently charitable to the poor and weak.” Even as he protected Donatello, who produced a provocative homoerotic sculpture of David, Cosimo bowed to the ancienrégime: When the nobles mounted horses, he rode a mule. Not all fell for the charade, however—as Pope Pius II summarized with a hint of envy, “He is king in everything but name.”

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Over time, the gout-ridden Medici, many of whom were also breathtakingly ugly, rose in power, violently disregarding their sage ancestor’s counsels, but continuing his tradition of artistic patronage. Cosimo’s grandson Lorenzo pulverized the nobility—one grandee who conspired against them in 1478 had his head hammered on to the door of his own home as a knocker. Another conspirator, an archbishop, was hanged, in full public view, though he escaped castration. An apoplectic Vatican, which owed the Medici colossal sums in debt, declared Lorenzo “the child of iniquity and the suckling of perdition”. Lorenzo himself carried on with sumptuous indifference, buying power with one coin, and sponsoring Botticelli and Michelangelo with the other. The businessman was now a prince.

Conscious that the religious types could impede their ascent, by 1513 the Medici installed one of their own as pope—money determined such matters, and Rome itself was a hotbed of transactional intrigue. Giovanni de Medici, as Pope Leo X, was the kind of pontiff who enjoyed hunting more than ministering to the faithful. He also preferred boots, which made the matter of kissing His Holiness’ feet somewhat awkward, and merrily distributed cardinals’ hats to relatives when he wasn’t legitimizing the illegitimate and gathering favours in return. He kept a pet elephant, Hanno, and was enraged when he discovered a plot to poison the bandages he applied to treat an anal condition. “Since god has given us the papacy,” he declared, despite such travails, “let us enjoy it.”

He had a point. By now, the Medici were shaping not just Florence, but the destinies of Europe itself. Leo despised Martin Luther and would go down as the pope who watched while the Protestant breakaway spiralled out of hand—his bull of censure was burnt publicly by Luther in 1521 and the history of the West changed course forever. But for his family, Leo proved a tremendous politician—the Medici, who had again been exiled from Florence, were restored to honour. After one short-lived placeholder, a nephew succeeded as the second of the Medici popes. It was Giuliu de Medici, as Pope Clement VII, who refused to grant Henry VIII of England the famous divorce he sought, inadvertently putting that monarch on his career-defining path that featured five more failed marriages, several beheadings, and the advent of the English Reformation. Though not in the intended manner, the hand of the Medici had reached even into London.

With the English breaking away from Catholicism, Clement embraced the French, couriering his cousin into the arms of their heir apparent in Paris. Catherine de Medici would come to acquire a pronounced reputation for genocidal ruthlessness, her Florentine instincts carving into the destinies of France. She was a detached sort of woman: When her daughter had an affair, she suggested to her irate son-in-law that the lover’s head be also detached in the presence of the girl. But at the time of her union with the French dauphin, Catherine was a hapless teen, whose 10 immediate years of childlessness reduced her to drinking mule’s urine and placing dung on her “source of life” to rectify matters. And this after being made to consummate her marriage under the nose of her royal father-in-law, who reported that both she and the prince had “shown valour in the joust”.

In the end Catherine produced several sons, and by 1560 found herself presiding as regent over a country split by civil war, her inner Medici rising to the occasion, brushing aside even her offspring. The first of her three boys died with the words “oh, my mother” on his lips, and the second was a cipher. But the last refused to do her bidding. Appalled, she inflicted on him a 6-hour lecture. She was, in the words of a foreign envoy, “an indefatigable princess, born to tame and govern a people as unruly as the French”.

In the end, Catherine died unhappy, but less unhappy than another cousin of hers—Marie de Medici—who too became queen of France, in 1610, her husband murdered a day after his succession. After a series of misadventures, this woman died in a pool of vindictive sadness, banished by her own son, accumulating hatred for the Medici with each of her misguided actions.

While these Medici relations built (and destroyed) strategic bridges with scions of royal houses, in Florence the principal line too attracted high-born wives. The results were catastrophic—the decline of the house had begun. In 1661, Cosimo III was married to a cousin of Louis XIV of France, but the bride was a headstrong woman repulsed by all things Italian. From her first night in Florence, she conspired to escape, making life difficult for her husband till he could no longer bear the headache. She attempted to smuggle out Medici jewels, and enjoyed massively embarrassing “pillow fights” with a male cook. She feuded with her mother-in-law, and the family palace in Florence, it was recorded, became “the devil’s own abode”. Where music once echoed in its corridors, now “from morn till midnight only the noise of wrangling and abuse could be heard”.

Having produced three children, the French Marguerite was permitted to depart, on the condition that she park herself in a convent outside Paris and maintain decorum. Instead, the lady harassed her husband for quantities of his fortune, and decided to commence affairs with a variety of men. Such were the scandals surrounding Marguerite that the head of the convent advised “a conspiracy of silence (as) the sole antidote to (her) depravity and excesses”. She was then relocated to another convent (a “spiritual brothel”, she called it dryly) where she occupied her time by telling on the cross-dressing Mother Superior, before the Mother Superior could tell on her. In the end, she too died in debt and sadness, a fate that would visit her children also in the fullness of time.

Time, in fact, had already enveloped Florence in gloom. Cosimo III, who carried the name of his illustrious ancestor but none of his virtues, was a resentful fanatic. He opened an Office of Public Decency in a city where his forebears once championed the freedom of artistic expression. Masterpieces carved nude were removed from public view because they were, he decided, an “incitement to fornication”. Christian prostitutes were whipped if they took Jewish customers, and Jewish tradesmen were persecuted into leaving. With commerce on the decline, revenues at an all-time low, and the political star of the Medici eclipsed by greater houses in a changing European landscape, Florence began its descent into oblivion. “There is no town,” the philosopher Montesquieu remarked sardonically, “where men live with less luxury.”

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Intellectual inquiry also died its own death as the Medici, unable to reconcile to uncontrollable change, found comfort in regression—as with societies everywhere at certain junctures, stern orthodoxy and a return to puritanical pasts offered solace when true salvation was nowhere to be found, progressive energy completely drained. “His Highness,” it was announced, “will allow no professor…to read or teach, in public or private, by writing or by voice, the philosophy of Democritus, or of atoms, or of any saving Aristotle.” And this when it was a Medici who first supported Galileo, enabling him to discover the realities of outer space. All it took for Florence to go back in time was a little bit of time itself and the wrong Medici at the helm.

Cosimo’s sons were marginally better. The first, in a faint reflection of the splendid patronage once extended by the family to geniuses, sponsored the inventor of the piano, but whiled away most of his energy in affairs with musicians. After he died, Cosimo’s second son, a botanist unhappily married to a woman who talked to horses, succeeded to the dukedom. He surrounded himself with handsome grooms, and got so fabulously drunk that at a banquet he vomited into his napkin and wiped his mouth with his wig. Soon he too died, and with the burial of its last male heir, the sun began to set in depraved tragedy on the House of Medici. And in that final moment returned the last of the many strong women the Medici had produced, making an effort to shroud decline with a semblance of dignity.

*

Cosimo III knew his sons were no good (that is, they were homosexual), and for this reason he had tried hard to amend the rules of succession to allow his third-born—the syphilitic Anna Maria Luisa—to inherit Tuscany. The effort failed, for the Medici no longer had influence. When her last drunken brother died in 1734, Anna Maria Luisa had to concede the Austrian succession. But this woman who “never so far lost her dignity as even to smile” had large stores of that one quality that had evaded her father and brothers: basic common sense. Within a month of the succession, Anna Maria Luisa drew up an agreement known as the Patto di Famiglia—the Family Pact, a historic instrument that would save all that the Medici had inspired and created in better days for the sake of posterity.

“The Most Serene Electress (Anna Maria Luisa),” went the document, “cedes, gives, and transfers to His Royal (Austrian) Highness at the present moment, for him and for successive Grand Dukes, all the furniture, effects, and rarities from the succession of her brother, the Most Serene Grand Duke, such as Galleries, Paintings, Statues, Libraries, Jewels, and other precious things…so that His Royal Highness commits himself to preserve them with the express condition that nothing which is for the ornament of the State, for the use of the public and to attract the curiosity of foreigners will be transported or taken away from the Capital and State of the Grand Duchy.”

In other words, while accepting the foreign succession, Anna Maria Luisa ensured that they would not remove from Florence the treasures which alone could retain for a fading city some respectability in a shaky world. Everything contained today in the Uffizi Gallery, the Pitti Palace, the Palazzo Vecchio, the Palatine Library, the Laurenziana Library, and a large portion of the Bargello, not to speak of smaller buildings scattered around Florence, owes its presence and preservation to Anna Maria Luisa’s bequest to the people of Tuscany. It took only 16 years after her death for the Medici palaces to be thrown open, bringing in Florence’s first batch of tourists—tourists who to this day sustain the local economy and cultural flavour of Tuscany itself.

The Medici remain in Florence, in a manner of speaking, their name claimed by dozens of cafés and even the odd launderette. But Anna Maria Luisa remains special, elevated to legend in a style different from the other Medici. The Family Pact made her semi-divine. As the British ambassador in Florence reported after her death in 1743, “The common people are convinced she went off in a hurricane of wind…. All the town is in tears…for the loss of her.” The last of the Medici had departed, but she had ensured that the stamp of her house would remain forever in the city they built; a stamp that was also a lesson in how all it takes for rot to imperil greatness is a few wrong steps, a return to conservatism, and the running out of that small thing we call luck.

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