season one

Episode 12: The Founder of the Dynasty

Portrait of Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici (c. 1563) by Cristofano dell’Altissimo. Source:

We close out Season 1, “The Early Medici”, with a look at the life and death of Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici, whose descendants would become the branch of the family we usually mean when we talk about the Medici. Not only is he the first prominent member of the family, however, he also founded the dynasty in the sense that he started the tradition of sponsoring forward-thinking artists, writers, and architects and in how his apparent reluctance to be a public figure actually inspired a formula for political success that would carry his descendants to greater heights than even his more ambitious forebears could have imagined. 

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While I talked about how Giovanni de Bicci dei Medici reaped the benefits from his relationship with the sketchy soldier turned rival pope John XXIII, the rest of the Medici family was not doing so well. The family remained committed to the populist cause. Unfortunately, the conservatives also remained firmly in power since the fall of Salvestro de’ Medici. As a result, various Medici along with members of other populist families were persecuted by the government, either barred from political office or exiled from the city. So, while we can’t know what his true political beliefs were, by making himself a low-key ally of the conservatives, Vieri de’ Medici was truly and literally saving himself and his family. Giovanni de Bicci would not follow in his cousin and fairy godfather’s footsteps. However, he would find his own savvy way of surviving the political whirlwind.

Before we get to that, let’s talk about Giovanni de Bicci himself, especially because I would argue he’s the first Medici on the historical record we can really know as a person. As you might guess from his portrait by Cristofano dell’Altissimo…he was not an attractive man. Also he was a quiet, perhaps shy person, who was not a natural public speaker. At the same time, he was extremely perceptive, as we’ll see. In 1386, he married Piccarda Bueri, who came from old Florentine blue blood. She was also beautiful, in contrast to her husband, but from what little we know about their marriage it was a happy one and Giovanni stayed faithful. Finally, Giovanni de Bicci, despite his dabbling in usury, was genuinely a pious man. In sharp contrast to his more scholarly descendants, Giovanni’s personal library consisted of a whopping three books, and there were all devotional texts. He was also very much aware of the tension between the religious values of the day and his line of work. In his private account book, which survives, Giovanni di Bicci records that he asked the Pope for spiritual advice about debts to untraceable or deceased creditors. The Pope said he could atone for them by contributing 350 florins toward the maintenance of churches in Rome.

Nonetheless, don’t assume that Giovanni was in any way backward. His family’s reputation as sponsors of avant-garde art and architecture began with him, too. It was Giovanni dei Bicci who commissioned the revolutionary engineer and architect Filipo Brunelleschi to expand the Basilica of San Lorenzo, one of the oldest churches in Florence and the parish church of the Medici family. Also, it was Giovanni who hired a former goldsmith’s apprentice who went by the alias Donatello to make sculptures to decorate the church. I’ll probably revisit this topic in a future episode about the Renaissance more specifically, but notably Brunelleschi’s design for the Church’s sacristy, the part of the interior where the clergy prepare for services, broke with the old gothic style, instead using Corinthian columns and rounded arches that were reminiscent of ancient Roman buildings and would be a characteristic of Renaissance architecture. Outside grandiose projects, Giovanni was known to befriend struggling artists, one of whom was Masaccio, a pioneer in the Renaissance style of painting who was one of the earliest painters to use a vanishing point and linear perspective.

Now while the Medici might owe their historic reputation as great patrons of art to Giovanni – although to be fair they weren’t the only rich family giving work to artists, architects, and writers – they already were loved and hated in Florence, depending on who you talked to, for championing populist politics. However, you could argue it was Giovanni who came up with the family’s original recipe for political success. Even so, Giovanni himself seems to have been a reluctant operator. He stayed out of any political offices until 1402 when he accepted the diplomatic job that would put him into contact with his great benefactor Pope John XXII,  and even then it wasn’t until 1407 he took his first significant post as the governor of the town of Pistoia.

Unlike his famous relative Salvestro, Giovanni was a master at keeping a low profile while still making waves. I like the way Brunetto Dami, a historian from the nineteenth century who wrote the only biography of Giovanni dei Bicci I could find in English or Italian, put it: “He acquired, without making noise, popularity with the Florentine public.” Machiavelli would probably agree, writing in his history of Florence that “he asked for no honors, yet he received them all.” Above all, Giovanni was patient and climbed the political ladder very slowly. Possibly it wasn’t calculated, but because he was a rare type of creature: an unambitious politician.

It probably helped that the situation in Florence was nice and dull. Around the start of the fifteenth century, aside from the occasional exiled or disenfranchised populist, there were no riots, no conspiracies, and no wars. And as always happens when things are nice and dull, the people in power turn on each other. The mantle of de facto leader of the conservatives passed from Meso degli Albizzi to Niccolo da Uzzano. While Meso could at least claim he inherited his father’s position as the guy who shepherded the conservatives back to power, Niccola was just another rich banker. So he had plenty of rivals jockeying for his place at the top of the heap. In fact, at least according to Machiavelli, these rivals actually helped the Medici and the populist cause behind the scenes, just to undermine him.

While the conservatives schemed against each other, the long period of peace and stability was drawing to a dramatic close. In 1423, the reigning duke of Milan, Filipo – and I have to say I like the way the English Wikipedia article describes him as “Cruel, paranoid and extremely sensitive about his personal ugliness” – took advantage of a dynastic crisis among the local nobility in the northeast region of Romagna to extend his reach. Afraid as always of Milan’s appetite for territory, Florence stepped in. This one confrontation would ignite a war that would split all the major powers of Italy and some of the not so major powers against each other and would last with a few brief interruptions for thirty-one years.  

It was the financial crisis in Florence fueled by this war that really drew out the bashful Giovanni and made him prove his populist bona fides. See, the Florentine system of taxation was extremely complicated and regressive. There were no property taxes and few taxes on income. Instead, most of the government’s income came from tariffs, tolls, sales taxes, and a poll tax. In times of wars and other emergencies, the government would impose forced loans on rich citizens. In compensation, the giver of the loan would receive interest paid by the government and allowing the lender to sell the government’s debt to another. This meant the tax burden especially in times of stress fell on everyone regardless of their income while the wealthy had ways of gaming the forced loan system to maximize their profit from interest payments.

This already cumbersome system was made even more so when, in 1425, the government established the Monte delle Doti, “the Mountain of Donations.” Made in response to the fact that the dowries required for marriage had become increasingly unaffordable for the middle class since the Black Death, the Monte was a state-run bank in which deposits were made by families so that their daughters might be guaranteed a dowry. The government was committed to pay a 3 3/8% interest on all deposits. It was meant to help the middle class and the poorer ranks of the nobility. However, the system only really benefited the already rich, who of course could make the largest deposits, and get returns on the government dime. By just 1470, the government’s obligation to the Monte delle Doti was an annual 198,000 florins.

As the years of the war dragged on, the obvious problems with this system became more glaring, and the calls for an overhaul of the tax system got louder. The conservatives responded the way reactionaries often do throughout history: identify the real problem as the people talking about the problem, and not the problem itself. In 1426, the conservatives tried to push through a constitutional reform that would halve the number of representatives from the minor guilds and replace them with nobles and members of the major guilds. Apparently the conservatives tried to court the support of Giovanni de’ Medici, but he refused and rebuked one of the leading conservatives, Rinaldo degli Albizzi, telling him that his father Meso would have never tolerated a scheme to disenfranchise the people.

Instead, Giovanni helped defeat the conservatives’ bill and instead helped pass a new system called the Catasto. Requiring citizens to register their property and revenues, the Catasto replaced the poll tax and most of the sales taxes with property taxes and taxes on revenues from rents. In modern terms, it replaced Florence’s old indirect, regressive system of taxation with a more direct, progressive system. Of course, opposition came from the rich, but the change and Giovanni de’ Medici coming out publicly in favor of it boosted the Medici family’s popularity. However reluctant Giovanni de’ Bicci was about diving into politics, he was also savvy. He insisted that his family wear the clothing of the middle classes, not the nobility, so they never appear that high above the masses. Also, on his deathbed, he advised his sons to always be friends with the people and to never make them false promises or expect honors from them.

The tax reform was Giovanni’s most consequential political act. It would also be his last. By this point, at the age of sixty, Giovanni had also retired from banking, handing the reins of the business to his living sons, Cosimo and Lorenzo. At a certain point, it seems Giovanni was no longer worried about politics or profit, but about his immortal soul. Many people throughout history in Catholic Europe in a position to do so left behind some kind of donation to the church to try to ensure the well-being of their soul. However, even by the usual standards, Giovanni was haunted enough by the stain of usury that he went to extraordinary lengths. According to Giovanni’s post-mortem instructions, two members of the clergy in the Basilica of San Lorenzo had to say Mass for Giovanni di Bicci’s soul every day in perpetuity. They even had to alternate between the two chapels of the church and there were supposed to be provisions made in case one of the two was detailed or ill. Not only that, but Giovanni instructed that two offices for the dead had to be said for his soul, one on the feast of St. John the Evangelist in December and the other on the feast of saints Cosmas and Damian in September

On top of all that, when Giovanni de’ Bicci finally passed away on February 20, 1429, his final instructions asked that he be buried under the sacristy of the Church. This too was a very unusual request, even in a highly religious era. In his essay Saving the Soul of Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici: Function and Design in the Old Sacristy of San Lorenzo”, Paul Davies writes:

“The idea that San Lorenzo’s sacristy was a treasury housing the church’s relic collection helps us understand why it was such a good choice for Giovanni di Bicci. He was buried not just close to the saints, but in an ad sanctos position, equivalent to the prime position in front of the high altar of the church. Indeed, by comparison, he must have seen the Old Sacristy as having greater potential benefit for his soul. Being interred in front of a whole relic collection would have appeared far more advantageous than being interred in front of just one or two in the high altar. Moreover, as it was widely believed that saints were more powerful when they worked in concert, Giovanni di Bicci could have imagined himself all the more blessed.”

I can’t help but wish only more rich financiers had the conscience of a Giovanni di Bicci…

In any case, as Giovanni himself recognized, the world was changing. Styles of art were rapidly being altered, more so than anyone alive had ever witnessed. Perhaps he also knew, despite his lack of interest in non-religious texts, that there was a revolution in scholarship too. These shifts will be the subject of the first episodes of our second season, “The Golden Age.”

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