Book Review: The Rise & Fall of the House of Medici

Illustration from the 1998 Folio Society edition of Christopher Hibbert's Rise & Fall of the House of Medici
Benozzo Gozzoli, La Cavalcata dei Magi, 1459, Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, Florence. The procession led by members of the Medici family

You can’t expect to really appreciate Florence without first acquiring some understanding of the Medici dynasty, especially the early years filled by Cosimo the Elder and Lorenzo the Magnificent. And there is no better way to gain that knowledge than by reading this excellent and well researched book by Christopher Hibbert. The long checkered history of the Medici generations is never dull but Hibbert imbues it with an uncommon vitality rarely seen in history books and it is that equally uncommon writing style of Hibbert’s that keeps me coming back to his Italian bibliography for my reading pleasure.

Hibbert divides his book into four parts but three-quarters of the 300 pages are quite rightly devoted to the 100 year period from 1433 to 1537, by far the most interesting period of both the Medici dynasty as well as the Renaissance generally.

First and foremost the Medici were a banking powerhouse, the like of which the world had never seen before and was not to see again for several centuries. Growing up with an English florin in my pocket before the self-inflicted inflationary ruin of decimalization was introduced shortly after my 14th birthday, I had no idea that this ‘two bob bit’ was named after the famous gold coin of Florence.

But such was the reputation and reach of the Florentine bankers, and none more so than the Medici with their branches strewn throughout Europe, that in the 15th century the Florin was a more dominant and more secure currency then the Euro is today. Made from 3.5 grams of pure gold it was clearly not a fiat currency capable of being endlessly printed and therein lies the difference.

Eventually a hundred and fifty European states and local coin-issuing authorities came out with their own copies of the florin. England in fact was a bit late to the party and there’s no lack of irony in its eventual usage of the florin given that King Edward III defaulted on various loans (or at least the interest on those loans) drawn down from Florentine bankers to finance the initial stages of the Hundred Years War with France. The Florence bankers who suffered the most were the noble Bardi and Peruzzi families and their subsequent difficulties created an opportunity for the young rising star Cosimo Medici, a commoner by birth who took further advantage by marrying into the aristocratic Bardi family in 1415.

It is a legitimate question to ask whether in fact there would have been an Italian Renaissance at all without the Medici and their great wealth and largesse and if the answer is in the affirmative then it would certainly not have been centered in Florence but would instead have had to rely on the patronage of other Italian city states and would probably have been much less impactful. The sheer scale of the Medici support for the Arts dwarfs anything that came afterwards, even from a Rockefeller or Carnegie, and the city of Florence today is the living proof of that statement.

But Hibbert's book is about the entirety of the Medici lives, not just their enormous contribution to the Arts. The narrative of the Medici is inseparable from the story of the Italian peninsula for a period of more than 300 years and encompasses all the significant events that took place from 1400 to 1700; not just the internal squabbles between Florence, Pisa, Siena, Lucca, Milan and Venice etc but also involving the invading armies of France and Spain as well as the competing ambitions of the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor.

Illustration from the 1998 Folio Society edition of Christopher Hibbert's Rise & Fall of the House of Medici
Benozzo Gozzoli, La Cavalcata dei Magi, 1459, Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, Florence

The treasures bequeathed to Florence by the Medici came at a substantial cost to the ordinary citizens of Florence who had no choice but to bear the increasingly heavy tax burdens that also supported the wars and intrigues of this dynasty as they fought to remain in power. The rise of the Medici was fast and glorious led by men of real quality and substance whereas the decline was slow and pathetic involving too many idle wastrels unworthy of the Medici name. With the end of the family dynasty Florence’s decline was complete and the city spent the next 120 years (except for a brief Napoleonic interlude) governed locally by a succession of Grand Dukes but beholding ultimately to Austria.

This is one of the very few books that I have ever read cover to cover twice, separated by a gap of about 7 years. It either demonstrates a deteriorating memory on my part or is a testament to the quality and entertainment value of the book; I like to think the latter.