Review: The Medici by Paul Strathern

A dazzling history of the modest family which rose to become one of the most powerful in Europe, The Medici is a remarkably modern story of power, money and ambition. Against the background of an age which saw the rebirth of ancient and classical learning, Paul Strathern explores the intensely dramatic rise and fall of the Medici family in Florence, as well as the Italian Renaissance which they did so much to sponsor and encourage. Strathern also follows the lives of many of the great Renaissance artists with whom the Medici had dealings including Leonardo, Michelangelo and Donatello; as well as scientists like Galileo and Pico Della Mirandola; and the fortunes of the Medici family who achieved success away from Florence, including the two Medici popes and Catherine de’ Medicis who became Queen of France and played a major role in that country through three turbulent reigns.
When I first received this book through the post, I put off reading it. I had known that the Medici family had been a banking family and as I work for a bank myself I kind of wanted to distance myself from that world. However at the same time I knew that the Medici played a very important role in Renaissance Italy and had done so much to enhance the Renaissance in Florence. It was that which made me bite the bullet and pick this book up. I am so glad I did because from the get-go I was hooked. Although I did not get through this book particularly fast due to the heavy subject matter in many of the chapters, I found it to be exceptionally interesting and despite the fact that I was a little iffy about the banking side of it, I found that bit really interesting too. Because it seems that in those days, banking was full of corruption instead of being governed by all of these stringent rules like it is today.
First of all, Strathern has a wonderful writing style. I found that once I began reading that I was hooked and his text flowed. There were times that it felt as if I were reading a historical fiction, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. It’s not often with historical non-fiction that I can actually visualise what’s happening as I read it but in this book, I did. I honestly cannot fault Strathern and his writing style at all.
Strathern runs through each of the Medici family in turn, telling the reader of their birth, life and death. But before even then we are show the origins of the family, how they were, according to family legend, descended from a man who slew a giant. The balls shown on the Medici insignia were said to have come from that story after the giant used the balls on his huge mace to smash the Medici shield to pieces. It seems more likely however that these golden balls are insignias of money. The Medici in fact came from the Mugello, twenty-five miles from Florence and it was not until the thirteenth century that the family moved to Florence to try their luck. In the first chapter, we are given a brief overview of the Medici family and their rise to power from the thirteenth century onwards and how members of the family made their way to becoming gonfaloniere of the city and how the Medici bank began. After a huge revolt in the City and the death of Salvestro De Medici in 1388 the bank was taken over by Vieri who skilfully handled another revolt in the city but died that same year, ending the senior line of the family. Following this we are told of how a secondary branch of the family took over the banking business and Giovanni De Bicci took over. It is from this branch of the family that the most famous Medici are descended including Cosimo and Lorenzo the Magnificent. And it was under Giovanni that the bank began its rise to becoming one of the largest banks in the world with branches stretching throughout Italy and even ending up as far away as London. Yet it was with Cosimo that the Medici really got going, and from this man was descended Lorenzo the Magnificent – these two would make the Medici great at the height of their power. Yet sadly the Medici would go into a sharp and steady decline following the death of Lorenzo.
I thoroughly enjoyed the section on Lorenzo De Medici, also known as “Il Magnifico”. Previous to reading this book I had no idea that Lorenzo had so much to do with the famous artists of the time. Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo are just two of the artists who he commissioned. Lorenzo was an incredibly popular man, although his magnificence “could sometimes degenerate into arrogance or pure show”. Nevertheless Lorenzo seemed to be a good man, he was good at poetry and spent an inordinate amount of time encouraging artists and even scientists. One of the saddest parts of the whole book was, for me, the story of the murder of Lorenzo’s brother Guiliano inside the Cathedral of Santa Maria Del Fiore. This conspiracy was the work of the Pazzi family who had become increasingly jealous of the Medici and their power and so Francesco De Pazzi stabbed poor Guiliano over 19 times. Francesco ended up being arrested for his crimes and condemned – he was hung naked from a window of the Palazzo Della Signoria. Strathern also tells us how, when Savanarola came into power within the church, things began to decline for the Medici family.
Savanarola was a priest, a Dominican friar, who found himself as leader of Florence. The Medici had at this time been overthrown and Savanarola began to look after Florence, or rather rule it as a “City of God”. It was he who held the Bonfire of the Vanities, the burning of books and artwork that were seen to be evil and heretical. And it seems that for a while the people of Florence loved it, they had become disillusioned of the Medici rule. But soon enough they became tired of Savanarola and his fanatical preaching, and Savanarola was hung in the Piazza Della Signoria, the very same place where he held the Bonfire. Soon after this the Medici were back, but they were no longer as powerful as they had been and would go into a swift decline.
In 1512 the Medici came back to Florence, and those descended from Cosimo ruled again on and off until Alessandro De Medici was assassinated in 1537 by Lorenzino De Medici. Strathern describes the life and death of Alessandro wonderfully, and Alessandro comes across as a young, fun loving young man who unfortunately took things too far. Indeed he took things so far as to have his cousin Ipollito De Medici poisoned! Lorenzino, another member of the Medici clan, made an outward show of friendship towards Alessandro but was in fact plagued with jealously. In 1537 Lorenzino murdered Alessandro whilst he was sleeping, leaving his body in the blood stained bed sheets to be found later. And of course the question then arose of which Medici should rule Florence, and there were no legitimate male members of the family left (save Lorenzino who had disappeared). After this point, it was Cosimo De Medici, son of Giovanni De Medico Della Bande Nera, who had more interest in the military than anything else and was a man who had a foul temper alongside it.
I have to admit that towards the end of the book, after Alessandro, I lost interest. I don’t know why, but to me the later Medici and their eventual downfall just did not interest me as much as the earlier Medici had done. I had to force myself through the chapters of Cosimo and Catherine De Medicis (Queen of France) and thankfully there wasn’t much there. And yes, whilst Catherine changed the face of French cuisine (her portraits only attest to that!) she didn’t really seem to do much! That’s not to say that Strathern did anything wrong in his telling of the story of the later Medici family, I just found much more interest in the earlier family through the Renaissance. This family certainly did a lot for Italy, through their powerful banking and working with famous artists as Brunescelli, Leonardo and Michelangelo as well as their work with scientists such as Galileo. This book is certainly a fascinating story (almost) right up to the end; they did so much but at the same time lost so much. But they made such a mark on Renaissance Italy and particularly in Florence that their name is still known today, and so many Medici treasures are still preserved in museums in Florence.
The only fault that I have with this book is the huge inaccuracies about the Borgia family! It did not make up a huge part of the book, rather just a few lines but I was shocked to read Strathern say that Cesare Borgia had his brother poisoned and I would love to know where he came by this information. Cesare Borgia certainly did not have his brother poisoned although rumours did circle at the time that he was responsible. In fact, Juan Borgia was found stabbed in the Tiber! There was also the mention of Lucrezia and incest, although here at least Strathern did say that she was “suspected” of it which makes up for it somewhat.
Despite this, I cannot really fault this book and recommend it as a book for anyone interested in an overview of the Medici family, for someone just starting out in their reading or for anyone who knows a lot about them too.
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